Gjirokastër Albania – Top sights and Travel Tips
We have already reported quite a bit about our Albania round trip, but the city of Gjirokastra, situated in the mountains, has been given far too little attention so far. Today we want to change that and take you on a city tour through one of the oldest cities in the country. This historic city lies in the wide Drino river valley and is surrounded by the Mali i Gjerë mountains with peaks up to 2000 metres high. The houses here were built into the steep slopes, so be prepared for a lot of stairs and steps. But perhaps you can imagine the beautiful views that await you in Gjirokastra? At first glance, this city may seem unimpressive, but at the latest in the historic old town or on the hill with the fortress, you will be quite surprised. So, let’s go and explore the city on your own!
About Gjirokastra in Albania
Gjirokastra has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005 and is still one of the most important cultural centres in Albania. First mentioned in 1336, Gjirokastra was first part of the Byzantine Empire and later conquered by the armies of the Ottoman Empire. After the Second World War, various occupying powers occupied the city, first Italy, then Greece and finally even Germany. Only after the end of the war was the Socialist People’s Republic of Albania proclaimed by the dictator Enver Hoxha (born in Gjirokastra), and from then on Gjirokastra belonged to Albania.
Today, the city has a population of just under 20,000, but it still suffers from a strong exodus of residents, which has been going on since the early 1990s. The country is still struggling with corruption, poverty and unemployment. No wonder that more than 4 million Albanians now live abroad and Albania itself has only 2.9 million inhabitants. The economic situation has improved a little after the collapse of the communist regime, but the Albanian economy is still the least developed in Europe.
Getting to Gjirokastra
If you start from Tirana, it takes about 3.5 hours to get to Gjirokastra via Durrës, Kavajë, Fier and Tepelenë. If you want to travel by bus (8€ from Tirana), you should allow up to 5 hours, so you are more mobile with your own rental car*. We started in the south of the country in Ksamil and made a stop at the famous Blue Eye before continuing on the SH4 to Gjirokastra. For the whole route from Ksamil you need about 2 hours for the 69 kilometres. The problem is that you are often only allowed to drive very slowly and cannot get from A to B very quickly. So be prepared for longer car journeys.
LOOKING FOR A RENTAL CAR?
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Hotels in Gjirokstra
You don’t just want to make a day trip to this city, but would like to stay a little longer? No problem, there are quite a few hotels and guesthouses in Gjirokastra. We’ve picked out a few that are very well rated, have a great location and also look good to us. In Gjirokastra, you can get a room for as little as €12 per night and accommodation prices in general are really low. We usually book our accommodation with Booking.com*.
What to see in Gjirokastra
The city of many steps has only a few sights to offer, but they are definitely worth a visit. In the map below, we have marked the most important spots so that you can get a better idea of where to find what.
1. Gjirokaster Old Town
Even the streets run steeply upwards when you want to reach the old town. Here you will find many cobbled streets leading up and down, straight ahead or around bends and corners. Also be prepared for a lot of stairs and steps, as the city is not called the „city of a thousand steps“ without reason. In the pretty old town you will find many traditional Albanian houses built in the style of Balkan architecture. Typical of this are the flat stone roofs and the narrow and high windows.
- Rumors Coffee & Snacks
- Kafe Pasticeria Zani
- Muço Restaurant
- Mapo Restaurant
You will also find many colourful souvenir shops, small taverns and restaurants, the Gjirokastra Bazaar, the Zekate House (a historic Ottoman building), a museum of costumes and cultural goods, the Skenduli House, Ismail Kadare’s House (Albanian writer) and the Bazaar Mosque. Stroll on foot through the many winding streets of the city and just let yourself drift. At the Mapo Restaurant, we first got a little refreshment with coffee and a warm soup at the beginning of our tour.
2. Castle of Gjirokastra in Albania
Perched high on a hill, the castle of Gjirokastra overlooks the entire city and gives you fantastic views and interesting insights. The defensive fortress is around 500 metres long and up to 90 metres wide. In a long corridor inside, you can look at weapons and cannons from different centuries and learn more about them in the adjacent weapons museum. Outside, there is a smaller aircraft, which, according to stories, is supposed to be an American spy plane. You can also see the former prison, a festival stage, a bastion, a clock tower and a narrow garden.
Entrance fee: 200 lekë (€1.90) | Museum must be paid extra.
Opening hours: April – September 9am – 7pm | October – March 9am – 5pm
Address: Rruga Elvia Celebi, Gjirokastra
The most beautiful part of the castle is definitely the backyard with the Kulla e Sahatit. This place is not only known for the clock tower, but also for the legend that tells the story of Princess Argjiro. According to the legend, the town was named after the princess who decided to jump out of the fortress with her baby in her hand rather than submit to the Ottomans. The baby survived. Milk flowed from the rocks where Argjiro fell to feed the baby. It may just be coincidence, geology confirms part of this legend. The limestone under the castle has particularly white limestone deposits.
3. Cold War Tunnels Gjirokaster
The Cold War Museum is an underground bunker that served as an emergency shelter during the last part of Albania’s communist era (1944-1990). This bunker (and the many other bunkers in the country) illustrate the paranoia of the communist dictator Enva Hoxha. He was afraid of attacks from abroad and ordered the construction of about 750,000 bunkers to protect every inhabitant in case of emergency. In the end, only 150,000 to 250,000 were actually built.
The bunker in Gjirokastra is about 800 metres long and has 59 rooms. It was left as it was and is therefore one of the most authentic and atmospheric bunkers in the country. The tunnel was built precisely so that various functions could be ensured in the event of a nuclear attack. There were sleeping quarters, water storage, rooms for power generation, ministries, government and interrogators. A few pieces of original furniture can still be seen on site, but most of it was unfortunately stolen in 1990.
Entrance fee: 200 lekë (€1.90) | Tunnel tour lasts 20 minutes.
Opening hours: April to October 9am – 6pm | November to March 8am – 2pm
Address: Main entrance near the Municipality building.
4. Zekate House
The most impressive building in Gjirokastër is undoubtedly the Zekate House. It stands at the top of the hill, further away from the city centre. The Zekate House is a majestic three-storey building with a double-arched façade and twin towers. This beautiful house was built 200 years ago for a general by Ali Pasha. Today, the house serves as a museum.
Zekate House is an insider tip in Gjirokastra. Because of its location, far fewer visitors come here than to Skënduli House. Of the two mansions, Zekate House is better preserved. Its highlight is on the third floor: a reception room decorated with beautiful frescoes. In this room, you can also admire the carved wooden ceiling and an ornate fireplace. The lower floors were furnished as family living quarters. At the bottom were storage rooms and the kitchen. The floors were connected by a central staircase. At the top is a wooden balcony with a view of the town and the castle.
5. Skënduli House
The 19th century Skenduli House is more centrally located than the Zekate House. It therefore attracts more visitors, although the furnishings seem more dated. The restored house from the Ottoman period represents several authentically furnished rooms, including 4 hamams (Turkish baths). During the tour of the house, you will get an insight into the daily life and festive traditions of the time. The house is still family owned.
Entrance fee is 200 Leke or 2 €, free for children.
6. The aqueduct of Gjirokastra in Albania (Ali Pasha Bridge)
In 1820, the Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha ordered the construction of a 10-kilometre aqueduct to supply water to the castle. This was almost completely destroyed in 1932, and you can only see a few remains. On Google Maps you can find this sight under the name „Ali Pasha Bridge“.
Conclusion on Gjirokstra in Albania
Is a trip to Gjirokastra worthwhile? We think so! The mountain town impresses above all with its winding old town and the fortress, which towers high above the roofs of the town. The panoramic views from the fortress are really worth seeing and, especially in good weather, a highlight in Gjirokastra, Albania. We also found the cosy flair in the alleys among the locals very pleasant. It should be added that we were there out of season (April) and therefore there were hardly any tourists.
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