Gjirokaster is one of my favorite little villages in Europe. It was my first introduction to the Albania that I would eventually fall in love with. Gjirokaster is charming, filled with history, and overflowing with character. With Albania being my first foray into the Balkans, Gjirokaster was unlike anywhere I’d ever seen before. This all-white village nestled in the mountains with its unique stone roofs transported me back into a time long gone. The monstrous castle on the hill towering over the city and the valley only added to the medieval vibes.
I spent three days in Gjirokaster, which was enough to see the main things. However, one could easily spend longer just relaxing, enjoying the vibe, and taking in the beautiful scenery. Gjirokaster is one of the can’t-miss destinations of Albania, and an essential stop on any Albanian itinerary. Oh, and it’s pronounced Jee-ro-kast-rah.
How To Get To Gjirokaster
First things first, how to get to this cute little village. As remote as it may be, it is conveniently located between the tourist hubs of Saranda and the capital of Tirana. In as small of a country as Albania, all roads lead to the capital. You’ll have no issue finding your way to Gjirokaster.
I came to Gjirokaster from Sarande, and it was quite easy. In the main square where most of the buses are, look for one heading to Gjirokaster. If you’ve got a big backpack on or a suitcase, it basically signifies that you’re a traveler, and sometimes, the buses will find you. People will ask where you’re going, say Gjirokaster, and you’ll be pointed in the right direction. The buses to Gjirokaster from Sarande are frequent in the mornings, but less frequent later in the day. By bus, I also mean more like a van, like those colectivos that I’ve grown quite fond of in Latin America.
If you can’t catch a bus to Gjirokaster, just get one to Tirana and get off at Gjirokaster.
Same thing, basically. Albania isn’t exactly the most organized country when it comes to public transport. The “bus station” in Tirana wasn’t really a station. It was a big outdoor parking lot where there were hundreds of buses with the destination pasted on the front window. Look for one going to Gjirokaster, or ask around and you’ll be pointed in the right direction. Bus schedules are meaningless in Albania.
You’ll get dropped off on the main road close to Gjirokaster’s New Town, a modern area with ugly apartment buildings and businesses. Don’t judge Gjirokaster based on your first impression. Hike up to Gjirokaster Old Town, which is where you’ll likely be staying anyway. You can take a taxi, or you can tough it up and learn firsthand why Gjirokaster is known as The City of a Thousand Steps.
Where To Stay in Gjirokaster
Despite not being super touristy, Gjirokaster has quite a wide range of accommodation. If you look on Booking, you’ll find over 170 options, most of which are located within the Old Town. However, regardless of your travel style, there is only one place that I would recommend. Stone City Hostel is the place to be. It is one of the best hostels I’ve stayed at in my life. It is one of those rare places that simply gets everything right. They also have private rooms available if you prefer a little privacy but still want the community aspect of a hostel.
Beyond the amazing property, big free breakfast, beautiful common areas, comfortable beds, and stunning views, it just nails every aspect of what I look for in a hostel. Wouter, the owner, is almost always present and chatting away with guests. Despite meeting new faces day in and day out for several years, he still makes the effort to ensure that every traveler falls in love with Gjirokaster the same way he did. He runs free walking tours with no expectation of tips. He also takes hostel guests on a criminally underpriced road trip, taking them to hidden gems, abandoned buildings, and stunning views of the mountains and Zagoria Valley.
If I had more time to spend in Albania, I would have stayed as long as I possibly could at Stone City. Its central location puts you in the heart of Old Gjirokaster. Despite being in a several-hundred year old building, you could never tell. The hostel is modern but maintains a rustic, medieval character to it. It definitely helps that the dorm windows give you a view of the towering Gjirokaster Castle in the background. I can’t say enough good things about Stone City Hostel.
Stone City Hostel does tend to get booked up very quickly, so make sure to book at least a few days in advance, especially during the busy summer season.
The Best Things To Do in Gjirokaster
Although it’s a small town, Gjirokaster has quite a lot of things to do. Whether you prefer exploring natural landscapes or roaming through historic buildings and neighborhoods, Gjirokaster has something that’ll excite you. An aimless wander through the city, hiking up the hills, and hunting for epic viewpoints is the best thing you can do in Gjirokaster. However, if you’re looking to tick some boxes, here are some spots that I’d recommend checking out.
No matter how many castles I visited in Albania, I never tired of them. Gjirokaster Castle is a can’t-miss while visiting this small town nestled in the mountains. One could spend a few hours roaming around the vast expanse of this castle. Parts of it are dated to as early as the 12th Century. Inside the castle are a few museums worth visiting as well, such as the National Museum of Armaments and Gjirokaster Museum.
Skenduli House and Zekate House
One of the coolest things to do in Gjirokaster is to take a tour of the traditional houses. It will give you a feel of what life used to be like back in the day. These houses date back to the Ottoman period, as early as the 17th century. The Skenduli House is still owned by ancestors of the original family. It’s pretty crazy considering that the property changed hands many times during the several changes of power that Albania has experienced throughout the centuries. Zekate House is the other famous Ottoman-period house. It is considered to be the finest example of Ottoman architecture still standing in Gjirokaster. If you have a chance to visit Gjirokaster, you can’t miss these two houses.
Walk Through the Old Bazaar
The Bazaar is what the main part of Gjirokaster’s Old Town is called. It’s where you’ll find most of the restaurants, bars, mini markets, and shopping. Outside of the migration to New Gjirokaster during the Communist era, this neighborhood of Gjirokaster has been the main hub since the Ottoman days. It’s also home to the most photogenic and Insta-worthy roads and alleyways in Albania. It’s quite small, but you’ll have enough cafes, bars, and restaurants to keep things interesting for at least a few days.
Go Hiking Around Gjirokaster
The tourism industry is still relatively new in Albania. Although there are plenty of stunning places to hike, there aren’t all too many established hiking trails. Most of the longer hiking trails will be outside of the city. I didn’t see many tour agencies in Gjirokaster, which is why I’d recommend chatting with your hostel/hotel staff to get some tips and recommendations. I had a couple friends go on a multi-day hiking trip in this area around Zagoria Valley and they absolutely loved it. Albania is wild and untamed. Their journey included a lot of hitchhiking, sleeping in goat farms, and drinking raki with local families along the way. It’s an adventure, but if you’re open-minded and up for it, you’ll have a grand time.
Road Trip with Wouter and Stone City Hostel
This is that jeep trip I was talking about that I went on with Wouter from Stone City Hostel. It only cost us 27 euros each. Apparently, other tour agencies in town were beginning to copy his itinerary and charge around 5 times the price. But like I said, some hostel owners are truly in it for the love of travel, and not just to make money. Five of us hopped in his car and visited ancient ruins, abandoned churches, quaint mountain villages, hidden bunkers, and stunning panoramic views of Zagoria Valley and Gjirokaster.
Free City Walking Tour with Stone City Hostel
You’ll come to find that booking Stone City Hostel will basically guarantee you have the best experience in Gjirokaster. We arrived in Gjirokaster and upon getting to the hostel, found out there’d be a free city tour that evening led by Wouter. Wouter took us to a bunch of cool places and viewpoints, giving us a great run down of the history of Gjirokaster. He even took us through some of the bunkers built during the Communist era. Enver Hoxha, the Communist leader that ordered the building of the 170,000+ bunkers in Albania, was actually born in Gjirokaster. There is a lot of history in this relatively small village. A walking tour of the city is a great way to get a deeper understanding of Gjirokaster and Albania.
Restaurants and Nightlife in Gjirokaster
After being disappointed by the food in Sarande, my expectations had dropped quite low for Albanian food. After feasting on amazing meal after amazing meal in Greece, I started to accept that Greece may have just set the bar high. I was ready to expect much less for the rest of the Balkans. However, Gjirokaster flipped my opinion on that really quickly. Albanian cuisine wasn’t world-class by any means, but I did grow to love the traditional meals, starting in Gjirokaster. One of the local favorites is qifqi, which is basically a ball of rice, eggs, and herbs. The food in Gjirokaster was very vegetarian-friendly, and I’d often order a few vegetarian appetizers in place of a meal.
Some restaurants that I liked in Gjirokaster were Odaja, Kuka, and Check-In. They are all located in the Old Bazaar area of Gjirokaster. The meals were very affordable, with appetizers ranging around 100-300 lek ($1-3), and main courses being around 300-500 lek ($3-5). I was a big fan of the stuffed peppers, vegetarian moussaka, and rice wrapped in vine leaves. Albania has quite a meat-heavy cuisine. For meat-eaters, you’ll have no shortage of sausages, meatballs, and other meat platters to feast on.
As for nightlife in Gjirokaster, you won’t find too much. Albania loves to party, but unfortunately, I visited Albania while COVID restrictions were still in place. You wouldn’t be able to tell, as no one wore masks indoors or outdoors. While I was there though, the bars were forced to shut their music off at around 10:30 PM. They’d stay open much later, but the nightlife was just sitting on a patio sipping on beer or raki. I can’t imagine that Old Gjirokaster would have any wild nightlife, but it is possible that New Gjirokaster might have some places to drink and dance later at night.
You truly can’t go wrong with a visit to Gjirokaster. Whether you’re just stopping by for a couple of days or looking for a quiet place to take it slow for a while, Gjirokaster is a perfect spot. It’s easy to see why this little village has become one of Albania’s most popular destinations.
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