In this edition of The Stuff the Internet Forgot to Tell Me: inside secrets of an Albanian beach holiday.
There are so many hidden gems of Albania’s riviera that only the locals know about… Because boy, do they not tell us foreigners anything!
Albania, like Regina George’s hair, is full of secrets. Ssshh.
As someone who lives in the Balkans now, I realize more and more just being here how much the Albanian seaside (or, Albanija more, as we would say here in Serbia, where I now reside) is not well marketed to foreigners compared to their northern neighbors. It is more affluent Albanian people that you will see when you make it down to the riviera, as well as in-the-know Greeks and Italians.
While now is the best time to travel to the still relatively undisturbed country, the infrastructure of Albania and the logistics of traveling through it are still an underreported story online despite burgeoning Albanian tourism. This will prevent you from making the most out of your trip on your first time there.
Most people don’t get the hang of HOW to travel in Albania until they take a second trip there. So before you pack your bags, allow this Albanian riviera travel guide to help you have a trip with no regrets.
But before we get into the juicy bits, let’s start with the basics.
Getting to Albania… is there an Albanian riviera airport?
Unfortunately, “Albania riviera airport” are three words that do not go together. There is no airport that gets you comfortably close to the Albanian beaches. Arriving to the riviera is a bit of a hop, skip, and a jump. Sad, I know?
My first sights of the riviera after landing in Sarandë via Greece.
How to get to the Albanian riviera then?
Holidays in Albania can be a bit tricky to plan because of the not-so-great transportation infrastructure. But there are two options for arriving in the south of Albania to hit up its beaches.
The first is quite obvious, which is to fly to Albania via the capital Tirana, and travel to the riviera by bus or by car. It would be smart to rent a car in Durres or Vlore as those are the beach towns closer to Tirana.
The better option, in my opinion, is to fly into the the island of Corfu, Greece. It is a 40 minute ferry ride from Saranda (Sarandë), the most southern and most tourist-accommodating town along the riviera.
This was actually the cheapest flight route I found into the Balkans for my three week trip there. Plus, you get to check off Corfu from your “places traveled to” list if you’re an obnoxious destination and country-counter like myself.
Rent a car in Albania. Or else…
Warning! The public transportation system in Albania has the following problems:
- Busses are infrequent and will come once a day early in the morning.
- There will be no trains or busses at all to transport you to some really amazing nearby sights.
- The entire riviera is one-lane driving throughout the twisty, curvy and steep mountains, making for slow bus commutes.
- Taxis are expensive tourist traps.
A foggy early morning view of the Ceraunian mountains from Jala. The winding roads deep into this Albanian mountain range provide a tricky terrain for public transportation and tourist commuting.
In Croatia or Montenegro, you can easily hop from town-to-town and beach-to-beach, using the reliable bus stations and timetables. These two countries have spent decades improving the commute through their mountainous terrains for tourism. Unfortunately, Albania just isn’t that organized yet (I explain this more extensively in my post about my quasi-FAILED first trip to Dhërmi. Womp womp).
If you can rent a car, even for one day, your Albanian vacation will be so much more fulfilling. Essentially, all the towns along the coast between Vlorë and Sarandë will be at most, a 30-minute to an hour drive away from the next town or two over. But without a car, and no bus to take you to the other towns, you will be stuck in one town. And none of the towns are large enough or busy enough to hold your attention for more than a day without wanting to eventually check out other parts of the riviera.
Of course, there are other options for transportation, like hitchhiking or splurging on an expensive taxi, neither of which were my thing. You can also try to make a deal with a local you come across at one of the beach bars to take you somewhere.
Sarandë… the most tourism-adjusted town.
I only spent one day in Sarandë on my first trip to the riviera. I had booked a show at Havana Beach Bar two hours up the coast in Dhërmi. And because there had been some scheduling issues, I decided to stay for three days in Dhërmi. BIG MISTAKE. Well, technically, it wasn’t a mistake because I had a professional obligation to be there.
But, what I soon learned was that Sarandë was the only town perfect for travelers without a rental car (I guess Himara is good too, but not quite “perfect” territory). The town is big enough where there is a lot going on in terms of clubs, bars, restaurants, activities and excursions, but it’s small enough where you can walk mostly everywhere and then visit nearby sights. The top Albania attractions near Saranda are the ancient Greek amphitheater in Butrint and the beach town Ksamil (spoiler alert: Ksamil is pretty crowded these days, so don’t expect it to be some undiscovered beach).
Enjoying a fresh, cold, and most importantly, cheap beer with a view at Limani restaurant in Sarandë.
Oh, had I known to spend more time in Sarandë. I am more of a visit the beach, check out some heritage sights and then dance the night away kind-of-gal. Sarandë was ideal for that. But by all means, if you are a lay on the beach all day and/or swim kind of person, then the smaller beach towns up the coast might be better for you.
Best hotels in Saranda.
In this post, all the hotels I will suggest in Sarandë, as well as all the hotels in the other towns, will have one super important thing in common: they are in the best location in town. For Sarandë, that means that they are just off the main pedestrian strip, a 5-10 minute walk from the ferry dock, and a 5-10 minute walk from the restaurants and shops on the pier overlooking the sea.
Hotel Royal Saranda
This is a pricier hotel if you want a 4-star hotel in a perfect location. But as far as relaxing Albania holiday resorts go, Hotel Royal is one of the best.
Porto Eda Hotel
Porto is not as pricey as Hotel Royal, and it is on the next street up from the boardwalk. It’s also right across from restaurant Limani, the best restaurant overlooking the water. I’m so depressed typing this right now knowing that I am not there at this very moment!
This hotel is too good to be true. It is not expensive at all. It is right near the water on the main strip. It is a 5 minute walk from the ferry port and it is close to all the action and beautiful restaurants on the water.
Best hostels in Saranda.
I booked an accommodation with the hostel Saranda Backpackers, which is literally right next to the ferry port. I’m talking less than 5 minutes away. But when I arrived, they ended up being overbooked. But the owner was kind enough to let me and another girl stay in an apartment for free. So, whether it is overbooked or not, I still recommend it.
Car rental in Saranda.
Sixt has really reliable car rental throughout the entire Balkan region.
Nightlife in Saranda.
I was in Saranda on a Sunday and Monday, so the nightlife was pretty dead. Unlike Croatia or Serbia where nightlife is pretty happening every day of the week, the Albanian nightlife game can be pretty underwhelming. That was something I didn’t quite pick-up from any Albania travel guide I read before my trip.
I checked out the two most highly rated clubs I had heard about. I stopped at Orange Bar Beach, which was completely dead, and Mango Kaffe Beach, which was not dead, but it was not quite alive. There was a decent amount of people at Mango, and it had a beautiful view of the sea, but it closed by midnight and was very tame. I did however, as I tend to do, manage to make friends with the bartender there, who took this awkward photo of me and my curls that didn’t hold the entire night.
Learning some basic phrases in Albanian will make you a badass.
Yes, I’m basically calling myself badass. After getting bamboozled quite a bit by locals on my first Albania trip, I made sure that I could say the three most important things when I returned this second time: “Hi,” “Thank you,” and “I only have ___ lek.” Lek is the Albanian currency if you didn’t know.
Essentially, all you need to learn is how to talk about money and how much things cost. A youtube video I watched taught me these things in a week’s time. This really came in handy when I took a bus from Saranda to Himarë, and the guy collecting money on the bus was charging more money to the tourists than the locals. I knew this because I visited the ticket office beforehand and knew the true price and how to say it in Albanian. So in my horrible Albanian pronunciation, I told him I only have 600 lek (about $6 USD),” instead of the 1000 lek he was asking the tourists for. After 30 seconds of trying to fight with me, he let me pay correct amount.
I totally understand he was trying to make some extra money, and more power to him. But when you are budget traveling, being played for a fool everyday multiple times a day will lead to you running out of money quickly, which always happens to me!
Now back to the beaches. Traveling the rest of the riviera….
Busses are very infrequent in the towns between Sarandë and Vlorë. When they do come, they are often sold out quickly and only come early in the morning. ‘Cause, like, everyone totally wakes up at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. Right?
So again, if you can rent a car, even for one day–do it, do it, do it! But anyway, here’s a run down of the best spots on the riviera as you make your way north on the SH8 highway.
There are so many picturesque beaches as you make your way up the coast!
Porto Palermo, the not-so-hidden gem tourists always miss.
Porto Palermo is, in my opinion, the most hidden treasure town of the riviera that tourists don’t know about, which is crazy as it is only an hour north of Sarandë and the bus to Himarë can stop there on request.
Despite it being the one coastal town with a beautiful abandoned fortress overlooking the water—a scene more frequent in Montenegro or Croatia, very few tourists know to check it out. What a shame, as it should be one of the bigger Albanian tourist attractions.
Maybe this is because Porto Palermo is more of a sight than it is a town and it is better as a day trip. It doesn’t really have hotels and guesthouses. You are best served to stay in one of the next towns over, Qeparo or Borsh, and check out Porto as a day trip. If you booked a car rental in Saranda, you can easily stay in one of these two towns, and then set off on your own excursion to Porto for a few hours.
Borsh is actually the town right before Porto Palermo, however Porto is so distinctly different and under-explored that I had to start with it. But it is actually Borsh that is the first relatively established and small beachy town as you make your way north along the riviera.
Best Hotels in Borsh.
Blue Days Hotel
This is one of your best options in Borsch because it is right in the middle of the main strip and practically sits right on the beach. It will help your Albanian holiday get off to a comfortable start.
Himara, which is the most populous town on the riviera south of Vlore, is the perfect base if you want to situate yourself between Saranda and Vlore. And unlike the other major stops in the area, Himara’s beach, main road and bus drop-off are all situated right where the main highway passes through. In most of the other towns, like Dhermi and Jala for example, the highway and corresponding bus stop is at the top of the hill, with the beach being about a 40-50 minute descent by foot. It’s probably the most reliable Albanian holiday destination between Saranda and Vlore.
The ubiquitous tiki umbrella shades are so fun!
Best guest houses in Himara.
Here are some guest houses that are cheap, centrally located and have many rooms with a nice view of the sea.
This is a minimalistic, modern guesthouse. It’s close to the beach and has beautiful sea views, which is convenient for anyone’s Albania travel itinerary.
This is the one hotel that is right on the beach.
Ammos Spile Himare
Jala beach–the party beach!
Jala is actually a beach spot, not quite a town, that sits between Dhermi and Himara (about a 15 minute drive from both). And as stated above, the beach is almost an hour descent by foot from the bus stop off of the main highway. But there should be cabs waiting there to take you all the way down.
Despite the inconvenience of the beach being so far from the highway bus stop, Jala is the best party beach on the riviera, if beach parties are your thing. And guys, that was my thing! The best nightclub hands down has to be Folie Terrace, where they have foam beach parties during the day and sexy all night dancing when the stars are out (on the weekends of course).
Hiking the Ceraunian mountain range for the adventure-seekers.
There is little information online about excursions like hiking or mountain climbing for the Ceraunian mountain range. Quite frankly, it is not one of the easiest places to visit in Albania. But if you are into adventure like me, here are some resources for hiking these beautiful mountains.
Sipa offers a variety of guided hikes, which I would suggest, because the Ceraunian mountains aren’t the most wing-it friendly range. Also, in my search for an Albania tours company that will take you into the mountains, this is pretty much the only one I found. Options seem pretty slim.
Hiking Trails of Himare e-book
If you prefer unguided hikes, I would check out this free trails of Himare e-book that details paths, start points, end points, and trail-markers for hiking in the Ceraunian mountains. Many of the trails begin or end near Himare. It details half-a-day hikes as well as multi-day hikes. Good luck!
This is a small travel and consulting company that provides guided walks and treks throughout all of Albania. I am most excited by their Gjipe rock climbing excursion.
Llogara Pass and national park
The most popular thing to do in the Ceraunian mountains is to experience the Llogara Pass. This is a high mountain point that connects the Dukat valley in the north to Himara as you make your way towards Vlorë.
If you are more than a beach bum, but not quite ready to hike the Ceraunian mountain range all by yourself, then Llogara is a happy medium. It’s one of the best places in Albania to visit if you are simply a fan of scenic views. There are a few look out points where you can stop and enjoy the glory of your surroundings. However, if you are traveling by bus, they will all pass Llogara. Because… it’s just a pass. Get it?
There are six ways to get to what I consider to be one of the most epic hidden treasures of the entire Balkans. It is absolutely one of the best beaches in Albania, if not the best. This place is called Gjipe canyon and beach. When it comes to what to see in Albania, this should be top of your list if you can actually get there!
Ways to get there:
- Rent a car and go there.
- Walk four hours from Dhermi or Jala to Gjipe and back.
- Take a boat from Jala beach or Dhermi beach to Gjipe beach (the fastest way to the actual beach).
- Take a taxi that will charge you some astronomical fee one way.
- Make a deal with a local to take you.
Dhermi, a beautiful town that’s still under tourism construction.
My second most viewed video on my youtube channel, with almost 150,000 views, is my vlog from Dhërmi. This video makes it clear to me that a lot of people are researching trips to the riviera, and Albanian tourism is picking up at lighting speed. But Dhërmi is a perfect example of a town that is not quite prepared for all these people that want to come.
As I stated above, I spent three days in Dhërmi, which was too long. First of all, I’m not a sit at the beach in my bikini all day type of girl, which is all this town asks of you. But if you are that person, then as for as Albanian resorts go, Dhërmi might be perfect for you. I just personally need other adventurous activities and sightseeing.
I’m also the type of person who, when I have nothing better to do on holiday, will just spend a lot of time trying different restaurants and engaging in the art of day-drinking. But Dhërmi was lacking in the wining and dining department as well. There had to be less than five restaurants in the whole area.
Without a car, I felt stranded in Dhërmi. Of course, it was a very beautiful town. But for my style of traveling, I didn’t need to spend three days there. Despite that, I still think it’s one of the best places to visit in Albania.
Mind the hairy leg and look out into the distance at Palasë!
Best Hotels in Dhermi
Dhërmi beach is about a 40-50 minute descent downhill from the bus drop off on the SH8 highway. So the closer you are to the beach, the more expensive your accommodation will be. The cheaper your accommodation, the further away you are from the beach and the longer you have to walk down that exhausting hill. Just keep that in mind.
This is one of two hotels right on the beach. And it’s right off the main road too for extra convenience.
Guest House Dhermi
Every time I walked past this place, which is at the start of the beach strip, I wanted to be staying there so badly. The exterior looks so nice!
I stayed at a 30 euro a night Airbnb that was closer to the top of the hill. As well, it was a 20 minute, thigh-burning uphill walk from the beach. For about 10 euros more, I could have stayed at Penelope, and been no more than a 10 minute walk from the beach. Oh well. Next time!
Nightlife in Dhërmi and Jala
A huge draw for me in going to Dhërmi was that it seemed like it had the best nightlife on the riviera outside of Saranda. On youtube, I saw really fun videos of foam parties at Havana Beach Bar, where I performed. So I had in my mind that of all the Albania destinations, it was Dhërmi that would deliver in nightlife.
But in actuality, those parties were taking place at Havana’s second location in Palasë, yet another hard-to-get-to little beach town. And from what I heard from the locals, nightlife in Jala at Folie Terrace was busier and better than Havana Beach Bar at Palasë anyway.
If they don’t start in Saranda, Albanian riviera holidays tend to start in Vlorë, as all of the towns previously mentioned are interestingly enough, part of the county of Vlorë. Vlorë city itself has some of the best beach resorts in Albania.
It is the most populous town on the riviera. And at only 2 hours south of Tirana, it is a good place to start your beach travels if you are entering the country from the north. Car rental in Vlore is also recommended as it has more car hire locations than the other beach towns.
Vlorë itself has a common beach in the main town, and then some smaller, quieter beaches nearby like Radhime and Orikum. If you are not interested in scaling the entire riviera or going all the way down to the south, I suggest spending more time in Vlorë, and then heading as far down south as Himara.
Best hotels in Vlorë
This is a great location as it is near the town center and the beach at the same time.
This hotel is right on the beach and has rave reviews, which is always a sigh of relief. It is as resorty as Albania beach resorts go.
This is also right on the beach, but it’s a more modest accommodation and not overpriced compared to other Albanian riviera hotels right on the beach.
The riviera is waiting for you!
I hope this post was enlightening! Please share if this Albania tourist guide for a riviera holiday has helped you and could help someone else you know. Albania beaches are unspoiled beauties, so I hope you make it down there. Do let me know in the comments what you think or if you have any questions, or feel free to message me on Facebook or Instagram.