Gjirokastër is arguably Albania’s most magical town. While Greco-Roman cities had long flourished at the valley floor, the hillside city we see today was largely established during the Ottoman era. Thanks to its hundreds of traditional houses and its massive fortress, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2005. In the following Gjirokastër guide, we’ll cover the top things to see and do around town.
Staying at least two full days in Gjirokastër would be ideal. This would allow you enough time to see all the landmarks below, in addition to some aimless wandering. You can also add an extra day to visit the nearby archaeological sites of Antigonea and Hadrianopolis, which you can learn more about here.
For more information on accommodation and transport, be sure to check the very end of the article.
Gjirokastër Bazaar & Surroundings
As you seek out Gjirokastër’s landmarks, you’ll inevitably make numerous trips through the bazaar. Gjirokastër, in fact, has long been famous for its artisans and craftsmen specializing in wood, stone and leather goods. The tradition lives on today, with local craftspeople selling their wares here – but mainly to tourists.
As touristy as they are, the pedestrian-only streets with their well-preserved traditional buildings remain one of the town’s top highlights.
While exploring the bazaar, be sure to seek out the Obelisk. While the Obelisk, which is adorned with carvings of historical events, was added in 2002, it stands in from of a late 19th-century school.
The main reason to come here, though, is for the views. Gjirokastër contains plenty of scenic vantage points, but this is a unique spot that makes you feel like you’re in the center of everything. You can also get a clear view of the Bazaar Mosque nearby.
Despite its central location near the bazaar, the Obelisk is tricky to find. You’ll have to walk through an unmarked staircase that appears as if it’s part of someone’s property. Be sure to check the Maps.me app for the exact location.
Gjirokastër Castle, the centerpiece of the city, is Albania’s most impressive fortress and one of the largest castles in the Balkans. And its history is synonymous with that of Gjirokastër itself.
The hill on which it stands has been inhabited since at least the 4th century BC. But as nearby Antigonea and Hadrianopolis were the prominent cities during the Greco-Roman era, the hill was never especially important until the Middle Ages.
Little is known about Gjirokastër’s history during the Byzantine period that lasted for around 1,000 years from the 4th century AD. We do know, however, that a major fortress has stood here since at least the 12th century.
The fortress later acted as the seat of local feudal lords, the Zenebeshi family, from the 14th-15th centuries.
Later in 1420, the mighty Ottoman Empire managed to take the castle from the Zenebeshis – but not without a fight. After finally capturing it, the Ottomans then managed to hold onto it for the next several centuries. But things were far from peaceful in Ottoman times, and uprisings were commonplace.
Nevertheless, Gjirokastër would prosper under Ottoman rule. Its population grew rapidly, with the town expanding well beyond the fortress walls.
In the 19th century, the castle was greatly expanded by Ottoman Albanian governor Ali Pasha, who added the clock tower and an aqueduct (see more below).
In Ali Pasha’s time, the fortress could house as many as 5,000 soldiers and it was equipped with dozens of artillery pieces. Many of them were donated by Britain, who sought Ali Pasha’s allegiance during their struggles against France in the Napoleonic Wars.
Outside, after appreciating the excellent views of the town down below, you’ll encounter a large wartime relic. It’s not from the Ottoman era, however, but from the 20th-century Cold War.
The American aircraft, a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star, landed near Tirana in 1957. For whatever reason, it was later brought to Gjirokastër Castle in the 1970s. According to the Albanian government, it was a spy plane that they intercepted.
The Americans, on the other hand, claimed that the pilot merely got lost in the fog and had to make an emergency landing in Albania.
The castle is full of all sorts of chambers and tunnels. Some of them are accessible to visitors, such as an Ottoman-era prison. In the 19th century, a teacher named Koto Hoxhi was imprisoned here for teaching children in the Albanian language – an illegal act at the time.
As we’ll cover shortly, the castle continued to be used as a prison up until World War II.
Moving along, you’ll pass through a field which functioned as a thriving village during Ottoman times. Today it hosts a stage for the National Folk Festival which takes place every few years.
At the edge of the castle is the clock tower. Visible from all over town, it was added during the reign of Ali Pasha.
Overlooking the steep cliff, visitors can contemplate the city’s mysterious name. Gjirokastër is believed to have been named after legendary Princess Argjiro, who chose to jump from the fortress with her baby in hand rather than submit to the Ottomans.
The baby somehow managed to survive, and according to the legend, milk flowed from the rocks where Argjiro fell to provide the baby nourishment.
Walking back, there’s also an upper terrace that you can explore. While there are no particular landmarks to seek out, it further reveals how massive and dense this fortress would’ve been several hundred years ago.
Returning to the main castle area, you’ll pass by a series of vaulted spaces that functioned as Gjirokastër’s original bazaar.
Also within the castle are three museums, all accessible with the same ticket. Even if you’ve paid the 400 lek to visit the fortress, the museums cost an additional 200 lek, though few visitors regret paying.
The main museum is simply called the Gjirokastër Museum, and it details the history of the castle and the town itself. You’ll learn about the area’s early history, the personality of Ali Pasha and Gjirokastër’s most famous families.
There’s not much here in the way of artifacts, but the English information is engaging and well-written.
On the upper level, you’ll find the National Armaments Museum. It features a huge collection of various guns, but all of the information here is in Albanian. It’s also quite shabby and out-of-date compared to the museum below.
You’ll then be led directly to the former World War II-era prisons. This section is also void of English information, but it’s fascinating to walk through.
If you enjoyed Tirana’s BunkArt or Gjirokastër’s own Cold War Tunnel (more below), these prisons capture the same eerie vibe.
But that’s not all. On the other side of the castle, you can even find a small Bektashi shrine.
Even having explored all that tourists are allowed to see, it’s clear that Gjirokastër Castle still hides many more secrets.
Gjirokastër's Historic Houses
As many as 600 traditional houses survive today in Gjirokastër, many of which were fortified. The town was ruled by numerous feudal families throughout Ottoman rule, and they often feuded against one another.
Like Gjirokastër Castle itself, many of the houses were designed to withstand long sieges during conflicts between local clans. Two of them have been converted to museums and are well worth checking out during your visit.
The Skenduli House was established by Skender Skenduli, an Ottoman administrator who moved to Gjirokastër in the late 18th century. The Skenduli family owned vast amounts of land on the valley floor in addition to multiple shops in the bazaar where they sold imported goods.
Today, the museum costs 200 lek to enter which includes a free guided tour in English. As the rooms lack any informational signage, opting for the guide is definitely a good choice.
Some of the most interesting features of the house can be found on the bottom floor. In a country known for its thousands of bunkers, the Skenduli House contains what’s possibly Albania’s very first!
While people in the 18th century didn’t have to worry about biological warfare or aerial bombings, cannon fire was a real threat. And this small little bunker could fit dozens of people huddled together for several hours.
The Skenduli family was prepared for just about everything. They also installed a system to collect and store rainwater, allowing them to withstand Gjirokastër’s long, dry summers – not to mention potential sieges. The ground floor is home to the house’s only tap, while nearby is the former storage room.
The upper stories, meanwhile, contain numerous bedrooms, living rooms and a Turkish-style bath.
During my visit, the guide explained the strict social customs in 18th-century Gjirokastër which determined who could sit where, and how certain people should behave.
The most impressive room in the house is the only one where photography is not allowed. It’s a large room in which wedding ceremonies took place, and it features stained glass windows and painted walls. Pomegranates, a symbol of fertility and abundance, appear frequently in the artwork.
(Fortunately, you can see a similar room at the Zekate House where photos are indeed allowed.)
Another highlight of the Skenduli House is the excellent views from the terrace.
The last inhabitant of the house, Nesip Skenduli, was forced to leave in 1981 by the Communist government who wanted to convert it into a museum. While the house was eventually returned to the family in 1993, it’s remained a museum ever since.
The Zekate House was constructed in 1812 by Beqir Zeko, one of Ali Pasha’s generals and administrators. While the family prospered for decades as one of Gjirokastër’s wealthiest, it was in the late 1800s that their maid colluded with a gang of thieves to ransack most of the their wealth!
She would eventually be murdered – not by the Zeko family, but by the thieves themselves.
The four-story house shares a similar layout to the Skenduli House. You’ll find plenty of living rooms and bedrooms, while the Zeko family also implemented the same type of rainwater collection system.
You’ll also find similar squat toilets and a Turkish bath. The Zekate House, like the Skenduli House, features many chimneys, which was a sign of wealth and status in those times.
The highlight of the house is the large banquet room which retains much of its vivid paintings, though some were recently restored. In addition to the colorful windows, also be sure to look up to admire the beautifully carved ceiling.
As with the Skenduli House, Albania’s Communist government also seized this building to transform it into a museum. It too was later returned to the family in the 1990s and the Zekos continue to live next door to this day.
Unlike the Skenduli house, there’s no guide here to explain things. That’s why it’s ideal to visit the Skenduli house first, as the layouts of the two houses are quite similar.
Other Historic Houses
While the Skenduli and Zekate houses were the only accessible houses at the time of my visit, there should be more to see in the near future.
Just nearby the Skenduli House is the Ethnographic Museum, built on the site of the family home of Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. During the summer of 2021, it was closed for renovations.
Another former famous resident of Gjirokastër is internationally renowned novelist Ismail Kadare. A reconstruction of his family home is currently in the works.
Though never accessible to the public, try seeking out the Fico House. Built in the late 18th century, it’s one of the only yellow houses in Gjirokastër. Members of the Fico family worked as doctors and engineers, while Raul Fico became Interior Minister of newly-independent Albania in 1912.
The Cold War Tunnel
Fans of Tirana’s BunkArt shouldn’t miss the Cold War Tunnel, built during the same era and for the same reasons (learn more in our guide to Tirana).
The extensive tunnel was constructed directly beneath Gjirokastër Castle, with locals were none the wiser about its existence until after the fall of communism.
The tunnel features eighty rooms in total, most of which have been left empty. Furniture has been added to the main rooms designated for high-ranking officials, however.
As with the bunkers of Tirana, the tunnel also featured meeting rooms and even a courtroom. But as Albania never fell under attack during the Cold War, none of them were ever put to use.
Visitors can only visit with a guide, and a tour costs 200 lek per person. Step into the tourism office shortly before the tunnel and tell them you want to visit.
While my tour was informative, it felt quite rushed, as the guide had just finished with another group when I showed up.
Hiking to the Ali Pasha Bridge
One of the most unique activities featured in this Gjirokastër guide is a hike to the Ali Pasha Bridge. It’s just about 25 minutes southwest of the castle, and most of the ‘hike’ consists of walking uphill through the mountain villages on the outskirts of town.
You’ll eventually see a sign pointing you in the right direction, and after seeing the bridge in the distance, it’s a gentle downhill walk from there. But as the area is very rocky, sturdy shoes are recommended.
As the name suggests, the Ali Pasha Bridge was commissioned by Ottoman governor Ali Pasha. It’s not really a bridge, however, but an aqueduct.
Ali Pasha, who captured Gjirokastër in 1811, was known for being a ruthless and cruel leader. But he also built a lot of useful infrastructure throughout his territory, including a 10 km-long aqueduct, which brought water from the nearest natural spring directly to the castle.
While most of the aqueduct is now gone, this small portion remains in a great state of preservation.
There are two paths you can take as you descend into the valley. The more obvious trail will take you all the way down, allowing you to admire the stone arch from below.
For those who want to walk across the aqueduct, finding the path there can be a little tricky. About halfway down the hill, step over the large rock (see picture) and you should soon find yourself on another trail taking you directly to the top.
The walk across isn’t as daunting as one might think, and the bridge feels quite sturdy even today. In Ottoman times, Albanian stonemasons were recognized throughout the empire for their skill, with dozens of Albanians managing the aqueducts of Istanbul.
Returning to central Gjirokastër, you may want to explore some of the streets to the south of the castle, as they offer an interesting alternative view of the fortress.
And on your way back to town, there’s a delicious restaurant called Taverna Tradicionale that’s well worth a stop. They sell vegetarian versions of traditional Albanian food that even non-vegetarians will enjoy.
Admittedly, I wasn’t very impressed with Albanian food throughout most of my travels, but this restaurant and a few others in Gjirokastër, such as Mapo Restaurant, helped change my mind.
Bus is the only public transport option to reach Gjirokastër, and most people do so from Sarandë. From Sarandë’s main ‘bus terminal’ around Friendship Park, find a Tirana-bound bus and tell the driver you want to go to Gjirokastër.
As of 2021, these buses depart hourly at half past the hour. The ride lasts just a little over an hour.
You can also get to Gjirokastër directly from Tirana, as well as Berat and Përmet. Try asking locally about schedules, as there’s no single reliable source of information online.
Like many Albanian cities, Gjirokastër lacks a proper bus station. Instead, various buses line up in the general area of the Eida gas station at the base of the hill in Gjirokastër’s ‘new town.’
To get to the old town, it’s a long, steep walk up the hill. Taking a taxi is a good idea, especially if you have a rolling suitcase. While my accommodation was just a 15-minute walk uphill, the bumpy brick road was very harsh on the wheels of my suitcase, with one ultimately popping off a few days later!
As one of Albania’s most touristy towns, Gjirokastër has plenty of hotels and guest houses to choose from. Just understand that all of the landmarks in the Gjirokastër guide above are located in the old town, while the new town is situated at the bottom of the hill.
I stayed at a place simply called ‘Tourists Guest House‘ that I’d highly recommend. It was located about halfway in between the new town and old town. While the area certainly looked and felt like old Gjirokastër, it was outside the busy touristy zone. The bazaar area was an easy ten-minute walk away, however.
I had my own private room and bathroom, and the owner was incredibly kind and hospitable. The price was less than $10 a night, making it the best value I found in all of Albania.
Gjirokastër and Berat were both declared UNESCO World Heritage towns at the same time and are considered sister cities. But while the locations are both known for their Ottoman architecture, they’re distinct from one another both architecturally and atmospherically.
Neither should be seen as a substitute for the other, and both are must-visits during your travels around Albania.