If you could only choose one destination to visit in Montenegro, make it Kotor. Nestled between Lovcen Mountain and the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, it’s undoubtedly the country’s most scenic town – and also one of its most historic, having largely taken its current form during centuries of Venetian rule. In the following Kotor guide, we’ll be covering the top things to do and see over the course of a few days.
Also be sure to check the end of the guide for more info on where to stay and how to get there.
Around Kotor Old Town
While many of Montenegro’s coastal cities have Old Towns, Kotor’s is arguably the most atmospheric. As touristy as it may be, it remains home to numerous well-preserved churches, museums and palaces.
And while the tourists may come and go, the Old Town is the permanent home to a large population of cats, said to be descendants of those who arrived on ships from all over the world.
Kotor started as a Roman city as part of the province of Dalmatia. And later in the Byzantine era, the fortifications surrounding what we now call the Old Town were erected by Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565).
After that, they were regularly restored by various Byzantine emperors over the following centuries.
Following Byzantine rule, Kotor would be taken over by the Serbian Nemanjić dynasty from the 12th century, though it was allowed to remain semiautonomous.
Then, for the next few hundred years, Kotor would switch back and forth between numerous rulers until briefly gaining full independence.
But in the 15th century, worried about the threat of the Ottomans, the city asked the Republic of Venice for help, thus becoming part of the Venetian Republic in 1420.
And Kotor would remain under Venetian control until the republic’s dissolution in 1797. Today, Kotor takes on a distinctly Venetian feel, though many of its important landmarks are even older.
And some are even newer, such as St. Nicholas Church. Built in 1909, it’s now of the city’s most impressive churches. It features beautifully painted icons of the authors of the gospel which were donated by Russia in 1998.
Just across the courtyard, meanwhile, is the small Church of St. Luke which was built centuries earlier. Constructed in 1195 as a Catholic church, it served both the Catholic and Orthodox communities from the 17th-19th centuries.
It now functions solely as an Orthodox church. And as covered below in this Kotor guide, numerous other examples of cooperation between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are evident throughout the Old Town.
Most of the prominent attractions in Kotor require an entry ticket. And what follows is a summary of the main things to see within the Old Town walls. As we’ll be covering below, a hike up to the fortress above the city is another must during your time in Kotor.
St. Tryphon's Cathedral
Regarded as one of the most historically important structures in Kotor is the Roman Catholic cathedral of St. Tryphon.
St. Tryphon was a Phrygian martyr who was killed in Nicaea in the 3rd century AD. Much later, his remains were taken from Constantinople to Montenegro. And in 809, St. Tryphon’s Martyrium was built here to house them.
Later, in 1124, a new cathedral was established over the spot to become the main church for the local bishop. After decades of work, it was finally completed in 1166.
Built as a three-nave basilica with a dome, it represents a fusion of Byzantine and Romanesque architecture, while many Gothic elements were used in the interior.
Following numerous earthquakes, however, many parts of the church were rebuilt in more of a Baroque style.
The upper floor contains the church treasury, which now functions as a museum. It costs a few euro to see, but the expense is well worth it if you have the slightest interest in traditional Christian art.
Upstairs, you’ll encounter various religious artifacts made of silver, 14th-century frescoes, and tunics worn by the clergy
The main highlight, however, would have to be the room (only visible through a fence) containing St. Tryphon’s relics. The exquisite marble statue of the deceased and those of two angels were carved by a prominent Venetian artist in the early 18th century.
In addition to admiring the relics, you can also enjoy the views of Kotor from the upper terrace.
The Maritime Museum
Situated in an elaborate 18th-century palace, the Maritime Museum is open daily and costs 4 euro to enter.
The museum first opened to the public in 1900 and remains Kotor’s most popular museum even today.
As one might expect, you’ll find countless model ships on display. Adorning the walls, meanwhile, are portraits of admirals, captains and shipowners from the city’s past. You can learn more about their detailed backstories from the free audioguide.
You’ll also find a section on ethnography, a collection of old weapons, and various exotic artifacts – such as a 20th-century Japanese vase – that were brought to Kotor from abroad.
While often touted as one of Kotor’s must-see attractions, it’s perhaps a bit overhyped for those without a deep interest in ships. Nevertheless, it still makes for an enjoyable and informative visit.
Note: While St. Tryphon’s Cathedral and the Maritime Museum issue their own tickets, the attractions below can be visited as part of a combination ticket sold by Muzeji Kotor.
For €12, the ticket allows access to St. Paul’s Church and the Lapidarium (both in Kotor) along with the City Museum of Perast and the Roman Mosaics of Risan.
Buying individual tickets for each attraction adds up to €20, so the combo ticket, sold at any of these locations, is a great value.
St. Paul's Church
St. Paul’s church, a Romanesque church built in 1263, served as the local seat of the Dominican order. No longer active, it now functions solely as a historical museum.
Along the western facade, you can find the stone sarcophagus in which church founders Pavel Barri and his wife Dobra were buried.
Stepping inside, you can admire the surviving frescoes, most of which date to the 13th century. Later in its history, the church became synonymous with an influential 16th-century nun named Ozana who spent over four decades at the hermitage.
From 1807-1814, the church was turned into a military warehouse during Napoleon’s occupation of the city. No church services have been held here ever since.
What’s now Kotor’s Lapidarium was originally St. Michael’s Church. Constructed in the Romanesque-Gothic style, the current incarnation was built over two prior structures, the earliest of which dates back to the 6th century.
As with St. Paul’s church, it was later used by the French military during Napoleon’s occupation in the early 19th century. It now houses ancient relics discovered all throughout Kotor.
The most significant piece here is a bust of the Roman Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD), one of only three surviving sculptures of the him in the world. The other two are kept at the Louvre and the Vatican.
The Lapidarium is rather tricky to find – even with Google Maps – as it’s located within a courtyard accessible via an unassuming alley. Try asking someone if you get lost.
The same courtyard is also home to the Museum of Cats, which was unfortunately closed during my visit.
Gallery of Solidarity
The Solidarity Gallery is listed as an attraction included in the combo ticket mentioned above. But the truth is, it’s free for all.
Situated in the Baroque-style Pima Palace which dates to the 17th century, it now functions as an art gallery.
It was originally established by a team of international artists following the devastating earthquake that struck the region in 1979.
At the time of my visit, there was an interesting exhibition on display by artist Bisenija Terescenko, who creates modern mosaic art.
Kotor's Famous Cats
Kotor has long had an association with cats. The Old Town is full of them, and many claim they’re descendants of felines that arrived here on ships throughout the Middle Ages. In addition to spotting cats all over the Old Town, you’ll also encounter a plethora of cat-themed souvenir shops.
It all started with Cats of Kotor which opened in 2012. The shop solely focuses on handmade cat-themed handicrafts, and it remains a hit with tourists. But since then, at least a dozen, well, copycat shops have popped up all over town.
Another popular attraction is the Cats Museum, which opened in 2013. Unfortunately, it’s been closed throughout the pandemic. But puzzlingly, an informational poster outside claims that the connection between Kotor and cats is an entirely 21st-century phenomenon!
In any case, the happy and well-fed felines throughout the Old Town don’t seem too concerned about their origins.
St John’s Fortress is also locally known as San Giovanni Fortress. Or more simply, Kotor Fortress. And hiking up to the fortress is arguably the top activity highlighted in this Kotor guide.
But what’s not obvious at first is that there are actually two ways to get there. The official path begins from the Old Town, taking visitors up a steep climb of 1350 steps.
This route requires a hefty entrance fee of €8, but you’ll be able to visit the 15th-century Church of Our Lady of Remedy on the way up.
The other path is known as the Ladder of Kotor. It begins to the north of the Old Town, not far from the city walls (see the map above for the exact location). This route will have you walking up a long series of zigzagging switchbacks.
It’s about a kilometer long and is said to be considerably less steep than the route up the stairs. In any case, there’s one main reason to choose this route: At the time of writing, it’s completely free.
From the bottom, the climb up takes a little under an hour one-way. And throughout the journey, you’ll be able to enjoy clear views of the outer fortress walls.
While I passed by a cafe, it seemed to be closed. That’s why it’s best to bring your own water and snacks.
Getting near the top, you’ll pass by a small but well-preserved church. Stepping inside, remnants of its bright-colored frescoes can still be seen.
Reaching the fortress via the Ladder of Kotor, you will actually need to climb a literal ladder to make it inside. While it looks a bit intimidating from a distance, I had no trouble making it in and out of the opening without help.
Just next to the ladder, you’ll also notice a sign telling visitors that entry is prohibited. Nevertheless, the ladder remains in place. And at the time of my visit, there were no guards or staff in sight.
It used to be common for visitors to hike up the Ladder of Kotor and then descend via the direct route to the Old Town. But there have been recent reports of staff checking the tickets of those coming down, forcing people without one to pay the full price.
The main reason to climb up to Kotor Fortress isn’t for the fortress itself, but for the views. The Old Town and Kotor Bay look spectacular from up here, and it’s a great way to spend a morning.
You’ll be able to clearly make out some of the landmarks mentioned in the Kotor Guide above as well as the entirety of the defensive walls.
The walls, which encompass the Old City and wrap around the mountain to protect it from all sides, were first constructed in the 9th century.
And amazingly, they were still being renovated until as recently as the 19th century.
The original fortress, on the other hand, is said to have been first established by the ancient Illyrians as far back as pre-Roman times.
Exploring the rest of the fortress, you’ll see that it’s sadly in pretty bad shape. Many of the structures are crumbling while some of the interiors are filled with trash.
Clearly, the money from the entrance tickets is not being spent on maintenance, which is why few people feel guilty about climbing up for free.
As it can get hot up here in summer, starting in the morning is ideal. That will also give you enough time to hang around a bit at the top before making the descent back down.
Returning to the Old Town area, you’ll still have plenty of time to visit the museums featured in the Kotor guide above.
More Around Kotor
During your stay in Kotor, be sure to dedicate a day to visiting the nearby towns of Perast and Risan, both of which are accessible by bus.
As you can learn more about in this guide, Risan is home to some well-preserved Roman mosaics. Perast, meanwhile, features the unique Our Lady of the Rocks, an artificial island that’s home to an impressive church.
As Kotor is right by the water, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to swim. Kotor only really has one proper beach, situated to the north of the Old Town, but be sure to continue walking further along the coast, which will take you into the scenic Dobrota neighborhood.
Here you’ll find plenty of cozy and uncrowded places to swim, while the area is also home to numerous centuries-old buildings. Additionally, the views of the towns across the bay are excellent.
In addition to the historical attractions featured in this Kotor guide, the great swimming opportunities and beautiful view of nearby Lovcen Mountain combine to make Kotor Montenegro’s number one travel destination.
Coming from abroad, there are numerous direct buses from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina and North Macedonia.
Kotor’s bus terminal is situated just a 5-minute walk south of the Old Town.
For those staying further north of the Old Town, it’s possible to take a Blue Line bus which continues north all the way to Risan and Perast. These buses don’t depart from the bus terminal, but you can find a bus stop near the VOLI supermarket on the other side of the Old Town.
But as the Blue Line buses, which seem to be the only form of public transport in Kotor, only depart every 30 minutes, you may be better off taking a taxi.
Kotor is also reachable by air. The closest airport to Kotor is at Tivat, just 8 km away, with direct flights from countries like Serbia and Russia.
While further away, the Podgorica airport is much better connected, with direct flights from all over Europe. But the best-connected airport nearby is in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and many travelers make the trip into Montenegro overland from there.
In terms of location, staying within or nearby the Old Town would be ideal for seeing all the sites mentioned in the Kotor guide above. This would also give you easy access to the bus station.
But if you’re traveling during the summer peak season, accommodation in Kotor can be quite pricey by Balkan standards.
For those on a budget, consider staying north of the Old Town/city center in the district of Dobrota. That’s what I did, and while there were both positives and negatives, I was happy with my choice overall.
The main downside to staying in Dobrota is that you could find yourself as far away as 30-40 minutes from the Old Town on foot (the walk over, at least, is gorgeous). The main upside is that you’ll have immediate access to the beach as soon as you step outside your accommodation.
I stayed at Rooms Ana, where I paid €15 per night (including VAT) for a private room with a shared bathroom. Ana, who speaks fluent English, handles the online communication, but the rooms are actually located in her aunt’s house. While the aunt isn’t as fluent, she’s incredibly hospitable and kind and I really enjoyed my stay.
Just keep in mind that you will have to factor in taxi costs to and from the bus station (about €4 each way) into your total cost.
While Kotor is best experienced over the course of a few days, people staying in Dubrovnik, Croatia, may just want to hop over for a day trip.
In that case, you may want to go as part of a tour to ensure you don’t miss any of the highlights. This tour takes you to Kotor, Perast and Budva by bus, while this highly-rated tour takes you around the Bay of Kotor by boat.