When my boyfriend asked if we could spend some time on the beach this summer, I knew exactly where—Albania. Yes, really.
This Balkan gem is home to electric blue waters, beachfront accommodation for half the price of neighboring countries, and some of the nicest people I’ve met in Europe. The best part? It’s still pretty unknown to Americans which means it’s not swarming with tourists trying to take photos with their iPads.
It’s accessible by plane from many European cities. You’ll arrive in the capital, Tirana, where you can take a bus directly from the airport to the southern beach hub, Saranda (approx 5.5 hours), or rent a car and drive. You can also opt to spend a few days exploring the admittedly bizarre and charming capital—featuring a mix of architecture from the Italian occupation of the 1930s, Soviet buildings from the Yugoslavia era, and bunkers leftover from the Balkan Wars that now lead to below-ground museums and bars. From the city, it’s easy to then head south via bus or car.
The best weather and subsequent high season are July and August. However, May/June and September/October are arguably better months to visit, as the weather is still swimmable, but the crowds are thinner and prices are lower. Win-win, baby.
Beaches, Mountains, And Ruins, Oh My!
The main reason we all flock to southern Europe are the Instagram-perfect beaches, right? Right. If you’ve been green with envy over your college roommate’s honeymoon pics in Greece, get ready for the tables to turn once you head to Albania. This coastline is home to some of the most vibrant water in Europe—and that’s coming from someone who’s been to the famed Greek Islands and Cote d’Azur in France.
Saranda, Ksamil, and Vlore make up the “Albania Riviera”. Borsh and Himare and Dhermi are also excellent, albeit a bit more out of the way (read: fewer crowds). My recs: Take a boat tour, rent a car and enjoy empty beaches along the coast, and hire a guide and hike between towns.
Sarande is the most accessible hub—the most frequent direct buses from Tirana stop here. There are plenty of hotels, cafes, restaurants, and tours here. That said, since it’s the most logical hub, it’s also the busiest, especially during the summer… So prepare to be fighting for a good spot on the beach here.
Ksamil is just down the road, arguably some of the best beaches in the country and full of resorts. Popular with singles, couples, and families from around the Balkans and Europe. Smaller, but plenty in the way of accommodation, activities, and places to eat.
Vlore, where the Ionian and Adriatic seas meet, where the country’s independence was won in 1912, and rich in history. Elaborated in the Ethnographic museum, independence museum, and Orikum Archeological Park—close to Burtrit in quality, but without the crowds.
Drive north up the coast and you’ll encounter Himare and Dhermi, home to truly some of the best beaches in the country and are less built up, so there will be less competition to enjoy them.
The mountain town of Gjirokaster is also a great stop on the way to the beach. Additionally, not too far from Saranda and Ksamil is Butrint, the country’s best-preserved Roman ruins, as well as the Blue Eye, an electric blue natural spring (so clear you can see all the way to the bottom) and a must-see!
Albania Is Affordable
As mentioned before, Albania is very affordable, especially when compared to other faves on the Mediterranean such as the south of France, Spain, and Croatia. However, you’ll get more bang for your Lek (Albanian currency) if you avoid peak season in July and August. Also, if you go soon, as with any destination in Europe, the more people hear about it, the more the prices will increase (can you believe that once upon a time, Greece was a budget destination? Because same).
Amazing Food At Unreal Prices
First thing’s first: Eat. The. Mussels. Seriously, all of them. I’m a mussel-lover myself, but even if they’re not typically your thing, you have to try this local delicacy. You’ll even catch a glimpse of the beds on the road between Saranda and Ksamil.
Also, don’t even get me started on Byrek Me, the mouth-watering traditional Albanian pastries, made of phyllo dough and filled with cheese and sometimes spinach. I may or may not have had approximately one a day while there. No regrets.
Since you’re right next to Italy, the gelato and coffee in Albania do not miss—and better yet, they’re cheaper. Greece is the other next-door neighbor (there’s literally a commuter ferry from Corfu to Saranda) so the feta, olives, and wine are on point as well. Also, don’t forget you’re by the sea, so be sure to splurge on seafood if that’s your thing..
Oh and—did I mention the wine? Albanian bottles are available along with the local liquor of choice raki. But you can also sample bottles from places you probably didn’t even realize sell wine. Kosovan rose? Don’t mind if I do. Montenegrin sparkling? Sure thing. Croatia and Greek reds? Pop that cork!
Going here is like enjoying all of the famous delicacies of Italy and Greece without, you know, the tourist-appropriate price tag.
Actually Friendly People
It had been a long time since I’d experienced the extreme kindness shown by Albanians. This likely has to do with it still being a bit non-mainstream (more on that below), but people truly went out of their way to help us in numerous situations. And this was despite a pretty large language barrier in most instances (although we did try and learn the basics, such as “thank you,” “please,” and “hello,” as one should whenever visiting a new country).
A waiter gave us his personal phone when we asked if the restaurant could call us a taxi back to Saranda. He had only understood “call” (or perhaps our universal hand signal) but wanted to help nevertheless.
When my boyfriend insisted he knew how to walk from Saranda to Ksamil (there is a hike, but you’ll need a guide) and we ended up on the very busy road sans sidewalk or shoulder, many offered rides. We finally took the third offer and a nice guy gave us the taxi company number and tips for the bus. I mean, what? Get your shit together, America.
On our last day, we stayed the night by the airport in Tirana. We went for a walk ended up at a cafe with zero English signage or staff who could speak it. We ordered a salad, coffee, and an unknown dish we would later learn to be liver. But the couple running it was sweet as could be, offered homemade (proudly) Raki, and were so excited when we said we were from the US and Canada.
Still Off–The-Beaten-Path… For Now
As mentioned above, the country still isn’t overrun by Americans or Western Europeans. It is, however, quite popular among Balkan residents. This allows for affordable prices and smaller crowds (outside of August, at least). It does mean less infrastructure than you might be used to for beach vacations, so be prepared for a few challenges.
That said, the language barrier can be more pronounced—though in city centers and among younger Albanians, you can usually find someone who understands English. Also, picking up Albanian can prove quite difficult, as it’s truly a unique language without many similarities to even neighboring dialects.
The interesting history can also be unexpected. You wouldn’t guess it from looking around, but Albania is 90% Muslim and was cut off from the world under a dictatorship for decades until the early 90s.
A car is necessary to visit the best beaches—if you’re brave enough to drive the roads. Otherwise, the others are nice, if more crowded. But the buses between towns are much better than I’d anticipated.
So, yeah, you could head to the Cote d’Azur or Amalfi Coast with literally every other American tourist… Or, you could use these tips to have an unforgettable and slightly off the beaten path trip to Albania. You choose.
Featured image courtesy of Valter Zhara/Pexels.