Partially hidden from the wide, blue Adriatic by towering limestone cliffs, Kotor is a treat for the eyes. Actually, it's one of the most beautiful places on the Mediterranean, and the best way to approach its shores is through its ancient bay. Try to spend a day there. Or more; it's worth it.
If you're approaching from the Adriatic Sea, it feels almost as though you are cruising through a Mediterranean fjord.
TIP: If you are lucky enough to arrive by cruise ship, wake up early so you can enjoy the remarkable scenery on the way in. It will take at least an hour for the ship to navigate there from the open Adriatic. If you like to shoot landscapes, be sure to keep your camera handy as well.
Easy day trip from Dubrovnik
Kotor is no “little Dubrovnik” by any stretch of the imagination, which is why so many visitors opt to take a day trip from Dubrovnik to Kotor. This town feels more lived-in and authentic, and it also lacks Dubrovnik's prettified-for-tourists vibe.
Too, thanks to the picturesque Balkan mountains and mirrorlike waters of Boka Kotorska—what the locals call the Bay of Kotor—this destination has a special appeal Dubrovnik will never have: raw, natural beauty.
Whether you're visiting Kotor as part of a cruise or arriving by land, it won't take long to see why Kotor's medieval city and picturesque landscape were awarded World Heritage Site status. The town and its surroundings are stunning.
I can't find the words to adequately describe a place with this much beauty. I don't know who said it, but if “a picture is worth a thousand words,” this article is our essay.
The view from St. John's Fortress
The most stunning view of Kotor is from St John’s Fortress, up on the hillside. Or at least, that's what we heard from fellow passengers who did the hike. To be honest, we didn't have the stamina or desire to endure the steep, 1350-step climb to the top, so we chose to see the fortress from Old Town Kotor, down at water level.
If you're fit, the hike takes around 45 minutes. If you’re unfit, there are plenty of places to stop and rest as you go up, but it will take a lot longer. You'll have to determine if that's how you want to spend a large chunk of your one day in Kotor.
It costs €3 to enter. (The entrance is manned at 8 am; if you arrive before then, you can enter free.)
Open-top tour of Kotor, Montenegro
Kotor has an open top hop-on/hop-off tour bus. It doesn't drive through the walled city but it does drive all the way down the coastal road. Get your cameras ready for some amazing views!
The mist and early morning light were perfect for photography, so we immediately jumped on for a ride to the far end. We wanted to see the landscape and hear the guide's narration about the area and its history.
TIP: If you are leaving from Kotor, sit on the left to get unobstructed views of the bay.
TIP: If you prefer something more customized or aren't fond of buses, a private tour of Perast, Budva & Kotor is another option.
Risan, Montenegro: Ancient Roman ruins
When the bus reached the hamlet of Risan, our driver got out to chat with some of his friends. He told us he would be on break for a few minutes, so we could either wait or visit a small excavation site to see some Roman mosaics. As fans of ancient history and unknown sites, there was no way we would miss this! We followed the rest of the passengers inside and bought a ticket.
Inside, we were met by a young, knowledgeable guide who explained that our meager admission fee went to pay for upkeep and further work. (As a new country, Montenegro doesn't have the budget to support excavations like this.) She took us through the site to show us the remains of a Roman house dating from the 2nd century A.D. and explained about how they had lived and what we were looking at.
Not much remains of the home's walls, but there are some intricate and fairly well-preserved mosaic floors. Unlike the way things are done in many places we had no problem getting close enough to really see the details and take pictures.
When the bus reached Perast, we hopped off to look around. We were curious to see what a coastal Montenegrin town might be like.
Aside from a few guest houses and restaurants, there didn't seem to be a whole lot to the sleepy waterfront. Perast is pedestrian-only and it only takes about ten minutes to walk from one end to the other.
Walking through the town, we found the small Perast Museum, housed in an old palazzo that dates from the Venetian empire. The previous owner had been a Montenegrin sea captain, obviously, because the inside was full of wonderful old furniture as well as detailed ship models. It also contained exceptional paintings and old weapons that gave an idea of how the well-to-do lived its heyday. I thought the highlight was the second floor balcony. It offers a remarkable view of Kotor Bay and its two islands.
TIP: After our day in Kotor, we learned that we'd missed a ton of stuff in Perast: 16 Baroque palaces, 17 Catholic churches, several important Orthodox structures, and a series of nine defensive towers. We probably could have found enough to do to fill a second day.
Cruising on the Bay of Kotor
Kotor Bay is so beautiful that you will likely want to spend a good bit of time just enjoying the views.
Many companies offer scenic boat trips on the bay. You can find one at the last minute; the tourist office near the city gate has a list of providers. Or you can plan ahead and research and book your ideal tour before you arrive. (You might like this one.)
If you take the open-top bus, we suggest hopping off in Perast to catch a boat out to the islands. The first of these islands is called Sveti Dorde (Island of Saint George), and it is the only natural island on the Bay of Kotor. Its most striking features are the Benedictine monastery of Saint George, which dates from the 12th century, a 9th century abbey, and an old graveyard for the old nobility of Perast.
Sadly, Sveti Dorde is closed to visitors and you can only see the buildings from the water. However, there is a second island nearby, and this one can be visited. The island is called Our Lady of the Rocks and even though it was man-made years ago, the scenery made us glad we had decided to pay for the boat ride. The views were beyond incredible.
Legend of Our Lady of the Rocks
Legend has it that the island began on July 22, 1452, when two sailors passed the Monastery of St. George as they returned from a difficult voyage. As the story goes, they discovered an icon of the Madonna and Child resting on a rock in a shallow area near the island. They considered this a sign that the Almighty had guided them home, and so they pledged an oath to build a church on the spot.
After every successful voyage, local sailors and fishermen would lay a rock in this very spot in gratitude for a safe return. This tradition continued down the centuries and eventually the many rocks grew into this islet. As is typical in Catholicism, they built a church on the spot.
The custom of throwing rocks into the sea is alive even today. Every year on the sunset of July 22, local residents celebrate an event called fašinada by taking their boats out to the island and throwing rocks in.
The view from the upstairs ruin was stunning.
Inside the small Roman Catholic church are many historic paintings that were donated by the area's devout, including a 17th century baroque masterpiece from Perast. The rest of the church is beautiful as well.
But we didn't want to sit on the island all day … we still hadn't seen Kotor!
Kotor Old Town
Back in Kotor we walk through its gate and found plenty of natural beauty, Venetian architecture, and ancient history.
Kotor was settled during ancient Roman times (168 BC) and historical sites abound. Two outstanding ones are Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, which was built in 1166, and Kotor's ancient walls. The walls, which stretch for 4.5 km (3 mi) directly above the city, were built for protection by the Republic of Venice.
Those Venetians went everywhere along the Adriatic!
Kotor’s main square
Kotor’s main square, Piazza of the Arms, has a beautiful old stone clock tower and offers a variety of excellent restaurants, cafés and shops that will keep you busy for quite a while.
TIP: The less touristed side streets offer better prices, more attentive service and more authentic local dishes.
We also discovered a tasting room for a local winery that produced absolutely amazing local wines at unbelievably low prices. Montenegrin wine is a treasure and the world is missing out. (Sorry, no photos. We were preoccupied, lol.)
Many of Kotor's buildings have its typical arches and balconies, which stands to reason considering how well preserved it is—and how long Venice was there.
Here are a few photos from churches we visited in Kotor.
Getting to Kotor by land
Thanks to a thoughtful reader, I now know that Kotor has an airport (code ZKQ), but if you are nearby, it is easy to drive there. The roads are well maintained and hug the coast at times.
If you're in Dubrovnik, plenty of companies offer day trips to Kotor, as it's only 94 km/58 mi away (here's a popular one). Or you can do it yourself and take a bus. Either way, relax and enjoy some beautiful views.
TIP: If traveling by land, don't forget to bring your passport.