Tirana is one of those cities that you might not have on your radar for a city trip! In this article, I’ll tell you why a trip there is still worthwhile and lots of things to do for one of the new insider spots in Southeast Europe!
The block district in Tirana
I visited Tirana for the first time about ten years ago, and my impressions at the time could be summarized in one depressing sentence: Tirana was a gray, featureless collection of streets with a conspicuously high density of aged German Mercedes sedans and an even higher density of visible poverty. I didn’t notice the block district at all, there were a few stores and restaurants, but the surroundings weren’t inviting.
Welcome to my travel blog!
Hey, I’m Tatiana, a German-Brazilian living in Berlin & the author behind The Happy Jetlagger. I’ve been writing about my travels since 2014. In addition to my job as a flight attendant, this blog is my passion project!
My overnight activities were mainly limited to hanging out by the pool of our crew hotel, which, with its luxurious ambience, made us feel like we were on an island away from the world in the middle of the dreariness. I left the hotel only to immediately realize that there was simply nothing to see. Nothing but everyday life, which was so oppressive that it made me feel guilty with my banal desire for a bit of sightseeing.
Today, Tirana is still not Berlin or Barcelona, and perhaps it never will be. Nevertheless, the change that has taken place in recent years is remarkable. The Block district, Blloku or Bllok in Albanian, is located in the center of Tirana and is one of the most exciting districts to have developed.
Cafés, bars and restaurants in Blloku
Here you will find boutiques, cafés, bars and restaurants in a wild mixture of Albanian tradition and international influences, always well frequented, with the flair of Tirana’s haute volée. By Albanian standards, Blloku is not a cheap spot in the city, but by European standards it is – which has made Tirana extremely attractive to more adventurous city travelers in recent years.
It’s a bit like Italy in general, when the cafés here are full even on a midweek morning and locals and expats sip delicious, creamy cappuccinos as if they were in Milan, Turin or Rome.
Villa Enver Hoxha
In the midst of the hustle and bustle and the high-rise buildings of the block district is a curiosity of Tirana. A large plot of land with a multi-storey, detached villa, fenced in, guarded, but conspicuously abandoned: The villa of former dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled Albania with an iron hand from 1944 to 1985. The entire block district was sealed off at the time and reserved for high-ranking party functionaries and their families. Today, the villa is empty – and Albania is still struggling to come to terms with the past.
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Tirana and its bunkers: Sightseeing tip!
Enver Hoxha was not only the head of state of Albania at the time, but also highly paranoid. In contrast to his Eastern European neighbors, the staunch communist initially aligned himself not with Russia but with China, until he also distanced himself from Chinese Maoism and isolated Albania politically.
This circumstance and the fear of military intervention by other states led Hoxha to have hundreds of thousands of bunkers built all over Albania. Some of them are open to the public in Tirana today:
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Skanderbeg Square is the heart of Tirana. This place is so huge that it’s almost unreal. You get a good impression of how architecture was also used as a demonstration of power in Tirana.
Skanderbeg Square is also home to one of Tirana’s two bunker museums.
You will immediately notice the pyramid in the center of Tirana: Once intended as a museum and eulogy for the late Enver Hoxha, it was used in many ways after his fall, including as a conference center. What will happen to it in the future is still being planned. Until then, the pyramid remains one of Tirana’s most striking buildings and sights.
There are also many interesting city tours that deal with the unusual history of Tirana and Albania:
Where to stay in Tirana
For those who don’t want to miss out on comfort, there are a few more luxurious hotels of international standard in Tirana, such as the Mak Albania*, formerly Sheraton, or The Plaza*. The price level for accommodation in Albania is also rather low, so you can also look for hotels with a higher standard if you want to treat yourself to something more.
With the rise of tourism, a number of boutique hotels have now also opened, such as the Arté Hotel*, with a really decorative ambience, as can be seen in the Arté Café (also a good tip in the Block district!).