Visiting Butrint: Albania’s Top Archaeological Site

Last Updated on: 22nd April 2022, 03:55 pm

Situated within a vast and scenic national park, Butrint is easily the top archaeological site in Albania. The site is home to ruins from the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras, in addition to well-preserved medieval fortresses. An easy trip from nearby Sarandë, visiting Butrint should not be missed by anyone traveling in southern Albania.

In the following guide, we’ll cover a brief history of Butrint along with a summary of each major landmark. And keep reading to learn about the best way to tour Butrint that few visitors are aware of.

Also, be sure to check the end of the article for info on how to reach Butrint and where to stay in Sarandë.

Butrint: A Brief History

The earliest archaeological evidence discovered at Butrint dates from the 8th century BC. And later in the 6th century, Greeks from Corfu settled in the area, establishing a city that would thrive for centuries. 

But according to legend, the city was founded much, much earlier by Trojan survivors of the Trojan War. According to Roman poet Virgil, Butrint’s founder was Helenus, a son of King Priam. And in Virgil’s epic The Aeneid, Aeneas visits Butrint on his way to Italy.

That would place Butrint’s origins at around the 12th century BC, but of course we can’t take a legendary poem at face value.

Butrint became a prominent trading city by the 5th century BC, and it was also heavily fortified from its earliest years. Its walls were a thing of legend, often likened to those of Troy itself.

In the Hellenistic era, Butrint became a prominent center of the worship of Asclepios, the Greek god of healing and medicine. As such, the city attracted visitors from around the Greek world looking to cure a variety of ailments.

The Romans eventually took over the region in 228 BC. And Julius Caesar would later establish a Roman colony here outside of Butrint’s Hellenistic core.  Following Caesar’s death, Emperor Augustus carried on with development, greatly reshaping and expanding the city.

After the Roman Empire’s conversion to Christianity, the Byzantines added numerous Christian structures, with many of them still standing in great condition. While relatively little is known about the city from the mid-7th century onward, it’s believed to have been prosperous throughout much of the Byzantine era.

During the Middle Ages, the region changed hands numerous times, with the Venetians eventually purchasing Butrint from the Angevin kings in the 14th century. And in the late 18th century, Butrint was taken by the Ottomans, who controlled it up until Albanian independence in 1912.

Visiting Butrint

Given the number of tourists visiting Sarandë each summer, Butrint can get crowded, so try visiting as early as you can. The site opens from as early as 6:00, but I got there on the 8:30 bus. While several people got off with me, most landmarks were completely void of tourists throughout my visit.

Butrint is Albania’s most expensive attraction, costing a whopping 1,000 lek. But while management may have gotten carried away with the prices, you’re unlikely to regret your visit regardless.

As we’ll cover shortly, there’s a special route you can take which allows you to not only see all the main landmarks, but also avoid the crowds while doing so.

The Venetian Fortress & Tower

Entering the site, one of the first things you’ll see is the intriguing Triangular Fortress situated across the lagoon. It was constructed by the Venetians in the 13-14th centuries, while further additions were made a few centuries later. 

In 1797, it was the scene of a battle between the forces of Napoleon and Ottoman Albanian ruler Ali Pasha. At the time, the French deliberately set it on fire to prevent Ali Pasha from using it.

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint

Walking along, you’ll pass the Venetian Tower. The Venetians had purchased both Butrint and nearby Corfu in 1387, as both were strategic trading ports for their maritime empire. 

The Venetians would then battle the Ottomans for control of this region all throughout the 15th century. And they managed to hold onto Butrint for quite a while. As mentioned, Ali Pasha wouldn’t take it over until the late 18th century.

The Best Way to Tour Butrint

From near the Venetian Tower, you can head down a trail leading directly to the theater, which is what nearly all visitors do. But there’s a much better route for visiting Butrint.

I followed the course recommended by the Lonely Planet Western Balkans guide book which turned out to be a great idea.

Past the Venetian Tower, keep heading east, walking along the outer perimeter of the peninsula. Later, after you’ve encircled most of it, you can head toward the center to see the castle museum and finally, the theater.

Before visiting Butrint, it would be wise to save the landmarks mentioned below in the Maps.me app so you can easily get around.

Exploring the Byzantine Ruins

Once you arrive at the city walls, turn right and walk along them rather than straight ahead, and you’ll eventually reach the Triconch Palace. This was originally the site of a Roman villa built around 400 AD, complete with mosaic floors and open courtyards.

Visiting Butrint

Sometime later, it was later expanded to become an elaborate palace but was abandoned due to the rising water level. Over the next several centuries, the area was later used as a market and a place for smaller dwellings.

Next, you’ll arrive at an unlabelled area which may have been part of the Roman Gymnasium. While not the most remarkable portion of Butrint, be sure to check out the ancient pillars standing in the pond.

Also around here is an interesting and well-preserved wall with numerous Greek inscriptions.

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint

This area is quite close to the theater if you’re eager for a peek. But for the purpose of this guide, we’ll be saving the theater for last. Continuing in a northeast direction, you’ll arrive at one of Butrint’s most significant landmarks: the Baptistry. 

Butrint became an episcopal residence in the 5th century. And many of the city’s most significant Christian structures date to the 5th and early 6th centuries.

As the name suggests, this circular building is where baptismal rites were carried out. And the entire floor was covered in an ornate mosaic which survives in good condition to this day. Disappointingly, however, it’s normally completely covered with sand to help protect it.

Supposedly, they only reveal it to the public once every few years. But even with its mosaics obscured, the Baptistry with its surviving columns remains impressive.

Before moving on, be sure to admire the fantastic views of the lagoon, though this certainly won’t be the last opportunity.

Visiting Butrint

The next major building is that of the Great Basilica. But first, you’ll pass by a Roman-era Nymphaeum built in the 2nd century AD which once contained statues of Dionysius and Apollo. 

Nearby, meanwhile, are remains of the Butrint’s main entranceway. Incredibly, it served this function from the 3rd century BC all the way until the 1300s. Originally known as the Tower Gate, it’s long since collapsed.

Visiting Butrint

The Great Basilica, established in the 6th century, was the local bishop’s church. Originally constructed with three aisles, it too once featured a mosaic, although it hasn’t survived. 

The walls remain in great condition, and you can still see some ancient columns by the altar that were usurped from older structures. The Great Basilica, with its size and good state of preservation, is easily one of the highlights of visiting Butrint.

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint

Next, you can enjoy more great views of the lagoon, and a handy informational sign details some of the structures discovered on the other side of the lake. 

While hardly visible to the naked eye, they include things like a Roman villa, a Bronze Age fortification and a Roman-era tomb.

Visiting Butrint

Butrint's Legendary Walls

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint

Continuing along the trail, you’ll get to walk along the most impressive portion of Butrint’s city walls. 

As mentioned above, legend has it that the city was founded by Trojans. And in the The Aeneid, Aeneas remarks how much Butrint’s walls reminded him of the famous walls of Troy. The oldest parts of this wall, however, date back to the 4th century BC – many centuries after the Trojan War. 

Notice how huge some of the blocks near the bottom are. Mysteriously, as with many ancient sites around the world, the most remarkable parts also happen to be the oldest.

Visiting Butrint

Before long, you’ll reach the Lion Gate, named after a large carving of a lion devouring a bull. It wasn’t part of the original design, however, but was added by the Byzantines in the 5th century. The relief itself may be as old as the 6th century BC, possibly coming from a local temple.

Just past the gate is an interesting spring associated with the Roman cult of the nymphs. It was likely later used by the Christians for religious rites as well.

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint

The Castle/Museum

Heading back toward the central part of the peninsula, you’ll reach the museum, situated within a reconstructed castle. Built in the 1930s, the elegant castle was modeled after the original one constructed by the Venetians in the 14th century.

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint
Ali Pasha's fortress visible in the distance

The museum itself, meanwhile, was established in the 1950s as a place to house some of the findings of the Italian archaeological mission. It was most recently renovated in 2005.

Visiting Butrint

Inside, you’ll learn about Butrint since the days of its earliest prehistoric inhabitants. Among the items on display are terracotta figurines from the Hellenistic era, along with statues of Apollo, Artemis, Athena, Demeter and Zeus.

Other sculptures include those of Emperor Augustus, his wife Livia and his general Agrippa, all of which were discovered around the theater.

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint

The Theater & Sanctuary of Asclepios

The next major landmark is also Butrint’s most famous: the theater. Even if you’ve already seen it from below, there’s a special pathway from the museum that allows you to view it all from above.

Visiting Butrint

The theater, with a capacity of 5,000, was built as part of the larger Sanctuary of Asclepios, the Greek god of healing and medicine. The sanctuary was established in the 4th century BC and it quickly became famous throughout the region.

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint

Much like at the Asclepion of Pergamon (present-day Turkey) and throughout Greece, patients would come here to cure a variety of ailments. 

Dream interpretation was a major part of the healing process, while priests and physicians worked side by side. Archaeologists also discovered numerous votive offerings to Asclepios amongst the ruins.

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint

Additionally, the area featured a natural spring with water believed to have curative properties.

Interestingly, inscriptions discovered around here mention the freeing of slaves in honor of Asclepios. They’re now on display at the local museum.

At the time of my visit, a large majority of the Sanctuary of Asclepios could only be admired from afar, though the theater itself was accessible.

Visiting Butrint
Visiting Butrint

On the other side of the sanctuary is what remains of the Roman forum, first established by Julius Caesar in the 1st century BC. The large open space was used for both public meetings and religious worship. Unfortunately, the buildings were mostly destroyed in a 4th-century AD earthquake.

Finished with your visit, it’s a quick walk to the entrance to catch the bus back to town. But if you’re not in a rush, you may want to linger a while to further soak up Butrint’s tranquil natural setting.

Additional Info

In a country with such a confusing transportation system, getting to Butring is refreshingly straightforward. From Sarandë’s city center, hourly buses head directly to Butrint, stopping at Ksamil along the way.

The buses leave half past the hour, while the return buses depart half past the hour as well.

In Sarandë, the main bus stop for Butrint is at a roundabout slightly north of the western end of the seafront promenade. It’s accurately marked on the app Maps.me.

The Butrint-bound buses will also stop at the main ‘bus station’ of the city, or the area around the Friendship Park from which most long-distance minibuses depart.

Sarandë is a small city but arguably Albania’s most popular when it comes to tourism. As such, there is no shortage of hotels to choose from. But budget travelers might have some difficulty finding good deals during peak season.

I stayed at a place called Niko Apartments that I’d recommend for those looking for affordable private rooms by the beach. While I booked it via Booking.com, it was an apartment unit rather than a hotel.

For around $15 a night, I got a spacious and clean room with a view of the sea from the balcony. Niko and his wife were very friendly and helpful, and the location was perfect.

Located across from the hospital, it was just a couple minutes away from the bus stop to Butrint, and only about five minutes on foot from the beach. It was also only a five-minute walk from Sarandë’s main bus terminal area.

The only problem was the noise of moving furniture from the unit above which occurred at strange hours throughout the night and morning.



Booking.com

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