Ksamil Beach: A Beautiful Gem on the Albanian Coast

day trips from Saranda Albania Ksamil

Albania is a hidden gem that’s only now starting to get its rightful moment in the sun. Just north of Greece, Albania has a beautiful coast line with delightful pebbly beaches and some of the bluest waters you’ll see anywhere in Europe.

In fact, while the Albanian coastline is the same as Croatia’s and much of Greece’s, you’ll probably spend half or even a third of the price in Albania.

Albania’s coastline is home to some of the most stunning beaches in Europe, and one favorite with tourists is Ksamil Beach, near Saranda and Corfu.

Ksamil Beach - umbrellas beach and water
A beautiful day at Ksamil Beach

Why Visit Ksamil Beach?

Ksamil Beach has most conveniently located beach in all of Albania, in my opinion, and it’s also incredibly beautiful. For one, Ksamil is very close to Saranda, which is the entryway to Albania to anyone coming from Greece. For another, Ksamil Beach is within a short drive of two different UNESCO heritage sites: Butrint and Gjirokastra. With all those different cities and UNESCO sites in close driving distance, there’s so much to be seen in this beautiful part of Albania.

However, I’ll be honest. Ksamil Beach is beautiful, but in my personal opinion, it isn’t the most beautiful beach in Albania. It can be a bit crowded with families, especially during the summer. So finding a little patch of beach on Ksamil to enjoy is kind of difficult. You’re better off swimming or taking a boat to one of the other islands rather than the part of Ksamil Beach that is part of the mainland.

For me, the honor of most beautiful beach goes to Gjipe Beach further up in the Albanian Riviera. However, Ksamil Beach is still incredibly lovely and definitely worth a visit — it’s just not my favorite beach in Albania.

Ksamil Beach also has some great restaurants serving super fresh seafood with Albanian and Italian touches. Whereas many of the beaches in Albania aren’t that developed, Ksamil has a pretty wide variety of restaurants and cafés to choose from on the beach. Plus, it offers chairs and umbrellas – not every beach in Albania does!

How to Get to Ksamil Beach

Even though transportation in Albania leaves something to be desired, Ksamil Beach is relatively well connected by public transportation. I personally took the bus and found it really easy to get around, even on my first day in Albania before I knew how everything worked.

Getting to Ksamil from Saranda

To get to Ksamil Beach, you’ll always want to start in the port city of Saranda. From there, it’s a simple 10-minute taxi (about $5 USD) or 30-minute bus ride (about 70 cents).

There are many bus stops scattered around the city. I recommend going to the first one, the one near the giant oak tree in the roundabout by the ferry (welcome to Albanian-style directions) so you can snag a seat. Trust me — they will pack those Albanian buses in a way that puts the Japanese metro to shame. In case you want more Google-able directions, it’s at the intersection of Rruga Mitat Hoxha and Rruga Jonianet. (Note: This was true as of the summer of 2016; however, directions in Albania frequently change so you probably want to ask your guesthouse to double check)

A bus ride will cost you 100 lek (less than $1 USD) and takes about 30 minutes to get to Ksamil Beach. Buses typically run every 1-2 hours, though, so be sure to ask someone as your guesthouse when it will arrive or you’ll be waiting a long time.

You can also take a taxi, which will cost you approximately $5-10 each way, depending on your luck and bargaining skills. This is a good option if you have a few people with you or if you don’t mind spending a little more money for less stress.

If you’re not already in Saranda, I’ll list a few of the most popular ways to get there below.

Getting to Saranda (Ksamil) from Corfu

If you’re in Greece and want to make your way to Albania, it couldn’t be easier to get there from Corfu. Simply go to the main port in Corfu Town and take the ferry. The ride takes about 1-1.5 hours, and it will cost you about $25-30 USD during peak season.

Crossing the border in Saranda is very easy and only takes a few minutes if you are one of the first people off the ferry. The border agents speak good English and you should have no problems getting into Albania given that you are eligible for a visa on arrival (for those nationalities who need a visa, check here). But if you have a Schengen visa for Greece, you will automatically be granted entry into Albania, so visiting couldn’t be easier.

A sunset on Corfu, near Ksamil Beach
A sunset on Corfu

Getting to Saranda (Ksamil) from Tirana or elsewhere in Albania

Saranda is about 6-8 hours away by bus or furgon (minibus) from Tirana, the only international airport in Albania. Buses leave a few times a day from various points within the city. I wish I could be more specific than that, but bus times change often and rapidly in Albania.

It’s also quite easy to get to Saranda from any point on the Albanian Riviera (Durres, Vlora, Dhermi, or Himara) if you are heading to Ksamil Beach from any point further north. Himara is about 2 hours away from Saranda; Dhermi, 2.5; Vlora, 3.5 or 4; Durres, 5.  These are all rough estimates and will vary based on traffic and other factors.

How to Budget for Ksamil Beach

Ksamil Beach is slightly more expensive than other places in Albania; that said, it is still quite a bargain compared to other countries. Tourism in Albania is still in its early stages, and while Ksamil is more developed than most places, you’ll still enjoy lower prices.

For an average hotel room, expect to pay around $20-30 USD per night. A villa fitting about 4 people will cost more like $80 USD per night.

Food in Ksamil is also relatively cheap. A pasta will cost you between $3-5 USD, whereas a seafood plate will cost you around $5-10 USD depending on what you get. There are also various “fast food” options like gyros which will cost you much less, usually around one dollar. Alcohol in Ksamil is also quite cheap, costing around $1-2 per beverage, and even less if you’re brave enough to try rakia – the Albanian national spirit consisting of distilled grapes.

mussel and arugula pasta
A delicious mussel and arugula pasta that cost less than $3 in Ksamil Beach

You may want to stay in Saranda where there are more hotel and restaurant options and transit to Ksamil during the day – it’s really up to you and what kind of holiday you prefer. I personally chose to stay in Saranda and do day trips from there.

Altogether, for two people splitting a room, your cost will be about $50 a day to live and eat lavishly — or $25 around per person. Not bad for a beach holiday!

What to Do in Ksamil

Ksamil is composed of a handful of islands and a few beaches on the mainland. The beaches connected to the mainland can be quite crowded during the peak summer season.

If you’d prefer a more secluded beach, you can either take a boat to one of the smaller islands or, if you’re a strong swimmer, it is possible to swim over. The distance isn’t that far. However, I’d recommend that you carry all your belongings in a dry bag as there is no access to lockers in Ksamil Beach, as far as I’m aware.

There isn’t much to do in Ksamil except swim and sunbathe. However, there are tons of day trips you can take easily and cheaply, such as visiting the Blue Eye (Syri I Kalter), the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Butrint, and the ancient “stone city” of Gjirokastra, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, if you want to go a little further afield.

day trips from Saranda Albania

unesco site - butrint roman ruins
The ruins of Butrint are very close to Ksamil Beach!

Butrint is definitely my top recommendation for a day trip from Ksamil Beach. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site that rightfully deserves the honor. It’s been ruled by Romans, Venetians, Byzantines, and Ottomans, all of whom have left their mark on Butrint. For being over 2,000 years old, it’s in great shape.

You can see a theatre, a baptistery with one of the world’s best-preserved mosaics, a basilica, and even ruins of an ancient suburb. The best part is that almost no one was there, even in the peak season (late August). I maybe saw 15 to 25 other tourists in the entire two hours I spent wandering the park. It’s also surrounded by a beautiful freshwater lake with crystal blue waters. Nature and history all in one… On a scale of one to life in prison, how illegal do you think it is to squat in a UNESCO site?

blue lake in butrint albania
Lake Butrint has some of the most stunning water – almost as blue as Ksamil

Where to Stay in Ksamil

You can stay in one of the many hotels or handful of hostels in Saranda, or there are a few options in Ksamil Beach too if you want.

If you’re traveling solo, I recommend staying in Saranda. Stay at SR Backpackers, which is run by the wonderful Tomi – he will give you a crash course in the legend that is Albanian hospitality.

Upon hearing that the first few words out of my mouth were about Albanian food, he correctly ascertained that I was a little bit obsessed with food. That led to a promise from him to cook dinner for me the following night, and he treated me to delicious home-cooked pasta with a squid and tomato sauce. The night after that, he threw a beachside barbecue for the entire hostel, stuffing us full of pilaf, pork souvlaki, and shepherd salad, and only asking for the equivalent of a buck or two in return.

I Failed at Climbing Mount Fuji: Altitude Sickness & Calling it Quits

clouds at mount fuji

There are so many things our body does for us each day that we take for granted: breathing in and out without thinking, heart beating along unnoticed, words coming out of our mouths with barely a thought. You only start to notice when things begin to break down. Unfortunately for me, this happened about 10,000 feet into climbing Mount Fuji.

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How to See the Northern Lights in Abisko on a Tight Budget

northern-lights-budget

I’ve always traveled on a tight budget, and Sweden is rightfully notorious for being an expensive travel destination.

Even a dorm bed will easily cost 250 SEK, or $30 USD, per night. But even a girl on a budget’s gotta dream, and I was dreaming big: I wanted to see the Northern lights in Abisko, Sweden.

In true type-A fashion, I laboriously researched the best place to see the Northern lights in Sweden, and Abisko kept coming up as the best place.

Statistically speaking, scientists agreed that the Abisko Northern lights are among the most reliable in the world. Supposedly, there’s an 80% success rate of seeing the lights if you stay in Abisko for three nights.

Many people who had previously been to Iceland or other Nordic countries had failed to see the Northern lights; Abisko National Park seemed to have the highest success rate.

Personally, when I compare my times chasing the Northern lights in Abisko and Tromso, I found I saw way better lights in Abisko way easier, for a fraction of the cost of Tromso (though I did love Tromso in winter for many other reasons).

How to Save Money in Stockholm

With only six full days in Sweden, I decided that I wanted to spend three in the capital enjoying Stockholm in winter and three in Abisko, Northern lights spotting. It’s extremely rare to see the Northern lights in Stockholm, so I recommend heading up north to the Kiruna and Abisko area if you have your heart set on seeing the Northern lights in Sweden.

Stockholm is not a super budget-friendly place, and I visited Stockholm when I was working on saving up money to quit my job. So to save money in Stockholm, my two friends and I split an Airbnb three ways.

Since it was so expensive for a simple dorm bed in a hostel in Stockholm, an Airbnb made more sense.

If you do want to stay in a hostel, though, I’ve created a comprehensive guide to the most affordable and comfortable hostels in Stockholm by neighborhood, which you can read here.

In a private Airbnb, we each paid $30 a night to stay in the lovely neighborhood of Hornstull on the island of Södermalm – the same cost as a hostel but with a lot more privacy.

To keep costs down, we mostly bought groceries, ate out for lunch rather than dinner when we could take advantage of deals, and walked everywhere (I mean everywhere — we didn’t even take any public transit except for the bus to the airport!)

Stockholm is beautiful in winter, and it's a great starting spot to see the Northern lights on a budget
A beautiful place, but you can rarely see the Northern lights in Stockholm

Budget Breakdown: Cost of Seeing the Northern Lights in Sweden

Flight from Stockholm to Kiruna: $61.65 on SAS
Flight from Kiruna to Stockholm: $59.19 on Norwegian Airlines
My share of food and a six-pack of beer from Coop Grocery Store: $24
My share of a double room at Abisko Hostel: $35 per person (dorms available for around $30)*
Taxi to Kiruna train station from airport: $20 per person (split two ways)
Buffet lunch at Spis in Kiruna: $10
Train from Kiruna to Abisko: $11
Return shuttle bus direct to airport: $45

Total for 3 days in Abisko for Northern lights spotting: $315.84 USD plus additional $140 for dog-sledding (optional)

* Note: I paid to stay at Abisko Hostel & Huskies – however, at the last minute they had an issue with their property and re-booked me into STF Abisko Turiststation instead at the same price.

So I can’t give any personal insight into Abisko Hostel’s property, but I did love my dog-sledding trip that I did with them and just generally the staff was really fantastic at accommodating us given the mix-up with their property, giving us rides between STF Abisko Turiststation & the Abisko Hostel as needed and just generally being awesome.

STF was excellent as well, and so I highly recommend either option for Abisko. I’d say that Abisko Hostel is better for solo travelers or extreme budget travelers, whereas STF is better for families, couples, and groups of friends.

Why not try spotting the Northern lights in Abisko?
A view of Abisko’s famous Northern lights

Getting to Abisko from Stockholm

Contrary to what you might think, flying is actually usually the best way to start a cheap Northern lights holiday.

The train from Stockholm to Kiruna is closer to $100 USD each way and takes 17 hours, and time was a luxury we did not have, and most people on short weekend breaks will not either.

However, since the overnight train will save you on paying for one night’s accommodation, if you prefer to travel by train it may be worth it. It’s up to you.

Kiruna is worth a few days exploring, as it’s a super cute and unique town if you have the time. But I was on a strict schedule, so I headed straight to Abisko immediately after having lunch in town and a wander through the shops.

From Kiruna, you have a few choices to get to Abisko, where you can view the Northern lights a lot easier: either an obscenely expensive taxi (I believe it would have been about $200 USD), taking the bus/taxi to Kiruna and then taking the train to Abisko (about $11), or a direct shuttle bus.

There is also a once-daily public bus (line 91) that goes directly from the airport to Abisko, but it is generally really hard to line up your flight arrival time with the bus departure. It’s worth looking into, but don’t get your hopes up. It didn’t work out for us when we visited in 2016.

Abisko Northern lights spotting is the best!
Be sure to use a tripod and a long exposure to shoot the Northern lights in Abisko

There are certainly ways that you could see Abisko’s Northern lights for cheaper, such as by buying inexpensive groceries and forgoing the beer, hitchhiking, or trying to find Couchsurfing hosts (which are pretty rare that far North, as Kiruna – the nearest “city” – has a population of only 20,000).

However, here I tried to represent the most typical paid costs that most travelers would incur when trying to see the Northern lights on a budget. It’s definitely not cheap, and well over my typical budget…. but for a natural phenomenon this majestic, it’s hard to be mad about it.

Kiruna Church Sweden - the jumping off place to see Abisko Northern lights
A scene from Kiruna, where most Northern lights adventures begin in Sweden

We booked to stay at Abisko Hostel & Huskies; however, due to a last minute problem with the hostel, they had to cancel our reservation and rebooked us for no extra cost at STF Turiststation, a more expensive (but incredibly nice!) hostel.

We loved our stay at STF so much that if your budget allows I’d really recommend staying there, because you truly can’t beat having all of Abisko National Park to yourself.

STF has multiple saunas, snowshoe and cross-country ski rentals, TWO of the nicest hostel kitchens I’ve ever seen, a fireplace and lounge room, and it’s walking distance to frozen waterfalls and the frozen lake in Abisko National Park. If you don’t stay there, it’s a great place to go for lunch – they have a daily buffet for about $10 USD, which is a fantastic deal for pricy Sweden.

Must see Northern lights in Abisko
A green sky in Abisko

The people at Abisko Hostel & Huskies were so lovely, and really helped us out with everything related to our stay… but I can’t speak to how the dorms were as we ended up being unable to stay there. The dogsledding tour we took with them, however, was excellent!

As a traveler who is hesitant to support animal tourism, I was able to see that the staff really value the dogs’ safety and wellbeing. They had an awareness of each dog’s personality and knew how to pair the dogs with other dogs they’d get along with.

Sled dogs aren’t like your average dog – while obviously domesticated, there’s still a touch of the wild in them. There’s a very clear hierarchy amongst sled dogs, and certain dogs need to be at the front of the line or else they get really upset.

I appreciated how the staff knew about this, anticipated it, and kept the dogs happy — they were literally howling with happiness, ready to run before we left.

At approximately $140 USD, a two-hour sled ride with the dogs is certainly an expensive treat, but it was well worth it to me.

I didn’t include the cost of the tour in the budget breakdown as it’s not integral to seeing the Northern Lights in Abisko if you’re on a tight budget.

However, for me, the realization of a childhood dream was worth the added cost.

When not seeing the Northern lights, dogsledding is a fun way to pass the time
#lifegoals, 10/10

What to Pack for a Trip to Abisko’s Northern Lights

Despite being located north of the Arctic Circle, Abisko isn’t always as cold as you might think. Temperatures of -20°C / -4°F are common, and on rare occasions, the weather will reach as low as -40°C / -40°F.

However, when I visited in mid-February, the weather really wasn’t that bad. In fact, Abisko was warmer than the weather in NYC that I had left behind! We usually had temperatures of around -1°C/30°F during the day, and as low as -9°C / 15°F at night.

However, the weather is unpredictable, so you will most certainly want to pack accordingly. Here’s what I recommend you bring (for a more complete list, check out my winter in Sweden packing list)

Waterproof boots. I just brought my waterproof leather Blondo boots that I have legit owned for 10 years (I did get them re-soled once).

If you’re looking for a proper snow boot, Sorel and Keen are the two brands I hear recommended most often. I’m planning on buying a proper pair of snow boots this year now that I live in Bulgaria so I’ll update this with my recommendation once I’ve invested in a proper pair of boots. But what matters most of all is that the boots are waterproof; unfortunately, using a mere waterproofing spray on other shoes isn’t enough.

A knit hat. Honestly, any beanie will do as long as the knit is fairly tight, but a fleece-lined knit hat will give you a bit of extra warmth (and the pompom will look cute on Instagram).

Thermal base layers. I personally can’t tolerate wool as it makes me feel like my skin is on fire, but if you know you can wear wool without issues, merino wool base layers are the standard recommendation for cold weather. However, fleece-lined layers work great for me. I have these 90 Degree by Reflex fleece-lined leggings for my bottom base layer and I wear a UNIQLO 32 Degrees thermal layer for my top base layer. I bought my 32 Degrees thermal top at Costco, by the way, and it was even cheaper than on Amazon. If you can tolerate wool, merino wool leggings from SmartWool are the gold standard.

Wool socks. Despite my previous screed against woolen clothing, I actually can tolerate wool if it’s just on my feet. I bought two pairs of SmartWool socks for this trip and was quite pleased with them! I recommend bringing three pairs though because it’s nice to have socks to rotate out during the day, as they often get wet from snow.

Waterproof snow pants. I didn’t have these, but I was really jealous of my friend who brought her snowboarding pants. These snow pants are well-reviewed but I haven’t personally tried them. I was okay with the combo of thermals and jeans but would have been way drier with some snow pants. Get a size larger than you think so that you can wear jeans and leggings underneath for maximum warmth.

Waterproof gloves. Gore-Tex waterproof gloves the gold standard and got me through many a winter bike rides in NYC. I also have a cheap thin pair of gloves I used during the daytime that could work with my smartphone. I got mine from Target but this pair is similar.

An ultrawarm parka and also a thin ultra-light down jacket. Yes, I’m a total baby when it comes to the cold (it happens when you grow up in California). I live in my North Face parka every winter and consider it an excellent investment. There are cheaper down jackets you can buy for sure; just make it goes down to at least mid-thigh, trust me. I also layer my Uniqlo ultra-light down jacket underneath. You can buy yours at Uniqlo but this jacket is really similar and cheaper on Amazon. They roll up really small so it’s not a pain to bring two jackets. Just wear your heavier one on the plane.

Camera + tripod for capturing the Northern lights: I use and swear by my Sony A6000, which is an excellent and affordable option if you’re looking for professional-quality photos. If you’re going to try to photograph the Northern lights or take lots of sunset and sunrise photos, I recommend bringing a tripod as you’ll need it to stabilize your camera for long-exposures. Tripods can be very expensive but I just used a cheap-o Amazon tripod and it suited my purposes for this trip.

Northern lights in Abisko are stunning
Abisko’s Northern lights are some of the best in the world

Other aurora trips & inspiration:

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Want to see the Northern lights in Sweden but traveling on a budget? Abisko is one of the best places to see the beautiful aurora borealis. Tick this off your bucket list for under $350 USD including flights from Stockholm!

Recommended Companies: Abisko.net for dogsledding
Recommended Accommodations: I stayed at STF Turiststation and can highly recommend it.   Abisko Guesthouse also comes well-recommended, though the reviews aren’t quite as high as STF’s and I can’t personally vouch for it. If you’re on a tight budget, Abisko.net has the only true hostel in town (the rooms at STF are quadruples and have bunk beds, but you need to book the entire room; I’m not sure why) but they fill up very quickly.
Further Reading: Lonely Planet Sweden
Useful tips: Be sure to have travel insurance when traveling to Sweden. You’re a long way away from a hospital when you’re in Abisko, and that would be a very expensive accident to have! I use and recommend World Nomads for their affordable prices and flexible policies.