Mysterious Gjirokastra: where to go, where to stay and delicious food in the "city of a thousand steps"

By Valentina BaturinetsFeb 28, 2024 08:50 AMGjirokaster
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Mysterious Gjirokastra: where to go, where to stay and delicious food in the "city of a thousand steps"
Gjirokastra is the pride of Albania with picturesque landscapes. Source: Pixels

The noble pearl of Albania, famous for its rich history and rich cultural life is called Gjirokastra, also known as the "stone city". This city with original architectural structures with Ottoman "roots" is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The sights of Gjirokastra are distinguished by their original color and mysterious aura. It is also called "the city of a thousand steps". Travelers enjoy strolling along its cobbled streets with houses made of good stone, bringing to mind rebellious historical events. In a kind of museum with majestic castles and museums you can add discoveries to your "piggy bank" of knowledge about ancient Albania.

Mysterious Gjirokastra: where to go, where to stay and delicious food in the "city of a thousand steps"
''The City of a Thousand Steps'' is famous for its colorful architecture and Albanian hospitality. Source: Pixels

Authentic Architecture

The first thing that catches the eye when visiting Gjirokastra is the original architecture. Here, stone buildings with massive roofs and noble wood finishes predominate. A typical element for houses in this ancient town is cozy balconies made of wood.

Many of Gjirokstra's houses were built in the 17th century, and some even later. The buildings with flat stone roofs often have 4-5 floors. They include boudoir bedrooms and luxurious living quarters, spacious guest rooms, and hammams.

Cultural life

Gjirokastra vividly demonstrates its multifaceted culture. It hosts the National Folklore Festival, a grand event that emphasizes the originality of Albanian music and dance with colorful costumes. It has been organized every five years since 1968 in an ancient castle, which adds to the extravagance of the action.

Our tip: If you are planning a trip to Gjirokastra, ask when the festival takes place. You may be lucky enough to attend it and experience the unreal atmosphere of the raucous festivities.

Sumptuous cuisine

Albanian cuisine with a spicy dash of Greek and Turkish influences is a favorite of locals and visitors alike. Try tziftsi here – appetizing rice balls with divine mint, and you will surely appreciate the subtle harmony of their taste and aroma. Order a byrek, the famous puff pastry of the local cuisine, at one of the cafes in town and it will give you a welcome treat.

Excellent options for hearty lunches for travelers are chomlek, a meat delicacy with prunes, and tave kozi, baked lamb with rice and vegetables. One of the secrets of the dishes' divine flavor is the delicate balance of spices and seasonings - which is carefully preserved by local culinary experts. Among drinks, Greek wine and rakia take the place of honor.

Our tip: There are many cozy cafes and restaurants scattered in the city, but we advise you to look into a tavern with a colorful aura of ancient Albania. Prices here are quite democratic, and impressions of the appetizing food of the city will stay with you forever.

Among the many gastronomic establishments, Edua restaurant with its special seasonal menu stands out immediately. It has a small store inside with a rich assortment of locally produced products.

Recommended time to visit Gjirokastra

Gjirokastra is best visited in the summer when dry and warm weather prevails. The average annual temperature in the town is 15 degrees Celsius. The climate in the "Stone City" is Mediterranean, so there is a lot of precipitation in winter.

Mysterious Gjirokastra: where to go, where to stay and delicious food in the "city of a thousand steps"
Summer time is the best time to visit Gjirokastra. Source: Pixels

If you plan a trip from May to October, the weather will please you with warmth without an abundance of rain. For hot weather lovers, August is ideal, when the temperature stays firmly at 24 degrees.

What to see in Gjirokastra

When visiting Gjirokastra, tourists realize that it is simply impossible to see all its sights in one day. The very architecture of the city in the traditional Balkan style is already its "specialty".

On the territory of the whole Albania you will not find a settlement with so many stone houses in the form of towers. The picturesque slope has become a cozy "shelter" for hundreds of buildings, and on the highest part of it solemnly "sits" the most ancient tower with a mysterious past.

Bazaar

To feel the impressive power of Albanian hospitality and dive into the famous shopping area of the city, go straight to the bazaar. This is a famous landmark of Gjirokastra with a playful "character". The sale of goods for various purposes has held a crowning place in the life of the city since the 13th century.

The bazaar square is next to the mosque, which can only be visited during services. Not far from it is the monument to Memedh, which symbolizes the renewal of Albania. Among the landmark buildings of Gjirokastra are Turkish baths with authentic architecture and original decoration of the premises.

At the bazaar you can buy soap and hygiene products of the author's production, exquisite wine and honey, herbs, and amazing spices. Young travelers enthusiastically consider here original handicrafts, toys, and miniatures made of wood and bright ceramics. Buy a bottle of rakija to take a piece of noble Gjirokastra with you.

Our tip: Visit Codra Sweet Hill, which is located in the Old Bazaar, near the Bazaar Mosque. It sells tantalizing ice creams, delicious juices, and smoothies at ridiculous prices. You can order a multi-ingredient juice, which will be prepared especially for you according to your tastes and wishes.

Gjirokastra Fortress

The city's landmark building with unique architecture is the Gjirokastra Fortress, which consists of five towers, an ancient structure with an 18th-century clock that was built by the Turks, a cistern, and a museum. It is the second-largest structure in the Balkans. The tower offers stunning views of the picturesque valley and the ancient town.

Mysterious Gjirokastra: where to go, where to stay and delicious food in the "city of a thousand steps"
Gjirokastra Fortress is a landmark structure of the ''stone city''. Source: Pixels

The architectural ensemble of the fortress also includes a colorful church, stables, and elegant fountains. There was even room for a prison for political prisoners, which functioned until 1970. In the museum, you can learn a lot of curious things about the ancient life of the city and get acquainted with vivid photos of historical themes.

Usually, travelers spend a lot of time near the Fiat military tank, a striking representative of the military equipment of World War II, and the "Shooting Star" aircraft of the United States Air Force. Children and adults take special pleasure in "testing" them during the tour.

You don't need fabulous sums to visit the fortress and museum, and their doors are cordially open to travelers from morning until late afternoon.

Our tip: The best time to see the citadel is early morning or late evening to avoid crowds. You will need 2-3 hours to explore it, as the citadel is very large in scale.

Zekate Family House

A prime example of the distinctive architecture of the City of a Thousand Steps is the luxurious Zekate Family House. This three-story mansion features two towers united by an elegant facade with two arches.

The structure with thick walls, neat windows, and a relatively small entrance looks more like a fortress than a standard house. Today, tourists flock here in droves to experience the mysterious aura of an old manor house with a boudoir, guest rooms, and a cozy sitting area on the terrace with a soft sofa.

The Zecate House was severely damaged in 1990, after which it was restored by a company that specializes in valuable monuments of Gjirokastra. The historical monument is marked on tourist maps, so it can be reached quickly by car.

Skenduli House

An important attraction of Gjirokastra is the Skenduli House, built in the early 17th century. It is a luxurious building in the style of Albanian architecture with 12 rooms, 6 hammams, and cozy mezzanines. The structure has a bunker to protect its inhabitants from artillery attacks. The House of Skenduli regularly organizes tours from 9.00 to 19.00 with an experienced guide who speaks different languages.

Obelisk of Gjirokastra

Above the stone roofs of the Old Bazaar rises the snow-white Obelisk of Gjirokastra, which is one of the spectacular monuments to Albanian education and language itself. It is symbolically located near the first school of the city, where the Albanian language was secretly taught during the Ottoman Empire.

Its height is about seven meters, but thanks to its location on a hill, the length of the structure visually increases. A pleasant bonus for visitors to the elegant monument is the opportunity to admire the picturesque surroundings of the city with its castles and mosques, Drino Valley, and lush gardens.

Museum of Arms

One of the noble castles of the "City of a Thousand Lights" houses the Arms Museum with curious exhibits. This structure, which is worth seeing in Gjirokastra, was erected in the distant 6th century, but later it was restored by the ancient Ottomans. The museum presents unique collections of weapons that appeared in the 19th and 20th centuries. A model of an American airplane, which invaded the territory of the country and was destroyed, occupies a prominent place on the square of the institution.

Ethnographic Museum

Still thinking - where to go in Gjirokastra? We have many worthy options for a busy leisure time. If you want to feel like a native inhabitant of the "stone city" for a while, be sure to visit the Ethnographic Museum.

Here everything is organized in such a way that visitors get into the atmosphere of the former life of Albanians. The rooms of the museum are furnished with old furniture from the past years. There are "spectacle zones" with national costumes, household attributes and the original culture of Gjirokastra with a magical aura.

Mysterious Gjirokastra: where to go, where to stay and delicious food in the "city of a thousand steps"
Visit the Ethnographic Museum of Gjirokastra to experience the magic of the Albanian town of Gjirokastra. Source: Pixels

Drina River

"The City of a Thousand Steps" is famous not only for its stone towers but also for its picturesque river "artery". It occupies a huge area of 13 thousand square meters. It is a popular area for stunning water walks, where it is convenient to admire the famous sights of the city from a different angle.

Ali Pasha Bridge

Another interesting place to visit in Gjirokastra that we want to invite you to is the ancient Ali Pasha Bridge. In reality, it is not a bridge, but a component of a powerful aqueduct, which was used to supply water to the cisterns of the ancient structure from the mountain water "arteries", which are located 10 km from here.

The aqueduct was built in the early 19th century at the request of the Ottoman ruler of Albania, Ali Pasha Janina, with whose name the sight is associated. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was dismantled, as it was planned to build cells for prisoners. The only fragment of the aqueduct, which is located in a narrow gorge, has survived to this day.

The aqueduct is reached by a mountain road, most of which is asphalted. The travel time takes approximately 45 minutes. Next is a path along a dried-up riverbed.

Cold War Tunnel

Another popular tourist attraction in Gjirokastra is the Cold War Tunnel. The structure includes many bunkers and chambers built in the 1980s, during the era of communist rule in Albania.

The bunkers were intended as a haven in the event of atomic war, but fortunately, they were never used. The structures have remained virtually unchanged since their construction, with only spectacular lighting added. Most of the equipment was plundered, and unique attributes of the furnishings, historical documentation, and other household items have been preserved here.

Here are organized tours in Gjirokastra with a tour of 59 rooms and long corridors, which were intended for selected representatives of the political elite and rulers of the city.

Noteworthy among the many rooms are the dining room and generator room with powerful equipment, offices for ministers, and restrooms. An important place in the Cold War Tunnel is the conference room with a military cabinet, designed for meetings of politicians and military leaders.

Our tip: The bunkers are always chilly, so be sure to bring a warm sweater or jacket on your tour.

Souvenir stalls and stores

While strolling the cobblestone streets of the city, don't forget to visit the stores and souvenir stalls with plenty of useful things and cute souvenirs that will remind you of your magical trip for a long time.

Mysterious Gjirokastra: where to go, where to stay and delicious food in the "city of a thousand steps"
Gjirokastra has many stores and souvenir stores with goods for every taste. Source: Pixels

Here you can buy clothes made of natural cotton or silk, luxurious carpets, and original decor in the refined Albanian style. Tourists are happy to buy here elegant jewelry made of gold and silver, as well as pretty marble things that will add an exclusive touch to any interior.

The original highlight of Gjirokastra

An interesting peculiarity of Gjirokastra is that there are no nightclubs here, usual for noisy European and American resorts. Locals prefer a quiet and measured life, without loud music, which would break the authentic atmosphere of the ancient city. Tourists who are in awe of the ancient architecture and get inspired by the ancient castles flock here.

Our advice: Do not come here with small children, as the "stone city" provides a long stay "on your feet", and entertainment for kids here is not so much. But school-age children are certainly impressed by the majestic fortresses with an unusual atmosphere.

Where to stay overnight in Gjirokastra

After a long walk with vivid emotions, you will surely want to relax in a quiet environment. For this purpose, there are guesthouses and hotels with an impressive list of services. Depending on your personal preferences, you can cozy up in a hotel with good accommodation conditions and a medium price tag or luxurious apartments that honestly deserve all five stars.

Mysterious Gjirokastra: where to go, where to stay and delicious food in the "city of a thousand steps"
Offers for a comfortable and cozy overnight stay in Gjirokastra are more than enough. Source: Pixels

We want to offer you a choice of the best options for accommodation in Gjirokastra depending on the level of service and cost of services:

  1. Mid-range accommodation. When traveling in the ancient city, you can stay in hotels that offer maximum amenities at a reasonable price. Such establishments include Kotoni, a guest house with an attractive facade and well-maintained rooms. It is run by a hospitable family that prepares wonderful breakfasts for travelers in the best traditions of Albanian cuisine.
  2. Accommodation in a stylish apartment. Jani Studio Apartments are a great option for accommodation in Gjirokastra, which is close to the bus station. They feature cozy sleeping and working areas, as well as a kitchenette with functional equipment. The apartments are in a convenient location, close to cool cafes and bakeries, taverns, and restaurants. Local attractions are also within walking distance - the Old Bazaar and the Noble Castle are within easy reach.
  3. Comfortable accommodation in the spirit of a boutique hotel. It is brightly presented in Muse'e, one of the old houses of Gjirokastra with 200 years of history. Here tourists admire the coffered ceilings with spectacular beams and troughs and pretty fireplaces that add a homely feel to the rooms. The breakfasts here are also sumptuous.
  4. Premium accommodations. If you want to feel like royalty, book a deluxe room at Kerculla Resort. Here the design of accommodation and first-class level of service are harmoniously combined. The main gem of the hotel, which is idolized by tourists - a spacious pool with turquoise water surface.
  5. Budget accommodation. If you favor inexpensive lodging with unpretentious room arrangements, stay at Stone City Hostel with shared rooms. "Do not discount" this option of an overnight stay, as it will help save your financial resources for new emotions and adventures. If you still prefer privacy, stay in one of the double rooms of the hostel with elegant decor and the necessary benefits of civilization. The hostel owners also offer free day trips to see the hidden gems of the city.

If you wish, you can always book a deluxe room in Gjirokastra with spacious terraces, swimming pools, and access to the garden with exotic greenery and magnificent flower beds. Here you can relax and be filled with the desired energy for new discoveries in the ancient city.

How to get there?

Gjirokastra can be reached quickly by plane to Rinas Airport, which is served by international transportation. From here there are also regular buses to the "city of a thousand steps". Tourists often travel by private car, which is better left on the outskirts of the city.

What is the best way to get around the "stone city"?

In the ancient city, it is best to walk, because it is filled with narrow streets and alleys, where traffic is difficult. Of course, if you want, you can take a cab or rent a car here. In addition, buses run along Gjirokastra according to the schedule, which you can check with the locals.

This is the end of our virtual tour of Gjirokastra, full of magical locations with secrets of the past. A visit to this colorful city with divine cuisine should be on your wish list for the near future.

Have cool adventures and fantastic emotions in one of the best locations in Albania!

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