The Balkan country may be tiny but it offers huge scope for visitors — with beautiful Adriatic beaches, dramatic mountains and villages bearing historical marks of Roman, Venetian and Byzantine invaders.
While still not exactly mainstream, Montenegro certainly isn’t under the radar — the tiny Balkan country is popular with yacht owners and moneyed Russians seeking sunshine. Between the mountains and pretty coastline are eminently walkable walled towns and fortresses, along with upmarket hotels, and places to moor all those yachts. The high-end marina Porto Montenegro, in Tivat, for example, opened in 2016, touted as the ‘new Monaco’, offering plenty of boutiques, restaurants and bars to satisfy the wealthy clientele. But Montenegro is far more than just another Med hotspot for the super rich; its Adriatic beaches are remarkably beautiful, its mountains the very definition of dramatic, while the Mediterranean climate is as welcoming and its towns are packed with historic sights. It’s a place where hot afternoons disappear in friendly bars, and restaurants excel themselves with menus of fresh, local seafood and familiar, Italian-influenced dishes.
The opening next year of One&Only Portonovi — the high-end hotel group’s first European property — in the Bay of Kotor, in the country’s south west, will doubtless bring more attention to Montenegro. But go also to enjoy the country’s natural pleasures: boating on reed-lined freshwater lakes; buying homemade honey in local markets; and marvelling at Kotor’s collection of UNESCO World Heritage Site-listed churches.
Day one: Budva & Sveti Stefan
Founded in the fifth century BC, Budva is the oldest city on the Montenegrin coast, shaped by Roman, Venetian and Byzantine invaders. Its best known for its medieval city wall. The walk along the boardwalk to Stari Grad (Old Town) — passing bobbing boats and stalls selling the catch of the day — is the perfect way to start the day. Stari Grad’s cobbled alleys are dotted with beautiful squares and chruches. Enter the Citadel, which dates from the 19th-century Austrian occupation, and climb to the highest point for sea views at Citadela restaurant. Don’t miss the library, lined with red leather armchairs and books on the region, international leaders and historic conflicts.
From Stari Grad, take a 15-minute stroll along the coastal path to Mogren Beach (actually two beaches, connected by a small tunnel). The further beach is a little quieter and the golden sand, gently sloping into the Adriatic, just that bit nicer. Sun loungers are pricey but not compulsory — you can just sit on the sand. A bit further along the coast, at a cliff known as Shark’s Rock, brave souls leap 40ft into the sea below. Grab something for lunch at the snack bars here, or back at the Old Town; Stari Grad Restaurant, which sits between the city walls and the beach, serves excellent seafood and local wine.
Located on an islet a few miles from Budva, Sveti Stefan is a jumble of honey-coloured medieval stone villas connected to the mainland by a causeway. Part of the Aman Sveti Stefan hotel, it can only be accessed by guests, although tables on the terrace can be booked by non-residents. Exceptional Montenegrin wine is served alongside dishes made with local produce, such as burrata cheese and prawns. Time dinner as the light fades over the mountains and the sea, and the lights of Budva twinkle away across the bay.
Day two: Virpazar & Lake Skadar
Lake Skadar is an enormous freshwater lake straddling the border of Montenegro and Albania. There’s a train station about a mile from the main town, Virpazar (taxis can be arranged), with the line running from the coastal town of Bar to Podgorica, the capital. Trains are rather rickety and not especially reliable, but they’re very cheap. Virpazar has a few small hotels and there are a fair amount of private rooms to rent. Take a wander around the little town to see the impressive monument commemorating the communist uprising against the Italian fascists in July 1941. There’s a weekly market, which gave the village its name (Virpazar means ‘lively market’) every Friday, selling vegetables, wine, honey and other local produce.
The best way to see Lake Skadar is by taking a boat trip. Several companies offer cruises of varying durations in traditional Montenegrin wooden lake boats. Kingfisher offers a two-hour trip that heads out towards the distant mountains of Albania, sailing past a fortress built to protect against the Turks 300 years ago. Swallows skim over the water as the boat edges through a small channel, brushing against reeds. Once out on the open water, it’s possible to spot over 281 bird species, including the dinosaur-like Dalmatian pelican. The boat stops in a quiet spot, surrounded by karst outcrops sprouting pine trees, offering the possibility of a chilly swim for brave souls willing to take the plunge.
There aren’t a huge number of places to eat in tiny Virpizar, and the menus are all broadly similar. Restaurant Silistria is probably the most fun. Set in a replica of the wooden boat given to King Nikola by the Turks in the 19th century, it’s permanently moored just off the main square. It serves grilled meat and lake fish, including carp and the endemic bleak. After an evening on the boat, stop off for a drink at one of the bars on the square. The village has several small hotels, as well as private apartments such as Draga’s Rooms. Located a few minutes’ walk from the main street, it offers cheap accommodation, a lake-view terrace and a warm welcome from Draga herself. Take earplugs: the frogs around the lake strike up a chorus at night.
Day three: Kotor
Wake up in the morning to the bells ringing from one of Kotor’s many churches. The Old Town was painstakingly restored to its former glory after suffering severe damage in an earthquake in 1979. It’s a particularly peaceful place to be early in the day, before the crowds arrive. In the gentle morning sun it’s quiet and easygoing, with little cafes tucked into courtyards to discover for breakfast. Kotor has been ruled by Romans, Venetians and Austrians, and they’ve all left their mark. Wandering the labyrinthine streets is rewarding, with plenty of squares lined with elegant buildings. Seek out the Cathedral of Saint Tryphon, a medieval Catholic structure built in 1166 on the foundations of a ninth-century church, although parts of it have been rebuilt several times since.
The best views are to be found at the top of Kotor’s city walls: those views need to be earned, though. The battlements zigzag their way up the mountain, which rise up above the Bay of Kotor — there are 1,350 steps up to the fortress at the very top. Work on the walls was started by the Venetians in 1420 but wasn’t completed until 400 years later. Bring water: there’s nowhere to buy it up there, and the climb can be very hot. After descending, it’s time for a cold beer — Old Town Pub is a friendly place to stop. A little less energy is required for a visit to Kotor Cats Museum. This whimsical little venue celebrates the town’s favourite animal with two rooms full of cat-related artefacts, from magazine covers to photos of old-school movie stars with their feline friends.
Kotor doesn’t have a wild nightlife, but there are plenty of great bars to enjoy. Bokun Wine Bar is a cool spot, offering an interesting selection of local wines as well as plates of cheese and charcuterie, with live music at weekends. Caffe Bandiera has both live music and a lively atmosphere, as well as good, cheap beer. Eat at Restaurant Pržun, located in an attractive cobbled square. It has good local seafood and friendly staff. It’s tempting to spend the whole evening here as it’s a bit quieter than the buzzy streets surrounding it, but if something livelier is required head to Maximus. This cavernous nightclub — the biggest in Montenegro — attracts big-name DJs and offers a variety of different spaces.
Published in the December 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)