Tirana is a city of utter juxtapositions. Mammoth communist-era structures stand beside the high-rise façades of newly built luxury hotels. Old neighborhoods are revived through renovation and the resolute establishment of new shops, cafés, and restaurants. At night, the streets are crowded and stir with the sound of luxury car engines revving up ostentatiously. On the weekend, the city’s large parks and squares are full of couples and families strolling around as construction continues stretching the city outwards and up. After years of being closed to the world during the communist regime of Enver Hoxha, Tirana seems to have become the glittering beacon of a brand-new Albania.
It all starts at Skanderbeg Square, the city’s main plaza named after the country’s national hero Gjergj Kastrioti Skënderbeu, a nobleman and military commander who is forever heralded with a monument that looks out over the square’s large expanse. All around are historic structures of importance, from the Ethem Bey Mosque and Clock Tower to the National Historical Museum with its iconic mural mosaic, the National Opera, and the Tirana International Hotel. Behind the square, the high-rise tower of the luxury Plaza hotel looms visibly, composing a panorama that encompasses past and rapidly burgeoning present.
Once a highly restricted residential area only accessible for members of the Albanian politburo, Blloku is now Tirana’s most vibrant and upmarket neighborhood with boutiques, cafés, bars, and restaurants all around. One of the favorites is Radio Bar, where antique radios (hence the name), vintage film posters, birdcage lamps, boldly colorful furniture, and creative cocktail creations represent the new wave of young people who have returned to Tirana to start their own projects. At the luxurious Padam Boutique Hotel restaurant, locals sip on chilled glasses of white wine in the garden while enjoying yet another day of incessant sunshine.
However, among all the bustle of modern routine, the abandoned former residence of Enver Hoxha still remains, like a strange reminder of the past not yet entirely forgotten. Other communist-era structures include the abandoned Pyramid of Tirana (formerly the Enver Hoxha Museum); Bunk’Art and Bunk’Art 2 (two cold war bunkers that have been turned into history and contemporary art museums); and House of Leaves (the former main center of State Security surveillance during the Communist regime that now exhibits the story and tools of espionage).
Inside the Great Park of Tirana, the Ardia Palace, designed by Swiss architect Valerio Olgiati, stands out utterly with its peculiarly fascinating façade in a hue of clay-red. But what is more intriguing is Mullixhiu, located on the ground floor and one of the city’s most innovative restaurants. Representing a hope that the growth of Albania will continue to pay its respects to the country’s strong rural culture, Mullixhiu’s tasting menu is a profoundly delicious representation of traditional recipes and local ingredients with a creative flair. One of the standouts is the Shepherd’s Diet, a finely fried satchel of crispy dough filled with egg and meat and accompanied by ice-cold Dhallë (yogurt drink) shots.
By the time the sun goes down, the city is still alive with people riding their bikes through the square or meeting up by the stairs of the National Historical Museum. It’s an exciting time for a country that has opened its doors to the world, and one hopes it will retain its rich culture as it transitions into the cosmopolitan realm.