Just over 30 years ago, Albania was nigh impossible to enter. A brutal brand of authoritarian communist rule turned the Balkan country into a fortress—a mysterious nation held hostage by its own leadership, not unlike modern-day North Korea.
While the regime fell in 1992, it’s taken three decades for Albania to get on its feet. Within its borders are soaring mountains, pristine beaches, unique historical monuments, and an unwaveringly welcoming population. And the rest of the world is finally taking notice.
Although the entire country is worth exploring, we’ll focus our attention on the Southwestern coast of the country known as the Albanian Riviera. Sharing a border with Greece and just a few miles from the island of Corfu, its resort towns, ancient villages, and beach clubs are a delight and more than worthy of pulling your attention away from Europe’s big names. To help get you planning, we’ve tried and tested some of the best things to do in the Albanian Riviera.
Go Beach Hunting
Albania developed a reputation as one of the last truly unspoiled destinations in Europe in the early 2000s. Backpackers revered its obscurity and pristine landscape in a similar manner to the Thai Island in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie, “The Beach.”
While those days are gone, and Albania has become far more developed, there are still a number of staggeringly beautiful stretches of sand and crystal water to keep to yourself. Base yourself in Sarande, rent a car, and head off on your beachbound odyssey. It’s one of the best things to do in the Albanian Riviera.
Some of the best and least crowded beaches include Palasa, Borsh, and Orikum. But just go look for yourself.
Hang Out at Ksamil’s Beach Clubs
For a more traditional beach experience, head to Ksamil, the little town closest to the Greek border. Its tight bay holds three small islands that can be swum or paddled out to, while the pebbly shoreline is dotted with beach clubs perched on stilts above the water.
Looking out to Corfu, the water is perfect, the lounger service is endless, and the summer weather is unbeatable. It can get a little busy, but head over early enough, and you’ll find yourself in the perfect spot. You can stay at nearby Sarande, which is a bigger city with more accommodation options, or opt for one of Ksamil’s more quaint digs.
Explore the ruins of Butrint
Hiding just beyond the beach clubs of Ksamil is one of Europe’s most underrated archeological sites—the Greek and Roman city of Butrint. The sprawling and remarkably well-preserved ruins are a spyglass into life 2,000 years ago. Visitors can wander down the stone avenues of what was a thriving port town frequented by Julius Ceasar himself.
Highlights of the site include a mesmerizing mosaic-laden Greek basilica, the once bustling Roman forum, and the impressive amphitheater. Later developments include a tower built by the Venetians, while a small museum on-site highlights finds from as far back as the 10th century BC.
It’s the perfect cultural escapade and one of the best things to do in the Albanian Riviera.
Spend a day or two in Himare
Driving north along the Albanian coastal road, you’ll find yourself passing through a number of picturesque villages and towns. Few will take your breath away like the town of Himare.
The settlement has been inhabited by a small community of ethnically Greek Albanians, who have imparted their culture on the local food and architecture. You’re as likely to hear Greek as Albanian here—perfect if you know a little of either.
Its pebbly beach is flanked by a spectacular bay. An old fortress looms above the town, while an abandoned ancient village is begging to be explored in the hills above. It’s a wonderfully laid-back town, perfect to stop over for a few nights, enjoy some Greek food, and chill by the beach.
Drive the Llogara Pass
Going further north still, you’ll find the Llogara Pass. This breathtaking road has developed a permanent place on many driving enthusiasts’ bucket lists, thanks to its spectacular switchbacked winds working their way up and over the Llogara Mountain range.
Approaching from the north is a special experience. One side of the hillside is lush and green, giving only slight hints of the altitude being gained. But as you round the mountain’s crest, the trees disappear, and the Adriatic Sea explodes in front of you behind a stark, barren landscape, the road slaloming down the mountain in loose curves.
It’s a road trip to remember. Don’t forget to stop and explore some of the bunkers built on the cliffs.