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Gjirokaster Albania – The City Of Stone
Royal and surprising, Gjirokaster is a unique town in the south of Albania located between the Gjere Mountains and River Drino. Known as Gjirokastra as well, its name means city of stones, and that is nothing but a perfect depiction of the landscape of Gjirokaster.
Originally a lonely Medieval castle atop of a hill, dating from the 13th century, the settlement spread down the hill through the centuries, descending from the castle towards the valley. The picturesque city is well-known for its outstanding architecture and stone buildings.
One of the most important landmarks in town, the city’s Old Bazaar, was founded back in the seventeenth century and still today features unique artisans selling intricate handmade objects. Today, this magnificent city treasures centuries of history, but it also has a modern and delicious food scene.
This guide will tell you everything you need to know about Gjirokaster, how to get there, what to eat, and where to stay. But also what places you shouldn’t miss and what are the best things to do, even with children in tow, in Gjirokaster, take a look!
Facts About Gjirokaster Albania
Originally inhabited by an ancient tribe of Hellenistic origin, the settlement has its roots in very ancient times. Known by the name of Argyrokastron, the city strived during Medieval times to become an important trade center; therefore, the citadel was surrounded by high protective walls and finally became a part of the ever-growing Byzantine Empire.
During the thirteenth century, the city became part of the Ottoman Empire which conquered a big part of the Balkan countries; as time went by, the once important Christian city became predominantly Muslim both because it received new Turk dwellers and because many locals converted.
The city was occupied by the Italians and the Greeks during WWII in more modern times. All these occupations, invasions, and foreign dominations have left a clear mark on the city’s facade. Today, Gjirokaster is a charming town filled with Ottoman buildings of unique beauty, which opened the way for Gjirokaster to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site for being a “rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town.”
Where Is Gjirokaster And How To Get There
Located between the lowlands of western Albania and the highlands of the interior, it lies southeast of the Adriatic port of Vlore, overlooking the Valley of the Drin River and the long ridge of the Gjere Mountains.
This location gives the city typical hot Mediterranean summers while also receiving heavy rainfall almost all year round.
Gjirokaster is located about 230 kilometers from Tirana, the capital of Albania, and it can be easily reached by car (the trip lasts about 3 hours).
There are also buses connecting Gjirokaster to Tirana, the beautiful seaside town of Saranda, and the closest major city (about 55 kilometers away), and driving from Saranda takes about 1.5 hours.
You can also travel to Gjirokaster by bus from Saranda, the service runs hourly, and the ticket is 400 Lek (about €3.30). Instead, getting there from Berat takes about 3 hours by bus (at least three daily). Tickets cost approximately 900 Lek.
If you’re traveling from Greece, Gjirokaster is quite close to the northern Greek city of Ioannina; there’s a daily bus departing at 1 pm. The ticket is €8, and the trip lasts about 3 hours. If you prefer to drive from Ioannina, it will take you just a bit more than an hour to reach Gjirokaster.
Things To Do In Gjirokaster
Discover The Ancient Castle Of Gjirokaster
One of the unmissable things to do in Gjirokaster is to visit the incredible Castle, also known as Gjirokaster Fortress. Extensively renovated and expanded during the centuries, the building features five impressive towers, an eighteenth-century clock tower built by the Turks, a cistern, and a museum. The complex overlooks the city and the underlying valley from the top of a hill, offering some of the most incredible views of the city and the whole valley.
Inside the complex, it is also possible to visit a church, stables, and several fountains, while a prison was built for political prisoners, which was used even during Albania’s Communist Regime until the 1970s.
Especially for kids: Inside the castle, there are several war weapons exhibited, one of the most curious ones is a fantastic Fiat war tank from WWII, of which there are only three all over the world! — As well as a United States Air Force Shooting Star plane. Kids will really enjoy checking these during their visit.
Remember: Gjirokaster Castle is the place where, every five years, Albania’s National Folklore Festival takes place; you can check the stage located near the clock tower.
Practical details: The castle is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm in summer and from 8 am to 4 pm in winter. On Sundays, the entrance is complimentary, while on weekdays, the access tickets are about 200 Lek (€1.70).
Pay A Visit To The Gjirokaster Museum
Since this fantastic museum is situated inside the castle, it is good to visit everything in a day. The museum is a great source to find out more about the city’s history and its inhabitants portrayed through interesting photos and captivating stories.
The visit won’t take more than 2 hours, and it will leave an impression. It has the same opening hours as the Castle, and the entrance ticket is also 200 Lek (€1.70).
Especially for kids: In the same area, older kids interested in war and history might also fund the National Museum of Armaments quite appealing. It’s located on the upper floor and can add a different perspective to the whole castle visit.
Spend A Morning In The Old Bazaar
A trip to Gjirokaster will be filled with fantastic memories, one of the most vivid ones will undoubtedly be a visit to the Old Bazaar, you really can’t miss it! Locally known as Qafa e Pazarit, this seventeenth-century bazaar is in the heart of the historic old town of Gjirokaster.
Stepping on the alleys of this popular market is like traveling back in time for centuries. The market follows the typical shape of the markets in the Balkans, a cross-shaped area adapting to the sloping terrain of the town. It is filled with quaint shops and two and three-story homes along the alleys.
The bazaar is the perfect place in Gjirokaster to purchase unique souvenirs from your trip, authentic Albanian gifts made with local elements.
What can you buy? Well, virtually anything, from soap and artisanal beauty products to teas, wine, local spirits, herbs, spices, honey, or even a bottle of rakija to take home with you. Rakija is among the most popular liquor in the Balkans.
Especially for kids: They will love to take a look at the different crafts sold in the bazaar, including hand-carved wood miniatures, super colorful pottery, and carpets, traditional wooden toys, sweets, and more!
Check The Bazaar Mosque
While wandering the alleys of the old Gjirokaster Bazaar, why not stop to take a look at the picturesque Bazaar Mosque that dates back from 1757.
Also known by the official name of Memi Bey Mosque, this religious building was the only one of over thirteen mosques built during the Ottoman period in the area and were not either torn down during the communist period or subsequently demolished due to Albania’s religion ban. The building has been designed as a Cultural Monument by the Albanian government.
Not far from the mosque, take some time to check the two-story octagonal Islamic building, constructed (from the 1700s) currently used as a madrasah.
Discover The Gjirokaster Fortified Stone Homes
Did you know that UNESCO has designated over 500 traditional houses in town cultural monuments? That’s quite impressive!
Many of these fortified homes were built back in the seventeenth century (while some of them date from later years). They have distinctive rooftops made of local flat stone and can have up to 4 or 5 floors. These spaces house several sleeping areas, living areas, guest rooms, and even more than one hammam. All of the spaces seem connected by secret passages, intricate staircases, and secret doors.
Especially for kids: Children will adore venturing inside one of these imposing mansions. For instance, Skenduli House, which dates from 1823, is open to the public and offers an incredible opportunity to discover spaces that will pick kids’ curiosity, including a bunker and an impressive collection of hammams baths, and fireplaces. The entrance fee is 200 Lek (€1.70), and it is open to the public from 9 am to 7 pm.
Something interesting to know: All these fortified houses were nationalized during the communist regime, but they were later returned to their rightful owners, and it’s now possible to visit a few of them.
Learn more: If you’re interested in learning about the history of the several traditional stone houses in Gjirokaster, you can check this official Albanian site.
Visit The Ethnographic Museum
Gjirokaster is also famous for being the hometown of Enver Hoxha, tragically known for being Albania’s famous former communist dictator from 1944 to 1985. His traditional Ottoman home in the heart of the old town has been turned into a remarkable ethnographic museum that exhibits a collection of local crafts and objects of everyday use.
The museum is located close to Skenduli House and can be visited from 9 am to 6 pm, while the entrance fee is 200 Lek (€1.70).
Check Saint Sotire Church
This Orthodox basilica, also known as the Old Metropolitan Church, was built in 1784. It is located in the Old Bazaar district and features interesting paintings and hand-carved icons.
The church, which used to be the seat of the local Orthodox bishop, suffered severe damage during the communist era. Remember that most of the icons that today decorate this church are fantastic reproductions of the originals, removed during communist years, which were never recovered.
The church is open daily early in the morning (from 7 to 7.30 am) and in the afternoon (from 7 to 7:30 pm); there are also services on Sunday morning, and private tours can be arranged through the Tourist Information Centre of Gjirokaster.
Explore The Aqueduct Of Ali Pasha
Often mistaken by a bridge, and even commonly known as the Bridge of Ali Pasha, this brief portion of a former huge aqueduct can be explored hiking for about 40 minutes from the castle. This is an uphill path, do wear comfy hiking shoes!
The massive construction was intended for gearing water to the cisterns of the Castle from a relatively close series of mountain springs, situated about 10 kilometers from the area. However, most of its original stones were used to build the cells inside the castle, and only a tiny part of it remains, looking pretty much like a bridge that connects the sides of two hills in a narrow gorge.
Especially for kids: The aqueduct is a perfect place for photography fans and offers the possibility to take a short but pleasant trip out of the city for a quick outdoor adventure.
Walk Along Gjirokaster Secret Tunnel
Dating back to the Cold War years, this 800-meter long tunnel is now a museum that runs right beneath the castle. The Cold War Tunnel Museum is a fascinating bunker-style construction that features numerous rooms specially designed to give shelter to members of the Communist Party during a nuclear attack.
The tunnel was built during the last years of the communist (1970s) regime and remains quite well preserved until today. Interesting things to check during the visit include the over 50 different rooms and chambers, divided into rooms for government ministries, for government, interrogators, party elites, places for sleeping, power generation, and water storage. The tunnel is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, and the tour can take about 20 minutes.
Especially for kids: Children will be flabbergasted by the tunnel and its impressive history; in particular, they will be super curious about the decontamination room, the old Czech generator, and the air filtration room, all of which will give you an idea of the unmeasurable regime’s preparations for a nuclear attack.
What To Eat In Gjirokaster
Other than being famous for their outstanding and warm hospitality, the people from Gjirokaster are known for serving some of the best food in Albania.
Yes, maybe you were not aware, but Gjirokaster is also well-known for its food, usually made with high quality, local and organic ingredients.
As in most of Albania, the local cuisine features evident Ottoman roots; it makes extensive use of local oil, herbs, spices, herbs, and sauces. These are some of the dishes you need to try during your visit.
- Pashaqofte: this is a delicious soup with small and fragrant meatballs containing a good quantity of local herbs.
- Sarma: Also known as japrak, these are the traditional stuffed vine leaves from the Balkan area, often stuffed with rice and herbs, especially mint.
- Qifqi: Everyone (including kids) love these unique rice balls that are cooked inside a hollow frying pan.
- Qahi: Small but tasty homemade spinach pies.
When it comes to sweets and desserts, don’t overlook the traditional Turkish baklava and a local sweet known as Oshaf, which is made with sheep milk and cinnamon.
Other things you should try are the local cheeses made from goat, sheep or even cow milk, which is famous all over the country. Djathe i bardhe is a soft white cheese, similar to Greek feta. If you prefer more complex and savory cheese varieties, give the local Kaçkavall a try.
Where To Eat In Gjirokaster
There are many restaurants, small taverns, and cafeterias to learn more about Gjirokaster’s food traditions; these are some of the best-rated ones.
Casa Flora and Linda: Looking for an affordable yet delicious place in Gjirokaster? Here you will find home-cooked and inexpensive dishes made by a mom and her daughter, just around the corner from one of the main streets in the Old Town. It’s a perfect stop after an intense morning of sightseeing.
Location: Jsmail Kadare Rruga.
- Kodra: A restaurant located in a panoramic point of Gjirokaster, perfect for a romantic dinner or an inspiring view of the town. It serves dishes of the local tradition, and the staff is genuinely welcoming.
Location: Janari Rruga e Zejtareve.
- Gjoka: A small restaurant with just a couple of tables inside, run by a husband and wife who will cook fast and tasty everyday dishes. Nothing fancy, affordable, and convenient.
Location: Irigjin Zenebishti.
- Kerculla: Despite the somewhat tiring hike you need to take to get there, in this restaurant you will find some of the best food in Gjirokaster, plus the spectacular views and excellent service.
Location: Lagja Palorto.
Where To Stay In Gjirokaster
Affordable Accommodation In Gjirokaster
Check Stone City Hostel if you’re traveling around Albania on a budget. Located in a picturesque and traditional building, the hostel features a bar, a shared lounge, a terrace, and free WiFi. There’s also luggage storage space a shared kitchen, and they also organize tours for guests. There are continental and buffet breakfast options each morning. Check for more details here
We recommend staying at Argjiro Traditional for families with kids. This is an elegant and beautiful hotel with a magnificent garden, a shared lounge, a sun terrace, and comfy family rooms, some equipped with a balcony, and some have garden views. The accommodation also offers a continental or American breakfast. Check more details here
Lux Accommodation In Gjirokaster
Looking to upgrade your stay? Check Kerculla Resort if you want to enjoy a swimming pool with views of the stunning Gjirokaster landscape. The hotel features a barbecue and a children’s playground as well. They serve an exceptional breakfast every day, while free private parking is available on site. Check details here