It’s been a long time since former Yugoslavia was bothered by conflict. Enough time even for some parts to become very popular tourist destinations. Seriously – try walking through Dubrovnik without bumping into an Aussie backpacker.
But Croatia, one of the first countries to open up, embrace and entice mass tourism, has quickly become overpriced and crowded. Already travelers are looking for something else and they are finding it in Montenegro.
While it’s more expensive than most of its neighbours (Bosnia, Serbia and Albania), Montenegro is still one of the cheapest countries in Europe to travel in. It also offers spectacular scenery and it’s not very big so a week or 10 days here can go a long way.
Need more reasons to come here? This is what you can expect to find in this Balkan beauty.
There are some beautiful towns dotted along the coast, starting with Herceg Novi, which is less than an hour from Dubrovnik, stretching down to Ulcinj, where the buses leave to cross into Albania. Regular and cheap local buses make it easy to travel between the coastal hamlets so it’s a good move to pick one as your base and explore from there. Budva is often a popular choice because it’s the biggest and there are lots of connections to Podgorica, the capital (which really isn’t worth visiting). But Budva doesn’t have a great atmosphere. The beach and the hills around it are dominated with large apartment buildings and hotels and it’s just not nice to look at.
One of the real beauties in Montenegro is Kotor. The town is small and most of the activity, including most of the hostels, is found in the Old Town. You can walk up the fortress and have a great view of the bay or tackle the hill behind it for a view over the fortress and the town. The Old Town Hostel is something of a Balkan legend and probably the best you’ll find in the country so that’s worth checking out too if you’re lucky enough to score a bed. (The hostel was still full in late September.)
However, Kotor has one not-so-great feature. It’s a dock for cruise ships, which means on most days there are large tour groups crammed into the narrow streets of the Old Town. The restaurants are also disappointing and expensive and there are lots of souvenir shops. Kotor is best explored early in the morning or at night, so it makes a great base because you can travel to the surrounding towns during the day and come back after the cruise ship has left.
So where should you escape to during the day?
Herceg Novi is not quite two hours north of Kotor by bus and has a nice Old Town and fortress. Because a lot of tourists coming from Croatia are in a bit of a hurry to get further into Montenegro, you’ll find less visitors here and more locals going about their day.
Perast is one of the most beautiful spots on the Montenegrin coast, some may even say the most beautiful. The highlight here is Our Lady of the Rocks Church, which sits on the only man-made island in the Adriatic Sea. You can take a boat ride out to the island for about €5. Perast is about 10km from Kotor and you can stop here on your way to or from Herceg Novi. It’s possible to visit both places in a day.
To the south, Budva is worth a look if only to see what most of the coastline will probably look like in a few years. There are lots of big buildings and even amusement games and rides by the water. There are some nice beaches here, but they are crowded even at the end of the season. If you are interested in taking a cruise or fishing tour, this is the place to start from.
Unless you’re prepared to splurge big time, staying at Sveti Stefan will be out of the question. The small island not far from Budva is now a luxury hotel. But the beaches in front of it are still public, so you can get a little taste of a luxury lifestyle by going for a swim here. There are regular buses (sometimes every 15 minutes) from Budva.
Bar and Ulcinj
The north is the most popular area of Montenegro’s coastline, but the south is just as beautiful and comes with less crowds. Bar is the end point for the Belgrade to Bar Railway, a beautiful and convenient way to travel from Serbia. Bar’s Old Town is about 4km from the city centre and there are so nice cafes there, plus a lovely view over the city and the mountains behind it. You can also visit the Bar’s famous olive tree, which is more than 2000 years old.
Ulcinj’s most appealing feature is that it’s where the buses leave for Albania. That also means many people only come here to get off one bus and onto another. That’s a shame because there’s a very different atmosphere here than any of the other towns along the coast. Ulcinj still attracts a lot of tourists, but most of them are from Albania or Kosovo. Ulcinj is also home to what a lot of Montenegrins consider the country’s most beautiful beach: Velika Plaza. The beach is 12km long and, unusually for Montenegro, mostly sand.
Biogradska National Park
While Montenegro is well known for its coastline, the country is actually incredibly mountainous. Biogradska is the smallest of Montenegro’s national parks, but it’s also the oldest. Parts of it have been protected for more than 140 years. The park is best explored from either Kolasin or Mojkovac, which are easily reached by train or bus.
The starting point for most explorations of the area is Biogradska Lake. A walk around the lake is easy and takes about one hour. There are lots of hikes through the park ranging from a few hours to several days. Biogradska is famed for its 1600 hectares of virgin forest and you’ll find an interesting variety of plants and animals here.
Durmitor National Park
Durmitor National Park is an outdoor lover’s playground. One of the most popular activities here is rafting in Tara Canyon, the world’s second deepest canyon. There are also lots of hiking trails including up the park’s highest peak, Bobotov Kuk, climbing routes and mountain biking tracks. For the less adventurous there are easy walks around the beautiful Black Lake and several lookout points over the canyon, including at ?ur?evi?a Tara Bridge.
Zabljak is where most people base themselves while exploring the park. It can be reached by bus from most major towns in Montenegro and also Serbia and Bosnia. The first hostel in Zabljak opened for the 2013 season and will reopen next year.