On my first evening in Tirana, I do what many of the locals do and head to Skanderbeg Square. Like many European cities, this central open plaza is the beating heart of the city, where music, dance and expressionist art converge.
Given Albania’s long spell under a communist regime, I half expect to find brutalist architecture surrounding the plaza, but I’m pleasantly surprised by the colourful scene, complete with a carousel wheel glowing with twinkling lights and busking musicians adding a jaunty soundtrack to the evening.
Even the government buildings surrounding the square are painted in bright hues, as if thumbing their noses at the very idea of greyness. It is only post-trip that I learn this deliberate cheeriness was a conscious decision by Albania’s current Prime Minister Edi Rama – who earlier served as Tirana’s mayor – as a means of breathing new life into the city via primary colours and green lungs.
The plaza itself was renovated using paving stones gathered from different parts of the country, as part of a post-communism transformation process that began in the mid-1990s. People have gathered under Skanderbeg’s horseback statue while tourists flock to take pictures at the nearby I heart Tirana installation. Cafes lining one side of the plaza, flanked by a boutique bookshop and the National Theatre of Opera and Ballet on either end, are bustling.
Skanderbeg Square – named after Albania’s national hero, a nobleman who defended his country against the Ottoman Empire in the mid-1400s – is just as busy when I visit the next morning. I spend a couple of hours at the National Museum of History, with its striking mosaic facade depicting the everyday lives of Albanian people.
Inside there are three levels of exhibits, and it's a great place to garner an insight into the country’s chequered history – from its Roman and Greek era, to more contemporary times.
Opposite the museum is the 18th-century Et’hem Bey Mosque, where paintings of flowers, trees and pastoral landscapes cover the interior walls and ceilings. Like other religious institutions in the country, the mosque was closed for many decades under communist rule – several others were destroyed or converted into schools and warehouses – but reopened to the public in 1991, when thousands of protesters made their way into the mosque to offer peaceful prayers.
Just a stone's throw from this Ottoman-age mosque is the less-than-a-decade-old orthodox church, known as the Resurrection Cathedral. With a modern architectural style, the building seems to stand as a pointed symbol of the country’s resilience and its spirit of religious tolerance.
Albania may have freed itself from the shackles of communism more than three decades ago, but it is impossible to fully shake off its heavy presence in Tirana. Indeed, that doesn't even seem to be the goal as the city hasn't shied away from acknowledging its past, actively presenting its bleakest and darkest elements – think intrusive surveillance, arrests and torture – through museums such as the House of Leaves and BunkArt.
The latter has a smaller offshoot close to Skanderbeg Square, in the form of BunkArt2. During his 40-year reign, the iron-fisted Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha was constantly on alert and built thousands of underground bunkers across the country as part of elaborate escape plans.
BunkArt2 is one such den, but the reinforced concrete-walled hideout is now a museum educating visitors on the horrors of Hoxha’s regime via 24 underground rooms.
If this bunker today is a museum curated and managed efficiently, the Piramida, just a short walk away, is an abandoned relic. This concrete pyramid-shaped building, commissioned by Hoxha’s daughter as a gift to her father, sits lonely and out of place amid the vibrant cafes and museums of Tirana’s city centre.
Tourists come to gawk at the incongruous monument, rubbing shoulders with local skateboarding teenagers. There has been talk of demolishing this monstrosity of a building, but it also stands as a reminder of what this country went through.
After a day of discovering the city’s historical sights, I head to nearby Floga where chef Artemi Stefanidhi sends out a menu of his most popular dishes to our table, starting with peppers stuffed with tangy cheese, and ending with a delicious jellied preserve made of watermelon rind. A great example of the culinary delights easily found in Tirana's bustling food scene.
Later that evening, I walk from my hotel to the trendy neighbourhood of Blloku, about 10 minutes south of Skanderbeg Square across the Lana River. Here, almost every other building seems to be a cafe or restaurant, most are busy with patrons drinking, dining and chatting.
On this balmy spring evening, it seems to me that Tirana’s metamorphosis into a modern, vibrant city is complete. As European capitals go, this one is still under the radar, but I predict it won't stay that way for long. Tirana feels ready for a burgeoning chapter of tourism, so go now before the hordes discover it.