A popular entry point for travelers heading north into the Balkans from Greece is through Saranda, a port town along the Albanian Riviera. Albania is an up-and-coming travel destination, having only opened to travelers relatively recently. I’m not just talking about COVID-related restrictions either. Until the 1990’s, Albania was under a cruel Communist regime, and basically closed off to the rest of the world. International travelers are quickly discovering just how incredible of a travel destination Albania is. At the forefront of Albania’s tourism is the sparkling Albanian Riviera, with one of the biggest names being Saranda, or Sarandë in the Albanian language.
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Is Saranda Worth Visiting?
I’ll be honest, Saranda took some getting used to. After spending over a month in Greece, it was a bit of a shock. In Greece, everything was simple and easy to figure out. Every destination I visited in the past month was picture-perfect and Insta-worthy. As the ferry from Corfu pulled into the port of Saranda, I started to wonder why I had been in such a rush to leave Greece and its lush landscapes, sparkling waters, and charming cities. If you’re on the same ferry, I have no doubt that you’ll have the same first impression of Saranda: bleak.
But first impressions aren’t everything. While I didn’t love Saranda itself, it did serve as a great home base for exploring the attractions in the southernmost parts of Albania. I stayed in a weird part of town that was kind of away from the action, and I remember sitting on my balcony wondering how such a big city with so many buildings was so desolate and quiet. Turns out, most tourists generally flock close to the beach and the bustling strip of restaurants, bars, and businesses. Even then, I still wasn’t sold on Sarande, but it did make the town feel a little less depressing.
My honest answer is that Sarande is a good home base for exploring anywhere but Sarande, at least during the day. Use it to check out Ksamil and Butrint, or hop on a boat to beach-hopping to some of the more secluded beaches. Once the evening rolls around, Sarande is a lively spot with great restaurants and some amazing nightlife right by the sea. I grew to love Albania. By the end of my brief time in this country, I had nothing but love for Albania and the Albanian people.
My last day in Sarande showed me the best part of this country. It’s the genuine hospitality given to travelers by the Albanian people. I packed up all my things and prepared to walk across town to the bus station in the sizzling heat. As I walked out the gate, the elderly man who worked at the apartment waddled past me. He hopped in his car to give me a ride to the bus stop. The Albanian people take hospitality to another level, and for that, I’ll gladly overlook any shortcomings Albania might have on the outside.
How To Get To Saranda
Okay, on to the useful stuff. Saranda is a major travel destination in Albania. If you’re already traveling in Albania, you won’t have a problem getting to and from here. Buses are the main form of transportation in Albania. However, the buses here are quite random. A “bus” might just be a minivan, and you’ll just have to roll with it. I could link to a bus schedule or whatever, but the thing is, Albania operates on its own time. But, it also operates on your time. One of the best things about Albania is that you could show up to a “bus station” and find a way to get to where you need to go, even if it might be a little more complicated than just taking a bus from point A to point B.
If you’re traveling from Greece, your best bet is to catch a ferry from Corfu. It’s a popular route and it runs several times daily. The company we used was Finikas Lines, and they had three departures daily. There’s one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. Since you will be crossing international borders, you will have to go through customs beforehand. Get there 30-45 minutes before your ferry leaves. You’ll have to go through customs on the Albanian side, although it might have been the easiest border crossing ever. It set the tone for just how little Albanians cared about any rules, and I was all for it.
Oh, and before you go, make sure to have good travel insurance handy whenever you’re out adventuring. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels.
Where To Stay in Saranda
Sarande has quite a few hostels to choose from. I had a few work gigs I needed to take care of so I booked a private apartment for a couple of nights to have my own space. It cost 24 euros a night for something that would have cost five times as much in Greece, so I was all about it. Whenever I’d wrap up work and have some free time to drink and meet people, I would hop over to Wallaby Hostel. Their rooftop has an epic view of Sarande and the sea. The hostel itself is very basic, but the owners are very friendly and they have a very social vibe. It’s a great place to meet people, and since Sarande is often the start or end of people’s Albanian adventures, meeting people is essential.
The Best Things To Do in Saranda
Most of the best things to do in Saranda lie outside the actual city. The main attraction within Saranda is its long strip of beach, bars, and a restaurants. However, I didn’t find it anything too special. Head a little further south and you’ll find quieter and better beaches. Aside from beaches, there are a couple of things that can fill your time in Saranda.
Butrint National Park
After a pretty underwhelming introduction to Albania, Butrint was my first, “okay, maybe it’s not so bad” moment. The UNESCO Site of Butrint may be my favorite archaeological site that I visited on my Euro-trip, rivaling even the Acropolis of Athens itself. I went into it completely blind and with very low expectations. It turned out to be absolutely amazing, with history ranging over thousands of years, and spanning various empires. From ruins of the Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, and other empires, Butrint was truly a mind blowing experience. The castle and museum within the castle were my favorite part, but the ruins of the theater and basilica were a close second. All of this was situated on a small island-ish thing surrounded by gorgeous blue waters and rolling hills. The view from the castle was stunning.
Outside of the main ruins of Butrint, there are a few other nearby archaeological sites that you can visit. You can take a quick raft across the river to another castle. You can also visit Ali Pasha’s castle a few kilometers away. Once you arrive in Butrint National Park, there will be people offering boat rides to Ali Pasha’s castle, but we were hungry so we carried onwards to Ksamil.
Hike Up To Lekuresi Castle
Whenever you get bored in Albania, find a castle. I think I hiked up to a castle in every stop of my Albanian itinerary. A few kilometers outside of Saranda is Lekuresi Castle. While it was relatively underwhelming compared to the other castles I visited in Albania, the view is quite stunning from up here. If you’re looking for a stunner of a sunset spot, look no further than Lekuresi. Other castles in Albania had a small entrance fee, but either I got lucky or you don’t have to pay for this one.
Beach Hopping in Ksamil
After spending a few hours at Butrint, you’ll want some turquoise waters and cold beers. Ksamil is the place to be for that. Despite being very touristy, I liked Ksamil much more than Sarande itself. While Sarande has the better nightlife, Ksamil had a much better vibe during the day. The beaches were definitely prettier. Another popular beach nearby is Pasqyra Beach, which tends to be quieter than Ksamil.
Swim in the Blue Eye
If you want a way to cool off that doesn’t involve sand and salt water, the Blue Eye might be the swimming hole for you. The water here is a freezing 10 degrees year round, so be prepared for a chilly plunge. You can get here by catching a bus north and asking to get off at Blue Eye (Syri I Kalter in Albanian). From where you get dropped off, it’s only about a 10 minute walk down to the Blue Eye. I didn’t go here because I heard it was nothing too special, but if you’ve got time to kill, it might be worth the visit.
Experience the Nightlife in Saranda
Sarande is a party destination. On my first visit to Albania, I did a poor job of experiencing Saranda’s nightlife. However, I came back with a vengeance the following year. I enjoyed Saranda a lot more on my second visit, and I think a huge part of it was that tourism had exploded beyond pre-pandemic levels.
While the rest of the city is quiet and boring, the long strip of beach is home to tons of restaurants, bars, and clubs. During the summer months, this part of the city is absolutely bumping. There is no shortage of places to grab a beer and party the night away. A few favorites of mine are right next to each other, being Demi Beach, City Lounge, and Orange Cocktail Bar. The outdoor atmosphere right by the sea provides an amazing vibe for dancing the night away. Drinks aren’t even too expensive either, with most cocktails costing just over $5.
Last Thoughts on Saranda
Saranda is one of those get in and get out destinations. It’s a great entry point into Albania if you’re coming from Greece, but there are plenty of more beautiful destinations along the Albanian Riviera. As a backpacker, it’s a good place to get your feet set in Albania. It’s got everything you need from a big city, but unlike Tirana, it’s also on the coast. For some people, beach makes everything better, but I’ve never been one to revolve my travels around the beach and relaxing.
Is Saranda worth visiting? The city itself, I think can be skipped. But as a backpacker, it’s also where all the hostels are and where you’ll meet other travelers to party and explore Albania with. A day trip to Butrint National Park is a must, followed by some fresh seafood in Ksamil before heading back to Saranda to experience the nightlife. Aside from that, I don’t think you’d need more than a night or two in Saranda. That allows you more time to see the other amazing destinations that Albania has to offer, like the quaint villages of Gjirokaster and Berat.
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