Also known as Sarandë, this colourful Mediterranean city is a great place to stay if you want to explore more of the Albanian Riviera. If any place in the world ever involves the word ‘riviera,’ you can pretty much guarantee that means it will be beaut, and the Albanian Riviera- a stretch of olive grove-smattered rocky coastline running alongside the turquoise waters of the Ionian Sea- is no exception. Which was a huge relief to me as I got my first glimpse of Saranda and the surrounding countryside from the open deck of the ferry from Corfu in Greece. The ferry journey took a little longer than it should have done due to the fact that the sea was so choppy, and there were a few moments whilst being hit square in the face with some aggressive waves, surrounded by some very seasick passengers heaving into plastic bags, that I started to question whether it had really been a good idea to visit Albania this way at all. But pals, I had definitely made the right decision, and Saranda is the perfect starting point for a trip to this hidden gem of the Balkans.
A brief history of Saranda
Saranda got its name from a church built in the 6th century, high up on a hill overlooking what is now the busiest tourist destination on the coast of Albania. The Monastery of the Forty Saints was built on the spot where in the year 320AD (or so the story goes), forty Christian soldiers were tortured and left to their deaths in the freezing cold for refusing to denounce their faith. What a palaver. In 1944 the church was commandeered as a base by German troops, leading to its destruction by the British, although it’s still possible to visit the ruins of the church. Again I tell you- what a palaver.
Up until the early 19th Century, Albania was under Ottoman rule and Saranda was nothing more than a tiny fishing port, but like most of the neighbouring Balkan countries, the battle for who had control was pretty much ongoing for donkeys’ years. Saranda was occupied by Greeks, then Albanians, then Italians (Mussolini even renamed the city after his daughter, which seems a bit arrogant when you think about it), then Greeks, then Italians, then briefly the British- who left the city for the Albanian communists to do with it what they liked. AWKARD.
This hodgepodge of historical influences both ancient and modern, complete with a scattering of wars and battles and generally bloody events, means that the city is a strange mixture of concrete communist-era blocks, ancient ruins, and modern hotels and apartment blocks.
Beaches in Saranda
These days, tourism is the main economy for this little Albanian city, and walking along the main promenade by the beach feels pretty much the same as walking along a beach resort in Italy. The atmosphere during late Summer when I was there, was busy and bustling, and the pebble beaches were full of groups of friends or families hanging out and having a laugh; although I’ll be honest, I think it’ll be a while before the city of Saranda is a mainstream destination for people outside of Albania, Greece or Italy.
Stalls selling Albanian flags and fridge magnets were set up along the seafront, and pop up beach bars were open, selling all the cheap cocktails that you could ever dream of. Bars and clubs stay open late into the night, meaning this is also the main hotspot in the region for nightlife. Don’t get me wrong- Saranda is definitely on the gaudier side, but there’s no denying that the beaches within the city are a popular destination, and I felt perfectly safe wandering around alone there, even as someone who was very clearly not from round those parts.
The quieter, more beautiful beaches are located a very short distance outside of the city, around the village of Ksamil and beyond- which is about half an hour from Saranda by bus. The crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches around the main resorts here can get busy in the height of summer, although it’s still easy to find secluded coves with fewer people relaxing on them.
Ancient ruins in Saranda
A few blocks back from the beach and somehow almost blending into the traffic and city blocks that surround it, are the ruins of a sixth century synagogue, which most people agree probably fell down during an earthquake. It always blows my mind to see something so ancient in such close proximity to cars and exhaust fumes and so much concrete, although don’t get me wrong- there’s not a lot of information offered up about this old synagogue and it won’t take long for you to visit.
Lëkurësi Castle, built in 1537 by Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (one of those crafty old Ottomans who ruled the roost round here for a while), is right next to the ruined Monastery of the 40 Saints. With not a lot of information available about the castle itself, the main draw for most visitors, is the view. From here it’s possible to see along the coast of the Albanian Riviera, and across the Ionian Sea to the island of Corfu. The distance between the island of Corfu and the Albanian mainland is so minimal that it feels as if you could almost reach out and touch it. Sort of.
Where to eat in Saranda
My daily life revolves around food. It’s basically my number one most favourite thing in the world, and one of my most favourite things to do when visiting a new city, or country, is to try out the local food. However, I found it far easier to find ‘Albanian’ food when I was further inland.
The landscape of Southern Albania produces the same kind of things that are available in other Mediterranean countries: the seafood here is amazing, and there is an abundance of olives, olive oil and citrus fruits. And the dishes themselves are generally the same kind of thing you’d find in Italy or Greece- pizza and pasta from Italy, and souvlaki and salads from Greece.
My favourite restaurant that I visited was Limani. The fish was awesome, the waiters were super-friendly, and the setting right at the quieter end of the beach, was peaceful but also an ideal people-watching spot.
There are a tonne of coffee shops and bars in the city, especially all along the beachfront promenade, but my favourite spot for a more casual bite to eat was the Like Creperie which is about two minutes walk from the port. Not only are the crepes downright delicious, with just about every combination of flavours you could possibly imagine, but the cafe itself is a beaut place to hang out, filled with all kinds of intriguing decoration on the walls and interesting people coming and going.
Where to stay in Saranda
There are a whole range of places to stay within the city to suit any kind of budget, and I stayed in two of them. The first one, the Hostel Hasta La Vista is definitely more for those on a budget, costing a grand total of €10 a night. What an absolute bargain I tell you! The people here were super friendly, and although the accommodation is basic- I was in a 6 bed female dorm- it has everything you need, especially if you’re going to be spending most of your time out exploring.
The second place I checked in to was the Hotel Royal Saranda, located right on the seafront with a little balcony overlooking the beach. After a few days of frantic exploring and getting into mysterious minibuses with strangers (true story, check out my Gjirokastër post for that one), I was up for something a bit more relaxing for my last night in Albania- although don’t get me wrong, this is by no means a luxurious 5-star establishment. Honestly the main draw for me to this hotel, aside from the fact that it was close to the ferry port in Saranda, was that it had a rooftop with a view- and just like my experience everywhere else in Albania, the people who ran the hotel were incredibly friendly and always on hand to answer any questions I had.
Public transport in and around Saranda
Albanian public transport is a curious thing, you guys. Public buses run frequently and only cost 100LEK (approx €0.80) – although you’ll really only need to catch one of these if you’re heading outside the city. Apparently, there is a ticket office near the synagogue ruins in the centre of Saranda (where most buses go from) ; but I never managed to find the elusive office and it wasn’t a problem. There are no real bus stops marked anywhere, and even if you manage to track down a timetable it’s better to think of it more as a rough guide than something to follow exactly.
The more popular method of travel, however, is by furgon. These are basically minibuses or minivans which are privately owned, and travel back and forth between certain places, with no set time or schedule. You can flag a furgon down anywhere on its route, and get it to drop you off at any point along the way that your heart desires.
Weirdly considering the leap-of-faith style of transport around here, I never had any problems at all getting around. In fact, being used to sitting on Southern Rail trains in the UK for hours worth of delays and missed connections, using public transport in Albania was like something out of a dream. Whenever I needed something, a vehicle magically appeared; maybe my luck was just extra specially in, but I was seriously impressed!
Day trips from Saranda
Using Saranda as a base to explore the rest of the Albanian Riviera, is a great idea, and as I was only in Albania for a short time, I’d definitely go back to explore more of the surrounding area. Further along the coastal road from the crystal blue waters of Ksamil and the surrounding areas, Butrint is the largest archaeological park in Albania, and contains Greek, Roman and Byzantine ruins, plus some beautiful forests and stunning views of the Ionian Sea. It was the first place in Albania to be listed as a UNESCO world heritage site, and is only a short bus ride from Saranda.
Related: 24 Hours in Gjirokastër, Albania
Another UNESCO site, the ‘stone city’ of Gjirokastër is a place that I fell in love with; it seems to have wound some kind of magical spell over me to be quite honest. Its mountain setting and winding stone streets make you feel like you’ve just stepped back in time, and the Old Bazaar filled with traditional carpets and qifqi pans is captivating. There are plenty of things to see and do in the town, and although most people visit on a day trip, I chose to stay for a night near the old fortress.
The Blue Eye is one of the most well-known day trips from Saranda, and although I never managed to visit it myself, I’m told that in the height of Summer when I was there, it’s likely to be heaving with people. So maybe it’s best to visit at a quieter time of year. This is the source of the Butrint River- a pool of icy cold water which rises up from under the ground- making a great place to go for a dip when it’s boiling hot.
So pals, whilst it’s true that Saranda isn’t the most stunning city I’ve ever visited, as someone who appreciates visiting places for the atmosphere as much as the activities, Saranda is a hugely interesting place, and a great introduction to Albania. Compared to other cities in Europe, it’s not the cleanest and also clearly not the wealthiest, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth visiting. It’s easy to get around, I felt very safe as a woman wandering round alone, and I would have loved to spend more time in the city had I had the chance. Considering that I almost completely dismissed the idea of visiting Albania at all- thank goodness that I stuck to the plan and that Saranda was the first place I visited.
- Currency in Albania is LEK, and 100LEK is approximately €0.80.
- The majority of hotels only take cash, so make sure you have enough on you.
- ATMs tend to charge a big fee and although there are quite a few in Saranda itself, they are few and far between when you’re further afield. It might be better to exchange money before you get to Albania to save yourself a long hunt for an ATM.
- Albanian is an Indo-European language and I found it really difficult to remember or understand anything. Add to that the fact that Italian or Greek is a more common second language for Albanians than English, and it makes sense that sometimes it could be a struggle for English-speakers to get by. Having said that, the South of Albania is probably the most-visited region, and therefore a lot of locals know English even at a basic level.
- Ferries run several times a day between Saranda and Corfu, and only take as little as half an hour (if you’re on the fast boat), meaning this is an exceedingly easy place to add to your itinerary if you’re staying on the island.
- In fact, the closest airport to Saranda is actually in Corfu; the only other one in Albania being in the capital, Tirana.
- I was advised not to drink the tap water in Saranda as it’s highly chlorinated.