While the Balkan coast is filled with scenic ports and great old cities, few can hold a candle to the incomparable Kotor Bay, one of the top destinations on any Balkan holiday. And the impeccable Kotor Town is the jewel in its scenic crown. Featuring all the usual highlights of a medieval Old Town – impressive walls, narrow alleys, picturesque churches, relaxing plazas, a weird obsession with cats – its extraordinary location nestled among the hills of this stunning bay sets it apart from the competition. The list of things to do in Kotor include amazing viewpoints, some nice hikes and plenty of fascinating villages within easy reach by boat around the bay, making Kotor Montenegro an absolute must-see on your trip to the Balkans. UNESCO has even designated Kotor’s medieval city and picturesque landscape a World Heritage site. Kotor will be one of the major highlights of a trip to the Balkans along with Lake Bled in Slovenia, the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia and the Balkan Express train from Montenegro to Serbia.
On our first visit to Croatia we almost made it to Kotor Bay on a day trip but couldn’t quite pull the trigger, and we’ve always planned to set aside some time for seeing Montenegro. Now, 7 years later, we finally made it to this incredible bay for a far more satisfying 4-night stay. Even the bus ride in after our 24 hours in Dubrovnik was spectacular, although I must say Herceg Novi, the main city at the entrance to the bay, appeared to be a pretty bleak collection shabby apartments, which seemed to have everyone on our bus a little concerned (especially the 2 backpackers who got off there). Before long, however, the hills got bigger, the bay prettier, and the towns much more subtle and attractive.
Things to do in Kotor Bay
Wander the Kotor Old Town
Kotor’s Stari Grad (old town) is the most popular of the Kotor attractions. And what an old town! If you’ve been following our trip you’ll know we’ve been seeing a lot of “old towns”, and you could be finding yourself a little numb to the phrase, just as we are starting to get a bit numb to the real things. But Kotor snapped us out of that funk – its compact walled city somehow finding the perfect balance of fading, maze-like and photogenic. There isn’t a single straight route in the place, and around every corner is another fascinating building, plaza, alley or ice cream stand, which just happen to be 4 of my 5 favourite old town specialties (along with traditional laundry lines).
One of the best things to do in Kotor old town is visit the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon as it is the most impressive of the old town’s dozen or so churches, cathedrals, and monasteries. It is one of the most well-known cathedrals in Montenegro. The Church of Saint Nicholas is also worth a visit.
With a uniquely deep bay surrounded by stunning mountains and great little towns, Kotor Bay is justifiably popular with the yachting and cruise ship crowds. I suspect there are very few places this narrow and beautiful where a massive cruise ship can even enter, let alone pull right up to the dock directly in front of the old town. Which means the old town can get pretty busy in the middle of the day. But if you have the time (we did) and patience (we sort of did) the town starts clearing out around 4 pm, and by 6 pm it felt like we almost had the place to ourselves (in October, anyway). You also have the choice of getting a walking tour of the old town to learn more of its interesting history.
Climb the Walls of Kotor
Kotor’s surprisingly intact city walls actually extend well up the hill behind town, another unusual feature that must have made it quite a tough out back in medieval battle games. Up at the top they join at the ruins of the fortress of San Giovanni, the pinnacle of a 280-metre climb featuring outstanding views of the old town, the port and all the way down extraordinary Kotor Bay. Well. It is well worth the 1,300+ steps to the top, especially since we got up early enough to avoid the mid-day crowds (and heat). You can stop along the way at the Church of Our Lady Remedy for a break. The view from the top is one of the best things to see in Kotor.
The only downside is all the trash, mostly empty bottles and cans. Besides plenty of litter along the steps themselves, it was even worse in the couple of spots where the apparently overworked Kotor tourist board bothered to hang a garbage bag from a rock and the trash was overflowing all over the ground. Especially near where the guy selling drinks is (make sure to bring enough water for the hike – it gets hot and there isn’t always someone selling drinks).
I don’t know what the story is behind their version of the love lock bridges found in other parts of Europe (padlocks on scenic bridges to symbolize everlasting love) which, instead of locks, rather mystifyingly features what appears to be hundreds of used wet wipes tied around the railing. The meaning was certainly not apparent in person (unless the goal is to confuse), I had no better luck on Google, and it seemed like about the worst reason ever to pay for a private tour guide. Any insight would be appreciated.
There is a window near the top with a ladder where you can climb out and explore the surrounding hills a bit and giving us a look at the back side of the valley, the outside of the Kotor Fortress and the walls from above. We found St John’s Church and a few cats who wanted to be friends. From here you could walk back to Kotor on a path or climb back inside and walk back down the stairs. Make sure to have your tickets handy as there is a guard there to stop people from sneaking in. We also checked on our way down and were told that we could enter again on the same day so we grabbed a couple drinks, climbed halfway up to a good vantage point and watched the sun go down over the hills and watch the shades of red in the old town darken.
Appreciate the Cats of Kotor
Ah, right, the “Cats of Kotor”. Unlike so many places we go, Kotor isn’t plagued by greasy mutts sprawled across the sidewalks by day and yelping their idiot hearts out by night. Instead, there are cats everywhere, in all sizes, colours, breeds and levels of eye infection. Only kidding, most of these cats look pretty healthy and well-fed, especially considering most of them are street cats. Sure, none of them are pushing 20 pounds like so many of our feline princes and princesses back home, but then none of them seemed to have their own private couch cushion either. Legend has it cats saved Kotor from various plagues by controlling the rodent population, and the exceptional diversity of cats is chalked up to them arriving over the years on a wide variety of ships from all over the world. I’ve never been more than a polite acquaintance of most cats but, considering the importance Montenegrins place on cats, I took time out of my busy schedule to take a photo of one. Enjoy it, they will be few and far between.
Visit the Cat Museum
If you want to take your cat appreciation one step further you must visit the Museo del Gatto di Cattaro (Cat Museum), one of the more unusual things to do in Kotor. It is tiny, costs only 1 euro, and includes writings, coins, lithographs, postcards etc that feature cats. There is also a gift shop that sells cat items as well as small bags of food that you can use to help feed some of the local cats.
Lounge on “the Beach”
No, it’s not a real beach, whether or not Europeans want to argue that a beach doesn’t need sand. It does, that’s all there is to it. But at least this beach consisted of fairly small rocks, which is a start at least. And the water was cold, but not permanent damage to the nethers cold, so that was nice. A very comfortable level of saltiness, as well.
Take the Ferry to Perast
There are many private day tripcs you can take around Kotor Bay, of many different lengths and variations including to the Blue ave, but it is pretty hard to beat the value of the public, solar-powered Elettra ferry (an excellent environmental implementation, I should point out, considering my complaints about trash). The ferry leaves from the cruise ship dock. Make sure to get there early as ours left 5 minutes ahead of the scheduled time. €3 gets you a leisurely hour-long cruise through the bay, with two stops including Brcanj, to the captivating little village of Perast. Old, cute, with a bunch of medieval mansions (which they call palaces for some reason), a pleasant promenade, a church tower to climb and a swimming area at the end of town. Perast pretty much consists of the main bay-front street, then a couple small alleys where workers go to smoke and definitely not smile.
There is easy access to a pair of islands just off-shore with boats that leave for them every 10 minutes for 5 Euro, or you can take a private boat.
You can then take the boat back to Kotor again or hop one of the hourly buses that get you back in just 15 minutes (and for just €1). The bus leaves from in front of the church on the half hour, every hour except Sunday. Make sure to sit on the right side for the best views.
Visit Lovcen National Park
An easy day trip from Kotor, Lovcen National Park is one of Montenegro’s five national parks. It has some of the best hiking in Montenegro and is a great place for a walk and a picnic. Just as impressive is the road from Kotor to Lovcen which winds up the hill behind Kotor with fabulous views along the way. You can easily rent a car but consider getting a smaller one to make the turns on the serpentine road up easier to navigate.
How Long to Stay in Kotor
You could rush through Kotor and see the main highlights in one day but we would recommend staying for at least a couple days to enjoy quiet times in the old town, see some of the surrounding areas and soak in the views. Try to find the time to include Kotor if you are travelling or backpacking around Montenegro.
When to Visit Kotor
The shoulder seasons of spring and fall are the best times to visit Kotor as the weather is still warm but it is significantly less busy. Summer is high season with the accompanying high temperatures and crowds and cruise ships.
Accommodation in Kotor
Kotor Nest is in the midst of the old town in a charming building. It has a shared kitchen and lounge.
Hotel Monte Cristo is on the Maritime Museum square in the old town. There is parking only a 5-minute walk away (the old town is pedestrian only) and an excellent breakfast.
We stayed in one of many well-equipped AirBnBs just out of town. It was big, comfortable and had a nice balcony with a terrific view of the bay (although not quite as terrific as before the house in front added a second story).
Overall, we loved Kotor. Montenegro is one of the cheapest places to live in Europe, not to mention travel, and while the bay is as beautiful as we hoped, the old town far exceeded our expectations. Of course, there was a definite end-of-season vibe, and we definitely enjoyed everything better during the times when there wasn’t a cruise ship in port. I can imagine that things could get pretty ugly in high season but if you time your visit right and focus on the old town either early in the morning or late in the day, Kotor should be one of the major highlights of a trip to the Balkans.
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