Wedged between brooding mountains and a moody corner of the bay, achingly atmospheric Kotor (Котор) is perfectly at one with its setting. Hemmed in by staunch walls snaking improbably up the surrounding slopes, the town is a medieval maze of museums, churches, cafe-strewn squares, and Venetian palaces and pillories. It’s a dramatic and delightful place where the past coexists with the present; its cobblestones ring with the sound of children racing to school in centuries-old buildings, lines of laundry flutter from wrought-iron balconies, and hundreds of cats – the descendants of seafaring felines – loll in marble laneways. Come nightfall, Kotor’s spectacularly lit-up walls glow as serenely as a halo. Behind the bulwarks, the streets buzz with bars, live music – from soul to serenades – and castle-top clubbing.
Budva’s got the beaches, and nearby Dubrovnik’s got the bling, but for romance, ambience and living history, this Old Town outflanks them all.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Kotor.
Kotor's fortifications started to head up St John's Hill in the 9th century and by the 14th century a protective loop was completed, which was added to right up until the 19th century. The energetic can make a 1200m ascent up the fortifications via 1350 steps to a height of 260m above sea level; the views from St John's Fortress, at the top, are glorious. There are entry points near the River Gate and behind Trg od Salate.
Kotor’s most impressive building, this Catholic cathedral was consecrated in 1166 but reconstructed after several earthquakes. When the entire frontage was destroyed in 1667, the baroque bell towers were added; the left one remains unfinished. The cathedral’s gently hued interior is a masterpiece of Romanesque architecture: slender Corinthian columns alternate with pillars of pink stone, thrusting upwards to support a series of vaulted roofs. Look for the remains of Byzantine-style frescoes in the arches. The gilded-silver bas-relief altar screen is considered Kotor’s most valuable treasure. Upstairs is a Sacral Art Museum, filled with paintings, vestments and a spooky wooden crucifix dating from 1288. Behind the grill in the reliquary chapel are assorted body parts of saints, including St Tryphon himself. The early martyr’s importance to both the Catholic and Orthodox churches makes him a fitting patron for the city.
The main entrance to the town was constructed in 1555 when it was under Venetian rule (1420–1797). Look out for the winged lion of St Mark, Venice’s symbol, which is displayed prominently on the walls here and in several other spots around the town. Above the gate, the date of the city’s liberation from the Nazis is remembered with a communist star and a quote from Tito. An enormous (and inexplicable) bench outside the entrance makes for amusing snaps.
Kotor's proud history as a naval power is celebrated in three storeys of displays housed in a wonderful early-18th-century palace. An audio guide helps explain the collection of photographs, paintings, uniforms, exquisitely decorated weapons and models of ships.
Built in 1221 on the site of a 6th-century basilica, this Catholic church is distinguished by impressive 20th-century bronze doors covered in bas-reliefs, the remains of frescoes, a particularly gruesome larger-than-life crucifix, and a glass coffin containing the body of Blessed Osanna of Cattaro (1493–1565). She was what is known as an anchoress, choosing to be walled into a small cell attached to a church so as to devote her life to prayer.
Fewer tourists make it to the south end of town, where the houses narrow into a slim corridor leading to this bastion and gate (parts of which date from the 13th century) and the drawbridge over the Gurdić Spring. Without the crowds and the clamour, it's easy to imagine yourself transported in time as you meander along the atmospheric passageways.
Sweet little St Luke’s speaks volumes about the history of Croat-Serb relations in Kotor. It was constructed in 1195 as a Catholic church, but from 1657 until 1812 Catholic and Orthodox altars stood side by side, with each faith taking turns to hold services here. It was then gifted to the Orthodox Church.
Breathe in the smell of incense and beeswax in this Orthodox church, built in 1909 and adorned with four huge canvasses depicting the gospel writers, a gift from Russia in 1998. The silence, the iconostasis with its silver bas-relief panels, the dark wood against bare grey walls, the filtered light through the dome and the simple stained glass conspire to create a mystical atmosphere.
Tucked in the slightly quieter northern corner of town beside the parklike Trg od Drva (Wood Sq), this gate opens on to a photogenic moat formed by the clear mountain water of the bubbling Škurda River. It was built in 1540 to commemorate the attack on the city the previous year by the Ottoman navy. You'll invariably be greeted by a Kotor cat (or 20).