Inside: The ferry from Corfu is one of the most popular ways to visit Saranda, Albania and the beaches of the Albanian Riviera. Here’s how to get two great destinations for the price of one!
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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’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.
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
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! 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
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!