Lake Skadar Montenegro: Exploring The Balkans’ Largest Lake
Not necessarily the most well-known place in Europe, Montenegro’s Lake Skadar is a rather spectacular destination and holds a top spot on our list of family-friendly places in Montenegro. Surrounded by karst mountains and rocky shores, this is the largest lake in the Balkans. Large wetland areas provide an important habitat for birds, while historic towns and local food attract tourists. Because of its amazing diversity, Lake Skadar belongs on any southern Europe travel itinerary. This is especially true if you love nature and the great outdoors.
Lake Skadar Geography
Named after the town of Shkoder in northern Albania, Lake Skadar straddles the Montengro-Albania border, located a quick drive from both Podgorica and Budva on the Adriatic Sea coast. Imaginative people might recognize in its shape the shape of a dolphin—the tail and about two-thirds of the dolphin’s body lie in Montenegro, while the head and nose lie in Albania. The Montenegrin part of Lake Skadar is protected as a national park, known logically as Lake Skadar National Park. The Albanian part is a managed nature reserve.
The Morača River feeds the lake while the Bojana River drains it into the Adriatic Sea. Additionally, there are also several underwater, karstic springs that feed the lake. It may not be the biggest lake in Europe as a whole, but it is, in fact, southern Europe’s largest lake. The lake’s water levels fluctuate rather greatly in the course of the year, though, its surface area varying between 140 square miles (370 square kilometers) and 200 square miles (530 square kilometers).
The significant fluctuation in Lake Skadar’s surface area creates large wetlands in certain parts of its shoreline. These places are critical destinations for migratory birds and nesting grounds for various wetland and water birds.
Land animals are abundant as well. The dry mountains are perfect biotopes for wild tortoises, vibrantly colored lizards and some snakes. Land mammals include wild boar and the occasional wolf. Needless to say, this is a dream destination for birders and other nature lovers.
Home to several threatened animals species, Lake Skadar is entirely protected, as a national park in Montenegro and a nature reserve in Albania. It is part of the Ramsar List of Wetlands of International Importance and has been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status.
Lake Skadar National Park
A protected national park since 1983, Lake Skadar also has the distinction of being included in the Ramsar Convention’s List of Wetlands of International Importance. Lake Skadar National Park is one of the largest national parks in Montenegro, the lake itself is the largest lake in southern Europe.
When you ask Montenegrins what to see in Montenegro, many of them will say Lake Skadar first. This is a region besieged by the Turks for its resources, a favorite holiday destination for the former royal family of Montenegro, and the location of many of the best organic farms and wineries in the country. There is, in other words, plenty of variety, making this is great destination for a wide range of travelers, from avid hikers and nature enthusiasts to foodies and history buffs.
It is only natural that this area became a national park. In fact, Lake Skadar basically is a national park. There’s no distinction between the lake, region or the park itself. They’re all one and the same, a region characterized by centuries-old architecture, glorious landscapes, a bunch of outdoor fun, and fantastic and healthy food.
Lake Skadar National Park encompasses critical natural areas as well as the main towns around the lake such as Virpazar, which is the main tourist center in and gateway to the park.
Things To Do In Lake Skadar, Montenegro
As far as lakes in Europe go, this is among the most vulnerable, important, biodiverse and visit-worthy. Lake Skadar attractions abound in the area, while activities are plentiful as well, mainly focused on the outdoors.
If you’re wondering what to see in Lake Skadar, the answer is simple: birds. As an internationally important bird life refuge, Lake Skadar is a fantastic destination for ornithologists. It is home to the rare Dalmatian pelican and one of the world’s largest colonies of pygmy cormorants.
It is also an nesting place for no fewer than 250 other species of birds, including seagulls and storks, egrets and herons, and eagles and falcons. The lake’s water is home to almost 50 fish species and numerous species of mollusks, which offers an abundant food supply to many of those species.
Although it’s one of Europe’s most important areas for wintering birds, the lake is great for bird watching all year round. In spring you can witness the birds’ mating rituals, while in fall you can see the migration of countless species of birds, which can be quite the spectacle.
Kayaking On Lake Skadar
One of the most popular things to do in Lake Skadar is kayaking. Kayaking is arguably the greatest thing you can do there, exploring the Balkans’ largest lake in perfect peace and soothing silence. Far removed from the tourists on shore, you’ll be able to see wildlife from up close as well as admire the lakeside villages, fortress ruins and islet monasteries from a uniquely different perspective.
You can rent kayaks for a couple of hours, go on week-long Lake Skadar kayaking adventures or pretty much everything in between. Local outfitters offer a variety of (guided) kayaking options.
Hiking In The Surrounding Mountains
Surrounded by barren karst mountains, the lake is also a great base for hiking excursions. The views from a mountain top are absolutely magnificent. Several hiking trails meander through the mountains, hills and valleys, their destinations as varied as waterfalls and swimming holes, historic villages and honey farms.
Cycling Along Lake Skadar
Kayaking and hiking are definitely more popular, but that doesn’t mean that cycling in Lake Skadar National Park is not amazing fun. In fact, by exploring the region on two wheels, you’ll be much faster and be able to cover more ground in a day. More exploration and still powered by your own body, what’s not to like about that?
Various biking trails meander along the lakeshore and across the surrounding countryside. So, rent a bicycle and pedal your way through picturesque fishing villages, farmlands and beautiful natural scenery.
Visiting Charming Lakeside Towns
In addition to outdoor adventures and abundant wildlife, the towns and villages on the shores of Lake Skadar are what attract people to this place. There are many historic, authentic and sleepy villages around the lake. Unspoiled by mass tourism and only reachable by boat or narrow, winding back roads, these villages offer a look into the traditional lifestyle in Montenegro.
The main town at Lake Skadar, the gateway to the national park, is Virpazar. This little town is where many of the local tour companies, hiking guides and other tourist services are based. It’s also the town with the best—if not only—public transportation connections.
Admiring Besac Fortress
On a hill behind Virpazar lies Besac Fortress, a 15th-century stronghold built by the Turks that was recently renovated. The scene of many bloody battles, this fortress also served as a prison during the Italian occupation of Montenegro in World War II. You can get there via an ascending walking path that’s signposted on the road from Virpazar to Murici, just south of the town center.
This is one of the numerous historical monuments and fortifications that make up some of the main Lake Skadar sights. And it’s one of the most accessible, too. Plus, the view of Virpazar and Lake Skadar from the fortress is awesome.
Lake Skadar Swimming
The relatively warm water of Lake Skadar makes it a great place for swimming, too. Although lake access is not available everywhere on the lake, you’ll find plenty of beaches and waterfronts in and around the Lake Skadar villages and towns. Being active, kayaking, hiking and cycling, may be the most most things to do in Lake Skadar, but few people won’t appreciate spending an afternoon relaxing on a beach.
One of the greatest beaches on Lake Skadar is Murice Beach, the only sand beach on Lake Skadar. It’s located in the middle of the lake’s southwestern shore, a short drive southeast from Virpazar.
Another great beach is Pjesacac Beach, situated below the village of Godinje, a small and secluded beach only accessible by boat.
Sampling Local Gastronomy
Set on the centuries-old crossroads of the West and the East and a rural area, Lake Skadar also has plenty to offer to the gastronomical traveler.
Many herbs such as mint, rosemary and sage grow in the surrounding mountains’ valleys, providing a lovely scent, while grapevines cover the sun-drenched hills. Gardens are dotted with walnuts, pepper, mandarin, fig, cherry and pomegranate trees, which, incidentally, also line many of the hiking trails around the lake.
Locally made products include honey, goat cheese, home-cured smoked ham and rakija, the local liquor. The lake’s abundance of fish is reflected on the menus of local restaurants.
This is a superb destination for every food traveler. Essentially all dishes are prepared with organic ingredients, freshly caught fish and local products.
Where To Stay In Lake Skadar National Park
As mentioned earlier, the best place to base yourself when visiting Lake Skadar is Virpazar. It’s the most accessible town on the lake, both in terms of self-drive and public transportation options. It also has by far the largest number of facilities, tour operators, excursion guides, rental companies and accommodation at Lake Skadar. So, for that reason, we’ll only focus on places in and around Virpazar in the selection of Lake Skadar hotels below.
Ethno Lodge AB
Located just over a mile from the lakeshore, Ethno Lodge AB is one of the top-rated places to stay around Lake Skadar. This beautiful property offers accommodation in well-outfitted cabins, which have a kitchen, air-conditioning, a terrace, dining area, flat-screen TV and free WiFi. You can enjoy a continental breakfast in the morning before heading out for some kayaking, hiking, swimming or whatever else you have planned in the area.
Apartment Vida’s House
Boasting an unbeatable location in the very center of Virpazar, a short walk from the Lake Skadar National Park Visitor Center, Apartment Vida’s House has apartment-style accommodations. Free WiFi is available, while all units have a kitchen, flat-screen TV and a balcony and/or terrace with views. Additionally, you can also rent a car or bicycle here, which is a fantastic perk.
Country House Djurisic
If you’re someone who like a ton of amenities in their accommodation, you’ll find those at Country House Djurisic. Its complimentary WiFi, free bicycle rentals, garden, terrace, shared lounge, playground, and barbecue facilities is why this is one of the best places to stay in Lake Skadar National Park. On top of that, you can also indulge in a vegetarian breakfast every morning. The in-house restaurant serves local specialties. Accommodation is available in separate units, which come with a balcony offering lush garden views, a stovetop, oven and toaster, among other things.
Eco Resort Cermeniza
Another place to stay in Virpazar that comes highly recommended is Eco Resort Cermeniza. This resort provides accommodation in air-conditioned stone villas, all of which have free WiFi, a bathroom, kitchenette, flat-screen TV, bedroom and seating area. There’s also a restaurant specializing in local dishes, barbecue facilities, a garden with sun terrace, an outdoor pool and even a vineyard.
Eco Villas Merak
Looking for a Montenegro farm stay? Check out Eco Villas Merak, where you can stay in stone “cabins” that have a bathroom, bedroom, dining area and kitchen. Shared facilities include a seasonal outdoor pool, free bikes and a garden.
Directions To Lake Skadar
From Podgorica, you can get to Lake Skadar via the E80 highway or the M2.3 highway, which connects the city with Budva on the Adriatic coast. The E80 leads straight to Virpazar on the lake’s shore, the main gateway to the national park. One of the side roads of the M2.3, on the other hand, leads to the village of Rijeka Crnojevića and the Pavlova Strana viewpoint. Eventually, after winding its way through the mountains, it also leads to Virpazar. Lake Skadar is one of the best day trips from Podgorica and the E80 is the most direct route, the M2.3 the most scenic.
From Budva, you can also reach Lake Skadar on both the E80 and M2.3 highways. Here too, the E80, with a shortcut on the M2, is the shortest route to Virpazar while the M2.3 offers more interesting mountain scenery.
Additionally, there is also a train connection between Virpazar and Podgorica and the town of Bar on the Adriatic coast.
If you’re planning a southern Europe trip, consider visiting Lake Skadar, too. It’s a remarkably beautiful, varied and underrated destination.
Photo Credits: Pixabay