Conquering Montenegro’s Kotor Fortress

A crumbling stone wall of Montenegro's Kotor Fortress at the top of the mountain overlooking the Bay of Kotor and surrounding mountains.

When night falls over the rugged mountains cradling Montenegro’s Bay of Kotor, it becomes very clear why the country’s native name, Crna Gora, means ‘black mountain’.

As the sun is snuffed out each night, the mountains make like a chameleon, going from steel grey to a black silhouette. Eventually, the water of the mighty bay transforms into a shiny onyx. In the historic city of Kotor, the buttery-yellow lights of the buildings in the town’s center are enhanced by the city’s centuries-old, illuminated ramparts, which encircle the city like a ring of fire. Seeing this nocturnal spectacle for the first time, I thought that the UNESCO World Heritage-listed area must be most striking by night, but after hiking to Kotor’s fortress by day, I concluded that both were incredible times to observe this historical site.

Kotor’s fortifications are situated on steep slopes, but when viewed from below, they almost look more delicate than formidable – like a 4.5 km (3 mile) ribbon woven through the mountainside. Their crowning element is the Fortress of St. John (also known as the Castle of San Giovanni / St. Ivan), which sits roughly 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level. To get to the top, you must conquer about 1,350 stairs.

History of Kotor & its Fortifications

Built between the 9th and 19th centuries, the fortification’s walls didn’t actually create a continuous ring around Kotor’s Old Town until the 13th or 14th century. As military technology changed, so did the architecture. After firearms were invented, for example, new walls were constructed in front of the old ramparts.

While the Venetians were responsible for the bulk of the fortification’s components, the Illyrians, Byzantines, and Austrians also left their marks. In the last 500 years, powerful earthquakes have rocked the area three times, damaging the Old Town and the fortifications. The most recent earthquake occurred in 1979.

In 2006, Montenegro became an independent nation, following a referendum that asked voters to decide whether or not to continue a state union with Serbia. Prior to that, Montenegro had been one of six republics making up the country of Yugoslavia.

Human Daredevils, Mountain Goats, & Magnificent Views

We began our climb in the early-afternoon hours of a blue-sky day peppered with a few wispy clouds. The path started us off past locals tending to the flowers in their terraced gardens, and soon we were looking down upon Kotor’s terracotta rooftops. Continuing on, we reached the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, which was built in 1518. Its wrought-iron door was locked, but we peeked inside, glimpsing its whitewashed walls and modest religious decorations.

A quintet of Montenegrin teenagers passed us as we again hit the pathway. As if emulating the training scenes in a Rocky movie, the young shirtless men jogged up the inclined paths, sometimes running on top of the narrow wall as if it was a balancing beam. Up at the fortress ruins we’d eventually catch up to them, though by now the young men were performing daredevil stunts – leaping from stone wall to wall. We exchanged greetings and Facebook information, and they posed for a group shot, signaling an enthusiastic thumbs up.

By the time we reached the fortress, the light on our side of the mountain was glorious, bathing everything in a golden glow. Knowing that the sun would soon be setting behind the opposite mountain, we reluctantly started making our way down.

Eager to explore a picturesque scene we’d glimpsed on the way up, we diverted from the path we’d taken to climb to the fortress. Now heading towards a sign marked ‘Chapel of Saint Ivan’, we found a rusty gate swinging from the wall. Opening it, we saw a picturesque vista vastly different from the blues of the twinkling bay, and the fire-orange rooftops of Old Town Kotor that we encountered on the way up. On this eastern side of the mountain was a narrow crushed stone path snaking towards a petite stone chapel, along with a still-inhabited home and its outbuildings. Walking along the path, we spotted the ruins of the village of Špiljari, which was previously on a horse and pedestrian route that linked inland Montenegro with its coastline.

This back side of the mountain had already fallen into shadows so we knew we’d have to walk at a quicker pace. Still, I longed to walk among the ruined buildings and to sit on the wall while watching the mountain goats off in the distance.

And so we reluctantly continued our descent, encountering switchback after switchback, pondering how many people had come before us, what they had carried, and what had brought them to this path.

We had come seeking gorgeous views, and we found them – after conquering Montenegro’s Kotor Fortress.

Kotor's stone fortifications snake up the green St. John's Hill, underneath a blue sky.

Kotor’s fortifications snake up St. John’s Hill.

Two stone lookout towers of the Kotor Fortress in Montenegro.

Look-out towers. The fortification’s walls range from 2-16 meters wide (6.5-52 feet). Some walls are 20 meters tall (65 feet).

The Kotor Fortress Montenegro

In the photo on the right, you can make out the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, which you’ll pass on the way up to the fortress. It’s being dwarfed by this section of the region’s Dinaric Alps.

A sign featuring directions to the Kotor Fortress, written in 4 different languages.

There are several paths that lead to the fortress. This sign, in Kotor’s Old Town, points out where you can buy tickets.

A pair of tickets to Montenegro's Kotor Fortress.

When we made the climb to the fortress, tickets cost 3 Euros. I loved that an old engraving of the fortress was emblazoned on the tickets.

Hiking to Kotor Fortress overlooking Bay of Kotor

Just a few steps removed from the Old Town, and we already had gorgeous views of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor, and the towers of the town’s Cathedral of Saint Tryphon.

Hiking to Kotor Fortress

Stone stairs leading up to Montenegro's Kotor Fortress.

In all, about 1,350 stairs to the top!

Kotor Fortress Hiking Trail

The red rooftops of Kotor, Montenegro's Old Town.

Kotor Prayer Shrine Hiking to Fortress

A prayer shrine and the magnificent bay.

Hiking Path to Kotor Fortress

Peeking through an opening in the ramparts (left) you can see the dome of the St. Nicholas Serbian Orthodox Church.

A small stone chapel is framed by mountains, green grass, and yellow flowers, near the town of Kotor, Montenegro.

About halfway up the hill is the Church of Our Lady of Remedy. It dates back to the 16th century.

Kotor Church Above Old Town

Details of the church.

View from Hike to Kotor Fortress

Some might be surprised to hear that it took us several hours to complete this climb, round-trip, but with views like this, we made regular stops!

Kotor Fortress and Bay

A speedboat cuts through the water (left).

Kotor Old Town from Above

Kotor’s triangle-shaped core.

Kotor Fortress Ramparts

At the top, the ramparts are bathed in full sunshine.

Kotor Fortress Ramparts

Hiking to Kotor Fortress Selfie

Celebrating the views and our successful ascent, we pause for a picture. We’re wearing baseball caps given to us by new Croatian friends earlier on during our Balkans trip, when they took us out on their sailboat for a practice run.

Kotor Mountain Montenegro

A sign at the Kotor Fortress that reads: "Entrance to the fortress. Caution risk zone!"

Loose stones and some dilapidated floors and ceilings mean that one must proceed through the fortress with caution

Winged Lion San Marco Kotor Fortress

The Lion of Saint Mark serves as a reminder that Kotor was once under Venetian rule.

Remains of St John Fortress Kotor

Kotor Fortress Interior

Bay of Kotor Montenegro

Hiking to the Kotor Castle Montenegro

Bay of Kotor View from Top of Mountain

Kotor Fortress Hiking Training

These teenagers passed us on the way up. They were training by running up the steps and balancing on the walls. We’d meet again at the top, where Shawn and I were simultaneously awed and worried by their daredevil maneuvers!

Hikers Kotor Montenegro

Bay of Kotor Montenegro

Montenegro's red flag blows in the breeze atop the Kotor Fortress, with views of the Bay of Kotor below.

Montenegro’s bold flag dances in the wind.

St. John's Fortress Kotor From Above

Though our side of the mountain was drenched in full sunlight, we knew we’d soon need to make our way down to avoid doing so in the dark. We decided to take a different path than the one we’d climbed on the way up.

Behind Kotor Fortress Ruins

Not far from the fortress, we saw a sign pointing us to the Chapel of Saint Ivan. To get there we had to open up this swinging metal door (right) and then pass through the wall. On the other side (right) a completely different world presented itself: serene and largely in shadow.

Valley Behind Kotor Fortress Mountain

The other side of the mountain, as we look through the gate in the wall. Here you can see a still-inhabited stone cottage, and the switchbacks making up the pedestrian path leading to Montenegro’s hinterland, and to the ruins of the adjacent village of Špiljari.

Kotor Mountain Sunset

Locals' Footpath Kotor Fortress

Racing against the slumbering sun, we made our way down the pedestrian path to Kotor’s Old Town.

Goats on Kotor Mountain Montenegro

Mountain goats, dwarfed by the massive rocks around them, negotiate the rugged terrain.

Bay of Kotor After Sunset

Kotor Fortress Silhouette Montenegro

The silhouette of the ramparts, by night.

Our Video of This Experience:

Kotor Fortress YouTube Video

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

  • Kotor is 90 km (about 55 miles) from Dubrovnik, Croatia. We ultimately journeyed there by bus from Dubrovnik, making stops in Herceg Novi and pretty Perast. See the Kotor municipality website, or Montenegro National Tourist Organization for more details.
  • If you want to climb to the fortress, known locally as the Tvrđave Kotora or Tvrđava Sveti Ivan, wear solid walking shoes because the path is rocky and can be disheveled at times.
  • Bring adequate water, and perhaps a light snack. We enjoyed stopping and refueling with a mini picnic. We’d read that the climb can take anywhere from 2-3 hours, but in reality it took us much longer since we like soak up our surroundings slowly and stop to take pictures.
  • During our visit, tickets cost 3 Euros per person. We accessed the paid path via Kotor’s Old Town. Locals will also be quick to tell you that you can access the fortifications for free – via the shepherd’s path on the north side of the fortress. Since we wanted to take in the views on the west side of the mountain too, we purchased tickets and went up that way instead. On the return trip, we descended to the Old Town via the shepherd’s path. We’re happy we took different paths, since this allowed us to see both sides of the mountain.
  • We stayed at the Apartments Đukić (affiliate link), which are centrally located in Kotor’s Old Town (or Stari Grad). We initially stayed in the Apartments Đukić’s smaller studio apartment, then moved to be a bit larger one a few days later. In total, we stayed about 10 days in their properties. The two apartments featured all the basics that we needed, and had characteristic grey-stone walls. The employee, Stefan, was friendly and eager to help us with any questions we had about Kotor. He even allowed us to do our laundry in the apartment’s central laundry area.
  • Looking for more fortresses and outdoor spots to see in the region? If you’ll be spending time in Croatia, here are posts about walking Dubrovnik’s walls, exploring the Klis Fortress near the city of Split, and taking in the beautiful views of the Adriatic from Mosor and Marjan.
  • This index contains all my tales from Montenegro.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

60 Comments on “Conquering Montenegro’s Kotor Fortress

  1. Superb report and stunning photos and video, thanks. I went up to the fortress last September and, like you, took an age because after every few paces, a new photo opportunity appears! Kotor really is an amazing place, incredibly beautiful. I’m so glad I went to visit it – and Perast, Budva, Herceg Novi too.

    • Jon, it sounds like we both lucked out with our timing in visiting Kotor (you in September, us in the spring) because I hear it can get pretty crowded during the summer months! We also spent 2 nights in Herceg Novi, and day-tripped to gorgeous Perast. In both cities, I don’t think we crossed paths with any other visitors.

      What did you think of Budva? I was there for a few hours in 2007, prior to this trip to Kotor, and by night Budva was teeming with clubgoers. I’ve since seen pictures of its Old Town by day, and I’d be curious to see more.

      Thanks for your comment and kind words, and enjoy the rest of the weekend! :)

      • I went to Budva just as a day trip from Kotor. Fantastic old walled town {I walked round the city walls – a bit less demanding than Dubrovnik ;) } but wouldn’t want to be based there at all. Great open-air market, clothes and all sorts.
        One day during my visit to Kotor, there were NO cruise ships. The next day there were three. Aargh!!
        {p.s. dear Kotor, for all your undoubted beauty and UNESCO status, please don’t become another Dubrovnik :( }
        Keep the Balkan blogs and reports coming, I love learning more about this fascinating part of the world.

      • Jon, the cruise ships were just starting to anchor in Kotor during our time there. On one day, it’d be rather serene, the next – absolutely bustling with visitors. It does sound as though we’ll have to make a point of exploring Budva the next time we’re in the Balkans.

        Thanks for your kind words about the posts; it’s nice to hear you enjoyed these little tidbits about the area’s complicated, but incredible history. Do you have plans to get back to the region sometime soon? This was the first winter in two years that we hadn’t spent in Croatia. We miss it, but have been happy to visit my husband’s family and friends in the American state of Nevada these past months.

  2. This is an amazing article and being a lover of adventure and travel, this just makes me want to hop on a plane and explore. I never knew this existed and frankly now I want to go. The pictures are gorgeous as well…good show

    • Hi Austin, great to hear that this post introduced you to this beautiful corner of the globe. We’ve been lucky to have spent a fair amount of time exploring Southeastern Europe, and, like you, have often been pleasantly surprised by what we’ve learned and discovered. That is one of my travel’s many gifts, I think.

      I do hope you’ll get the chance to hop on that plane and explore the region soon. :) Thank you for commenting.

    • Kimberly, the gorgeous views of the bay combined with so much history make this one of my favorite hikes in Europe. How long ago were you in Kotor?

  3. How stunning! And what a fun video! I never made it to Montenegro – I was there during strange times – the early 90s. To my mind, the Dalmatian Coast is one of the most beautiful places in the world – and obviously, that same beauty continues South. Thanks for sharing your trip – great vicarious pleasure.

    • Hi Tricia, thank you for your kind words about the post and video. I’ll pass the video kudos to my husband, Shawn, who is the video man. :)

      Certainly, it must’ve been an interesting time to have been in the region in the early 1990s! Having spent two winters living in the Dalmatian Coast, I can agree that that area is incredibly beautiful. In fact, the bus ride going from Split, to Dubrovnik, to Kotor, offered some of the most dramatic views I’ve ever seen: rugged mountains, and the gorgeous blues of the Adriatic, then the Bay of Kotor.

      I do hope you’ll someday soon have the pleasure of journeying farther south in this part of the world, Tricia. We were fortunate to have done so during the low-tourism season, when prices were lower, and streets were rather quiet. Since the locals weren’t overwhelmed with tourists, it afforded us the opportunity to talk with them more too.

    • You’re absolutely right, Shikha, that the climb offers photography enthusiasts wonderful perspectives for taking pictures. We enjoyed the views, history, and exercise so much that we thought about doing the hike again, but unfortunately ran out of time. Otherwise, we would’ve loved to have made the climb during the morning, to experience the different light.

      Hope your week is off to a wonderful start! Thank you for your comment.

  4. I’ve heard many great things about Montenegro before, but really haven’t seen all that many photo essay posts about it. I’m left really confused as to why not because what I see here is an outstanding country with so much to enjoy.

    • I agree, Dale, that Montenegro deserves more attention. That being said, we were in Kotor in the late spring months, and I hear it can get much more crowded in the midst of summer. I get the sense that many of Kotor’s visitors are day-trippers – either from cruise ships, or from Dubrovnik.

      We spent 2 weeks in Kotor, and could’ve easily stayed longer, as we loved exploring the fresh market, making this climb, and day-tripping to the pretty nearby town of Perast. I know that you and Franca are fellow slow travelers and can understand why it’s appealing to make a place like this a home base for a while. :)

      I hope you’ll both have the chance to make it to Montenegro soon! If you do, I’m happy to share pointers.

  5. Not surprised at all that it took you several hours to climb up Tricia – besides, who would want to rush with views like that!

    • Melinda, the only time we felt the need to rush was when the sun dipped below the mountain facing us, causing our path to fall into darkness. Otherwise, I’m thrilled that we were able to savor the views.

      During your trips to France, as you’ve done research for your book, have you encountered a few fortress hikes, similar to this one?

  6. Visited Kotor many years ago when there was still a Jugoslavia. Would like to go back to the area as it was all quite spectacular.

    • Dorothy, it would be fascinating to hear your stories from when you visited the region back then! I agree that the area around the Bay of Kotor is gorgeous, deserving of Montenegro’s slogan, ‘wild beauty’. Did you stop in other cities in the former Yugoslavia too?

    • Cornelia, I agree that it’s a special spot. It’s also reassuring to know that much of this area is protected since UNESCO designated the fortifications, Old Town, and parts of the bay as a World Heritage Site. Do you recall if you and your family made it to Kotor during your childhood trips to Yugoslavia? (And thank you for your kind words.)

      • Tricia, I don’t recall visiting Kotor in my childhood. We mainly spent time on different islands, travelling to Split I remember the Amphie Theatre there, than Zagreb I believe and another city I can’t recall the name of it right now. Oh it was Dubrovnik, yes. I was probably ten or eleven years than, I remember that I loved the rough and untouched nature there.

      • What a gift for you to have been able to visit these places as a child, Cornelia! I wonder if the amphitheater that you remember was the one in Pula? We have yet to visit, but have read that it’s impressive.

  7. I’m both exhausted and in awe, Tricia. I don’t know if my knees are up to that but I will take this as a vicarious trip. Absolutely gorgeous views. Going down a different way just adds so much more to the trip and I can see why you took your time.

    • Lynne, two years later, I’m also awed by these views of the bay! We knew they were stunning when we were there, but sometimes one must get away from a beautiful place for a while to truly appreciate how fantastic it is!

      Regarding knees & climbing, since my parents live in prime hiking country in the German Alps, we’ve been thinking of renting hiking poles the next time we go for a longer trek. I’ve heard that the poles are supposed to relieve some of the strain put on knees, especially when going downhill. I’m not sure if that would help, but thought I’d toss the idea out there. :)

      Wishing you a wonderful weekend ahead to you and Ron! Thank you for your comment.

  8. What an amazing place! I think this is going on our list too…

    • Exploringthisearth, I’m glad to hear that you’re adding such a deserving spot to your list. What’s nice is that there are other wonderful destinations easily within reach of Kotor, including the towns of Herceg Novi and Perast. Both have their own fortresses, and bay views too!

  9. Kotor looks absolutely stunning and I cannot believe I haven’t been yet, especially considering it’s not that far from the part of Italy I’m from, it’s just a “swim” away in fact. Really need to get there before it gets too popular and spoiled.

    • Franca, what part of Italy are you from? We actually took a ferry from Split to Ancona last spring, and enjoyed that mode of travel. We had a nice sofa to sleep on, and in the morning, we were in Italy! I recall seeing a ferry connection between Montenegro and Italy too, perhaps it was to Bari?

      We were in Kotor in the springtime, but I hear that it can get rather crowded in the midst of summer when the cruise ships are anchored. April was a lovely time: pleasant weather, few tourists, gorgeous produce (especially the strawberries!), and a better deal on accommodations. Things were just on the verge of picking up for the summer season though.

      Hope you and Dale will get there soon. :)

  10. That’s a very interesting place that you shared with us. It must be awesome to be there.

    • Gerard, this Montenegrin adventure was actually about 2 years ago, but it was certainly fun reminiscing via this post! Wish you a wonderful Wednesday.

  11. What sights and adventures ~ Human Daredevils (great capture of the guy mid-jump…to be young and immortal again!), Mountain Goats (I sure have an affinity for them, and this year is the year for the Goat) and then the Magnificent Views, which were incredible. What I really enjoyed was the details of the Church (you have a great shot with lighting of the interior and the views beyond). Fantastic write up and you’ve uncovered a jewel for me. Cheers.

    • Randall, from human and goat daredevils, to Kotor’s natural and manmade details, I’m glad you enjoyed the post. When you visit Kotor, be absolutely sure to visit the market, where, depending upon the season, mammoth strawberries, Old World cheese, and olives, homemade fig jam and wild asparagus await!

      • I hope to within the next 3 years. It is a place I didn’t realize existed. It us absolutely beautiful! So many places are on my list though.

    • Ankey86, here’s hoping you may someday soon be on a road leading to Montenegro. Its coastline is some of the most ruggedly beautiful we’ve seen!

    • Theweakislands, I bet autumn will be a beautiful time to visit Kotor, as crowds will hopefully be smaller, and weather a bit less sizzling hot! Wishing you a wonderful trip there – be sure to find the ‘secret gate’ and take a peek at the abandoned village on the back side of the mountain. :)

    • Carol, the climb wasn’t as treacherous as perhaps it looks, plus the energy expended made us feel less guilty for enjoying some of the many goodies down at Kotor’s fresh market (homemade cheese, mammoth strawberries, and figs). :)

    • Billy, I agree, especially given the rugged terrain the builders had to work around. Here’s hoping the fortress will continue to be restored, but at the same time, retain its atmospheric character.

  12. I am from Montenegro, living on the coast (60 km from Kotor) but never been to this fortress. After this very nice “report” I will do it for sure. thanks a lot

    • Milos, hi there, and hvala for your comment. I think it’s quite common for many people (myself included) to miss the sites “in their own backyards.” When you visit the Kotor Fortress, I’d be happy to hear about your adventures there. Please feel free to drop by again and let me know how your visit was.

      Wish you a splendid day on Montengro’s stunning coastline!

  13. Pingback: Kotor, Montenegro: Meander Through Medieval Magic | GALLIVANCE

    • Hi there Jeff, it was precisely those photo-snapping moments that gave us breathers during the climb. :) The views of Kotor Bay were so extraordinary; I can’t imagine rushing it. Are you planning a trip to Montenegro someday soon?

      • I love using the excuse of “stopping for a photo” to catch ones breath. I use it all the time.

        I am very interested in visiting the Balkans. I work with a lot of Bulgarians, Ukrainians, Macedonians, Serbians and Moldavians, and I’d like to make a trip there.

      • Jeff, my husband and I have been fortunate to have spent a good amount of time in the Balkans and beyond, coincidentally in each of the countries that you mentioned (plus Montenegro, Albania, and Croatia). In what capacity do you work with such an international bunch of people?

      • We were in Montenegro this summer. It was amazing. :)) Our posts are coming soon :)
        But we are sure, that it was not the last time we had a trip to this beautiful country.

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