The Bay of Kotor is as historically rich as it is visually stunning. And just a short distance away from the hustle and bustle of central Kotor are two small towns where history, natural beauty and classical architecture converge. Perast is gorgeous in its own right, but it’s best known for the manmade island of Our Lady of the Rocks, which has gradually grown in size over the course of centuries.
Nearby Risan, meanwhile, was home to an important Roman villa, and visitors can still see well-preserved mosaics from that time period.
Both Risan and Perast can be visited by public buses run by the Blue Line company, which you can learn more about below. You can visit them in any order you like, but, coming from Kotor, it may make more sense to visit Risan, the farther of the two, first.
The Roman Mosaics of Risan and the Persast Museum are both included in a combo ticket issued by Muzeji Kotor. For €12, the ticket also allows access to St. Paul’s Church and the Lapidarium (both in Kotor), saving visitors a total of €8.
The Roman Mosaics of Risan
The Romans controlled the Bay of Kotor from 168-476 BC, and the town we know today as Risan was then known as Rhizon. Throughout the Roman period, locals worshipped a syncretic mix of the Greco-Roman pantheon and ancient Illyrian gods.
While little from the Roman period remains today, the mosaics of Risan are a notable exception.
The mosaic floorings are believed to have been part of an opulent Roman villa that functioned primarily as an inn. First established during Emperor Hadrian’s reign in the 2nd century AD, it remained in use until at least the 4th century.
The first major excavations here took place in the 1930s, with more occurring in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Over the years, archaeologists have uncovered a series of several rectangular rooms making up a total area of 792 square meters. But the villa was probably once comprised of two stories.
All of the mosaic floorings are black and white and they’re mostly comprised of ornate geometric patterns. The white borders around each square were where the Romans would place long couches on which patrons would dine in a reclining position.
Out of all the mosaic floorings, only one depicts a figure: Hypnos, the god of sleep. In ancient Greek mythology, Hypnos lived in a cave in the underworld in which no light could be seen and no sound could be heard.
If the symbolism is anything to go by, visitors to this inn could be assured of a restful night’s sleep – at least once the feasts were over.
The Roman Mosaics of Risan aren’t the most impressive you’ll find in the Balkans (that award would probably have to go to North Macedonia). But given Risan’s proximity to Kotor and Perast – not to mention the combo ticket mentioned above – the visit is well worth it.
And for archaeology and history lovers, there’s still a bit more to see around town. An easy walk north from the mosaics are the foundations of three ancient buildings which could be part of an ancient palatial complex. Amazingly, the oldest structures date from as early as the 4th century BC.
Over the centuries, the buildings were renovated and remodeled multiple times, and numerous Hellenistic-era luxury items have been discovered inside. While unconfirmed, this area may have served as Rhizon’s royal palace.
Just behind the building complex, meanwhile, is what functioned as the ancient acropolis, which still contains the ruins of numerous Illyrian and Roman fortifications. While I was unable to find a path up, a review from a couple of years ago mentioned the hike taking a few hours.
Elsewhere in Risan, archaeologists have discovered remnants of city walls that writers in antiquity likened to those of Troy. Traces of a Roman road were also discovered in the nearby mountains which connected the Adriatic with the prominent cities along the Danube.
Clearly, Risan has a lot more to offer than just its mosaics. Hopefully, if excavations continue, we’ll see more of these attractions open up for tourists in the future.
Our Lady of the Rocks
Getting off the bus in Perast, you should find yourself right in front of a local ferry pier. And from here you can visit the artificial island of Our Lady of the Rocks for a roundtrip cost of €5.
When finished, the captain should come back for you at the agreed upon-time – usually 30 or 45 minutes later.
Setting off for the island, you’ll get to admire a stunning view of Perast and its well-preserved Venetian architecture. But more on the things to see and do on land further below.
Perast is actually home to two islands. And the first one you’ll pass, St. George’s Island, is the smaller of the two. But this one happens to be natural.
It’s home to a Benedictine monastery believed to be as old as the 7th century. And it also hosts a sizable cemetery. As such, the island is locally known as the Island of the Dead.
But unfortunately for adventurers, the island is off-limits to the public, and the ferry won’t stop there. I did, however, see a couple of kayakers get out and walk around, so the exact rules aren’t entirely clear.
And after a few minutes, you’ll find yourself approaching our main destination: Our Lady of the Rocks, known locally as Gospa od Škrpjela.
We know exactly when construction on this artificial island commenced: 22 July 1452. But why?
According to legend, two brothers were returning from sea when they spotted an object atop a small outcrop not far from St. George Island. Getting closer, they saw that it was an icon of Madonna and Child. And so they decided to take the icon home with them.
According to one version of the story, one of the brothers’ injured legs miraculously healed overnight. But in another version, the icon disappears from their home, later reappearing on the same rock.
In any case, the brothers felt compelled to construct a church there. But there wasn’t anywhere near enough room on the small outcrop. And so they gradually dropped boatloads of rocks around it, with the long-term goal of forming an island.
Over the years, local seamen who made it home safely would contribute more rocks, and the island began to grow and grow. It took 32 years before the island grew big enough to construct a chapel, which was built in 1484 as an Orthodox church.
Centuries later, after much of it had been looted by pirates, the Venetians replaced it with a Catholic church in 1630. And they also greatly expanded the island.
Now, every year on 22 July, locals contribute to even further expansion by visiting the island and adding more rocks.
As one might expect, the Venetian church is Our Lady of the Rock’s main – and basically only – attraction. Entry requires a ticket which costs a couple of euro.
Stepping inside, you’ll find numerous Baroque-style paintings by local artist Tripo Kokolja, whose statue can be seen outside St. Nicholas Church in the town center. And the marble altar, sculpted by a Genoese artist, was added in the late 18th century.
The central icon, meanwhile, was painted by famous icon painter Lovro Dobričević in the 15th century. It’s unclear, however, if this is supposed to be the same icon of legend.
Entry to the church also includes access to a small museum, where you’ll find old stones from earlier incarnations of the church along with an assortment of religious art.
The most notable piece on display is the ‘Our Lady of the Rocks Tapestry,’ which has an amazing backstory. It was embroidered by Jacinta Kunić-Mijović, who kept busy with the project while waiting for decades for her husband to return. She used gold and silver threads, not to mention strands of her own hair!
Over the course of 25 years, she eventually became blind. But it’s unclear whether or not or husband ever came back.
Returning from Our Lady of the Rocks, another top highlight in town is the Perast Museum. As mentioned above, you can enter with the combo ticket sold by Muzeji Kotor.
The museum is situated in the Bujovic Palace, an elaborate 17th-century Baroque building. It was commissioned by brothers Vicko and Ivan Bujovic and designed by Venetian architect Giovanni Baptista Fonte.
It features a mix of historical, ethnographic and maritime-related artifacts, not unlike the Maritime Museum of nearby Kotor.
On the ground floor, you’ll find a large collection of swords – some of them Ottoman and others created by the Austrians and Venetians to fight the Ottomans. Additionally, there’s even a local Perast-made sword called the Palos.
You can also read the backstories of prominent families from Perast’s history – namely the Sirovic family, made up of ship captains and writers.
And around the upper floors, you can find Baroque portraits and furniture collections. In total, the museum is said to contain around 2,000 items.
More Around Perast
While Perast shares a lot in common with Kotor – both historically and architecturally, it’s distinct enough to make visiting essential for those spending time in the region.
The town contains 16 churches in total. And instead of a walled Old Town, the beautiful architecture was constructed right along the water’s edge. Furthermore, you can spot some more gems by walking down Perast’s back alleys. The town is small enough that you can see it all within an hour or so.
Aside from Our Lady of the Rocks and the Perast Museum, another top highlight is the St. Nicholas Church, Perast’s most important. Commenced in the 17th century, the large church has yet to be officially completed.
Inside you’ll find a treasury that requires an entry ticket. But if you feel like you’ve seen enough religious art for one day, save your money for the attached bell tower. For a couple of euro, visitors are allowed to climb all the way to the top.
At 55 m high, the climb is quite an adventure. Eventually, you’ll come face to face with the bells, which the ticket vendor will make you promise not to ring as a condition for entry!
As one might expect, the views from the top are spectacular, and this is arguably one of the best vantage points to take in the Bay of Kotor. Looking straight ahead, you’ll see St. George’s Island and Our Lady of the Rocks – Perast’s two mysterious islands sitting calmly side by side.
Coming from Kotor, the most straightforward transportation method to reach Risan and Perast is the local Blue Line bus service. Northbound buses depart roughly every 30 minutes.
While you can start where you like, I went to Risan first (about 20 minutes by vehicle), before returning to the bus stop and waiting for a southbound bus. Getting off at Perast, I then repeated the process later in the day to make it back to Kotor.
But given the fact that Blue Line seems to run a monopoly over local transport, things might not go as smoothly as you’d like.
In my case, I went to the nearest bus stop to my accommodation in Dobrota, north of Kotor. After waiting patiently for a while, a bus finally appeared. But while the driver clearly saw me, he shook his head and kept driving!
Baffled, I texted my guest house manager to confirm I was at the right stop. She told me that yes, I was, but that Blue Line drivers ‘may or may not stop at certain bus stops based on their mood.’ What a company!
I decided to walk about 20 minutes to the next bus stop, which typically has more people waiting there. Fortunately, I made it on this time. But I was surprised to find the driver did indeed stop at the point right by my hotel! So your experience can vary greatly depending on which bus stop you go to and which driver happens to drive by.
For those staying near the Old Town, you can find the Blue Line bus stop across from the VOLI supermarket.
As mentioned above, once in Perast, Our Lady of the Rocks can be visited with a 5 euro (roundtrip) ferry ride from the small pier outside St. Nicholas Church.
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.