Gjirokaster (Gjirokastër) in southern Albania is a picturesque Ottoman-era city carved from stone. My comprehensive travel guide includes the best things to do in Gjirokaster UNESCO Old City and beyond, plus where to find the best local cuisine.
Slate-roofed houses, vertiginous streets paved with limestone, and a castle assembled from rock hewn from the surrounding mountains. Gjirokaster, Albania’s ‘Stone City’, is a silvery beauty that shimmers in the rain.
Just like Pocitelj in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Ottoman-built Old City (inscribed by UNESCO in 2005) completely captures your imagination from the first moment you tread its cobbled streets. Layers of Greek, Byzantine, Albanian, Ottoman and Sufi heritage have accumulated in the cracks of Gjirokaster’s facades like moss.
Gjirokaster once had a sinister claim to fame as the site of one of Albania’s most notorious political prisons and the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the country’s one-time despotic leader. Now, the town is best-known for its massive Ottoman Bazaar and incredible multi-story fortified houses – and, of course, its unmatched regional cuisine.
The National Folklore Festival is held once every five years in Gjirokaster. If you happen to be visiting in May 2020, you’re in for a treat as the music and dance spectacular pulls into town once again.
Gjirokaster is located in Southern Albania, 50km inland from Saranda. We visited as part of our 3-week trip through the country last summer.
I’ll always remember Gjirokaster for two reasons: Firstly, it’s the only place in the Balkans where we fell victim to a taxi scam (read on for my advice on how to avoid this).
On a far more positive note, Gjirokaster turned out to be my favourite place in Albania – mainly because of the Ali Pasha Bridge, which is a short hike from town.
Don your best walking shoes, brace your ankles and loosen your belt – here is my guide to Gjirokaster’s cobble-stoned streets, immaculate architecture, and best restaurants.
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Where to stay in Gjirokaster
Mid-range: We stayed at Bed and Breakfast Kotoni, a quaint and nicely decorated guesthouse that’s managed by a young family (with mum in the kitchen). The complimentary breakfast here was the best we had in Albania. The location halfway up the hill means spectacular views across the valley towards the fortress, plus easy access to great vantage points for sunrise/sunset. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Boutique: The incredible Hotel Muse’e is located inside one of Gjirokaster’s historic 200-year-old homes. Proper coffered ceilings and original fireplaces are completely charming, and the breakfast is apparently very good. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Luxury: Gjirokaster’s most luxurious hotel, Kerculla Resort, is perched on a hillside overlooking the Old City. The design fuses Gjirokaster’s old-world elegance with all the mod cons you’d expect from a 5-star hotel, including a very generous outdoor pool. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Budget: For budget-friendly accommodation, Stone City Hostel offers mixed dorms and a couple of private doubles. The decor is cosy, and it’s a very popular place for backpackers to meet and hang out. They also organise free walking tours of Gjirokaster for guests. Check prices and availability on Booking.com.
Airbnb: Well-positioned within walking distance of all the town’s must-sees, House of Art sleeps up to four people and boasts incredible views of the Old Bazaar from the lounge room. Perfect if you want your own self-contained space. Sign up here to get a $55 AUD discount off your first Airbnb booking.
The best things to do in Gjirokaster
Whether you’re visiting as a day trip from Saranda or you choose to spend a few nights (I recommend staying for 2), here are the very best things to do in Gjirokaster.
Visit Gjirokaster Fortress & Museum
Sitting atop the highest hillock like a white stone coronet, the fortress is Gjirokaster’s crowning jewel. It should be top of your list.
Construction on the walls began as early as the 6th century. It’s thought that the distinctive hue of the rock used gave Gjirokaster its first Greek name of ‘Silver City’. A clock tower, a church, fountains and stables were added to the internal structure and are still visible today. In Communist times, parts of the fortress were converted into cells for political prisoners.
I’m not a huge castle person, but I really enjoyed walking through the grounds of the fortress. The lofty stone arches are really impressive, and the open yard scattered with cannons offers a great vantage over the Old Bazaar.
Whatever you do, don’t skip the castle museum, where information about the city’s history is presented alongside biographies of some of modern-day Gjirokaster’s residents. I can’t remember the last time I read every single word of a museum display. It’s well-written and completely gripping – I really can’t recommend it highly enough.
Alongside Ljubljana Castle, this is the best castle museum we’ve been to in the Balkans thus far and is absolutely worth paying the extra 200 Lek fee.
The upstairs arms museum is less appealing and safe to skip unless you’re particularly interested in war history.
Once every 5 years in May, the fortress hosts Albania’s National Folklore Festival, a showcase of traditional music and dance. There is a purpose-built outdoor stage just near the clock tower. The last event was in 2015, and the follow up is scheduled for 2020. If you happen to be visiting this spring, I highly recommend checking it out.
Gjirokaster Fortress is open daily from 9am until 7pm in summer and 8am until 4pm in winter. Admission to the fortress grounds costs 200 Lek.
Browse Gjirokaster Old Bazaar
Gjirokaster’s Ottoman-style Bazaar was constructed in the 17th century and completely rebuilt 200 years later following a devastating fire. The serpentine streets are decorated with a gorgeous interlacing pattern made from white and black stone. As we learned at the Fortress Museum, most of the cobbles were laid by one single resident.
We managed to time our visit to Gjirokaster with the first time in history the stones were being re-laid (of course!). Even though the Bazaar looked like a construction site, we still found beauty in the white-washed stone buildings and slate roofs.
Rows of little shops and cafes are formally organised with uniform signage. This makes Gjirokaster Bazaar feel a bit less atmospheric than the hodge-podge bazaar in Skopje, for instance. A lot of the shops peddle mass-produced souvenirs, but there are some gems amongst the tourist traps.
If you do want to do some shopping, look out for products made from local materials – olive wood, teas, olive oil, local honey, and raki. Zahire Shqiptare and Edua Gjirokaster both sell nicely presented artisan products. Vjollca Mezini‘s shop is the place to buy Albanian embroidery (she is a master), and Anastas Petridhi and Muhedin Makri craft souvenirs from wood and stone respectively.
Another highlight of the Old Bazaar area is the 1757-built Gjirokaster Mosque. Spared from destruction at the hands of the Communists, it was used as a circus training school until the 1990s when it returned to its original purpose as a house of worship. Seven stone ablution fountains and several hamams are located nearby.
When we visited, the mosque was undergoing repairs (as was every single mosque across Albania), but hopefully it’s re-opened by the time you get there.
Hike to Ali Pasha’s Bridge
My personal highlight of Gjirokaster was hiking to the Ali Pasha Bridge. It’s not a bridge at all, but rather a small portion of a once-massive aqueduct built to channel water to Gjirokaster castle’s cisterns from mountain springs 10km away.
The aqueduct was commissioned by Albania’s Ottoman ruler, Ali Pasha of Ioannina at the beginning of the 19th century. In the 1930s, it was largely dismantled so its stonework could be used to build prison cells inside the fortress. A single span of the aqueduct is still standing today, sandwiched in a narrow gorge just outside of Gjirokaster.
It takes about 45 minutes of uphill walking to reach the aqueduct from the fortress. Most of the way is bitumen road, with a final push along a rocky path to get down into the valley. You then walk along the dry riverbed to get up close to the structure. It’s possible to climb on top, but given the aqueduct’s age and remote location, I don’t recommend it.
When we visited, we were the only tourists around, joined only by two shepherds having a conversation by yelling at each other from either side of the gorge. It’s a pretty incredible sight as you approach the aqueduct from an elevation, and even more impressive to see this feat of engineering up close.
Just don’t do what I do and wear sandals – sturdy shoes are much more suitable! You can find approximate coordinates for the Ali Pasha Bridge here on Google Maps.
On the way up (or down), grab a meal at Taverna Tradicionale, a sweet homestyle-restaurant in the Manalat neighbourhood. The friendly staff there can help with directions to the bridge if you need them – they even lent us a guide book when we visited.
Tour Gjirokaster’s Cold War Tunnel
Not unlike Bunk’Art in Tirana, Gjirokaster has its own ‘secret tunnel’ that has been transformed into a museum. The 800-metre Cold War Tunnel running under the castle comprised of 59 rooms, fashioned to shelter Communist Party elites in case of a nuclear attack or foreign invasion.
Albania’s bunkers and tunnels are a fascinating yet sobering reminder of the paranoia that gripped Albania under Enver Hoxha. Gjirokaster’s tunnel is largely preserved in its original state (minus the retro furniture, which was unfortunately looted), replete with a de-contamination room and air filtration chambers.
You can visit the Cold War Tunnel on a 20-minute guided tour or as part of the city walking tour hosted by Stone City Hostel.
Step inside a fortified house
More than 500 of Gjirokaster’s distinctive homes have been designated as cultural monuments under the UNESCO scheme. From the fortress, you can see some of the most intricate, symmetrical designs pressed into the hills that rise above the bazaar.
None are more spectacular than the towering fortified houses. As ominous as Transylvania’s fortified churches and yet as elegant as the most opulent mansions in Plovdiv, these homes remind me of the tower houses in Svaneti in their robustness.
Most of them date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. The unusual profile is created using a tall stone block foundation up to five stories high. Inside, sleeping quarters, guest rooms and hamams are woven together by a network of passageways and secret doors, wrapped in multiple internal and external staircases. The flat stones used for rooftops are part of the reason Gjirokaster earned its moniker ‘The City of Stone’.
Under Communism, the fortified houses were nationalised before later being returned to their rightful owners. Some of them were restored. Descendants of Gjirokaster’s original families now steward the houses and welcome guests to tour their chambers.
There are three houses I recommend visiting. Zekate House, with its gravity defying double-story stone arches (pictured above) is absolutely worth viewing from the yard outside. If you want to go inside one of the homes, I suggest Skenduli House. It’s the most opulent and absolutely worth the 200 Lek fee for a guided tour with the ninth-generation caretaker who speaks French and German. Tours are generally available between 9am and 7pm, but don’t be surprised if there’s no one home. You might have to try a couple of times.
They will take you deep into the belly of the house to visit the bunker, made to protect its residents from canon fire rather than nuclear attack. Skenduli contains an impressive 6 hamam baths and 12 winter and summer rooms, and a hidden mezzanine where women could sit and spy on their betrothed.
The third house, Gjirokaster’s Ethnographic Museum, is located on the site of Enver Hoxha’s birth house (the original home burnt down and was replaced with a model home). Inside, you’ll find a historical display of costume, textiles and artifacts – but absolutely nothing that refers to the former dictator. Entrance costs 200 Lek.
Top tip: This guided walking tour of Gjirokaster covers a few of the fortified houses plus the castle and Old Bazaar.
Lose your breath in Manalat Quarter
Some of Gjirokaster’s most beautiful houses have their addresses on the snaking streets of Manalat Quarter. The historic neighbourhood south of the castle is at a high elevation, parallel to the fortress. It’s also where you’ll find the most spectacular views of the castle with a backdrop of stony mountains.
We walked up through Manalat at sunset and although it’s tough slog, the panorama is completely worth it. It’s also a lot quieter and feels a lot more local – great if you want a break from the touristic Old Bazaar.
As you walk, try to spot the garden fences made from metal sheets that spoons, knives and other cutlery have been pressed out of. A genius way to repurpose factory offcuts!
You can find some great local restaurants in Manalat, incuding Taverna Tradicionale which I mentioned earlier. There’s also a local woman in this part of town who serves stone-ground coffee from her living room.
We unfortunately ran out of time before we could visit. If you meet her, let me know how the coffee tastes!
Feast on local cuisine
Before I visited, I never could have foreseen that I would be so impressed by Albanian cuisine. Some of the best meals we ate in Albania were at restaurants in Gjirokaster.
Like Berat, Gjirokaster has its own produce and distinctive culinary traditions. The city’s signature dish is qifqi, arancini-like balls made from rice flavoured with dried mint leaves and black pepper.
We were encouraged to try the qifqi at Restaurant Gjoca Tradicional in the Old Bazaar, but we found their rendition oily and tasteless. The best qifqi we ate were at Taverna Kuka – crisp and flavoursome.
Other dishes to try include Gjirokaster’s version of moussaka (the version at restaurant Check-In is made with cinnamon), and homemade meatballs in tomato sauce (absolutely incredible at Restaurant Tradicional Odaja).
Save room for sweets, because Gjirokaster does dessert like no where else. The highlight is obviously this – a slab of very mild feta cheese fried in a thin batter and served smothered in honey and sesame seeds. It’s like an Albanian version of Greek saganki. What a revelation. Restaurant Tradicional Odaja serves an absolutely mean version.
For something slightly lighter, the milk pudding at Taverna Kuka is made with local figs.
Finally, Sweet Cellar and Snack Bar Simple, located either side of the Bazaar Mosque, serve homemade cakes and milkshakes/smoothies respectively.
Map of things to do in Gjiorkaster
How to get to Gjirokaster
From Berat: There are two daily buses at 8am and 2pm departing from Berat’s main bus station. Tickets cost 900 Lek, and the journey takes between 3 and 3.5 hours.
From Saranda: There are regular buses to Gjirokaster from Saranda every hour from 6am until 6.30pm. Tickets cost 300 Lek, and travel time is approximately 1.5 hours. Alternatively, a taxi from Saranda to Gjirokaster should cost 6,000 Lek.
From Tirana: There are 7 daily bus services between Tirana and Gjirokaster, departing Tirana at 5am, 6.45am, 8am, 9am, 10am, 3.30pm, and 5.30pm. Travelling in the opposite direction, buses leave Gjirokaster for Tirana at 11am, midday, 1.15pm, 2.30pm, 5pm, 6.30pm and 11pm (overnight service). The trip takes 4–4.5 hours, and tickets cost 1,000 Lek. A taxi from Tirana to Gjirokaster should cost around 15,000 Lek.
When arriving in Gjirokaster by bus, you’ll be dropped off at the Regional Bus & Furgon Station in the lower part of town. It’s a very informal bus stop – more like a road stop with a couple of ticket offices. A taxi up to the Old City should cost no more than 300–400 Lek.
Don’t pick up a driver from the bus area – instead, walk a few blocks in the opposite direction to find a taxi on the street. We got scammed big time by a ‘taxi driver’ waiting at the bus station.
7 things to pack for Albania
- A good backpack. There’s nothing worse than having to drag a suitcase across cobble streets (trust me). Invest in a good-quality luggage backpack and an anti-theft pack for day to day use. If you’re having trouble deciding, here are a few of my favourite minimalist backpack designs.
- A scarf (women). A lightweight cotton scarf is my number one travel item. In Albania, it will come in extra handy for covering your hair when entering a mosque or Orthodox church, or for draping over your shoulders when visiting a market or a rural area. This neutral travel scarf goes with anything, and it even has a hidden pocket.
- Walking shoes. Cobbled streets, remember? Those, plus hiking, make comfy walking shoes absolutely essential for Albania. I love these ones for women, while my partner lives in these waterproof shoes.
- A reusable water bottle. Avoid single-use plastics whenever you can. I love my S’Well water bottle for warm climates because it doesn’t sweat. Silicone bags, a reusable straw and a portable cutlery set might also come in handy in Albania, especially if you’re trekking..
- Wine Wings. Should you decide to buy a drinkable souvenir in Albania, these handy custom-made bottle protectors will keep your vino safe and sound in your luggage. A travel corkscrew and a wine stopper are bound to come in handy, too.
- Entertainment for long bus/furgon journeys. If you don’t suffer motion sickness, an e-reader is great for passing the time on long bus and furgon trips. If you have a travel buddy, pick up a headphone splitter – probably my favourite travel gadget of all time – so you can share a screen or a podcast. Check out my full list of essential items to make a long train or bus journey more comfortable.
- Biodegradable wet wipes. Try this convenient travel pack.
Here are a few key resources and websites that might come in handy for organising your trip to Albania.
– Find affordable flights to Albania using Kiwi.com, a booking site that mixes and matches airlines to find the best route (there’s a money back guarantee if you miss a connection).
– Use iVisa to check if you need a tourist visa for Albania and apply for an expedited visa online.
– Find a great price on a hire car in Albania using the comparison website, Discover Cars. Check out my Balkans road trip guide for route inspiration!
– Find the best Albania hotel deals on Booking.com, book an Albania hostel, or find a unique Airbnb (use this link to sign up and get $55 AUD off your first booking).
– Find the best city tours and day excursions in Albania on Get Your Guide.
– Pick up a copy of the latest Lonely Planet guidebook for the Western Balkans (published October 2019).
Where to next? More Albania travel resources
- Head to Berat, Albania’s second UNESCO Heritage Listed Old City
- Go east to Korca, the gateway to Northern Greece and Macedonia
- Make a beeline for Tirana, Albania’s hip capital city
- Head north into the Albanian Alps for the incredible Valbona to Theth hike
- See my recommended Albania itinerary for more inspiration