How To Explore Lake Skadar Montenegro: The Largest Lake In The Balkans
Not necessarily the most prominent place in Europe, Montenegro’s Lake Skadar is a rather spectacular destination. This is the largest lake in the Balkans, surrounded by karst mountains and rocky shores. It holds a top spot on our list of family-friendly places in Montenegro.
Because of its fantastic diversity, Lake Skadar belongs on any southern European travel itinerary, even if you visit in the winter months. This is especially true if you love nature and the great outdoors. Large wetland areas provide essential habitats for birds, while historic towns and local food attract tourists.
Lake Skadar Overview
Lake Skadar formed millions of years ago when it was formerly just a bay off the Adriatic. However, with erosion and changes to the landscape, the former bay transformed into a lake, which receives most of its water from the Moraca River before heading down to the Adriatic.
Lake Skadar is a beautiful spot and the largest of the lakes in the Balkan region. It’s also the largest in Europe overall. It swells during the winter months, thanks to extra rainfall, extending its span to around 530 square kilometers; however, during the summer months, when rain is pretty scarce, it shrinks back down to a still very respectable 370 square kilometers.
Two-thirds of the lake sits in Montenegrin land, and the other third is in Albania. This is a hugely important biodiversity area, especially for birds, as it’s an important resting place during the migration of birds from Europe to Africa.
From a historical point of view, Lake Skadar was part of the Kingdom of Zeta before being conquered in the 13th century by the Ottoman Turks. Upon the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, Montenegro’s borders were confirmed in 1875, with part of the lake within Albanian land.
Under the lake’s surface, you’ll also find the Skanderbeg, a steamboat sunk during World War II, sitting around 11 meters below the water’s surface.
Lake Skadar Geography
Named after the town of Shkoder in northern Albania, Lake Skadar straddles the Montenegro-Albania border, located a quick drive from 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, several underwater karstic springs provide the lake.
The lake’s water levels fluctuate considerably over the year, though its surface area varies between 140 square miles (370 square kilometers) and 200 square miles (530 square kilometers).
The significant fluctuation in Lake Skadar’s surface area creates extensive wetlands in certain parts of its shoreline. These places are critical destinations for migratory birds and nesting grounds for various wetlands 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 boars and the occasional wolf. Needless to say, this is a dream destination for birders and other nature lovers.
Lake Skadar is home to several threatened animal 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 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 a magnificent 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 is basically a national park. There’s no distinction between the lake, region, or the park itself. They’re all 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 and the main towns around the lake, such as Virpazar, which is the main tourist center 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.
If you’re wondering what to see in Lake Skadar, the answer is simple: birds. As an internationally important birdlife 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 a nesting place for no fewer than 250 other bird species, including seagulls and storks, egrets and herons, and eagles and falcons. The lake’s water is home to almost 50 fish species and numerous mollusks species, 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 excellent 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 a spectacle.
Hike In The Surrounding Mountains
Surrounded by barren karst mountains, the lake is also an excellent base for hiking excursions. Several hiking trails meander through the mountains, hills, and valleys, their destinations as varied as waterfalls and swimming holes, historic villages, and honey farms. The views from a mountain top are absolutely magnificent.
Cycle Along Lake Skadar
Kayaking and hiking are more popular, but that doesn’t mean that cycling in Lake Skadar National Park is not fantastic 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.
Lake Skadar Swimming
The relatively warm water of Lake Skadar makes it an excellent 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 best things to do in Lake Skadar, but few people won’t appreciate spending an afternoon relaxing on a beach.
One of the most incredible 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.
Kayak On Lake Skadar
One of the most popular things to do in Lake Skadar is kayaking. Kayaking is arguably the most incredible thing you can do there, exploring the Balkans’ largest lake in perfect peace and soothing silence. Far removed from the tourists onshore, you’ll be able to see wildlife from up close and 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.
Kayaking is one thing you can do on Lake Skadar, but if you prefer a more leisurely affair, a cruise could be just the ticket. This is a very relaxing experience as you’re right in the heart of nature, with birds all around you.
Cruises can take anything from an hour up to eight hours, depending upon the type of cruise you choose. Most cruises also take you to the island prison of Grmozur.
It’s also a good idea to choose a traditional cruise on a shallow-bottomed boat as these are able to get into the shallow parts of the lake, where you’ll see more wildlife.
This is a former prison, and many call it the Montenegrin version of Alcatraz. The prison sits on Snake/Bird Island (known locally as both), and it was built in 1843 by the Ottoman Turks.
The prison was a spot for political prisoners who couldn’t swim, and it’s said that even the guards couldn’t swim! It is said that if one of the prisoners ever escaped, the guard who was on duty at the time was forced to serve the rest of the prisoner’s sentence.
Lesendro is a fortress that has fallen into ruin, but it is still a wonderful place to visit. The fortress was originally built in 1843 to protect against Ottoman Turk invasions, but the island was captured in 1843 and built up even more.
However, the King wanted to recapture the island and attempted to reclaim it several times before finally getting his way in 1878.
Nowadays, the island sits on a peninsula, and there is a bridge that you can drive across. However, a boat trip is best if you want to explore the fortress because you cannot park anywhere on the bridge.
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 fantastic.
There are several monasteries around Lake Skadar, and originally there were 60. However, only a few remain today. Most date to the 15th century, and many are the final resting places for important historical figures. Some of the most notable include Kom Monastery, Beska Monastery, Starcevo Monastery, and Moracnik Monastery.
Visit Charming Lakeside Towns
In addition to outdoor adventures and abundant wildlife, the towns and villages on Lake Skadar’s shores 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.
Sample Local Gastronomy
Set on the centuries-old crossroads of the West and the East and in a rural area, Lake Skadar also has plenty to offer gastronomical travelers.
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, rakija, and 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 has, by far, the largest number of facilities, tour operators, excursion guides, rental companies, and accommodations 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 with a kitchen, air-conditioning, a terrace, a 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 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 are 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, 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 with 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 a sun terrace, an outdoor pool, and even a vineyard.
Eco Villas Merak
Are you looking for a Montenegro farm stay? Check out Eco Villas Merak, where you can stay in stone “cabins” with a bathroom, bedroom, dining area, and kitchen. Shared facilities include a seasonal outdoor pool, free bikes, and a garden.
Directions To Lake Skadar
Podgorica To Lake Skadar
Lake Skadar is one of the best day trips from Podgorica, and the E80 is the most direct route; the M2.3 is the most scenic. You can get to Lake Skadar via the E80 or the M2.3 highway from Podgorica, connecting 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. On the other hand, one of the side roads of the M2.3 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.
Budva To Lake Skadar
You can also reach Lake Skadar from Budva on 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.
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It was like a beautiful paradise, wish I can visit Montenegro also. Thanks for sharing.
Looks to be some incredible hiking to be done around all the lakes and mountains. Been reading your site from time to time and very much enjoying it. TX
Looks like you’ve explored a true hidden beauty of mother nature, we can’t wait to get to this part of the word.