Original Post: July, 4, 2023 | Updated October 18, 2023
There’s an ancient “Stone City” in Southern Albania, perched high above a valley waiting to be discovered by visitors. A city that has received a UNESCO World Heritage Site title and is a true example of a well-preserved Ottoman city. You can spend a few hours to a few days discovering this city, and its gems, and realize how beautiful it is. Explore Gjirokaster with me and discover one of Albania’s gems and lovely people.
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Nestled in a valley between the Gjerë Mountains and Drino River, Gjirokaster (aka Gjirokastra or Gjirokastër in Albanian) is a steep hill city overlooked by the Gjirokastër Fortress and its sweeping views from atop. The city is as old as 1336, around the Middle Ages. It’s known by its Greek name, Argyrókastro, and was part of the Byzantine Empire.
Over the years, Gjirokaster has become a multitude of backgrounds and influences, from the Greeks, Byzantines, Romans, and Ottomans. Today, it is a respectable UNESCO site due to its well-preserved Ottoman architecture, which is very apparent throughout the city.
Explore the Stone City
The moment we arrived at Gjirokaster, the steep hills of the cobblestone streets immediately caught my attention. Knowing it would be an uphill walk to parts of the city, the enticing views of the bazaar, the Ottoman architecture everywhere, and the fortress above the city welcomed me. I immediately knew this city would be magical. The sunset was a bonus as we meandered our way through the cobblestone streets.
The Old Bazaar
Our first stop brought us to the Old Bazaar, also known as “Qafa e Pazarit” by the locals. This is the center of the Old Town, dating back to the Ottoman era. The heart of the city, this bustling area is full of charms and great shopping. Cafes line the cobblestone streets of the Old Bazaar, giving you a little of the Parisian vibe as you walk past the charming cafes.
Because the Bazaar always includes shopping, you’ll find unique local items and souvenirs, from handmade pottery, olive oil, local teas and honey, antiques, and more. One of my favorite things to shop for is handmade rugs, made especially from a local Albanian town. I bought a medium-sized rug for €15 made from cotton from an Albanian town called Fier. I would have bought a much larger area rug, unfortunately, we just did not have the luggage to bring it back home.
You’ll not want to miss the Old Bazaar as it has everything. Even if you don’t plan on buying anything, it’s a charming area to meander around, explore, and take plenty of photos. Enjoy the sights and sounds of locals and tourists while admiring the Ottoman architecture. For transparency, not all of it is very old. A fire destroyed parts of the 17th-century Old Bazaar during the 19th century, so only a few remnants of the ancient Bazaar are left.
Side Note: The perfect place to park near the Old Bazaar is at this parking garage location. You’ll have to pay the hourly fee (which we thought was reasonable, considering the location). GPS location for where we parked: https://maps.app.goo.gl/S6Lsdip2QAZnNnSCA?g_st=ic
The Old Mosque
Not far from the Old Bazaar is the Old Mosque. Built in the 17th century, this mosque was the only one out of 12 other mosques around the city to be spared during the communist destruction of the 1960s. It’s easily not missable, as the minaret towers above with its 99 steps that represent the 99 names of God as given in the Qu’ran. Admission is free, and visitors are welcome. From my research, the best time to visit is 15 minutes after the call to prayer, when the imam is present.
Meander Up the Hilly Slopes and Discover Different Neighborhoods
Gjirokaster is hilly. Meander up the hilly cobblestones and admire all the facades and architecture of the city. While doing so, admire the view from above as you walk up towards the top of the hill.
Known as the “City of Stone,” the best way to truly experience Gjirokaster is to explore the neighborhoods where you’ll find some of the most unique Ottoman-style stone buildings still in their pristine, historic condition. The neighborhoods, with their alleyways and twisting cobblestone streets, bring about the charms of the unique history of Gjirokaster. Some of the most charming neighborhoods to visit are Palorto, Manalat, Hazmurat, and Dunavat.
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Try the Local Albanian Cuisines
No trip is complete to Gjirokaster without trying the delicious, local Albanian cuisines. I searched high and low for the most sought-after restaurant with decent prices, and this, what looked like a family-owned restaurant, serves some of the best traditional food in Gjirokaster, and that’s my honest review! Taverna Tradicionale KARDHASHI is a must, and you will not be disappointed. I also found the service exceptional and the staff very pleasant.
The dishes are similar to Turkish, and Middle-eastern food, made fresh. Here are a few dishes we ordered. We paid around 5,000 LEK (around $50) for four dishes and desserts for a family of four.
Admire the Views From Above the Hills
Gjirokaster from above is beautiful. As you wander aimlessly around the neighborhoods and find yourself in many areas with great panoramic views, take the photos. The valley is notable, with the Gjerë Mountains in plain view. It’s lovely as the sun is setting. The best place for a panoramic view is near the Gjirokaster Castle.
View point near the Gjirokaster Castle: here
Visit the Gjirokaster Castle
The fortress that overlooks the City, also known as the Gjirokaster Castle, is one of the most notable landmarks in Gjirokaster. Built in the 12th century, this castle was used during the Ottoman era as a military fortress. It was also used during WWII as a prison. Roam the castle grounds and learn about the history of the castle by exploring the museum. A tour is also a wonderful way to learn more about the history of the Gjirokaster Castle.
Tours & Tickets
Gjirokaster Castle Website: https://www.gjirokastra.org/sub_links/visiting_sub/visiting_castle.html
GPS Location: https://maps.app.goo.gl/1a826fVFJksLDjyE9?g_st=ic
Hours: the castle is open all year round (April to September, 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., October to March 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.)
Admission Price: 200 Lekë ($2)
Discover the Cold War Tunnels
The Cold War brought about fears of nuclear attacks on the city; therefore, underground tunnels were secretly built as emergency shelters during the post-WWII communist times (1944-1990). The Cold War Museum offers a glimpse of the 800 m-long tunnel with 59 rooms, all in its original form. It only takes about 20 minutes to visit and costs around €2 or less. I wish we had time to explore the tunnels, but sadly we didn’t. I took a snap of a tunnel advertised as a museum, so I am unsure if this location is correct. For reference, Google Maps states this is the proper location for the Cold War Museum.
The Cold War Tunnel Location: GPS: https://maps.app.goo.gl/2BDD1EJJoq8GbApu8
Opening hours: April-October (high season) 9:00 a.m.- 6:00 p.m.
and November-March (low season) 8:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
Admission Price :200 lek/person ( 2 Euro)
With its authentic Old World Style, featuring well-preserved Ottoman-era architecture, Gjirokaster is a must-see gem in Albania. Although we only had a few hours to explore this lovely, magical city, there is much more to do in the area I didn’t quite cover in this blog post. We were taken aback by the many views and scenery this city exuded.
I recommend exploring this city for more than just a few hours. If you can, stay overnight in one of the charming stone homes above the hilly slopes of the city with a fantastic view of the valley. The local flares are also a delight, and the people are charming and kind! Side note: we had no trouble communicating with the locals as English is well-spoken around the area, especially with many tourists visiting.
Add Gjirokaster to your Southern Albania itinerary; it makes a perfect day trip, or longer, from Sarandë. Until next time, friends! Deri herën tjetër miq!