Albania: The Future of the “Euro-Trip”

Several months ago, I sat down with my friend Anna at her dining room table. Her birthday happened to coincide with a long weekend, and she was set on taking a trip to celebrate. With just enough money in our respective bank accounts to afford Europe’s budget airlines, we decided to go out on a limb. We booked roundtrip tickets to Tirana from Paris for 40 euros – in one week, we were going to Albania.

Albania is a narrow Balkan country that borders Montenegro, Serbia, Macedonia, and Greece. On the west coast, the Adriatic and Ionian seas merge to create the Strait of Otranto. Home to 2.77 million people, Albanian history dates even further back than antiquity. Formerly known as Illyria, the land and waters were famously written about in Greco-Roman literature. Writers such as Thucydides and Shakespeare, for example, have referenced Illyrians in their prolific work.

Besides snippets of its rich cultural heritage, I knew very little about Albania today. When we arrived in the capital of Tirana, we rented a car and drove to Durrës, a beautiful beach town 30 minutes away. We went to the northern beach, past the main port, to sit and enjoy a coffee at the beach-side restaurant Villa Kompakt. We quickly noticed that everyone was extremely kind, helpful, and spoke fluent English. If you go to Durrës, be sure to check out the Venetian Towers and the Ancient Amphitheater in the city center.

We then drove through the mountains to Sarandë, the vacation hot-spot in southern Albania. The drive took about 3 and ½ hours, but the roads were safe and the view of the sunset was breathtaking. Upon arrival, we checked into our Airbnb in the center of town. Our room had a balcony overlooking the water, with a clear and close up view of the Greek island of Corfu. We had a queen-size bed, one set of bunk beds, a full kitchen, and a full bathroom. The total price for the four nights and five days was 150 euros – including service and cleaning fees.

For the next couple of days, we spent many hours driving up and down the coast and discovering new beaches. I would recommend visiting the main beach in Sarandë, which is peppered with tons of beach clubs offering lounge chairs and cocktails. However, it is important to be aware of the off/on-season – when we went in late March, many of the establishments that are tourist-oriented were closed. Sarandë’s busy season is typically between June and September, so visit during this period if you want to experience all that Sarandë’s tourism industry has to offer.

For a more private beach experience, drive down the coast from Sarandë to Pulëbardha Beach. We parked our car on the side of the road and walked 15 minutes on a downhill dirt path, so bring your walking shoes. The remote beach cove was breathtaking – the crystal blue water was transparent and temperate. We brought ingredients for a picnic and had a relaxing afternoon of lounging, swimming, and snacking.

Another option is Ksamil Beach, even further down the coast. Like Sarandë, Ksamil is a town with many tourist-friendly restaurants and hotels. The beaches we visited were populated with locals enjoying their weekends. Despite how busy it was, there was still ample space to settle down and sunbathe. If you’re feeling peckish, grab a bite at either Bar Restaurant Rilinda or Abiori Pizzeria.

Two must-see locations are the Blue Eye in the town of Muzinë, and Butrint National Archaeological Park in Butrint. Known as Syri i Kaltër in Albanian, the Blue Eye is a naturally occurring spring in a protected natural monument. The water is surrounded by lush forest and wildflowers and is reached by taking a 20-minute walk up a paved path. It is about 30 minutes inland from Sarandë and admission to the park is only 50 LEK, which is about 0.50 euros. Parking is typically free. At Butrint National Archaeological Park, you have to pay slightly more – around 1000 LEK per person. But it is well worth it: Butrint is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Carve out the time to visit the ruins of a Venetian Castle, the ancient baths, and the Roman amphitheater that all date back to antiquity and late antiquity. In fact, Butrint used to be known as Ancient Greek polis Buthrotrum. Julius Caesar then used the former city as an army base during the Roman empire. A great way to get a quick fix of history on your beach vacation!

If you are staying in Sarandë like we did, be sure to stop by Manxurane Restaurant. The food is fantastic, and we tried both their dinner and brunch service. If going for breakfast, get their traditional Albanian spread composed of farm-fresh eggs, Albanian fried dough, Petulla, and Balkan rice pudding, Sutlijas. For dinner, we tried several appetizers and their many delicious pasta dishes. Albanian djathë i bardhë, or white cheese, is one of their specialties. For the aspiring sommeliers, Albania is actually known for being one of the oldest wine-producing regions. I had a glass of the “best rosé in Albania,” according to our server at Manxurane. Not only was he correct, but it had been the best rosé I’ve ever had in my life (and I’m currently living in France). The service is also incredible; the owner of the restaurant is remarkably knowledgeable, amicable, and informative.

Finally, as your flight back out of Tirana rolls around, be sure to plan your drive back up north to the airport. We decided to take the route up the coast as opposed to the way we came. We stopped at the remote Lukovë Beach in the hillside town of Lukovê to enjoy one last swim in the Ionian Sea. Smelling of sea salt and sunscreen, we finished our scenic, winding drive back to Tirana International Airport with time to spare.

Overall, our long weekend was an unforgettable experience. Slightly unplanned and a little outside of our comfort zones, the trip exceeded our few expectations and claimed a place in our hearts. The people we met were truly kind, friendly, and wanted to engage with us despite our American tourist status – a real culture shock coming from Paris. We had several instances in which people went out of their way to help or accommodate us, and the language barrier was rarely an issue. I highly recommend putting this wonderful country on your summer 2024 bucket list if you have the chance, especially if you’re already in Europe!