Art and culture Andrea González

Tirana city break

With a vivid recent history and a sensitive mix of cultural influences, Tirana has lately become a popular destination for anyone who wants to experience a Europe far removed from stereotypes. If you’d like to abandon yourself to the charm of Albania’s capital, Iberia makes it easy for you, thanks to the opening of our new route, which will offer three weekly flights from 28 March. Join us on a tour of the unmissable wonders of a capital that is opening up to the world.

Although Albania became part of the Eastern Bloc after World War II, it has always been characterised by following a different path to its neighbours. This has given rise to a rather hermit-like existence. So much so, that Communist leader Enver Hoxha – who controlled the country from 1944 to 1985 – withdrew from the Warsaw Pact in the 1960s, breaking off relations with the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and even China. After that, Albania brought down its own Iron Curtain. The country was characterised by constant fear of possible invasion – as attested to by the incredible network of bunkers built by the Hoxha government – and by the total isolation of its population. After the dictator’s death, Albanians started to move towards openness, and this continues to this day– it has become an official candidate country for membership of the European Union.

Et’hem Bey Mosque

This peculiar history has made Albania a country of unique architectural and cultural expressions, especially in its capital, with a natural landscape that’s just waiting to be discovered. In Tirana, the tour normally starts with the 40,000sqm Skanderbeg Square. In the heart of Albania’s capital, the regimented monuments of Soviet-inspired architecture are mixed with religious buildings, such as the Orthodox Cathedral, completed in 2012, and the Et’hem Bey Mosque, a base for protests in 1991 that led to the fall of the Communist government. The square was restored between 2010 and 2016 by the 51N4E architectural studio, commissioned by the then mayor of Tirana and current Prime Minister Edi Rama. The project was completed in collaboration with the Albanian artist Anri Sala, who was responsible for portraying his country’s transformative process over the last two decades. The result, which won the European Prize for Urban Public Space, modified the square to make it completely pedestrianised, adding a ring of green spaces that encapsulates Tirana’s nerve centre.

National History Museum mosaic

From Skanderbeg Square, you can visit the National History Museum. Boasting more than 18,000sqm of exhibition space, it’s the largest in Albania. The building, designed by Enver Faja, is one of the main representatives of the Albanian Communist style, not only because of its architecture, but also because of the 400sqm mosaic – called The Albanians – which decorates the entrance. A short distance away is BUNK’ART 2, a unique underground museum that tells the history of the Albanian Ministry of Internal Affairs. Its location reflects the fact that Enver Hoxha’s paranoia led him to build some 175,000 bunkers throughout the country to prevent an invasion that never happened. The BUNK’ART project was born in 2014 to repurpose these now redundant spaces into museums and exhibition halls. So far, two venues have opened. BUNK’ART 1 (about a half-hour by direct bus from the centre of Tirana), is the other great option. You can visit Hoxha’s original room in its anti-missile shelter, spaces that would have been used in the event of a military attack, reproductions of period furniture in an apartment or a typical Albanian socialist gym. The BUNK’ART project’s museums are perfect to visit in a day and will allow you to immerse yourself in the Albanian story.

However, Albania is a much more colourful country than shown by its bunkers. Some 35km from Tirana is Durrës, a coastal pearl on the shores of the Adriatic. It is home to important archaeological remains of both Roman – such as the amphitheatre and the public hot springs – and Byzantine origins, such as the Venetian walls. In addition, its beautiful, white sand beaches and calm waters are this country’s best-kept secret. They are perfect for enjoying a sunny afternoon while enjoying typical Albanian food, including fresh local seafood.

The Pyramid

Back in Tirana, be sure to visit one of the finest symbols of the decline of the Communist regime, the Pyramid. This building, designed by the dictator’s daughter Pranvera Hoxha, was created with the aim of becoming a mausoleum dedicated to her father. With the fall of Communism, the Albanians rejected this museum. In the 1990s, it became a Nato base of operations during the Kosovo War. However, in the 2000s, it fell into decline and was claimed by Tirana’s youth, prompting the authorities to propose demolishing it. Finally, the voices that recognised the Pyramid as the symbol of democracy won out. In 2023, the MVRDV architectural studio completed works that converted the building into a modern cultural centre. From its top, you can see Tirana’s entire landscape, including the Clock Tower, a symbol of the city since 1822.

In its eagerness to leave behind Communist homogeneity, Tirana launched a project to paint many of its buildings in colours, both the Neo-Renaissance buildings in the historical centre (with their striking pinks and yellows) as well as the ones that have been filled with street art in the residential districts. After more than four decades of artistic repression, Prime Minister Edi Rama provided artists with all the spaces available to develop their art, and the murals that populate the city have become a symbol of the new Tirana. Some areas stand out, such as Blloku, a neighbourhood that Tirana’s inhabitants are now discovering themselves. This area of the city was reserved for the Albanian Politburo’s mansions, and normal citizens were not allowed to access it. Today, it is the capital’s fashion district, and the area is full of artistic and cultural projects, such as the Checkpoint Monument, with another bunker and fragments of the Berlin Wall, along with some of Tirana’s best pubs and restaurants. Of particular note is Era Ish-Blloku, perfect for trying traditional Albanian food, or Salt, which has been critically acclaimed for its fusion of Mediterranean food, seafood and sushi. What’s more, from both restaurants, you can visit the former residence of Enver Hoxha, which is just three minutes away.

The perfect way to top off this getaway is to explore Tirana’s recently rebuilt Bazaar, or Pazari i Ri. It’s worth visiting its stalls to have the opportunity to taste many traditional Albanian gastronomy specialities on the move.