Located in Southern Albania, 3.5 hours south of Tirana, Gjirokaster is a well-preserved Ottoman town founded in the early 13th-century. Its old town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2005, boasting stoned streets, homes (Gjirokaster is also known as “The City of Stone”), and an impressive castle complex (the second largest in the Balkans). If you find yourself traveling through Albania, it would be a shame to skip Gjirokaster. Although it’s quite small, there are many fun things to do in Gjirokaster and incredible restaurants to eat at.
Before reading further, make sure to check out The Ultimate Albania Travel Guide if you plan to visit Albania!
The Best Things to Do in Gjirokaster
For such a small town (5.25 km²), Gjirokaster packs quite the punch. There are many historical sites to see and history to be learned. Plus, if you have the time, there are also fun day trips to take from Gjirokaster. As I mentioned earlier, if you’re visiting Albania, you’ll want to make sure to add Gjirokaster to your list. It was, after all, one of my favorite towns in all of the country.
Learn About Traditional Albanian History at the Skenduli House
My favorite thing that I did in Gjirokaster was paying a visit to the Skenduli House. The Skenduli House is an old Ottoman-style house that has now been converted into a museum. It was built in 1823 and is one of the best-preserved houses in all of Gjirokaster. The best part about visiting the Skenduli House is a man and woman show you around, explaining each room in depth. You’ll learn about Albanian traditions, what it was like to live as a man versus a woman in Albania in the 1800s, and more. The cost of entrance is 200 Lek and must be paid in cash. You should plan to spend about 30-minutes visiting this house.
Visit the Gjirokaster Castle/Fortress
The Gjirokaster Castle is the second largest castle in the Balkans (behind Krujë Castle). It’s made up of two museums, a prison, an old clock tower, a festival stage, and more. I suggest visiting the castle in the evening (closer to sunset) when it’s a little bit cooler. The cost of entrance is 400 Lek, and if you want to access the museums and prison it’s an extra 200 Lek. I highly recommend going into the museums/prison as a majority of the castle’s history (and Albanian history) can be found there.
Tour the Cold War Tunnels
Gjirokaster is home to a complex array of tunnels under the old city. This is because Enver Hoxha, Albania’s ruler during communism, was a paranoid man prepared for a nuclear attack at any time. (He built over 750,000 underground bunkers that were never used). Enver Hoxha was born in Gjirokaster so when he took office, along with building the bunkers, he created an underground tunnel in Gjirokaster where he could escape in case of attack.
The tunnels were never used but remain intact today. You can take a tour of the tunnels for 200 Lek.
Qifqi is Alabanian rice balls that are the local food in Gjirokaster. The rice balls are seasoned with herbs, bound by egg, and fried. You can find qifqi at almost any restaurant in Gjirokaster.
Visit the Zekate House for Views of Gjirokaster
While I enjoyed my visit to the Zekate House, another well-preserved, Ottoman-style house… I would only do this if you have the time and wouldn’t rush to do so. The house is similar to the Skenduli House, but there isn’t anyone to take you around and explain the rooms. I enjoyed the Zekate House for the views over Gjirokaster and the castle, otherwise, I didn’t get much out of it. The cost of entrance is 200 Lek.
Logistics of Visiting Gjirokaster
How Much Time Do You Need in Gjirokaster?
If you plan to just see the old town of Gjirokaster (and not the surrounding area), I recommend spending one night. You can get through pretty much everything in a few hours and still have time to eat out and relax.
I stayed in Gjirokaster for two nights and it was perfect for someone who prefers to travel slowly. I spent the first day seeing the entire city and the second day bouncing around the restaurant scene. (My favorite restaurant that I visited was Check-In. Their moussaka was to die for!).
If you want to take any day trips, I highly recommend staying in Gjirokaster for two nights.
How to Get to/from Gjirokaster
Getting around Albania is quite difficult and buses tend to run on their own schedules. Your best bet is to ask a local or your hotel concierge how to navigate the buses for the day.
If you’re visiting Gjirokaster, chances are you’re coming from Saranda, Tirana, or Berat. I took the bus from Saranda to Gjirokaster and it took about two hours. The cost of the bus was 300 Lek. From Saranda, you’ll walk down to the main park where you’ll see tons of buses/vans/people waiting around. The bus should then drop you off before old town, where you’ll need to walk uphill to reach your final destination or get a taxi.
To catch a bus from Gjirokaster to another destination you’ll catch a bus across from the gas station (Kastrati) at the bottom of the hill from the old town. If you’re going to Tirana the bus costs 1000 Lek and will take around 3-4 hours. You’ll need to buy a ticket (you don’t need to do this ahead of time) at the bus station called “Agjensia Argjiro”. At the time of writing, the buses leave at 0500, 0600, 0700, 0800, 0900, 1000, and 1530; but again, double-check with a local to make sure the schedule hasn’t changed.
Where to Stay in Gjirokaster
There are tons of accommodations in Gjirokaster – hotels, Airbnbs, and hostels. I stayed at Stone City Hostel, and can’t recommend it enough. While I don’t generally choose hostels, I honestly liked this accommodation more than some hotels I’ve stayed in. If you plan to visit Gjirokaster in the summer, make sure to make a reservation for Stone City ahead of time.
Albania is an incredibly diverse, fun, and historic country. If you get the chance to visit, don’t miss a stop in this city. With so many things to do in Gjirokaster, you’ll easily be able to fill your day with adventure and lessons on Albania’s history.
For a more visual look at Berat and more recommendations on things to see and do, make sure to check out my Instagram page/highlight reel by searching “#ppinalbania” or under the highlights “Albania” and “Albania 2”