Montenegro / Travel

Kotor, Montenegro: Meander Through Medieval Magic

I’ll begin with the takeaway. If you’re traveling in the Adriatic, east or west side, seriously consider making a stop in Kotor, Montenegro. Forget the cruise ship tourists, forget the comparisons to Dubrovnik.

Find a place to stay inside the old town, and spend at least two nights. Then wander and lose yourself in the picturesque cobblestone alleyways of this marvelous, Medieval town.

Kotor View 2

Tiny Kotor escaped damage in the Balkans war, and consequently, is one of the best preserved Medieval towns in the Mediterranean. And as splendid as the Stari Grad (old town) is, it owes a large part of its charm to its location. Wedged between a crystal-blue, idyllic bay and the precipitous and imposing slopes of the Dinaric Alps, its location couldn’t be more dramatic.

The winged lion of St Mark, Venice’s symbol from when the town was under Venetian rule (1420–1797).

The winged lion of St Mark, Venice’s symbol from when the town was under Venetian rule (1420–1797).

Like other cities in the Balkans, Kotor has a long and complex history. Originally a Roman colony, it was later ruled by a collection of colonizing powers, but today’s city took shape between the 12th and 14th Centuries as a Venetian outpost and trading center.

And most of the impressive palaces, churches, and monuments scattered around the town today show the architectural influence of these Italian rulers.

It’s only 60 miles south of Dubrovnik, and most travel guides are quick to make comparisons. The Rick Steves Travel Guide even called it “Little Dubrovnik,” but I’m not fully on-board with this description. Yes, both cities are well-preserved Medieval towns, and Kotor is smaller than Dubrovnik, but the very things that make Kotor different add to its authentic charm.

Twisting Alley

For a start, even though the historic town is small, visitors quickly learn that maps are essentially useless. None of the maze-like streets have names, and part of the fun is just wandering – which is exactly what’s needed to truly appreciate Kotor. With some aimless rambling and perseverance, the winding, narrow cobblestone alleys reveal their romantic charms.

Vaulted Ceiling

Tiny shops squeezed into ancient spaces, sun-drenched piazzas, stately palaces, historic churches, and quiet courtyards – all combine to create an intimate ambience all its own.

Fortress Walls

At first glance, what you’ll notice are Kotor’s impressive fortress walls. These heavily built fortifications surround the town and snake their way up the towering mountainside to the lonely hilltop castle of St. John. On a smaller scale, but reminiscent of China’s Great Wall, the construction effort must have been staggering. And if your travels have interrupted your exercise routine, here’s a chance for redemption. The hike to the top is 1350 steps – your very own Montenegrin StairMaster.

Terri once again demonstrated her skill at pulling rabbits out of the hat and found a delightful apartment, which was an enjoyable part of our experience. Our third-floor studio was in an ancient building just inside one of Kotor’s three gates and next door to the Monastery of St. Francis. The studio had attractive stone walls and was L-shaped with a window on each end. One window provided a nice view of the bell tower and mountains, and the other window was handy for keeping tabs on our sentinel watch-cats.

Good Mood Sign

As we’ve said in other posts, we really enjoyed our time in Dubrovnik, and encourage everyone to visit. But if you’re looking for a more intimate and less crowded experience, we also suggest a trip to Kotor. Yes, there are cruise ships, and like most of these coastal cities on the Adriatic, there’s no escaping the tourists. But during our visit the ships seemed smaller and less frequent, and consequently, the crowds weren’t as much of a problem. Early mornings and late afternoon lulls in tourists were perfect times for crowd-free walks. As always, our usual broken-record line is to go in the off-season. And besides, after a trip to Montenegro, you can boast of visiting one of Europe’s newest countries.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

P.S.
Our friend Tricia Mitchell and her husband Shawn hiked the 1,350 stairs to reach the top of the Kotor Fortress.  If you want to see some fabulous photos from the top of the mountain you will love her post.

Fortress Walls 2

76 thoughts on “Kotor, Montenegro: Meander Through Medieval Magic

    • Thanks Kelly. This part of the world is a great place to visit because the distances are short, the towns are way cool, and the scenery is beautiful. If you can make it, you won’t be disappointed. ~James

  1. Tip noted! I can certainly see why it has been given the Little Dubrovnik name. As always I love the unique finds the two of you bring readers. Perhaps Terri should start a travel agency?

    • Even though Kotor and Dubrovnik are two sides on the same coin, seeing both really does complete the picture. Kotor was much more intimate, and we liked the fact that it was a small package. There’s tons of bus service along the coast, so it’s a good base for exploration. And the hike up the mountain should really appeal to you two. ~James

      • We just got home Sue. We were really torn about leaving the Balkans. We wanted to stay longer, and could have, but since we moved north, this is our first real autumn in a long time, and we didn’t want to miss it. In fact, we’ve dumped the Euro clothes out of our suitcases and are putting in camping clothes for a trip to the mountains next week. And then of course, it’s horse racing season at Keeneland here in Lexington, so we can’t miss that. We went yesterday in fact. ~James

      • I’ve wanted to go to Croatia, Slovakia & Slovenia for a long time but never made it to Eastern Europe when I lived nearer & now I’m so far away. Your posts are making me very envious indeed. Like everywhere else I want to go: one day…

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog. We’ve visited a few of the areas on the coast, and you’re right, they are nice. The extensive and cheap bus service makes it easy to explore the area. ~James

  2. Terri & James, so glad to hear the two of you made it to Kotor, and that you enjoyed it as we did! It looks as though you did make the ascent to the fortress as well? I had to smile when I saw the mention of your “sentinel watch-cats”. We had one special feline in particular, which we nicknamed “Cat-tor”. Cat-tor would sit three stories below our Kotor apartment, clearly waiting for our neighbors to dish out their daily treats to him. We sometimes indulged Cat-tor, who would look up with his beautiful yellow-green eyes, imploring us to share a morsel of meat with him. Coincidentally, he looked a bit like our future Ukrainian foster kitten, Cocoa. Where did you head after Kotor?

    • Thanks Tricia. I remember reading about “Ca-tor” in your post. There were a couple of kitties that hung around outside our window, but the folks across the alley fed them, so they had little interest in us. Did you also see tons of cats in Dubrovnik? There were even more than in Kotor. After Kotor, we flew to Skopje, Macedonia. Given the refugees and border crossing issues we decided a flight was a better idea. We were surprised by Skopje and really enjoyed it, and as you can imagine, there will a post or two. Watch this space. ~James

    • Bertie, one of the appealing things about this trip so far is how much we’ve learned about the Balkans. We had heard about these countries and cities for years, but had little knowledge about them. And one great thing about travel (and travel blogging) is that it motivates us to go to museums, visit historic sights, and do a bit of research to learn about the area. ~James

    • Yvonne, I’m a map person, so it took a little adjusting to finally realize that my map was useless, and I’d just have to wander around. The good thing about Kotor, is that no matter where you go in town, the mountains are always looming overhead for orientation. ~James

  3. Breathtaking! Aimless wandering is a great way to find hidden treasures. Terri sure has a knack for finding splendid places to stay! Are the stair the only way to the castle? It would take me all day to walk up 1350 stairs! Love the watch cat!

    • You’re right Laura, Terri has the knack. Of course, we’ve learned from trial and error, and had a few stinkers, but usually the places she finds are wonderful. One thing that we’re seeing is that with more internet availability around the world, companies and landlords are getting their act together on rentals. In these days of feedback and comments it’s easier to spot a bad rental. As we’ve said many times, having a simple apartment vs. a hotel room makes all the difference. ~James

    • Our policy is that we don’t do rental cars, which really simplifies our travel life. If we can’t get there by public transport (bus, train, or taxi) we don’t go. In a few cases we might hire a private car and driver, but not often. On this trip so far we’ve mostly used buses. There is train service, but in general they’re poorly funded by the government, so trains are really old and not very nice. Figuring out the right destination in Cyrillic has been our biggest challenge. ~James

  4. This looks like an incredible area to visit James. Some of my best & most interesting days of travel have been to get rid of the map & just lose yourself in the place where you are.

    • I must admit Lynn, that I’m a map guy, and I likes my maps. But, Terri and I enjoy getting rid of the map for a while and searching out sights that get us into non-tourist neighborhoods so we can just wander around. Our visit to Podgorica was that way. We’ve discovered some very cool things in cities large and small. ~James

  5. Thanks for the post on this most intriguing place. I don’t know if I will ever make it to that part of the world, but you have put Kotor on my “just in case” list!
    We spend 6 months a year in Mexico, most of it in Oaxaca, and I totally agree with your above comment about public transportation. NOT having a car is so liberating (and much cheaper) and also puts one in much closer contact with people living their daily lives than being cocooned in a car. We learn so much more, and figuring out just how to get from A to B adds to the fun and adventure!

    • Marilyn, I agree with you on all your points about why public transport is better. We spent a month in the Central Highlands of Mexico, and used buses exclusively. And despite the public image of Mexican buses, all of or trips and the bus services were excellent. Nice, clean buses (with the all-important WC), that ran on time. They were an pleasant surprise. In fact, the bus trip from Mexico City to Oaxaca is one of the most scenic rides I’ve ever taken. BTW, I’m très envious of your 6 months in Oaxaca. Do you have property there? ~James

      • We don’t have property in Mexico, we rent a funky studio apartment that is in the historical district of Oaxaca, around the corner from the Basilica de la Soledad. We pay for it year round so we can leave stuff there and keep the same apartment. We are on our way there right now, having stopped in Denver to visit family.
        As you mentioned, the long distance buses are wonderful, plentiful, and affordable. The more local the buses become, the more rickety they become, but they usually get you where you are going, and if not, another one or a colectivo will be along momentarily! When our son visited we took a trip to Hierve al Agua that involved five different types of transportation – their favorite was in the back of a pick up with 13 other people and the milk cans!

      • Sounds wonderful Marilyn. You’re living the high life. Given our desire for a simple life, we’ve never been too keen on owning two properties, so renting as you do sounds like a good option. I’ve also heard that buying and owning property in Mexico can be a thorny issue. Have a great winter! ~James

    • It’s a beautiful part of the world Jo. And on one of your trips to Portugal, you should jump over to Barcelona for a long weekend in Croatia or Montenegro. As I said to Pam (who lives in Spain), Vueling has super cheap, direct flights from Barcelona to Dubrovnik. We took it and is was perfect. ~James

    • The wonderful thing about the eastern Adriatic Coast is that there’s so much to see there, and the distances between cities are short. There’s frequent bus service up and down the coast, so you can set up a base somewhere and see lots of places. I hope you can make it. ~James

  6. I always enjoy your positive take on things, probably because that’s my default mode as well! I also found Kotor to be more than a smaller version of Dubrovnik; in fact, other than some history and the red roofs, I found them to have pretty different personas. I wish I could have done what you did and plop down there for more than a day so I could wander and get lost a bit more. Great photos!

    • “Different personas” – well put Lexie. Being able to spend a few days there made all the difference. Early mornings and late afternoons were brilliant. The tourists had vanished, shop owners were locking up, cafes were folding the umbrellas, and kids came out to kick soccer balls in the alley. These scenes were a big part of our impression of Kotor. As to our positive take on things, I guess that’s just how we roll. As you know, it’s so much easier to be negative, but who wants to live that way. Life’s too short. ~James

  7. Kotor is firmly on my list, my son has recently visited and loved it. I am glad you managed to find a nice apartment and lived like a local for few days, such a great way to experience a place in depth. Your photos are beautiful.

    • You won’t be disappointed Gilda. As I’m sure your son told you, it’s a very special place. And for us, having an apartment makes a huge difference. We go to a restaurant and have a greal local dish. Then we go to the market to see if we can buy the supplies to make it at our apartment. We make some great discoveries this way. On this trip we’ve fallen in love with ajvar. ~James

    • Honestly, our photos don’t do it justice. Actually, it’s a very difficult place to get decent photos. When it’s really sunny, the alleys are half dark, half light, and the bright blue skies drive our auto light meter crazy. Believe me, we had to cull a lot of our shots to come up with this post. ~James

  8. Like you James, I love small alleys where you can explore and wander to your hearts content. I will definitely put Kotor on my route next time I make it back to that part of the world. –Curt

    • Curt, you and Peggy will love this area. As I said to someone else: The wonderful thing about the eastern Adriatic Coast is that there’s so much to see there, and the distances between cities are short. There’s frequent bus service up and down the coast, so you can set up a base somewhere and see lots of places. It’s a major bang for the travel buck area. And for a mountain goat like you, the hikes will be another attraction. ~James

  9. Great Blog – I adore Kator! My boyfriend and I travelled around the Balkans at the beginning of the year and Kotor (and Montengro in general) remains one of my favourite places. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • Thanks for the comment Helen and for dropping by the blog. The Adriatic Coast is appearing on more and more travel lists, and for good reason. And even with the crowds, we’ll always be glad that we visited. ~James

  10. Cruise ships find a lot of unique and picturesque places and, fortunately for travelers with a little more time and flexibility, it’s easy to time one’s sight seeing around the cruise crowds. And what a gem Kotor is! Loved looking at the architectural details through your camera lens and going along on the virtual tour. Looking forward to when we can visit Montenegro and wander through those winding streets! Anita

    • Anita, when you visit, plan on Kotor and Dubrovnik. As I and others have said, they really do have a different feel. And this is a major bang for the travel buck area to visit. The wonderful thing about the eastern Adriatic Coast is that there’s so much to see there, and the distances between cities are short. There’s frequent (and cheap) bus service up and down the coast, so you can set up a base somewhere and see lots of places. ~James

    • Thanks Jet. Any trip to the Adriatic (which I highly recommend) should include a stop in Kotor. The state of preservation in the city is astounding, and its small size makes it easy to explore. ~James

    • Cathy, Montenegro, like the rest of the Balkans has had a turbulent history. I’d be interesting to talk with someone who grew up there. The mountains there are incredibly scenic and when combined with the perfect ocean views, it couldn’t be much more scenic. ~James

    • If you can visit, I promise that you won’t be disappointed. If you can, avoid the high season and go in the shoulder season. There will be fewer tourists, and lower prices. Always a good thing. ~James

  11. I totally agree with you to visit places in the off-season if at all possible. I am sure the weather was still great in Oct/Sept whenever you visited. Your post makes me want to check out the city and the Balkans in general!

    • Actually Jeff, the weather was nearly perfect. Mid 70’s in the daytime, and 50-ish at night. A true Mediterranean climate. We’re lucky to be able to pick and choose when we travel, and as you know well, it makes all the difference. ~James

  12. Croatia has been on my radar for awhile now =) I ALMOST went there for my summer holiday this year, but then we went to Spain again. =) This little town definitely looks like it’s worth visiting. The water looks perfect – can one also swim around there?

    • We didn’t go to the beaches Tanny, but lots of summer visitors go for swimming. Kotor only has one very small beach, so if swimming and sunning is important, it might be better to base yourself somewhere along the coast with better beaches (like Budva). But there’s good bus service up and down the coast so basing somewhere else and day tripping to Kotor would be easy to do. I hope you can make it. It really is lovely. ~James

  13. Just lovely photos and place. You’ve made me want to go there. I don’t spend much time in Europe, but maybe it’s time now. I have a friend who bought a home in Montenegro

  14. Agreed, it really is a little gem!

    We only passed through back in 2013, but loved strolling the shaded old town during the summer heat, and appreciated that it was at least a little more peaceful than nearby Dubrovnik.

    Then as you rightly mentioned, there’s that stunning location on the Bay of Kotor!

    • I’m not sure why Chris, but even today, Kotor seems to have less cruise ship traffic than Dubrovnik. It may have to do with the size of the bay and access for the larger ships, as well as smaller areas to tie up. Whatever the reason, it makes a nice contrast to Dubrovnik. ~James

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