This Lakeside City In Southeastern Europe Is The Underrated, Cheap Spot For A Relaxing Trip

Nestled in the northwestern part of Albania, near the borders of Montenegro and Kosovo, lies Shkodër, a hidden gem destination awaiting discovery by the savvy traveler. Overshadowed by more popular European destinations, the lakeside city of Shkodër delivers generously with Albanian culture, regional history, and Balkan landscapes, all wrapped up in an affordable package that makes it an ideal spot for a relaxing getaway.

One of the oldest cities in Albania, Shkodër boasts a history that dates back thousands of years. From the Illyrians to the Ottomans and from the Romans to the Venetians, the city has been a crossroads of various civilizations, each leaving its mark in the form of architecture, traditions, and cultural influences. The Rozafa Castle is a testament to this past. Exploring its legend-infused walls, built over 2,500 years ago, offers a glimpse into history and fantastic panoramic views of the city, the Bojana River, and the surrounding landscapes. The entrance costs 200 lekë, around $2.

Lake Scutari (also known as Lake Skadar), the largest lake in the Balkans (and the largest bird reserve in Europe), lies partly in Albania and partly in Montenegro. Visitors can enjoy boat tours, kayaking, or simply swim and relax by the lakeside, soaking in the serene atmosphere. Its languid shores near Shkodër provide a chill escape from the hustle and bustle. The lake is also a haven for nature lovers and bird watchers, with around 280 bird species roaming around, including the rare Dalmatian pelican. 

Old town, Albanian cuisine, and culture in Shkodër

The heart of Shkodër lies in its Old Town, a picturesque area filled with cobbled streets, Ottoman-era houses, and quaint shops. Worth visiting are the Ebu Bekr Mosque, Lead Mosque, and the many Catholic and Orthodox churches. The Site of Witness and Memory is a must-see monument of a dark past — the deadly communist regime that gripped Albania until the 1990s. The pedestrian-friendly Rruga Kolë Idromeno is lined with cafes and boutiques, perfect for leisurely exploration.

Albanian cuisine is a fusion of Mediterranean flavors, and Shkodër's offerings are delicious and affordable. On average, a meal in a cheap traditional restaurant costs $4, beer is $2, and a cup of coffee is $1. A fancier restaurant meal for two would cost around $25. Local specialties include tavë krapi (baked carp), grosh (bean soup), pilaf with qebap (rice with grilled meat), and rakija (fruit brandy). Recommended spots for traditional Albanian food include PURI, Fisi Restaurant, and Vila Bekteshi

Shkodër's cultural scene is diverse and full of life. The city is known for its art, music, and literary traditions. The Marubi National Museum of Photography, showcasing a collection of over 150,000 photographs, chronicles the unique history of Albanian photography. Tickets cost 700 lekë. Shkodër also hosts various festivals throughout the year, including the Carnival of Shkodër, a colorful Venetian-style celebration in February, the Flower Festival on May 6, and Lake Day, which celebrates Lake Scutari every June 3.

Outdoor adventures and more travel tips

For the more adventurous, Shkodër serves as a gateway to the Albanian Alps (also known as the "Accursed Mountains") and the stunning Thethi National Park. Hiking, mountain biking, and camping in these areas offer unforgettable experiences amidst breathtaking landscapes. The city's proximity to mountains, lakes, and rivers means that outdoor activities are plentiful. Buna River, Maranai Park, and Nikaj-Mërtur Regional Nature Park are other nature havens worth exploring. 

One of the most appealing aspects of Shkodër is its affordability. Albania is considered one of the best budget-friendly tourist destinations to visit in the Mediterranean, and rightfully so. Accommodations range from budget-friendly hostels to comfortable hotels, all at a fraction of the cost you would expect in more popular European destinations. Prices start at $15 a night and rarely go over $100, except for more luxe options.

The city is easily accessible, with regular, quick, and affordable bus services from Tirana, the capital of Albania, and Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro. The best time to visit Shkodër is in the late spring or early fall for pleasant weather and fewer tourists. The warmth and hospitality of Shkodër's locals add to the city's charm. Visitors are often greeted with open arms and treated to the kind of hospitality that has been a hallmark of Albanian culture. So, ikim ("let's go")?