Butrint is a relict cultural landscape representing an example of Mediterranean history from the time of the Greek colony until the Middle Ages.
The site, which was inhabited from prehistoric til Ottoman times, has a fine natural setting. Major remains include the well-preserved ancient Greek theatre and the paleo-Christian basilica with beautiful mosaics.
Community Perspective: easy to reach by boat from Corfu (or the Albanian mainland), this is a vast site spanning a large time span. The mosaics unfortunately are generally not visible to the public. Nan has provided tips for visiting on public transport.
Map of ButrintLoad map
I visited this WHS in Spring 2022. This ancient port city is one of the most visited cultural sites of the country, being very close to the modern ferry port city of Sarande. Thanks to the Italian Archaeological Mission, who worked here for nearly 10 years in the 1920s-30s, Butrint offers today a remarkable journey through the ages of history, dating back to the 8th century B.C. The old city retains a unique testimony of Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman cultures and civilizations.
The historical site of Butrint lies in the Butrint National Park which also includes "natural monuments" such as Ksamil's Islands, Butrint's Forest, Vivari's Channel, Bufi Lake and Mulleri Salted Springs (and some excellent birdwatching spots too). While approaching Butrint from Sarande, you'll be able to spot some of the Venetian/Ottoman fortifications from above and after parking near the entrance (or also by car if you want), you can catch a fun little barge to explore one of the triangular fortifications across the channel to the Vrina plains.
After paying the entrance ticket, the first thing you'll see is a 15th-16th Venetian tower and from there you can visit most of the different sites in a clockwise or anticlockwise loop. The vast majority tend to visit in a clockwise fashion, so we decided to visit in an anticlockwise fashion and had the sites mostly for ourselves for most of the time of our visit. Also, this way we started mainly with scattered ruins in a pretty natural environment, proceeded along the fortifications and walls and ended with the Hellenistic-Roman cluster just a few metres away from the entrance. So, after the Venetian tower, we explored a 5th century Roman civic house transformed into the Triconch palace with a triangular dining room and nice views of the surrounding waters. A large part of Butrint is submerged or partly flooded for most of the year, so wooden boardwalks have been placed to still be able to visit the site all year round.
Next, we visited the gymnasium, perhaps a pagan shrine which was later transformed into a church, and the splendid early 6th century baptistery with lots of columns and an incredible mosaic floor. Unfortunately, for most of the year, the mosaic floor is covered with gravel (a normal practice in Albania which we also experienced in Lin, Lake Ohrid). The only way to get a glimpse of some of mosaic is to visit with a guide or wait for some tourists to come along with a guide who most of the time grab a shovel, hidden away neatly nearby, remove some of the gravel till they reach the canvas beneath, and uncover a small part of the mosaic for a quick peek.
After that, we proceeded to a 2nd century fountain dedicated to the Nymphs and the remains of the Great Basilica of the early Christian period built in the 6th century, almost up to roof height. On the western piers by the church's apse one can notice marks made by the masons who erected it, a series of crosses cut into the grouting mortar to ward off the evil eye. After visiting the Great Basilica, we started venturing slightly uphill along the city walls till we reached the Lake Gate, a fine corbelled 4th century Hellenistic gateway, and further on the famous Lion's Gate reconstructed in the Medieval period (although at first glance, the carved embossed lion looks more like a wild boar!). There's also the weathered sacred well of Junia Rufina down some steps, where there is a painting of two peacocks and a cup on the back wall. The right hand side faded peacock is barely visible near the niche. After those two gateways, we reached the acropolis, set on top of a hill with traces of early use dating back to the 8th century. Here there is also a 14th-16th century Venetian castle reconstructed in the 1930s and a small museum of the ancient city of Butrint (although the best artefacts can be seen in the National Archaeological Museum in Tirana).
Last but certainly not least, we headed down to the agora/forum, the civic and commercial epicentre of the city, where there is a wall made up of large blocks of stone with inscriptions, 2nd century Roman baths or thermae, the 3rd century theatre which was later arranged according to the Roman style and equipped with a Roman scene, and a chapel (4th century B.C.) dedicated to Asclepius. Here the flooded areas are home to plenty of small fish, turtles and frogs. This core area is pretty intact and gives a very good idea of the public centre of Butrint compared to the sacred area.
All in all, this WHS is probably the best ancient historical site in Albania, perhaps together with the Apollonia tentative WHS. If you have a car, I would definitely recommend having lunch or dinner at the nearby Mussel House. There was no UNESCO WHS plaque when I visited Butrint, except a huge information board of Butrint and Butrint National Park, both (wrongly) marked as a UNESCO WHS site.
So far as archaeological sites in the Balkans go, Butrint is an absolute highlight. I visited Butrint while staying in the popular resort town of Sarandë for 2 weeks, in 2019. Trip from Sarandë is very easy. There is a direct bus connection with Butrint. As there were no 'real' bus stops, we had to stop the bus on the middle of the public road. The route is very scenic. I would recommend stopping at the nice town of Ksamil on the way back, just to lie down on the most well-known and popular 'beach' of Albania. I must say, beaches are not Albania's strongsuit. Butrint is a very nice collection of Greek, Roman, Venetian and Ottoman archaeological sites. Tip: make sure to visit the castle on top on the hill, as you get a very nice view from there. You could spend at least a couple of hours just wandering around.
As ruins go, Butrint spans a large time span and covers a large area. You find Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian buildings and remains. The site also holds floor mosaics, but these are buried below sand to protect them from the humid climate. Only every two years are they uncovered and made visible to the public.
Rising water levels constantly endangered parts of Butrint. The Triconch Palace is a good example here, being built on the shoreline.
When the Venetians in the 16th century built the fortress on the other side of the canal, the city was finally abandoned. The new fortress controlled access to the lagoon and the rich fish reservoir, so a settlement in Butrint was no longer needed.
The hub for Butrint is Saranda. By ferry, you can visit from Corfu. By minibus, you can connect to all over Albania (Gjirokaster) and Greece. If you are so inclined, you can visit both Gjirokaster and Butrint in a day by getting a taxi in Saranda (should go without saying: agree on a fixed price). But personally, I liked Albania better than Corfu, so for me, Corfu would be the day trip.
From Saranda, hourly line buses depart half past from the bus station on Rruga Skënderbeu facing the ruins of the old synagogue. The bus stop is 50m from where the minibuses to Tirana and Gjirokaster depart. In addition, there are also private buses that run along the same road and continue south.
The bus stop for the private buses and the line buses in Butrint are different. The distinction is important as it made me miss my return bus. The private buses will drop you off directly in front of the entry gate. The line buses park a little up the road on the bus parking lot. The line buses leave Butrint at half past.
If you feel bored waiting for the bus, I recommend hiking up the hills direction Ksamil. There are no dedicated hiking trails through the nature reserve (at least I saw none). But the road isn’t that busy and there is even a sidewalk. The bus will pick you up along the road if you signal it.
Extensive works were done by Augustus. This should also have a Roman Empire connection. If it existed.
Butrint lies just across the Straits of Corfu from my previous destination, the Old Town of Corfu. It’s an easy trip out there from the Ionian Island: daily hydrofoils and ferries ply the route to the Albanian resort of Sarande, from where an hourly local bus heads out to Butrint 30km south. The WHS covers an archeological site that spans a long period, with mainly Greek, Roman and Byzantine remains. It also seems to have been renominated in 1999 as a cultural landscape, although UNESCO does not list it as such.
During the high season, the site can be crowded with daytrippers from Corfu, but fortunately I arrived early in the season. After paying the 700 lek entrance fee (5 EUR), I headed out on the forest path that connects the ruins. This shady environment was the first surprise of my visit: it’s a pleasure just to walk here, and I heard birds singing all the time. The natural area of Butrint also is awarded Ramsar wetland status.
The wetness of the area clearly shows at the first major archeological group: the former Greek sanctuary and theatre can only be entered via a boardwalk, and I noticed frogs in the Roman baths. Here’s where the origins of the site are, Butrint was founded as a sanctuary to Asklepios the Greek god of medicine. Visitors even freed some of their slaves to persuade the gods to help them – and they testified to that by carving inscriptions into the theatre’s walls. These can still be seen in situ. In hindsight, this area probably was the most interesting part of the circuit.
I had the site mostly to myself. I passed a series of Ancient Greek, Roman and Byzantine constructions, much like those at other classical sites that I have visited around the Mediterranean. A lot of mosaics have been discovered here too, but the Albanian authorities have covered them from the elements with plastic sheets and sand or pebbles. This is a pity as the mosaics would add something extra to this site, but the wet surroundings just seem to prevent this.
The path eventually turns uphill, towards what once was the Acropolis. You enter that area via the ‘Lion’s Gate’, a stone structure with a bas relief of a lion devouring the head of a bull. The lion relief was not part of the original wall or gate, but was found elsewhere in Butrint and may date to the 6th century BC. The circuit ends at a building from the Venetian period, which now houses the slightly disappointing site museum.
The WHS of Butrint was extended in 1999 to include the natural surroundings such as a range of hills to the north, the Butrint plain, Lake Bufit, and part of Lake Butrint. At the same time, it was turned from 'just' a site into a cultural landscape. I think including its natural features was a good decision, as they are such a prominent part of a visit here. There are fine views of the surrounding lakes (Butrint lies on a peninsula) from the path across the site, and there are benches to sit on and enjoy the landscape. I found it a very peaceful site, I saw no traces of the turbulent times in the late 1990s when Butrint suffered from looting due to the civil disturbances in Albania.
I reached Sarande by bus along a modern highway from Tirane, about 80% complete. From Sarande a local bus took me to the gates of the site. In exchange for the 700 lek entry fee I received a descriptive brochure with a map of the site, in English. There were other signposts around the site attempting to explain which parts of the excavations belong to which period of occupation. There was no compulsion to join a tour or hire a guide.
Even without the archaeological site the scenery of the sea separated from the lake by a narrow strip of land would be worth visiting.
From Sarande I left by hydrofoil ferry for Corfu, another WHS.
Dr. Owen Mifsud
This is certainly an awesome site. We went on a tour whilst on a holiday in Corfu, to Sarande in Albania. The place is full of antiquities! Unfortunately as others have noted, the place is collapsing into the nearby lake. Infact the main temple and other parts of Butrint are already underwater. The area is a treasure in itself with remains of Greek, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and the Turks. A definite visit for history enthusiasts!
We visited Butrint in mid August 2005 on a day trip from Parga in Greece. Our gude was extremely knowledgeable and genuinely helped us understand the site. This was important because the "guidebook" (effectively an expensive pamphlet at 6E) was probaly the most useless of it's type I have encountered!
The main dissapointment was that we were not able to explore, and followed a set route, which although benefiting from the guide, meant we did not see all that we would have liked. Also dissapointing was that the mosaics were all (rightly) covered with sand for protection, but there was only a very poor diagram - a photo display would have been so much better.
The other point to note is that Butrint is in a marsh, and the attendent mosquitoes are very active. We all got severely bitten, despite pleanty (we thought) insect repellent.
Butrinti is an extensive site covering most periods of Albanian and Balkan history - with the merciful exception of the 20th century. Many of the ruins are very striking but, because one is looking at an early Christian basilica one moment and maybe remains of fortifications built by an early 19th century local warlord the next, mental orientation can be quite difficult at times and a guide is particularly useful. If travelling independently, an excellently-produced guide-book is available but it may not be on sale at the site - this is Albania, after all - although it should be in the nearby town of Saranda. What is easy to appreciate, however, is the glorious siting of Butrinti, almost surrounded by a lake and against a mountain backdrop.
All visitors to Corfu should consider a day-trip to Butrinti - easily arranged and with minimal formalities. Not only is this an opportunity of seeing one of the great Balkan achaeological sites, it also allows a brief glimpse of a fascinating country which has come a long way in the last decade but still has a hard road ahead of it.
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2005 Removed from Danger list
To include a range of hills to the north, the Butrint plain, Lake Bufit, and part of Lake Butrint
1997 In Danger
Site of Butrinti and its museum were looted during the civil disturbances in Albania
Info on protection etc required
The site has 1 locations
Butrint lies in the far south of Albania, and can best be reached from the town of Sarande. There are hourly public buses.
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