A Weekend in Tirana: The Pyramids & Bunkers of Albania’s Quirky Capital

Last Updated on: 7th March 2022, 10:03 am

Tirana certainly isn’t the type of city people imagine when they think of European capitals. And many visitors merely pass through on their way to Albania’s beaches and historical towns. Tirana, however, has a few special attractions that you simply can’t find anywhere else. In the following Tirana guide, we’ll be covering the city’s must-see destinations along with some lesser-known but worthwhile landmarks.

If you only have one day in town, focus on the area around Skanderbeg Square, especially the National History Museum and BunkArt 2. You can then head over to the trendy district of Blloku in the evening.

While the city’s main highlights can be seen in a day, those with some extra time in town won’t regret it, as there’s plenty to see in Tirana to fill up an entire weekend.

The Pyramid of Tirana

Beginning in 1941, Albania was ruled by Communist dictator Enver Hoxha until his death in 1985. And a few years later, this unique concrete pyramid was constructed to house the Enver Hoxha Museum.

But the Communist era would end in 1991, upon which the pyramid was repurposed as a conference center and event venue. Its acoustics are said to be excellent, but the structure is no longer used for musical performances.

Pyramid of Tirana New

In fact, it’s not being used for anything at all, except for a section in the back which hosts a local radio station. Despite arguably being Tirana’s most iconic structure, the pyramid has largely been left to rot. Nevertheless, it remains one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.

Locals and foreign tourists alike enjoy climbing up the pyramid before carefully sliding down. I wasn’t quite up for the challenge myself, but enjoyed admiring the unusual structure from the ground.

Pyramid of Tirana Guide

City officials have set forth plans to demolish it numerous times, but each attempt was thwarted by fervent opposition. Supposedly, it’s meant to be transformed into a Youth IT Center sometime in the near future, but nothing was being done at the time of my visit.

UPDATE: As of early 2022, the pyramid is now under reconstruction and is indeed being converted to a youth center. Here’s what it’s supposed to look like when finished.

Skanderbeg Square

Skanderbeg Square is without question the center point of Tirana. It’s named after the Albanian national hero who led a rebellion against the Ottomans in the 15th century, and a statue of Skanderbeg on a horse has replaced one of Joseph Stalin.

The square, which measures out to 40,000 square meters, is surrounded by many of the city’s most prominent buildings. Among them are the Palace of Culture, the Tirana International Hotel and the Et’hem Bey Mosque (sadly closed for renovations during my visit).

The National History Museum

But the main highlight here for visitors to Tirana is the National History Museum. Opened in 1981, it provides a comprehensive overview of Albanian history, beginning with prehistoric settlements and the cities of ancient Illyria. 

If you’re planning on visiting archaeological sites like Apollonia during your travels around the country, most of the notable pieces can be found here.

You’ll also learn about Albania during the Middle Ages, along with an excellent display of religious iconography by legendary artists like Onufri.

The museum also features comprehensive info about the life of Mother Teresa, who was of Albanian heritage.

But for those with a special interest in the dark history of 20th-century Albania, don’t miss the next location in this Tirana guide.

National History Museum Tirana Guide
National History Museum Tirana Guide

BunkArt 2

Throughout his entire reign, Enver Hoxha was paranoid about an outside invasion or potential chemical attack. As such, he spent tremendous resources to construct concrete bunkers throughout the country.

Over the decades, more than 170,000 concrete bunkers were built, but not a single one was ever used for its intended purpose. Nowadays, you’ll see these unused bunkers scattered all over the country in places like farms and city parks. 

And a large bunker right in the heart of Tirana has since been turned into an art gallery/history museum, providing a fascinating yet harrowing insight into life under Hoxha.

BunkArt 2 Tirana Guide

This particular bunker was connected to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and featured lodging rooms for officials should worse come to worst. Today, each room is home to an installation detailing the history and daily life of 20th-century Albania.

Topics include the strict punishment – typically the death penalty – for Albanians who attempted to flee the country. The museum also covers the history of the National Police Force and the origins of the Sigurimi, or secret police, and the surveillance state they implemented.

BunkArt 2 Tirana Guide

Throughout the Communist era, the Sigurimi carried out intense spying operations, and exhibitions at BunkArt demonstrate how they went about it. For example, spies would place cameras and tape recorders in walls and even wireless recording devices inside of broomsticks!

BunkArt 2 Tirana Guide

Ordinary citizens, meanwhile, were encouraged to snitch on neighbors and family members.

Foreign visitors were also major targets of the spying program, with all their movements and communications being closely monitored.

BunkArt 1

Situated about 15 minutes by bus from central Tirana, the bunker which now houses BunkArt 1 was reserved for Enver Hoxha himself, along with top members of his cabinet. 

But despite taking up over 3000 square meters, this huge bunker was never put to use. Nevertheless, it makes for one of the most unique tourist attractions in the Balkans.

BunkArt 1 Tirana Guide

Visitors must first walk through a long concrete tunnel before arriving at the ticket gate. After purchasing your ticket, you’ll then walk down a long forested path before arriving at the official entrance.

In spite of its size, its remote location helped the bunker remain a secret throughout the final decades of the Communist era.

BunkArt 1 Tirana Guide
BunkArt 1 Tirana Guide

Making it to the entrance, you’ll pass through the safety valves intended to protect the bunker from an outside explosion. Stepping inside, you’ll find hallways reminiscent of those of BunkArt 2, albeit much more extensive.

BunkArt 1 Tirana Guide

The main highlight of BunkArt 1 is Enver Hoxha’s private room – or at least what was intended to be. It contains a living room, small office, bedroom and bathroom. 

The bedroom walls were furnished with wood to make it all feel less like an underground bunker. But the only time Hoxha visited this place was during some military drills upon the bunker’s inauguration in 1978. 

BunkArt 1 Tirana Guide

Elsewhere, meanwhile, are the rooms of other top officials, including Mehmet Shehu, Enver Hoxha’s right-hand man. In 1981, Shehu would die a mysterious death and later be denounced by Hoxha as a spy. Amazingly, he was purported to have somehow worked for both the CIA and KGB.

BunkArt 1 Tirana Guide
BunkArt 1 Tirana Guide

Similar to BunkArt 2, you’ll find a historical overview of Albania in the 20th century. One interesting aspect of Albania’s history is that after relations with the Soviet Union broke off in the 1950s, and the government openly sided with China in 1960 – the only European country to do so.

After receiving substantial Chinese aid throughout the 1960s, Hoxha felt that Mao Zedong had sold out by meeting with US President Nixon in 1972. The two countries then ended their relationship, and the tiny nation of Albania would remain isolated for the next few decades.

While intended as an educational museum, BunkArt 1 can feel a bit like a haunted house at times. In addition to numerous creepy mannequin displays, the museum places a heavy emphasis on audiovisual installations.

If you happen to be the only visitor like I was, the sounds coming from the distant rooms down the halls can come across as especially eerie.  

Close to the end, another major highlight of BunkArt 1 is the large assembly hall, where government meetings were meant to take place for the officials in hiding.

BunkArt 1 Tirana Guide

To get to BunkArt 1, take a public bus bound for Linza which departs from outside the Palace of Culture. It’s a several-minute walk from the nearest bus stop. 

If the weather is nice, you might want to consider making the long walk back to the city center, stopping at the Bektashi World Center on the way.

Bektashi World Center

A relatively little known fact about Tirana is that it’s home to the world headquarters of a prominent Islamic sect. Bektashism is a Shiite order founded in the 16th century, though it’s named after the 13th-century Iranian Sufi saint Haji Bektash Veli.

Since Ottoman times, Bektashism has long coexisted alongside mainstream Sunni Islam. Bektashis have always been a small minority, however, only making up around 2% of the country today. Nevertheless, numerous important Albanian historical figures were said to be Bektashis.

Bektashi World Center Tirana Guide
Bektashi World Center Tirana Guide

But why are the world headquarters here in Tirana? While popular in both the Balkans and Anatolia during Ottoman times, Republic of Turkey founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk banned all Sufi orders in the 1920s (learn more here). As such, the order officially moved to Tirana.

Bektashi World Center Tirana Guide

The focal point of the Bektashi World Center is its beautiful marble tekke, the Bektashi version of a mosque. Numerous tombs of saints are also situated over to the side.

And when traveling elsewhere throughout the country, you’ll also encounter Bektashi tombs situated on hilltops or even in caves.

Note that the entrance to the Bektashi World Center can be quite tricky to find. While the place is accurately marked on Google Maps, the entire complex is surrounded by a tall concrete wall. The official entrance can only be reached by walking through a residential area and not via the main road. 

The Roman Villa Mosaics

While not worth going far out of your way for, the Roman Villa Mosaics are worth a quick visit if you happen to be in the neighborhood.

Discovered in 1972 during the construction of a block of flats, they’re believed to date from the 1st century AD. That makes the villa the oldest archaeological site in all of Tirana. The site was later in use during the Christian era, and archaeologists have uncovered the foundations of a basilica.

Roman Villa Mosaics Tirana Guide

While the mosaics are not in the best condition, one can get a clear idea of their original extent. Additionally, a few stone sculptures discovered in the area are on display as well. 

Access to the Roman Villa is free and it only takes a couple of minutes to see.

More Around Tirana

The National Archaeological Museum

Roman Villa Mosaics Tirana Guide

While it can’t compete with the National History Museum, the National Archaeological Museum is worth a visit for those who plan on traveling extensively throughout the country.

The small museum contains additional impressive statues from the ancient Greek city of Apollonia. While Apollonia features an on-site museum as well, nearly all of the statues there are headless!

The Grand Park of Tirana

If you find yourself with a free afternoon, the Grand Park of Tirana is worth a visit. The huge park, which surrounds an artificial lake, stretches out to 289 hectares in total. 

It contains numerous walking trails and benches, making for a nice change of scenery from the concrete city center.

The House of Leaves

Originally built to house a private clinic in 1931, the building was taken over by the Sigurimi, or Albanian secret police, in the 1940s. From here, they intercepted domestic telecommunications while also spying on foreigners.

The House of Leaves now functions as a museum displaying the various equipment the Sigurimi once used, while other installations cover the horrors of being a political dissident in Communist Albania.

It costs 600 Lek to enter and photography is not allowed. As interesting as it is, a lot of the same subject matter is covered by both BunkArts, and a trip here isn’t essential for those short on time.

Tirana Guide House of Leaves

Historical Tirana

Tirana Guide Tanner's Bridge

While, aside from the mosaics mentioned above, Tirana contains few landmarks built before the 20th century. One exception is Tirana Castle, a Byzantine-era fortress right in the center of town. 

While the exterior walls remain in good condition, the inside has been converted into a shopping complex filled with fancy shops and restaurants. 

Another small landmark is Tanner’s Bridge, an 18th-century Ottoman stone bridge that people can still walk over. 

Additional Info

Tirana isn’t a huge city, and most of the attractions mentioned in the Tirana guide above are accessible on foot as long as you’re somewhere close to Skanderbeg Square.

I stayed at a place called Villa Center, located within short walking distance of Skanderbeg Square. Even though I booked it through Booking, it felt more like a typical Airbnb experience.

I stayed in a private room with a private bathroom, but the kitchen and living area were shared with the other guests staying down the hall.

While the host lives out of the country, communication via WhatsApp went very smoothly and he was always quick to answer my questions. The neighbor in charge of looking after the apartments also speaks English.



Booking.com

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