Embarking on a road trip to uncover new regions of former-Yugoslavia led us winding down the Adriatic coast, all the way to the charming old town of Kotor in Montenegro.
Tucked away in a secluded corner of Kotor Bay, Kotor’s protected position has been an asset throughout its long history — and not just for the scenery. Nestled into a striking mountainscape and overlooking a sparkling bay, Kotor’s rustic buildings and cobbled streets are a pleasure to explore.
What makes Kotor uniquely striking is its old-town setting amidst a stunning natural landscape. While some call the Bay of Kotor the southern-most fjord in Europe, the feature is actually a submerged river canyon called a ‘ria’. As for the town, it remains one of the best-preserved medieval towns in the Adriatic due to its history and protected position. Kotor is a doubly acclaimed as both a UNESCO and World Heritage Site: it is a Natural and Culturo-Historical Region of Kotor as well as a 16th-17th Century Venetian Works of Defence.
With its history and charm, Kotor has become a cruise ship port and popular Dubrovnik day trip that welcomes thousands of tourists ashore. It’s best to visit Kotor during the week and stay for a few days to increase your chances of roaming the city without sharing the small town with quite so many people.
What is there to see and do in Kotor? We’ve got a few ideas:
Drive around the Bay
The best way to get a full picture of the bay’s magnitude is to drive around it and soak in the views. Chances are you’ll have to drive around one side of the lake just to reach Kotor. This drive is a great introduction to landscape that surrounds the city.
Drive with caution as the winding roads are narrow and shared with cyclists, pedestrians, and playing children in areas. Montenegrin drivers also have a special reputation.
Catch the Local Ferry
The Kotor Bay Ferry, known as ‘trajekt’ to locals, makes daily crossings at the narrowest point of the bay, the Verige Strait. It connects Herceg Novi and Tiva, offering a shortcut to Kotor if arriving from Dubrovnik or a full circuit if touring around the bay. The ferry costs €4.50 for a vehicle, €1 for a bicycle, and nothing for pedestrians. Keep in mind that wait times can be longer during summer months - but the wait is totally worth the slow pan past the Islands of Perast.
Cruise The Islands of Perast
The small village of Perast is the first to appear when entering the mouth of the bay. Its strategic position in the bay made it a successful trading port, especially during the Venetian Republic’s rule. There’s a historic church, cobblestone alleyways, and bay-side restaurants to explore but you must not miss a boat trip to the two islands nearby.
The Island of St. George is a natural island and home to the 12th-century St. George Monastery.
The neighbouring Our Lady of the Rocks (Gospa od Skrpjela) was made artificially. Legend says that following a shipwreck, fishermen from Perast found a holy icon of Mary with Jesus Christ on a sea rock. They vowed to build a church on the island but first expanded the island to its present size by sinking rock-filled boats. The Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Rocks now contains a museum and gift shop.
As for the island itself, the tradition of tossing rocks into the sea is still alive today. At sunset on July 22 each year, locals boat out to the island and drop rocks into the sea to widen the island in an event known as Fašinada.
Stroll the Old Town
The charming old town of Kotor may be small, but it offers a laid-back atmosphere with plenty to enjoy. Historic landmarks include a network of squares and shop-lined alleyways. Though tacky tourist shops seem to dominate many streets and have a strange thing for cats (check the merchandise and you’ll see what we mean), look carefully and you’ll find your fair share of antiques and artisans. Souvenir shoppers should keep in mind that Kotor uses the Euro.
We found it was best to skip the shopping. We recommend taking a tour of the town’s many historic landmarks instead (especially if you’re pressed for time). Historic buildings and churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, speak to the city’s diverse and complex history.
There are many restaurants and patios that offer respite from the heat but we recommend checking out Hoste Kotor for local craft beer and tapas (find it beside a low archway near Gurdić Gate).
Scale St. John’s Fortress
Kotor’s fortification walls not only surround the old town, but also rise up the steep mountain behind the city. Perched high above, you’ll find a domed chapel and a commanding fortress which offers incredible views of the bay and its imposing limestone cliffs.
The entire climb and descent can be done in just a couple of hours but with such splendid views at every turn, you will want to allot some time for taking photos. There are stairs leading up so the path is suitable for most, although you need only go as high as you like. Be sure to wear comfy shoes, carry enough water, and pack a picnic for the top.
If you’re feeling adventurous, search for a fortress wall with a gaping hole in it much like a window (it is between some crumbling structures and the St. John Fortress) — climb through and you’ll find a short hiking trail that leads to a tiny forgotten chapel.
CLIMB The Ladder of Kotor
If you like to hike, we recommend finding a trail called the Ladder of Kotor. More like one mega serpentine, the marked trail begins at the edge of the old city by the Škurde Gate. Also known as the Ladder of Cattaro, this path is what remains from the centuries-old route that connected Kotor with Njegusi village and Cetinje. From Kotor, the trail rises 940 meters to Krstac Pass where a glorious view of Kotor Boy and the surrounding landscape awaits.
The public trail also leads to the aforementioned forgotten chapel (pictured above) and the ‘secret’ window into Kotor’s fortification walls (pictured below).
Dig into the history
Kotor is an old mediterranean port town surrounded by stone fortifications. The town sprawls from the edge of the bay up a steep hillside, a dark-looking rock face from which the name Montenegro (meaning “black mountain”) likely originated.
Formerly an Ancient Roman town known as Ascruvium, it was first mentioned in 168 BC. In the Middle Ages, Emperor Justinian built the town’s first fortifications after defeating the Ostrogoths. It remained a city-state of Dalmatia under the Romans, and later, the Byzantines. Kotor eventually came under Serbian rule and served as the most valued trading port from 1301 until the empire’s fall in 1371.
The city was taken by the Kingdom of Hungary but quickly swapped hands between the Republic of Venice and Kingdom of Bosnia. Kotor became fully independent in 1391 but under the threat of Ottoman invasion, acknowledged suzerainty to the Republic of Venice in exchange for protection. The city’s fortifications rose up during the height of the Venetian period, from the 15th to 17th centuries. However it was besieged and ruled by the Ottoman empire for a stretch of time.
Next to rule were the Habsburg Monarchy of Austria and the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy. The British attacked and captured Kotor in 1810, but was restored to the Habsburg Monarchy by the Congress of Vienna. During World War I, Kotor was a major base for the Austro-Hungarian navy. In 1918, the city (called Cattaro until that point) became part of Yugoslavia and officially known as Kotor.
Get a Local Perspective
There’s no better introduction than one that comes from a local.
With this in mind, we embarked on a Our Lady of the Rocks - Perast - Kotor tour with Mladen, a Montenegrin who passionately runs M Tours alongside his wife. Mladen whisked us away from our Airbnb in a shiny air-conditioned van, providing a historic introduction to Kotor as we cruised around the bay.
Mladin gave us a unique and local perspective of the sites we visited thanks to his grasp of history, first-hand knowledge of the local culture, and understanding of tourism, which stems from his University of Montenegro degree in Tourism and Hotel Management. We learned, laughed, and were fortunate for this chance to see Kotor through Montenegrin eyes.
EXPLORE THE ADRIATIC
There is much to explore in the region but here are a few of our favourites:
DUBROVNIK - coming soon
MOSTAR - coming soon