Things to do in Gjirokaster, Albania
Gjirokaster is one of the most memorable locations on your Albania itinerary. From the moment you arrive, the town manages to completely capture your imagination with its cobbled streets, Ottoman houses, and hilltop fortress.
Because of its well-preserved history, with layers of Greek, Albanian, and Ottoman remains, it’s been awarded UNESCO World Heritage status. There’s lots to see, so plan some time to explore all the different areas of this charming hilltop city.
Good to know: It’s sometimes said that Gjirokaster is the same as the other Albanian UNESCO town Berat, known as the ‘city of a thousand windows’. However, apart from their houses, they’re actually quite different from one another. Both have their charms, other things to do, and unique food scenes, so we recommend visiting both.
1. Visit the Gjirokaster Bazaar (Old Town)
One of the best things to do in Gjirokaster is to roam around the city’s bazaar. Located in the Old Town, this district of zig-zagging streets has been the center of commerce ever since the Ottoman era. Here, you can admire the architecture of the traditional buildings, do some great shopping, and really take in the city’s character. (Don’t forget to get some ice cream at Kodra Sweet hill)
The Bazaar was initially constructed in the 17th century but was completely rebuilt 200 years later following a fire. The twisting streets, decorated with beautiful limestone, are lined with cute cafes and small shops. From artisans selling herbal teas, olive oil, local honey, and raki to carpet shops, souvenirs, and even second-hand stores, you can do plenty of shopping in the bazaar.
2. Manalat Quarter
The Manalat Quarter in Gjirokaster has some of the most beautiful houses on its winding streets. This historic neighborhood is higher within the valley, making it a quieter and less touristy area than the Old Town. Apart from the area’s own beauty, it also offers some of the most breathtaking panoramic views of the castle and the stone mountains behind it. It’s a bit of a climb to get up to, but it’s the perfect spot to be at for sunset.
In 1811, the city of Gjirokaster fell into the hands of Ali Pasha, an Albanian ruler who served the Ottoman Empire. He was responsible for new fortifications in Gjirokaster, including the construction of a 12-kilometer aqueduct. Most of the stone aqueduct was pulled down in 1932. However, in the Manalat Quarter, a small section still stands, known as the Ali Pasha Bridge. You can visit this historic site that’s tucked in between the hills.
3. Gjirokaster Castle and Museum
Atop a hill, just around the corner of the Bazaar, is where you find the tall Gjirokaster Castle, overlooking the entire city and valley. This symbol of the city and the second largest castle in Albania is one of the best things to do in Gjirokaster. With beautiful stone arches, internal tombs, and an open yard with multiple cannons, there are numerous corners you’ll want to photograph.
Nowadays, you can see the most recent layers of 1500 years of history—much of which is still steeped in mystery. You can discover the known stories as you roam around the castle grounds. If you want a deeper explanation of the history, you can join a castle tour or otherwise visit the inner museums (for an additional 200 LEK). There’s a Gjirokaster Museum which dives into the city’s history. And there’s also an Arms Museum, which is all about the historic weaponry discovered on the grounds.
The historical site is quite large, consisting of a clock tower, a church, two museums, a captured United States Air Force plane, and much more. Expect to spend at least 2 – 3 hours walking around the site, soaking up the history and stunning views of the city. Up top, you can see the old and new town meet with the beautiful scenery surrounding the city.
4. Bazaar Mosque
Apart from the Gjirokaster Bazaar, you can find several other sights within the Old Town, including the Old Bazaar Mosque. This 17th-century mosque is the only remaining one of the 13 that were built during the Ottoman era. All the others were demolished by the communists in the 1960s. It’s thought that the reason the old mosque was spared was because of its status as a cultural monument.
Fun fact: Although it was spared from destruction by the communists in the 60s, the mosque was used as a training hall for circus acrobats until the late 90s.
Built as part of the Bazaar, the mosque is the only building that survived the fire in the 18th century, making it one of the oldest buildings in the city. The mosque is open daily and free of entrance for everyone.
5. Visit Gjirokaster’s Cold War Tunnel
Underneath Gjirokaster’s Old Town and Castle lies an underground bunker from Albania’s communist era that you can actually visit. This Cold War Tunnel (Museum) represents the paranoia of Albania’s communist dictator Enver Hoxha, as it served as an emergency shelter in case of a foreign invasion or nuclear attack. In secret, he built this 800-meter-long bunker with 59 rooms back in the 1970s. There’s a similar bunker you can visit in Tirana, Albania.
The entrance to the Tunnel is close to the municipality, and you can book a guided tour to see the interior. The tour takes about 20 minutes and is definitely one of the more unique things to do in Gjirokaster.
Opening hours: April – October (high season) 9 AM – 5:30 PM, November – March (low season) from 8 AM – 2 PM.
6. Get a Traditional Albanian Breakfast
Something you ought to try when you’re traveling through Albania is their delicious and diverse cuisine. They’ve got big lunches and incredible dinners, but it is really the breakfast that’s something to look forward to.
Every region in Albania has its own typical breakfast, but they’re all known to be generally light. Start your day in one of the cute cafes in town with some fresh bread, homemade jams, yogurt, some fruits, and a coffee. Lots of the fruit on the table here comes from the area, such as cherries, melons, and peaches. Sometimes there are also different baked goods and cheeses you can enjoy while the sun slowly rises above the mountain tops. Getting breakfast in town is definitely one of the best things to do in Gjirokaster.
7. Visit the Blue Eye
About half an hour away from the city lies a stunningly-blue natural water spring called the Blue Eye. This crystal-clear emerald pool is a great place to visit, as the numbingly cold water makes for a perfect summer dip. It says that you’re not allowed to swim here, but plenty of people do so (a guard was patrolling, and he only asked people not to jump in from the platform).
If you’d rather not go swimming, there are a few short walking trails in the area and a few little restaurants where you can get a refreshing drink. It’s a 30-minute drive, followed by a 15-minute walk from the parking lot to get to the Blue Eye.
Buses leave every hour from the bus stop in Gjirokaster towards Saranda, and one ticket costs about 300 LEK (2.55 USD). Make sure to tell the driver to drop you off at Syri I Kaltër (the Blue Eye). To get back to Gjirokaster or continue to Saranda, you can wave down a bus from the same road.
Please note: Albania has a big problem with trash. Try your best to leave the place better than you found it by picking up some plastic along the way.
8. UNESCO Old Town Houses
Many of the city’s traditional houses are considered cultural monuments and have UNESCO status. They’re rare examples of architectural styles typical of the Ottoman period, and the flat stone roofs are what gave Gjirokaster the nickname ‘the City of Stone’. These outstanding multiple-story houses date back to the 17th century and are one of the biggest draws to the city.
Pressed into the hills, rising above the bazaar, you can easily spot the iconic stone buildings with their white facades and wooden balconies. The city was home to some of the wealthiest families, with several of their houses still standing today. During the communist era, the houses were nationalized before later being returned to their rightful owners. Now, some descendants take care of the houses and welcome guests to tour the rooms. There are two worth visiting: the Zekate House and the Skenduli House.
The Zekate House
The Zekate House was built in the so-called ‘Kule’ style around 1811. Its majestic appearance is a symbol of the elite from that time and gives an understanding of both the architecture and lifestyle. The twin towers, three-story stone arches, and wooden carved ceilings make this Ottoman house a stunning picture. You can only imagine how the people used to live here as you walk through the 200-year-old rooms.
The Skenduli House
Another house open to the public is the Skenduli House. Here you have access to all the rooms, including a wedding room and a bunker! During the tour, you’ll get to learn about all the functions and unique features of this impressive building. Built in the early 1700s, it’s one of the best-preserved houses in the area.
Tours are generally available between 9 AM and 7 PM for both houses, but it could be that no one is home. It’s, therefore, best if you ask about it in advance.
Where to stay in Gjirokaster, Albania
Even though you can easily see lots of the highlights of Gjirokaster within a day, it’s definitely worth it to stay at least one or two nights. The little city is very relaxing and makes for a great place to unwind. Many stunning homestays and hotels in the Old Town offer you a glimpse into the beautiful architecture of UNESCO Gjirokaster. See all hotels in Gjirokaster.
Best Cafes and Restaurants in Gjirokaster
Gjirokaster has its own products and traditions when it comes to food. With a great selection of restaurants, most of which can be found around the Old Bazaar, there’s plenty for you to try. For example, there’s Gjirokaster’s interpretation of moussaka, or the city’s special called qifqi – a baked rice ball with egg, mint, and black pepper. From breakfast to dinner, Albania’s cuisine doesn’t disappoint. Some of our favorite restaurants in Gjirokaster were:
- Te Kubé
- Snack Bar Simple
- Tradicional Odaja
- Kujtim Restaurant
- Vojsava Restaurant
- Edua Gjirokaster
- Pizzeri Kashah
- Rrapi Restaurant
Traveling to Gjirokaster by Bus
From Tirana: At least 10 buses leave daily from Tirana’s southbound bus station between 5 AM and 8:30 PM. Tickets cost 1000 LEK (8.50 USD), and the journey takes about 6 – 7 hours, depending on the bus’s number of stops.
From Saranda: The direct bus to Gjirokaster leaves every hour from 5:30 AM to 3 PM from Saranda’s bus station. One ticket costs 300 LEK (2.55 USD), and the drive takes about 1 hour. Buses arrive at Gjirokaster Bus Station, which is at the foot of the hill. From there, you can either continue up on foot for 30 minutes or grab a 5-minute taxi to take you to the Old Town.
Alternatively, for ease, book an organized tour to Gjirokaster that includes transport and a guide.
Traveling to Gjirokaster by Car
If you want to explore at your own pace, the best way to do that is to rent a car in Albania. From driving over mountain roads near Theth to seeing the sun set in the Adriatic sea, driving a car allows you the freedom to make up your own itinerary without any set time schedules. If you’re traveling by car in Albania, try to follow the main roads as the smaller ones are often unpaved and can be difficult to drive on with a regular car.
Most of the city’s highlights can be found in the Old Town and are within walking distance from one another. Getting to and from the bus station at the bottom of the hill is about half an hour’s walk. If you’d rather not walk this distance, you can always grab a taxi to take you there instead. In case you’re driving through Albania, it’s best to park your car outside of the center (old bazaar) as it can get busy.
How Much Does Gjirokaster Cost?
Albania, in general, is super cheap! For example, you can get two main courses for two people and a salad for just 10 EUR (10.15 USD). Accommodations, from hostels to hotels, are also incredibly affordable and often offer a free breakfast. Note that the country is pretty much a cash-only country, so it’s best to always have enough cash with you.
Best Time to Visit Gjirokaster, Albania
Albania has very hot summers and mild winters, with more snow up in the mountainous regions. The best time to visit is between April and October when the weather is nice. In the summer, however, it can get very busy. Because of this, we recommend visiting in the shoulder seasons: May/June or September. This is the perfect time to enjoy warm days in the sun without crowds. The slightly cooler temperatures are also great for hiking in the mountains.
Tip: Gjirokaster is pretty quiet and inactive during the winter months, and snow can make walking through the cobblestone streets difficult. Many accommodations and restaurants also close down during this time, so it’s better to visit during the warmer days of the year.