Top Things to See and Do in Gjirokastër, Albania

Nestled in a valley in southern Albania between the Drino River and the Gjerë Mountains is the historic city of Gjirokastër. Also known as Gjirokastra, its name translates to “City of Stones.” The city is well-known for its architecture, traditional bazaar, cultural activities, and immersive history, all of which make up the many things to see and do in Gjirokastër, Albania.

Thought to have been founded sometime during the Byzantine period between the 5th and 15th centuries, Gjirokastër is a gem of a city. It’s home to many artists and artisans, many of whom sell their crafts and artwork in the city’s Old Bazaar.

It also has a vibrant food scene, which visitors can sink their teeth into at a number of fine local restaurants. And it’s also a bastion of history, with an imposing fortress looming over the city. Gjirokastër is one of my favorite cities in Albania, and we’ll explore why a little further on. But first, let’s start at the beginning.

The History of Gjirokastër

The area that is now Gjirokastër has been inhabited since ancient times. Its earliest inhabitants were the Chaonians, an ancient Hellenistic tribe that lived in what is now southern Albania and northwestern Greece.

Later, during the Middle Ages, the city became an important commercial center called Argyropolis or Argyrokastron. In the third century, the city’s walls were erected. That was followed by the stone walls of the Citadel between the 6th and 12th centuries. It was later referred to as Agyrokastro in 1336, during its time as part of the Byzantine Empire.

The city continued to grow and prosper after it became part of the Ottoman Empire in 1417. A Turkish traveler visited the city in 1670 and noted the 200 homes inside Gjirokastër Castle. He also observed hundreds more in the neighborhoods outside the castle, and six neighborhoods spread out across the surrounding hills.

In those neighborhoods were three churches, eight mosques, five inns, 280 shops, and five fountains. During that time, the mostly Christian city became a Muslim-majority city due to an influx of Muslim converts arriving in town. Many inhabitants themselves converted to Islam during that time.

Later, in the 19th century, Gjirokastër became a major player in the Albanian Renaissance. In the 20th century, its neighbors to the south temporarily took Gjirokastër during the First Balkan War. Later, Italy occupied the city after the Italian invasion of Albania. The Hellenic Army also took over for five months during the Greco-Italian War from December of 1940 to April of 1941.

Modern-Day Gjirokastër  

Today, Gjirokastër is one of the top places in Albania to enjoy Ottoman architecture and Albanian culture. Since 2005, Gjirokastër has been part of the Historic Centres of Berat and Gjirokastra. This UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrates both cities as “a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town.”

It’s also a hub for cultural activities including the National Folklore Festival and Albanian and Greek polyphonic singing. In addition, the imposing Gjirokastër Castle overlooks the city, and is a fantastic place to spend a morning or afternoon if you’re a history buff like me!

My Time in Gjirokastër

Today, Gjirokastër is a quaint, beautiful city. It’s one of my favorite cities I visited during my road trip through Albania in August of 2020. Everywhere I went, from its old town and bazaar, to its restaurants, to its hotels, I met warm, friendly, and kindhearted people who instantly embraced me and made me feel welcome.

It’s one of my favorite things about the Balkan countries of southeastern Europe—no matter where you go, the people make you feel like you’re a part of their family. I have a saying that “the people make the place,” and I’ve stood by that in my 13+ years of traveling the world.

Locations can be visually stunning and culturally enriching, but it’s the people that make them truly memorable. And Gjirokastër is among the most memorable places I visited in Albania. These are the top things to see and do in Gjirokastër, Albania!

Check out the 5 Things You Must Do in Berat, Albania

Visit the Old Bazaar

When you visit Gjirokastër, one of the places you absolutely must visit is its 17th-century Old Bazaar. It’s known locally as Qafa e Pazarit, and is located in the city’s historic, UNESCO-recognized old town. This cross-shaped bazaar has a distinct, traditional feel that has not eroded in the modern era. From the stones set into its streets to the charming shops and beautiful homes along them, this is where you go for an authentic slice of Albanian culture in Gjirokastër.

I’m a big proponent of buying locally-made souvenirs when I travel. The shops in Gjirokaster’s Old Bazaar are the perfect place to find unique and distinctive keepsakes and gifts for your friends and family! 

Handicraft Shops

One of my personal favorite shops is Edua, which sells locally-made artisanal goods. Some of the products that caught my eye there were their soaps, marmalades, oils, mountain tea, wine, honey, and liquors. They even sell some strong grape and cherry rakija, which is a fruit brandy that’s extremely popular in the Balkans. For just 1,000 lekes, or about $10 USD, I bought some honey and some fragrant artisanal soap!

One of the specialty crafts in Gjirokastër is woodcarving. During my time in the bazaar, I visited a woodcarving shop run by a man who makes impressive, three-dimensional carvings. You can buy everything from lockets to carvings of Gjirokastër Castle to nameplates there! I bought carved nameplates for both of my daughters and a large Albanian double eagle carving for roughly $30 USD!

Another of my favorite spots in the bazaar was a handicraft shop where the owner makes beautiful handmade stone carvings. The walls of his shop are covered in his stunning carvings of Jesus Christ, animals, historical sites, and others, which he painstakingly creates with a chisel! For only 20 Euros, or about $23.45, I bought two carvings: an Albanian flag for my office back home and a double eagle carving for my assistant!

If you don’t visit this bazaar during your time in Gjirokastër, you are seriously missing out. It’s the perfect place to buy a handcrafted souvenir or gift you can’t find anywhere else. The fact that these creations are made with love, by hand, makes them so much more special than generic, mass-produced souvenirs. They alone make the Old Bazaar one of the top things to see and do in Gjirokastër, Albania!

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Dine at Kerculla Resort

Along a road that winds up a steep hill not far from Gjirokastër Castle is one of the best places in town to grab a bite to eat: Kerculla Resort. Because the resort stands on a hill overlooking the city, it offers some of the best views in Gjirokastër.

During the summer, I recommend dining on one of their two outdoor terraces to enjoy the vistas of the city! But if you prefer indoor dining, they also had a wonderful indoor dining hall, which is where my friend Erjan and I enjoyed our dinner.

The food served at Kerculla Resort is often described as luxurious and lavish, and after dining there myself, I have to agree! Here, the hearty, rich Albanian food I had fallen in love with is given an elegant touch without it losing its rustic feel.

The Meal

Erjan and I enjoyed some phenomenal fried veal meatball soup. The soup itself was smooth and decadent, while the meatballs were the perfect combination of herbal, sweet, creamy, and salty. Their spinach and tomato pies were flaky and went well with the tzatziki-like yogurt paste served on the side.

Another Albanian staple we enjoyed was byrek, a type of savory pie that is popular throughout the Balkans. It contained onion, as well as red and green peppers, and had me salivating like crazy! I also tried a dense and tasty rice-and-herb fritter, which also paired nicely with the yogurt.

But hands down, the star of the meal was the baked lamb. It had been double-baked, first in an oven, and then in a forno. The double-baking process left the skin crispy and the meat so juicy and fatty that it practically melted the moment it touched my tongue. I’m a massive fan of lamb and this is honestly one of my favorite lamb dishes I’ve had in the Balkans! Having it is easily among the top things to do in Gjirokastër, Albania!

For dessert, I suggest trying a number of local favorites, including oshaf. It’s a thick, creamy dish that’s similar to panna cotta, and contains sheep milk, figs, and cinnamon. I also recommend the gliko, a sugary and popular dish that’s made by preserving whole fruits. Wash it all down with some delicious raki to end your night!

Kerculla Resort

Rruga Bashkim Kokona

Gjirokastër, Albania 6001

+355 69 441 0222

Explore Gjirokastër Castle

From the Old Bazaar, it’s a quick, uphill walk to the city’s most prominent attraction, Gjirokastër Castle. It’s also known as Gjirokastër Fortress. If you choose to walk, you’ll pass by one of 200,000 Cold War bunkers scattered around the country. Inside is a tunnel that was rediscovered in the 1990s. It lies under the castle and boasts 80 rooms!

Further up the hill is Gjirokastër Castle itself, which has stood over the city in numerous incarnations since before the 12th century. The castle that exists today is a product of extensive expansions and renovations, including those by Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha in the 19th century. The castle’s prison was also expanded in 1932.

The castle also boasts five towers and houses, a cistern, a clock tower, two teke, and a museum. On the grounds, there’s also a stage for the National Folk Festival, one of Albania’s most important cultural celebrations, which takes place every five years.

Visiting Gjirokastër Castle

When you visit Gjirokastër Castle, you immediately realize why it’s such a popular tourist destination. Thousands of local and international tourists visit it per year. Entry to the castle is free on Sundays, so I recommend visiting early to beat the crowds.

As you pass through the entrance, you’ll find a large map of the castle. Further on is a long corridor, along which a number of Italian and German cannons from World War II are displayed. There’s also an Italian Fiat L6/40 tank from 1940, which is one of only three in the world!

From the outdoor garden terrace, you can enjoy incredible views of the city and admire a Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star Air Force plane. Past the National Folk Festival stage is an 18th-century clock tower built by Ali Pasha.

The Legend of Princess Argjiro

As you walk along the castle walls, you’ll find a plaque that tells the legend of Princess Argjiro. Also known as Argyro, this legendary 15th-century Byzantine princess was one of three royal sisters. The story says that each of these three sisters founded a different town. According to the legend, she founded Gjirokastër and built the castle, though modern archaeologists dispute this story. 

Princess Argjiro’s legend says she leaped to her death from the castle walls with her baby in her arms to avoid being captured by Ottoman invaders. According to the story, her baby survived the fall and was fed by milk that flowed from the rocks below.

The story, while sad and tragic, further adds to the mystique and beauty of Gjirokastër Castle. It’s a stunning location, and with so much history attached to it, is the perfect place for those who love studying the past. No list of the top things to see and do in Gjirokastër, Albania is complete without it!

Gjirokastër Castle

Rruga Elvia Celebi

Gjirokastër, Albania

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Have Lunch at Bar Restorant Hotel KODRA

If you happen to be exploring the Old Bazaar late in the morning, I suggest taking a one-minute walk from the center of the bazaar to Bar Restorant Hotel KODRA. This eatery’s name translates to “hill,” and they have an amazing terrace outside. But the thing that makes visiting Bar Restorant Hotel KODRA one of the top things to do in Gjirokastër is its unbelievable food!

Here, they serve a special Gjirokastër tava. A tava is a dish that is prepared in a special casserole-like dish. There are many varieties, but they all usually consist of vegetables, cheese, and meat. They’re heavy, hearty meals that are very popular throughout the Balkans.

This particular tava contains green peppers, goat cheese, onions, herbs, tomatoes, and cream. It also contains juicy, pan-fried chicken, which they then bake in the tava with the other ingredients.

The Meal

The best thing to pair with this particular tava—or any Albanian meal for that matter—is some rakija. My friend and guide Erjan and I toasted with some smoky rakija before diving into a massive, delicious salad.

The spinach and cucumbers gave it a fantastic crunch. Meanwhile, the earthy mushrooms, sharp parmesan cheese, and tangy balsamic vinegar made for a fantastic combination. There were even raisins in it, which added a nice sweetness.

But the star of the show was easily the Gjirokastër chicken tava. This was my very first tava that contained chicken, as all the others I’d had until that point had contained either lamb, veal, or some other meat.

I couldn’t quite place some of the herbs in the tava, but they brought out so much flavor in the dish! The chicken was extra juicy, and the cream and cheese made for a lustful, decadent combination that had my mouth watering from the jump!

The chicken tava was amazing on its own, but it was bolstered by the fresh focaccia bread served on the side. It had the type of crispy, crunchy crust you only get with freshly baked bread, and was still soft and fluffy on the inside.

If you have room left in your stomach after the tava and bread, I suggest ending with some oshaf. I don’t usually love sweets, but this was one I could get into! It’s super silky and is the perfect way to end your meal. Turst me, it’s one of my top things to see and do in Gjirokastër, Albania for a reason!

Bar Restorant Hotel KODRA

Lagjia 11 Janari Rruga E Zejtareve

Gjirokastër, Albania 6002

+355 69 406 2661

Visit Skenduli House

Gjirokastër’s bazaar is a great way to get a taste of local culture, but there are places that are even more immersive. To take a deeper dive into what life was like in Gjirokastër during the 19th century, head over to Skenduli House.

Skenduli House is the best-preserved house in Gjirokastër’s old city. It was built in 1823, but it’s not just a centuries-old house. It’s also an ethnographic museum that has preserved 19th-century Albanian life within its walls.

The house is owned by Nasip Skenduli, a descendent of the original builders of the house. The original family was one of the wealthiest in Gjirokastër, as the 12-room house included six bathrooms, nine fireplaces, and even four hamams, or Turkish baths.

On the first level, you’ll find a courtyard, while the second was where the family stayed during the winter. The third floor is open-air, and therefore, was the family’s summer area. Throughout the house, you’ll also find a storage room and earthquake bunker on the first level. There’s also a simple kitchen, bedrooms, and a room that serves as a natural refrigerator.

In the winter room on the second floor, there is a cozy living room and a large rug. You’ll also find small holes in the walls, through which the people inside the home could shoot arrows at any invaders.

The summer room on the third level is comfortable and airy, with a veranda with a couch. The entire home is decorated in traditional décor and furniture, making it a beautiful piece of Albanian history! Touring the house is one of the top things to see and do in Gjirokastër, Albania, so be sure to give Skenduli House a visit!

Skenduli House

Rruga Sokaku I te Mareve

Gjirokastër, Albania

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Stay at Hotel Argjiro

As always, if you spend more than a day in Gjirokastër, you’ll need a comfortable place to lay your head at night. I recommend Hotel Argjiro, a fantastic accommodation located in the heart of Gjirokastër’s historical center.

Believe it or not, Hotel Argjiro started out as a family apartment! Construction on it began in 1885 and concluded in 1891. It functioned as the Savoia Hotel beginning in the 1930s, and then as Hotel Argjiro from the 1960s to 2002. It then lay abandoned until 2011, when the owners restored and reconstructed the building. This sleek cream-colored building is now one of the city’s top accommodations, known for its luxurious feel, comfort, and cleanliness.

The impeccable hospitality at Hotel Argjiro was on display from the moment I arrived. Their friendly staff welcomed me and my travel companion Erjan with some traditional gliko before they escorted us to our rooms.

The Accommodations

My room on the first floor boasted a large, luxurious queen-sized bed and a flatscreen TV. There was also a comfortable couch, a table with coffee and water laid out, and a clean and modern bathroom. I also had a terrace, which allowed me to get a great look at the historical center of Gjirokastër!

Because of the hotel’s location, it’s the perfect accommodation for travelers. It’s centrally located and is just minutes from all of the city’s main attractions. It has air-conditioning and offers free WiFi, which is a must for those who travel to work.

If you don’t want to go far for food, they also have an on-site restaurant. The eatery offers both traditional Albanian food and international dishes. And best of all, even though the accommodations are quite luxurious, staying there is quite affordable. Prices start well below $100 per night during the off-season.

Because of its central location, wonderful staff, and fantastic amenities, Hotel Argjiro is one of my top things to see and do in Gjirokastër, Albania. I loved my time there and recommend it to everyone visiting the city!

Hotel Argjiro

Gjin Zenebisi St.

Gjirokastër, Albania 6001

+355 69 570 6315

Conclusion

The country of Albania may just be one of the most underrated travel destinations in the world right now. The natural beauty and diversity of the country, coupled with the warm and friendly culture, fresh and tasty cuisine, and rich history make it one of my favorite travel destinations of all-time. Gjirokastër is among my favorite cities in the country, with its vibrant culture, magnificent artisans, and fascinating historical sites. Not to mention, the drool-worthy farm-to-table cuisine. If you love exploring unexpected gems, this is the city for you. Book a trip to Albania today to enjoy the wonders of Gjirokastër for yourself. I promise, you won’t regret it!

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