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Discover authentic experiences, jaw-dropping natural beauty and the wildlife mecca that is Lake Skadar National Park, Europe's largest bird reserve.
Lake Skadar National Park remains off the beaten track for most visitors to Montenegro, but if you do make it there you'll be richly rewarded.
It's one of the most beautiful places in Montenegro and it's also a chance to experience authentic Montenegrin culture that you don't find in the tourist hotspots.
In many ways Lake Skadar is Montenegro:
There are lots of ways you can experience Skadar Lake’s beauty and culture. From the national park’s gateway town of Virpazar you can take relaxing boat cruises to see the wildlife and islands, you can jump in a kayak and explore on your own, you can hike, you can visit wineries, explore ruined fortresses and you can just lie on a freshwater beach and soak up the sunshine.
It’s a short drive from Montenegro’s capital, Podgorica, or Budva to Lake Skadar and it’s an easily doable day trip from anywhere on the coast. It’s also a great overnight stop, especially if you’re looking for a relaxing alternative to the bustle of Podgorica.
Come, let’s explore Lake Skadar and find out if you should visit during your stay in Montenegro.
Millions of years ago Lake Skadar was a bay of the Adriatic Sea. Over time, the bay was cut off from the sea and it became a lake that’s mostly fed by the Morača River and drains into the Adriatic Sea via the Bojana River.
Now, Skadar Lake is the largest lake in the Balkans and it’s one of the largest in all of Europe. In winter, rains make it swell up to 530 square kilometres, while in summer it shrinks to around 370 square kilometres. A dry winter means parts of the lake get very shallow, while lots of rain can mean severe floods like the one in 2010 that allowed Nikica, an 11-year old pet hippopotamus (yes, you read that right), to swim out of her enclosure and go on a tour of the lake. Local farmer, Nikola Radović told a local newspaper “When I went to feed my cow, I saw a hippo standing in front of the stall. I thought I was losing my mind.”
Skadar Lake straddles Montenegro and Albania and about two-thirds lie in Montenegro, the other third is Albanian. The Montenegrin side has been a national park since 1983 and the Albanian side is a nature reserve, essentially making the whole lake one huge protected area.
The reason for this protection is that Lake Skadar is a key resting place for birds migrating from northern Europe to Africa. It’s the largest bird reserve in Europe, it’s on the Ramsar Convention’s List of Wetlands of International Importance and it’s been nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status. One of the reasons it’s so important because it’s the last breeding ground of the endangered Dalmatian Pelican and Pygmy Cormorant.
Lake Skadar is also culturally significant to Montenegro. Lake Skadar has been settled by people for centuries. It was part of the Slav kingdom of Zeta until it was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in the 13th Century.
The Montenegrins held onto Žabljak Crnojevića however and kept attacking the Turks from there until they were forced to move back to Cetinje in 1482. They never gave up though, and there were skirmishes all around the lake until the Turks were finally defeated.
Once the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Congress of Berlin confirmed Montenegrin borders in 1875. Skadar (Shkoder), which was originally the capital of Zeta, became part today’s Albania. Although Cetinje remained the royal capital of Montenegro, the lake was still a key area and King Nikola’s summer court was set up in Rijeka Crnojevica.
During WWII Virpazar was the scene of the first Partisan uprising in Montenegro. They sank the steamboat Skanderbeg in 1942 and it still lies 11m below the surface near the mouth of Rijeka Crnojevića.
Lake Skadar is the perfect place to enjoy a day trip or few days in nature in Montenegro. There are so many things to do here and it's so close to the capital and coast that you can even make it a relaxing base for your whole stay in Montenegro.
The best thing to do in Lake Skadar National Park is to get out on the lake. A cruise is the most effortless way to do it and there's just something so relaxing about puttering through canals lined with water lilies watching the dragonflies and birds.
You can take a cruise taking anywhere from one to eight hours, but in my opinion you need at least three hours to see the best of the lake. An hour’s ride takes you to see either the former island prison, Grmožur, or the former island fortress, Lesendro. Longer cruises take you to island monasteries, to see pelicans, to lunch in lakeside villages and as far as Rijeka Crnojevića, where you can cruise the horseshoe bend at Pavlova Strana, one of the most famous sights of Lake Skadar.
Another great way to get out on the lake is by kayak. In a kayak you can drift long the shallow lilypad-lined waterways, bird watch and get up close to the wildlife. You can also stop wherever you like to swim and relax on freshwater beaches.
The area around Lake Skadar is some of the most fertile in Montenegro and it’s a key wine producing region. In fact, the largest single-area vineyard (belonging to Plantaže wineries) in Europe is in nearby Podgorica.
There are lots of family-owned, boutique wineries around the lake and you can book a wine tasting for surprisingly little. As well as wines you can try rakija (grape brandy) which is a staple in the Balkans. There are also other flavoured liquors like plum and cherry, which is my favourite.
You can also try some traditional cuisine with your wine tasting, I always recommend having some food with wine tastings here – that brandy is potent! Plus, most of the produce you’ll try is organic, locally grown and absolutely delicious. The food you try depends on what’s in season, but it’ll usually include things like prosciutto, cheeses, nuts, olives, carp from the lake, seasonal salads, pies and homemade breads.
There are five bike trails around the lake that are suitable for all abilities. You can hire bikes and maps in Virpazar and ride through some stunning scenery around the lake. This is a great way to explore the lake at your own pace. Stop wherever you like and take a closer look at old fortresses and lake villages.
There are nine hiking trails around Skadar Lake. The availability of the hiking trails depends on the lake level. All the trails are generally fine in summer, but can be unpassable in winter. It’s best to check with the visitors centre which are best when you arrive. The top recommended trails are:
This trail follows the old caravan road over stone bridges and past the water mills in Poseljani village to the town of Rijeka Crnojevića, the former royal summer residence.
Distance: 6.4km (4mi)
This trail starts in Zabes, which is a typical village in the Crmnica region, passes a lookout point at Brčelice and ends in Godinje, which is known for the unique network of tunnels between houses which allowed residents to avoid occupying forces.
Distance: 4.5km (2.8mi)
Pavlova Strana is Lake Skadar’s most famous viewpoint. It actually a bend in the Crnojević River (Rijeka Crnojevića) and not part of Skadar Lake, but it is part of Skadar Lake National Park.
To get to Pavlova Strana you’ll need to head towards the small town of Rijeka Crnojevića and you’ll find it on the road between the town and Podgorica.
Address: Pavlova Strana Viewpoint, Montenegro
Lake Skadar has relaxed freshwater beaches on the shore of the lake and yes, you can swim in the lake! In summer the temperature of the lake hovers at around 26°C (79°F), about the same as the Adriatic Sea, making it a pleasant place to swim.
Pješačac Beach is only 7km (4mi) from Virpazar and Murići Beach is 22km (14mi) from Virpazar.
If you take the left fork in the road when you cross the bridge into Virpazar, you’ll head to Pješačac and Murići. Both beaches have loungers you can hire and restaurants.
Murići it’s surrounded by olive groves and overlooks Beška Island which is home to two 14th C Orthodox churches.
There’s no public transport to the beaches so your options for getting there are boat, kayak, bike or rental car.
The Ottoman Empire’s Besac Fortress dominates the hill directly above Virpazar. It was built in 1487 and used throughout the empire’s rule. Like many old fortresses in Montenegro, it was most recently used as a prison during WWII. It had fallen into ruin but has been restored and is open to visitors for a small fee.
It's a short walk or drive up to the fortress and you'll be rewarded with panoramic views of the area.
Address: Virpazar, Montenegro
Hours: 10am to 6pm daily
Price: €1 per person
Grmožur is known locally as ‘Montenegrin Alcatraz’ (but so is Mamula Island at the entrance of the Bay of Kotor). It’s also known as Snake Island. The island has the ruins of a fortress on it that was built by the Ottoman Turks in 1843.
It was turned into a prison for non-swimming political prisoners once the Montenegrins liberated the area in 1878. Interestingly, guards on the island also couldn’t swim and if a prisoner ever escaped the guard on duty had to serve out the rest of the escaped prisoner’s sentence.
It was damaged in an earthquake in 1905 and has fallen into ruin ever since. These days it’s also known as ‘Bird Island’ and it’s a good spot to see some of the lake’s resident birds. It makes for a great scenic backdrop for pictures. You can see Grmožur Island on a boat cruise.
As you pass over the bridge from Vranjina to Virpazar, you can’t miss Lesendro, a fortress ruin on the lake. The fortress was built in 1843 to ward off the invading Ottoman Turks on what was originally an island. The island was captured by the Turks in 1843 and further fortified. King Nikola Petrović-Njegoš wanted it back so badly that now there’s a saying in Montenegro: ‘to long for something, like the bishop longs for Lesendro.’ He tried to take it back several times and finally succeed in 1878.
The island became a peninsula when the bridge was built for the railway that links Belgrade (Serbia) and Bar on the coast. Now you drive across this same causeway when you drive this route from the coast to Podgorica.
It’s difficult to explore the ruins of the fortress because there’s nowhere to pull over on the bridge. There’s also no safe walking path along the side of the road and railway tracks. If you want to explore it, the best way is to go by boat.
Before Cetinje became the capital of Montenegro, Skadar Lake was the traditional capital for rulers of Montenegro. Žabljak Crnojevića was once the capital of Zeta, which was ruled by Ivan Crnojević until he was conquered by the Ottomans in 1478.
All that’s left now are the ruins of the 15th century castle that stood on top of the hill. There’s nothing much here now, but if you like exploring old ruins it’s worth a visit and you’ll get great views.
Tours to Žabljak Crnojevića:
There used to be around 60 monasteries, fortresses and churches around Lake Skadar. The area has always been the heart of the Montenegrin state so there are lots of centuries-old sites to explore. The Montenegrin capital was usually here or close by when invading armies pushed them back.
Kom Monastery – 15th C. You can visit Kom monastery on a 3 hour boat tour, which is my favourite tour. The monastery was built on Andrijska Gora island between 1415 and 1427. Inside you’ll see 15th and 16th century frescoes. In the centre of the church lie four gravestones of the rulers of the Crnojević Dynasty.
The monastery is a lovely place with stunning views over the lake. The only thing that interrupts the silence is birdsong and the sounds of the farmyard animals that call the island home.
Beška Monastery – 15th C. There are two churches at Beška Monastery on Beška Island. The larger church, St George, was founded towards the end of the 15th century. The smaller one, the Church of the Holy Mother of God, was built in 1439 by Jelena Balšić and she’s also buried on the island.
Starčevo Monastery – 1377. Starčevo is the oldest church of the Balšić churches. Its Church of the Dormition of the Holy Mother of God and monastery lie in Starčeva Gorica.
Moračnik Monastery – 15th C. This monastery was built by Balsa III and the church is the Holy Mother of God.
Prečista Krajinska – 11th C. The remains of this monastery lie near the settlement of Ostros in Krajina. The monastery was built by Duke Jovan Vladimir of Zeta but was destroyed by the invading Ottoman Turks.
Vranjina, a Monastery for Princesses
‘What should I do with all these daughters?’ King Nikola, the last Montenegrin sovereign, wondered. There were eight princesses (another had died at three months old) and three princes in the Petrović household. A foreign diplomat once asked the king ‘What can you export from this completely poor country?’ to which the king replied ‘You underestimate my daughters.’
All but two of his surviving daughters were married and became valuable diplomatic assets. Zorka married the Serbian crown prince, Milica and Stana married Romanov dukes, Ana married into the German court and Jelena became the Queen of Italy. Ksenja and Vjera were banished with their parents to France, where they stayed and never married. Marica died at 16.
But just in case his daughters weren’t married, in 1882 he started repairing Vranjina Monastery so that the princesses could live as nuns. The work was all done in secret and his daughters, and even his wife, Queen Milena, never knew about it.
The Wine and Bleak Festival is held every year in Virpazar. During the festival people gather from all over Montenegro to try dried and fresh grilled bleak (a lake fish) and wines from local producers. As well as the wine and fish you can try local olives, olive oil, honey and cheeses.
The Crmnički region here produces excellent award-winning wines and this is a great chance to try and buy some. Montenegrins love a party and live music tops off the lively festival atmosphere.
You can find out the latest about the festival
on their Facebook page.
The best place to explore Lake Skadar from is Virpazar, a quaint town on the shore of the lake. This is where you’ll find boat, kayak and bike rentals, wineries, cute konobas (traditional restaurants), a supermarket, atm and accommodation.
The best way to get to Virpazar is by hiring a car. There’s no bus station in Virpazar, but the Bar-Podgorica bus stops there. There’s also a train station 800m from town. The Belgrade-Bar train stops here twice a day. Parking in the town is free but limited. If you can’t find space head back out to the main road, there’s a large parking lot across the road and a pedestrian underpass that takes you into town.
There’s a good chance you’ll be aggressively pitched for boat tours as you drive into town. I only recommend the Dabanović family, which is who we trust and always go with. You can book a tour with them on this page and kayak rental with them on this page.
You can also get to the lake from Rijeka Crnojevića and you’ll find boats and kayaks for hire as well as restaurants here. It’s important to know that Rijeka Crnojevića is part of Lake Skadar National Park, but not actually on Lake Skadar. To get there you have to travel along the Crnojević River until you get to the lake. So if you want to see pelicans, monasteries or the lake itself, it’s best to go to Virpazar.
Lake Skadar is the ideal place to stay if you’re looking for a quiet, natural destination that’s still relatively lively. There are lots of accommodation options, but nothing fancy. Most are comfortable and homely, fitting with the rustic feel of the area.
I recommend staying in or close to Virpazar if you want to be close to restaurants and amenities. In Virpazar you’ll find a range of accommodation options, restaurants, an ATM and a supermarket.
Vida's House is a beautiful, new apartment in the centre of Virpazar. The apartment overlooks the lake shore and it's the perfect place to enjoy a glass of the region's excellent wine and absorb the lake's peaceful atmosphere.
Eco Resort Cermeniza is a small cluster of stone cottages, set around an infinity pool. The cottages are brand new and beautifully done. The accommodation is part of a local winery, so there's no shortage of excellent food and wine!
Hotel Vir is in the centre of Virpazar. It's an old government-owned hotel so expect a vintage Yugoslav experience. Personally, I've experienced this elsewhere in the Balkans and like it. The location is great for exploring the town.
Silistrija is a great place to eat in Virpazar. Since you’re by a lake, why not dine on a boat? The restaurant is in fact a boat on the lake. The food is excellent and well-priced. As well as the local lake speciality carp, they serve classic Montenegrin dishes like ćevapi (Balkan sausages), veal soup, fish soup, chicken and trout. You can get a two course set menu for just €10 per person.
Other good restaurants to try are Badanj,
Kormoran and Crmnicki Vinotok.
The huge variety of bird species is Lake Skadar’s star attraction and even from the shore you’ll see a myriad of wildlife, like ducks, swallows feeding their noisy nests, herons, frogs, water snakes and turtles.
The birds are one of Skadar Lake’s main attractions and over 280 bird species live in the national park. In spring the lake is teeming with life and you’ll often see ducks carrying little ducklings on their backs. In autumn and winter there are thousands of migratory birds on the lake.
The most common birds are grebes, terns, gulls, ducks, moorhens, small and great cormorants and grey, white and yellow herons, falcons, eagles, egrets, ibises and storks. Then there’s the lake’s biggest drawcard, the pelicans. These huge birds with a 3m wingspan, are breath taking every time you see them.
Lake Skadar is the last remaining breeding ground for the Dalmatian Pelican in Europe. The pelicans’ population was severely threatened with floods wiping out their nests every year. In 2013 a series of rafts was installed and since then the pelicans have taken to building their nests on the rafts. The rafts float on the flood waters and happily, recent breeding seasons have been the most successful in recorded history.
The best way to see the birds is to book a boat cruise. The guides know the best places for bird watching, depending on the season, water level and which birds are most abundant on the lake.
The lake is also home to 48 fish species, 24 of which are native and 7 endemic. You’ll see shallow-bottomed boats with fishermen fishing for the large carp, bleak and eel that are a specialty in restaurants and homes around the lake. There are about 30 crypto-depressions, areas where the bottom of the lake is below sea level, which are important fishing grounds and the deepest of these, Raduš, is 60m deep and you can see the old fishing village on a boat cruise on the lake.
Aside from the birds and fish, the lake and its surroundings are home to many other species of freshwater snail, frogs, tortoises, lizards, snakes, otters, weasels, foxes, moles, wild boar and the occasional wolf and hippo… I kid, Nikica has crossed the rainbow bridge to the big river in the sky, so there are no more hippos on Skadar Lake.
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