In case you haven’t guessed yet, Albania absolutely blew me away when I visited this Autumn (and if you’re new here, hey, I’m Dani and Albania absolutely blew me away when I visited this Autumn). Berat was a city that I fell head over heels in love with, and so I was thrilled when I discovered that Berat is actually twinned with another UNESCO World Heritage site, the city of Gjirokaster in Southern Albania.
While Berat is known as the ‘City of a Thousand Windows,’ Gjirokaster is the ‘City of a Thousand Steps,’ and boy don’t I know it!
No matter which way you turn in the historic centre of Gjirokaster, you’re either faced with a hill going upwards or one leading down. The narrow cobbled streets, where old Mercedes-Benz’s compete with pedestrians for space are uneven, steep, and unpredictable, making a casual stroll through Gjirokaster an adventure in itself! However, while this may not necessarily seem like a positive, it all serves to make Gjirokaster even more charming and mysterious.
Just like everywhere else in Albania, well-dressed old men sit on the side of the road playing games of backgammon while kittens chase leaves that blow in the wind. Impressive Ottoman architecture gives home to stores selling handwoven carpets, the double-headed Albanian eagle is everywhere, and beyond all this are the looming mountains in the distance, ready to protect the city from intruders.
Are you intrigued yet? Read on for my tips on how to get to Gjirokaster, where to stay once you get there, and just what there is to do in the enchanting city.
How to Get to Gjirokaster
My friends and I planned to get the bus from Saranda, but on the way to the bus stop, a friendly man stopped us and told us that he’d take us there in his Mercedes for the same price. Anywhere else in the world, we’d have balked (heheh, Balkans, geddit?), but hey, this is Albania! Riding with strangers is practically a rite of passage for backpackers here.
After a moment’s hesitation, we decided to take him up on his offer, and so we piled into his car for what proceeded to be a much smoother journey than we would have had if we’d taken the bus. However, for those that don’t get intercepted by a random dude in a Mercedes, buses from Saranda are pretty frequent, or you can hitchhike.
When you arrive in Gjirokaster, you will get dropped off at the bottom of a steep hill (I told you everything is either up or down). The walk to the centre is a 30 minute uphill climb, so you’re better off getting a taxi or hitchhiking. We decided to hitchhike and got picked up in a matter of minutes by a guy who was kind enough to drop us off right in front of our hostel and help us with our luggage!
Things to Do in Gjirokaster
Like most European old towns, one of the best things to do in Gjirokaster is to just wander around the cobbled streets, going wherever the wind takes you. As you admire the impressive Ottoman architecture, take some time to venture into the numerous artisan shops that line the streets of the old city. There, you’ll find an abundance of handmade souvenirs, including traditional Albanian carpets, called qilim. It’s also a good idea to stop for a Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee is my favourite coffee ever. It’s thick, rich and strong, and the Gjirokaster’s Ottoman past has ensured a healthy supply of Turkish coffee wherever you go.
Skendulate House is the home of the Skenduli family and has been for over 250 years. Although it was taken from them during Communism, it has since been returned to them and the family take great pride in showing tourists around their home, which has been styled as a sort of ethnographic museum. After paying the 1.60EU entrance fee, somebody from the family will give you a guided tour around the whole building, explaining how the family lived in days gone by and what each room would have been used for.
While the decor and layout is similar to those in other ethnographic museums in the region, it is wonderful to be shown around by somebody from the family who have lived in the house for generations.
Gjirokaster Fortress and Castle
Ah, would it really be an Albanian city without an impressive fortress? Gjorkaster fortress and castle is just a short walk uphill from the city centre, and if nothing else, is worth visiting for the panoramic views over the city! The castle itself has been preserved beautifully, with a lot of military tanks on display (if this interests you then there is also a military museum up there with artefacts and memorabilia), and even a recovered US Air Force jet that was shot down during the communist era!
To get into the castle and grounds, there is a 1.60EU fee.
The best things in Albania can only be discovered if you go off the beaten track, and luckily, our hostel owners knew exactly where to go! During my stay at Stone City Hostel, one of the owners, Brenna, took us our in her 4X4 to visit a whole host of places that can only be reached by going off-road.
We spent the morning visiting an old monastery, the historic archaeological site of Adrianopolis from the 2nd century AD, and some wonderful secret waterfalls. Unfortunately, after enjoying a hearty lunch in a small mountain village, Brenna’s car broke down and so we were unable to visit the other sites that she’d intended on showing us, but we still had a wonderful day and I highly recommend doing this tour if you find yourself staying at Stone City Hostel!
Take part in a walking tour
While I’m sure there is abundance of guided walking tours in the historic city of Gjirokaster, I went on the one that Walter, one of the owners of my hostel, led. Not only was it completely free (rather than tipping at the end, as is usually the custom with ‘free’ walking tours), but it was thoroughly enjoyable. Walter took us to the famous yellow Fico House and through an underground bunker, as well as explaining lots about the history of Gjirokaster, which is long and complex!
I talk more about Stone City Hostel down below, but between Walter’s walking tour and Brenna’s off-roading trip, I really felt as though I got to see a lot more of Gjirokaster than most tourists, and this is part of the reason I highly recommend this hostel.
Enver Hoxha’s House
Former communist dictator of Albania, Enver Hoxha really wasn’t that nice of a guy. However, the idea of getting to explore where somebody so infamous grew up is somewhat intriguing, in a morbid kind of way. However, Enver Hoxha’s house has actually been turned into an ethnographic museum, making its allure somewhat redundant.
As I’d been to various ethnographic museums in the area already, I decided to skip Enver Hoxha’s former family home, where little to no trace of him remains. After reading some of the reviews online, I can’t say that I regret it. If you have limited time in Gjirokaster and want to see how families used to live in years gone by, I would recommend that you visit Skendulate House instead.
Budget Accommodation in Gjirokaster
I stayed at Stone City Hostel in the centre of Gjirokaster which is where everybody who goes to Gjirokaster stays, and for good reason! Stone City Hostel is probably the nicest hostel I’ve ever been to in terms of the building and decor itself. I could quite happily live there! Not only that, but the owners Brenna and Walter are lovely and go above and beyond making their guests enjoy their time in Gjirokaster. When I was there, they organised a free walking tour and a full-day trip led by Brenna, as well as cooking everyone a hot breakfast every morning with thick crusty bread bought fresh from the bakery.
To book your stay in Stone City Hostel, click right here!
That’s all for my recommendations on what to do and where to stay when you visit the historic city of Gjirokaster! There is much more to the city of Gjirokaster than meets the eye, and for this reason I think that it deserves a place on every Albanian itinerary. While at first it may seem like just another charming old town, it has a long and complex history ranging from Ottoman rule to the birth of the most infamous man who ever lived in Albania, and so whether your interests lie in architecture, good coffee or history textbooks, there will be something for you in Gjirokaster.
Have you ever been to Gjirokaster? What did you think? Did I miss out one of the best things to do in the city? Please let me know your thoughts in the comments below!
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