For travelers looking for in-the-know street cred, the Balkan Peninsula is the place to be. And, Tirana, Albania’s capital, is a great place to start your journey across this corner of Southeastern Europe. Easily explored on foot, the city is a dynamic tangle of streets crowded with art galleries, museums, cafes, restaurants, chic locals.
Skanderbeg Square is Tirana’s main orientation point. It and the namesake statue are dedicated to the national hero Gjergj Kastrioti, a military commander who led a rebellion against the Ottoman Empire. Take a moment to gaze at the Mosque Et’hem Bey (across from the statue), City Hall, and Kulla e Sahatit, the clock tower. Climb it for impressive views over the big square.
Take a tour in the Muzei Historik Kombëtar or National Historical Museum, the largest museum in the country, with a terrific mosaic adorning the facade entitled Albania that shows Albanians victorious from Illyrian times to WWII. The excellent collection (almost entirely signed in English) takes you chronologically from the ancient times to post-communist era. It holds many of the country’s archaeological treasures, a replica of Skanderbeg’s massive sword and an interesting exhibition of icons by Onufri, the greatest Albanian artist of 16th century.
This Contemporary Art Museum is located in a underground bunker built on the outskirts of Tirana. The structure was once meant to accommodate the former Communist dictator Enver Hoxha and the elite class in case of war. Today, Bunk’Art, hosts exhibitions that combine the modern history of Albania with pieces of contemporary art. The Bunk’Art 2 is another recently opened museum dedicated to the victims of Communism. It is located in a bunker, built in the centre of Tirana between 1981 and 1986, used to shelter interior ministry staff in the event of a nuclear attack.
The Galeria Kombetare e Arteve, or National Art Gallery, traces the history of Albanian painting from the early 19th century to the present day, this space hosts temporary exhibitions. After the visit, take some time to admire the Cloud Pavilion out the gallery designed by Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto. Behind the museum you’ll find the 6m-high walls of the Fortress of Justinian, the last remnants of a Byzantine-era castle, and the 19th century Ura e Tabakeve, Tanner’s Bridge, a well preserved Ottoman stone bridge.
Take a break from art in Blloku—the Block—which is the most famous neighborhood in Tirana. During the Communist era, the district was reserved for the political elite. Today it is a vibrant neighborhood with trendy bars, cafés, restaurant and nightclubs. One must-stop spot is the Colonial Café. Stop here for a menu full of innovative cocktails and nice place where to drink good and cocktails. Just on the border of Blloku, Komiteti, is a must if you are in Tirana. This café-museum is the perfect place to taste one of 25 varieties of craft raki, the local fruit-based liquor.
Francesca is a journalist and blogger based in Florence, Italy, with a love of travel and an addiction to the Balkan countries.