Europe, Albania

Visiting One of the Largest Castles in the Balkans in Gjirokaster, Albania

August 28, 2019

If you’re thinking about visiting Gjirokaster, Albania, this post will introduce you to the star attraction here – its castle.

When we were planning the route for our 7-day road trip around Albania, Gjirokaster was one of the first destinations that got added to our itinerary.

Gjirokastër is a city in southern Albania that’s located in a valley between the Gjerë mountains and the Drino river.  In 2005 it was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, as a rare example of a well-preserved Ottoman town.   It’s well known for its traditional dwelling houses (seven of the grandest have been restored and are now open to the public) but is even more famous for its castle.

Gjirokaster Castle is the second largest castle in Albania (Krujë Castle, north of Tirana, wins first place) and one of the largest in all of the Balkans.

Some of the links in this post are affiliate links. All this means is that if you make a purchase through one of the links I have provided, I will earn a small commission as a result but the cost to you will remain exactly the same.

Getting to Gjirokaster, Albania

You’ll more than likely be entering Albania either via its only international airport in Tirana (buses from Ohrid, Macedonia will also drop you off in the capital city) or via the Port of Sarandë, having caught the ferry over from Corfu Town.

If you’re arriving into Sarandë, you’ll best placed to visit Gjirokaster, as the city is only 56 kilometres away along (mostly) decent roads.

There is a twice-daily bus service at 11:30 and 13:00 hours.  However, for the return journey the buses only run at 08:00 and 09:00 hours so you’ll need to stay overnight if you’re reliant on public transport.  Have a look at my recommendations for accommodation in Gjirokaster, Albania below.

Staying in Gjirokaster, Albania

We stayed at Friends Hostel, which I cannot recommend enough.  We were immediately treated like friends by the host and his family, and even the resident dog and cat seemed interested in getting to know us (even if it was purely for the fuss we gave them).   There’s a cosy terrace that offers amazing views across the city and up to the castle and also provides a lovely sunny spot from which to enjoy breakfast every morning – which, by the way, is amazing!

Friends Hostel, Gjirokaster, Albania

We stayed in a large double room with shared bathroom and a window overlooking the internal courtyard for just £22 per night (correct June 2019).  When it comes to accommodation, Albania offers incredible value for money!

Check availability and prices at Friends Hostel Gjirokaster here.

Getting to the castle in Gjirokaster, Albania

It’s only a short walk up to Gjirokaster castle from the centre of town, and you’ll get some great views across the valley on your way up.

Views across the valley on the walk up to Gjirokastër Castle

Local people sell their wares along the route up to Gjirokaster Castle

As was the way with many of the routes we followed in Albania (by road or on foot), Google Maps favoured a different one to, but because we couldn’t use our UK data in Albania (without paying lots of money to do so), we almost always used to find us a route when we were out and about (as it works offline).

The route is 820 metres long, takes approximately 26 minutes, and sees you climbing 97 metres, but as I can’t share that one on here, here is the (substantially shorter) Google Maps version.

However, it would essentially be pretty difficult to get the directions completely wrong: you can see the castle from the centre of town; just walk upwards in that general direction and you will eventually join one of the tracks which head up there. Or, ask a local for the “kala.”

Castle opening times: April-September 09:00-19:00 hours | October-March 09:00-17:00 hours

Admission fee: 200 lek (£1.48 / $1.80 – correct August 2019)

A little bit about Gjirokaster Castle

Gjirokaster Castle was originally constructed in the 12th century and added to several times since under the rule of Albania’s many political leaders, most extensively while the area was under Ottoman rule.  However, much of what you see today is the result of work that was carried out in the 1800s by Ali Pasha’s architects and engineers.

In the 1930s the castle was converted into a prison by King Zog (yes, that is his actual name!), with the purpose of holding members of the various resistance forces acting in the country during his reign. It remained a prison until 1968 – the same year that the first National Folk Festival took place in the castle grounds.  Fustanella Festival takes place every four or five years.  The last one was in 2015, however,  I can’t find any details online yet about when the next one is scheduled for.

This is where the folk festival happens at Gjirokaster Castle

I’m not entirely sure what happened to the prisoners after the prison closed, but the castle was transformed into a historical site incorporating a large arms museum that showcases the weapons of Albania’s independence.

How long should I plan for my visit?

According to the information board at the castle’s entrance, the suggested amount of time for visiting is one hour but we spent 2-3 hours here (and that didn’t include paying the additional entry fee (200 lek) to the Museum of Armaments.

The Museum of Armaments is located at the end of this corridor, Gjirokaster Castle

So, for a thorough exploration I’d definitely allow the best part of a morning or afternoon.  If you’d like to check out one or two of Gjirokaster’s dwelling houses too and have a photo-taking wander through its bazaar, then you’ll need to factor in a full day.

Exploring Gjirokaster Castle, in photos

There are several different parts of the castle to explore.

As you enter you’ll find yourself in the inner halls, where several corridors and sets of stone steps lead to dead-ends, one of which offers some rather nice views of Gjirokaster through a locked wrought iron gate.

Inner halls and corridors, Gjirokaster Castle, Albania

Follow this corridor and you'll find this view at the end, Gjirokaster Castle, Albania

Turn left and walk past the abandoned World War II tanks, towards the entrance to the Museum of Armaments.  If you have time and can afford the additional 200 lek admission fee, you can set foot inside the part of the castle that used to be the prison.  The prison cells themselves have been kept intact and now form part of the museum.

If you turn left instead by the museum entrance, you’ll see daylight as you wind your way around to a small terrace, which offers some spectacular views out to the left.

Views from the castle terrace of Gjirokaster, Albania

The terrace at Gjirokaster Castle, Albania

You’ll also find a few signs which demonstrate that the Albanians definitely have a sense of humour.

Funny signs, Gjirokaster Castle, Albania

Oh, and a two-seater Lockheed T-33 Shooting Star jet that the communist regime claimed was an American spy plane that was intercepted and subsequently forced to land at Rinas Airport in 1957.

American spy plane? Gjirokaster Castle, Albania

If you need to top up your bottle of water, there is a tap on the wall just outside the toilets here from which you can extract drinking water.  We topped both of ours up two of three times during our visit.  Albanian Summers are hot, stay hydrated!

As you continue on through the archway, you can see the clock tower straight ahead of you.  This was part of the castle that was added during Ali Pasha’s rule, but it has been heavily restored much more recently – in the 1980s.

Clock tower, Gjirokaster Castle

Clock Tower, Gjirokaster Castle

This is the part of the castle the explorer in you will enjoy the most.  There’s ruined walls to scramble over, stone steps to climb, doors and windows to peer through, tunnels to wander along and hidden rooms to investigate.

There’s also a huge variety of colourful plants and flowers amidst the vegetation that’s slowly attempting to reclaim the castle.

Flowers, Gjirokaster Castle

Beyond the clock tower, you’ll reach a wall which marks the eastern edge of the castle. From here there’s some spectacular panoramic views of the Drinos Valley and the Lunxhëria Mountains beyond.

Views from Gjirokaster Castle

You’ll also see a plaque telling you about the legend of Princess Argjiro.  When the castle was taken by Ottoman invaders in the 15th century, the country was ruled by Gjin Zenebishi.  Legend has it that his sister, Princess Argjiro refused to surrender and took her baby in her arms as she ran towards the eastern wall of the castle and subsequently leapt to her death.  Miraculously her baby survived, and where she fell, milk flowed from the rocks to feed the child.

White calcium deposits can apparently be seen on the limestone cliffs at the foot of the castle walls, which some take to mean that there must be some truth in the legend, but I’m not convinced 😉 How about you?

Tomb of Bektashi Babas, Gjirokaster Castle

As you walk back up towards the castle entrance, you’ll pass a large open area to your left where you’ll see the stage for the country’s folk festival, and surrounding this area is the continuation of the castle walls.  Look closely and you’ll spot a small stone structure which houses the tomb of Bektashi Babas beneath one section of the wall, its entrance almost completely obscured by vegetation.

Once you’ve peered inside, turn right and continue to follow the direction of the walls.

You will eventually reach a set of stone steps.  Climb up to the top and spend your last few minutes taking in the wonder of your surroundings before dropping back down to the terrace area, where you began your explorations of the exterior section of the castle.

Stone steps, Gjirokaster Castle, Albania

Where to eat in Gjirokaster, Albania

If you’d like a recommendation for somewhere to grab a spot of lunch before heading on to the next item on your itinerary, we ate at both Odaja and Rrapi.

Although I slightly preferred the food at Rrapi, I loved the authentic decor and ambience at Odaja and we were serenaded by a live band playing traditional Albanian folk music just outside the window.

Eating at Odaja, Gjirokaster

Further reading on Gjirokaster, Albania

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Your helpful guide to the castle of Gjirokaster, Albania | Gallop Around The Globe

Visiting Gjirokaster Fortress_ One of the Largest Castles in the Balkans | Gallop Around The Globe

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