Travel

One of Europe's Greatest Beach Destinations Isn't Where You Think It Is

Dive into this hidden gem of the Riviera.

Dhërmi, Albania
Dhërmi, Albania | Ornela Lundra/EyeEm/Getty
Dhërmi, Albania | Ornela Lundra/EyeEm/Getty
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I’ve seen Earth at a lot of her best angles and explored some of her most pristine sands. I’ve battled a stick shift down curving Amalfi Coast roads, beach-hopped from Crete to Santorini, and leapt from outside Dubrovnik’s Old Town walls into the Adriatic. None of that prepared me for the sheer beauty of the Albanian Riviera. 

Albania’s small size -- it's a little bigger than Maryland -- makes it ripe for exploration, from the trendy capital of Tirana to the Albanian Alps, whose trails rival Switzerland and New Zealands. But the heart of the country is the Riviera. It's where white stones dot the beaches between towering canyon walls and vast forests, giving way to the translucent blue Ionian Sea. Where you can relax in luxury or go full rustic, where beaches are the sites of solitude and wild EDM shows alike. 

Somehow, it flies completely under the radar. Too bad: Those who sleep on this quiet slice of paradise between Greece and Montenegro -- namely, everybody -- are missing out on perhaps the best beaches in Europe. Here's what you're missing out on, and where you need to go. 

Ionian Coast
Ionian Coast on Dhërmi | DaveLongMedia/E+/Getty

Drymades/Dhërmi

Where peace and partying coexist
Every year, I kickstart my Albanian summer with the same pilgrimage to Drymades beach. On the south coast about 3.5 hours from the capital city, getting there involves a winding, 3,300-foot descent from the top of Llogara Pass. At the bottom of this snaking, slightly terrifying road, you'll find my favorite beach in Albania. And on Earth. 

At the north end of Drymades beach, a natural archway in the rocky cliff face leads to a smaller, pebbly shore. There’s rarely more than a handful of people this far down. From there, I leisurely climb (or swim) past the next rocky outcrop to reach my tiny cove nestled between boulders, where I can be alone with the crystal clear, neon blue waters.

For lodging, Drymades offers up rustic seafront campgrounds and hillside boutique hotels. There are a handful of food trucks and restaurants to enjoy, but overall the vibe is super chilled out. Fruit vendors hock succulent bounties, speaking enthusiastically and loquaciously whether or not you understand Albanian (I don't). This is a place for fresh mussels and octopus, vibrant sunsets, and homemade wines. 
 
For those looking for a more raucous experience, a hilly mile down the road is the town of Dhërmi. Here, the party dial is turned up much higher; the beachfront bars constantly blast music to the tune of tropical drink specials. Dhërmi is well-known by Albanians as the summer place to party, and it has become the epicenter for electronic music festivals with attendees from across Europe.

Gjipe Beach
Gjipe Beach is surrounded by mountainous terrain | Altin Serani/EyeEm/Getty

Gjipe

Wild camping and unnamed beaches
Inaccessibility is, strangely, one of the best aspects of Albanian beaches; many are only reachable by boat. In true Albanian spirit, I once hitched a ride from one beach to the next on a small boat while out for a swim. 

The best wild beaches are sandwiched between party town Dhërmi and the more touristy town of Himara, both of which offer plenty of boat “tours” for beach-hopping. You’ll stop at beaches without official names, like Bird Cave or Aquarium Cove, and find little more than a haphazardly constructed wooden bar selling Tirana Beer and a few tiny tables placed just beyond the water’s edge. 

You can’t miss Gjipe (Jee-pay) beach, backed by a massive canyon. This is the crown jewel for wild beach-lovers and something of a backpacker legend in Albania. If you were to access Gjipe by car rather than boat, you’d be in for a 45-minute walk down a steep dirt path. Two shanty, open-air restaurants on either side of the beach serve straight-from-the-water seafood, salads, and fries. 

You can camp in the canyon, either with your own gear or in pre-pitched tents in the valley behind the beach. Here, the salty sea breeze mixes with the cool scent of the shrubbed canyon floor. Hammocks are strung between trees, rock climbers make ready use of the surrounding cliffs, and nights are full of guitar music, cannabis smoke, and a sky bursting with stars.

Himare, Albania
Gjipe beach in the Vlore region of Albania | sduraku/Shutterstock

Himara

A tourist town with countryside walks
Himara’s beachfront boardwalk is lined with pizza joints, upscale seafood bistros, and grab-and-go gyro spots. Bumper cars crash in the children’s area at the end of the seaside promenade. Albanian family vacations, hostels full of backpackers, and romantic getaways all have a place in quirky Himara.

Walks in the surrounding countryside will take you past orchards, grazing goats, and makeshift soccer fields. Hiking along the seaside cliffs, you'll find Livadh beach just north of town; the view from above is a tri-colored flag of the turquoise sea, bright white stones, and olive groves stretching far beyond.

Leaving Himara and heading south on the coastal highway, you’ll pass Albania’s longest beach, Borsch, a local favorite. A short ways further you’ll hit Buneci, where mountain springs trickle into the ocean. Throughout this region, wandering is its own reward.

If you’re not traveling by boat or your own vehicle as you bounce between locations, hitchhiking is a common and practical form of transportation in Albania. I find myself sticking out my thumb frequently and never waiting more than a few minutes for a lift up and down the coast. 

Those more comfortable with bus transportation will find themselves tightly packed into old minibuses with the destination written in black marker on cardboard behind the windshield. Buses leave when they’re full. Or, quite frankly, whenever the hell they feel like it. It’s not luxury -- one time I shared my row with a woman carrying a full-grown duck in a plastic bag -- but it works itself out nicely (and cheaply) and certainly ignites a spirit of adventure in travelers. 

Saranda
Saranda's city port at the Ionian Sea | Aleksandar Todorovic/Shutterstock

Saranda

City center beaches and local life
Nestled down near the Greek border, Saranda is the unofficial capital of the Albanian Riviera, a constantly developing city full of highrise apartments with panoramic balcony views of the sea. The bustling promenade that curves around the bay is home to leisurely seafood dining followed by Rakia shots and fireworks shows from the waterfront nightclubs after dark.

The main beach might be surrounded by city life, but the waters are just as clear and breathtakingly blue as everywhere else along the coast. A tiny marina sits on one side of the bay where the small ferry boats pull in from Corfu, Greece, 30 minutes offshore. You have many choices for Saranda beaches. Restaurants and bars line most of them and provide umbrellas, chairs, hammocks, or beach beds to rent. Thirty minutes south, Ksamil's tiny islands and white sand beaches are conveniently close to the 2,500-year-old UNESCO ruins of the ancient city of Butrint

Local life is in full force in Saranda. Albanians operate by a cultural and historical code of treating guests like family. They call it besa. And as my Albanian friends have explained to me, this isn’t just something they honor with loved ones. Most Albanians treat visitors to their country as though they’re welcoming a long-lost relative to their home. Need directions? They’ll give them to you, and probably walk with you to your final destination. 

Which should, of course, be the beach. 

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Danielle Owen is a contributor for Thrillist.