From the moment we entered this Albanian village, the old-world charm of Gjirokaster immediately swept over us. The traditional stone architecture mixed with modern hotels beautifully, from the Gjirokaster Castle walls to the old town roads and rooftops. It’s the type of timeless cozy mountain town that will only become more and more popular as the rest of the travel world catches on. Honestly, it’s places like Gjirokaster that make us think Albania really is one of the most underrated destinations in Europe!
Albania Travel Inspiration
- 2 Weeks in Albania Itinerary: Beautiful Beaches to Mountain Towns
- 19 Facts About Albania to Know Before You Go: History, Tips, & More
- Berat Albania Guide: The Can’t Miss City of a Thousand Windows
- Butrint National Park: Fun One Day Guide to the UNESCO Site in Albania
- Understanding the Albanian Bus System: How Difficult is it?
How to Get to Gjirokaster Albania
As you can imagine, getting to a small mountain village in Albania isn’t the easiest thing in the world. The only way to make it there if you don’t have a car is to utilize the bus system. We’ve heard horror stories about buses in this country, but it’s actually quite simple going to Gjirokaster Albania.
We arrived in Gjirokaster Albania from Saranda to a heavy downpour of rain and walked our way 30 minutes from the bus station up into the old city center of town. Despite the weather and the tricky climb with all our bags into the mountains, we were elated to be there!
One thing you’ll realize quickly traveling in the south of the country is that all roads lead to Saranda. Whether you’re coming from the Ksamil beaches or Himare to the north you’ll most likely have to go through Saranda first as there are no direct buses.
Top 6 Tips For Visiting Gjirokaster Albania
1. Arriving in Gjirokaster by Bus
We took the 11:30am bus from Saranda and the journey only took a little over an hour. As you head inland from the coast you’ll pass through long roads and winding green mountains. The bus will let you off at an intersection in the main town which is not ideal if you’re staying in old town on the hill. Just simply walk towards the Gjirokaster Castle to find your way!
This is the same place you’ll have to come to catch the Gjirokaster to Saranda bus heading back so make a note. Unfortunately for us, it was raining the entire walk up to Gjirokaster old town. The stones can be quite slippery so make sure you’re wearing shoes for inclement weather!
2. Quick History of Gjirokaster Albania
Civilization has been thriving for centuries in the space between the Gjere and Drino mountains. However, the first settlement recorded was by the eventual Byzantine Emperor John VI Kantakouzenos in 1336. As it fell into the hands of the Ottoman Empire shortly after, a city began to form with some of the fortifications you still see today in Gjirokaster old town.
The biggest example of the expanding city is the Gjirokaster Castle which hovers high over the stone houses. The period of turmoil with Ali Pasha Tepelena in power saw many influential changes that shaped the region, from Gjirokaster all the way to modern-day Greece.
The controversial ruler even formed an alliance with Napoleon and France in 1798 to solidify his defense! Over the last century, Gjirokaster has seen everything from the Italian invasion of WWII to the communist regime that took over until Albania’s independence in 1992.
3. Exploring Gjirokaster Old Town
Otherwise known as the Old Bazaar, this area of Gjirokaster features stone streets that are arranged in beautiful patterns. When we were there the old roads were being repaired so many of the streets were dug up. We have no idea if they will construct them in the same way or change up the street art, so you’ll have to let us know on your visit!
Even with the roads in disarray, it did not take away from the stores and market fronts of this special town. Gjirokaster old town is like taking a trip back in time with small cafes, local goods being sold, and amazing traditional restaurants.
The one thing that has changed is the shops and goods that used to be covered by tents have now moved into buildings. As you look around at the mountains and Gjirokaster Castle above, you can enjoy a part of Albania you won’t find at the beaches, coastline, or even by taking the Gjirokaster to Saranda bus to the city.
4. Trip to the Gjirokaster Castle
Like many cities and mountain villages throughout the Balkans, the most impressive feature of Gjirokaster Albania is its historic castle. Much like the ruins of Butrint, the walls of Gjirokaster Castle have seen many kingdoms, religions, and cultures pass through since it was built. Our room at Stone City Hostel had an amazing view of it, so when we finally made the climb it felt like something out of a storybook!
From the center of the Old Bazaar, it’s only about a 15-20 minute hike up, which feels short from how high and imposing the Gjirokaster Castle looks. The first thing you’ll notice upon entering the structure is that it also doubles as a museum and arms display of epic proportions.
Massive Soviet military weapons dominate the tunnels, along with Italian tanks, and even British cannons from Ali Pasha’s kingdom. However, the most striking Cold War relic for us was a US Fighter jet from 1957. The stories are much disputed of how the plane came to be in Albania, but it was interesting nevertheless!
Hopefully when we described the “storybook castle” you weren’t thinking something out of a classic fairytale… The large display of guns was not what we expected, but after learning more about Albanian history it was quite necessary. In any case, if this type of military or political stuff interests you, you can also check out the old Soviet tunnels of Gjirokaster Albania.
5. Traditional Gjirokaster Family Houses
Entrance Fee: 200 Lek
Time Needed: 20 Minutes
Location: Skenduli House
Before you catch the Gjirokaster to Saranda bus back, another must-see attraction is the old family homes. Dating back to the early days of the city, wealthy landowners built their houses high on the hills of Gjirokaster Albania.
It was a way to both show off their power as a family, and have an incredible view of the rich farming lands below. Fortunately, you are now able to take tours of these houses today.
We visited Skenduli House where the owner and his daughter give personal tours around the early 19th century home. We were amazed at not only the colors and detailed architecture of the house, but also the personal experience we felt from having an actual family member show us around.
In his best English, he explained the history of the family, house, rituals, and special Albanian customs. If you have the opportunity to visit Skenduli or one of the other traditional Albanian homes definitely do so!
6. Local Gjirokaster Albania Food
Ready for the best part of Gjirokaster Albania? The food in this mountain town was by far some of the most delicious we had on our entire travels through the country. The traditional Greek and Albanian dishes fuse together with old village spices to make for some very tasty meals! If you don’t have time to go out for a proper meal, stop and grab a spinach byrek at any local bakery.
With so many amazing places to see in Albania, some people make the mistake of visiting Gjirokaster for just one night. So if you only go to one place to eat in Gjirokaster make sure it’s Odaja!
The meals (yes we went back for our second night in town) here blew us away as every bite was better than the last. We recommend trying the meatballs, stuffed peppers, and baked cheese with sesame and honey.
More Gjirokaster Restaurants
- Check-In: Rooftop bar that is perfect to grab a drink or app while taking in the views.
- Taverna Kuka: Beautiful outdoor dining and classic local food.
- Hotel Bar Restaurant KODRA: Best view in town to grab a coffee or enjoy a meal.
Have any questions about Gjirokaster old town or want to share your own favorite things to do in Gjirokaster Albania? Leave us a comment below!
Brigitte & Jake
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Where To Stay In Gjirokaster Albania
Ultra Luxury – Kerculla Resort – Stunning views of the city from above. This Gjirokaster hotel has a swimming pool, lounge, and restaurant on property.
Fun Vacation – Old Bazaar 1790 – Beautiful historic house in a great location. Traditional Gjirokaster designs with modern amenities.
Hostel Life – Stone City Hostel – Our home in Gjirokaster! This hostel has a warm and cozy vibe just steps from the old bazaar. Great view from the deck outside, and a fun atmosphere with other travelers in the common areas.
For more awesome Gjirokaster hotels you can explore the latest prices here!
Albania Travel Planning
Tours: Check out Get Your Guide for hundreds of activities around the country. You can book a private hike through the Gamti Mountain, jump on a Tirana Walking Tour, or day trip to the beautiful village of Berat Albania.
Rental Car: We use Discover Cars to explore when traveling. Consider renting a car in one city and dropping it off in another for an epic road trip!
Travel Insurance: Never travel abroad without being covered! We’ve been using SafetyWing for the last few years on the road and they are there when we need them.
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