15 October 2018.
Looking for Albania’s prettiest Ottoman-era town? Gjirokaster is it! Perfect as a day trip from Saranda but with plenty to occupy those with more time to spare, these are the best things to do in Gjirokaster, as well as where to stay and eat.
Without fail, Gjirokaster creates a striking first impression among newcomers.
Hurtling through the sweeping plains of the Drino Valley, the ancient Ottoman city appears suddenly and unexpectedly, clattering up the steep slopes of the Gjerë Mountains high above the patchwork of verdant farmlands that paint this corner of Albania a vibrant, hazy green.
Standing guard across the valley, the imposing Gjirokastra Fortress dominates the skyline amidst a sea of slate grey rooftops that hide a veritable labyrinth of cobbled alleyways and hidden staircases simply made for wandering. A place to put away the map and get well and truly lost.
Lying just an hour away from Saranda, this enchanting UNESCO-listed old town – one of Albania’s most beautiful in my mind – makes an easy day trip, but if you’ve got the time, it’s definitely worth spending a night or two here to really explore.
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Towering over the old town and visible from just about any point in the city, the Gjirokastra Fortress should be the first stop on your itinerary.
With a strategic vantage point overlooking the valley, this sprawling fortification offers up fantastic views over the city and surrounding countryside and houses a pair of museums and the former prison. It’s easy to lose a few hours exploring.
Arrive early to beat the growing crowd of day-trippers and you’ll most likely have the place all to yourself. Entrance to the complex is 200 lek (€1.60) with an additional 200 lek for entry to the museums.
Amidst the delightfully charming maze of white-washed, tiny windowed, slate-roofed buildings that make up Gjirokaster’s old town, it’s not hard to get lost, wandering past pretty facades for hours on end, camera in hand.
The lovingly restored Skenduli House, however, is one of the old town’s most beautiful examples of Ottoman-era architecture and well worth a visit.
Though the property has changed hands over the years, the fall of Communism saw it returned to the original family and each visit now includes a brief tour by one of its members (price is 200 lek/€1.60).
The enormous house retains much of the original detailing in its woodwork and frescoes and the tour gives a fascinating look at day-to-day living, gender roles and the celebratory traditions during Ottoman times.
Zekate House is another great example of Ottoman architecture with beautiful rooms and city views.
Jutting out on a wide peninsular overlooking an ocean of green, the ancient Greek city of Antigonea is in a simply gorgeous location.
Dating back to the 3rd century, the city was surely built here for its strategic advantages, but you can’t help but think the spectacular views might also have had something to do with it.
Though the ruins themselves aren’t all that impressive, they certainly illustrate the sheer size of the empire that once ruled across this sweeping valley, and there are some interesting features, such as the intricate mosaic at the complex’s far end, the city walls and a well-preserved section of what is assumed to be the living quarters.
If you’re travelling by car, you’ll find a newly paved road winding up the hillside directly to the archaeological complex. Those without transport can organise a visit in town or arrive by local bus via Saraqinisht.
It’s easy to appreciate Gjirokastra’s charm from between its twisting old town streets or while leaning over the balcony of its impenetrable castle walls, but for the absolute best views in town, climb a little higher to survey the city in all its beauty from above.
Simply follow the street leading uphill from the castle and as it narrows into a series of rocky pathways veer a little to the left and you should eventually reach the old Historical Museum where you’ll find a great vantage point, especially at sunrise when light floods through the valley.
Hidden in the deeply chiselled slopes behind Gjirokastra lies the Ali Pasha bridge, a remnant of the once magnificent aqueduct system proposed by Ali Pasha himself.
While the oppressive July heat meant a steep sweaty hike just wasn’t on the cards for me, this little visited spot looks to be a great place to escape the city and get well and truly off Gjirokaster’s main tourist path.
From the main bazaar it’s a steep 45-minute walk uphill through the winding old town streets before you emerge onto a rough trail that heads directly up the valley. To return, there’s an alternate route that leads across the river a short way below the bridge and meanders downhill toward the southern edge of the old town.
While the hazy green hues of this mountainous region once represented something a little more sinister – neighbouring town Lazarat wasn’t called the cannabis capital of Europe for nothing – these days Gjirokastra’s vibrant green spaces are quickly becoming known for very different reasons.
Epic ridge hikes, turquoise plunge pools, historic landmarks and lush forested valleys. With such an incredible setting between the mountains, this region hides some of the best, untouched nature in Albania and is simply bursting with untapped potential.
Many hostels and tourist agencies in town can organise or recommend day trips depending on your interests.
Though it’s a bit of a challenging climb to get there – or a short taxi ride – it’s absolutely worth it to stay between the atmospheric walls of Gjirokastra’s old town, rather than in the newer part of town at the base of the hill.
Stone City Hostel | Run by the absolutely lovely Brenna and Walter, this award-winning hostel sits in the heart of Gjirokaster’s old town, has a wonderful home-away-from-home feel, incredibly comfortable beds, a fresh and delicious breakfast and a beautiful vine-covered outdoor area perfect for swapping stories over a cold Korce or two.
Fun weekly activities and outings are also organised for guests for free or very reasonable prices and come highly recommended.
Hotel Gjirokastra | For those whose budget can stretch a little further, Hotel Gjirokastra is a great option with bright airy rooms and a lovely outdoor terrace right near the castle.
Gjirokastra has a number of great restaurants tucked away between the winding streets, but most are concentrated around the old bazaar. The town’s speciality which you’ll find on almost every menu is qifqi, rice balls with a generous hit of fresh mint.
Odaja | Come for the pretty street views, stay for the fried cheese smothered in honey and sesame seeds. Odaja is a firm favourite in town with balcony vistas or an air-conditioned room perfect for escaping the summer heat. While I thought the traditional Albanian fare was done better elsewhere, I’d return for this cheese dish alone.
Kuka | Despite what some recent online reviews might suggest, this was one of my favourite restaurants in Gjirokastra. The view over the old town is lovely, and on the night I visited, service and food were both great. Grilled items are the speciality here.
Gjoka | A tiny streetside restaurant in the heart of the old town with very warm hosts and tasty homemade meals, Gjoka makes a great stop to watch the world go by and enjoy some decent food and famed Albanian hospitality.
Hotel Cajupi | I didn’t eat here, but the open air upstairs bar with simply beautiful views is the perfect place to finish the day with a sundowner. Take the elevator to the top, choose a seat by the window and enjoy a crisp glass of white as the valley and old town streets are washed with gold.
Gjirokastra lies along Albania’s main highway and generally you can jump on any bus running between Tirana and Saranda, provided they’re not taking the coastal route.
From Tirana | At the time of my visit there were six daily buses from Tirana to Gjirokastra departing at 11 a.m., 12, 13, 14:30, 18:30 and 20:30 p.m. from the South Bus Station near the eagle monument roundabout. A further nine buses bound for Saranda depart almost every hour starting from 5:30 a.m. The trip takes around 3 hours and costs 1,000 lek (€8).
From Saranda | Several daily buses run to Gjirokastra and onwards to Tirana though most leave before midday. The trip takes a little over an hour and costs 400 lek (€3.20). All buses will drop you on the highway from where it’s a steep 30-minute walk to the old town or a 5-minute taxi ride.
To Get Away | To leave the city, most buses depart on schedule from the Kastrati Petrol Station on the main road or you might need to flag down a passing bus on the opposite side that originated elsewhere. Plenty of buses run to Tirana and Saranda while there is also a daily service to Berat, Korce, Durres and Vlora, and a handful to Permet. Some services may not run on Sunday.