If you’ve ever seen a photograph of Kotor, Montenegro then chances are it’s been taken from THAT viewpoint, overlooking the Bay of Kotor, or Boka Bay.
You know, this one.
Hiking up to Kotor Fortress is definitely one of the main things to do in Kotor, and it’s no surprise – this magnificent view over the red roofed houses of Kotor’s Old Town and the fjord-like bay nestled in the mountains is something you can’t miss if you visit Kotor.
In fact, it’s probably the most photographed spot in all of Montenegro – and it’s no wonder! – but what the Instagram posts don’t tell you is how to get there, or what’s behind the camera!
When I was living in Kotor back in 2018, I must have told hundreds of tourists how to hike up to Kotor Fortress, or the Fortress of St John (Tvrdava Sveti Ivan) to give it its proper name, and because much of the information online is outdated or inaccurate, I thought that I would put everything I know into a blog post, so that if you are planning a trip to Kotor and you’d like to know how to hike up to Kotor Fortress, then you’re all set!
Psst – if you are planning a trip to Kotor and are looking for more things to do in Kotor then I’ve got you boo – check out this backpacker’s guide to Kotor after you’ve finished this article!
Kotor Fortress – A Brief History
Now, I don’t want to bore you so I will try and keep this short. That said, I believe that it is important to know the history of the places you visit, so please try and stay with me!
The old fortifications of Kotor are an integrated system that used to protect the town of Kotor. They include towers, citadels, bastions, gates and of course, the famous Kotor Fortress. The top of the mountain of St John was already fortified during the Illyrian times, but in the 6th century, Emperor Justinian 1 reconstructed the fortress. The Republic of Cattaro (as it was then called) was independent for a while, but eventually in 1420 it succumbed to Venetian rule. It was then, as part of Albania Venetia, that the fortifications received their current structure.
However, it hasn’t exactly been plain sailing for the fortifications of Kotor since then. In the past 500 years, three powerful earthquakes have rocked the city, the most recent being in 1979, damaging much of Kotor. After rehabilitation, you can still see where the Illyrians, Byzantines and Austrians have left their mark, but most of the remaining fortifications are Venetian.
In 2017, the fortified city of Kotor was included in UNESCO’s World Heritage Site list as part of “Venetian Works of Defence between 15th and 17th centuries: Stato da Terra.”
So, now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s get to the juice: how to get to Kotor Fortress!
Kotor Fortress – Getting There
There are two ways to get to Kotor Fortress.
There is the official way, and there is the unofficial way (which is the way nobody seems to cover).
I will tell you both, and then I will explain why the unofficial way is the best option.
The Official Route to Kotor Fortress
The vast majority of people that hike to Kotor Fortress walk up the 1355 steps up to it. The entrance to these stairs is found within the walls of the Old Town. When you get about a third of the way up, there is a man with a turnstile who will charge you 8 EU to continue up to the fortress. The cost used to be 3 EU, but thanks to overtourism (and the influence of Dubrovnik), it is now 8.
The stairs are not the easiest to climb, with some of the steps being very loose (and slippy!), and the stairs themselves are incredibly narrow, with loose rocks to the side that you will have to walk on if somebody else is walking up/down at the same time as you. They are also fairly steep in parts, making it a rather tiring walk.
The Unofficial (Free!) Route to Kotor Fortress
If you’d like to take the unofficial route to Kotor Fortress then you need to exit the Old Town via the North Gate. Walk across the bridge (don’t forget to take a picture because the view is beautiful!) and turn right. You will see the mountain that you are about to climb. As you get closer, you will see a serpentine path snaking its way up the hill. This path is known as the Ladder of Kotor and used to connect the old capital Cetinje with Kotor. In days gone by, it was actually used by local women taking their goods to the market in Kotor Old Town!
Taking this route is easier than the stairs because the incline is very slight, and most of the walk seems flat. It is also slightly (slightly!) less monotonous than the staircase route.
After about 25 minutes, you will reach an old chapel. This is the chapel of St. George (Sveti Dorde) and is around 1000 years old! The chapel is open so you are free to go inside, but it hasn’t been well preserved. Nevertheless, it is interesting to peep inside, and also gives you the chance to have a rest!
If you’re in the mood for a little tipple at this point then you can turn left at the chapel and follow the handwritten signs to the Rakija Man’s house. I don’t know what his real name is, or what his little business is called, but for all intents and purposes, he is the Rakija Man. This man lives up the mountain and makes his own rakija and goats’ cheese, and he welcomes weary travellers with open arms to sample his produce. Unfortunately, the first time I hiked to the fortress, I didn’t know about the Rakija Man, and the second time was low season and he wasn’t around! However, I have it on good authority that he does exist, he does have rakija and he does have cheese.
Visiting the Rakija Man is not only a great way of sampling local produce, but it’s also great to support small businesses, and the couple of euros that you pay to the Rakija Man in exchange for some rakija and cheese directly benefit him and his family!
After you’ve visited Rakija Man, head back to the chapel and continue your journey because you’re nearly there!
From the church, bear right and follow the path. There will be a wall on your left and the grassy plains of the mountain will be on your right (there are some arrows painted on the trees to help you out!). You may even see the local donkey or cow wandering around!
Continue on this path for a couple of minutes and you will come to a window that you can climb through (I PROMISE this is not as difficult or as sketchy as it seems, trust me! If I can do it then so can you!). Once you climb through the window, you will be on the ‘official’ route, having bypassed the man asking for money, and so you can just follow the steps up until you reach Kotor Fortress!
Why Take the Unofficial Route to Kotor Fortress?
First, it’s free! Now, although I am a backpacker and I travel on a budget, I never encourage people to simply take take take when they travel. I believe in helping the local economy, and the economy in Kotor is really driven by tourism.
That said, 8 EU is an extortionate price, especially as the price was 3 EU back in 2017. The prices of everything in Kotor are quickly rising due to the huge number of cruise ships that descend on the city every day. Due to this, the residents of Kotor have seen a sharp increase in the cost of living, but not in wages. Unfortunately, many locals just cannot afford to live in Kotor anymore, which is just one of the heartbreaking effects of overtourism, and although it isn’t exactly the residents of Kotor that are climbing to the fortress, I still believe that we should take a stand against such unreasonable price increases, because otherwise this will just continue.
I also recommend the unofficial route to Kotor Fortress because it is EASIER and a lot more scenic than the official way.
In my opinion, the best way to hike to Kotor Fortress is to walk UP the unofficial way, and head DOWN via the stairs. This means that your journey down will be a lot quicker, and you will have a chance to see what you missed (the 1518 Church of Our Lady of Remedy midway down!).
When you see the man with his turnstile halfway down, don’t panic: you won’t be checked for a ticket!
The Best Time to Hike to Kotor Fortress
The best time to hike to Kotor Fortress really depends on when you go. In low season, it’s cool enough to walk up in the middle of the afternoon and there won’t be hordes of crowds all clamouring for a picture at the top. In high season, you should go early in the morning (the ticket man starts work at 8 so you can climb the stairs for free before then!) to watch the sunrise, or late in the afternoon to avoid being too hot.
It’s especially nice to hike up to the fortress in the late afternoon because not only can you avoid the heat, but this is the time when many backpackers gather at the top with cold beers and snacks, and it’s a really nice atmosphere. However, don’t be fooled into thinking that you can watch the sunset from Kotor Fortress – all it does is disappear behind the mountain!
What to Wear to Hike to the Fortress of St John
You don’t need hiking boots but it is wise to wear comfortable shoes that won’t slip off easily as the path is rocky and uneven. I went up there in Converse and was totally fine. Clothing wise, wear something light and make sure you are wearing sunscreen because the rays can get really intense up there! You should also make sure to carry lots of water, and it’s nice to bring some beers to drink at the top 😉
(Pro tip: in high season, there is a guy selling cold drinks at Kotor Fortress, but they are very overpriced so I recommend going to a supermarket beforehand.)
Is it Difficult to Hike to Kotor Fortress?!
Let it be known that I am NOT a hiker. I hate “adventure travel” and I would much rather be sipping a glass of wine and eating pasta than walking anywhere. However, the walk to Kotor Fortress is really not that difficult. Sure, it’s a little tiring, but you can stop as often as you like and there are no steep/difficult parts that I had any trouble with. If you get tired, just take it slow!
Most people estimate the walk to be around 45 minutes long. If you’re a speedy gonzalez then you can do it in 30, but my friends and I usually took about an hour because we would stop to rest, take pictures, and explore. It also took us longer because we went in the middle of the afternoon in the height of summer and I was carrying 4L of liquid (water and beer!).
If you walk back down via the stairs, it will only take you around 15 minutes to reach the bottom.
So, there is my complete guide to hiking up to the Fortress of St John or Kotor Fortress. I tried to include as much information as possible but if I missed anything or if you have any questions then please let me know in the comments section!