The Butrint National Park is the most famous attraction in the south of Albania and the UNESCO World Heritage site is the most visited archaeological park in the country. In this guide you can find everything you need to know before visiting Butrint.
Tours To Butrint
How To Get To Butrint
The Butrint National Park is located 17 kilometers south of Saranda, and there is a direct bus connection that reaches the archaeological site in about 30 minutes. This is the same bus that passes through Ksamil and leaves from the Saranda ferry terminal. The bus departs every hour and costs 100 lek.
If you decide to take a taxi, make sure to agree the price upfront and whether the driver will wait for you while you visit the site.
The UNESCO World Heritage site is the most visited archaeological site in Albania and has a large attraction to the region. In summer it can get rather busy with thousands of tourists paying a visit. If you are flexible and get there by yourself it is advisable to arrive early in the morning, before the tour groups from Corfu arrive, or late in the afternoon, when they have left.
Prepare Your Visit
You will need at least an hour to go around the entire site, but many people will easily spend 2-3 hours or more to see everything.
We advise to bring plenty of water as you will need to walk a bit and it can get very hot in summer. There is a restaurant onsite (next to the Venetian Castle) and there are toilet facilities as well.
Another option can also be to bring your lunch or some snacks for a picnic. There are plenty of spots in the shades with beautiful views, so why not enjoy a little break on your way?
History Of Butrint
Butrint’s name (originaly Buthrotum in Latin) was derived from the word buthrotos, which means “wounded bull”. This is based on a Greek mythological legend, in which the offering of a bull failed on the island of Corfu. The bull escaped and swam to the mainland, which was considered a sign of the gods and the Greek decided to build a settlement at this place. According to archaeologist the earliest evidence of settled occupation dates back between the 10th and 8th centuries BC.
Helenus, son of King Priam and Queen Hecuba of Troy, is considered the founder of Butrint, and the settlement became one of the major centers of the Greek tribe of the Chaonians. It was stategically located because of its access to the Straits of Corfu and around the 6th century BC it was fortified. By then it already included a theatre and a sanctuary.
In 228 BC Butrint became a Roman protectorate and in the next century became part of Macedonia. From 44 BC Julius Ceasar made it a Roman colony and allowed his soldiers that fought agains Pompey to settle there as a reward. Marshland was reclaimed to grow the settlement significantly and an aqueduct, a Roman bath, a nymphaeum, and a forum complex were added. The settlement became a major port in the province of Old Epirus and survived until the late antiquity period. When signs of decline were already visible an earthquake destroyed large parts of the town and it was finally abandoned.
In the late 5th century extensive rebuilding started under Byzantine reign. After several conflicts and declining power of the Byzantine Empire, the Angevins took control and later sold it together with Corfu to the Venetians in 1386. Again the area switched hands several times, this time between the Venetians and Ottoman Empires and it even came under French sovereignty in 1797 before being conquered and occupied by the Ottoman governor Ali Pasha Tepelena in 1799. Under Ottoman occupation the town ended up being deserted and hadn’t been populated for centuries when it became part of the independent Albania in 1913.
What To See At Butrint
A team of archaeologists continues to perform excavations at the site as they expect that what has been found so far is only 15 percent of what lies beneath. Nevertheless the excavations done so far are really impressive and not to be missed when visiting Albania. Expect to spend at least 2 to 3 hours to visit the entire site. Clear and informative panels will guide you through the ancient city.
Sanctuary Of Asclepius
Butrint owes its growth and early fame to a sanctuary dedicated to Asclepius, the god of medicine, founded in the 4th century BC.
Worshippers came to the sanctuary in order to be healed, leaving symbolic objects and money to the god and his attendant priests. The sanctuary was the making of Butrint and the sacred powers of Butrint’s water were to be revered as long as the town lasted.
As the sanctuary grew in fame a circuit wall of finely hewn stone blocks, fitted together with mortar, was constructred around the 10 hectare site in order to protect it.
The sanctuary complex rises on a series of terraces from a paved area in front of the present theatre. The earliest sanctuary comprised of a temple to the god (see its remains below), a stoa (covered walkway) and a treasury to hold the offerings made to the god (pictured above).
By the 3rd century BC the sanctuary had been modified to include a Greek style theatre. The theatre would have been used by worshippers and the priests of the sanctuary for religious ceremonies and public discussion. On the surrounding walls you can see numerous “manumission” inscriptions that record the freeing of slaves in honour of the god, Asclepius.
Later in the 2nd century AD the theatre was renovated and extended with a stage in the Roman style. Upper-class boxes were added and the auditorium was also enlarged to accommodate the growing population and seat up to 2500 people. Today the theatre is still hosting performances.
By the late 1st century the urban area had grown beyond the line of the original circuit wall, down to the shore of the Vivari Channel and onto the plain opposite.
The heart of the town was redeveloped to create many public buildings, some paid for by private sponsorship, including a public bath house (see below). This complex is only partially excavated and continues under the modern path.
Julius Caesar’s designation of Butrint as a Roman colony in the 1st century BC led to dramatic changes in the city’s infrastructure. A forum was constructed, where an earlier Greek marketplace (agora) once stood, as a monumental open space to be used for public business and worship. To the north of the forum, three shrines were built, with the dedication of the central chamber to Minerva Augustus, revealed by fragments of marble inscriptions.
The remains of the forum, first discovered by archaeologists in 2005, consists of a remarkable 2000 year-old stone pavement measuring c. 20 x 52 sq. m. surrounded by porticoes. Most of the forum still lies buried beneath 2 meters of soil. Two marble sculptures were found during the excavations and are displayed in the Archaeological Museum.
The forum was once lined by major Roman buildings. These include temples, richly adorned with frescoes and marble. An earthquake destroyed the forum and its adjacent buildings in the late 4th century AD. The area was later reoccupied by modest domestic structures in the medieval period.
A measure of Butrint’s prosperity in the mid Roman period can be seen in its townscape. The plan of the new Roman town was very different to the earlier 10 ha. fortified site associated with the Sanctuary of Asclepius. The new town was laid out using a regular system of streets which divided the town into insulae (equal-size units of land within the urban area).
This excavated area is part of one insula. The building forms a suite of rooms with mosaic pavements separated from a stone-paved courtyard by a large fountain. Its exact function is unknown but it might have been a gymnasium or possibly a private house. It was modified and re-built over four centuries and was finally converted into a church (constructed around the fountain) with a cloister located in the original courtyard in the Late Roman period.
Roman Civic House – Triconch Palace
Butrint had many townhouses and villas. Of these, the so-called Triconch Palace has been examined in great detail. The original townhouse was developed into a great palace around AD 400.
The early house followed a traditional Roman villa building plan – elegant rooms with mosaic floors and wall paintings arranged around a central courtyard, cooled by a fountain. An inscription in the mosaic at the entrance reveals that it was owned by someone of senatorial rank.
The conversion of the villa into a grandiose palace after AD 400 involved the expansion of the original courtyard and a new east wing. This housed a luxurious triconch dining room attached to a riverside entrance.
The rising water table soon compelled the owner to abandon the palace, although the unfinished shell accommodated many generations of fishermen and craftsmen until the late 6th century AD. In the 9th century AD it was occupied again as a temporary market. Dwellings and possibly a church were built here in the 13th century AD.
The Butrint Baptistery is one of the outstanding early Byzantine monuments of the central Mediterranean. Its complex structure ranks it alongside the large free-standing baptisteries of late antique and medieval Italy, and its extraordinary mosaic pavement is the best preserved and by far the most elaborate of any of these. The floor design consists of seven bands circling the baptismal front at the center – making in all eight, the Christian number of salvation and eternity. Salvation is one of the principal themes of the mosaic, expressed as the water of baptism and the water of life.
To the northwest, or left of the font, a door led into an adjoining room which is also decorated with a mosaic floor. The function of the room is hard to determine, although it is most likely an adjunct space used by the bishop to instruct and confirm candidates for baptism before and after their spiritual rebirth through the baptismal rite. The mosaic is contemporary with the Baptistery pavement, though of a different design: a running ivy scroll around the walls of the room contains two large areas, one consisting of squares and motifs of birds, branches bearing fruit and peacocks flanking vases; the other, medallions, interlocking octagons with black trees and an inscription recording the name of a bishop.
Ideally the Baptistery complex and its mosaics would be permanently on display. However, to preserve and protect the mosaic from the elements it’s being covered with sand and plastic sheets. However you can see some photos in the Archaeological Museum inside the castle.
Tower And Water Gate
In the later 3rd century BC an imposing entrance, the Tower Gate, was constructed, which would remain the main entrance into Butrint until the 14th century AD. It was flanked by a round tower on one side and a rectangular tower on the other, both with arrow slits. Wooden gates sealed each end of the long passageway between the two towers, which was wide enough for a cart to pass.
In the Roman period a bridge and aqueduct were constructed and crossed the Vivari Channel at this point. The water would have been distributed within the city by branch aqueducts, although non survive today.
By the medieval period the bridge and aqueduct had long since collapsed. Nevertheless the Water Gate (pictured below) built here in the 13th century shows how the gate remained Butrint’s most important entrance.
Fountain Of The Nymphs
Between the Tower Gate and the bridge lay two monumental fountains forming a symbolic gateway into the city. Only one fountain, the Fountain of the Nymphs, is remaining today.
The Great Basilica
The basilica was built at the beginning of the 6th century and symbolizes the catholic influences. It is pretty large in size and some of its motifs are similar to those in the baptistery. Several metamorphoses have been done over the centuries and until the 18th century the the basilica was still a functioning church.
The path around the site passes by three of the gates in the fortified wall. The Tower Gate (nowadays the Water Gate) near the baptistery was the main entrance to the city. The second gate is the Lake Gate, also named Scaean Gate after the poem Aeneid.
The co-called Lion Gate takes its name fromt he relief depicting a lion devouring the head of a bull positioned above the entrance. The lion relief was not part of the original wall, but was placed here in the 5th century AD, in order to reduce the side of the gate and make it easier to defend. The relief is from a temple building and may date from as early as the 6th century BC.
As you pass through the gate you will see a spring which, during Roman times, was associated with the cult of nymphs. An inscription in front of the well records that a citizen of Butrint, Junia Rufina, paid for its refurbishment in the 2nd century AD: “Julia Rufina friend of nymphs”.
When it was first excavated, Christian motifs were discovered on the back wall of the well, suggesting that the pagan spring had been Christianized in the 5th or 6th centuries AD.
The acropolis is located on the hill, inside the inner fortifications and has traces of early use dating back to the 8th century B.C.
Venetian Acropolis Castle
The republic of Venice was an economic powerhouse, dominating Mediterranean trade between Europe and the Levant through naval might from the 11th to the 18th centuries. In 1387, the Republic purchased Corfu along with Butrint to control shipping and trading along the Adriatic coast. The Venetian Castle was built in order to protect the area. Aside from its strategic importance, the enclave at Butrint provided fish, timber, olives and pasture for the horses of the Venetian garrison on Corfu.
At the Venetian Castle walls you can see a statue of the head of the Goddess of Butrint. The statue was found in front of the Roman Theatre around 1928. The statue has become somewhat of a national symbol, having featured in many publications and on postcards.
After a reconstruction of the 13th century Venetian Castle in 1930, it now houses the Archaeological Museum. Here the entire history from the first occupation until the middle ages is displayed in a chronological order. You can also see a collection of araeological objects, including some sculptures and mosaic.
From the 15th century, the Venetians were in a state of almost perpetual conflict with the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. Butrint was repeatedly assaulted by the Ottomans with an eye on Corfu as the main prize, and occupation of the city passed back and forth.
In the late 15th-early 16th centuries, the Venetians re-fortified Butrint to protect their valuable mainland resources, first building the Triangular Fortress and then a massive square blockhouse, known now as the Venetian Tower. As the site of the ancient city crumbled, the fortress ‘became’ Butrint, continuing to safeguard the fisheries and surrounding Venetian landholdings. Venice capitulated to Napoleon Bonaparte in 1797, whereupon Butrint promptly fell into the hands of the infamous local despot Ali Pasha of Tepelena.
Venetian Triangular Castle
Throughout the centuries the fortifications of Butrint have been rebuilt and reinforced many times. Struggling to control the pivotal point of the Straits of Corfu and in an attempt to reduce costs to maintain Butrint, a new fortress was built on the south side of the Vivari Channel in the 15th century. This fortress, known as the Venetian Triangle Castle, defended the fish traps of Butrint, which were the primary financial asset of the settlement in this period. As soon as it was finished the old town was abandoned when people moved here.
To reach the triangular fortress you have to get back out of the entrance gate and cross the Vivari Channel. You will see the castle already from the exit and you can cross the channel with a small old-fashioned cable ferry.
Inside the fortress is a courtyard with a circular building which has probably been a hammam added by the Ottomans. There are several small vaulted chambers and in the southwestern corner there is a tower which provides great views over the city of Butrint.
The Surrounding Butrint National Park
The archaeological site is only part of the Butrint National Park, which spans a total area of 94 square kilometers. It’s a forestry area with an important ecosystem, including sweet water lakes, wetlands, salt marches, open plains and islands and is home to over 1200 animal species. The animals include endangered species like the Hermann’s turtoise and white-tailed sea eagles and in the winter season, a wide variety of migrant birds are being welcomed.
Throughout the park are also walking, trekking and bicycle trails for the enthusiasts. At the reception they will be able to give you more information and leaflets.
If you have time, also consider visiting the following nearby places in the Butrint National Park:
Butrinti Summer Festival
Every summer the Roman Theatre is the stage of an international drama festival, Butrinti Summer Festival, where ancient stories are relived. In 2020 the festival takes place from September 10th to 16th. More information can be found on the website of Butrinti 2000.
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Individual ticket: 1000 lëke
Group ticket (12 pax): 800 lëke
Albanian students: 300 lëke
Albanian pensioners: 500 lëke
People with disabilities: 500 lëke
Children 12-18 years: 500 lëke
Children <12 years: free