The ancient city of Butrint, one of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, is far and away the most-visited archaeological site in Albania, with visible remains spanning two- and-a-half millennia – from the first settlers in the late 6th or early 5th century BC to Ali Pasha Tepelena at the beginning of the 19th century AD. Then the site became overgrown and half-forgotten, visited only by the occasional artist (including the British poet Edward Lear), until 1928, when the Italian Archaeological Mission, led until his death by Luigi Maria Ugolini, began to uncover the city’s hidden treasures. After World War II, Butrint was once again abandoned and forgotten until the Albanian Centre for Archaeology began excavating there in 1956. Archaeological research has continued at the site ever since.

What to see and do in Butrint

The city

The earliest building below the acropolis was a sanctuary to the god of medicine, Asclepius, in what developed into the city’s monumental centre. In the 4th century BC, or slightly later, a defensive wall, with imposing gates at regular intervals, was built around the expanding lower city – a stretch of this, with large irregularly shaped blocks, can still be seen as you enter this area. Worshippers came to the sanctuary to be healed and, to meet their other needs, various other buildings were erected: a temple, in front of the shrine; a hostel for pilgrims or priests to stay – the so-called Peristyle Building; and, between them, a theatre, built with donations made to the god.

Butrint Albania
The sanctuary of Asclepius is a UNESCO World Heritage Archaeological Site © Pecold, Shutterstock

An inscription on the theatre seats dates its construction to the early 2nd century BC, although this was almost certainly an extension of an earlier, simpler theatre. To the side of the walkway leading into the theatre, inscribed blocks form part of the wall; these record the freeing of slaves, more than 500 of them, between 163 BC and 44 BC. Behind the Peristyle Building, a long portico (a stoa) once ran, with a well set into the hillside within it; the ropes that hauled water from this well over the centuries have worn deep grooves into its marble door.

The Roman aqueduct

The triangular fortress and the remains of the aqueduct, across the Vivari Channel, are easy to visit on foot. A delightfully low-tech cable ferry plies to and fro across the channel; the charges range from €0.50 for foot passengers, through €1 for cycles and €3 for saloon cars, to €10 for mobile homes. The gate into the triangular fortress is in the wall furthest from the ferry jetty – the southern side. Within the walls is a courtyard, in the centre of which is a circular building (perhaps a hamam, or steam bath, added later by the Ottomans). The western wall contains several small vaulted chambers, probably originally used as gunpowder magazines, workshops or stores. In the southwestern corner is an unusually shaped tower; there are good views of the city of Butrint from its upper floor and from the fortress battlements.

To reach the piers of the Roman aqueduct, continue along the edge of the Vivari Channel until you reach the fish traps and the building beside them, where there are beehives. Cross the little bridge there, and head slightly inland along a track that leads to an excavated area of the Roman suburb on the Vrina Plain. By the 2nd century AD, this included villas and a public bathhouse, with a large cistern that was supplied with water from the aqueduct. If you look along the wall of the cistern, you will see the bases of the aqueduct piers in a line running towards Xarra, the village on the hill. It is about 15 minutes’ walk from here back to the cable ferry.

Ali Pasha’s Castle

The expansion of Butrint in the 1st century AD meant new building not only on the Vrina Plain, but also at Diaporit, on the eastern shore of Lake Butrint. A large villa has been excavated here, with a bath complex, a peristyle and a mosaic-floored triclinium. The boatmen who hang around the entrance to the city can take you out to Diaporit.

Ali Pasha castle Butrint Albania
Ali Pasha’s Castle is on a little island that can only be reached by boat © Arian Mavriqi, Wikimedia Commons

They also offer trips to Ali Pasha’s Castle, which is on a little island at the edge of the marshes and can only be reached by boat. The trip out to the fortress meanders through the wetlands, with good opportunities to see waterbirds, and offers an entirely different perspective of the Butrint area. The fortress itself is beautifully constructed and is well worth exploring. The entrance to the Vivari Channel – with Ali Pasha’s Castle, the triangular fortress and the reconstructed Butrint Castle – can be seen from the deck of the Saranda-Corfu ferry (the view from the hydrofoil is not so good) and gives a good idea of the geography of the channel and the city.

Travel to Butrint

The ancient city of Butrint is about half an hour’s drive from Saranda, 24km on a good, asphalted road that runs alongside Lake Butrint and through the village of Ksamili. Cyclists might prefer to use the back road, along the eastern shore of the Butrint Lagoon, which has much less traffic and lets you approach the site on the cable ferry.

Buses between Saranda and Butrint leave hourly in each direction until 18.30; the one-way fare is 100 lek. In Saranda, there are bus stops at the junction of Rruga Mit’hat Hoxha and Rruga Jonianët; opposite the synagogue and basilica site; and opposite the Butrinti Hotel. The last bus back to Saranda from Butrint leaves at 19.30. Any Saranda taxi will do the run; you should agree the fare before setting off. Either you could negotiate a charge for extra waiting time with the driver or, if you have a mobile phone, you could arrange to call him when you are ready to be collected. The town’s main taxi rank is on the corner of the central park in Saranda, opposite the Myrtaj supermarket.

For those coming from northwestern Greece with their own transport, the route via the small border crossing at Qafëbota, a short drive from Igoumenitsa on the Greek mainland, is a very attractive way to approach Butrint. It would be worth making a short detour to see the old stone-built houses (kulla) in the Shehat neighbourhood of Konispoli, just over the Albanian side of the border. The route passes the villages on the Vrina Plain before you transfer on to the cable ferry to reach the entrance of the Butrint site. By public transport, the daily buses between Igoumenitsa and Saranda use the Qafëbota crossing.