With a rugged coastline, idyllic bays and a UNESCO World Heritage Site on its doorstep, the city of Saranda, Albania is the perfect base for exploring the Albanian Riviera.
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This popular summer spot is located in the southwest part of the country just across the water from Corfu, Greece, in the heart of the region where tiny resort towns dot the shoreline. Sarande (as it’s also known) is framed by the dazzling Ionian Sea, where music thumps all day long at the beach clubs and boats whisk visitors off to the surrounding islands and islets for a day of fun in the sun.
It’s well worth including at least a few days here during a trip to Albania, to experience the coastal scenery and laid-back vibe you won’t find in bigger, more historic cities like Tirana and Berat. From what to do to where to stay, here’s everything you need to know about visiting Saranda, Albania.
1) Beach hop along the Albanian Riviera
Saranda’s main draw is its location in the heart of the gorgeous Albanian Riviera, where tranquil bays with crystal clear water are framed by rolling hills and golden stretches of sand.
The most popular ones include Dhërmi, Himare, Borsh, Porto Palermo, though keep in mind they’re a 1-2 hour drive from the city. Public buses are available, and companies like Saranda Minivans Tours & Travel offer day tours between Borsh-Porto Palermo-Himare and back to Sarande for €25 per person.
A closer option is Ksamil which is an absolute stunner thanks to its turquoise waters, and has lots of fun activities like pedal boats, jet skiing and lots of different areas with sun loungers (expect to spend 1000 lek to rent a beach chair and umbrella for the day at most beaches). Since Ksamil gets so busy, some opt to go to nearby Mirror Beach instead.
There are also a dozen beaches within Sarande where you can bring your own setup or rent a lounger, though the shore is quite rocky so it’s best to bring water shoes. At the south end of town you’ll find Mango Beach which has a great cafe and restaurant, parking and lots of space to spread out.
2) Get some wheels
With the beaches, hotels and resorts stretching all along the coastline, Saranda is surprisingly large once you start trying to get from one end to the other. It takes more than an hour to walk each way and is quite hilly, which is why most people opt for taxis or renting their own vehicle or scooter.
The roads in and around Saranda are paved and well marked, so it’s actually quite easy to navigate even for international drivers. This also gives you the freedom for beach hopping or taking day trips on a whim which are the best things to do in the Albanian Riviera, so it’s definitely worth renting a car.
Otherwise, expect to spend €5 for a cab ride within town, and €10 each way to Ksamil. While the bus only costs a buck, it’s not always convenient as there’s no set schedule and still requires hiking down from the road to the beaches.
The best way to get to Saranda from other Albanian cities is to drive or take an organized tour like this one that includes a stop in Gjirokaster. I booked my transfer from Berat through a company called Daytrip, which has a great service where you choose your pickup time and can select as many additional stops as you want along the way.
It’s not the cheapest option, but was totally worth it since I also got to go wine tasting, spend a couple of hours exploring Gjirokaster, hop out for some roadside photo-ops and even got a bonus spontaneous stop at the Blue Eye.
There are also public buses from places like Tirana and Berat that are quite affordable; however, the trip takes a full day and the ride isn’t very uncomfortable.
3) Book a boat trip along the Albanian Coast
A must-do when you visit Saranda is to head out on a boat trip to snorkel in the tranquil bays, beach hop and admire the spectacular coastline from the water.
The marina is lined up with vessels of all sizes, from fishing boats to chartered yachts and even some that look like giant pirate ships. There are lots of different options depending on the group size and how long you’d like to stay out, and an advantage of going the private route is you won’t be sharing your beach day with 100 other people.
Most tourists opt for one of the large group Saranda boat trips, which cost €20-40 per person for a full day tour. I recommend the Rei Dos Mares which has a friendly English-speaking captain and only costs €20 for lunch, soft drinks and four different stops.
The two-storey boats depart around 10 a.m. every morning, and usually visit some combination of Krorez Beach, Kakome Bay, Aquarium, Qefale, Roidhe, Plazi Pasqyra and Gremina. While there’s plenty of time for swimming at each stop, they usually only anchor near shore once.
Those who are in the mood to let loose will want to book a spot on one of the pirate ships which have free-flowing drinks, all day dancing and even foam parties!
Another option is to head out in the evening, for a night sail around the harbour to see the city all lit up.
4) Get a lay of the land
The best way to get situated after arriving in Sarandë is to go for a long walk along the palm-fringed promenade that hugs the coastline and winds through the centre of town. This is where you’ll find the majority of restaurants, cafes and clubs, as well as souvenir shops, gelato stands and hotels.
The harbour and a handful of public beaches are in the downtown area, with beach chair and umbrella rentals and kid-friendly activities like an inflatable waterslide park. Tourist services including tour bookings, car rentals, ATMs and small grocery stores are also found here, along with attractions like a giant ferris wheel overlooking the water that lights up at night.
During the height of summer the promenade gets absolutely packed, and parking can be tough to find (which is important to keep in mind if you’re staying nearby with a car). However, it’s definitely the place to be once happy hour hits, and seemingly everyone in Sarande makes their way down to enjoy dinner while watching the sunset.
5) Choose your currency
When it comes time to pay the bill in Sarande, things can get a tad confusing. Both euros and the Albanian lek (ALL) are accepted here, so it’s good to have both on hand since credit cards aren’t widely accepted.
Prices are usually quoted in euros for more expensive things like hotel rooms, boat tours or renting a vehicle, while the bill for restaurants is usually in lek. Taxi drivers accept both, but will usually quote the fare in euros.
6) Visit the mysterious Blue Eye
One of the most incredible Albania tourist attractions is found just 30 minutes east of Sarande: the mysterious Blue Eye (Syri i Kaltër).
This natural phenomenon is a freshwater spring fed by the Bistricë river, which is at least 50 metres deep in one spot (no one has ever gotten deeper than that to determine the exact depth). The result is a sphere-shaped area of water with a mesmerizing cerulean hue that constantly swirls around in circles, which inspired its name.
The best way to see the Blue Eye is by standing on the wooden viewing platform behind it, and is best seen on a sunny day when the light directly hits it. Surrounded by a vibrant green forest and rolling hills, there’s also a restaurant on site which makes this a great place to relax and spend a warm afternoon. Click here to book
7) Watch sunset at Lekuresi Castle
Since Sarande is built into the hillside there are no shortage of great spots for watching the sunset. One of the best is the panoramic view from Lekuresi Castle (Kalaja e Lëkurësit), a hilltop fortress dating back to the 1500s which was built by an Ottoman emperor.
The castle was attacked in the 18th century and abandoned, until it eventually transformed into the tourist site it is today. Entrance is free and there’s a huge outdoor restaurant and terrace with sweeping views of the city, Corfu and the Butrint Lagoon which makes this one of the best things to do in Saranda.
It takes about 45 minutes to hike up the hill from downtown, and there’s also parking near the entrance. Some tour operators include a visit to the castle as part of this day trip that also goes to the Blue Eye, Butrint and Ksamil. Click here to book
8) See more of Albania
As tempting as it is to simply sunbathe, there’s so much more to see in this relatively compact country than just the beaches. From soaring mountain peaks to deep canyons to historic old towns, it’s worth adding some extra stops to your Albania itinerary if time allows.
Some of the top places to visit in Albania include:
- The capital city, Tirana
- Berat, the beautiful ‘town of a thousand windows’
- Osumi Canyon and the Bogove Waterfall
- The old town in Gjirokaster
- The ‘Albanian Alps’ in Theth National Park
- Shkodër, which has incredible views from its hilltop castle
- The coastal town of Vlore
Book one of these day tours from Sarande:
9) Explore Butrint Archaeological Park
History buffs won’t want to miss a trip to nearby Butrint Archaeological Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which has been to a Greek colony, a Roman city and a bishopric (diocese) since prehistoric times.
This area has a rare combination of archaeology and nature due to the Illyrian, Ottoman, Roman, Venetian and Greek ruins that are surrounded by the lush landscape. Climb up to the 19th century fortress for panoramic views of Ksamil beach. Click here to book
10) Take the ferry to Corfu
Something that might surprise people is that it’s actually quicker to get to Saranda from the Greek island of Corfu, versus the four to five hour drive from Tirana. The Corfu Saranda ferry only takes 30 minutes, and from there it’s only a 10 minute drive to the airport.
The ferry costs about €23 per person and companies including Joy Lines Fast Ferry, Finikas Lines and Ionian Seaways have multiple crossings daily during high season. Reserve online ahead of time, or buy a ticket in town near the ferry terminal. Guests are required to arrive about 30 minutes before departure to get through passport control.
While this is a great option for flights, a trip to Corfu is also worth doing for a day trip to see the gorgeous old town, rent a scooter to zip around the island, try local specialities like olive oil, kumquat liqueur and wine or relax on some of the beaches.
Where to stay in Sarande
If you don’t have a vehicle, you’ll definitely want to stay close to the city centre since that’s where most of the restaurants and attractions are (though it is louder than staying up on the hill). Some people also prefer staying in other beach towns like Dhermi or Ksamil.
A few top rated options are:
- Hotel Bahamas: Guests love the huge outdoor pools, and rave about the stunning sea views. You’ll want a car since the hotel is 10 km from Saranda, and it’s a good spot for a family vacation since you can lounge around at the property instead of having to drive to a beach. Click here to book
- Hotel Porto Eda: This hotel is smack dab in the middle of Saranda, which makes it the ideal location for guests wanting easy access to the cafes and bars. Balconies overlook the marina; however, parking can be a challenge. Click here to book
- Vila Kalcuni Sarande: One of the best features of this resort in Saranda is its private beach, which has umbrellas, sun beds and a patio overlooking the Ionian Sea. The hotel is a 10 minute walk from the city centre, so a good option for those looking for a quieter place to stay. Click here to book
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