Nestled between stark limestone rockfaces and azure waters at the tip of the southernmost fjord in Europe, Kotor, Montenegro’s oldest town, has sat for over 2,000 years.
Despite being only a few hundred metres wide, the Old Town is steeped in history – its secluded bay on the Adriatic having been sought after by every seafaring power since Medieval times.
Its UNESCO World Heritage Site-certified fortifications have withstood centuries of weather and warfare, and now face the onslaught of international tourism.
Back in 2019, Kotor welcomed some 250,000 visitors – roughly ten times the resident population. Its reputation has only grown since then, being singled out as one of Travel + Leisure’s most beautiful coastal destinations in the world in 2023.
Reputable guidebooks will tell you the peaceful charm of Montenegro is key to what makes it so special, so get there fast and then take it slow.
READ MORE: Breathtaking European country has four tourists to every resident
About 17 miles long and 30 metres deep, the Bay of Kotor proved an irresistible strategic haven for the navies of European empires, from the Dalmatians to the Serbians and Hungarians.
Each left its mark on its buildings and cultural sites, but it is the Venetians – who controlled the area around the town they called Cattaro from 1420 to 1797 – whose influence is most visible in the architecture today.
Nowadays, the docks once lined with wooden galleys from across the Mediterranean cater to cruise ships from around the world.
The secret of the bay’s natural beauty was already well out back in the Sixties, when Hollywood stars like Elizabeth Taylor and British royalty like Princess Margaret graced Kotor’s shores. The Yugoslav Wars in the Nineties decimated the tourism industry, but it is now back in force.
Montenegro, a country of 600,000, counted just under 2.2 million tourist arrivals in 2022, according to the state statistics bureau Monsat. The recent opening of budget airline routes from Western Europe and a scramble for less-crowded alternatives to Croatia and Greece is thought to be behind the renaissance.
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A wander in any direction around the narrow cobblestone streets of Kotor’s white-stone Old Town is sure to reveal Medieval gems.
The Cathedral of St Tryphon is a highlight, with its well-preserved Roman Catholic-style facade outside and museum of local treasures within, as are the Fortifications of Kotor. For those willing to brave the 1,350 steps are treated to a commanding view of the bay from the Castle of San Giovanni.
As recompense, perhaps, those who have successfully breached the fortress can take a dip on Kotor Beach just north of the Old Town. The restless can also hire paddleboards, kayaks and snorkelling equipment nearby.
Sleek wooden speedboat tours depart regularly from the marina, all of which are near-guaranteed to stop off at Our Lady of the Rocks – the postcard-perfect island built by the Venetians in the 15th century.
Among the town’s more unusual resident populations are the hundreds of cats who prowl the streets and laze on marble slabs warmed by the sun.
The descendants of the seafaring felines of yonder, they have become a symbol of Kotor, which now has several cat stores, a cat museum and the Cats’ Square. The locals leave water and food for them throughout the town, as well as cardboard boxes for them to sleep in. Charity Kotor Kitties was also set up to look after them.
Despite the mountainous surroundings, the town is surprisingly accessible for those tempted to jet in. Just three miles away, tiny Tivat Airport can be reached from London for under £80 return.
The capital’ Podgorica Airport, meanwhile, serves many major European destinations year-round and is reachable by car in an hour and a half thanks to the country’s brand-new and highly controversial Chinese-funded motorway.
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