A trip to Tirana isn’t just easy – and ahead of the pack – it’s an incredible learning experience for kids and adults. Jane Anderson and her family explored the city with great local guides and brought back a whole heap of insider info.
Let’s face it, most kids probably don’t even know where Tirana is, never mind that it’s the capital of Albania. Mine didn’t, and for that reason alone, this less-than-obvious city break turned out to be an eye-opener for us all.
Get under the skin of Tirana with Albanian Trip tours
If you want the type of tour guide who immerses you in a destination, Elton Caushi, the founder of Albanian Trip, is your man.
He was born in 1970’s Communist Tirana, and has lived and breathed his city’s transformation from Soviet rule to its present day democracy and bid for EU membership. As a result, his tour was packed with personal anecdotes, insights and first hand experience. Even the origin of his name got a look in: religion was banned in the 70s, and you weren’t allowed to call your child anything with religious connotations, so people named babies after footballers or rock stars, hence, Elton!
He also tells us that before 1991, when Communism fell, “My father was a musician for the official state orchestra and my mother could put together a Kalashnikov blindfolded. Everyone was given target practise!”
On our tour, Elton recommended starting on the Eastern side of the central neighbourhoods and getting a little lost in the secret streets of Rruga Qemal Stafa. Then, after exploring charming Mehalla e Shebegeve, stop by the villa and private gallery of artist Sali Shijaku: one of the most important authors of the Socialist Realism art of Albania, but with a real rebellion in his approach.
Finally, pause at the place where local hero Vojo Kushi was killed in an urban battle against fascist police. The monument dedicated to that is quite something.
It’s always hip to be square in this city
Skanderbeg Square has become the symbol of Albania’s independence, dominating the heart of Tirana and is currently looking very snazzy having been renovated beyond recognition by 51N4E architects and artist Anri Sala.
Have a marvel at the Orbital Forest around the square, which acts like a crown, planted with wild herbs including sage, and oregano; all found in abundance in the local countryside. Both the National Historical Museum and Adrion Ltd bookstore are worth a look here too. And, if want to catch a sunset, the steps of the impressive Opera House are the place to be.
Alternatively, head to Mother Teresa Square where kids can go rollerblading. Elton tells us he used to roller skate in this square back in the 1980s, but only with one skate, as he shared a pair with a friend.
Tirana takes its street art seriously
Even colour was banned in Tirana during Communist times, so most buildings were grey. Now, in a bid to counter that, Edi Rama – current Prime Minister of Albania, and art lover – is actively encouraging not just the painting of many buildings, but colourful street art as well. To get an eyeful of the transformation, check out the brightly painted former Communist flats by the New Bazaar along with vibrant murals on more recent buildings.
Get an eyeful of bunkers turned into art galleries
Continuing the grey Communist theme, concrete bunkers were part and parcel of the Soviet era in Albania. However, over the past few years even these have been creatively harnessed and repurposed as everything from art galleries to goat pens.
In Tirana, seek out BUNK’ART 1 and BUNK’ART 2. You’ll find the former on the outskirts of the city in an atomic bunker near the Dajti Mountain, and it’s dedicated to the history of the communist army and daily life during the regime. But the latter is right in the heart of the capital, next to Skanderbeg Square, where it reveals the secrets of ‘Sigurimi’: the political police. Admittedly this is pretty hardcore stuff for kids, nevertheless it makes a compelling modern history lesson.
Although, if you really want to know more about the dark days of Communist rule, head to atmospheric, tumbledown The House of Leaves. Here, a sensitive storytelling approach is taken to the paranoia created by the Soviet regime and how it affected normal households: gripping and moving in equal parts.
Explore Blloku for a hint of what’s trending in Tirana
The trendiest part of Tirana, known as Blloku or Block, used to be reserved just for politburo members – along with their bodyguards or nurses – so unsurprisingly, it’s home to vast villas. Nowadays it’s more like the local Manhattan, and the district where young people hang out it in the evening. Also, it’s the source of arguably the best ice cream in all Albania, Cioccolatitaliani.
Stay up with kids and take them on a night-time tour of the city. The neon, “You are happy! You are in Tirana” sign alone is worth a later than average bedtime.