Inscribed on the UNESCO world heritage list in the same year as its larger cousin 70km up the coast, Kotor and its walled Old Town has long been hailed as a less crowded alternative to Dubrovnik. Only last year, the New York Times jumped on the same bandwagon. But as we found out in July 2019, the quiet times are over, and mass tourism truly has arrived in the once tranquil, fish-rich Bay of Kotor.
Don’t get us wrong: Kotor Bay is magical. It’s worth a visit. And it certainly deserves more than a few hours on a bus trip or cruise ship stopover. If you want to experience Kotor Bay off the beaten path and without the tourist crowds our article is for you.
When best to visit Kotor Bay
On our first morning in Kotor, we were awoken by what I imagine the sinking of the Titanic sounded: metal screeching under pressure as a giant monster of a ship pushed past our window. It was only 0700h, and the sun had just popped over the mountains on the other side of Kotor Bay. Later that day, a total of four big cruise ships had anchored in the bay. Needless to say: on our first day in Kotor, we didn’t go anywhere.
With Kotor welcoming almost 700,000 cruise passengers every year and countless more day-trippers from all around the region, you want to time your visit right.
If you have a choice avoid the busy summer months, especially July and August when many countries in Europe have their school holidays. But even earlier/later in the year, the Port of Kotor gets very busy: the main cruise ship season is between May and October.
The quietest time is between November and April. Weather-wise though, winter is not the best season for the Bay of Kotor: It’s cold, wet and often cloudy.
We prefer May/June, and while it may still be busy, you can reduce your crowd encounters by
- staying outside the Old Town – there are plenty of amazing accommodation options along the bay shore with good public transport links to Kotor;
- checking out the cruise ship schedule and avoiding days with more than one cruise ship in town;
- heading to key sites early (and be over and done with your visit by the time the day trippers arrive); and
- exploring sites that are a bit more off the beaten path – we’ll share a few ideas with you below.
How to get to and around Kotor Bay (without a car)
To/from the airport
The nearest airport is in Tivat, a mere 15 minutes by bus or taxi from Kotor (through the road tunnel), with frequent flights between May and October from many European countries. Intercity Buses from Bar, Budva or Podgorica to Kotor (via Tivat) generally stop at Tivat Airport. Bus fares cost around EUR3.00. A taxi between Tivat Airport and Kotor costs around EUR10.00.
Another option is the airport of the capital Podgorica:
- It’s a flat 10 minutes’ walk from the terminal to the Aerodrom Train Station (use Maps.Me to find your way). The train to Podgorica takes 7 minutes (costing EUR1.20). Check the train times though as trains are not that frequent. A taxi from the airport to Podgorica’s bus terminal costs around EUR12.00 and takes about 15 minutes.
- The main bus and train stations in Podgorica are adjacent to one another. From Podgorica, there are frequent intercity bus services to Kotor via Budva, taking 2 – 2.5 hours and costing around EUR7 per person.
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Around the Bay of Kotor
Blue Line operates a public bus service, connecting the villages and towns between
- Kotor and Kostanjica (along the right side of the bay via Perast and Risan);
- Kotor and Tivat (along the left side of the bay via Prčanj); and
- Tivat and Radovići as well as Krašići (both on the Luštica Peninsula).
3-Day Itinerary for the Bay of Kotor
Arrival Day – Take a sunset stroll
Take it easy today. Check in to your accommodation. Go for a stroll along the bay shore. Pinch yourself amid all this beauty. Then, as the day trippers head back to their buses and onto their ships, start your stroll around the Old Town and atop its city walls. Watch the colors changing as the sun disappears behind the mountains on the other side.
Day 2 – Hike to Kotor Fortress and visit the Maritime Museum
Today, you’ll hike up to Kotor Fortress, the fortifications towering high above the town. It’s a steep hike, so get up early. You don’t just want to avoid the crowds but the full force of the sun as well. In early July, we started just before 0700h (sunrise was at 0515h), and we reached the top just as the sun popped over the mountains.
There is not just one path leading up to Kotor Fortress. We recommend to
- hike up via the Ladder of Kotor, an old serpentine trail – with a refreshing stopover at one of the two family-run cafes/shops you pass (access to the fortress complex is via a window near the Chapel of St John – use MapsMe for directions); and
- walk back down via the stone steps that take you past the Chapel of Our Lady of Remedy below the fortress – ultimately turning right to come out in the middle of the Old Town or turning left to exit the Old Town through the South Gate.
Unless you’re doing this hike on a Sunday, check out the Farmers Market just south of the Main Gate (Open Monday to Saturday 0800h-1400h) or just quench your thirst with a cool drink at one of the Old Town cafes.
In the afternoon, head to the Maritime Museum to learn about Kotor’s long and interesting history.
Day 3 – Check out the Roman mosaics in Risan and explore Perast
You continue to immerse yourself in the Bay’s history. In fact, today, you’ll be travelling even further back in time.
Your first stop is the Archaeological Site in Risan. Blue Line buses to Risan leave Kotor from the Farmers Market by the Main Gate into the Old Town at about 15 minutes past the full hour (0815h, 0915h, etc). You could also try and catch one of the intercity buses heading to Herceg Novi (just let the bus driver know to let you off in Risan). It takes about 40 minutes to reach Risan (less if you take the intercity bus), followed by a short walk from the bus stop to the Archaeological Site.
Spend the morning at the Archaeological Site in Risan
Risan is the oldest settlement at the Bay of Kotor and one of the richest yet least explored archaeological sites in Montenegro. The ancient Illyrian city with massive fortifications was first mentioned in the 2nd half of the 4th century BC. It was an important commercial harbour and trading centre, located on the coast, at the intersection of important trade routes. Risan was under Roman occupation for over 500 years – from the 2nd century BC to the 5th century AD.
Archaeological excavations in Risan haven taken place since the 1870s. In the 1930s, five large rooms of an extensive structure were uncovered, four of which had preserved mosaic floors. The archaeologists called it the Villa of Hypnos, after the most colourful mosaic depicting Hypnos, the God of Sleep. Over the years, a total of 14 rooms has been uncovered (7 of which with mosaics), all arranged around a central courtyard. Studies have determined that the structure, an ancient Roman guesthouse, was built in the 2nd century AD.
A small museum forms part of the Roman villa complex, with bilingual information boards explaining in detail the excavations and findings in the ancient city of Risan. Among them are significant discoveries, such as the only known Hellenistic bathroom in Europe outside Greece and the largest Hellenistic coin hoard ever discovered (a whopping 12 kilograms), depicting a previously unknown king who appears to have lived in the third-century BC.
The mosaics are protected from the elements by a roof structure. While the museum provides a leaflet in multiple languages, do make sure you attend the short free guided tour and take the time to read the information boards along the wall. The site is on the route of organised bus tours, but the tours only stop for about 10 minutes with a quick walk around the mosaics – nowhere near enough to appreciate the historical importance of the site.
Blue Line buses from Risan back towards Kotor leave Risan (opposite to where you got off the bus) about 20 minutes past the full hour (1020h, 1120h, etc). Get off the bus in Perast (about half-way between Risan and Kotor). If you missed the first bus stop in Perast (just after the turn-off into town), get off at the second bus stop (in the middle of town) or at the third bus stop (just after the road through town re-joins the main road) and then walk back.
Spend your afternoon in Perast
The small town of Perast, a former boat-building centre, has an altogether different feel to Kotor: it’s laid back in a sophisticated way. Many visitors head straight to Our Lady of the Rocks (Gospa od Skrpjela), a small church on a man-made island just offshore in the Bay of Kotor. Sadly, that’s also often all they get to see.
Instead, we invite you to take your time and explore this quaint place: Enjoy lunch at one of the cafes along the waterfront. Explore its back streets. Climb the Bell Tower of the Church of St Nikola (watch your steps as there are a few holes in the floor). Then head to the Perast Museum.
The museum is housed in a 17th century palace, one of many you’ll come across when walking around Perast (though some are still in ruins after the devastating destruction of the 1979 earthquake). Belonging to the Bujovic family, a wealthy local family, the palace once stood right by the bay shore (the road in front of it was built later).
The museum’s exhibitions comprise the collections of several noble families from Perast who were involved in maritime trade, the navy and shipbuilding, as well as public archives and library collections. Museum artefacts tell the history of Perast from the 15th century to the beginning of the 20th century. The majority of exhibits showcase Perast’s golden era when the town enjoyed relative autonomy under Venetian rule (1420-1797) and experienced its most significant economic, social and cultural development.
Strategically positioned opposite the entrance to Kotor Bay, Perast was an important check-point for defence and trading purposes. The shipbuilding skills of Perast’s inhabitants were mentioned in documents as early as the 14th century. Perast’s yards built ships from 6 tons at the beginning of the 16th century to 480 tons at the end of the 18th century. And in 1698, the first maritime school of the Balkans was established in Perast, famous students including the sons of the Russian Emperor.
Under the subsequent reigns of the Russian, French and Austro-Hungarian Empires in the 19th and into the early 20th century, Perast sadly lost its importance. Thankfully, the local council in 1937 decided to establish the Perast Museum to preserve what was left of the glorious days:
- The naval collection on the ground floor showcases ship models, navigational instruments and charts;
- On the first floor, you can find portraits and paintings belonging to Perast’s noble families; and
- Decorative objects, weaponry and clothing are shown in the ethnographic exhibition on the second floor.
The museum also exhibits furniture belonging to the collection of the Viskovic family. There are excellent free guided tours (just ask when you pay your entry fee). You can also purchase a guidebook providing detailed information on the different exhibitions and history behind many of the artefacts. The guidebook is available in multiple languages.
Make sure you check out the magnificent views over Kotor Bay from the sea-facing terrace on the first floor.
If it’s a warm sunny day, cool off with a refreshing bath at Peskovita Plaža Perast (near the first bus stop as you enter the town coming from Risan).
If you’d like to add a few more days
You can easily spend more time in and around Kotor. So, if three days only whet your appetite for more keep on reading.
Water = Ships = Seafarers
If you can’t tell by now that the Bay of Kotor has a rich naval heritage, you didn’t read our post properly. If that floats your boat (pun intended) we’ve got a few more options for you.
Always wanted to see the inside of a submarine? Well, the Naval Heritage Collection in Tivat has two (and heaps of information about the more recent naval history of Kotor Bay). Combine a visit with a bus ride along the bay shore (rather than through the tunnel) and through the small villages, like Donja Lastva, along the way. Sit on the right for the best views on your way to Tivat.
You may also want to experience the traditional festivities – including the Kolo Dance – of the Bokeljska Mornarica, the traditional Bay of Kotor Navy, one of the oldest seafaring fraternities in the Adriatic. Key festivities happen on
- 27 January – the festivities of St. Tryphon, the Patron Saint of Kotor;
- 26 June – when the Navy is given the keys to Kotor and symbolic control of the town for three days (a tradition that’s been around since 1420); and
- 21 November – the Day of the Municipality of Kotor.
If you’re rather on (or in) Adriatic waters than learning about its history (or you like both), (half-)day boat trips allow you to see the Bay of Kotor from a very different perspective. These tours usually include a stop at Our Lady of the Rocks in Perast, a visit to the Blue Cave (outside Kotor Bay on the Luštica Peninsula) and a stop at the old submarine tunnels of the Yugoslav Navy (if they’re not destroyed beforehand).
Hikes, views and history
You loved the hike to Kotor Fortress? Great. So did we.
There are two other hikes we can recommend. Each takes you to the ruins of fortresses built in Austro-Hungarian times, and each offers slightly different views of both sides of Kotor Bay and the Adriatic in the distance:
- the hike to Fort Vrmac is 5.3 kilometres long with a 480m elevation gain, while
- the hike to Gorazda Fortress is a little longer but less steep with 7.5 kilometres and 430m elevation gain;
one-way starting at Kotor Bus Station, respectively. As with Kotor Fortress, start the hikes early to avoid the full force of the sun.
There are also tour operators who offer rafting trips on the Tara river. If you have more time in the country don’t book them. Instead, visit Durmitor National Park and take a tour from there. To get to the rafting areas from Kotor takes 3+ hours (one way), so you spend more time travelling there and back than enjoying the rafting experience. Not to mention the carbon emissions your day tour causes.
Where to stay and eat in and around Kotor
Kotor’s position towards one end of the bay means there are hundreds of accommodation options dotted along the bay, with an easy bus connection into Kotor from the villages along the bay shore. Here are our recommendations:
Kotor is full of tourist(y) restaurants but if you leave the old town you can find a few gems serving local food at local prices, including
- BBQ Tanjga, just outside Kotor Old Town
- Buregdzinica AS, Tivat
- Grill Basta Kod Mene, Tivat.