touring | albania - seeking secluded beaches on the ionian coast
'taking a dip in the crystal clear turquoise waters'
i have visited albania twice before, once in the beautiful mountains of the north (read it here) & another time when i spent a few days in tirana before making my way to lake ohrid in macedonia. this time was going to be a little different as i was here to see the famous secluded beaches of the southern region. these under the radar beaches & resorts have a great deal to offer the adventurous traveler.
i arrived in tirana airport in the afternoon & decided to take the bus straight to berat, a mountain town known for its ottoman style homes 1.5 hours south of tirana.
i wanted to stop off here as the 5 hour bus ride from tirana to the southern city of saranda filled me with dread as most long distance public transport in albania is done by small van (kombi) mostly without air conditioning & in 35°c it can become a sauna of sorts.
berat is a great stop over for a few days, it is a quiet town on the banks of the osum river surrounded by mountainous peaks. the region is also known for its superior wine & olive oil production. on my first morning with the sun peeking over the hills to the east i made my way up the hill to the main attraction, berat castle. this inhabited citadel is religiously unique as they have byzantine churches, mosques & christian religious icons. this sums up albania to me in terms of religious tolerance to me both muslims & christians live in harmony, they don't mention their religion as they only refer to themselves as albanian. after taking in the views from the castle i made my way to the most famous restaurant in the city, lili. this tiny six table restaurant serves up local homemade delicacies from the region. the owner is the star of the show here such a nice guy & the food was the most authentic i tried on my whole trip.
insider tip: the nearby cobo winery organises daily wine tastings.
finally, after two days in the mountains i made my way to saranda, the southernmost major town of albania. the bus takes around four hours (1000lek / €10), driving through the winding coastal roads between himare & saranda make for some of the most spectacular views one could imagine.
sandwiched between the ioanian sea & the olive grove hills to the east this town has seen a dramatic change in the last ten years, the construction boom in hotels & apartments has taken away from the charm of the old days. although it can seem lacking in history & culture there are some gems to be found here. the remains of a 5th century synagogue in the center & lekurese castle on a hilltop overlooking the bay.
talking with local businesses i could see the impact that covid-19 had on tourism here & while albania is mostly open to tourists from around the world there are restrictions when returning home therefore this has stopped people visiting. nearly everyone i spoke with said they had seen +50% less tourists compared to last year. saranda welcomes huge of young tourists in august for the bar & party scene but due to covid-19 restrictions everything had to close at 11pm, this gave a totally different vibe in the night time but on the first evening we went to a beautiful sunset party at a nearby beach bar. although social distancing was definitely not adhered to i had a great time.
the ionian coast
from saranda i rented a motorcycle for the day (1500lek/€12) this was by far one of the best decisions that i made during the whole trip. travelling by motorcycle gives you the opportunity to explore all the hidden beaches that are that encased with monumental cliff walls making them tricky to get to but more than worth the extra effort to swim in the clear azure waters of the ionian sea.
the coastal road from saranda south towards the unesco heritage site of butrint (we will get more into that later) is home to some of the most spectacular beaches in albania & europe. the difference here is that they are undiscovered by the summer tourist packs that flock to them in italy & greece. my favourite beach, Pulëbardha had to be one of the most picturesque places that i have had the pleasure of visiting. making my was down the steep cliff was exhilarating finally arriving to the turquoise-azure waters with two huge rocks that protrude from the clear waters make for epic diving platforms & even better snorkeling opportunities. close by you will also find Pasqyrave beach & in the small popular town of ksamil some epic spots to catch some rays but be warned here it gets super busy in the summertime.
butrint national park
after catching some rays i made my way to my final destination of the day butrint. this olive-shaded unesco world heritage site is home to the Greek, Roman & medieval structures that were built during the time of the different empires in the area. located at the mouth of lake butrint, this site is home to a venetian town, roman forum, a basilica & so much more. it is one of the finest archaeological sites in the whole country & a must visit for any tourist in the south.
an interesting 20' second ferry ride from butrint across the estuary is the venetian triangle castle that that is also part of the national park. it only takes a few minutes to visit but for me it was the ride on the rope ferry was the most fun.
this once sleepy coastal town with strong links to greece is now one of the most popular places for international tourists to visit on the albania traveller trail. arriving from saranda i immediately felt more at home here. with its tree lined beach promenade & gorgeous crystal-clear turquoise waters i fell in love with the town & surrounding vistas within minutes.
the famous himara hostel was my base for a few days, it was the first hostel in the area offer both shared & private accommodation to international tourists. located in a charming old brick house flanked with fruit trees & grape vines this place has grown into what i believe is one of the best accommodation offering in the whole of albania.
most of my travel in albania was affected by the lack of other tourists mainly due to covid-19 restrictions, here it was a totally different story it was full of local & international travellers. the garden is the place where the magic happens, from hammocks to ultra-comfy seating & bbq area i had a blast here with friends grilling some fresh fish that we bought directly from a fisherman a few hours earlier.
one afternoon i set out with adrian on mountain bikes to the stunning filikuri beach that is only accessible via boat or clambering down a sheer rock face with ropes, we did the latter. it was nice to take a dip in the clear waters with just a few other people in sight. I honestly think these hidden, hard to get to beaches are the best attractions in the south of albania & with a little effort / courage everyone can visit them.
albania may not be for the faint-hearted traveller but if you have an open mind & an adventurous spirit, you will be surprised not only with the landscape but also the wonderful people that are always happy to help. on my first day in berat a lady called me from her balcony & gave me some freshly picked figs, this really sums up the people here. albania is a super safe country to visit with oodles of history, scenery & culture to offer all types of travellers. forget what you have heard in the media & make your own assumptions when you visit this fantastic country.
albania is one of the cheapest countries in europe & while prices have risen in that last few years, they are still a minimum of 50% cheaper than western europe or usa. if you're travelling by bus between cities then you are charged a maximum of 500lek/€4.5 for a few hours' drive. i never spent more than (1000lek/€8) dining out. shared accommodation was on average (1200lek/€10) & privates (3500lek/€27). note these are all high season prices & will be reduced in off season.
⦿ budget (€25) a day including accommodation.
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country travel tips
atm: bkt bank offers free withdrawals. don't accept the on-screen conversion.
sim card: vodafone. 20GB is (800lek) for 30 days. got an e-sim enable phone; try airalo.
transport: local mini buses timetables (kombi) can be found here.
taxi: uber? use promo: carlm5078ue for free ride.
accommodation: get ($20) off your first booking.com reservation here