Albania enchanted me. It turned out to be so much better than I expected, at so many levels. After my first very quick trip to Albania when I only managed to visit Berat I knew I want to see more of the country.
After a bit of research of what to see in Albania I’ve decided my next destination need to be Gjirokaster (or Gjirokastra), known also as the city of a thousand of steps.
As soon as I got there during my another solo trip to the Balkans I knew it was the right decision. Gjirokaster, Albania turned out to be so much better than I expected!
Table of contents
- 1 Short history of Gjirokaster, Albania
- 2 Gjirokaster – the UNESCO museum town
- 3 First impressions of Gjirokaster
- 4 Things to do in Gjirokaster
- 5 Day trips from Gjirokaster
- 6 Final thoughts on visiting Gjirokaster
- 7 Gjirokaster pictures
- 8 Gjirokaster, Albania – practical information
- 9 Travel resources
Short history of Gjirokaster, Albania
The area of Gjirokaster was inhabited already in the Bronze Age but it became the important center in the Middle Ages. The old city walls and the fortress date back to the 3rd century but the name of the town, then Argyrokastro, was first mentioned in 1336. More or less at the same time, Albanian nomadic groups appeared in this area too.
Since Gjirokaster is located at the crossroads the city has a turbulent history and often had seen a change of the rulers. Eventually, the city became part of independent Albania.
Gjirokaster – the UNESCO museum town
Gjirokaster is one of the two “museum towns” in Albania (the other one being Berat), both places are also part of the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The city is also known as the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the infamous leader of the People’s Socialist Republic of Albania (among all the bad decisions that were hurting his nation he was responsible for all the bunkers you can see now all over the country) as well as the most popular Albanian writer – Ismail Kadare.
The reason why Gjirokaster made it to the UNESCO World Heritage List is the big number of well-preserved Ottoman buildings and you will very quickly see how accurate this statement is. The old town is full of these houses and each of them is beautiful in their own way.
Those on the main streets are beautifully restored but once you step into the backstreets you will see that a lot still needs to be done in here.
First impressions of Gjirokaster
As soon as I arrived in Gjirokaster from Ioannina, Greece I understood how the place got its title “the city of a thousand of steps”. The city is located on the hillside and all of the best Gjirokaster attractions require a walk uphill.
I can’t say it was a very nice experience on a hot day, with the backpack but I was rewarded with a beautifully preserved town that I fell in love with immediately.
I was a bit afraid that after visiting Berat I will find Gjirokaster a bit similar and therefore not too exciting but I was wrong. Now I can’t really compare both cities and if you ask me what to visit, Berat or Gjirokaster, my answer is “both”.
Things to do in Gjirokaster
Before coming to the city I didn’t know much about things to do in Gjirokaster. I just let my intuition led me through the old town all the way to the castle and fortunately it didn’t disappoint me as along the way I’ve seen all the Gjirokaster highlights.
The busy bazaar area was bustling with people. Not only it was Friday afternoon at the end of September so there were lots of tourists (mostly organized groups and a few independent tourists like me here and there), the city also hosted the folklore festival that brought lots of artists from a couple of countries to the city. They were walking around in their traditional costumes, fitting to the place surprisingly well, and they made the city look like the time has stopped there.
If you are looking for some Albanian souvenirs to take home with you – the bazaar area might be a good place to get them. That’s also where you will find some of the restaurants serving local food.
I randomly chose one, in the backstreet, next to the construction site. The setting might not be the best but the food was delicious and very affordable.
Even if you are not into shopping be sure to spend some time in the bazaar area, to wander around and get lost in the backstreets, to feel the vibe of Gjirokaster. This part of Gjirokaster makes the city one of the most beautiful in the Balkans, with narrow cobbled streets and charming corners, and discovering it is a pure pleasure.
From the bazaar area, you have to climb up a bit to the upper parts of the town to visit the impressive castle. It was built in the first half of the 13th century but was rebuilt in 1812 to the current shape. Back in the days, it was used as the barracks for up to 5000 soldiers, there were also extended undergrounds for reserves of food and ammunition.
Today you can see here the collection of weapons and … the remnants of the Lockhead T-33 airplane that used to belong to the US Air Force.
But the main reason to visit the castle is the amazing views of Gjirokaster and the surroundings. I don’t think you can find a better viewpoint in the city and the entrance ticket to the castle (around 200 leks) is the money well spent.
There are a few other things to do in Gjirokaster that I unfortunately missed – I enjoyed wandering aimlessly around way too much and then it was late and businesses were closing down for the day.
When visiting Gjirokaster you shouldn’t miss the Ethnographic Museum, set in the birth house of Enver Hoxha. The museum shows the traditional lifestyle in the city and apparently is a fascinating place to visit.
Another place worth seeing is the Cold War Tunnel – the 800 meters long underground bunker that served as the emergency shelter in the times of Hoxha’s rule.
Day trips from Gjirokaster
If you would like to do some day trips from Gjirokaster there are two interesting options: Lazarat and the Blue Eye.
The first one is the village located next to the city and for years used to be known as the cannabis capital of Albania. Now the vast cannabis fields are gone but the fame of the village is still very much present.
The Blue Eye, or Syri i Kalter, is a natural phenomenon located halfway between Gjirokaster and Saranda. This water spring with crystal clear water is a truly beautiful place but also a very popular tourist attraction so better plan a visit here outside of the weekend.
Final thoughts on visiting Gjirokaster
You can visit Gjirokaster in few hours only and see everything. But you can spend here the whole day, take things easy and just wander around, enjoying the place.
If you can – stay here overnight. The town is especially beautiful at dusk, when the sun has hidden behind the mountains and the sky turns pink.
And before you go one more pro tip for visiting Gjirokaster – take comfortable shoes with you! The streets are steep and made of slippery cobblestone so sometimes walking up or down can be tricky. I nearly fell down at least a few times and walking felt more like ice skating!
And here are a few more pictures to show you how pretty Gjirokaster is!
Gjirokaster, Albania – practical information
How to get to Gjirokaster, Albania
These days, with cheap flights to Tirana, the capital of Albania, it’s rather easy to plan a trip to Gjirokaster.
From Tirana there are frequent buses all the way to the city, the journey takes around 4 hours. Just keep in mind that in Albania public transport kind of stops in the afternoon so better leave in the morning, the earlier the better. There are still buses/minibuses to Gjirokaster in the second part of the day, but only very few of them (at 12:30, 16:00 and then 21:00).
I, however, traveled to Gjirokaster from the south and it was a pretty smooth journey. Back then my best option was to fly to Thessaloniki, Greece and catch the bus to Albania.
Unfortunately, all the direct busses arrived in Gjirokaster in the middle of the night but after a bit of research I found another solution. First I went to Ioannina, Greece (which turned out to be a really nice surprise and a lovely place to visit) and from there on the next day, I jumped across the border to Albania.
Ioannina and Gjirokaster are only 90kms apart, the journey together with border crossing took around 2 hours. There should be at least two daytime bus connections between the cities, the tickets cost €8.
Another, more adventurous option, is to fly to Corfu, Greece and then take the ferry to Sarande, Albania – it’s only a short ride. From Sarande it takes one hour by bus through some really scenic roads to Gjirokaster.
Where to stay in Gjirokaster
There are plenty of accommodation options in the old town and I’m sure you will find something for yourself there.
I stayed in Guesthouse Shtino (9.3/10 on Booking) which was very affordable, within a walking distance to all the attractions and offered a wonderful view over Gjirokaster and the castle. Click here to see the current prices and book the place.
Other recommended places to stay in Gjirokaster:
- Silver Hill Guesthouse (9.8/10 on Booking)
- Hotel Argjiro (9.4/10 on Booking)
- Hotel Kodra (9.5/10 on Booking)
- and more!
Where to eat in Gjirokaster
You will find most of the restaurants in the bazaar area. They all serve delicious food and affordable prices.
I ate at a small restaurant just off the main pedestrian street and the food was amazing! There is also a good bakery on the right side when you go up to the castle.
Where to go next
Depending on the direction you are traveling in, from Gjirokaster you can continue your journey either to the seaside (Saranda or Ksamil) or north towards Tirana. You might also want to hop across the border to Greece.
Here are some of the articles I wrote about nearby destinations that you might find interesting (all the links will open in a new window):
- Berat, the highlight of Albania, in pictures
- Impressions from visiting Albania
- Visit Tirana – the funkiest capital in Europe
- What to see in Albania – my favorite places and more!
- Ioannina – a beautiful gem of Northern Greece
- Meteora, Greece in photos
- Beautiful Ohrid, Macedonia off season
- Stari Bar – an overlooked gem of Montenegro
- Your ultimate Balkan travel guide
- Balkan highlights – your ultimate list of what to see in the Balkans
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