Perched on the edge of a majestic bay surrounded by towering fjords, the medieval Old Town of Kotor is the undisputed jewel in Montenegro’s crown. It was once Europe’s best kept secret, but recent years have seen a huge influx of tour buses and cruise ships. Even so, it has failed to dim the timeless delights of its maze of cobbled alleyways and secluded piazzas. Enclosing cafés and churches galore, the town walls are peered down upon by a series of ever dramatic peaks. Most people skip over the Balkans in favor of more well known nearby destinations like Italy or Greece
Kotor was one of the many places I visited on my Balkans trip. Read about it in my perfect two week itinerary for the Balkans.
Getting to Kotor
Kotor is an easy destination to get to from Croatia and other parts of the Balkans. It’s serviced by the airport in nearby Tivat which has regular flights from cities all around Europe.
Day trip from Dubrovnik
Kotor makes for an easy day trip from Dubrovnik, Croatia. There are countless tour agencies hawking day trips to Kotor and Mostar. Personally, I think a trip during the day does not do Kotor any justice. Coming during the day time means peak temperatures, and endless amounts of cruise ship tourists that turn the picturesque old town into a circus. It also means you’ll likely not have enough time to hike up to the San Giovanni fortress with its breathtaking views of the Bay.
Bus from Dubrovnik
Buses run multiple times a day between Dubrovnik and Kotor. The cost is 15-20 euros one way and takes around 2.5-3 hours assuming the border crossing is not backed up. The buses are nice and always on time.
Train from Belgrade, Serbia
Certainly not the fastest way to get to Kotor but if you are in Belgrade and want to visit the Mediterranean, look no further than the Belgrade to Bar train. This train ride offers perhaps some of the best scenery in the world. Get off at Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro and take a taxi for €50 to Kotor.
Where we stayed in Kotor
Kotor is not a big city, even by European standards. There are various hotels on the outskirts of town that looked quite nice, as well as some very cool hostels and guesthouses within the old town. I did see some very nice hotels around town with perfect views of the bay. Since we were only here for two nights, we ended up going with an Airbnb just outside of the old town (~15 minute walk) which was absolutely incredible. We had our own private deck which is what sold it for me. The deck had fantastic views of the Bay and the towering mountain ranges behind it. It was amazing to wake up every morning to the calming sounds of the ocean, and then being able to have a coffee on our deck.
It was €70 a night in the high season which seemed quite reasonable to me, and much cheaper than hotels with comparable views. The owner even picked us up from Podgorica after our beautiful train ride from Belgrade (for €50). All in all, I can highly recommend the Airbnb we stayed at for its close proximity to the old town and amazing views.
Exploring Kotor Old Town
The Old Town of Kotor is small but full of charm. It’s one of the most well preserved old towns in the Mediterranean. Home to numerous palaces, cathedrals, and churches, Kotor’s old town has been influenced by many civilizations throughout the centuries, including the Romans, Illyrians, Venetians, and Austrians. Given its proximity to Dubrovnik, there are big similarities between Dubrovnik’s old town and Kotor’s old town, which can easily be seen with aerial views.
There isn’t a whole lot to see in Kotor’s old town, and 1 hour at a leisurely pace will be more than enough to see the entire old town. I really enjoyed walking through its narrow streets and corridors discovering little hidden alleyways. Kotor’s stari grad (old town) was once home to workshops organised around brotherhoods or guilds. Numerous craftsmen including blacksmiths, carpenters, stonemasons, goldsmiths and shoemakers set up shop here. Nowadays, restaurants, souvenir shops, and ice cream stands dominate the visage.
Like most old towns in this region, the tourist population during the summer day time will swell to uncomfortable numbers. If possible, visit the old town early in the morning, or late in the evening after the cruise ship crowds have departed.
Hiking to the top of Kotor Fortress
Without a doubt, a hike up to the San Giovanni fortress was the highlight of Kotor for me. These formidable fortress walls date back to medieval times, built on and off between the 9th and 19th centuries, and built by everyone from the Byzantines to the Venetians. While the ramparts may appear dilapidated in parts, they are actually remarkably well preserved and you especially notice this from any of the city gates.
For people visiting Kotor on a day tour from Dubrovnik, there will most likely not be enough time to hike to the top of San Giovanni. The hike takes at least two hours round trip and if there is time available on the tour, the hike would have to be done under the scorching mid day sun.
Kotor’s Castle of San Giovanni, or the Castle of St. John as English speaking tourists call it for some reason, is not a difficult hike. There are plenty of stairs (1,300 in total), but it is not a steep climb. Just pace yourself and rest accordingly. The entrance is at the back of the old town and there is an entrance fee of €3.
Once at the top, there are plenty of good spots to take in the sunset. There are people selling beers and water all along the hike (the higher you are, the more expensive it gets). I saw people selling beers for €3 right before the peak, and for €5 at the peak. Naturally, I purchased a few and perched up along the walls of the fortress to watch the sun set over the towering fjords. The views of the ocean, old town, and mountains made for an amazing view. Almost as amazing as the views from the top of Lions Head in Cape Town. Almost…
Tips for hiking San Giovanni Fortress:
- Avoid hiking during the day as the sun can be extremely strong. Hike up for the sunset for amazing golden views of the surrounding fjords
- Bring some cash as there are numerous vendors selling water and beer along the way. Yes it is overpriced in comparison, but water is still only €1.5 and beer is €3
- The walk up is around 45 minutes to 1 hour, but pace yourself accordingly
- Take plenty of photos because once the sun sets, the old town gets dark very quickly
- The stones can be slippery so take caution if it’s raining
Where to eat in Kotor
Kotor offers a surprising amount of culinary choices. Montenegrin cuisine is the same as Serbian cuisine, which is heavy on the meat dishes (hallelujah) and pastries. Kotor, being on the coast, also offers a variety of fresh seafood dishes. Overall, Kotor is on the cheaper side, especially compared to Dubrovnik but more expensive than Serbia. Pasta dishes cost around €10-15 and fish dishes will be €15-20. There are plenty of places to eat cheap however. A delicious cevapcici can be had for €2.50.
Many of the better restaurants are located outside of the old town and away from the tourist trap restaurants (like anywhere else in the world!)
The restaurants within the old town are totally hit or miss. Like any area of mass tourism, there will be the fair share of tourist trap restaurants selling uninspiring food at expensive prices. Bocalibre is not one of them. Surrounded by shops, the quiet courtyard here makes for excellent people watching and is a great place to soak up the historic surroundings and nostalgic atmosphere. With its mostly Italian menu, guests can treat themselves to a cheesy stone-baked pizza or a generous helping of pasta. The dessert menu is particularly delicious and contains the city’s best home-made tiramisu. The interior is an inviting enclave of exposed wooden beams and brick walls, with locals often popping in to sit at the bar and enjoy a delicious, barista-made coffee or an after work aperitif.
Hands down the best place in the city for cheap, but high quality grilled meats. This place is an institution in Kotor and highly recommended. Located just outside of the old town, this unassuming family run restaurant cooks delicious meats including steak, pork chops, and rotisserie chicken. It’s hard to miss this place as they let the chicken roast on the spit outside so you can’t help but smell the deliciousness as you walk by. Prices here are very reasonable and are priced by weight. Get the assorted platter for two which includes steak, chicken kebabs, cevapcici, and pork loin. This is also the best place to get a cheap cevapcici in a pita for only €2.50.
There is also a garden in the back for those that want to sit and enjoy their meals.
Our Airbnb host recommended this restaurant as it was close to the apartment. It also happens to serve some very tasty Italian food. The restaurant is completely outdoor with an open kitchen and a bar that serves local wine varieties. The seafood risotto was great to share. They also serve breakfast starting from 8am which was very good and affordable (€3-5 per dish).
Cafe Del Mare
A step away from the sea and only a short walk from the old town of Kotor Caffe del Mare is an attractive place to come for a meal along the harbour with stunning ocean and mountain views. While not the cheapest restaurant, the seafood here was spectacular. They let you choose the fish you want, which is more of a gimmick to me than anything but I’m sure many people might find it cool.