Framed by the majestic Karadak Mountains in the Anamorava region of southeastern Kosovo is the town of Gjilan. This quaint, beautiful city is located roughly an hour’s drive southeast of the capital, Pristina. The city is well-known for its unique architecture and its traditional restaurants. There are several other things to see and do in Gjilan, Kosovo, including its markets, historical sites, and more.
The History of Gjilan
The exact date and year of Gjilan’s founding is unknown. Back in the 17th century, an Ottoman explorer named Evliya Çelebi wrote about the city, referring to it as “Morava.” He noted that the city was a seventeen-day trek from the Turkish city of Constantinople—now modern-day Istanbul.
Some say that Gjilan was officially founded as a settlement around the year 1750 and became an urban center in 1772. As Gjilan developed, the nearby city of Novo Brdo—one of the most prominent commercial and economic centers in the Balkans, as well as one of its top mining centers—fell.
In a dark moment in its history, Gjilan was the site of the murder of roughly 8,000 Kosovo Albanians during World War II. The incident, known as the Gjilan Massacre, was the work of Yugoslav Partisans and took place on January 23, 1944.
Today, Gjilan is known as one of Kosovo’s most beautiful towns. Its urban area is home to a little over 54,200 residents as of the 2011 census. The majority of its people are Albanian, though there is also a sizeable Serb population.
The Gjilan Massacre is commemorated every year during Flaka e Janarit, a three-week-long cultural festival that begins on January 11. An annual festival since its inception in 1991, Flaka e Janarit attracts Albanian artists and art enthusiasts from around the Balkans. Its participants celebrate the lives of Albanian martyrs such as writer Jusuf Gërvalla and war hero Skanderbeg.
My Time in Gjilan
I spent roughly 48 hours exploring Gjilan in October of 2020 with my guide Erjan Guxha from Travel Media EU. With some help from our friends at Rental Car Albania, we drove around the city, visiting as many sites as we could while enjoying tasty food at its signature restaurants. It’s one of my favorite cities in Kosovo and was a major highlight on my road trip though the country. These are the top 5 things you must see and do in Gjilan, Kosovo.
Visit the Sunday Market in Llabjan
One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to visit local markets. I find that they’re not only some of the best places to find unique and authentic souvenirs, but they’re also great spots to immerse yourself in the local culture. Among the highlights of my time in Gjilan was the morning I spent at the Sunday Market in Llabjan, a village just outside of the city.
At the Sunday Market, you’ll find locals selling a wide variety of products, including clothing, pottery, fresh produce, and even live animals. This market has been happening for years, but you’ll only find it on Sundays, so I suggest visiting early in the morning.
Some vendors offer tools like drills and jacks, while others sell men’s shoes and jackets. Others sell a popular fruit brandy called rakija, a condiment made of roasted red peppers and eggplant called ajvar, and fresh honey. It’s delightfully random and the vendors are all lively and friendly!
Those who prefer the freshest meat and eggs possible can check out the livestock section of the market, where vendors sell cows, chickens, ducks, and turkeys. The chickens come in a variety of colors and you have your choice of hens or roosters. For a small fee, a man there will kill the chickens for you if your goal is to take it home to eat.
But my favorite thing about this unique market is the vendor selling handmade pottery. The orange-tinted creations include casserole dishes, tava plates, water jugs, and ibriks (containers used to hold and serve rakija).
They’re colorful and intricately decorated and painstakingly made by the vendor. I bought several for my new business venture, Turtle Farm Albania, which is located just outside of Tirana. If you like locally-made goods, visiting the Sunday Market is one of the top things to see and do in Gjilan, Kosovo!
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Try Grilled Kosovar Food at Restaurant Cuco
Because Gjilan is known for its traditional restaurants, I highly recommend visiting a few of them to try some of the best food in the area. One of these eateries is Restaurant Cuco, a family-owned restaurant first established in 1996. Without question, eating there is one of the top things to do in Gjilan, Kosovo.
The restaurant is located in a rustic house that’s over a century old in the city center. It has a small outdoor dining area, as well as an outdoor terrace.
Although I’m definitely a carnivore, one of my favorite things about Kosovar cuisine is its fresh vegetables. The salads are Restaurant Cuco are superb and contain crispy cabbage, carrots, lettuce, cucumbers, beets, and tomatoes. The tomatoes in particular are some of the juiciest I’ve eaten in my life and are full of flavor!
Kosovar cuisine also tends to be very dairy-heavy. Restaurant Cuco’s potato salad contains a dense mozzarella-like cheese, which adds a smooth, creamy texture. Like a lot of Kosovar dishes, it has a spicy kick to it due to the addition of red pepper.
But by far, the best dishes on the menu are their poultry and meat. I can’t recommend their boneless chicken enough, which is roasted to crispy, juicy perfection.
Just in case the moist, tender, smoky chicken wasn’t enough, it comes with an oily garlic dipping sauce. The garlic flavor shines without being overpowering and adds a whole new layer of deliciousness to the chicken!
I also must mention their beef steak, which is served medium-rare and sliced right at your table. As should be expected in the Balkans, the meat tastes fresh and high-quality. It’s also melt-in-your mouth tender. Best of all, the serving size is big enough for at least four or five people, so be sure to take your friends or family!
Abdullah Tahiri 26
Gjilan 60000 Kosovo
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Explore Novo Brdo Fortress
Although the town of Novo Brdo is no longer the booming powerhouse it once was, it still boasts a must-visit attraction. Roughly 20 minutes from Llabjan is Novo Brdo Fortress, a 13th-century castle built to store gold and silver.
Built around 1285, the 14-meter-high castle was built atop a boulder-strewn hill as part of a defensive ring with two other nearby castles. The other two castles now lay in ruin.
To reach the fortress, you’ll have to navigate a rocky path leading up the hill. The climb is fairly easy and takes roughly five minutes. Once you reach the top, you’ll enjoy beautiful views of the surrounding area. Some of the landmarks you can spot include old wells, ruined stone houses, and a dilapidated mosque.
Unlike many other castles around Kosovo and Albania, Novo Brdo Fortress is not a living castle, so you won’t find homes or restaurants within its walls. During my visit, the castle was being renovated, and its main wooden doors were closed.
Although the doors were closed, I was able to peek inside the castle through a hole in the door. The inside looks to be in poor condition, which may have been the reason for the renovations.
If you want to take great photographs, I suggest heading back down the hill to the ruined homes and wells. From there, you can take photos among the ruins with the imposing castle in the background. It’s one of the best things to see and do in Gjilan, and is perfect for history enthusiasts!
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Visit the Gold Market
If you have a nice chunk of change in your pocket and like high-quality jewelry, I recommend visiting Gjilan’s gold market. Located near the center of town, this market is the best spot in town to buy goods made with this precious metal.
The market is essentially a small square lined with shops. It’s a popular place where Kosovar men buy gifts for their wives and girlfriends. Best of all, the prices are quite reasonable at only 45 Euros per gram.
If you’re looking for some quality gold jewelry for yourself or a loved one, there’s no better place in Gjilan than the gold market!
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Stay at Resort PLANET Gjilan
Obviously, you can’t spend two days in Gjilan without having a place to lay your head at night. If you’re ever in town, I highly suggest staying at one of the area’s premier resorts, Resort PLANET Gjilan. It’s easily one of the best things to see and do in Gjilan, Kosovo.
Resort PLANET Gjilan is one of the biggest resorts in and around Gjilan. Its main building houses 70 rooms, and over 50 residences can be found elsewhere on its expansive grounds. The grounds also contain an outdoor terrace and a manmade stream. With the nearby mountains visible from the grounds, the resort reminded me of my time in the Swiss Alps!
The residences are 175 square meters each and contain three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Most of them serve as summer homes for Kosovar residents. If you have 99,000 Euros ($117,800 USD) lying around, you can own one!
But if you’re looking to stay in the main building, Resort PLANET Gjilan’s rooms are beautiful and comfortable. My room had a cozy queen-sized bed, a twin bed, and a couch. A big-screen TV hung on its walls, and its bathroom was clean and modern with a cool neon light around the mirror!
As stunning as the resort’s grounds and rooms are, the real magic is in its on-site restaurant. The restaurant stays packed, so I highly recommend making a reservation beforehand.
In their busy kitchens, the cooks prepare everything from fish to lamb to chicken, as well as local favorites like byrek and flija.
It’s hard for me to fully express how phenomenal the food at Resort Planet is. My dinner there started with a cheesy pizza-like dish with a crust made from corn and flour. The crumbly cheese and peppers on top were excellent and reminded me of a white pizza.
You’ll also have some customary bread, cheese, and yogurt as an appetizer before your main entrees arrive. I suggest the veal ribs, which are as tender and smooth as butter, as well as the T-bone steak and vegetables. Ordering them is definitely one of the best things to do in Gjilan, Kosovo!
The meat pairs perfectly with their earthy mushroom sauce, but I almost preferred the meat without the sauce. One of the great pleasures of enjoying Kosovar meat is the fact that it usually doesn’t come overdressed with sauces. That allows the flavor of the meat to shine on its own rather than being covered up.
I must also thank the incredible staff at Resort PLANET Gjilan, who arranged a dessert plate welcoming me to the resort. I’m not really a sweets guy, but their brownie with cherry marmalade was outstanding. There was also some delicious, creamy cheesecake, but I was so stuffed I couldn’t finish it all!
Resort PLANET Gjilan
Gjilan 60000 Kosovo
BONUS: Stop by AB BioFarm
As I mentioned earlier, one of my favorite things about traveling through the Balkans is the abundance of fresh, organic food. I can’t overstate how different meat, dairy, and vegetables are when they haven’t been raised or treated with antibiotics, pesticides, and other chemicals. One of the best places to taste that difference is at AB BioFarm.
This spot isn’t a farm—it’s a store located down an easily-missed street off the main square. Their offerings are standard Kosovar foods like cheese, honey, marmalade, jam, ajvar, raw meat, cevapcici, and a spicy sausage called sujuk.
Their friendly owner, Bleri, graciously let me sample some of their goat cheese, which is as fresh and crumbly as you’d imagine it would be. I also tried a buttery sheep cheese that practically melted over my palate the moment I put it in my mouth. You also must try the sujuk, which is tender with a nice kick of heat.
If you’re looking for a delicious and healthy snack as you explore Gjilan, you can’t beat AB BioFarm. The food is top notch and the staff is kind and extremely hospitable. Pay them a visit and tell them that I sent you!
Gjilan 60000 Kosovo
+383 49 525 254
When you plan a trip to visit Kosovo, make sure to add at least a couple of days so you can visit Gjilan. It’s such a picturesque location in southeastern Kosovo and truly has a lot to offer. I thoroughly enjoyed my time diving into its food and exploring its attractions. Whether you’re a foodie, a history lover, or a shopaholic, you will find something to get excited about there. Book a trip to Kosovo today to check out the best that Gjilan has to offer!
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