A highlight of any Albanian itinerary is visiting the absolutely enchanting, Ottoman-era city of Gjirokastër, a place so beautifully preserved despite wars and communist rule that it now has a well-deserved spot on the list of UNESCO sites.
Nestled in the southern part of the country near the turquoise bays of the Albanian Riviera, one of the best things to do in Gjirokaster is heading up to its beloved hilltop fortress, which offers up breathtaking panoramic views.
Add to that the cobblestone town centre and bustling bazaar, and it’s easy to see why the ‘Stone City’ is one of the most popular places to visit in Albania, even if you’re only able to budget a few hours to stop during a road trip which is what I did while traveling between Berat and Saranda.
From learning how to cook traditional Albanian dishes to exploring Cold War tunnels, here are the best things to do in Gjirokaster, Albania.
Visit Gjirokastër Castle
The best place to start a city tour is heading up, wayyyy up (seriously, this hill is steep at more than 330 metres high!) to Gjirokastër Castle, which is one of the largest in the Balkans.
Dating back to the 12th century, the fortified walls have plenty of stories to tell, like the legend of Princess Argjiro who’s said to have jumped off the castle with her baby to evade capture by the Ottomans, and King Zog who survived more than 50 assassination attempts.
Prior to his death – he died by natural causes– he transformed the castle into a prison, which can still be seen today.
Admission is about 4 euros, and during a self-guided tour guests can see its museums and exhibits, wander around the extensive grounds which include ruins, tunnels and a towering clock tower, and admire the sweeping views.
One rather quirky addition to the castle is a former US Air Force plane; rumour has it that it was captured during the Cold War, while others claim it was an American spy jet forced to make an emergency landing.
While it sticks out like a sore thumb among the ancient stone walls, it definitely makes for a unique photo-op.
Wander through Gjirokaster’s Old Town and bazaar
A short walk down from the castle is the charming old town, including the bazaar (Qafa e Pazarit) which technically isn’t a traditional covered market.
Instead, shops are spread around the streets of the old town, selling things like souvenirs, carpets and housewares.
The radial-shaped market is adapted to the surrounding slopes, and dates back to the 17th century but had to be rebuilt following a fire in the 19th century.
Admire the Gjirokaster Mosque (City Mosque)
This impressive mosque in the old town was built in 1757, and while about a dozen of them once stood in Gjirokaster it is the only remaining one.
The communist party ordered the destruction of many religious sites around Albania during the 1960s–fortunately, this one was spared.
At one point it was used as a training hall for circus acrobats thanks to the high, domed ceiling which was perfect for hanging a trapeze off of. It has since been transformed back into a place of prayer (five times daily), and visitors are welcome. Admission is free.
Take an Albanian cooking class
One of the best ways to get to know a place is by sharing stories over food, which is why taking an Albanian cooking class is one of the best things to do in Gjirokaster.
Enjoy a glass of homemade raki while taking part in this vegetarian cooking class, featuring traditional dishes like Qofte bobollaqe, Qifqis (rice balls unique to Gjirokaster), and a dessert called hasude.
Learn more about what life is like in Albania when everyone sits down to share the meal, and the hosts will give you the recipes so you can recreate the dishes at home. Click here to book
See the Ali Pasha Bridge
For a unique photo-op, head to the Ali Pasha Bridge (also known as Dunavat Bridge), which is part of an aqueduct complex dating back to the 19th century that was used to supply water to Gjirokaster and the fortress.
While it’s no longer in operation after being mostly demolished in the 1930s, this stone section of it remains and is located about a 30 minute hike from the city centre.
Book a guided walking tour:
Make your own souvenir
Forget grabbing souvenirs at the bazaar: book this woodworking class instead and make your own!
Hone your skills during this activity, where you’ll learn how to carve your own piece of Albanian art with the guidance of a master craftsman. Sip on raki or homemade wine as you learn how to make small wooden signs, necklaces, key hangers or small mirrors for a unique memento. Click here to book
Go underground into the Cold War Tunnel
One of the more unique Gjirokaster attractions is the Cold War Tunnel Museum, an underground passageway which was secretly built in the 1970s in the event of a nuclear attack and is now a museum.
Running right under the castle, it’s about 800 metres long and has 59 rooms which were used to shelter the communist party’s elites. Apart from the furniture, the bunker has remained mostly untouched.
Tours take about 20 minutes, admission is 200 lek and it’s open year round. Click here to book
Admire the Zekate House
See how the wealthiest families in Gjirokastra lived in the 1800s, by visiting the beautifully preserved Zekate House.
The three-storey house has sweeping views of the river valley, high stone walls, a grand reception room, frescoed ceilings and an ornate fireplace. The entrance fee is just one euro.
Raft along the Vjosa River
An exhilarating day trip from Gjirokaster is whitewater rafting in Vjosa National Park, home to the so-called last wild river in Europe.
The crystal clear waters of the Vjosa River have strong currents, big waves, swirling streams and some narrow passageways surrounded by stunning scenery, and during a rafting tour you’ll get to float down the river, enjoy a refreshing swim and jump from the rocks.
This tour includes rafting, lunch at a family-owned restaurant and ends with a soak in the thermal waters of the Benja Hot Springs.
Book one of these rafting trips:
Gaze into the mysterious Blue Eye
One of the prettiest things to see in Albania is the Blue Eye (Syri i Kaltër), a freshwater spring that’s an estimated 50 metres deep in one spot (though no one knows for sure!).
The natural phenomenon creates a sphere-shaped area of water with a cerulean hue that constantly swirls around in circles.
Located about a one hour drive south of Gjirokaster, the best way to see the Blue Eye is by standing on the wooden viewing platform behind it, on a sunny day when the light directly hits it.
There’s also a restaurant on site, which makes this a great place to relax and spend a warm afternoon.
How to get to Gjirokastër Albania
The most convenient way to get from Berat or Tirana to Gjiorkaster is to rent a car, which is quite affordable and allows time to explore the surrounding area at your own pace. However, it’s also very accessible by bus, with regular links between Tirana and Saranda.
Saranda to Gjirokaster:
Sarandë is about an hour away and tickets cost about 300 lek. The bus stops in lower Gjirokaster, and from there you can either walk 30 minutes to reach Old Town or take a 5-minute taxi ride.
You can also hop into a taxi from Saranda, which costs around 6,000 lek.
Tirana to Gjirokaster:
It’s very easy to take the bus from Tirana, as the main bus station there has vans that are clearly marked with their destination: just find one that says Gjirokastër and hop on. The ride takes up to five hours, and costs about 1,000 lek.
Berat to Gjirokaster:
There are three buses per day between Berat and Gjirokastër: tickets are 900 lek, and it takes about 3 ½ hours.
Other options include taking a taxi, or booking a custom tour through Daytrip like I did. You get to select pickup and drop-off times, and optional stops along the way: I started in Berat, stopped at a winery, spent a few hours in Gjirokaster, an hour at the Blue Eye then ended with a hotel drop-off in Saranda.
It’s not the cheapest option, but it’s a great way to see multiple places on your own schedule without having to drive.
If you’re just looking to visit Gjirokaster as a day trip, you can also book a tour from Tirana, Saranda and Durres:
Where to stay in Gjirokaster, Albania
While it’s compact enough to see Gjiorokaster during a quick day trip, some visitors choose to stay overnight and explore the surrounding area. Some of the top-ranked Gjirokaster hotels and hostels are:
- Vila Sharm Luxury Hotel: This is the nicest hotel in Gjiorkaster, with spacious, elegant rooms and a dining room dripping with chandeliers. Its location is about a 20 minute walk to the old town. Click here to book
- Stone City Hostel: This charming property in a historical house is consistently ranked among the world’s best hostels thanks to its great atmosphere and friendly staff. Free walking tours are offered in the evening, and there’s a garden, shared lounge and kitchen, terrace and bar. Click here to book
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