Albania may not be the first place that you think of for European castles, but the castle at Gjirokaster is one that will impress!
Here you will see how to get there, what to see, and whether or not it’s worth it at all!
(Just a quick note, Gjirokaster and Gjirokastra are used interchangeabley when discussing the town and city.)
Getting to Gjirokaster and the Castle
The easiest way to get to Gjirokaster, is either by car or bus from Saranda. (Our favorite Albanian town!)
There are two routes to Gjirokaster. I recommend taking the slower route if you want to see the famous Blue Eye spring (Syri i Kalter).
Most buses will now take the faster and more direct route to Gjirokaster via the new highway, which does not go past Blue Eye. If you want to see Blue Eye, ask around at the bus station to make sure you take the right bus. Also be sure to ask about the next service time. Blue Eye is truly in the middle of nowhere, and you don’t want to be stuck.
If you arrive by bus to Gjirokaster: be prepared for a long hike up the hill from the new town to the old town. If you can, I would recommend taking a taxi from here. It should not be more than a few dollars.
If you are driving: do NOT park in the new town (unless it’s high season and you have to). Take the main road as far up the hill as you can. There is limited free parking at the top. The hill is very steep and narrow, so take your time and be prepared to share the road with oncoming traffic.
If you are a nervous driver, you might consider parking at the bottom and taking a taxi up. The hill is a very strenuous climb, and the castle is further still, so I do not recommend trying to walk.
There are many signs to the castle from the old town. It is a bit of a hike and there are some stairs. If you have accessibility concerns, consider hiring a taxi in the new town to drop you off at the entrance. (You can’t park there.)
As of 2023 they are building a fabulous new road from the lower town to the castle. It looks as though they will have parking and shuttle buses to take you up to the castle. Hopefully this will be completed by 2024.
Can You See Gjirokaster in a Day?
While you can definitely get to Gjirokaster and see the whole castle in just one day, you won’t be able to see everything this town has to offer in a day trip.
We had booked just one night and ended up staying for two. (And we still didn’t see everything!)
Hours and Admission for the Castle of Gjirokastra
Ticket Prices for the Castle at Girokaster:
Adults: 400 Leke
Students: 120 Leke
Seniors: 200 Leke
Under 12: Free
Summer Hours: 9am to 6pm
Off Season Hours: 9am to 4pm
There are free public toilets located outside in the castle courtyard. (I suggest bringing your own paper.)
What to See Inside the Gjirokastra Castle
Your visit will begin on the main floor of the castle. Both times that we visited Gjirokaster Castle, there was a lot of restoration work being done. I recommend visiting the right side of the castle first, because it has the most limited area to explore.
The Castle Columns (And Their Cannons!)
The main floor is an impressive (but dark) display of architecture. The castle is said to have been built between the 12th and 13th centuries.
Here amongst the stone columns, you will find several tanks and guns.
The Museums (Additional Ticket)
At the end of the columns there is an entrance to the museum portion of the castle. This area requires a second entrance fee of 200 leke, and someone will be around to collect your fee.
Small museums can be hit or miss, but this one is definitely worth the price of admission!
After you pay, you can head up the stairs to the prison and war exhibits, or off to the side to the Ethnographic Museum.
The Prison Museum
Upstairs on the left hand side is the entrance to the prison museum. I would start here, because it’s a bit depressing, to say the least!
Here you can find dis-used prison cells from war and communism with interesting facts on the walls.
The cells are much in the same shape as when they were functioning, which is a bleak look into the lives of the inmates.
The Gun Museum (Plus WWII Exhibit)
After the prison museum, your visit will take you through the gun/war museum. This was one of the most interesting parts of the castle (in my opinion) and is sure to please any WWII history buffs.
There are weapons from the past couple of centuries, and a lot of detail about Nazi occupied Albania in particular.
There is one statue that depicts Albania as a woman, throwing out the Nazis and the church.
This is an important part of the country’s history, as it became a secular state under communism, and religion was outlawed for decades.
The Castle Ethnographic Museum
The Ethnographic Museum on the lower level of the separate museum ticket area, features more information about the Albanian people and their history.
This area features many women, which is a pleasant surprise.
See the Rare Italian Tank – Fiat L6-40
Back downstairs after the museums, you will make your way towards the exit to the castle grounds. On your way, you will pass a rare tank.
This Italian tank was one of the smallest used during WWII. It is a Fiat L6-40.
Venture Deep Down to See the Castle Ovens
Just before you reach the exit to the castle grounds, you will see a narrow stone staircase to the left.
This is a little-visited space in the castle, that contains century old ovens.
There isn’t loads to see down here, so if there are mobility concerns or little kids in your group, it’s okay to skip it, but I am always game to see all the little spots where other people don’t go!
What to See on the Grounds of Gjirokastra Castle
Once outside, there is lots more to see of the castle, as well as outstanding views!
Investigate Plane Wreckage
Across from the entrance to the toilets:
…you will see the wreckage from a WWII plane.
Some claim that it was shot down, and others say it crashed on it’s own. Regardless, it’s another highlight for WWII buffs in the group.
Take to the Stage
Front and center in the castle courtyard, is a large circular stage. The stunning mountain scene behind the stage is the backdrop for dance and music events during the National Folk Festival.
If you stay in Albania long enough, you might also see it (and the castle) in popular folk music videos. (Often on the TV at restaurants!)
Admire the Clock Tower
The clock tower at Gjirokaster Castle is probably its most famous feature. It was built by Ottoman ruler Ali Pasha in the 19th century.
Clock towers were popular in the time, so that people would know when it was time for their five daily prayers. The clock no longer works, perhaps in a nod to the Communist’s religious ban.
Below the clock tower, there are some empty rooms with windows out over the city to explore.
Descend to the Old Prison
If one prison wasn’t enough, there is another one down a set of little-used stairs in the courtyard.
You will need a flashlight to see anything down there, but it’s an interesting sidebar, particularly because nobody else seems to venture down.
Is Gjirokastra Castle Worth Visiting?
That’s about all that is currently available to see at the castle. We noticed that they were doing a lot of excavation and restoration while we there (both times!) so there may be even more to see in the future.
So, was it worth the visit?
We were very happy that we made the trip to Gjirokaster. We had heard that there wasn’t much to see at the castle, but we ended up spending hours there! The views alone are worth the trip, but the best part is getting to know Albania a little better! Gjirokaster was once a very important city.
Planning a trip to Albania? Amazing choice! Check out these other things to see: