Two hours by bus from the Montenegro capital of Podgorica, is the small city of Kotor, lying at the end of the mountainous Gulf of Kotor. Wrongly called ‘Europe’s Southern most fjord’, the Bay of Kotor is actually a ‘ria’, a submerged river canyon caused by tectonic movement. Surrounded by towering limestone mountains, Kotor boasts a stunning location with jaw dropping views for the approaching visitor whether arriving by road or by water. It is popular location for tourists as it is easily accessible from around Montenegro, by day trip from Dubrovnik in Croatia and from the Adriatic itself, evidenced by the daily arrival of goliath sized cruise ships.
In addition to the Bay, Kotors’ main attraction is the UNESCO World Heritage listed old town; a quaint, enclosed town packed with winding narrow streets and pretty squares, loomed over by medieval walls that impossibly hug the sheer mountain side winding upwards to the Fortress of St. John, 280 metres above sea level.
Where To Stay
For those not sleeping on a cruise ship, Kotor offers many accommodation options ranging from hotels, hostels and privately rented apartments. Staying in the old town is atmospheric but expensive, and depending on location, potentially noisy both day and night, but it does give you the advantage of experiencing the old town at quieter times.
Outside the wall, adjacent to old town there is the popular, busy suburb of Dobrota complete with a pleasant promenade and the city’s most accessible and largest beach area, just across the road from one of the citys’ youth hostels.
On the opposite side of the bay to Dobrota is Muo, a half hour walk from the old town. Muo has a local feel, is quiet and, as it is opposite the old town rather than adjacent to it, the area has great views, especially at night when the city walls are illuminated. Muo and Dobrota have many piers and docks from which you can access the clear, deep water of the Bay.
We stayed in a gorgeous Airbnb family apartment in Muo and after hearing the thumping night time music echoing across the Bay from Dobrota and the old town, we were glad we had chosen a quieter location! It was a short, but sometimes nerve racking, walk into town along a narrow, busy road with sporadic pavement but the views of the Bay from our apartment more than compensated for this!
What to do
Entering the imposing South Gate into Kotors’ Old Town is a step back in time; with its winding alleyways, intricate architecture and hidden palaces Kotor is a town made for wandering and exploring. It is small, compact and easily explored in a few hours.
Before visiting, check the Kotor Bay cruise ship timetable which is available online. This gem of a website shows you which ships are due in, at what time, on what day and is impressively accurate on timings. It is well worth planning your sightseeing around this timetable. I was very underwhelmed on our first visit to Kotor on a grey cloudy day when the small town was so busy with cruise ship visitors that we ended up shuffling along the narrow streets rather than walking.
After checking the cruise ship timetable, we returned at an earlier hour on a beautifully sunny day before any ships arrived and Kotor seemed transformed. Quiet, sleepy lanes allowed us to amble along looking at the detailed and ornate buildings whose honey coloured stone glowed in the early morning sun, homes and businesses were waking up and it was a joy to explore. Several very talented classical buskers add to the pleasant ambience of this beautiful old town.
Any walking route will lead you past modest palaces dating between the 15th and 18th centuries, identifiable from the small plaques on their doors. Look carefully for these plaques as some palaces are easy to miss. One palace, the Grgurin, is now the Maritime Museum. Other museums include the Cat Museum dedicated to Kotors most famous residents (which are everywhere)! For a small city there is an array of churches, varying in size from tiny chapels to the imposing Catheral of St Typhon built in 1166. Most churches require an entrance fee except for the Serbian Orthodox church which is easily recognisable by the huge Serbian flag draped across its front exterior.
Visit the farmers market outside the South Gate and enjoy sampling the fruit, meat and cheeses including an unusual grass green cheese. Enviously admire the impressive yachts and boats in the harbour opposite the market. Stop for a drink in one of the many cafes and bars and watch the world go by.
No trip to Kotor is complete without a visit to the famous walls of Old Town, the 3 miles long Venetian fortifications consisting of 1,350 steps winding upwards from old town, culminating at Sveti Ivan, the Fortress of St. John.
Best accessed from the North Gate, the start of the stepped climb is well signposted and easy to find. The well worn steps wind their way in hairpin bend zig zags from sea level rising steeply up the side of the Lovocen mountains. Taken slowly and steadily, it is an easy climb but the shiny, worn steps can be very slippery in places – flips flops and sandals are not advisable. In some sections the wall sides protecting walkers from a steep drop have crumbled away so keep a tight hold of children or unsteady adults!
It currently costs 8 Euro to climb the walls (2018) but it is free before 8am. Depart early; the walls will be quieter and the walk cooler. In the summer months, the steps are in the shade until mid morning making it a much more pleasurable and bearable walk.
After 15 minutes of steady walking, you arrive at the tiny church of Our Lady of Health. The views from here are great but if you can climb higher you will be rewarded with even more stunning, expansive views incorporating the encircled Old Town, the city suburbs and the beautiful Bay beyond. Climbing the walls also gives you a different sense of perspective of the imposing mountains that surround Kotor plus a realisation of just how huge the Bay Of Kotor actually is!
There are no toilets and no facilities on the trek though a few local people trudge up the mountainside each day to sell water and snacks to forgetful, unprepared tourists.
At the end of a long hike or day spent exploring the old town, there is no better way to cool off than a swim in the glorious Bay of Kotor. Unless gated, you can swim from any pier or dock. The water is cool and clear but gets deep quickly. It is a unique experience to swim with such a stunning backdrop especially at sunrise or sunset.
The town beach on the Dobrota side of Kotor is a narrow strip of shingle with a cordoned off area for swimming; due to its gentle slope it is ideal for children. There is very little natural shade here but you can hire umbrellas. If swimming is too relaxing, there are kiosks which hire kayaks, canoes or stand up paddle boards. We preferred to swim from the docks; it was quieter, shaded and it is where the locals go to swim. Our children, a little unnerved by the sudden deep water of the Bay, preferred the beach.
Outside the old town, there is a small shopping mall and several streets lined with small shops and great bakeries. There is a large supermarket on the main roundabout into town.
There are many day trip options from Kotor; some are accessible by bus or boat such as Perast or Port of Montenegro, whilst others (such as Lovocen National Park) require joining a tour or hiring a car. The trip to the Blue Cave is weather dependent so check it is included before departure. There are lots of tour companies within the old town that organise tours and car hire but be warned, driving (and travelling as a passenger!) will need stamina, patience and nerves of steel!
To take a boat trip, visit the harbour to buy your tickets. Most of the boat companies are online and you can book tickets in advance but we found that by visiting the harbour we were offered significant discounts on trips due to the surrounding competition. (By NOT booking online we save around 50 Euros). Boat trips range from ten minutes along the Bay to all day tours encompassing sights around the entire Bay and into the Adriatic such as the Blue Cave and wartime submarine tunnels. Boats vary from small, bumpy speedboats to larger, sedate boats; we saw tranquil slow boats chugging alongside music blaring party boats carrying hundreds of tourists. Make sure you know exactly what you are getting for your money before booking!
The local people speak Montenegrin (as well as other neighbouring dialects) and many people speak English. Signs and menus are multilingual.
The currency is the Euro.
Driving is on the right and many drivers use their phones driving with one hand on the wheel around hairpin bends. Road pedestrians have to do a lot of side hopping to avoid traffic! If you are going to be out late and walking home in the dark on roads without pavements, use a torch or phone light to alert drivers to your presence.
Taxis are cheap but some drivers prefer to accept longer journeys rather than short hops to the suburbs due to the heavy, congested traffic around the old town.
Public buses are frequent, cheap and usually very busy but finding a timetable on a bus stop is not easy! Check online or ask at the tourist information by the South Gate.
Public toilets are fee paying and not cheap. We found it more cost effective to buy a drink in a bar, use their toilet and enjoy their fans and air conditioning! No one refused service due to not ordering food.
There are stray cats everywhere. Generally they leave you alone and I would advise doing the same to them!
The further away from old town that you walk and swim, the less tourists you will see. It is worth the extra walk for a bit of peace and quiet!
Local bakeries are cheap, open early till late and offer filling hot food and sweet treats for every meal.
Before booking a boat trip, check online reviews. Choose a company with good reviews for punctuality and reliability and bear in mind that not all boats will provide shade.
There are several ice cream shops and mobile carts selling cheap, delicious ice cream in a dizzying array of colours and flavours. You won’t be able to resist.
Boka night in the middle of August is the biggest festival in Kotor. Local people decorate boats and crafts with different characters and models to create an aquatic float. The crafts sail in a parade along the Bay, all hoping to win first prize for the best boat. Night time music concerts and outdoor culinary events culminate in a spectacular fire work display. Check local websites for the next scheduled date.
Montenegro is a beautiful country that we would like to return to and explore in greater depth. I would love to hear your experiences of travelling here and any other places you recommend to visit.