Explore Albania’s City of Stone: Gjirokaster
Gjirokaster, also spelt Gjirokastër or Gjirokastra, is a historical city in south Albania, near the Greek border. Being built into the hillside means that Gjirokaster affords stunning views of the nearby mountains from any point in the city.
Gjirokaster has UNESCO World Heritage site status thanks to its old town with traditional buildings and unique rooftops, which has prompted the nicknames Stone City and Silver City. Made from locally quarried limestone, each roof tile is positioned and held in place purely by its weight. When it rained back in the olden days, the whole household would have to work together to rearrange the roof tiles to stop any leaks. The rooftops are essentially a huge jigsaw puzzle and can weigh up to 550 kg per square metre!
Jigsaw puzzle rooftops
As well as Gjirokaster’s traditional rooftops, the city is known for its Ottoman-influenced architecture in its grand mansions, its vibrant bazaar and for being the birthplace of two well-known Albanians: well-loved author, Ismail Kadare, and brutal communist dictator, Enver Hoxha.
Easily accessible from nearby seaside town, Saranda, means that most people visit on a day trip. If you have the time though, this is definitely somewhere worth staying for a while. I would recommend at least two full days (we stayed for five, and fell in love with the place).
Explore Albania’s City of Stone: Gjirokaster
How to Reach Gjirokaster
Albanian transport information is limited online. Gjirokaster, being one of two of Albania’s UNESCO World Heritage listed towns/cities, is very well-connected. Buses connect Gjirokaster with Korca, Tirana, Vlore, Durres and Berat, as well as others.
Buses we took to and from Gjirokaster:
Saranda to Gjirokaster: cost 500 lek and took an hour and a half, leaving Saranda at 10am.
Gjirokaster to Korca: cost 1500 lek and took five hours, leaving Gjirokaster at 7am.
Where to Stay in Gjirokaster
Patio Rooms Gjirokaster is the only place you should even think about staying. Run by the loveliest people (and now our good friends), Ergest and Irsida, you are sure to love this place and feel right at home. The accommodation is set out of the main town and away from the crowds, but still only a fifteen minute walk to the bazaar. Peaceful, modern rooms with massive TVs, shared patio space with stunning mountain views, and a delicious homemade breakfast each morning (which is different each day).
P.S. Ask Ergest about his rakia!
Patio Rooms Gjirokaster views
Patio Rooms Gjirokaster outside seating
Walk the Cobbles at the Open Air Bazaar
Gjirokaster’s main attraction. Even if you don’t want to buy anything, it’s worth walking the cobbles to look at the displays on the street and to marvel at the architecture. The bazaar is set amongst several different paths all connected at a crossroads. Brightly coloured carpets, jewellery and ceramics line the streets, and then one shop at the end of the street sells antique military gear. Definitely not in keeping with the rest of the bazaar, but an interesting contrast.
Bazaar cobbled streets
Ceramics and Carpets
Slowly Stroll the Backstreets, Camera at the Ready
Get your camera out and wander away from the tourists, particularly over to Dunavat Quarter (the other side of the castle) and up towards Rruga Ago Topulli. The cobbles are uneven and steep, so I’d recommend wearing shoes with decent support. You’ll find beautiful alleyways lined with flowers and traditional buildings, THE best viewpoints of the city and mountains, abandoned buildings, hidden churches and authenticity.
Away from the crowds
Stop for Coffee with an Outrageous View
Wandering the backstreets high up the hillside, we stumbled across what looked like a little shop selling groceries. We stepped inside to ask if they sold coffee. And they did. She showed us through a room off the side of the shop and on to a balcony that had two plastic chairs and a table, and the most beautiful backdrop. We had the whole balcony to ourselves and THE ultimate coffee with a view.
The place is not marked on Google Maps but is around about here.
Coffee with the ULTIMATE view
Take a Tour of a Grand Ottoman Style Mansion (or Two)
Skenduli House and Zekate House are two houses that we visited that I would recommend for different reasons.
To take a look around Skenduli House, you pay 200 lek and then are shown around by a member of the family. They show you secret passage ways, give you full explanation on how the rooms were used and give you little anecdotes. The painting and decoration in the building is intricate and detailed, however, the room with the most impressive artwork has strictly no photos allowed. You have to pay your tour guide in cash and they kind of hover around checking on your every move around their house after the tour. Skenduli House is great because you really get to learn about the history of the house and the family, but you do feel a little ‘monitored’.
Skenduli House interior
Skenduli House artwork
Skenduli House balcony
Zekate House, known for its distinctive two tower structure, on the other hand is the complete opposite. You pay your fee of 250 lek and wander round at your own pace by yourself, exploring all the nooks and crannies, taking photos of whatever you want. We had the entire building to ourselves as no one else was visiting at the same time. However, because you have the freedom to go by yourself, you don’t get the information or history of the building. We felt that both had similar layouts and artwork, but preferred the less-pressured approach at Zekate House.
Ornate decoration at Zekate House
Get your Sturdy Shoes on and Venture up to Ali Pasha Bridge
Definitely wear some sturdy shoes for this one. Ali Pasha Bridge is maybe a thirty minute walk up through the town. I recommend using Maps.me to get your there (Google Maps doesn’t have a clue).
From the bazaar, you head up until there is no more up. Once you reach the top of the path, the houses end and the landscape opens up into rolling hills. This part is particularly rocky under foot. The path continues down the side of a valley and this is where you will start to see Ali Pasha’s bridge connecting both sides of the valley.
Ali Pasha ‘bridge’
In actual fact, it isn’t a bridge, but a part of an aqueduct that has survived since Ottoman times. Because the rest of the aqueduct is no more, and this arch stands by itself, it looks like a bridge.
You can walk underneath it, or some people dare to walk across it. I didn’t have faith in it and probably would not recommend this as it is a ruin that is definitely not maintained, so it could quite easily end up like the rest of the aqueduct!
Still, the views from around here are beautiful and the structure itself is a sight to behold. You are very unlikely to see any other tourists venturing out here, so you’ll have the whole valley to yourself.
Chris venturing across Ali Pasha bridge
Wander around the Ethnographic Museum
The Ethnographic Museum is built on the site of Enver Hoxha’s birthplace. The building in which Hoxha was born burned down and a different building was put in its place to be in keeping with the other buildings in Gjirokaster, not to replicate the original house. The museum itself makes very little reference to the dictator; it is about traditional Albanian culture.
The Ethnographic Museum was being renovated when we were there. We had a look around even though it wasn’t fully up and running yet. So far, there was a display of traditional kitchen items and homeware, traditional clothing and footwear, and rooms were set up as they would have been in Ottoman times. There was a balcony that looked out over the city and towards the mountains. What was going on looked really promising and I was gutted we couldn’t see the finished museum. If you have been, please let me know what it was like in the comments!
Entrance fee is 500 lek.
Dining room setup at Ethnographic museum
Learn about Gjirokaster’s History up at the Castle, and Take in the View
I wouldn’t say that visiting the castle is a top thing to do in Gjirokaster, however, it is so huge and imposing, and positioned perfectly for some great views, it is worth going for a nosey. There is some information inside but not a huge amount. Your best bet is to pay the extra 200 lek to visit the museums within the castle: prison, military exhibits and Gjirokaster history. Then head outside towards the clock tower for some great views.
Entrance fee is 400 lek.
Entrance to the museums inside is an extra 200 lek.
Castle clock tower
And one thing I would recommend against: Cold War Bunker
The Cold War Bunker tour cost 200 lek and lasted a total of about ten minutes. They rushed us round, gave us very little information and then kicked us out. This was such a rip off and really not worth the time or money.
If you’re interested in exploring Albania’s bunkers, this is not the place to get a flavour of it all. Head to Tirana instead. Read all about things to do in Tirana in this post.
Nuclear resistant bunker doors
Where to Find the Tastiest Vegetarian Food in Gjirokaster
Edua serves healthy and local food, and even has a shop where you can buy some of their produce. We went there twice. And would thoroughly recommend the beet salad, veggie balls, the beans and finish off with Gjirokaster’s traditional oshaf for dessert. They have seating outside on the street in the evenings.
Veggie balls and beet salad
Gjoça Tradicional is a tiny little restaurant on the main street of the bazaar. There are only a couple of tables outside so if you see one free, grab it. The place is run by one guy who does all the cooking right there in front of you. He will give you recommendations on what to order based on the freshest food he has. The stuffed aubergine, roasted cheese and trilece are beautiful.
Stuffed aubergine, salad, and roasted cheese
A little bit out of the main centre, but worth the ten minute walk. We tried the sarma, stuffed aubergine and rice and beans. We were also given a welcome drink, a plate full of juicy cherries and a biscuit after dinner. The servers are really friendly here too.
Taverna Kuka has a big open seating area. We ordered carbs three ways! Qifqi, which are herby rice balls and are a traditional Gjirokaster dish, cheesy roasted potatoes and beans. Good food and a lovely setting.
Cheesy roasted potatoes and beans
Sweets Snacks and Coffee
This cafe has the prettiest little seating area and serves outrageously good sweets. Give the trilece and portokolapita a go. And don’t forget a rich, dark Turkish coffee to go with it.
Cafe Bar Simple outdoor seating
Portokolapita, trilece and Turkish coffee
Next door to Snack Bar Simple, Kodra Sweet Hill has more of a focus on ice cream. The affogato is amazing! Top tip: ask to switch the vanilla ice cream for caramel. Now you’re talking.
Have you been to Gjirokaster? Is there anything else you would add?
I’d love to hear your thoughts, recommendations or questions.
Thanks for reading!