The secret is out! The Albanian Riviera is one of the most popular up-and-coming destinations in Europe and in the world. With tourism still in its infancy in Albania, there are certainly some growing pains. So in this post we are spilling 8 incredible things to do in South Albania, particularly around Himara and Saranda, 6 things that we think you should avoid and some helpful tips you need to know before your trip!
If Albania is on your bucket list for summer 2024 then you need to read this!!
1. Go on a road trip
Our first thing to do in South Albania is to hire a car and drive to your destinations on the Riviera.
The scenery in Albania is simply mind-blowing and the mountainous roads dropping off into the crystal clear blue sea is something you will never forget. Plus
you get to avoid the circus that is Balkan buses (although these buses are of course part of the Albania experience). The other benefit of driving is that you get to actually stop at secret beaches, and hidden viewpoints and explore old towns that no one else ever does.
For the most incredible coastal views of South Albania we recommend taking the road from Vlore to Sarande via Himara - trust us you will not be bored or disappointed once.
2. Stay in Himara
Himara is one of the most incredible up-and-coming beach towns in Europe and you must not miss it when you visit the Albanian Riviera. The secret of Himara is starting to get out as its popularity is booming with young travellers, van lifers and backpackers. However, it is for a great reason! This little pocket of paradise is home THE best beaches in Albania and still has many wild beaches nearby that haven’t been privatised (this is a big ‘issue’ in Albania at the moment).
Another interesting and incredible thing about Himara is that it is actually considered to be part of Greece so Greek vibes are infused through the small town, giving it a distinct vibe (and more Greek food!) from the rest of Albania.
This is a great destination in summer and the shoulder seasons for those who like a more laid-back vibe without the madness of more of the tacky summer hotspots in Albania (like Vlore, Saranda and Ksamil).
The actual beach in the main town is breathtaking let alone the beaches just a short drive to the north and to the south! Learn more about the beaches in the area here.
3. Visit Gjirokastër
Gjirokaster is the next thing to do when you are visiting South Albania. This is a traditional Albanian village that has preserved its culture and architecture during the communist era. It is a beautiful and charming village set in the mountains with the cutest cobblestone streets, wooden buildings and charming cafes, restaurants and shops.
Here you can actually eat in traditional Albanian restaurants that serve great food (as you will find out this is harder to come by than you may think!).
Gjirokaster is located just an hour from Sarande and is easy to reach via public bus or car - again the mountainous drive there is worth it in itself! This makes a day trip or one-night visit very easy.
4. Discover The Blue Eye Spring
The Blue Eye is an incredibly beautiful spring of crystal clear water bubbling up from the surface in a stunning river. If you think of a forest fairy tale you might be imagining something close to the Blue Eye.
This destination is very famous and popular with tourists but is definitely worth a visit.
With the clarity of the water of the blue eye, the river it feeds into along with the surrounding lush green trees and mountains, you will feel you have landed in paradise.
There are a few cafes and restaurants to relax by the water and replenish.
The Blue Eye spring is located just 20 minutes or so from Sarande and is on the way to Gjirokaster so these two destinations can be done in one day!
5. Beach hop
Without a doubt one of the best things to do in South Albania is to visit all of the most beautiful beaches. If dramatic mountains and cliffs falling into impossibly clear blue sea is your thing, then you are going to love the Albanian Coastline. It is most beautiful on the stretch between Dhermi and Saranda, with the coastline around Himara being particularly stunning.
You can explore the beaches by car, but if you don’t have a car then we would advise you to stay in Himara and explore the beaches there that are the most beautiful in walking distance or to hop on a boat trip.
6. Go on a Boat Trip (or 2 or 3!)
By far one of the best ways to see the best of the beautiful coastline in Albania is to do day boat trips. These are very popular in places like Sarande and Himara and there are a plethora of companies to choose from during the season.
Boat trips are even better for seeing many of the most beautiful places than having a car. This is because many of the beaches in Albania are completely inaccessible by car or food and could actually be very dangerous trying to get to. It's wild out there in Albania!
And the ones that are accessible by now are mainly privatised meaning you have to pay to use the beach. Usually, these beaches are covered in horrible beach chairs, and umbrellas, are insanely overpriced and play bad music LOUD.
So one workaround, which is easier and not too expensive (about 20-30 euros per person for the day) is to do the boat tour.
Some boat trips go a bit further than others like the ones to Gramma Bay in Himara, what you choose all depends on how much time you have and your budget.
All of the companies will run similar itineraries, stopping at the same bays to look at or for a swim/snorkel (PACK YOUR GOGGLES!). Then they will take you to the most beautiful beach and leave you there to enjoy your time for a few hours before taking you back.
Tips on how to book the best boat trip below are included at the bottom of the article.
7. Explore Butrint National Archaeological Park
Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located just 30 minutes south of Sarande. This incredible historical site is definitely worth a half-day visit! It is super easy to get to Butrint from Sarande with regular public buses or to drive.
“Inhabited since prehistoric times, Butrint has been the site of a Greek colony, a Roman city and a bishopric. Following a period of prosperity under Byzantine administration, then a brief occupation by the Venetians, the city was abandoned in the late Middle Ages after marshes formed in the area. The present archaeological site is a repository of ruins representing each period in the city’s development.”
You may be surprised to learn that you don’t need to visit Italy or Greece to explore ruins of this standard, but it’s true!
Explore the ancient ruins including an amphitheatre, cathedral and so much more all set on a beautiful lake with mountain views all around. It costs just £8 for a ticket to discover the past.
8. People watch on the Sarande promenade
No matter the season, the promenade in Sarande is a lively and interesting place to be! This is where the ONLY public beach in and around Sarande is located. Top this off with a bunch of restaurants and bars and you have a recipe for atmosphere.
This is a great place to stroll around at different times of the day and just see what is happening. You will experience a mix of older locals going about their daily rituals with Albanians on holiday and people from all over the world doing the same thing as you! It’s an eclectic mix and a great way to witness the development of Albania’s tourism.
What to avoid when in Sarande and other parts of South Albania
Tourism in Albania has experienced a massive boom in the last few years. You could say this Balkan country is a bit behind on the times when it comes to infrastructure and the preservation of its environment (given its history you can see why!).
With Albanians now having the opportunity to make some serious cash from tourists for the first time ever, they are eagerly taking it. This has created a recipe for some uncomfortable things that you may want to avoid when visiting Albania’s Riviera.
So here are our recommendations for things to avoid:
- Tacky hotels & private beach clubs: These are concentrated around Sarande and Ksamil and they give us the ick - especially when there is no other option.
- The Pirate Party Boat Trips in Sarande’s harbour: If listening to Cotton Eye Joe and Pop Lock and Drop It on a fake pirate ship covered in blue LED lights going in circles around a harbour is your thing, be my guest. Otherwise just don’t. When you are in Sarande you will see these boat trips and they just give the worst vibes.
- Bad Restaurants: Okay, this is hard to avoid because sadly the food in the restaurants in Albania leaves a lot to be desired - especially if you are vegetarian. Many of the places you will go are trying to cater to tourists with basic menus of pizza and pasta. It is actually not easy to find traditional Albanian or Balkan food in Sarande, Ksamil or Himara. To get around this, we have included a (brief) list of places that we have been and can recommend. We would strongly suggest you book an apartment so you have access to your own kitchen - but do note that supermarkets are limited, especially in Himara.
- Restaurant Recommendations:
- Manxurane Restaurant - Italian/Mediterranean food, great wine and all round the best quality restaurant in the area. They accept card.
- La Petite - The food is a bit basic but the setting is beautiful and romantic. They only accept cash.
- Caffe Italia - really good coffee, lovely cocktails and a sunset view to die for. They accept card
- Green Market Life - An incredible vegan food restaurant and health food market run by a passionate couple from Argentina and Canada. It is a bit out of the way from the main strip and on the pricier end but trust us it is worth it!!
- Astro Brunch & Cocktail - great brunch and coffee! They even had avo on toast.
- To Steki sit Gonia (good Greek food!) - make sure you try the Himara salad when you're there
- Edua Gjirokaster - delicious Albania/Greek/Balkan food with lots of veggie options.
- Ksamil: This may be controversial as this place is getting a rep for being the ‘Maldives of Europe’ but it's not. It’s been ruined by privatisation. It’s sad because the scenery is beautiful but there aren’t any beaches you can go to without getting ripped off with bad food, bad drinks and expensive beach chairs and umbrellas. It felt more like a tacky beach disco than a tropical island. Avoid.
- Orange Club: This is a nightclub in Sarande and locals might tell you it is the best club in Albania. And if tacky clubs are your thing or if you are dying to stay out all night go for it (as this is the only option!), however, the music isn’t good and the vibes are off.
Other tips for Albania/Sarande
When to visit
The best time to visit is from mid-April to mid-October. This is when the weather is the best and tourist businesses are operating.
As soon as October 1st rolls around, things begin to close and stop running. And by November the beaches turn into ghost towns. However, in July and August, the heat and crowds may be overwhelming for some so if you can, we would suggest visiting in May or the beginning of June or towards the end of September/start of October.
The end of the season is nice because the weather is amazing and the sea is still incredibly warm. Once all the tourists begin to leave and it gets quieter it does become somewhat idyllic!
Where to stay
Himara and Saranda both make good bases to explore the region. We suggest splitting your time between each of the towns and maybe having an overnight trip in Gjirokaster in between.
- We highly recommend this Airbnb in Himara
- In Saranda, our suggestion is to find an apartment or hotel on the stretch of roach between Hera Restaurant and Mango Beach. This is because it is away from the madness of the main promenade and also has the most incredible sunset views over the harbour that you can imagine. Make sure you book a room with a view and you won’t be disappointed.
Cash is king and the fees are insane
For whatever reason, the banks in Albania have extortionate fees and locals also have to pay a lot of taxes. This means that most businesses will only accept cash or strongly prefer it. However, it also means you will end up spending a lot of money on ATM bank fees. These are unavoidable as every single bank has a similar fee structure. Each time you withdraw money expect to pay between 6-8 Euros. Ouch.
Also, always pay for things in the local currency, Lek, not Euros and get to know the exchange rate and prices to avoid being ripped off. The prices of things in Albania have gone up a lot recently, especially in the touristy places. Anything imported will also be really expensive so it may be more expensive then you expect it to be.
Booking boat trips
The best way to book boat trips in both Himara and Saranda is to go to the port where each company will have a stand. Talk to different operators, see what they’re offering and then see if you can barter them down for the best price. If no one is there, you can take their WhatsApp numbers from the sign and haggle with them over text.
You may also want to do a quick search on Google and Trip Advisor to make sure their reviews aren’t horrendous.
It is almost impossible to find timetables and book local buses online. This can be challenging and confusing when you have become accustomed to doing everything online! But in the Balkans, it doesn’t quite work like this yet - which is all part of the fun!
The way to find out what time buses are coming and when it to either ask your hotel or Airbnb host or to go to the bus station (which is usually just a shop on the side of the road) and ask the people there. The buses are reliable and always leave on time but it’s just knowing when they come and go that can be challenging.
Another point is that safety isn’t a huge concern so they will stuff more people on the bus than seats so get there early. If the weather is hot, prepare to be uncomfortable. Our best advice is to get a window seat so you can stare out the window at the beautiful scenery and forget about the chaos around you!