Kotor was one of the major reasons I decided to visit Montenegro in the first place.
Just looking at photos of the city’s historic fortress towering above the deepest natural fjord-like bay in the Mediterranean Sea was enough to encourage me to book a flight there.
Kotor is somewhere that successfully manages to pull out all the stops: it’s got everything you’d expect from a city – historic sights, delicious food, and vast array of nightlife options, but with the feel of a quaint little town that’s surrounded by the kind of mountains you’d expect to find in a remote rural location.
And because its Old Town was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1979, development has been restricted here ever since, making the city instantly more appealing than its coastal neighbour, Budva, with its modern, unsightly apartment blocks and overcrowded beaches.
I visited Kotor as part of a 7-day road trip around Montenegro, allowing myself the equivalent of three full days with which to explore the city.
Here are seven reasons why this stunning coastal city in Montenegro totally charmed my socks off.
#1 The hike up to and views from St. John’s Fortress
If you only do one thing while you’re in Kotor, it must be the 1200-metre climb up to St. John’s Fortress (Kotor Fortress on maps), via the old fortifications. My advice would be to set off as early as possible; by 11am it’s unbearably hot in summer and there’s hardly any shade on the ascent. There are 1350 steps altogether (locals believe it to be nearer 1500; I didn’t count!), but because you’ll be stopping to take photos every few minutes, it doesn’t feel like too much of an arduous activity.
There are two entry points up on to the walls, either near the North Gate or behind Trg. od Salate, that carry an admission fee of €3. There is a third, alternative route up to the fortress which won’t cost you a penny, but that is deserving of a mention all of its own (see point #2).
We began our climb around 9am, when the air was cool and a hazy cloud lingered over the bay.
A series of narrow stone steps climb steadily up the mountainside. There’s no room for passing, which is another reason I’d recommend you start early. If you have to jump down on to the uneven rocky terrain beside the steps, in order to give priority to those on their way down, make sure you watch your footing!
The first landmark you’ll reach (unless you count the little shrines dotted at regular intervals beside the path; there’s one in the photo above) is the Church of Our Lady of Remedy. Built in the early 16th century, this tiny little Roman Catholic church can only be reached on foot. Its name is derived from the fact that the church is said to have healed worshippers of the plague. Nowadays it’s probably (along with the Church of our Lady of the Rocks in Perast) the most photographed church in Montenegro.
The higher you climb the more dramatic the views become across the Bay of Kotor.
Through the old fortifications in the opposite direction you can see the old caravan trail, the Ladder of Cattaro, as it zig-zags its way up the mountain. If the wind is blowing in the right direction you can hear the odd goat bleating in the distance, as locals herd them along these ancient tracks.
Although you’ll probably be keen to reach the top of St. John’s Fortress, make sure you take the time to explore all the nooks and crannies on the way up (because you’ll probably never be able to find them again on the walk back down!)
And whilst the sun never properly burned through the hazy cloud, up at the top it was every bit as special as the climb made us hope it would be.
#2 Taking the ‘alternative’ route up to the fortress along the Ladder of Cattaro
If you want to avoid the €3 admission fee to the city walls, as well as the majority of other tourists, then either choose to climb up to the fortress before 8am or after 8pm (although I wouldn’t recommend making the climb (or descent for that matter!) in the dark), or take the alternative route.
The ancient caravan trail – also known as the Ladder of Cattaro – starts to the right of the bridge after you exit the Old Town by Trg. od Drva and cross the river Škurda. It zig-zags its way up the mountain, passing a couple of little cafes with incredible views of the bay, and an ancient stone church.
Just behind the church is where you’ll find the path back towards the fortress, where a short climb and scramble will take you through a window in the fortifications.
Unlike the route we took up to the fortress on day one – where, even in spite of our relatively early start, there was a steady stream of other tourists doing exactly the same – the only people I encountered on the old caravan trail were locals, who would smile and wish me “dobrý den” (“good day”) as I passed.
It was a beautiful, peaceful experience, and one that I enjoyed significantly more than the option of staying with Stu and looking at boats in the harbour. There are times when I love to wander off alone in search of my own adventures, and this was definitely one of them.
#3 There are cats. Lots of cats.
Kotor is actually very famous for its cats. There’s even a shop and a museum dedicated to them. The museum is rather odd, but worth a look for €1, and the shop contains some adorably cute, but completely unnecessary and rather expensive products that you’ll probably want to take home with you. Much as I was very tempted, I successfully managed to resist the urge to purchase some cat chopsticks (I already have around 20 sets of chopsticks from various parts of Vietnam and Japan), a cat soap dish, and a cat umbrella.
Aside from the official cat store, a number of other establishments tempt cat-obsessed shoppers with various cat-related trinkets, as well as welcoming the cats themselves with food and shelter.
You’ll find Kotor’s cats all over the city – up at the fortress, sauntering along the walls or asleep in the long grass at the side of the path, or down in the old town, cooling themselves on shaded stone paving slabs or napping in the heat of the afternoon sun.
And Kotor’s cats aren’t fussy about where they sleep.
#4 Wandering through the streets of its old town will remind you of how charming Dubrovnik used to be before the crowds arrived
Ok, so Dubrovnik will never completely lose its charm as far as I’m concerned, but I remember returning in 2012, five years after my initial visit, and discovering how noticeably the growth of tourism had changed the city.
Although Kotor is becoming increasingly popular as a tourist destination, especially since budget airlines Easyjet and Ryanair introduced flights from the UK in 2013, it’s still possible to wander large parts of its old town and escape the crowds that you’ll find in Trg od Oruzja (close to the Sea Gate).
The southern parts of the old town, on route to the Gurdic Spring, are especially peaceful and largely devoid of tourists.
#5 You’ll find the coolest cafe-bars hidden down narrow cobblestone alleyways
I didn’t find what became my favourite drinking haunt in Kotor, in a guidebook. Or in fact on Instagram or Trip Advisor. I stumbled upon it by letting my curiosity guide me during an aimless wander through the streets of the city’s old town.
Containing unusual artwork, mismatched furniture, and an abundance of plants and cacti, with atmospheric lighting, a chilled vibe, and a resident DJ spinning the kind of tunes I immediately wanted to add to my Spotify playlist, Letrika won me over from the moment I arrived.
You’ll need to get here early to find it as empty as it is in these shots; look out for this amusing sign that points you in the right direction.
#5 You can dine inside a glass box overhanging the sea with beautiful panoramic views of Kotor Bay
As you wander around the harbour just outside Kotor’s old town walls, it’s difficult to miss this contemporary structure with tinted blue glass. It looks rather out of place – though not unattractive – surrounded by imposing rugged mountains, ancient stone churches and humble low-rise buildings with terracotta-tiled rooftops.
The glass box houses Kotor’s most exclusive restaurant – Galion. If you look closely at the photo above, you can see the crisp white tablecloths and colourful hanging lampshades.
You have to cross a little moat in order to enter, and you’ll find no menus (and therefore no prices) outside. Just bring a keen sense of curiosity and your credit card, and you’ll have an unforgettable evening in one of the most beautiful settings around.
#6 You can feed your cheese obsession
Or if you don’t have one yet, you may do by the time you leave. Just head to The Harbour Pub and order yourself some melted cheese shapes, coated in breadcrumbs, fried, and served with a redcurrant dipping sauce. I guarantee you it’s the best thing EVER.
While you’re there, and if you have room for anything else, I can also recommend the black risotto and the smoked salmon bruschetta.
#7 You can take a private boat tour around Kotor Bay
Whilst looking at boats in the harbour on the morning that I decided to hike up the Ladder of Cattaro, Stu struck up a conversation with one of pilots who owned a unique vessel that was part boat and part submarine. Below deck the sides and bottom of the vessel were made of toughened glass, giving the feeling of being under water, and the ability to watch the marine life as if you were scuba diving amongst it.
For an hour-long private boat tour around Kotor Bay and a unique submarine-like experience, as well as the opportunity to pilot the boat ourselves and to swim in the warm clear waters, we paid just €12.
Totally and utterly worth every cent.
Where we stayed in Kotor
You really couldn’t beat the location of our city apartment just steps from St. Luke’s Square. Whilst it was on the small side and you had to watch your head as you wandered around due to it being in the attic and having sloping ceilings, it was perfectly adequate for what we needed, and the wifi worked well.
We paid €130 for three nights, which worked out at €65 (£57/$77) each.
Although we didn’t stay there due to it being full by the time we got around to booking our accommodation, we’ve also heard great things about Hostel Old Town Kotor, which offers private rooms as well as dorms.
Have you visited Kotor? What did you love best about the city? If not, have I persuaded you to add it to your bucket list?
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