Our first trip from London and away from our jobs for Summer was to Albania. Crazy since 12 months ago we didn’t even know it existed. Now we’d confidently say that Albania has some of the best beaches in Europe, amazing scenery, and you can get a lot for your money!
Before our trip we struggled enormously to find the information that we needed to plan the trip, and even when we boarded the plane didn’t really know what to expect. Ever since our return we’ve been asked if we’d recommend visiting Albania, and what our tips would be.
Getting to Sarande
Coming from London we had two options of getting to Sarande. The first was what everyone would consider, by plane. Jumping onto Skyscanner we found flights some cheap ones for about £120 return from London to Tirana. It wasn’t until we dug a little deeper we found that Tirana is actually five hours drive from Sarande if you rent a car, or by what sounds like terrible public transport anywhere between 6 and 9 hours! Neither option was how we wanted to spend the first and last days of what is meant to be a relaxing trip. If part of a longer trip though, this could be an awesome way of seeing more of Albania.
To much excitement we found out that we could actually fly to Greece (a solid favourite from our last trip) and then catch a short ferry across to Sarande. Flights to Corfu are actually even cheaper than to Albania, and seem to be better connected to most other European destinations. The ferries from Corfu to Sarande run two to three times a day depending on season and cost between €20-23 depending on which travel agent you buy them from.
We arrived late on a Saturday night from London so weren’t able to jump straight onto a ferry. Instead we spent our first night in Corfu, eating gyros, drinking beer and reminiscing on our last trip to Greece! Next morning it was onto the first ferry out and we were in Albania by 10am.
Where to stay in Sarande
Sarande is one of the most popular and well developed towns on the south coast of Albania. We knew as a group of three that love breakfasts and pre-drinks an apartment was going to be the way to go. Europeans suck at breakfast so the kitchen was invaluable – I’ve yet to find a breakfast in Europe that tops Marks poached eggs. It was a toss-up between the AirBnB or the White Residence Luxury Apartments, but ultimately the AirBnB won out. As nice as the fancy deck furniture looked, we had some AirBnB credit to spend which saved us £100, which goes a hell of a long way in Albania! (To get a discount off an AirBnB click here)
If we were heading to Sarande as a couple we’d probably opt for a hotel. There were plenty around and still very reasonably priced. The Demi Hotel would be our first choice, it had almost the same location as our apartment, but closer to the water and also an awesome on site bar that we frequented more times than I care to admit! Being a little bit closer so we didn’t have to stumble back up the hill would have been great.
Accomodation is all over Sarande but we would recommend staying somewhere within a couple of minutes walk of the esplanade. Climbing up the hills after dinner and drinks, or trying to find a carpark centrally would be a nightmare. The population of Sarande swells from 30,000 in winter to 300,000 in July and August so accomodation options are everywhere.
Based on what we saw the south end of town near the esplanade is best, it has the most bars and restaurants, a few small supermarkets and seemed generally a little cleaner than the more residential north end. There are also significantly less construction sites which makes it quieter and look nicer!
Things to see in Sarande
Sarande itself is relatively bland. Its certainly not brimming with cultural activities, and has an unremarkable history. It does however have a pretty esplanade with a nice beach and some great bars and restaurants. You’ll need a car, or lots of patience for public transport, to really see the surrounding areas.
Ksamil is the most popular beach in Albania. We visited on 3 of our 6 full days in Albania. When it looks like this though, can you blame us!?
Ksamil is the most famous beach for both domestic and international tourists. Thankfully since we visited in June just before the season started they weren’t as teeming with people as Tripadvisor would lead you to suggest. We never missed out on a sun lounger, never waited for a table and avoided hordes of children.
Food and drinks at Ksamil are readily available as its one of the most developed beaches in the area. We ate a couple of times at the No Name Taverna, its back a bit from the beach but uber cheap and delicious (get the pork gyros plate). For beachside dining and drinking we opted for Abiori. Their beachside loungers are patrolled by waiters who seemed to appear every time a drink was finished and their hot chips were great too. Abiori sun loungers though were the most expensive we paid for the whole trip, 60% more than the standard rate. €5.20 for three loungers and two umbrellas! Our favourite place though was Guvat Bar & Restaurant. There’s no better place to sip €2.5 cocktails and watch the sun go down, we ended up here every time we visited Ksamil.
Accomodation is Ksamil is reasonably priced and walking distance to the beach. We opted not to stay here though because the bar and restaurant scene was lacking when compared to Sarande. Families and those who just want to sit by the beach would have a blast here though.
Saranda City Beach
City beaches get a bad rep. More often than not this is justified. However in the case of Saranda, its definitely not. The beach is clean, has a beautiful view and the water is crystal clear! As is typical with most European beaches its covered in sun loungers, but not so closely packed that you’re lying on strangers. After traipsing up and down the beach looking for someone to rent a lounger off we gave up and just plonked ourselves down on a few at the watersedge. Miraculously a young Albanian man appeared to take our money. This was a common occurance at all the beaches we visited, so I wouldn’t worry too much about trying to pay in advance if you go. I had no issue with the loungers, but Mark to this day maintains that they were the worst loungers in the world.
The best part of the beach is that its meters away from the promenade that runs the length of the waterfront, and also all the bars and restaurants. We became regular visitors of a small fast food place that sold a Gyros and a Pint for less than €3! Also conveniently close is Jericho Cocktail Bar where we made daily appearances to try and drink our way through their menu. We didn’t make it through but that means we just have to go back right!?
There are no true downsides to the beach, besides Marks unjustified complaints about the comfort of the loungers. But with a car and plenty of other beaches to explore we wouldn’t recommend spending more than half a day here.
We’d planned to head all the way north from Saranda to Dhermi (which we couldn’t remember so called Dermatologist for the entire trip). Unfortunately we’d underestimated the time it would take to drive the distance on Albanian roads, and couldn’t justify the hour and a half each way. So we ‘settled’ for Borsch.
Borsch is one of the longest beaches in the area so has plenty of different places to rent a lounger and spend the day. When we visited in June it looked as though all the bars were still setting up for the peak season with only a few open. Once we made it past a couple of herds of cows on the road we stumbled upon Blue Days. Usually the beach is reserved for hotel guests, but as it was quiet they let us park and use their loungers for free so long as we spent some money in their restaurant. There’s not a lot to do, but the beers are cheap, the sun loungers are comfortable and the waters clear! We spent the vast majority of a day here and would have liked to have had the flexibility in our trip to spend a few days staying here. Spontaneity like that though isn’t something my spreadsheet holidays allow!
Ancient City of Butrint
Butrint is a UNESCO world heritage site and sits at the heart of the Butrint National Park, about 20km from downtown Sarande. Butrint was originally an ancient Greek town but has also been occupied by the Romans, Venetians and Byzantine empires. Because of this Burtint is famed for ts ruins dating across 2500 years, everything from a 3rd century Greek Theatre, to a 6th century christian baptistry, a castle on the site of an ancient acropolis and everything in between.
We’re not enormous history buffs but enjoyed spending half a day here nonetheless. Tickets are purchased at the entrance and then you’re left to your own devices to explore. There are toilets but no food or drink stalls on site so be sure to not make the same mistake as we did and come prepared with snacks!
The Blue Eye
The Blue eye is a natural spring about 18km north of Sarande. Divers have explored it but never yet reached deeper than 50m! Local legend has it that the area was ruled by a vicious dragon who kidnapped children from the local towns. After many years of fighting the dragon was slain, and from where his eye fell the clear Blue Eye spring grew.
We went to the blue eye with massive expectations, and sadly were slightly underwhelmed. It mostly just seemed like a slightly smaller and less impressive version of the St. Naum Springs that we saw last year when we stayed at Lake Ohrid. Don’t get me wrong, its impressive but unless you’re headed in the general direction for something else I don’t think its worth the 30 min drive from Sarande. Many places online say that you’re able to swim there, however there are now pretty prominent signs prohibiting this. (Not that it stopped a German family of four when we were visiting). Without being able to swim for us it was a quick pit stop then back to the air con in our car. The most interesting part of our visit was a conversation with a local alcoholic who couldn’t make eye contact, drank Rakija like it was water and sweated a lot.
Our AirBnB host rated Mirror beach as her favourite beach for a day trip from Sarande. As such we prioritised it for day one, and it didn’t disappoint! Getting there is no easy feat with a near vertical sandy potholed ‘road’ leading from the main road down to the beach. We arrived with sweaty palms and a lot of nervous laughter as we silently prayed our car would get us there in one piece.
The beach itself is rocky but has plenty of sun loungers and umbrellas that you can rent cheaply from the restaurant. We didn’t eat at the restaurant while we were there but the drinks we got were really resonably priced (€4 for two beers and a coffee).
On the far righthand side of the beach theres a large rock that we spotted people jumping off. As anyone who knows me would expect I quickly dragged Mark and Lisa off their sun loungers and swum out to see what was going on. The top of the rock was about 18m, too high for my liking. Convinced I would just jump off a lower bit I clambered up the rocks, taking the lead from the locals. We established that we had no language in common, so all they could say to me was “Jump, Crazy, Horror”. From this my competitive streak understood that they were challenging me – so to the top I went. A few tense seconds and deep breaths later I threw myself off. The 3 seconds it took to hit the water felt like forever. But as soon as I surfaced and made sure I was alive I was straight but up to the top!
Where to eat in Sarande
One of the best things about Albania was how cheap it was. The low prices meant that we could really splurge and eat at some of the nicest places in town for less than €12 each! A main meal was never more than €8, a 1L carafe of local wine €6 and a beer no more than €1.50!
Food was a massive part of every day in Albania. We generally started each day with breakfast in our AirBnB, lunch by a beach and then a massive dinner every evening back in Sarande about 9.30pm. Because we visited in June nowhere was busy and we walked into every place we wanted to eat without a wait – we’ve heard though in July and August you’re best to book a couple of days in advance! Breakfasts are sorely laking as they are in most of eastern Europe. The exception to this was the morning that our lovely AirBnB host arrived promptly at 9am to give us some freshly made Petulla. These are fried donuts, so not really what you’d expect for breakfast. Traditionally they’re served with cheese, cream, or as ours were honey. Talk about a sugar hit to start the day!
We’ve managed to narrow our favourite places down to a top 6, in no particular order;
La Petit (Traditional) – At the southern end of Sarande on Rruga Butrinti.
This is the only restaurant in Sarande that we visited twice. La Petit serves traditional Balkan food, as well as classics such as Lasagne and Burgers. Between the three of us we tried the majority of the meat specialties and couldn’t fault any of them. Dinner for three here including 3x starters, 3 mains and 2L of local white wine came to €41. Service here was also the best we receieved on the whole trip!
Guvat (Traditional) – Ksamil Beach
We’ve already made it clear that we loved the beaches at Ksamil. Guvat was the best place we found to look at them from. Located up on a hill at the end of the beaches it has a terrace that looks down over the beach and out to the islands in Ksamil bay. The cocktails are top quality (albeit slow to come out) and the food we saw looked great too. Even if you don’t want a drink, its worth visiting for the view alone. Because of the time of year we visited we had no issues getting a table, in peak season though I bet there’d be long waits!
Mare Nostrumi (Seafood) – Sarande
Mare Nostrum specialises in Seafood and is at the opposite end of the esplanade to La Petit. When we came there was only one other table in the whole place! Fresh seafood dominates the menu here, but true to form I still ordered their steak (I can’t afford to eat like this in London!). We skipped starters here, but mains and desserts were amazing. The atmosphere was lacking a little since we were almost alone in the restaurant, but with a few more people the restaurant would be buzzing with its esplanade location
No Name Taverna (Greek) – Ksamil
We haven’t been able to find a website, facebook page or official address for No Name Taverna. But its in central Ksamil and was our favourite lunch spot in Ksamil. We had amazing two Gyros Plates, a bowl of chips, a Greek Salad, two beers, water and an iced coffee for €11! Perfectly located for a pit stop pre or post beach No Name is much better than its unassuming exterior gives away. To see the exact location of the restaurant click here.
Abiori (Traditional) – Ksamil Beach
Abiori had the best location of all the places we ate on the trip. Located right on the Ksamil beach it was easy to roll off the sun lounger and be at the table in 30 seconds. The food without the view wouldn’t have deserved a mention, and we found the wait staff a little pushy. But both can easily be overlooked because of the views!
Jerichos (Cocktails) – Sarande Esplanade
Technically not a restaurant or somewhere to eat, but cocktails are an aperitif, which you drink before a meal which makes them part of the dinner which makes this a restaurant?
Jerichos is above the esplanade that runs along Sarande beach so is the perfect place for a pre dinner drink and some people watching. It was also halfway between the ATM and our AirBnB so it was the perfect pitstop. Cocktails range from €4 – €5 so are ‘expensive’ for Albania, but are worth every Lek! Personal favourites included the iced cappuccino, the watermelon blush and the Miami Vice.
Nine days out of London flew by incredibly quickly, but basing ourselves in Sarande meant we could explore plenty of the southern coast while still having time to eat and drink ourselves silly. We’d have loved to see the coast further north and explore places like Gjipe and Dhermi, but that just means we’ll have to come back!?
For now its back to London for a few weeks and then we are off to Malta!