If you’re considering travelling in Albania and spending a weekend in Saranda, look no further. This blog post is jam-packed full of the best things to do in Saranda, Albania, one of Europe’s hidden gems and best kept secrets.
Prior to 1991 and the collapse of the country’s communist dictatorship, Albania was considered one of the most isolated countries in the world. This was obviously bad for Albanians but it has meant that the country has been much slower to make it onto the radar of international travellers. Albania is the perfect place to go travelling if you want to get off the beaten tourist track, and also one of the cheapest places to visit in Europe! See our guide to visiting Albania here.
The small nation of 2.9 million occupies just under 28,000 square kilometres in southeastern Europe, bordering Greece, Macedonia, and Kosovo, and it is spectacularly beautiful. Naturally, Albanians are quite proud of it. They are particularly proud of the country’s southern Riviera, and especially so of the small port city of Saranda.
And so they should be. Situated at the foot of the Ceraunian mountains, facing out into the straight of Corfu, sits this very affordable, mostly sleepy, enchanting little seaside resort town (especially if you can make it before June when the tourist season kicks off). See Mollie’s Albanian coastal road trip itinerary here.
If you are planning an extended trip to Albania, you should try your best to make the very scenic 4-hour bus ride from Tirana to Saranda (or, even better, rent a car and drive). Below is an itinerary for how to spend a weekend in Saranda, full of the best things to do and see, to keep in mind if and when you do visit.
Where to stay in Saranda, Albania
I arrived in Saranda at the beginning of May, which was still considered the low season (the high season lasts June through August). Because of that, I had the whole city to myself for a few weeks, which was bliss. Activity picked up noticeably by around the end of May.
If you’re wondering where to stay in Saranda, I’d go for the city centre if you want to be near the hustle and bustle, or on the outskirts if you’re looking for something quieter. There is a promenade that runs the length of the centre and this is where all of the nightlife and tourist bustle is. Prior to the onset of the high season, it was also pretty empty. The port is where you book your tickets to places like the nearby Greek island of Corfu, rent cars, and arrange trips to the surrounding area. Surrounding the centre, which is the main tourist area, you’ll find hotels and restaurants.
There are also some really nice Airbnb options going up into the Qender area, directly north of the centre. Bear in mind that Saranda is structured like an amphitheatre, so to go north, you have to go up, and it gets quite steep.
I chose to stay on the outskirts, where it was very peaceful and quiet. Here you’re more likely to have a barn swallow couple nesting on your balcony in these areas. I shared the balcony with this couple for a month. They eventually accepted my presence and would just peer out at me while I had my evening balcony beer.
How to get to Saranda, Albania
One of the most charming parts about Saranda is how small it is. Wherever you’re staying, you should only be about 10 minutes by taxi from where the bus drops you off. Definitely don’t expect efficient urban design or easily navegable streets, though.
If you’re bussing from Tirana, the earliest bus I could find left at 10:30 a.m. and it took just over 4 hours, so I got in at 2:30. If you rented a car and drove, which is still quite affordable, you can drive from Tirana to Saranda in around 2 hours.
There are various ways to get to Saranda from other places in Albania and the rest of the Balkans, even Greece.
Let’s see a weekend Saranda,Albania roadtrip itinerary in 2022
Day 1: Arrive in Saranda, swim & try some local food
Use your first morning of your weekend in Saranda to get there! Like I said, it’s quite small, so if you’re already in Albania, you can get there by lunchtime.
At this point, you’re probably getting hungry, and it’s time to stop for a quick lunch. Once you get to your hotel or Airbnb, assuming you haven’t had lunch, drop your stuff off and grab a Korca (a delicious local pilsner) and a Greek salad pretty much anywhere. There is no such thing as a bad Greek salad in Albania, in my experience.
This is because Albanian fruit and vegetables are some of the best I’ve ever had. Their olive oil and red wine vinegar are also delicious. It is also because there are so many Greek people in Albania (particularly in Saranda).
Albanian food is a fantastic mix of local, Greek, Italian and Turkish cuisine. For me, it has the best of every part of the Mediterranean diet. What’s more, Albania imports relatively little of its produce and they tend to eat what’s in season. Their summer fruit (cherries and strawberries) was amazing and inexpensive and there are fruit markets all over the place.
I went to Savos Pizza restaurant, and this salad, beer and pita cost me $4.47 CAD. Bargain!
This is a summer itinerary for a weekend in Saranda, so assuming it’s hot enough for a swim, I would wear my swimming suit under my clothes and pack a towel on the way to lunch and then make my way over to Africa Beach about 500m west of the port.
Don’t worry, it’s not the port of Los Angeles. Saranda is a small town and there is surprisingly little boat traffic. A cruise or a small commercial vessel moors offshore every once in a while, but that’s about it. And I have no idea why it’s called Africa Beach.
It’s actually lovely with quite low traffic.
At this point, you are probably too exhausted from the bus ride to do any exploring the same day you arrive and if you got there at 2:30 p.m. it’s probably already a little too late for that, so let’s save the day trips for tomorrow.
What you should do, however, is rent a car or scooter from one of the places around the port. There are plenty of tour companies that will take you to the places I mention below, but it is a far nicer experience to be able to do them on your own terms.
For dinner, it’s worth making your way a little bit up and away from the tourist bustle to Vila Bajrami 45. This is a criminally underrated family-run place serving amazing and affordable Greek and Albanian food, including incredible homemade baklava.
They also have a way above average wine selection, which is rare for southern Albania in my experience. Try to get the table on the private second-floor balcony if it’s available. This was my favourite restaurant in Saranda, hands down.
Day 2: Blue Eye
Honestly, for breakfast, head back to Vila Bajrami 45 and get an espresso and Albanian pancakes with honey. Their homemade jam is also fantastic, as is their omelette.
Blue eye is a spring-fed river around 22km outside of Saranda. I’ve seen some amazing spring-fed rivers in my time and this was certainly top 3 for me.
The drive there is really beautiful and the road snakes through some very picturesque farmland surrounded by creeks and streams. If you don’t want to drive or ride there yourself, there are also plenty of tour operators in Saranda that will take you.
Once you get there there are so many amazing photo ops, as well as a couple of cafes to grab a drink or something to eat. I advise going early, as it’s a popular place to visit in Albania!
After you’re done seeing Blue Eye, you can continue on for another 37km to the north and visit the town of Gijrokaster, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and grab lunch. See Mollie’s guide to Gjirokaster here.
When you get back to Saranda, I would recommend another one of my favourite dinner spots: Taverna LiberIa. It’s to the east of the Port and in a relatively quiet residential area. This would be a great part of the city to stay in if you wanted to avoid the crowds.
Taverna Liberia is another quaint family-run place serving up local seafood as well as Greek and Albanian cuisine. Their portions are generous and they also make great homemade red wine and raki (what Italians call grappa), a local brandy.
Day 3: Butrint National Park & Mirror Beach
For breakfast, try Taste of the South in the hotel zone to the east of the city centre. They have a western-style breakfast if you are looking for that, and really good coffee.
On the last day of your weekend in Saranda, you’ve got to visit Butrint National Park. Butrint is 18km south of Saranda and features thousands of hectares of lakes, wetlands, islands, reed beds, salt marshes and open plains. In addition to being a natural wonder, Butrint is also one of the most important archaeological sites in Albania, home to a Roman theatre, a Venetian castle, a basilica, well-preserved ancient walls and more.
The drive along the highway to Butrint is mesmerizingly beautiful, so much so that I had to remind myself to pay attention to the road numerous times.
There is a small tourist town that has sprung up a kilometre or so before you reach the actual park and archaeological site, which looked like it had some decent restaurants for lunch. It also had some very nice-looking beaches, one of which I swam at.
The swim was nice, but if you want an even more beautiful and secluded beach, there is a spectacular spot about halfway between Saranda and Butrint, the entrance to which you would have passed on your way into the park.
Around 9-10km outside of Saranda is Mirror Beach and, aside from Corfu, it was the most beautiful piece of the Ionian I saw.
It is a small, secluded beach just off the motorway that requires a turn up a hillside that will lead you to a very limited parking area at the foot of a small trailhead. The trail goes up for a bit and then looks like it continues on its way to the west, oddly bypassing the beach below.
You may be tempted to bushwack down, as I was, but it’s completely unnecessary and a little hairy. If you keep following the trail towards Saranda for 50-or-so metres, it eventually forks off down the hillside towards Mirror Beach.
You may also be tempted to follow the trail westward along the coast towards Monastery Beach. While the view is certainly nice, don’t do that either. Monastery Beach has its own highway turn-off, is far easier to get to, has far more parking, is far more populated and, therefore, the far less charming of the Saranda beaches.
Mirror Beach, because it takes a hike down, and because of the limited parking, is very unlikely to have any more than 10 people at it at a given time. If you rented a vehicle and can’t find parking in the very small parking area off the highway, I would highly recommend renting a scooter (easier to squeeze into available parking) and trying to come back, it is that nice.
This is also a nice beach for snorkelling. It’s the Mediterranean, so don’t expect the Indo-Pacific, but if you swim out and to the left, there are some archways and great underwater formations to explore. I also saw a surprising amount of marine life, including a Mediterranean moray eel.
After your swim, make the short drive back to Saranda and head to Shemo Beach Bar. Shemo is, again, just to the west of the Port and features a beautiful terrace right on the water with views out over the straight of Corfu.
Most of the restaurants to the west of the port, because they are far (in Saranda terms) from the hotel zone and promenade, were never busy while I was there and it was always a very relaxing experience.
This is the best of Saranda. Saranda is beautiful and, compared to the popular Greek islands and coastal Italian destinations (similar nearby experiences), it suffers much less from mass tourism, tourist traps and all the rest. This is not to say it is some completely undiscovered gem. Plenty of people, particularly Albanians, love Saranda and for good reason.
What I’m trying to say is that it is also possible to have a far less “magical” experience in Saranda than I did. If you come at the peak of the tourist season, stay in a hotel right on the promenade, only eat at the promenade restaurants, and book all of your experiences through the big local tour companies, you might walk away feeling like you got something a little less unique and authentic than you were hoping for.
With that said, I hope the above advice and guide help you spend a great weekend in Saranda and that you leave loving the place as much as I do.
Source : We Are Global Travellers blog
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