30 September 2018.
Colour-washed streets, a thriving cafe scene and a deep affinity for bicycling.
Surprisingly laidback Shkoder strikes an entirely different cord than Tirana.
Wedged between the mysterious Accursed Mountains and the glittering expanse of Lake Skadar, many visitors use Shkoder (also called Shkodra) merely as a gateway for the Albanian Alps or as a convenient stopover on their way to Montenegro, but this oddly refreshing town is certainly worth a visit in its own right.
Planning your stay? These are the best thing to do in Shkoder!
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Located just a few kilometres from Shkoder, the tiny lakeside villages of Shiroka and Zogaj, and the road that meanders between them, acts as a beautifully nostalgic snapshot of rural Albanian life.
Deliciously plump figs swing overhead, barefooted children run carefree through the streets and well-travelled Lada’s collect dust in the shadows.
I imagine this is what much of the Balkans was like some 20 odd years ago.
The 12km stretch of road that hugs the lake leading out of Shkoder takes you within a stone’s throw of Montenegro’s border.
The first section to Shiroka has a dedicated cycle path that sees plenty of visitors out for a scenic stroll, and with a lively cluster of cafes is as far as many will go. But push on to find the prettiest stretch of the ride where soon enough you’ll be whizzing down the open road past ripening pomegranate bulbs, clumps of wildflowers, secluded beaches and mountain panoramas that rise dramatically from the water’s edge.
It takes around 1.5 hours to reach Zogaj with several photo stops along the way.
The village itself is tiny without much of note, but you’ll find Restaurant Balani right at the end of the road which has a beautiful balcony overlooking the lake and a small pebbled beach below – an excellent place for a refreshing drink, lunch break or afternoon swim.
Considering traffic is a little crazy in Shkoder, it’s rather surprising that cycling has risen to become a key part of the city’s identity. It’s a pastime enjoyed particularly by the town’s more senior folk at an almost comically slow pace.
Along the main road between downtown Shkoder and the bridge, you’ll find a dedicated cycle path – though many cars also use this as parking space – and it’s not unusual for bicycles to travel in both directions in this lane or even travel around a roundabout in the wrong direction simply to stick within the cycle path. Normally aggressive motorists are generally respectful of cyclists and will give way if you make eye contact and clearly show your intentions – they are used to locals cycling at a snail’s pace after all.
Many hostels and guesthouses in town rent out bicycles for around €5 per day.
Sandstone streets lined by pastel facades, big wooden shutters hanging lopsided in their frames, leathery-faced men peddling unhurriedly on their rickety bikes and sun-drenched cafes sprawling across pedestrianised boulevards.
After the frenetic streets and incessant noise of Tirana, stepping foot in Shkoder’s bizarrely laidback old town is something of a time warp.
It’s the kind of thing you’d expect in a trendy city in Western Europe rather than from a brutal former Soviet regime, but despite its past, Shkoder’s city centre retains a distinct charm about it.
Aside from the city’s many houses of worship – a mosque and two churches are unmissable markers in the city skyline – there aren’t any specific attractions in town, but between the old town streets, it’s easy to slip away and experience a very different side to the city.
Don’t just stick to the main boulevard though. Wander off into back streets and you’ll quickly find tumbledown homes draped in bougainvillaea and old ladies gossiping in doorways.
As the shadows grow long, the fading sun melts into a distant horizon and the countryside glows in vivid shades of warmth, there’s only one place you’ll want to be – on the crumbling walls of Rozafa Castle.
With a commanding presence overlooking the city, this historic fortress is a perfect place to take in the golden hues of Lake Skadar, the ominous peaks of the Albanian Alps and to seek a brief moment of solitude away from the unrelenting Albanian traffic.
Arrive around an hour or two before sunset to allow yourself enough time to explore the site and to find the best spot to watch the valley become awash with golden light.
Get There | Rozafa Castle sits around 3km from the city centre up a steep cobbled street and can be reached either by a somewhat unreliable bus from the city centre to the turn-off, or by taxi or bike.
Price | Entry costs 200 lek (€1.50) and guards are often kind enough to let you return multiple times on the same ticket.
For a relatively small town, Shkoder sure knows what’s up when it comes to food.
Aside from the traditional Albanian fare, you’ll find a number of excellent pizza joints, delicious pastry shops, fresh seafood and a dessert house that will have you drooling over every bite. These were some of my favourites.
Shega e Eger | After weeks of ordering soft drinks in lieu of any other non-alcoholic options, this small, funky cafe provided a much-needed shakeup. Smoothies, fresh juices and simple veggie snacks make this an excellent stop in Shkoder to replenish those vitamins and escape the summer heat. It’s just off the main pedestrian street and juices start from just 200 lek (€1.50). Drinks are normally served with straws so be sure to ask for yours without.
Il Piacere | On my last morning in Shkoder I stopped by this lovely dessert house for a well-deserved post-hike treat. One bite of the delectably warm and gooey chocolate souffle and I was kicking myself for waiting until the very end of my visit. A short walk from the city centre, Il Pacere has a wide selection of desserts and sweet treats sure to satisfy even the fussiest sweet tooth.
Rozafa Seafood | Don’t be fooled by the kitschy exterior, Rozafa undoubtedly serves up the best seafood in town and is popular with tourists and locals alike. From their extensive menu, all seafood is prepared fresh to order and complemented with local wines.
Peja Grill | This popular, good value restaurant was recommended by my hostel and while it did seem to be a little hit and miss, they definitely do some things exceptionally well, namely their grill items which were always fresh and delicious.
My biggest regret from my time in Albania was leaving the mountains quite so soon.
Rising dramatically from the lake’s shoreline and visible from almost anywhere around Shkodra, if you’re a nature lover it’s virtually impossible to set foot here and not be tempted to venture out to the jagged ridgelines of the Albanian Alps.
If you’re short on time, even a one night visit is enough to help you get back to nature and recharge with plenty of day hike options available.
For those with more time set aside for adventure, the popular Theth to Valbona hike is an excellent choice, as is exploring the wilderness around Komani Lake. For the more intrepid, the 8-day Peaks of The Balkan route is sure to be an unforgettable experience.
Shkodra Backpackers | While Shkodra’s hostel scene has been growing of late alongside the city’s popularity, Shkodra Backpackers (also known as Mi Casa Es Tu Casa) continues to remain a firm favourite. With plenty of outdoor areas, a delicious feast of a breakfast, bikes for rent, an excellent location and a wonderful group of staff, it’s really no surprise it’s one of the city’s best-rated hostels.
Eco Garten Guesthouse | For something a little more private, Eco Garten is one of Shkodra’s top-rated guesthouses set in a leafy garden and with winning hospitality.
From Tirana | Buses leave at least every hour from Tirana’s North Bus Station and cost 300 lek (€2.50). To return, buses depart from the western side of Shkoder’s main roundabout near the mosque.
From Ulcinj | Buses depart Ulcinj just 3 times a day for Shkoder and cost €6, or if you’re travelling north, buses leave Shkoder for Ulcinj just twice a day.