I’m not entirely sure how it ended up being my end of summer destination (but I’m looking at you Skyscanner ‘Everywhere’ option).
Lord Byron said of Montenegro:
“When the pearls of nature were sworn, an abundance of them were strewn all over this area.”
He wasn’t kidding. Once I started looking at a visit to Montenegro and saw photos of the towering mountains surrounding narrow old town streets of Kotor, I found myself with flights and a trip booked before I knew it.
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How to get to Kotor, Montenegro
I chose the option of flying into Dubrovnik and travelling to Kotor overland because direct flights to Montenegro were much more expensive. The journey takes just under 2 hours by private taxi, but longer by bus because of the longer wait at the border between Montenegro and Croatia and the location of the bus station on the opposite side of Dubrovnik to the airport.
If you fly directly to Montenegro you can go to the capital, Podgorica, which is still an hour and a half from Kotor. The other direct option is Tivat Airport which is only about 15 minutes from Kotor, but flight options may not be as affordable.
The shortest land option from Dubrovnik is a private taxi because the city is in the opposite direction to Montenegro, so depending on your arrival time you could spend a long time travelling in the opposite direction, before waiting for a bus to take you back. Do-able if you’re on a budget and you have the time, but if not then a private shuttle from Dubrovnik airport to Kotor is around €80 and you can share the cost.
During our taxi ride from Dubrovnik airport to Kotor it was immediately apparent why Montenegro has become such a hot spot for tourism. It’s one of the fastest growing tourism markets in the world and when you drive through Montenegro it’s easy to see why. Huge rugged mountains surround countless historical settlements perched at the waters edge in the Bay of Kotor, and that’s not even including the small stretch of open coastline with clear turquoise waters or some of the most rugged terrain in Europe in the mountainous north.
The scenery of Montenegro blew me away at first sight, but I still knew little about this small Balkan country. After I orientated myself in the Old Town of Kotor, stuffed my face with seafood and cheese and taste-tested the beer (delicious, by the way) I sat down with my laptop and a view to find out more about this fairytale place I’d stepped into.
A bit about the history of Montenegro
Turns out that Montenegro has a rather turbulent history. Kotor is one of those places that’s changed hands a lot, from ancient Rome, to the Republic of Venice, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, Serbia, France, Britain and finally Yugoslavia. Whew.
In 2006 Montenegro finally became an independent sovereign state, and ten years after independence they’re still on the up and making a name for themselves, with hopes to join the European Union before too long.
At last count, Montenegro had 620,000 citizens from all sorts of ethnic affiliations. Depending on how people choose to identify themselves they might be Montenegrin, Albanian, Serbian, Croatian or something else entirely.
People in Montenegro might speak the official language of Montenegrin, technically a dialect of Serbo-Croatian, which can be written in Latin or Cyrillic, or they may speak Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and even Italian. And as a random fact, Montenegrin people are some of the tallest in the world!
More than once during our week in Kotor I heard people compare the architecture to Italy, and most specifically to Venice. I’ve never been there but if this is what it looks like, I need to bump it up the list!
The first mention of Kotor has been found in 168BC (crazy old, just for reference) and the first Cathedral of St Tryphon was built in 1166, on the spot where the Cathedral stands today. Kotor was first fortified in the middle ages and the fortifications that surround the Old Town today are from the Venetian period, so it’s no surprise much of the city also has a Venetian influence.
Kotor is surrounded by mountains, and with this kind of terrain often comes earthquakes. There have been many earthquakes around the Bay of Kotor and Montenegro, including one in 1979 which destroyed half of the Old Town. Despite that, Kotor is still one of the best preserved medieval old towns in the region.
Pub Quiz Fact: The Bay of Kotor (or Boka Bay) is sometimes called the most southern fjord in Europe, and it actually looks like one too. However, it’s actually a river canyon known as a ria. It’s deep enough for cruise ships to come right to the end of the bay where Kotor is located. This means contending with cruise ship crowds and their guided tours through the city. We definitely noticed when a particularly large cruise ship or two were docked in the bay and took advantage of the early mornings and eating later in the evenings to avoid the crowds.
So what is there to do in Kotor?
Kotor is one of those places where you can just “be”. You could see Kotor in one day if that’s all you had, but it’s a perfect spot to relax and soak in the atmosphere of the Balkans. The longer we stayed in Kotor the more I fell under the spell of this charming little city. There are many hidden gems to be discovered if you have the time to do so.
Wander around Old Town Kotor
We spent several days just exploring the Old Town. Although it’s somewhat similar to Dubrovnik it’s much more compact. Every time I’d go for a walk I’d discover some new alleyway I hadn’t yet ventured down, and I wouldn’t be able to find some other one that I’d been to the day before.
Because Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage site it’s been kept relatively authentic, and big changes can’t be made to the architecture. By comparison, Budva, located on the coast half an hour away, is a bit like a giant shopping mall with glass cases advertising goods outside shops and neon lights everywhere, including pink ones on the old walls!
There are several churches in the Old Town of Kotor open at various times (which I could never quite figure out) and you can visit them if you’re clothed appropriately, with your knees and shoulders covered.
Also, the cats of Kotor provide endless entertainment. Many of them seem to be homeless, but well looked after, and they’re friendly too.
Kotor Fortress and City Walls
When you look at Kotor from across the bay you can clearly see the ancient city walls that stretch for 4.5km around the hillside above the city. Climbing the fortress is probably the top thing to do in Kotor. It doesn’t take too long and there’s plenty of stops to take a break and enjoy the view on the way up.
Instead of sticking to the main path to the church and fortress you can wander a bit off track, up and down the stairs of ruined buildings on the way up. There’s also a spot with a window you can climb through to go to an old settlement that would have been on the outside of the walls of Kotor, complete with ruined church.
The beach near Kotor
Stroll right out of the Old Town for about 10 minutes and you’ll reach the beach of Kotor. Ok, so it’s not really a beach. It’s more like a stone shore with some loungers, umbrellas and a roped off space of water where you can hurt your feet on more sharp stones before plunging in as soon as it’s deep enough.
The beach of Kotor is good enough to be refreshing on a hot day and give you some “beach” relaxation time if you need it. For the true beaches of Montenegro, you need to head down to the coast half an hour away. This is where you’ll find the party, resort town of Budva and the beaches on surrounding coastline.
Taste the food of Montenegro
I expected seafood in Montenegro and Kotor in particular, and I wasn’t disappointed. Our first meal involved a huge platter of seafood for just €15 and included many of the local specialties like gavice, which is a small salted and fried fish, black risotto, calamari, and prawns.
There’s also a big Italian influence, and for a budget meal we had pizza at Pizza Pronto which was delicious.
Montenegro has all sorts of lamb dishes to try, and most of the time the side dishes included potatoes mixed with chopped spinach which don’t sound terribly amazing but were really good.
Some of the food in Montenegro was similar to what I’d had in neighbouring Croatia, like the Cevapi, which is minced meat made into small sausages and served with bread, salad and sometimes fries, kind of like the Montenegrin version of a burger. On my trip to Turkey a few years ago I fell in LOVE with Borek, which is a filo pastry filled with meat or cheese and spinach, so I was happy to see it make an appearance in Montenegro. It’s the perfect bakery snack or breakfast!
We also loved the cheese in Montenegro, with all sorts of different flavours on offer. Our favourite was a very soft kind of feta, and it was perfect when partnered with the Njegusi prosciutto, made locally.
The beer of choice in Montenegro is Nikšićko, and you can have it by the bottle or draught in most places. It was around €3-4 in Kotor, and as low as €2 elsewhere.
In short, the food in Montenegro is delicious!
Where to stay in Kotor
We booked an Airbnb in Kotor because we were staying a week, so having our own space and cooking facilities were important. Our hosts were so wonderful, they let us check in early, the place was spotlessly clean with absolutely everything we needed. They even surprised me with a cake and a bottle of wine for my birthday! (Click here for £27 credit for your first stay with Airbnb).
Although I didn’t see the dorms, the Old Town Hostel Kotor looked like a nice place to stay and everyone seemed very friendly. It’s in an old stone building and with a couple of social areas and organised events going on. I use Booking.com to book all my hostels since usually they offer free cancellation. There are plenty of accommodation options in the Old Town, and there’s some fantastic looking historic boutique hotels in Kotor too.
How expensive is Montenegro?
Montenegro isn’t the cheapest place in the Balkans for sure. It’s more expensive than I thought it would be. Although Montenegro isn’t part of the European Union (yet, they’re hoping) they’ve chosen to use the Euro. This means that things seem to be slightly more expensive. Something like a bottle of water might be bumped up to €1 for example.
Kotor is more expensive than anywhere else we went in Montenegro, and eating out was definitely the biggest cost. On our forays around the rest of Montenegro we were able to eat for a much lower cost, with set meals for around €7.
Some restaurants in Kotor offer deals of the day though, and we were able to share a plate of seafood for €15. Of course, we also ordered a huge plate of cheese for €10 thinking it wouldn’t be enough and I ended up sneaking half of it home in my bag…
A pint of beer and a glass of wine were around €3-4 in Kotor and €2 elsewhere.
I’d recommend accommodation with kitchen facilities if you’re staying for longer than a couple of days so that you can take advantage of the supermarkets. As usual, bakeries are also a cheap option and I’d highly recommend Mamma Mia in Kotor.
Kotor is a fantastic place to visit in Montenegro. Aside from being a stunningly beautiful spot, it makes a great base since it’s just half an hour to Budva on the coast, an hour and a half to Dubrovnik, and within easy distance of much of the rest of Montenegro.
During our week long stay in Kotor we spent two days on trips visiting other places around Montenegro. One day we took the Great Montenegro Tour, and the other day a trip to go white water rafting in Tara Canyon. Both times we organised the tour through Old Town Hostel Kotor who partner with 360 Monte Travel Agency.
I already mentioned the beaches in Montenegro, and if you’re looking for a party beach town then Budva is the place to go. Nearby is the picturesque Sveti Stefan, which is a resort on an island with its own private beach. You can’t go to the island unless you’re staying there, and you can’t step foot on the beach unless you pay €75!
In the Bay of Kotor there are countless other small settlements you can visit by bus or even boat. The most popular is Perast, noted for the artificial island just off the coast that’s home to Our Lady of the Rocks Church.
In the north of Montenegro is Tara Canyon, the deepest in Europe and the second deepest in the world after the Grand Canyon. We went white water rafting in the clear blue waters and although in September the river wasn’t too high it was really fun. You can also find Durmitor National Park with some of the highest peaks in Europe.
Visiting Montenegro’s neigbours
If you want to venture further afield the Balkans aren’t short of UNESCO World Heritage cities and towns to visit, with Dubrovnik in neighbouring Croatia, and Berat in Albania both vying for an award of the most beautiful historic places.
You can actually take day tours from Kotor to Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina, or explore some of the histories behind the beginning of World War II as just one of the things to do in Sarajevo. Go further south to Albania and explore the pristine coast and unique towns in one of the least explored countries in Europe, which is sure to change soon!
I adored our week visiting Kotor and Montenegro, and it just made me fall even more in love with the Balkans. I’ll be back again for sure!
Is Montenegro on your list, or have you been?
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