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Welcome to Gjirokaster, also known as Albania’s stone city, a wonderful hidden gem filled with a rich history and stunning Ottoman-style architecture.
We recently spent a day exploring this enchanting city on our month-long Albania road trip. Our takeaway? It’s definitely worth a visit on your Albania itinerary, even just as a day trip.
In this guide, we’re sharing the top 12 things to do in Gjirokaster, from the majestic castle to the charming Old Bazaar and beautiful Ottoman houses.
Alongside these sights, we’ll provide our insider tips on the best places to eat and some of the coolest hotels to stay in all of Albania.
Plus, you’ll find a map that you can download to your phone, and other essential information to make your travel planning as seamless as possible.
Ready to explore Gjirokaster?
A brief history of Gjirokaster
The history of Gjirokaster stretches back to the 13th century, bearing witness to many cultural events and political shifts. Recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Gjirokaster’s stunning Ottoman architecture, cobblestoned streets, and gray slate roofs make it one of the most unique cities to visit in Albania.
The city is the birthplace of Enver Hoxha – the communist dictator of Albania for of 40 years. His childhood home, now the Ethnographic museum, provides a glimpse into traditional Albanian life, as well as the communist era’s impact on the region.
Gjirokaster is also home to the National Folklore Festival, a large event showcasing Albanian folk music, dance, and costumes.
This event celebrates the different regions and cultures of Albania and brings in performers from all over the country and even neighboring countries as well. The event takes place every 5 years – the most recent being in 2023.
Best Things to do in Gjirokaster
1. Explore Gjirokaster Castle
Dominating the skyline of the city is Gjirokaster Castle, one of the largest castles in the entire region. Inside of the castle grounds, you’ll find the Gjirokaster museum, remains of a U.S. Air Force plane from the Cold War, and amazing views of the Drinos Valley below.
Built in the 12th and 13th centuries, this impressive fortress has experienced everything from the Byzantine to Ottoman eras and even the communist era.
In the 20th century, from the 1930s during World War II to the communist regime led by Enver Hoxha, the castle was repurposed into a notorious prison – one of the most brutal prisons in the country.
During this time, the castle’s dungeons housed many political prisoners. The prison was closed in the 1960s and made into the Arms Museum.
You’ll also find the tomb of two important Bektashi figures from the 16th century here. Bektashi is an Islamic faith that is known to be more liberal and tolerant of other religions.
The tomb commemorates Baba Sulltan and Baba Kapllan from the 16th and 17th centuries. Unfortunately, the tomb was destroyed in the communist years but was eventually rebuilt.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history of the city, make sure to stop the Gjirokaster museum where you’ll find information about the region dating all the way back to pre-historic times.
We spent a little over an hour exploring the castle. You’ll find some of the best views of Gjirokaster and of the Drinos valley from here.
Practical info: Entrance tickets cost 400 LEK per person. The castle is from April to September 9:00AM – 7:00PM | October to March 9:00AM – 5:00PM
Book this affordable 3-hour Gjirokaster walking tour of the castle and other main sights with a local guide.
2. Enjoy the views at Gjirokaster Obelisk
The Gjirokaster Obelisk is perched on a hill overlooking the entire city and was built to celebrate the Albanian language. During the Ottoman era, there was a ban on speaking Albanian in schools.
The monument is located next to where the first school in Gjirokaster was built, which opened in 1908. It was the first school in the city where locals were finally allowed to learn and use the Albanian language.
Aside from this, the views from the Obelisk are spectacular. You can see everything from the Gjirokaster castle to the Bazaar Mosque and the beautiful cityscape.
3. Explore Gjirokaster Old Bazaar
Located in the historic center of Gjirokaster old town, the Old Bazaar is one of the top highlights of this beautiful city. Tracing its origins back to the 17th century, this bazaar was the epicenter of life and commerce during the Ottoman era.
Unfortunately, there was a devastating fire in the second half of the 19th century that wiped out a large part of the bazaar. It was rebuilt to look the same as before.
The Old Bazaar brings together local artisans where you’ll find a plethora of goods and crafts. Traditional rugs, slippers, table linens, wood crafts, and more are hung outside of the shops.
A word of advice – many rugs hanging outside the shops are actually factory made with cotton or synthetic yarn. Ask the shop owner if they have any handmade or vintage wool rugs inside of the shop if you want the “real stuff.”
Find the shop called “Artistic Handmade Mona” for traditional rugs that are handmade. These are more expensive than the factory made rugs; however, they are very affordable compared to any handmade rug you’ll find in Western Europe or the United States. It was very tempting to buy another suitcase and take home a bag full of rugs!
Walking through the bazaar feels as if you’re stepping back into history, and we just soaked it all in. The bazaar only spans a couple of blocks, so you don’t need much time to see it all.
Learn to make your own piece of art during this wood crafting experience with a local.
4. Check out the Ethnographic Museum
The Ethnographic Museum of Gjirokaster offers a window into Albanian life during the 19th and 20th centuries. The museum is housed in the building that was once the birthplace of Enver Hoxha, the communist leader of Albania.
Although, today, nothing remains of his family within the museum, nor is the museum about Hoxha’s life.
Instead, the museum is focused on showcasing a beautifully preserved example of 19th century Ottoman architecture.
The rooms are adorned with authentic furnishings and household items, as well as other cultural artifacts, like folk costumes.
Practical info: Tickets cost 500 LEK per person. The Ethnographic museum is open year-round from 9:00AM – 3:00PM. Hours may vary during high season and low season.
5. Visit the Skenduli House
The Skenduli house is one of the best examples of a typical 19th century Ottoman-style house in Gjirokaster and is a must visit!
The home was originally built in the early 18th century but what you see today is mainly from 1823. The Skenduli family was one of the wealthiest families in Gjirokaster, and the same family still owns the house to this day.
You might even be welcomed or shown around by a member of the family. Upon arrival, they’ll offer you the option to take either a guided tour or to visit on your own.
Inside of the house, you’ll discover a turkish bath, a wedding room, traditional fireplaces, beautiful wooden carved ceilings, and colorful textiles.
Visiting the traditional houses in Gjirokaster was the thing I was most looking forward to, and the Skenduli house exceeded all of my expectations. Out of all of the things to do in Gjirokaster, make sure to stop here to get a peek into an important architectural period in the history of Albania.
Practical info: Ticket prices for the house weren’t listed anywhere, but we paid 300 LEK per person for our tickets. The Skenduli house is open year-round from 9:00AM – 7:00PM. Hours may vary.
6. Admire the Zekate House
Another traditional building in Gjirokaster that we would highly recommend visiting is the Zekate house. It’s a bit of a hike to get here (a steep walk up cobbled streets); however, it’s worth it.
The home was built between 1811 and 1812 and features twin towers. It was a gift to the owner of the house, Beqir Zeko, from Ali Pasha, the Albanian ruler during the Ottoman era.
The most impressive room in the house is the ceremony room that features stunning murals of fruit and flower baskets on the walls. The wooden ceiling is engraved with beautiful craftsmanship and also painted.
Since the home is located up on the mountainside, the views from the balcony are amazing.
Out of all the traditional houses in Gjirokaster, we would suggest visiting the Zekate house and the Skenduli house.
Practical info: The entrance fee for the Zekate house is 250 LEK per person. The house is open daily from 9:00AM – 5:00PM. Hours may vary.
7. Visit Ismail Kadare’s House
Ismail Kadare is one of Albania’s most celebrated literary figures who was born in Gjirokaster. He is best known internationally as the author of The General of the Dead Army.
His home in Gjirokaster was transformed into this museum and opened to the public in 2018. Today, you can tour the home where he grew up and wrote some of his famous works.
Inside, you’ll learn about the history of the writer, explore some of his writings, and see some of the family’s belongings.
We visited this house not knowing much about Ismail Kadare; however, we thoroughly enjoyed learning about his fascinating past (he moved to France in the 90s to escape the Albanian government) and getting to experience his Albanian home.
Practical info: The entrance fee for Ismail Kadare’s house is 500 LEK per person. The home is open year-round from 9:00AM – 3:00PM. Hours may vary.
8. Walk through the Cold War Tunnel
During the communist era, Albania’s dictator leader Enver Hoxha, was paranoid about being invaded after breaking off from the Soviet Union in the early 1960s.
Because of this, he built thousands of bunkers all over Albania – some are small cement blocks that you’ll see everywhere around Albania and others are massive underground complexes.
The Cold War Tunnel was built in the 1970s as a secret shelter for important government officials in case of a nuclear attack. Inside, you’ll find an 800 meter tunnel that breaks off into 59 rooms.
Each of these rooms has a a specific function. You’ll find a kitchen, a decontamination room, sleep quarters, an air filtration room, and many more.
After the communist regime fell in 1990, many of the objects and furniture inside were stolen inside of the bunker. However, you’ll still find some remaining original objects inside.
The shelter obviously never had to be used, but it is still fascinating to wander through and experience. It does feel a bit eery and dark but still worth a visit in our opinion.
You must request a guided tour with one of the local guides at the Gjirokaster Tourist Information center. The bunker cannot be accessed without a guide.
Practical info: The price to visit the museum is 200 LEK per person. It’s open from April to October 9:00AM – 6:00PM | November to March 8:00AM – 2:00PM
9. Wander the streets of the Manalat Quarter
The Manalat Quarter is the steep and hilly part of the city that overlooks Gjirokaster castle. If you are hiking to Ali Pasha’s bridge, you’ll walk through this area.
Escape the busy center and explore the streets of this historic neighborhood. Make sure to enjoy the beautiful views overlooking the city.
If you’re in the mood for a bite to eat or need a rest from all of the uphill walking, try some local Albanian cuisine from Taverna Tradicionale in Manalat.
10. Hike to the Ali Pasha Bridge
Ali Pasha bridge is a 19th century stone bridge located in a gorge above the city. The bridge is actually a remnant of a once grand aqueduct that used to carry water from a spring 10km away.
Unfortunately, most of the aqueduct was dismantled in the 1930s, since the stones were used as building material in Gjirokaster.
One of the best things to do in Gjirokaster is to hike to the bridge from the city center. The hike to the bridge takes about 30-45minutes from Gjirokaster castle. You’ll follow the city roads until you reach a dirt path that will lead you up the gorge.
We suggest downloading the route on Maps.Me before heading out, or following Google Maps.
11. Go inside the Bazaar Mosque
The Bazaar Mosque is located in the heart of Gjirokaster, Albania. The mosque, dating back to the 17th century, is an important historical sight that showcases Islamic architecture during the Ottoman period.
If you’re interested in taking a peek inside, the mosque is open daily for visitors and it’s free to visit. We always find it fascinating to learn about other religions while traveling, and this is a great way to experience the Islamic culture in Albania.
Practical info: The mosque is free to visit. It is open from Monday to Friday 9:00AM – 4:30PM.
12. Taste the local Albanian cuisine
To our surprise, we loved the local food in Albania. We didn’t really know what to expect but it’s a mix of mediterranean food and hearty dishes.
From fresh salads to fried meatballs and other delicious foods, these are some of our recommendations for traditional dishes to try from Gjirokaster and the surrounding region.
- Qifqi: Unique to Gjirokaster, Qifqi are rice balls seasoned with mint, dill, and other herbs. They are fried and usually served as a starter or a side dish. We recommend ordering a yogurt sauce to dip them in!
- Pasha Qofte: This is a soup made with tender meatballs immersed in a creamy broth. It’s a perfect dish if you’re visiting on a cooler day.
- Shapkat: This is a savory pie made with cornmeal and layers of spinach. While we think it’s still worth trying, this wasn’t our favorite dish, as it’s a bit dense and dry.
- Japrak: This is a traditional dish that consists of grape leaves wrapped around a filling of minced meat, rice, and herbs. It’s slowly cooked to let the flavors soak in and come together.
- Tave Kosi: This typical Albanian dish is a hearty and savory casserole made from lamb and rice, baked with a layer of yogurt and eggs on top. It’s a bit tangy and rich at the same time and is definitely worth a try.
- Fergese: This is probably our favorite traditional dish in Albania. Made with a blend of peppers, tomatoes, onions, and cottage cheese, it is packed with flavor. We liked to eat this with some bread.
- Byrek: You can’t leave Albania without trying the most popular food in the country. Byrek is a savory, flaky pastry that’s made of filo dough and stuffed with a variety of cheese, spinach, or meats.
- Mountain tea: You’ll find this herbal hot drink all over Albania, and we ordered it with almost every meal. It’s made up of a variety of plants found on the hillside and made into a delicious tea.
Map of Things to do in Gjirokaster
To help you best navigate your way around, here is a map of all of the best things to do in Gjirokaster and restaurants listed in this itinerary.
To save the map to Google Maps on your phone or computer, click on the star next to the title. Once you do this, you’ll be able to find the map in your “saved maps” list on your phone.
To see a list of all the items on the map, click the box with arrow on the left. To enlarge the map, click the box on the right.
How Many Days to Spend in Gjirokaster, Albania?
To see everything on this list, you’ll need to spend at least 1.5 to 2 days in Gjirokaster, Albania.
However, we felt like one day in Gjirokaster is plenty of time to experience the highlights of this UNESCO city. We spent 24 hours in the city, and it was just the right amount of time.
One Day in Gjirokaster Itinerary
If you only have one day in Gjirokaster like we did, here’s our recommended itinerary.
- Enjoy the morning views from the Gjirokaster Obelisk
- Walk up to the Zekate House
- Visit the Skenduli House
- Wander around the Old Bazaar and visit the mosque
- Have lunch at Snack Bar Simple
- Hike up to Ali Pasha bridge
- Visit the castle
- Dinner at Vojsava Restaurant
If you have more time in your day, then the Cold War Tunnel museum can be added into your itinerary or a visit to Ismail Kadare’s house.
For those of you visiting on a day trip from Saranda or as a day stop on your road trip, then out of all the sights on this list, make sure to see the castle, the Skenduli house, and the Old Bazaar. In our opinion, those are the top 3 can’t-miss things to do in Gjirokaster.
How to get around Gjirokaster
Gjirokaster is a small town and everything is within walking distance. And by walking distance, we mean most of the sights are 5-15 minutes from each other.
The furthest activity on this list is Ali Pasha bridge, which is a 45-minute walk from the old town and castle. For this, we suggest bringing sturdy walking shoes, as the trail is a bit rough.
It’s important to note that many of the cobblestone streets are uneven, so you’ll also want to wear good walking shoes while visiting the old town center as well.
How to get to Gjirokaster
Gjirokaster can easily be reached by public bus or car. Of course, renting a car is the most convenient option; however, taking the bus is simple enough and affordable.
Traveling to Gjirokaster by Bus
When traveling by bus in Albania, make sure to bring cash to pay the bus driver directly. To check bus schedules online, we recommend going to the Gjirafa website where they list all of the bus routes and times.
Always make sure to double check the bus times locally (with your hotel or at the bus station) to ensure you have the most up-to-date schedule.
Saranda to Gjirokaster: Buses from Saranda leave the main bus station frequently between 5:30am to 11:00am. The journey takes 1 hour and costs around 300 LEK.
Tirana to Gjirokaster: There are a few direct buses that leave Tirana everyday from noon to 8:30pm. The bus ride takes 4 hours and costs around 1,200 LEK.
Berat to Gjirokaster: A couple of direct buses leave Berat around 1:15pm and 2:00pm. This route takes 3-4 hours.
If you want more options, there are a few indirect buses that depart throughout the morning and early afternoon. This takes 3.5 hours.
Tickets from Berat cost around 1,000 LEK.
How to get to the Old Town from Gjirokaster bus stop
The bus stop in Gjirokaster drops you off at the bottom of the hill in the newer part of town. You can find the approximate bus stop location on Google Maps here.
To get to the old town from here, you can either take a taxi or walk. The taxi should only cost a few dollars (200-500 LEK). Alternatively, the walk takes around 30 minutes, but it is uphill.
If you have a lot of luggage, we recommend taking a taxi.
Traveling to Gjirokaster by car
We drove to Gjirokaster from Saranda and the road was well paved and easy to drive. To our surprise, we thought driving in Albania was completely fine. We had heard “horror stories” from other bloggers, but the roads, especially down south, were uncrowded and well marked.
Parking in Gjirokaster was a bit of a challenge. Our hotel was located next to the Old Bazaar, so we had to park elsewhere around the city. We had planned on parking here but all of the spots were full.
If you are unlucky like we were, then plan to spend an extra 15 minutes driving around finding a spot. In the end, we found a good spot near our hotel. Most of the parking is street parking.
We recommend renting a car in Albania through Discover Cars. We rented our car here on our month-long road trip and it was very affordable!
Best Restaurants in Gjirokaster
Gjirokaster is one of the best places in Albania to try traditional Albanian cuisine. We always make sure to scope out the best spots for you and Gjirokaster did not disappoint.
Here are a few of our favorite local restaurants in Gjirokaster:
- Vojsava Restaurant – This place was recommended to us by the owner of our hotel and it was the best place we ate in the city. We suggest ordering a mix of their small plates to try a variety of dishes. Qifqi and Tave Kosi are a couple of dishes worth trying.
- Snack Bar Simple – Don’t let the name fool you. This little shop is owned by the most adorable local family and they serve delicious soups, salads, and other traditional dishes like stuffed peppers. Since we had been eating heavy Albanian food for a couple of weeks at this point, their salads really hit the spot for lunch.
- Te Kubé – This is a neat cafe that is located underneath the Bazaar Mosque. Grab a coffee or one of their fresh fruit juices – we tried the strawberry juice.
- Restaurant Tradicional Odaja – Another restaurant that was recommended to us but we didn’t have time to make it to is this one. They also serve all the classic dishes and it’s worth going to if Vojsava is full.
- Taverna Tradicionale KARDHASHI – This popular restaurant is located in the Manalat Quarter and serves everything from the traditional dishes to wonderful salads and more. It’s a perfect place to stop on your way to or from Ali Pasha bridge.
Where to stay in Gjirokaster
Gjirokaster has some of the coolest hotels in Albania. Many of them are located in the traditional buildings and are decorated in the Ottoman style. We had such a hard time choosing where to stay because there were so many to choose from!
Make sure to book a few months in advance in order to stay at the hotel of your choice. We booked our stay 2 months ahead of our trip and missed out on our top choice.
Here are our top picks for the best hotels in Gjirokaster:
- Our top pick: Boutique Hotel Musée | This is the most beautiful hotel in Gjirokaster. The rooms are decorated as a traditional Ottoman house. Try to book the deluxe suite.
- Where we stayed: Hotel SS Kekezi | Because our top pick was sold out, we ended up staying here, and we loved it! It’s located right off the Old Bazaar and the family who runs it is extremely helpful and kind. The breakfast is delicious, too!
- Budget-friendly pick: Hotel Kalemi 2: This hotel features beautiful wooden carved ceilings, lovely balcony views, and even has free private parking.
- Luxury hotel pick: Rose Garden Hotel | This hotel has wonderful views of the mountains, features a swimming pool, and has spacious rooms. There is also free private parking, which is a huge plus in Gjirokaster!
- Best for views: Hotel Kalemi | This hotel is located up on the hill near the Zekate house and has some of the most gorgeous views. There is a garden to eat breakfast and free private parking.
A little tip on booking hotels in Albania – make sure to double check if the property takes credit/debit cards. We had to pay for a few of our hotels in cash, and usually they either send a message or it’s noted on the hotel information page.
When is the Best Time to Visit Gjirokaster, Albania?
Based on our experience, the best time to visit Gjirokaster is in the spring or fall. We visited in mid-May, and while it was rainy, the temperature was perfect for walking around and the crowds were slim.
During the spring, you can expect temperatures between 60°F-75°F (15°C-24°C) and of course, some wet weather.
A visit during the fall means you have better chances at nicer weather, although the temperatures average about the same as the spring.
Gjirokaster is busiest during the months of June, July, and August, since this is the nicest time of year to visit. Prices are also more expensive for hotels at this time, although compared to the rest of Europe, they are still affordable.
If you visit during the summer, plan for crowds, which means packed buses and a harder time finding parking.
Spending more time in Albania?
We stopped in Gjirokaster for a night on our road trip from southern Albania to northern Albania. Our route took us from Ksamil to the Blue Eye to Gjirokaster and finally up to Berat before making our way up to Theth in the very north of the country.
We recommend these three spots as either a day trip from Gjirokaster or as the next stop on your road trip.
The Blue Eye, also known as Syri I Kalter, is located only 35km south of Gjirokaster. The drive takes around 50 minutes in total.
We stopped at the Blue Eye between our drive from Saranda to Gjirokaster and spent a couple of hours exploring this beautiful natural wonder.
So what is the Blue Eye exactly? It’s a natural spring that is known for its incredibly clear blue waters surrounded by stunning scenery. The spring itself is 50 meters deep, and when lit up by the sun, makes it look like a blue eye.
In our opinion, this is one of the best natural sights to visit in southern Albania.
Visit the Albanian Riviera
The Albanian riviera, a stunning stretch of coastline along the Ionian Sea, boasts pristine beaches, crystal-clear waters, and charming villages.
This picturesque region is a blend of natural Mediterranean landscapes and cultural richness making it a rapidly growing destination for travelers.
We spent two weeks exploring this part of southern Albania and fell in love with it. Key spots not to miss are Ksamil, just 68km south of Gjirokaster and an hour and twenty minutes by car.
Ksamil is renowned for its idyllic beaches and turquoise waters making it the perfect spot to relax and take it slow.
We recommend spending at least 5 days in this part of Albania.
Berat, also known as the city of a thousand windows, is the most unique and fascinating city in Albania. It’s located 2.5 hours north of Gjirokaster and is a great stopover on your way to Tirana, Shkoder, or Theth.
The city is famous for its picturesque collection of white Ottoman houses climbing up the hill to the Berat castle.
The castle is an ancient fotress that is still inhabited today. Many residents live within the castle walls, and you can even eat at a restaurant as well. The views from here are some of the best.
We spent three days in Berat, although, one day is enough time to see the main sights.
FAQ: Things to do in Gjirokaster
Is Gjirokaster safe to visit?
Yes, we felt completely safe traveling in Gjirokaster. In fact, we found the locals to be extremely warm and friendly. Although most people did not speak English, we found it was okay to communicate through gestures and smiles.
In our experience, Albanian people seemed intimidating at first, but once you start talking with them, they open up quickly. Remember to be patient and respectful, as it can take a minute to understand how to engage with a new culture.
Is Gjirokaster worth visiting?
Yes, Gjirokaster is definitely worth visiting at least for one day. From the historical sights to the food and the beautiful houses, it’s one of Europe’s best hidden gems.
What is better Berat or Gjirokaster?
To be honest, although both cities are known for their Ottoman-style architecture, they feel very different from each other. We recommend visiting both cities for one day each.
More information for your trip to Albania
- Things to do in Berat
- Things to do in Kruja
- Things to do in Theth
- Blue Eye in Theth
- Things to do in Durres
Albania Travel Planning Guide
Albania Travel Insurance – Should you get travel insurance for Albania? YES! We always get travel insurance before all of our trips for peace of mind. Check out Travel Insurance Master to find the best plan for you.
Albania Rental Cars – Is it safe to rent a car in Albania? Yes! We rented a car in Albania for one month and it is the best way to see the country. We rented our car through Discover Cars (our go-to rental agency), which helps you find the best rates no matter where you are traveling.
Albania Phone Plans – If your phone plan does not offer free coverage in Albania, then we suggest getting an eSIM. We used Airalo during our trip to Albania, and we had fantastic coverage the entire time. We even had to rely on it for data to get some work done, and it worked great!
Albania Hotels – Wondering where to book your accommodations for Albania? We booked all of our hotels through Booking. All of the hotels were responsive through the messaging tool, and there are endless options to choose from. Note – some hotels in Albania require you to pay in cash. Make sure to message the hotel in advance to be prepared with the correct form of payment.|
Drinking Water in Albania – Wondering if you can drink the tap water in Albania? We were advised to not drink the water by our hotels, so we ended up buying bottled water instead.