The city of Shkoder, often known as the gateway to the Albanian Alps, is an essential stop on any Balkan travel itinerary. To get to the mountainous national parks of northern Albania, you’ll have to pass through the city of Shkoder. Backpackers tend to skip big cities, but thankfully, Shkoder is much more than just a stopover town. I was in a hurry to get to the Albanian Alps, but upon getting to Shkoder, I decided to spend an extra two days just chilling before living it up in the mountains. Shkooder was one of the only larger cities in Albania that I enjoyed. It maintained a small town charm within its historic old town, while having all the fun stuff you can expect from a big city. As a backpacker, you can’t ask for too much more from this budget-friendly city oozing with adventure.
If you’re on your way to the bucket list Valbona to Theth hike, make sure to give Shkoder some of your time, too.
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How To Get to Shkoder
The easiest way to get to Shkoder from anywhere in Albania is to get to Tirana and hop on a bus. The buses are very frequent and run throughout the day. Ignore the schedules that you’ll find online. The buses in Albania basically leave whenever they’re full. Shkoder is about 100 kilometers north of Tirana, and the bus ride takes around three hours.
From Elsewhere in Albania
All roads basically pass through Tirana. If you’re coming anywhere from the south, you’ll likely have to stop over in Tirana and transfer there. From the smaller villages, you will definitely have to do this.
If you are coming from Montenegro, Shkoder is likely your first stop. It’s one of the first entry points into the country if you are coming from the north. A lot of people rent cars while road tripping through the Balkans, but buses and taxis are a good option, as well.
Oh, and before you go, make sure to have good travel insurance handy whenever you’re out adventuring. I use SafetyWing to keep me covered throughout my travels.
Which Hostel To Stay At In Shkoder
Shkoder has a few hostels to choose from, but I can’t recommend the one that I stayed at enough. The city is a great backpacker-friendly destination, and this hostel reflects that.
The Wanderer’s Hostel
The hostels in Albania always hit it out of the park, and The Wanderer’s Hostel was no different. It may not have been the most luxurious hostel out there, but the staff went so far out of their way to make sure you were taken care of. I barely had to lift a finger to do anything in Shkoder. If you plan on doing the stunning Valbone to Theth hike, stay at Wanderer’s. They booked my buses, ferry, and accommodation for me. They also let you leave your bags at the hostel for as long as you want so you don’t need to carry everything with you on the hike. For 8 euros a night with breakfast included, this is unbeatable value for its location and hospitality.
The Wanderer’s Hostel does tend to get booked up pretty quickly though, so try booking in advance. If you’re out of luck and don’t have a spot there, make sure to check out the other hostels in Shkoder. There are quite a few other ones.
How To Get Around Shkoder
Shkoder is a perfectly-sized city. It’s big enough that public transportation runs frequently throughout the city. However, for most travelers who will be based in the historic city center, it’s a very walkable city. Shkoder is also apparently one of the top ten most bike-friendly cities in Europe. You can rent a bicycle in Shkoder for around 3 euros a day. It’s good if you want to get outside the city and explore some of the surrounding natural beauty, like Shkoder Lake.
Taxis are also everywhere in Shkoder. I found them to be reasonably priced, but still a last resort if I couldn’t figure out how to walk or bus somewhere. Hitchhiking was a reliable option throughout Albania, and Shkoder was no different. It is a little weird to do it in the city center, and you probably won’t need to. However, we did hitchhike back from Rozafa Castle because we were too lazy to walk the 45 minutes back to the city center. Basically, you won’t have any trouble getting around Shkoder. Public transportation is reliable and inexpensive, but walking and cycling should get you everywhere just fine.
The Best Things To Do in Shkoder
Like I said earlier, Shkoder is much more than just the gateway to the Albanian Alps. From castles to museums to the beautiful Lake Shkoder, you can easily find something to fill your time here.
This castle is one of my favorites in Albania. Considering I was hitting up a castle in nearly every city, that’s saying something. If we’re talking views, Rozafa’s got them. Views of mountains, views of rivers, views of the city, basically just all of the views that you could hope for. The entry fee to the castle is only about 6 euros, and it is totally worth it. Rozafa Castles dates back thousands of years, with history dating back to the Roman capture of the castle back in the 2nd Century BC.
Old Town Shkoder
The long walking street in Old Town Shkoder is where most people will congregate as the sun starts to set and the night begins. Filled with a wide variety of restaurant and nightlife options, this is the place to be. Just go for a walk and keep an eye and an ear out for the liveliest spots in town.
Lake Shkoder is a must for any traveler visiting the city of Shkoder. It is shared with Montenegro, although it’s known as Skadar Lake on the other side of the pond. I’d recommend renting a bicycle and pedaling your way over to the lake. There are a few towns and beaches along the lake, so just find a place to post up, have a meal, and enjoy your lake day.
Museums in Shkoder
There’s the museum at Rozafa Castle that you shouldn’t miss, but aside from that, there are a few in downtown Shkoder. Some of the ones recommended to me were Site of Witness and Memory, Shkoder History Museum, and the National Museum of Photography. I only visited the Site of Witness and Memory, which was a pretty sobering experience. Albania has had a pretty rough past, with the Communist Regime controlling the country until 1991. I mean, Albania’s really only been open to the outside world for thirty years, which is crazy when you think about it. The museum gives a glimpse into the genocide, and lets you walk through the prisons and cells where the victims were kept. It also relays some awful accounts of torture and tragedy.
On a lighter note, the other museums shouldn’t be as depressing, so go check those ones out as well.
Hit up the Albanian Alps
This is what you came here for after all. Shkoder is the gateway to the stunning region known as the Albanian Alps. While I enjoyed my time in Shkoder, definitely try to maximize your time in the Albanian Alps. My biggest regret was not giving myself enough time to truly immerse myself in those beautiful mountains. Most likely, your starting point in the Albanian Alps will be Valbona. Here’s how to get there from Shkoder.
Food and Nightlife in Shkoder
Of all the places I went to in Albania, Shkoder had the best food. I wasn’t fond of Albanian food at first, but it did gradually grow on me. As a larger city, Shkoder has quite a bit of variety when it comes to restaurants and dining. Being in the north of the country, there is also a lot more Western European influence in Shkoder, particularly Italian influence. My favorite restaurant in Shkoder was Pizzeria Italia, so yeah, big time Italian influence.
You can easily find traditional Albanian food throughout the city. Whether you want to sit down at a traditional restaurant or just grab a traditional Albanian pastry from a bakery, you’ve got options. Peja is a great spot close to the city center for some traditional food. Vila Bekeshi is another spot that I enjoyed, with a good mix of Greek, Albanian, and international flavors.
For nightlife, most of the bars are centered around the historic city center. The walking streets get really lively at night. Treat yourself to a nice dinner before going for a walk and keeping an eye and ear out for where the party is at. Whether your taste is live music or dancing the night away, Shkoder has something for you.
If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Albania, do not miss out on Shkoder. While some people may skip it to go straight into the mountains, Shkoder has a great vibe and is a perfect home base for chilling out pre and post-hiking trip. Albania is a criminally underrated country, and I hope you fall in love with it half as much as I did.
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