Lively, colourful Tirana is where this tiny nation's hopes and dreams coalesce into a vibrant whirl of traffic, brash consumerism and unfettered fun. Having undergone a transformation of extraordinary proportions since awaking from its communist slumber in the early 1990s, Tirana's centre is now unrecognisable from those grey days, with buildings painted in primary colours, and public squares and pedestrianised streets that are a pleasure to wander.
Trendy Blloku buzzes with the well-heeled and flush hanging out in bars and cafes, while the city's grand boulevards are lined with fascinating relics of its Ottoman, Italian and communist past – from delicate minarets to loud socialist murals. Add to this some excellent museums and you have a compelling list of reasons to visit. With the traffic doing daily battle with both itself and pedestrians, the city is loud, crazy, colourful and dusty, but Tirana is never dull.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Tirana.
This fantastic conversion – from a massive Cold War bunker on the outskirts of Tirana into a history and contemporary art museum – is Albania's most exciting new sight and easily a Tirana highlight. With almost 3000 sq metres of space underground spread over several floors, the bunker was built for Albania's political elite in the 1970s and remained a secret for much of its existence. Now it hosts exhibits that combine the modern history of Albania with pieces of contemporary art.
The largest museum in Albania holds many of the country's archaeological treasures and a replica of Skanderbeg's massive sword (how he held it, rode his horse and fought at the same time is a mystery). The lighting might be poor, but fortunately the excellent collection is almost entirely signed in English and takes you chronologically from ancient Illyria to the postcommunist era. The collection of statues, mosaics and columns from ancient Greek and Roman times is breathtaking.
Tracing the relatively brief history of Albanian painting from the early 19th century to the present day, this beautiful space also holds temporary exhibitions. The interesting collection includes 19th-century paintings depicting scenes from daily Albanian life and others with a far more political dimension, including some truly fabulous examples of Albanian socialist realism. The ground-floor part of the gallery is given over to temporary exhibitions of a far more modern and challenging kind.
The little cousin to the main Bunk'Art, this museum, which is within a communist-era bunker and underground tunnel system below the Ministry of Internal Affairs, focuses on the role of the police and security services in Albania through the turbulent 20th century. While this might not sound especially interesting, the whole thing has been very well put together and makes for a fascinating journey behind police lines.
This grand old 1930s building started life as Albania's first maternity hospital, but within a few years the focus turned from creating new life to ending lives, as the hospital was converted to an interrogation and surveillance centre (read: torture house). It remained as such until the fall of the communist regime. Today the House of Leaves is a museum dedicated to surveillance and interrogation in Albania.
Just 25km east of Tirana is Mt Dajti National Park. It is the most accessible mountain in the country, and many locals go there to escape the city rush and have a spit-roast lamb lunch. A sky-high, Austrian-made cable car, Dajti Express, takes 15 minutes to make the scenic trip (almost) to the top (1611m).
Sheshi Skënderbej is the best place to start witnessing Tirana's daily goings-on. Until it was pulled down by an angry mob in 1991, a 10m-high bronze statue of Enver Hoxha stood here, watching over a mainly car-free square. Now only the equestrian statue of Skanderbeg remains, and the 'square' – once Tirana's most popular meeting point in the decades where 99% of people were forced to get around on foot – is now a huge traffic roundabout.
This simple three-storey villa was the home of Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha for decades, and his wife continued to live here for years after his death in 1985. While the Albanian communist leaders clearly lived a much simpler life than their comrades in Romania, for example, it was still another world for the people on the street, who thronged here in amazement when the Blloku was finally opened to the public in 1991. The house is closed to the public.
This dramatically set 15th-century hilltop castle, just a short distance outside Tirana, is worth a trip if you're not visiting one of the other better-known castles in Albania, such as those in Berat, Shkodra or Gjirokastra. A short hike up an easy pathway looping around the hillside gets you into the castle, which nowadays houses a fairly run-of-the-mill restaurant.