Hugging the shore of the Ionian Sea in southwestern Albania is Sarandë, the southernmost city in the country. Known for its idyllic position beside the deep cerulean waters of the Mediterranean, this resort city is among the most popular tourist destinations in Albania. The top things to see and do in Sarandë take advantage of its glorious location. They make it a must for any traveler visiting the eastern Mediterranean.
The History of Sarandë
In antiquity, Sarandë was known by its Hellenistic name, Onchesmus. It served as a port-town in an area of the ancient state of Epirus and later grew into an important point of departure to Italy across the Adriatic. The historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus called it the Port of Anchises, which later became Anchiasmus during the Byzantine Empire.
During its time as Onchesmos, Albania’s first synagogue came into being in the 4th or 5th century. The city was raided by the Ostrogoths and pirates in the period around 551 AD. A medieval chronicle in 1191 cited the settlement as abandoned, and from then on, it took its name from the nearby 6th-century Agioi Saranta church.
Also known as Saranda, the city of Sarandë served as a simple harbor through the Ottoman period. During the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, the Ottomans upgraded the port. Italian forces later occupied it during the Italian Protectorate on Southern Albania from 1917-1920. The Italians continued to improve the harbor, which played a role in both the Italian invasion of Greece and the Greco-Italian War.
My Time in Sarandë
I cannot stress just how diverse Albania is. It may be a small, often-overlooked country, but it packs a huge punch culturally and geographically. The sunny beaches of Sarandë couldn’t be more different from the mountainous, alpine terrain of locations like Theth and Kruje in northern Albania. It’s also a far cry from the bustling capital, Tirana, and the picturesque farmlands of Daias and Lezhë.
As Sarandë is one of the most popular hotspots along the Albanian Riviera, it’s one of the cities I was most looking forward to visiting. And it did not disappoint. My guide Erjan from Travel Media EU took me to a number of impressive locations, including an ancient archaeological site, a beautiful castle, and an offshore mussel farm. We even squeezed in a few minutes to enjoy the city’s main attraction, its stunning beach and aquamarine waters.
Everywhere I went, the people were kind and warm. The people of Sarandë showed the same kind of hospitality and friendliness I’d come to expect in the Balkans. And the food is out of this world! I ate some of the tastiest seafood of my life in Sarandë, so if you’re a foodie, you won’t be disappointed. Every day in this city was an adventure. These are the top 10 things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania!
Visit the Blue Eye
About halfway through the hour-long drive from Gjirokastër to Sarandë, you’ll pass by one of Albania’s best-known natural wonders. This is the Blue Eye, a deep natural spring located along SH99 near the village of Muzinë. Also known as Syri i Kaltër, the Blue Eye is famous for its sparkling turquoise waters, which bubble up from a karst hole that is over fifty meters deep.
Even though the Blue Eye is among Albania’s most popular tourist attractions, getting there can be tricky. The road leading to the site is rough, well-worn, and bumpy, so I recommend riding in a 4×4 that can handle the uneven terrain. The bad road is worth the trouble, though, as the Blue Eye is a true sight to behold!
When I visited the Blue Eye in August of 2020, it was packed with people. The water is ice cold and perfectly counters the sweltering heat of Albanian summers. It’s one of the top things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania during the hottest months of the year. For the best view of the striking waters, climb up to the cliff above the spring. Just keep in mind that, although there are planks up there, I don’t recommend diving from them.
If you get hungry during your visit, or if you’re on the lookout for a refreshing drink, there are two restaurants and a bar near the spring. There’s also a cottage and a nice terrace. The entire area is surrounded by thick, lush greenery, which makes the Blue Eye feel peaceful and isolated despite the number of people!
Explore Ancient Butrint
If you travel about 11 miles (18 kilometers) south from Sarandë along SH81, you’ll find yourself in Butrint National Park. This natural area along the Strait of Corfu is a UNESCO-protected national park that covers a little over 94 square kilometers.
It encompasses a diverse array of environments, including hills, wetlands, freshwater lakes, plains, saltwater marshes, islands, and reed beds. Over 1,200 species of animals and plants call the park home, and as a result, it is a protected area.
The most notable site in the park is the ruins of Butrint, an ancient Hellenistic city that later became a Roman colony. The city is one of Albania’s most important archaeological sites and contains a number of grand monuments built between the Iron Age and the Middle Ages. They include the ancient city walls, a basilica, a Roman theater, a baptistery, and a pair of castles.
My Trip to Butrint
The site is quite expansive and is spread out through the surrounding woodlands, so exploring will take some time. After you pay the 600 lekes (roughly $5.68 USD) to enter the park, Erjan and I first passed by two columns. Soon afterward, we saw our first sign of the walls further down the path.
First built by the Epirote tribe, the walls were later rebuilt by the Romans and the Venetians. From there, you’ll find the stone theater and Roman baths from the 2nd century BC. There’s also a 4th-century Roman chapel where you can still see some mosaics between its windows. The site is gorgeous and easily one of the top things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania!
Further on is the 6th-century baptistery, where you’ll find lots of broken columns and a mosaic floor. You can’t see the actual floor, as it’s covered by sand to protect it. But you can see images of it at the site. It’s said to be the most beautiful mosaic floor in Albania!
The 6th-century basilica was the largest basilica in the Balkans during Roman times and has massive, 30-foot high walls. Even in ruin, the basilica is breathtaking. And as you continue, you’ll find more sections of wall, the Lake Gate and Lion’s Gate, an acropolis, a watchtower, and a museum.
All in all, if you’re a history buff like me, the ancient city of Butrint is a must-visit when in Sarandë. It’s one of the largest and most fascinating archaeological sites I’ve ever visited and easily makes my list of the best things to do in Sarandë, Albania. Don’t miss it!
Butrint National Park
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Eat at Bar Restorant Abiori
Roughly a 20-minute drive south from Sarandë is the coastal village of Ksamil, which is technically a part of Butrint National Park. There, you’ll find one of the top restaurants in the area, Bar Restorant Abiori. This seafood spot offers its guests a magnificent view of the Ionian Sea and the popular beach it borders. Patrons can also choose to dine indoors or on their outdoor terrace.
As you enter the restaurant, you’ll see a large icebox by the tables. It’s filled with the fresh catches of the day, which include grouper, monkfish, squid, and prawns. You can pick the fish you want at the icebox, and then the master chefs in the kitchen will cook it up for you!
My Albanian-Italian Seafood Dinner
For my dinner, I started with a refreshing quinoa salad with avocado, mando, walnuts, and pomegranates. I followed that with a massive raw crudo plate that included shrimp, prawns, and octopus, all marinated in oil and lemon juice.
The crudo is moist, succulent, and mouthwateringly fresh. I could have lived off of it during my entire time in Sarande! If you enjoy raw seafood, Albania is one of the best places in the world to eat it.
Speaking of incredible seafood, I highly recommend their pasta baguerie, a seafood pasta dish that contains mussels and shrimp. The pasta itself is perfectly al dente, and the mussels are tender, briny, and full of fresh ocean flavor.
The Albanian coast is one of the best places in the world outside of Italy for top-notch pasta, and Rar Restorant Abiori did not disappoint. The pasta I had there was very close in quality to the dishes I often order when I visit my Italian family!
For the main course, we ordered a flounder-like fish with dill, a creamy sauce, and a risotto-like rice with pomegranate seeds on top. The fish was light and flavorful, and was accentuated by the combination of the dill and zesty sauce. Of course, no meal in Albania is complete without some local alcohol, so I recommend enjoying your dinner with a dark, jaeger-like wild berry rakija!
All it takes is one bite to learn why dining at Bar Restorant Abiori is one of the best things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania. The food is top-notch and the atmosphere is perfect!
Bar Restorant Abiori
Ruga 4 Ishujt
Ksamil, Albania 9706
+355 69 975 4558
Go for a Swim at Ksamil Beach
I admit, I rarely have time for recreation when I travel because I’m always so busy working. That said, there’s no way I could pass up a short trip to nearby Ksamil Beach . The beach is known for its stunning combination of curved bays, breathtaking beaches, islands, and sapphire-like waters.
Don’t worry if you didn’t bring a bathing suit with you. You can easily buy one at the shops near the beach. I bought a pair of swimming trunks for $10 USD. Once you’re on the beach, you can rent a two-person umbrella for €12 (roughly $14.56). But while sunbathing on the beach is great, all the fun is in the water!
At the most famous spot on Ksamil Beach, Three Islands, you can wade into the cold, shallow waters up to about chest height. If you visit during the summer like I did, the beach will likely be packed. Be prepared to share the waters with lots of families, children, and swimmers.
If you’d like to spend a morning or afternoon at the beach, be sure to check out the restaurant and bar for some food and drinks. But even if you only have 20 or 30 minutes to spare there as I did, it’s still one of the top things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania!
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Visit the Offshore Mussel Farm
As you drive back and forth between Sarandë and Ksamil, you’ll likely notice a curious-looking structure out in the waters of Butrint Lake just outside of Ksamil. This is a mussel farm, which produces hundreds of thousands of mussels.
My friends at The Mussel House took me out on a boat tour of Butrint Lake so I could see the farm up close. The farm is a large, mostly underwater structure that is divided into sections. A different person or business owns each section, and each section contains pods that extend below the surface. The mussels are attached to the pods!
I had the pleasure of joining part of The Mussel House team as they retrieved some of their mussels to take back to their restaurant outside of Ksamil. It’s a fun and unique adventure, and I highly advise checking it out if you can!
Eat at The Mussel House
Of course, after you’ve seen where the mussels come from, the next logical thing to do is to eat some of them! After Erjan and I returned to The Mussel House after our trip to the mussel farm, we did just that. The Mussel House is one of the top seafood restaurants in the area, and for very good reason.
In the kitchen, their cooks fry the mussels up in oil, garlic, parsley, and white wine, and they even add some cream to some of them! I suggest going all-out with a mussel feast of salted mussels with oil and white wine, mussels with tomato and onion, creamy mussels, mussel risotto, and a salad.
Eating Mussels the Albanian Way
One of the tricks to eating mussels in Albania is to use the shell of your first mussel as a utensil to extract all the other mussels you eat after that. Use the shell as a kind of pincer to easily pull the cooked mussels out of their shells. It’s quite handy!
A Mussel Feast Fit for a King
The salted mussels are succulent and briny, while the ones with tomato and onion are acidic, juicy, and slightly sour. The broth from the tomato-and-onion mussels is like a rich seafood and vegetable soup. I also really enjoyed the tangy white wine broth, which had a strong hit of lemon. The creamy and moist mussel risotto was also fantastic, but the star of the show was the mound of creamy mussels.
These mussels and their shells were coated in a thick, rich cream that was both smooth and decadent. The combination of the briny mussel and the cream was heaven on my palate. It was so good that I licked several of the shells clean to get more of that amazing, velvety texture!
In all, Erjan and I shared about 150 mussels in total, which only cost us about 600 lekes (just under $6 USD). It’s a mind-blowing deal for one of the tastiest lunches you’ll eat anywhere in Albania! One of my favorite things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania, for sure!
The Mussel House
Ruga Sarande-Butrint, km.10
Qafa e Hartes
Ksamil, Albania 9706
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Explore the Old Town
Exploration of any Albanian city is incomplete without a trip to the local Old Town. In Sarandë, the sites of the Old Town include the ruins of a 5th-century synagogue complex. Unfortunately, only parts of the walls are still intact.
Near the synagogue complex is an outdoor stairway that leads to a pedestrian walkway. Shops, restaurants, bars, and apartments line the pedestrian street. It’s a great place to check out if you’re looking for souvenirs or a bite to eat.
At the sea, you’ll find a small port packed with tour boats and fishermen’s boats. The fishermen arrive in the mornings between six and nine a.m. with seafood. There, they sell mussels, crabs, and tons of fish, for reasonable prices.
Along Sarandë Beach, one of the city’s few public beaches, you’ll find a boardwalk lined with businesses and apartments. Some of them look out at the ruins of the old city walls! Seeing the remains of the walls is one of the best things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania. It reminded me of the historic nature of this beautiful resort city.
If you visit the beach and are tired or struggling to wake up, stop by Jamaica Beach Club. This open-air cocktail bar is located right on the beach and sells a very strong coffee. It was exactly what I needed to wake me up and jump-start my day!
Visit Lëkurësi Castle
If you’re in the mood for a bit of history and natural beauty, a stop at Lëkurësi Castle may be in order. This square-shaped castle stands atop a hill just southeast of Sarandë’s city center. It was built back in 1537 by Suleiman the Magnificent, the longest-reigning Ottoman Empire Sultan.
After attacking the nearby island of Corfu, Suleiman the Magnificent wished to control Sarandë’s harbor and the road between it and Butrint. From its two towers , he had vantage points of the entire city. He could also see Corfu, Butrint Lake, the islands of Ksamil, the Ionian Sea, and the surrounding hills and mountains.
In the 18th century, the famed Ottoman Albanian ruler Ali Pasha of Ioannina attacked the castle and raided the surrounding area. The castle also used to be the home of Lëkurës Village.
Today, Lëkurësi Castle is one of the best things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania. The facilities at the castle include a massive restaurant spread across three terraces and a souvenir shop. It’s also the best place in the city to enjoy one of southern Albania’s magnificent sunsets!
+355 69 537 2300
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Enjoy Albanian Seafood at Taverna Pupi
Located in the beachside Hotel Jaroal on Rruga Butrinti in Sarandë is another of the city’s best restaurants, Taverna Pupi. The restaurant’s location is one of my favorites in town, as their outdoor terrace offers a magnificent view of the beach and the Ionian Sea. It’s the perfect place to have a quiet, romantic dinner for two or a tasty lunch with friends!
The restaurant’s owners, a husband-and-wife pair of chefs, prepare fantastic Mediterranean dishes like stuffed calamari, misto fritto, risotto, grilled shrimp, and more.
I recommend starting with an appetizer of goat-cheese-and-pomodoro bruschetta and their refreshing arugula, carrot, and onion salad. For your next course, the Pasta de Albania is a phenomenal choice. It contains mussels, calamari, and shrimp, and is the closest thing you’ll get to Italian pasta outside of Italy.
For your entrees, I suggest going with the shrimp tava, a dish similar to a Greek favorite called shrimp saganaki. It’s creamy and filled with tiny shrimp, and has a nice kick of spice from the red pepper in it. If you’re a spicehead like me, add a bit of Tabasco to make it even hotter.
But the star dish on their menu is the pan-fried stuffed calamari. The squid come filled with ham, cheese, red pepper, pepperoncino, onions, and herbs. This mouthwatering combination makes for a creamy and spicy seafood dish. It’s packed with flavor and full of interesting texture combinations. It’s one of my favorite seafood dishes in all of Albania and eating it is among the top things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania!
Saranda Butrinti Road
Sarande, Albania 9703
Stay at the Bougainville Bay Hotel
Because Sarandë is a coastal resort city, you’d be remiss if you didn’t find a nice beachfront hotel to call home during your stay. The best accommodation in the entire city is the Bougainville Bay Resort & Spa, a gorgeous art-deco hotel that overlooks the Ionian Sea.
This grand hotel contains 123 rooms and thirty-five apartments. It also boasts villas, three restaurants, five swimming pools, three pool bars, a beach area, and the luxurious Butrinti SPA & Beauty Center, which alone is one of the best things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania.
The spa offers everything from manicures and pedicures to massages, hydromassage baths, a hamam, a sauna, and more. The property’s most impressive swimming pool is the 360-degree infinity pool on the rooftop terrace, where I had the pleasure of taking a quick dip!
The on-site restaurants and bars all serve high-quality seasonal and local fare, crafted by master chefs and bartenders. The hotel is the perfect place to hold a banquet, party, or wedding. They even offer a special menu for children!
The rooms at the Bougainville Bay Resort & Spa match the hotel’s luxurious setting. My room, 307, contained two twin beds, a work station, a comfortable seating area, and a beautiful marble bathroom. It felt both minimalistic and upscale at the same time. It even offered an incredible view of the pool, beach, and the Ionian Sea!
Bougainville Bay Resort & Spa
BONUS: Have a Drink at Orange Cocktail Bar
The Ionian Sea coast is, without a doubt, the main lifeline in Sarandë. Most of the top locations in the city take advantage of its beauty, and Orange Cocktail Bar is no exception.
One of the trendiest and most popular nightclubs in all of Albania, Orange Cocktail Bar lies on the Ionian Sea. It consists of a beautiful terrace loaded with tables, with a sleek bar right in the middle.
There, you can try a number of unique drinks, including a deceptively strong one that contains lemon and cherries. It’s tasty but contains a lot of alcohol, so I recommend going easy on it.
If you choose to visit Orange Cocktail Bar, remember that it will likely be packed. So if you’re not a fan of crowds, this may not be the spot for you. But if you like a good nightclub, great music, and a beautiful setting, it’s among the top things to see and do in Sarandë, Albania!
Orange Cocktail Bar
Sarandë, Albania 9701
The city of Sarandë is everything I hoped it would be and so much more. This gem along the Albanian Riviera offers everything you could possibly want. It has family-friendly beaches, fascinating historical sites, mouthwatering food, luxurious hotels, and a pulse-pounding nightlife. Even though it’s growing into a tourism hotspot, it’s still rich in Albanian culture and retains its authenticity. It deserves to be on everyone’s bucket list and is one of my personal favorite cities in the country. Book a trip to Albania today to experience it for yourself!
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