Tirana: sightseeing in a place with no sights

Et'hem Bey Mosque, Tirana

Et'hem Bey Mosque, Tirana

London, Paris, Rome, Prague: mention these European capitals to most people and they will instantly conjure up an image of a famous building or scene from a favourite movie. Mention Tirana however and you’re likely to be met with a blank stare. And it’s hardly surprising; as the capital of one of Europe’s least developed countries, Albania’s principal city has never made an attempt to join the big league of European cultural capitals. So what is there to see and do if you find yourself in Tirana with time to kill?

Apartment buildings, repainted to add colour to previously grey blocks

Apartment buildings, repainted to add colour to previously grey blocks

Reading about Tirana I soon found that there are no ‘must-see’ sights. I found this highly reassuring, as we were able to wander freely and not concern ourselves with finding a particular statue, monument, mosque or church. The main landmark to find your way around Tirana is the Lana river; possibly the most filthy stretch of river in Europe. Bisecting the city into north and south areas, the banks and the water itself (what there is of it) are strewn with litter. The fact that it appears to be the city’s unofficial landfill site doesn’t stop young boys from dangling their fishing rods in hope into its murky mess.

The Lana river, Tirana

The Lana river, Tirana

The streets by contrast are relatively clean and pleasant. The ubiquitous cafe culture has arrived in Tirana and you’re never far from a strong coffee or a beer to revive yourself in the scorching heat of the Albanian summer. There are several green spaces in the heart of the city, and these come to life in the cool of the evening when whole families come out to play ball games, to drink coffee with friends and catch up on the gossip.

Clock Tower, Tirana

Clock Tower, Tirana

Good ice cream is plentiful in Tirana and prices are outrageously cheap. $1 will buy you at least three scoops of your choice of gelatto flavours, while in the course of our research we found one lady who served us 8 scoops (between the two of us) for 100 lek ($1). The Italian influence runs deep in the world of Albanian cuisine, with pizza seemingly the national dish on offer in every eatery across the country.

While Albania might rarely make the world news, it does have an A list celebrity of whom it is rightly proud. Mother Theresa was born into an Albanian family, and the fact that it was just across the Macedonian border in Skopje does not detract from their adoration of their favourite daughter. The new international airport is named after her, there are statues of Nene Tereza in many places across the country, and we found her quotes written on banners across the Tirana highways.

Mother Theresa, the national Albanian hero

Mother Theresa, the national Albanian hero

Tirana is full of people trying any which way to scrape a living. In that way it reminded me a lot of Bucharest in the mid 1990s – full of disorganised activity, and a positive energy that suggests that things are about to change quickly, and for the better. The street markets have to be seen to be believed: shoe sellers have piles of literally thousands of odd shoes scattered across the pavement, and it’s up to you to find a matching pair. The book stalls were equally chaotic.

Shoe seller in Tirana

Shoe seller in Tirana

Albania’s poverty stems from its previous disastrous regime, thanks to which it lived in isolation (a la North Korea) for over 40 years. The legacy of that time is evident across the country and will be the subject of another post soon. One prominent eyesore in the centre of Tirana is the pyramid commissioned by the dictator Envir Hoxha’s daughter. It is now viewed as a curious quirk of the cityscape by local people, and indeed we peered over the shoulders of a group of schoolgirls, sheltering from the midday sun and carefully reproducing the building’s stark features on large white pads with their pencils.

The concrete pyramid, Tirana

The concrete pyramid, Tirana

Tirana has a large park to the south that we stumbled upon by complete chance. It was not mentioned in our guide book and was even omitted from the usually excellent Lonely Planet city sketch map. The park features a large man made lake with diving boards (now delapidated), a concert stage, woodland walks and a shoreside cafe. It was a perfect spot to park ourselves on a shady bench and watch the Albanian world go by.

The city park, only a few minutes walk from the busy centre

The city park, only a few minutes walk from the busy centre

I liked Tirana. It was an easy city to explore and people were unfailingly friendly to us. Few tourists make it to Albania and as a result we found that people did really make an effort to be hospitable; something that you don’t often find in a big city. Another consequence to the lack of tourism exposure is that people were disarmingly honest. Taxi drivers charged the fair price, minibus rides always came out cheaper than expected, and after a couple of days I found that I was offering a handful of coins and notes to people in shops and letting them pick the correct money for our purchases; something I wouldn’t normally dream of doing.

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21 Responses to “Tirana: sightseeing in a place with no sights”

  1. Tirana looks unspoilt by tourists.. albania.. hmmm.. must admit i’ve never thought of going there. really should give it a second look, thanks to your post.
    by the way, love the shoe seller shot above. totally awesome!

    September 10, 2010 at 9:59 am
  2. @ciki… I should have known that a woman likes a photo full of shoes… lol

    September 10, 2010 at 10:43 am
  3. Yeah, good luck with the shoe shopping @ciki – you might have to buy the whole lot to be sure of getting a matching pair!

    September 10, 2010 at 4:33 pm
  4. Good post! Love this: “I soon found that there are no ‘must-see’ sights. I found this highly reassuring, as we were able to wander freely and not concern ourselves with finding a particular statue, monument, mosque or church.”

    That’s the way I prefer to travel most of the time – to just wander and watch everyday life, chat to locals, and do what they do. I love a great music and appreciate fine architecture but I always find connecting with people far more satisfying.

    September 10, 2010 at 6:19 pm
  5. Ebru #

    I was there in August and because there was nothing to see ( except for the museum which was kinda small but OK) we found a lot to eat. Food is cheap and delicious. Especially meat and cheese lovers would find it very pleasing. Sunday is the wedding day, so you would most likely come across dozens of wedding convoys all honking their horns.

    If you get lost you’ll find your way back in 5 minutes it’s a small but organized city; all you have to do is find the river.

    September 11, 2010 at 10:17 am
    • donna #

      plss what are u saying the Tirana is very beautiful and you are one of the people that really don’t know to explore what a city offers ,,do’t kidding if you come here in Tirana u will have the opportunity to see a lot of unseen things very special places and if you go to Dajti’s mountain which is in Tirana too ,you can see full of incredible things starting from air that we breathe and counting to other delicious food and friendly people of tirana ,so don’t hurry up,think first ,then speak .have a good time ,albanian Girl Aldonna

      April 9, 2012 at 4:36 pm
      • Thank you for your insights Donna

        April 9, 2012 at 7:27 pm
  6. Thanks Lara. The Balkans are perfect for people watching – very little hassle, and if you plonk yourself in a good spot in a park or by a busy walkway you can watch the world go by for hours.

    September 11, 2010 at 12:20 pm
  7. I, too, liked the quote about there being no “must-see” sights. Seems like I spend most of my time trying to see non-must-see sights. You’re right, I don’t hear much about Albania. Looks interesting.

    September 11, 2010 at 6:52 pm
  8. Kenan #

    I was great meeting you and Sam! The title to Tirana says it all! Not sure if you made it to Pristina, but Damare title our photo album similarly.
    We found the people of Albania and Macedonia very kind to travlers. I great place for wandering the streets and checking out the daily lives of other folks.

    September 13, 2010 at 2:25 am
  9. Hi Kenan, Great to meet you guys too- we had a lot of fun hanging out with you in Ohrid. Hope your trip finished well and you had a good trip home. Never made it to Pristina, but saw more of Croatia than we planned at the end of the trip.

    September 13, 2010 at 10:48 am
  10. I just got back from a week in Tirana (visiting my husband’s relatives). I’ve been a couple of times before but have never stayed that long in the past. It is definitely one of my least favourite cities in the world. I know most big cities are polluted but Tirana is just unbearable. Walking around just about killed me with car exhausts making it hard to breath. The people are definitely friendly and food and drinks are super cheap but I can’t think of any other good things to say about it. I did do a day trip to Prizren in Kosovo which was great. I’d definitely recommend going there or to nicer cities like Berat instead.

    September 21, 2010 at 5:52 pm
  11. Thanks Andrea. I reckon you’ll have seen a very different side of Tirana as you were visiting family. But yes, you are 100% right about Berat – it is a far more attractive place to stop. Having said that, I won’t knock Tirana too much – there are far worse places to visit.

    September 21, 2010 at 11:02 pm
  12. Kenan #

    What is he name of that hotel in Berat? It was my favorite of all the Balkan hotels we stayed in. It’s in the LP guide as their choice. Not only was it the best hotel, but it was also OUR best meal! That’s from an omnivore traveling with a veggie.


    September 21, 2010 at 11:52 pm
  13. Hi Kenan, you mean the Hotel Mangalemi? Yes, it was a great place (even if we didn’t have the dinner) and a bargain too (€35)

    September 22, 2010 at 8:18 am
  14. Elda #

    Hi there, just came across you post regarding Tirana. Im an Albanian! Tirana is a relatively new city but it’s a colourful city and full of life!!Did you visit the National Art Gallery? Or National History Museum? Did you go to the nearby mountain Dajti? E’them Bey Mosque situated in Scanderbeg Square is one of the most beautiful Mosque in Albania (this one is well preserved and was protected as a museum during Communist era). Scanderbeg(Known as Iskanderbeg=Lord Alexander) is Albanian National hero, a prominent historical figure (a military genius) who’s well known in the 15th-century European history. Did you see his monument? Anyway the list of prominet Albanian goes on,from a roman emperor,pope, architechts,writers etc. Albania has a fascinating history. I like the qoute of Lonely planet for Albania(Awaking Sleeping Beauty) it suits my country well!
    Read below a part of “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage ” by Lord Byron.

    “Land of Albania! where Iskander rose,
    Theme of the young, and beacon of the wise,
    And he his namesake, whose oft-baffled foes,
    Shrunk from his deeds of chivalrous emprize:
    Land of Albania! let me bend mine eyes
    On thee, thou rugged nurse of savage men!
    The cross descends, thy minarets arise,
    And the pale crescent sparkles in the glen,
    Through many a cypress grove within each city’s ken”

    May 7, 2011 at 10:05 am
  15. Nice, I am actually going there in a not so far future =)

    November 29, 2011 at 10:22 pm
  16. Thanks for tweeting this article, Andy – I really enjoyed reading it, and particularly seeing some of the changes (and familiarities) from when I last visited about eight years ago.

    Interesting that you describe it as a city with no sights, and I suppose I agree, but then to what extent does one need “sights” when the city is so interesting just to amble around in and absorb. I loved the Italian style buildings on the long road towards the university to Skanderbeg Square, and the square itself and the pyramid. I agree that the park around lake Tirana is also something of a hidden gem in that you feel a long way away from the city (and I suppose you are a long walk from the centre) but there is enough going on there and curious things to see to keep interest piqued (or conversely to relax).

    I always found the people super-friendly and warm, typically for Albania, although in my experience there was a lack of decent accommodation (no budget hostel, for instance). No doubt things have changed because I detected changes in each of my visits – mostly for the better – and I really hope the city attracts more visitors.

    As for the sights of the rest of Albania… well, another story! What a beautiful country. You’ve got me itching to go back now! Thanks again.

    November 30, 2011 at 1:18 pm
  17. I came upon your blog while searching for travel blogs around the internet and let me tell you, I really liked it 🙂 I will follow your posts from now on.
    And I could not help but see that you have visited Albania too. (other travelers I checked had not) I am Albanian myself, living in Tirana. And I really liked your take on the city 🙂
    Anyway, I can see from some of the pictures that you were here while the center of the city was being renewed. It looks far better now, and I would have definitely recommended to take the lift ride to the mountain of Dajti. (takes only 15 minutes)
    And I don’t know if you had the chance to visit the south of the country (that being my favorite spot The Ionian sea riviera is breathtaking) and Gjirokastra is also one great city worth a visit.

    December 28, 2012 at 4:35 pm


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