Add the Albanian Riviera to your autumn vacation list
Add the Albanian Riviera to your autumn vacation list
This stretch along the Ionian and Adriatic, known as Bregu, is yet to land on the radars of tourists seeking a Mediterranean escape — and therein lies its appeal
You avoided the summer crowds, and now is the perfect time to visit Europe – gone are the hordes that flock to tourist sites, and warm days give way to a crisp chill come dusk.
Seasonality, however, doesn't help how tedious it is to apply for a Schengen visa, thereby bringing a hidden gem onto our radars: Albania.
Despite occupying prime real estate in the Mediterranean (south of Montenegro, north of Greece), the country is no closer to joining the EU, even though it received candidate status in 2014. And its independent e-visa process is a breeze. Factor in that mass tourism has yet to strike Albania and you’re looking at an untapped treasure that is home to scenic landscapes, a temperate climate, delicious Balkan cuisine, a fascinating past, and the kind of hospitality that restores one’s faith in humanity.
While outdoorsy types ought to hit the spectacular hiking trails in the north, leisure seekers are more drawn to the Albanian Riviera (or Bregu, as it is popularly known) in the south — and rightfully so. Stretching some 450 km along the Ionian and Adriatic seas, this coastline offers everything from crumbling ruins and traditional villages, to natural wonders and secluded beaches. But first, your base for exploring this region.
Saranda or Himare?
That is the age-old question when it comes to picking a base in Bregu, which is accessible by taxi or rental car from the capital, Tirana. Saranda plays host to sprawling resorts, upscale seafood eateries like Black Marlin, a picturesque harbour, and a buzzy promenade. In contrast, Himare – once a fishing village – is less touristy and a lot more local in feel. And because it remains relatively untouched by urban development, it’s more suited to couples and families in need of a little quiet.
Da Luz Boutique Hotel in Saranda wins rave reviews for its contemporary furnishings, homely cuisine, and stellar hospitality (it’s owned by a Greek- Albanian family), with private beach access serving as an added bonus. And over in Himare, a stay at Rea Boutique Hotel is a no-brainer. Here, sea-facing bathtubs and a minimalist aesthetic elevate the guestrooms, and Spile Beach (popular for its fine sand and shallow, turquoise waters) is a three- minute walk away.
Both Saranda and Himare are top contenders, and make for great jumping-off points to key attractions.
One of Albania’s leading natural monuments, the Blue Eye is a spring surrounded by lush greenery and shrouded in mystery – no diver has ever been able to descend more than 50 metres, so its actual depth remains unknown. And while swimming here is prohibited, the brave do so anyway; the water temperature hovers close to 10C all year round, scorching summers included.
True to its name, the Blue Eye is reminiscent of a human eye. The outer ‘iris’ comprises blue-green water, while the ‘pupil’ is a darker shade of electric blue due to an underwater cave. One local legend claims that the Blue Eye is actually the fallen eye of a snake that was wreaking havoc, and met its fate when an old man set a donkey in its belly on fire — the water of the spring represents the eye that is crying in pain to this day.
Karaburun-Sazan Marine National Park
A visit to Albania’s only marine park makes for the ultimate aquatic adventure in Bregu. Hire a speedboat and take the day to swim in clear waters, soak up the beautiful surroundings of the Karaburun Peninsula, and snorkel to the surreal Cave of Haxhi Ali (a karst cave named after the prominent warrior that it once provided refuge to). The area is famed for its array of landforms, so everything from canyons and cliffs to bays and mountains make an appearance.
Sazan Island, meanwhile, is steeped in history. A military base that is still somewhat operational, it’s particularly intriguing as it was off-limits – even to locals – until 2015. Tourists ought to discover the island’s network of bunkers and tunnels that were manned by nearly 3,000 soldiers who lived in fear, echoing Albania’s notorious Cold War paranoia. But it’s not just abandoned tools of defence that reside on Sazan Island; eight species of bats and 39 species of birds contribute to its unique biodiversity.
Spanning over 200 metres, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is arguably Albania’s most impressive archaeological treasure and a must-visit for history buffs. And because Butrint has been inhabited since prehistoric times, visitors can expect a vast repository of ruins personifying its many former lives. It was colonised by the Romans under Julius Caesar in 44 BC, and later occupied by the Byzantine, Venetian, and Ottoman Empires.
This one is a sizeable attraction, so those pressed for time should focus on checking out the ancient theatre (which hosts festivals to this day), the baptistery (the mosaic floor renowned for its early Christian art is surprisingly well-preserved), and the Goddess of Butrint statue (now a national symbol of sorts). As for what makes Butrint especially interesting? Its geographical context. The majority of the ruins stand atop a forested peninsula on the channel connecting Lake Butrint with the Ionian Sea, so the setting alone is breathtaking.
Beaches that rival some of the best in the likes of Greece, Croatia, and Italy are a massive part of Bregu’s appeal, but they’re not all created equal. While some find the pebbly beaches of Saranda uncomfortable to walk on, Gjipe Beach was deservedly voted one of the 50 best beaches worldwide in a 2023 poll. Located a 30-minute drive away from Himare, this remote bay is flanked by soaring, rugged cliffs that remind beachgoers of the captivating beauty created by contrast.
Admittedly, it isn’t easy to access (a brief hike is involved), so consider Ksamil Islands instead. You can simply swim or kayak from the mainland in Ksamil to this set of four islets, where pop-up bars, as well as a limited number of umbrella and lounger rentals, translate to a comfortable day of dolce far niente in privacy. It will feel like you have a private island all to yourself during the off-season.
Porto Palermo Castle
The imposing castle of Gjirokaster – one of the biggest in the Balkans – is an enticing reason to visit the so-called City of Stone, but if you prefer not to venture far, Porto Palermo Castle is a great runner-up. Located in the seaside village of Qeparo, a few miles from Himare, its origins are unclear. Some say it was built in the 19th century by Ottoman-Albanian ruler Ali Pasha of Tepelena. Others claim its distinctly triangular design and round towers suggest that it was constructed a lot earlier by the Venetians.
Either way, this cultural monument is worth exploring as its many rooms are open to the public. Keep your eyes peeled for the paintings on display throughout, one of which depicts Ali Pasha himself. Part of Porto Palermo Castle is oriented towards the Ionian Sea and Ceraunian Mountains, so be sure to take the stone stairway up to the terrace for seemingly endless sea views (and a moment or two of serenity). At the end of the day, this is what makes the Albanian Riviera so special – immersion in an idyll that no camera can capture.