4 October 2018.
After shivering through my first proper European winter, a grim few months of monotonous grey skies, sub-zero temperatures and generous lashings of rain, sleet and icy winds, the heat of summer was what I desperately craved.
An endless string of sun-drenched afternoons spent beside the sea, slipping into a hypnotic dance that drifts between the waves and the sand, and enough time to bask in the kind of warmth that seeps deep into your bones.
As the frosty days melted away, the lush green of spring rippled across the continent and the end of my 3-month stay in the Schengen Area was fast approaching, I set my sights on the turquoise seas of the Albanian coast and the promise of long, balmy days, uncrowded shores and all the beauty of the Greek Islands without the price tag.
The days slipped by in a blissful blur of morning swims on empty shores, stunning clifftop hikes that led to hidden bays, delicious seafood by the water, daily ice-creams and sunsets that washed the turquoise seas in shades of vibrant orange and gold.
While Albania’s beaches are hardly the well-kept secret they once were, especially in summer, its sparkling coastline is dotted with a ridiculous number of impossibly pretty bays, secluded coves and wide swathes of pebbled shores that make you wish you could stay forever.
After 3 weeks hopping along the magnificent Albanian Riviera, these are my picks of the best beaches in Albania and the charming seaside towns where you can still find your own little pocket of untouched beach paradise.
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Laidback Himara was my first stop along the coast and it’s still one of my absolute favourites.
Despite the growing development springing up along much coastline, this mellow seaside town has remained relatively untouched and manages to retain oodles of that old-timey beach town charm.
With deep-seated fishing traditions, Himara wraps neatly around a pebbled bay where fishing boats bob lazily in the turquoise water and delicious Mediterranean eats abound.
Undoubtedly, it’s one of the best stops along the Albanian Riviera and makes an excellent base for further exploration.
Which Himara Beaches To Visit |
The pebbly shores of Himara’s main beach, Spile Beach, make a lovely place to sprawl out and relax, particularly in the morning and afternoon when the crowds are yet to rise or have already begun to disperse.
The humming boulevard that lines the waterfront serves up ice-cream, cold drinks and tasty snacks making it easy to while away an entire day here without having to wander far from the beach.
Just a 20-minute walk through the forest north of Himara you’ll emerge at Livadhi Beach, a favourite for many in the area. This wide stretch of beach is much livelier than Himara, has plenty of deck chairs for rent and at the right time of year makes a perfect spot to catch the sunset.
A short way south of Himara, Filikuri Beach provides a more secluded beach hideaway. Filikuri is wrapped in cliffs and has a rather rocky shore so is best reached by boat or kayak, though I did meet some rather adventurous beachgoers who instead decided to scale the rocks with the aid of a rope which is reportedly fixed to the cliff.
Where To Stay In Himara |
Himara Hostel | Kick back in a hammock in the enormous leafy garden or enjoy a sunset swim at Spile Beach just a 5-minute walk away. This budget-friendly option also boasts spacious dorms, a decent free breakfast, guest kitchen and several resident kitties to cuddle up with.
Beleri House | This lovely beach pad has a prime location just 2 minutes from the beach. Guests love the gorgeous ocean views, vine-covered terrace and friendly owners.
Where To Eat In Himara |
Taverna Lefteri | This was the top-rated restaurant on TripAdvisor during my stay and it certainly lived up to its reputation. Meals were tasty and plentiful, prices reasonable and a number of extra side dishes were provided on the house which is always a nice touch. Seafood is the speciality here and given the fishing culture of the town, you can be sure the ingredients are all super fresh.
I Love Souvlaki | The Greek influence in Himara manifests in many ways, but perhaps no more so than through its food. For a delicious budget-friendly bite, look no further than a mouth-watering souvlaki right on the beachfront. Take a seat in the busy sitting area or take it away to enjoy beside the water.
How To Get To And From Himara |
There are two daily buses from Tirana to Himara at 6:15 a.m. (for Saranda) and 1 p.m. costing 1,000 lek (€8) and taking around 6 hours. Buses between Himara and Saranda are more frequent with at least five daily services.
Dhermi Beach and its nearby neighbour Drymades Beach are firm favourites among this string of Albanian beaches, and while I didn’t actually make it here, their iridescent blue hue as you whirl across the top of the epic Llogara Pass is unmissable.
With a stunning mountain backdrop that tumbles down to the wide blonde bay and its crystalline waters, Dhermi makes a great stop along the Albanian Riviera.
The waterfront boulevard is simply bursting with places to eat and while beach chairs are everpresent along the shore, the length of the beach means there’s still plenty of space to claim your own patch of pebbles and escape the crowds.
Set amidst a remote pocket of bushland between Dhermi and Himara, Gjipe is widely regarded as one of the best beaches in Albania and I’m inclined to agree.
With deliciously blue seas, a curious network of caves and the towering ochre cliffs of the Gjipe Canyon leading directly off the pebbled shore, it’s a beautiful spot to while away the day.
Lose hours drifting between the aqua sea and pebbled shore, and when the searing midday sun becomes a little too much, escape to the cool shadows of the canyon where spiky trees sway overhead and the promise of adventure draws you in.
While these days Gjipe Beach is far from being the secret it once was, it’s certainly one of the most beautiful and least crowded beaches along the Albanian Riviera and an essential stop for anyone travelling the Albanian coast.
For everything you need to know about how to get there and where to stay, don’t miss this guide!
If there’s a bay more brilliantly turquoise than Porto Palermo, I’m yet to find it.
Aside from the wide arc of vibrant blue that is certainly one of Albania’s prettiest spots, Porto Palermo is home to two other compelling features – Porto Palermo Castle and a sprawling military base.
The 19th-century castle which crowds out the bay’s tiny island is definitely worth a visit with great views along the coast and an intriguing jumble of dark corridors and underground chambers. Entrance is just 100 lek (€0.80) and the thick rock walls keep the interior wonderfully cool during the heat of the day.
The military base which stands guard over the secluded cove to the north is framed by a pair of impossibly pretty beaches that have the benefit of no deckchairs or other visitors, though somewhat annoyingly, it’s unclear whether these are actually open to visitors.
The attendant at the information centre said it was perfectly fine to visit, and the steep trails in the area clearly indicate that people do, but the ominous signs at the base’s entrance clearly suggest otherwise. It is possible to reach the area by boat to get a closer look at the gaping submarine tunnel in the hillside, but special permits may be needed. I’d recomend asking on the ground before trying to reach the beaches around the military zone.
Porto Palermo’s easy access right on the main road means it can get pretty darn crowded, especially on weekends, but arrive early and you’ll have no problem snagging a spot. The beach here is also rockier than most so a renting a beach chair isn’t a bad idea.
Aside from the main beach, the craggy coastline to the south also hides a number of tiny coves where you can enjoy your very own patch of shore without anybody else around.
Where To Stay |
Agavia Village | This slightly time-worn collection of bungalows has an exceptional setting right behind Porto Palermo but that’s about as far as this recommendation goes. Based on recent reviews and experiences from fellow travellers, it sounds like this once lovely spot has seen far better days and is now in need of some serious TLC.
Unless you’re after location only, I’d suggest staying in nearby Himara or Qeparo instead. Check rates and availability here.
Where To Eat In Porto Palermo |
The only restaurant in Porto Palermo serves up fresh and delicious seafood dishes with fantastic views overlooking the beach. Understandably, prices are a little higher here than elsewhere on the coast, but its a decent choice for lunch with a great location.
If you’re on a tight budget, pack a picnic instead and enjoy it beside the water.
Winding along the cliff-hugging road south, the long silver shores of Qeparo and Borsh stretch out into the distance.
Backed by olive groves and dusty roads, both these beaches have a thoroughly offbeat rural feel, and while they’re perhaps not quite as pretty as some of the others along the Riviera, they’re also far less crowded, are frequented by many more locals than foreigners and, somewhat refreshingly, also have large patches of sand.
While much of Qeparo sits perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean, Borch town is set a ways back from the beach. Both have a humming boulevard stuffed with restaurants and beautiful villas though so you’ll be sure to get your seaside fix.
Where To Eat In Qeparo |
Veranda | Though you’ll find many restaurants and bars dotted along the waterfront, I ate my only meal in Qeparo at Veranda which is set back along the main road and makes a fabulous spot for lunch. The speciality Mousaka is delicious and prices are reasonable.
Cascading down a steep basin toward a wide, teal coloured bay with the peaks of nearby Corfu silhouetted along the horizon, Saranda casts a rather impressive sight, particularly when the sun starts to drop toward the horizon and washes the city in a deep golden hue.
Aside from its beaches, Saranda also makes an excellent jumping off point for exploring Albania’s south with a number of great day trips within easy reach (read this post for some ideas). You’ll also find a huge range of accommodations and the best mix of tasty seafood and lively bars you’ll find anywhere along the coast.
Saranda is certainly the most popular beach destination on the Albanian Riviera, but it’s also the kind of place that seems to strongly divide its visitors.
You’ll either love it … or you won’t.
After an utterly blissful week in Himara and another few peaceful days in Qeparo, arriving to the height of Saranda’s summer madness, and the congested streets, loud music and dreadfully overcrowded shores that come with it, I landed firmly in the latter camp.
That said though, outside of the crazy summer months when it feels like every man and his dog, plus every distant relative, has arrived for their well-deserved beach vacation, I think it would be a perfectly lovely place to spend a few days.
But sadly, Saranda simply isn’t built to deal with the rapidly increasing number of summer visitors that flock here in search of ridiculously blue seas and an affordable beach getaway.
If you are visiting in the peak season, staying even a little outside the city but still near the water will definitely help in dealing with the crowds.
WHERE TO STAY IN SARANDA |
Unsurprisingly given its popularity, Saranda has more accommodation options than anywhere else in Albania, with almost double the offerings of Tirana, the capital. Buzzing hostels, cosy guesthouses and lavish beach villas all have a home here.
For a more home-away-from-home experience, Airbnb is an excellent option and you’ll be glad to know there are plenty of great apartments available in Saranda. If you’ll be staying for a while or visiting with a group, these often provide even better value than many of the hotels.
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WHERE TO EAT IN SARANDA |
There are dozens of restaurants in Saranda and competition is high making the issue of fake reviews on TripAdvisor rife. If you’re someone who focuses largely on online reviews, bear this in mind when choosing where to eat and expect most places along the waterfront to charge tourist prices.
Haxhi | For simple, tasty, affordable and cooked-with-love seafood in Saranda, look no further than Haxhi. This small family-run establishment is set a few blocks back from the beach, has just a handful of menu items and simply oozes homely Albanian charm. I didn’t eat out much in Saranda but this was a place that I returned to several times and was never disappointed.
Arrive early to get the best seats or make a reservation in advance.
Marked by rugged cliff lines and untamed landscapes, the idyllic turquoise waters of Ksamil, housed in the Butrint National Park, are where you’ll find some of the best beaches in Albania.
Despite being small, Ksamil has some fantastic waterfront restaurants and retains a rather laidback air about it, even in the height of summer. The paved walkway that hugs the coastline also makes a simply perfect spot for a sunset stroll, while the tiny islands waiting just offshore are a unique feature of this landscape.
It’s proximity to Saranda means the small beaches of Ksamil do suffer from much the same overcrowding issues in summer, but thankfully there are a number of beautiful, secluded coves scattered along the nearby coast that receive fewer visitors and, in this travellers opinion, are far more beautiful.
Which Beaches To Visit In Ksamil |
Where the town trickles down to the sea, you’ll find the wonderfully powdery sand and aqua waters that have made Ksamil quite so famous, framed by a tight cluster of beach chairs and umbrellas. Somewhat annoyingly, these are considered private beaches reserved only for those staying at the hotels or renting the chairs which often has to be done in advance as this is prime beach real estate.
The tiny, rather sad stretch of rocky shoreline at the far end is the only designated public swimming area. Arrive in the early morning though and feel free to swim wherever you please and revel in that delightfully fine silver sand!
Manastir (Monastery) Beach, on the fringe of the national park, was my favourite of the Ksamil beaches with impossibly clear waters, some intriguing Soviet wartime relics and not too many beach chairs, leaving plenty of space for those who just want to sprawl out on their towels in the sun. Considering this beach is on the rockier side though, a beach chair actually isn’t a bad idea.
There are two restaurants here serving up simple dishes and ice-cold drinks for when the blazing sun proves a little too much.
From there, a very rough path leads all the way along the coast from Monastery Beach to Pasqyra (Mirror) Beach, another beautiful spot. Take the dirt road to St. George’s Monastery and at the far right corner of the basketball court you’ll find a dirt trail leading through the shrubs. Where the road forks, either turn right to reach a pretty, secluded bay which had just a handful of beachgoers during my visit, or go straight on for Pasqyra Beach.
Further along, Pulebardha Beach is another good option, though you’ll need to return to the main road to get here.
Where To Stay In Ksamil |
Ksamil doesn’t have quite as many accommodation offerings available which is why so many people choose to stay in nearby Saranda, but if you book well in advance, it’s certainly a beautiful place to stay for a day or two.
Where To Eat In Ksamil |
Beach Bar Korali | Great food, decent prices, friendly service and a fantastic outlook over the bay makes Korali a great choice for eating out in Ksamil. Really, what more could you want in such a paradise!
These three picturesque and rather remote beaches are dotted along a beautiful stretch of the coastline north of Saranda and according to locals are some of Albania’s best beaches!
Set a fair way from the main coastal road, the difficulty in reaching here also makes them some of the least crowded pockets of the Albanian Riviera.
Unfortunately, the limited bus services meant I wasn’t able to make it here, but if you’re travelling by car, consider adding them to your itinerary.
By Bus |
I spent nearly three weeks hopping between Albania’s beaches by bus, and while I wasn’t able to visit absolutely everywhere, it’s certainly easy enough to get around if you’ve got the time.
From Tirana, two daily buses depart from the South Bus Station and take the coastal route, one at 6:15 a.m. heading for Saranda and another at 1 p.m. for Himara. These can drop you anywhere along the coast. For those heading directly to Saranda, several daily buses leave Tirana and take the much faster central highway.
Buses and furgons ply the coastal route between Vlora and Saranda just a few times a day, with more beginning in Himara and Borsh. These can be flagged down or drop you off anywhere along the way and will be your bread and butter for getting between the beaches listed in this guide.
Saranda is one of the biggest transport hubs in Albania with buses running throughout the country, as well as international services to Greece and Macedonia. Long distance buses leave on a schedule, while those travelling to nearby destinations, such as Gjirokaster or Vlora, tend to leave when full. You’ll find buses and furgons waiting around the western edge of Friendship Park in the centre of town.
To reach Ksamil, buses run every hour from Saranda town centre to Butrint via Ksamil and back and can drop you at any of the beaches along the way. The trip takes around 45 minutes (often much longer in summer) and costs 100 lek (€0.80) for the full trip, or just 50 lek for shorter journeys.
By Car |
If you’re pressed for time, much easier is to rent a car to explore the gorgeous coastline which affords you the flexibility to stop off at every pretty cove and sparkling bay that passes by your window and to reach some of the more secluded spots.
If the weather is clear, be sure to drive the spectacular Llogara Pass, a series of steep hairpin bends that wind across the forested mountain between Vlora and Dhermi. Trust me, it’s well worth it!
By Boat |
For those keen on getting a taste of Greece by hopping over to Corfu, you’ll find dozens of agencies in Saranda selling ferry trips throughout the day for around €20 each way. If you’re travelling in summer, I’d recommend booking your ticket at least a day in advance.
Also remember that, as part of Greece, Corfu falls inside the Schengen Zone so be sure to have a visa if required.
From most of the main beach towns, you can organise a boat trip up and down the coast to reach the more secluded spots or just for a ridiculously scenic day out.
By Hitchhiking |
Hitchhiking along Albania’s coast is almost like a rite of passage among backpackers in these parts.
It’s fairly common practice and, paired with the wonderfully friendly locals, you’ll likely never have to wait more than a few minutes for a ride. Plus, there’s really only one main road so virtually everyone is heading in the right direction and are only too happy to take you along.
That said, it pays to take the usual precautions.