How to Visit Saranda & the Albanian Riviera from the Greek Island of Corfu

Albania | Europe | Greece | RTW 6 1/2 - The Balkans Edition
Saranda Albania

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I hadn’t originally planned on a stop in Corfu during my 3 week tour of the Balkans.

But I really wanted to visit Albania while I was in the region and the options for getting there were somewhat grim. No trains, and limited flights. 

So when I discovered that the high-speed ferry from Corfu to Albania is one of the most popular ways to visit the country, it seemed like a sign.

A sign that it was time to get back to the Greeks.

Corfu seems the perfect place to base for the weekend and as a bonus, I’ll get to spend a full day in Albania. There will be sun and sand and gyros (not together, hopefully).

It’s the perfect plan.

I am travel genius, hear me roar.

So I catch a flight from my last stop in Sofia, Bulgaria, connect in Athens, and by 10:00pm Friday night I touch down on the island of Corfu.

Read More: Sofia: A Bulgarian Beauty

I’m ready for what I fully expect to be an idyllic weekend of Greek Island bliss and Albanian cultural exploration.

As luck would have it, smugness gets you nowhere.

2021 Update: Traveling to Greece right now

I just returned from another 2-week trip traveling around the Greek Islands. I wrote a comprehensive post about traveling in and around Greece right now during the Covid-19 pandemic:

The Ultimate Guide to the Greek Islands

It’s everything you need to know about pre-arrival testing, whether you’ll have to wear a mask, where you can get a Covid test if you need one to return home, and all the essentials for traveling to Greece right now. If you’re planning a trip to Greece in 2021, it’s a must-read.

Greece-Albania Sea Border Update – June 2021: The sea border has been closed between the two countries but my understanding is that it will re-open on July 1, 2021 and ferries should resume. Check with the local ferry operators Finikas Lines and Ionian Seaways for the latest information.

And now, back to Corfu!

Taxi strikes and a late night

As I emerge from the arrivals area, I quickly learn that there are no taxis due to a strike.

Alrighty, not a problem. There’s a city bus into town which is just a quick two miles away.

I catch the bus and arrive in the main square of Corfu Town 30 minutes later. My hotel is (allegedly) in town so how hard can it be to find on foot? After all, I use instinct for navigation all the time!

Corfu Town Corfu Greece
Corfu Town, Greece

My first mistake is not having a map or a working GPS on my phone.

My second mistake is greatly underestimating the size of Corfu Town…it is HUGE by Greek island standards.

I wander aimlessly for a bit before stopping in a shop to ask for directions. Turns out, my hotel, the Sunset Hotel Corfu, is on the “outskirts” of town and definitely not within walking distance from my current location.

The shop owner kindly directs me to a different bus from the main square that would get me pretty close. I head back to the bus station to wait for the right bus.

There are at least 100 other people waiting for the same bus – the last of the night since it is now after 11:00pm.

Dear God, please let me make it on this bus. I do not have a Plan B.

Corfu Old Town Greece
Corfu, Greece

Thankfully, when the bus arrives, I squeeze my way on and tell the driver where I am going. He nods reassuringly. I have no idea how many stops we are making or where to get off but I decide to roll with it.

After more than a dozen stops, I am still clueless about my destination. I work my way back to the driver through the crowd and again say the name of my hotel.

Of course, we have already passed it.

Thankfully, the driver is a sweetheart and tells me to stay on the bus after the last stop and he’ll take me back.

My hotel, at last

Finally, around midnight I walk into the Sunset Hotel.

While checking in, I inquire about ferry times to Saranda, Albania for the next day. The front desk agent is lovely, but his English is limited and he’s not familiar with the ferry schedule. He says confidently that the girl at the desk in the morning will know.

With not much to go on, I set my alarm for 7:00am so there’s plenty of time to get the information I need and get to the port in time for the ferry to the Albanian Riviera.

A Day Trip to the Albanian Riviera from Corfu

The next morning I drag myself out of bed early and head down to the front desk to inquire again about ferry times.

As advertised, the morning girl is well-versed in ferry times. The first ferry is at 9:00am. In the summer high season there are up to 13 ferries per day between Corfu and Saranda. In the winter months, as little as 2 per day.

She explains that I should arrive by 8:30am and I will need to take the bus to the port since, of course, the taxi drivers are on strike. Good thing I got up early!

Albanian Riviera from Corfu

I catch the next bus to town, easily locate the Albania ferry terminal and buy my ticket for the return ferry ride to the resort town of Saranda, Albania.

Tip: It’s easy to check fares and book ferry tickets from Corfu to Saranda, Albania here.

The Ferry ride from Old Town Corfu to Saranda, Albania

It’s a quick easy and 30-minute hydrofoil ride across the narrow channel from Corfu to Saranda, Albania. Our passports are checked in transit so when the ferry docks the arrivals process is a breeze.

And as we dock in Albania I am instantly taken by surprise with Saranda.

It is absolutely beautiful!

Albanian Riviera Saranda Corfu ferry
Saranda, Albania and the Albanian Riviera

We disembark the boat and the whole day is in front of me. The plan? A visit to the archaeological site of Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and then an afternoon discovering the beaches of the Albanian Riviera.

Getting to Butrint National Park

My research mentioned a local bus that will take me right to Butrint. But at first glance, I don’t see a bus station anywhere.

I walk a few minutes before noticing an old, run-down bus on the side of the road. The sign in the window reads simply, “Butrint.”

As it turns out, I don’t need a bus station, just one lone bus. We have a winner.

I walk up to the driver to inquire about the fare and whether they accept euro (I haven’t changed any money yet). He doesn’t speak English, yet he enthusiastically waves me aboard. I step aboard and hope for the best.

Side Note: I know what you’re thinking, my advance planning for this portion of the trip was abysmal (you’re not wrong). Lucky for you, there are far easier ways to visit Albania from Corfu without worrying about ferry times, finding the right bus to Butrint, or currency conversions. Just book a day trip. Here are two good ones:

But back to my “do it yourself” semi-success story…

As the bus gets underway, a girl comes around collecting money for tickets. I hand her 1 euro hoping it will suffice. It does. (A lucky break since I don’t want to be put out on the side of the dirt road we are currently on.)

Forty-five minutes later we arrive in Butrint.

Butrint National Park Albania
Butrint, Albania

The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint Albania

Considered a microcosm of Mediterranean history, Butrint covers the rise and fall of great empires from 4th century BC to the Ottoman defenses created in the early 19th century.

According to classical mythology, Butrint was founded by exiles fleeing the fall of Troy. Virgil’s epic poem, the Aeneid, recounts Aeneas visiting Butrint on his way to Italy.

Theater Butrint National Park Albania
The theater at Butrint

By the 19th century, Butrint had become a small fishing village clustered around a castle. Over the centuries the ancient town had all but disappeared under layers of silt and vegetation but in 1928 an Italian archaeological mission began excavating the site.

Over the course of the next 10 years, they uncovered the grand monuments visible today. In 1992, the site was named to the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites.

It’s a fascinating site to explore and reminds me of some of the other ancient cities I’ve visited like the Acropolis in Athens and Kourion in Cyprus.

Read More: 24 Hours in Athens

Read More: Cyprus – Aphrodite’s Divided Isle

Discovering the Albanian Riviera

My visit to Butrint complete, I hop on the next bus back to Saranda. It’s beach time!

The 80-mile stretch of sparkling coastline between Saranda and the city of Vlore has become known as the “Albanian Riviera.” It’s marketed as a budget alternative to the exclusive (and pricey) Italian Riviera and Croatia’s brilliant Dalmatian Coast.

Read More: The Best of the Dazzling Croatian Coast in 7 Perfect Days

Read More: The Best of the Italian Riviera in 3 Days

Truthfully, it looks more like Greece than Corfu does!

Or, at least what I’ve seen of Corfu so far. Which, to be fair, is mostly city.

Albanian Riviera Saranda Albania
The Albanian Riviera

The white-pebbled shore is lined with hotels and cafes. And on this sunny summer Saturday afternoon it is bursting with beachgoers.

I spend some time walking along the beach just enjoying the beautiful day. Then, I settle into a seaside café for lunch and a sampling of the local brew.

Albania Beaches Albanian Riviera Saranda
The beaches of Saranda – Albanian Riviera

By 4pm it’s time to catch the ferry back to Corfu.

All in all, a splendid day exploring the Albanian Riviera and well worth the side trip from Corfu.

Exploring Corfu‘s Old Town

For my final day on the island of Corfu, I spend the morning strolling the streets of Corfu Town (another UNESCO World Heritage Site).

Corfu is part of the Ionian Islands and was one of the first Greek islands to open its doors to tourism. The name Corfu translates as “city of the peaks” and the island is divided into 3 districts by two well-defined mountain ranges.

Corfu’s history is laden with battles and the legacy of these struggles remains in the two fortresses that surround the capital. It is the only city in Greece to be fortified in this way.

Corfu Old Town Corfu Greece
Exploring Corfu Town

Corfu’s Venetian Influence

Long controlled by Venice, the Venetian influence is profound in Corfu Town.

In fact, walking through the labyrinth of winding, cobbled alleyways you’d almost believe you were in Venice rather than Greece.

Read More: The Romance of Venice

Absent are the white-washed buildings clad with bright blue shutters, replaced by the warm pink and yellow hues that define the Venetian blend of Gothic and Moorish architecture.

The Venetian influence in architecture reminds me of one of my favorite Greek islands, Symi. Though Symi is much smaller and, in my opinion, far more charming.

Read More: Sparkling Symi is the Best Greek Island You’ve Never Heard Of

Corfu Old Town Corfu Greece
The streets of Corfu Town

In fact, to be honest, Corfu doesn’t feel like Greece either. It’s not just the architecture that’s different, it’s the entire vibe.

Even the food is different.

I love a good gyro and they are ubiquitous street food elsewhere in Greece. In Corfu, the two gyro stands I did manage to find were both disappointing. As was the Greek salad I ordered which had (horrors!) lettuce.

Perhaps I should have tried the Italian food.

The size of Corfu

At 227 square miles, Corfu is a huge island. Getting around without your own wheels is a challenge. Especially when you arrive in the middle of a seemingly endless taxi strike.

Call me crazy but I like my Greek islands small, quaint, and easily navigable. Of course, Greece’s largest island – Crete – is a notable exception. It’s big but certainly still fabulous!

Read More: Crete Greece in 5 Perfect Days

My choice of lodging, the Sunset Hotel, probably didn’t help. It was a perfectly lovely hotel with extremely friendly staff, but the location was a bit far from town. With a taxi strike and rental cars fully booked, that left only the bus.

Luckily, the bus station was right outside and by day two I’d mastered the bus system thanks to my struggle from the airport the first night.

Where to stay on Corfu

If I had it to do over again, I would choose a hotel right on the beach like the Alymros Beach Resort. Or something right in the heart of the action in Corfu Town, like the Bella Venezia.

I wish I’d had more time to get out of Corfu Town and check out some of the island’s beaches, I’m sure there are some beauties! Though when it comes to amazing beaches, the Greek island of Milos is tough to beat.

Read More: Must-See Milos: 5 Things You Can’t Miss on this Glorious Greek Island

Hopefully, someday I’ll get to return and see the more beautiful parts of Corfu like these:

I spend the rest of Sunday wandering the narrow alleyways of Corfu Town and visiting both the new and old fortresses.

That afternoon I walked (yes, walked) two miles to the airport with my luggage for my flight to Bucharest. The taxi drivers are still on strike and, as I learned the hard way, the buses are very infrequent on Sundays.

It wasn’t at all what I’d envisioned for my weekend back in the Greek Isles. But perhaps Mykonos and Santorini have spoiled me.

Read More: The Meaning of Mykonos

Read More: How to Plan the Perfect Santorini Honeymoon (on a budget!)

I did, however, thoroughly enjoy my time in Saranda, Butrint, and the Albanian Riviera. Visiting by ferry from Corfu is truly the ideal way to explore this part of Albania and it was the highlight of my stay.

Next up, my final stop of the trip, Romania!

For more great Greek Island destinations, start here:

7 Reasons Naxos is the Best Greek Island (for Pretty Much Everything)

5 Reasons to Fall in Love with Paros Greece (Hint: Antiparos is one)

6 Comments

  1. Do you know wheter or not the ferries Corfu – Saranda still operate now, due to coronavirus?

  2. OMG! I had a similar experience in Corfu and it is decidedly my least favorite Greek island!

    1. Glad to know I wasn’t the only one, Renee! The town of Corfu is so lovely, though, I’d love to give it another chance someday. But there are still so many beautiful Greek Islands I’ve yet to explore so I’m not sure if I would go back. 🙂

      1. I loved Corfu and didn’t like Mykynos. Corfu has a beautiful western coastline full of trees and rocky coves. It’s not barren like a lot of the Cyclades. It has tree covered mountains in the interior of the island and so many beaches and places to see. the food is different as you say. It’s still Greece but not the Greece of your imagination.

        1. Thanks for reading & taking the time to comment! I wish I’d been able to see more of Corfu while I was there, I’m sure I would have found more to like (I admit the taxi strike likely influenced my opinion). You’re absolutely right, it’s just a different side of Greece. There were certainly parts of Corfu Town that I thought were beautiful and someday I hope to go back and see more of the island.

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