9 of the best things to do in Montenegro

Montenegro’s popularity is rapidly on the incline. This Balkan nation is now seeing its historic towns, national parks and pebbled shoreline fill with travellers searching for a lesser-known European break. Although sharing similar architecture, history and traditions with its Adriatic neighbours, such as Croatia, Montenegro has plenty of its own star qualities that make it entirely unique.

From exploring cat-loving Kotor to riding across one of Europe’s highest rail bridges, here’s some of the best things to do in Montenegro…

1. Go cat crazy in Kotor

A cat sits outside the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon in Kotor (Alamy)

Easily one of the most beautiful towns in Montenegro, Kotor, squeezed in the corner of a bay of the same name, attracts a large proportion of visitors to the country. The scenic, UNESCO-listed Old Town with its historic stone buildings and Medieval walls is a delight to explore at your own leisure. It’s also home to a great number of cats who freely wander around the streets and squares, and real fanatics can tour the town’s dedicated Cat Museum. Active travellers can take a hike up the Ladder of Kotor, a zig-zag trail with over 70 switchbacks. For those not so good on their feet, the Kotor Cable Car provides possibly the best panoramic views across the entire bay.

Unfortunately, Kotor is also a popular stop for cruise ships, bringing enormous crowds during peak season. Travel off season to miss the hoards – we suggest February, as you’ll get to enjoy the festivities of Kotor’s Winter Carnival.

2. Take a hike in Lovćen National Park

Mausoleum at Lovćen National Park (Shutterstock)

Lovćen National Park is well-placed to nearby popular tourist towns of Kotor and Budva, making it accessible for a day trip. This mountainous and relatively small (60 sq km) protected area is responsible for the country’s name (Montenegro translates to ‘Black Mountain’ in the local language). Mount Lovćen is the tallest mountain in the area at 1,749 metres, but its second tallest peak is Jezerski Vrh (1,660 metres) is frequently visited for its mausoleum resting at the summit. Belonging to Montenegro poet and ruler Petar II Petrovic Njegoš (known mostly as Njegoš), you’ll need to climb more than 400 steps to reach the tomb, which not only brings you close to one of the country’s most significant historical figures, but also to a prime vista across the bay of Kotor. Although the national park has scenic winding roads, for keen hikers, it’s worth getting out and walking its marked trails on foot, such as the 10 km Wolf Trail.

3. Admire the beauty of historic Perast

The beautiful waterfront of Perast (Shutterstock)

A 20-minute drive away from Kotor is the equally scenic but less frantic Perast. This small town is home to a surprisingly large number of churches and baroque palaces with Venetian influence.  Discover many of these as you walk its scenic waterfront from end-to-end, stopping off to refuel at many of its outdoor restaurants and bars. Perast’s most prominent church is Sveti Nikola: built in 1691 and located within the Old Town Square, it’s identifiable due to its soaring 55 metre-high bell tower. If driving here, be cautious: the singular road through Perast is extremely narrow and hazardous – many cars have been lost to the bay along this road, so only drive if extremely necessary.

4. Boat around the Bay of Kotor

Blue Cave, Montenegro (Shutterstock)

It may appear lake-like, but the Bay of Kotor (also known as the Boka) is actually Europe’s southernmost fjord. Beyond the town of Kotor, plenty of gems can be found nestled around the bay, from little-known historic towns to plush harbours. Choose from a variety of boat tours available – that leave from places including Kotor and Herceg Novi – to explore some of its unreachable sights from land. During the warmer months, many guided boat trips will take you to the Blue Cave along Luštica Peninsula for a swim in sparkling azure waters. Others trips might also take you inside the now-abandoned naval tunnels that used to hide away submarines during the Cold War. A final must-visit boat stop is Our Lady of the Rocks – an artificial islet steeped in legend and history just off the shore of Perast. On the island is a Roman Catholic Church home to a collection of paintings by Tripo Kokolja, a 17th-centruy baroque artist.

5. Hit the beaches of Budva

Jaz Beach near Budva (Alamy)

This lively town perched on the Adriatic coastline is the posterchild for Montenegro. Yes, it might be best known for its bustling nightlife, but that’s not all. Its citadel is often described as a ‘miniature Dubrovnik’ with walkable Old Town walls that look over the town’s rust-coloured rooftops. Budva has also lucked out with a variety of beaches dotted around the town. You won’t find white sands, but you will get to enjoy bath-like clear water. The closest to the Old Town is Mongren Beach, but other pebble stretches along the Budvanian Riviera include (but are not limited to) Slovenska Plaža, Jaz Beach and Becici Beach. A 20-minute drive east of Budva will take you to Sveti Stefan, a coastal town best known for the 15th-century fortified island that lies in front of it. The picturesque island is now home to the five-star Aman hotel, and can only be visited if you have booked a stay. Although, visitors can admire its beauty from the beach, it can get a little crowded, and has resulted in the landscape being listed as endangered by Europa Nostra.

6. Soak up Podgorica’s history and culture

Ribnica Bridge, leading to Stara Varoš in Podgorica (Alamy)

The country’s capital is often left feeling a little like a ghost town as visitors flock straight to the scenic coastline, but Podgorica has elements that shouldn’t be overlooked, with its most atmospheric quarter being the oldest part of the city. Stara Varoš (meaning Old Town) is where you’ll be transported back to a time when Ottoman’s once ruled for more than 400 years. To get there, we recommend going via the charming old stone bridge that crosses over Ribnica River. Over the other side, the 15th-cenutry Ribnica Fortress is another fascinating ancient highlight.

If you’re wanting to feel more of a buzz in the capital, visit during the summer months when Podgorica Cultural Summer transforms the city into a theatrical stage. Many events take place, from movie nights and live shows to concerts and ballet performances.

7. Raft the Tara River Canyon

Tara River Canyon in Northern Montenegro (Alamy)

Tara River Canyon is another one of Montenegro’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, found within Durmitor National Park in the far north. As well as its natural beauty, Tara River Canyon also offers some of Montenegro’s best action-packed adventures. Adrenaline-seekers can explore one of the longest (78 km), deepest (up to 1,300 m) gorge in Europe a variety of ways. A firm favourite, though, is by rafting the waters. Rapids run through the gorge year-round, but rafting season usually begins in April and ends in October. For those after even more thrills, you can view the canyon from up high by riding Tara’s Extreme Zipline, or head to the nearby Nevidio and Hrčavka gorges to jump of canyon walls and slide down rocks on an epic canyoning adventure.

8. Ride over Europe’s highest viaduct

Mala Rijeka is one of Europe’s highest rail bridges (Alamy)

Montenegro may be one of Europe’s smaller nations, but what it lacks in size it makes up in dramatic scenery – which is possibly best enjoyed from a train window. The country has an estimated 250 km of rail track running through it, traversing mountains, valleys, rivers and forests. One of the more popular routes operates from the coastal town of Bar to the northern town of Bijelo Polje, passing through both Durmitor and Bjelasica mountain ranges and crossing over a 200-metre-high rail bridge. Construction of the Mala Rijeka bridge was completed in 1973, and it remains one of Europe’s highest viaducts.

9. Explore the virgin forest of Biogradska Gora National Park

Walkway through Biogradska Gora National Park (Alamy)

Biogradska Gora National Park might be the smallest of four national parks in Montenegro (at 56 sq km) but it is one of the most untouched in Europe – with claims not a single tree has been felled in its forest. As a result, it was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve back in 1977. The park is 90 km north of Podgorica and frequently visited by hikers wanting to explore its mountain trails, which range in length and difficulty. One of the park’s must-visit sights is Lake Biograd. Sitting in the heart of the park, you can wander around the 3.5 km trail that borders the glacial lake, or even hire a boat and get afloat on the glassy waters.

 

 

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5 reasons to visit Podgorica, Montenegro

1. The city has an interesting story

Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, Podgorica, Montenegro (Shutterstock)

Podgorica’s modern capital boasts such rich layers of history that it has changed name no fewer than five times.

Remnants of Roman times, its long days as a fulcrum of the Ottoman Empire and – in its savage socialist architecture – reminders of the functional days under Yugoslav communism are all present.

To glean a window into the city’s past, head to the City Museum, a neatly packaged together sweep of history and culture that offers Roman artefacts through to orthodox Christian icons, 16th century Venetian documents and traditional folk costumes. The spiky Turkish daggers are particularly chilling.

2. The food and wine is seriously underrated

A vineyard in Montenegro (Shutterstock)

The rich bounty of Adriatic seafood, plucked fresh from the coast, makes its way into the local restaurants – along with tasty river fish, which are sometimes spiced with paprika.

Grilled meat dishes are delicious too, especially cevapi, delicious meatballs that are best served with raw onion and creamy cheese, plus a generous side of traditional bread. Don’t miss the local prsut, delicious air dried ham often still cultivated by small family producers in the mountain villages.

The country’s wines are spot on too, and great value for money. For reds, look out for the consistent and mighty Vranac blend, while the white grape to seek is Krstac, the perfect partner to seafood. The national beer is the crisp Niksic, whilst a sprinkling of domestic craft beers are also starting to drift into the capital.

3. The unique atmosphere of Stara Varoš

Osmanagic Mosque, Podgorica, Montenegro (Shutterstock)

The oldest, most atmospheric quarter in Podgorica sends you spiralling back through the centuries, to when the Ottoman sultans held sway. They stayed for 400 years and Stara Varoš (the Old Town) is their legacy, writ impressively in local stone using construction techniques you’ll find all over the region.

The most atmospheric way to arrive is across the old stone bridge that spans the bijou Ribnica River. Highlights include the ruins of the Ribnica Fortress, which dates back to the 15th century, and a brace of historic mosques.

The older Starodoganjska Mosque is still home to Islamic institutions, while the more eye catching Osmanagic Mosque houses the tomb of hajji Mehmet-Pasha Osmanagic. He is credited with its creation – it has recently undergone a much needed and very welcome renovation.

4. Petrovic Palace’s dreamy pink exterior

Podgorica’s Petrovic Palace (Wikimedia Commons/Sailko)

This is a find that surprises anyone still wondering about Podgorica’s charms. This elegant 19th-century pastel pink cultural oasis is set in verdant grounds, kissed with outdoor sculptures. Its a lovely place unwind in on a sunny day.

The grounds house temporary exhibition space, with two floors of the main gallery given over to an eclectic collection of temporary exhibitions that are usually free to enter. The other floor is a surreal sweep through avant garde art spliced with traditional art from around the globe.

Think eye-catching Socialist modern work with old-world Asian batiks and you’re on the right lines. There is a palpable leaning towards Yugoslavia’s old socialist-era buddies with the modest collections.

5. Podgorica’s the ultimate day trip base

Niagara Falls, near Podgorica, Montenegro (Shutterstock)

Podgorica offers the startling chance to visit Niagara Falls. OK, so it’s not that one…

On a steaming hot day, you may prefer it here, as you can comfortably swim in the waters. You’ll be glad to learn there is a restaurant appropriately called Niagara, with a view of the falls to enjoy after your swim.

If you want to get more active in Montenegro’s glorious outdoors, the mountains offer tempting hiking opportunities, while its rivers and lakes are great for kayakers. For more of a cultural kick, join a guided tour to explore historic Podgorica.

Keep exploring Montenegro:

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9 experiences you can only have in Kotor, Montenegro

1. Celebrate two carnivals 

The winter carnival parade (Dreamstime)

Kotor’s winter carnival, held every February, has been going since the beginning of the 16th century. For over 500 years carnival groups have been dressing up, creating colourful floats and carousing through the streets of Kotor, enjoying a jam-packed calendar of events including costume balls, music concerts and theatric performances. The highlight of carnival is a masked parade from one part of the city to the other, with revellers dropping in on bars, cafes and clubs along the way, serenaded by various blues, jazz and rock bands.

Nearly 20 years ago, a summer edition was started – basically the same idea, but with the added benefit of warmer weather and a feel-good holiday vibe. It’s more international too, with carnival groups from all over the world flocking to Kotor to take part. The four day festival starts with a decadent Fisherman’s Feast in the Square of Arms, where visitors can tuck into all kinds of fish, local dishes and Montenegro’s famous wines. Summer Carnival culminates with a kaleidoscopic parade that somehow manages to be more colourful, chaotic and festive than the winter one.

Watch the sun set over the harobour (Shutterstock)

2. Eat seafood as the sun sets

The iconic St Luke’s chapel (Dreamstime)

Eating your meal as the sun sets over the mountains that plunge into the sea is one of Kotor’s simplest and most memorable experiences. Down at the harbour, fishermen sell the bounty of the bay, with local chefs and restauranteurs their biggest customers. The incredible swordfish, tuna, dog-fish and squid will become the culinary stars of local soups and broths or simply grilled and served as a seafood platter.

Restaurant Galion, set in an old stone building, right on the harbour, is the most elegant option, offering fine dining with equally fine views across the harbour. Konoba Galerija, also on the harbour near the old city, is famous for mixed seafood in buzara sauce, a sublime blend of olive oil, wine, garlic and mild spices.

For cheaper but equally delightful options, head along the path following bay towards Dobrota where you’ll find a clutch of restaurants offering outdoor dining, right beside the water. The views are spectacular – and you may end up being serenaded by a guitar playing fisherman as well.

 

The cream-filled pastry is a favourite in Kotor (Shutterstock)

3. Light a candle in the iconic St Luke’s chapel

Church of our Lady on the manmade island (Shutterstock)

During its turbulent history, Kotor has been both Catholic and Orthodox, and the great number of churches with the walls of the old city test to that. St Tryphon, on Square of Arms, is home to the relics of the saint it is named after, is currently the the seat of the Croatian Bishopric of Kotor and the entire peninsula.  St Nicholas, a relative youngster built in 1909, is the most important Orthodox Church on the city. On most days you’ll spot the local priest, looking resplendent in his black robes, emerge from the high doors swinging an incense burner, cleansing the entrance and sending a glorious scent drifting across the square.

There is one church that serves them both – the tiny chapel of St Luke’s, also in Piazza Greca. It was constructed in 1195 as a Catholic church, but today Catholic and Orthodox altars stand side by side, a testament to the history of Croat-Serb relation in Kotor. It is a wonderfully atmospheric chapel, full of icons and lit by the flickering light of beeswax candles. Look for the icons of St Spiridon, a saint venerated by both faiths.

 

The view from the Castle of San Giovanni (Shutterstock)

4. Eat krempita

Celebrate Kotor’s maritime traditions at the maritime museum, housed in a palace (Dreamstime)

Krempita, a local custard-filled puff pastry is a popular desert throughout the Balkans, but in Kotor is part of the city’s identity. Here, krempita is created following a recipe that has been passed down from generation to generation. The basic ingredients are the same – puff pastry, custard, chattily cream – but the krempita of Kotor come with a secret ingredient that according to locals, make them so much better.

There are worse ways of spending you time in Kotor that tasting a sample of them and trying to figure out what it is. Available as a restaurant desert or to go, this indulgent treat is the taste of Kotor.

 

Roam monastery remains in the old town, where you can dress up as a knight (Dreamstime)

5. Visit a church on the Adriatic’s only man-made island

A cat admiring the view from the Castle of San Giovanni (Shutterstock)

Set in the glittering waters of the Bay of Kotor, just off the picture-postcard town of Perast, Our Lady of the Rocks is a gorgeous Instagram star and the only man-made island in the Adriatic. You’ll see it in every article about the bay and on every postcard, and a boat trip out to the island – either from Kotor or Perast – is a highlight of any trip to the region.

According to local legend, ‘construction’ began in 1452, when two fishermen found a picture of the Virgin Mary on small spit here. It became traditional amongst local fishermen to place a rock on the spit after every successful fishing trip. These stones were supplemented by more substantial blocks and scuttled ships. By 1722 it was big enough to support a church, still standing today, that houses 68 paintings by the Baroque artist Tripo Kokolja.

6. Climb a stone ladder 

Sitting at the base of Mt Lovćen, Kotor is the perfect base to explore this part of the Dinaric Alps. It is easy and convenient too, with one of the most iconic trails starting just behind the the Old Town. It’s called the ‘Laddsr of Kotor’ and you’ll spot it zig-zagging up the mountain from most parts of the town.

The ‘Ladder of Kotor’ was once the only route connecting the town with Njegusi village and the old royal capital of Cetinje. From the 1200m-high Castle of San Giovanni, perched en route near the top of the range, views sweep across the bay, taking in the historic orange-roofed towns, the glassy ocean and the rolling mountains beyond.

If it’s too hot, or you’re not feeling particularly energetic, just follow the path to Our Lady of the Health, a pretty little votive chapel only 520 steps from the old town below. The views across the bay from here are spectacular and the chapel offers both shade and an interesting foreground for your photos.

7. Celebrate the local Maritime culture 

Kotor has a long and proud Maritime tradition. It has one of the oldest navys in the world – created initially as a trade guild but acting as a bulwark against pirates in the 19th century. And the local Maritime Museum is one of the best in the region, celebrating the city’s nautical history with exhibits of model ships, paintings and furniture from as far back as the 16th century, all set in a Baroque palace that once belonged to a local noble family.

The city’s maritime heritage is celebrated most enthusiastically on Boka Night, an ancient tradition that sees boat owners decorating their vessels for a naval parade and fireworks filling the skies. Held towards the end of August every year, the harbour comes alive with illuminated boats, each vying for your attention, and the streets ring with music and laughter. It’s a chance for locals to let their hair down and show pride in their city’s maritime past and present – and the one they look forward to the most.

 

8. Dress up as a medieval knight

Forget stuffy old museums, full of priceless exhibits, kept in glass cases. The Palace of Living History in Kotor believe history is a living, breathing thing and encourages visit get hands-on with the relics of the city’s medieval past that they have on display.

Located in Kotor old town, within beautiful remains of the old Dominican Monastery, a visit to the museum includes a 35 minute tour where an enthusiastic guide introduces you to the fascinating medieval history of Kotor and its bay, regaling you with some of the most dramatic moments in Kotor’s military.

Then the fun bit comes, when you get the chance to touch and interact with exhibits, grinding flour (medieval style), operating an ancient printing press, mint some coins, and most humorously, dress up in an authentic suit of medieval armour.

9. Celebrate Kotor’s cats

Stray cats are often the scourge of harbourside cities, but in Kotor they are loved. Indeed, they have become the unofficial symbol of the city, with cat-themed souvenirs and knick-knacks for sale throughout the old town. They wander through Stari Grad like they own the place, finding the sunniest corners to groom themselves and feasting on the scraps from the city’s finest restaurants.

No-one knows for sure why there are so many cats in Kotor. The common consensus is that they were left behind by trading ships that visited the city over the centuries, staying for the fish and creating one of the most multicultural feline gene pools on the planet. The sight of them lazing on ancient walls and monuments adds a relaxed charm to the city, and provides a lucrative subject for artists and trinket makers alike.

There’s even a Cat Museum, tucked away on a tiny square near St Michael’s. It houses a collection of cat memorabilia, including paintings, posters and postcards, as well as a family of cats lounging wherever there is sun. The museum is small, but your entrance fee goes towards feeding and caring for the city’s strays.