Visiting the Ruins of Apollonia

Last Updated on: 13th April 2022, 01:02 am

Apollonia, located near the modern city of Fier, is one of Albania’s most prominent archaeological sites. It was once a thriving port and renowned center of learning, with Emperor Octavian himself having studied here. While the city had as many as 60,000 inhabitants at its peak, only a small percentage of the vast Apollonia ruins has been excavated thus far. 

Keep reading to learn more about what to expect from touring the Apollonia ruins. Down below, you can also learn more about the tricky transport situation required to get there.

But first, a bit of history: Around the 7th century BC, the Illyrians who controlled these lands invited some Corinthians to settle in the area and set up a trading port. While the area is dry today, Apollonia was once situated along the Vjosë River, giving the city easy access to the Adriatic Sea.

Named after the god Apollo, Apollonia is just one of 27 Mediterranean cities with the same name! But this was the most prominent of them all.

Taken over by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, the city later became a protectorate of Rome. During the civil war between Julius Caesar and Pompey (49-45 BC), Apollonia sided with Caesar, the ultimate victor.

And during his rule as dictator, his grandnephew and heir Octavian Augustus was studying oratory in Apollonia, one of the Greco-Roman world’s great centers of learning. 

Augustus would go on to become the very first Roman emperor. And with fond memories of the city, he exempted it from all taxes during his reign.

Apollonia’s unfortunate downfall came at the hands of a major earthquake in the 3rd century AD. While the damaged buildings could be repaired, the disaster diverted the course of the Vjosë River, taking away Apollonia’s access to the sea.

Apollonia Albania

Exploring the Apollonia Ruins

A visit to the Apollonia ruins begins with what archaeologists call the Monumental Center area. And the most prominent structure here, and in all of Apollonia, is the Bouleuterion. 

The building functioned as a council house or assembly hall where city officials would have their meetings. As such, it once contained sets of bleachers, but only its front facade remains.

Apollonia Ruins Albania

The Bouleuterion was constructed in the 2nd century AD. It’s also known as the Monument of Agonothetes, in honor of magistrates responsible for the organization of holidays.

The surviving facade consists of four Corinthian columns supporting a pediment. Unfortunately, the structure was recently vandalized during the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020.

During a time when Apollonia was completely unstaffed, an unknown person broke in and knocked down one of the columns. Shattered to pieces, the bottom portion of the column has since been replaced with a plaster part.

Apollonia Ruins Albania
Apollonia Ruins Albania

Just next to the main structure were a set of five additional rooms, one of which was an Ionic temple. Things like a podium, narthex and altars for the cult images have been discovered. But there’s no official word on which deities were worshipped here.

Nearly a dozen Roman-era statues of judges were found nearby, however, indicating the presence of a Prytaneum, or seat of local government.

Apollonia Albania
The foundations of the ionic temple

In front of the Bouleuterion are the remains of four brick pillars of the former Triumphal Arch. While difficult to picture today, it probably once reached up to 10 m in height and was 14 m long.

And east of the Bouleuterion are the remains of a library. This surely would’ve been an important building in the city, given Apollonia’s reputation as a major center of scholarship.

Apollonia Ruins Albania

Other than the Bouleuterion itself, the best-preserved structure in the city center is the Odeon, which sits directly across from it. The structure, which could seat around 300 people, once hosted both meetings and musical performances.

It’s also possible that some school lessons took place here as well, with future emperor Augustus himself having sat in some of the seats.

Built in the 2nd century AD, it remains in good condition today – perhaps a little too good . . .

Apollonia Ruins Albania

Upon my arrival, a local school was using the Odeon for some kind of school talent show. While hosting a modern event in an ancient structure is certainly a cool concept, the school went as far as setting up a big sound system. 

And for over an hour, the ordinary visitors to the ruins were bombarded with loud, thumping bass which was clearly audible throughout the entire site! To make matters worse, some of the Albanian pop songs were looped 4-5 times in a row.

I happened to visit on a Friday but have no idea if this is a regular occurrence or not.

Apollonia Ruins Albania

Next to the Odeon are the remains of a small sanctuary, possibly dedicated to the Roman Imperial cult. And on the other side, at the base of the Acropolis, you’ll find the Temenos, or sacred precinct.

Apollonia Ruins Albania

Once entirely surrounded by a wall, only the southern portion survives. The oldest sections were built as early as the 5th century BC, while the arched gateway was constructed a few centuries later.

Nearby is a cylindrical obelisk, a symbol of Agyieus, an epithet of the city’s patron god, Apollo. In ancient times, Agyieus was revered as the protector of roads and public spaces. 

Unlike other Greek gods, Agyieus was never depicted in human-like form, but only by a pillar. This suggests that the Agyieus tradition is rooted in an older, possibly Eastern tradition.

Apollonia Ruins Albania

The top of the Acropolis lacks any cultural relics and is now only home to a modern restaurant. It did, however, once contain a shrine, which was linked to the northern part of the city via a sacred processional road.

The top of the Acropolis offers the very best views of the Apollonia ruins, allowing one to see both the Bouleuterion and the church/museum at the same time.

Apollonia Ruins Albania
Apollonia Ruins Albania

Back over on the opposite side of the Odeon, the promenade known as Stoa B is one of the Apollonia ruins’ oldest constructions. First built in the 4th century BC, it featured three dozen doric columns separating the two lanes.

Built in the Ionic order, the two-story stoa on either side once featured various statues in its niches, some of which can be found at the on-site museum or in Tirana.

Walking along the promenade, you’ll arrive at the northern part of the city, of which little remains.

Apollonia Ruins Albania
Apollonia Ruins Albania

The area was once home to things like a storehouse and cistern. Also around here is what archaeologists simply call ‘Building With Mosaics,’ which may have been a gathering spot for believers before walking down the sacred processional road.

As mentioned above, this road led through to a shrine at the top of the Acropolis.

Apollonia Ruins Albania
Apollonia Ruins Albania

Nearby is the North Agora, which is little more than a grassy field. From here, the tricky part is getting to the next two landmarks – the theater and the Nymphaeum. 

You’ll find a sign pointing you in the direction of the theater, but walking along the path, it’s far from obvious where to go.

To get there, head north along the grass until you reach a path. If you make a left turn and walk a little for a bit, you’ll reach the top of the theater. Confusingly, however, there’s a sign mentioning the Nymphaeum nearby the theater, while no additional signs point out the theater itself.

Apollonia Albania

To get to the theater, you’ll have to walk down the steep hill. And there’s not a whole lot left of it, other than some interesting carved stones laid out in front. Be careful not to step on the tortoises, as there are tons of them around here!

Apollonia Albania
Old stones in by the theater
Apollonia Albania
An ancient road across from the theater
Apollonia Albania
The Nymphaeum

As for the Nymphaeum, that’s in a whole different location. After walking around the Apollonia ruins outskirts and not finding it, I later returned to the ticket gate to ask the staff member. She told me to walk straight down a particular path for a kilometer or so, but I ended up back at the hill above the theater with no other ruins in sight.

I ultimately called off the search in order to make my bus in time. But during my walk to the Pojan bus stop, I looked over in the distance and saw that the Nymphaeum is indeed situated along the hill, quite a distance from the rest of the site. A few additional signs would’ve been a big help!

The Apollonia Museum

At some point before or after your tour around the ruins, don’t miss the museum, situated within a well-preserved Byzantine monastery. The main structure is the Saint Mary Church, which dates back to the 11th century (or 13th, according to other sources).

While it still looks great, it’s unsettling to learn that most of its stone was usurped from the nearby ruins, causing irreparable damage to the archaeological site.

Apollonia Museum

Stepping inside, the church’s nave still maintains its original appearance, complete with painted frescoes. And elsewhere around the monastery complex is a well-preserved belfry in addition to a refectory. 

Apollonia Museum
Apollonia Museum
Apollonia Museum

Interestingly, within the refectory, archaeologists discovered the ruins of an even more ancient 4th-century church. The rest of the monastery complex, meanwhile, houses various artifacts and sculptures from Apollonia’s pre-Christian era.

Apollonia Museum

Some of the highlights include lion sculptures once placed in front of a tomb and sculptures of various locals, some of which were also discovered at tombs. Numerous smaller pieces commemorating the Greek pantheon can be found along the hallways as well.

Disappointingly, most of the sculptures on display here are headless, with the most impressive pieces being kept in Tirana (more below).

Apollonia Museum
Apollonia Museum

Be sure to walk up to the second floor to see a large collection of smaller artifacts. Highlights include portraits of various local nobles as well as Roman emperors. There’s also an interesting hunting relief from the Hellenistic era and a bronze urn, among other objects.

More Apollonia Artifacts in Tirana

To really get the full picture of Apollonia’s artistic legacy, one has to visit the museums of Tirana. At the National History Museum, you can find things like a three-storied grave stele from the 3rd century BC, a relief of a banquet scene, a bust of a local man, and a well-preserved statue of a magistrate from the Roman era.

National History Museum Apollonia
National History Museum Apollonia

Also within the city, be sure to check out the National Archaeological Museum (if it’s open – it may be closed for renovations). Here you’ll find more busts of Apollonia locals, portraits of Roman emperors like Hadrian, and a full-sized statue of a local man in excellent condition.

National History Museum Apollonia
National Archaeological Museum Apollonia
National Archaeological Museum Apollonia
National Archaeological Museum Apollonia
National Archaeological Museum Apollonia

Additional Info

Apollonia is hyped up as one of Albania’s premier archaeological sites. And while it is indeed historically significant, Butrint, the country’s other famous ancient city, is by far the more impressive of the two.

To be frank, not only was Apollonia less impressive than Butrint, but it was less remarkable than many of the small and obscure Greco-Roman cities I’d visited in Turkey.

With that being said, ruins fans who are visiting either Berat or Vlorë should consider making a stop here during their journeys.

Like many places in Albania, Apollonia is a lot harder to reach than it should be, despite being so close to the city of Fier. Most of the transport information online (and even in the town itself!) is already out of date. But read below for tips on getting there if you don’t have your own car.

Apollonia is situated in the small town of Pojan, about 25 km from the city of Fier.

There used to be hourly buses from Fier to Pojan which departed from the main road, Rruga Jani Bakalli. While the buses still exist, they’re no longer hourly, nor do they all leave at half past the hour like they used to. Be that as it may, at the time of writing, the sign by the bus stop in Fier still displays the outdated timetable!

The new timetable is apparently being kept secret. Therefore, it’s best not to waste your time and just hire a taxi immediately upon arriving in Fier. And it’s better to hail a driver from the road than from the group of taxi drivers hanging out by the nearby park.

My driver quoted me 800 lek. He actually had the meter on, and by the time we got there, it’d already gotten up to 1100 lek. But he was kind enough to honor our agreement. I’ve read online about people getting a taxi for as cheap as 500 lek, but I can’t see a driver agreeing to that price anymore.

Upon purchasing your ticket to the Apollonia ruins, confirm the schedule for the return buses from Pojan to Fier. At the time of my visit (summer 2021), the woman at the ticket gate told me that buses left at 13:00, 14:30 and 16:00. But who knows, the schedule may have changed again by now!

As for getting to Fier, you can find direct buses from both Berat and Vlorë, and probably Tirana as well. For those traveling from Berat onward to Vlorë, you can visit Apollonia along the way.

Unfortunately, however, there are no buses departing in the afternoon, despite Vlorë being Albania’s third-largest city and only 20-30 minutes away. The only option is taking a shared taxi. You’ll find one by the large roundabout marked on Maps.me.

They only need three or four passengers before they start going, but you may have to wait up to an hour for enough people to show up.

And if you’re headed elsewhere? Frustratingly, there is no reliable source for this type of information. Frankly speaking, Albania’s transport system is among the most stressful and disorganized I’ve ever dealt with. 

While many people online recommend the website Gjirafa.com, I’ve found it to be completely wrong at times. It’s best to message the hotel owner of wherever you’re headed next, and hopefully they can tell you.

I stayed in Villa 97 in the heart of the Mangalemi district. The location was perfect, with all of the landmarks in Berat within easy walking distance. This is a budget hotel featuring two guest rooms with one common bathroom and a shared kitchen.

Given Berat’s size, you really can’t go wrong with location as long as you’re relatively central. But staying in one of the hotels inside Berat Castle would probably get tiring.



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