We climbed all 1350 steps up to the Kotor San Giovanni Fortress Walls on the hottest day of the year. Boy, that was sweltering but propelled by the photos I’d seen online, we carried on climbing up those steps and it was 100% worth it. Here’s how you can do it too.
A little bit of Montenegrin history
Kotor town was constructed between the 9th and 19th centuries although the fortification’s walls did not create a continuous ring around itself until the 13th century.
While the Venetians were responsible for the vast majority of the fortification, the Illyrians, Byzantines and Austrians also left their architectural identity on the old town.
Montenegro is a tiny country with a population of just 622,000. It has a turbulent history being occupied by the Austro-Hungarians, the Italians and forming part of the Yugoslavian empire. Montenegrin history appears violent and bloody but in 2006 it became an independent nation (ceasing links with Serbia) following a peaceful referendum.
It might be small but it certainly packs a punch with regards to natural beauty.
Kotor Bay is gorgeous
Kotor Bay, which is a natural harbour in Montenegros north, is a picturesque area complete with rolling grey mountains, jade coloured water, (tide-dependent) pebbled beaches and distinct small, stone villages dotted around the inlet.
The area dates back to the Middle Ages when it was an important artistic and commercial centre with famous schools of masonry and iconography. Masonry and stone work are still studied in the region and many houses around the bay are restored during the winter months using these old techniques. The whole area is protected under the UNESCO World Heritage-listed area.
A large number of the Kotor monuments (including four Romanesque churches and the town walls) were seriously damaged by the 1979 earthquake but the town has been lovingly restored, largely with UNESCO’s help.
Kotor town is so quaint
The old village of Kotor stands on the south-easterly point of the bay. It’s walls divide the sea and land.
This post will concentrate on the birds-eye view from the Fortress Walls but if you’d like to see some photos from inside the town, head here.
Which entrance should you start the walk from?
High above the town, the city walls represent a mix of ramparts, gates, churches and fortresses, 4.5 km long. During the day the grey of the rock blends with the grey stones of the walls making it challenging to see. No doubt it was designed this way to confuse enemies but at night it is beautifully lit up and you can see it with ease from around the bay.
There are a number of entrances into the town including the river gate and the sea gate but there are also a number of different start locations.
In fact, there are THREE different start points to the walk and these are easily spotted (as sign posted) as you walk through the town. We decided to go up the northern route and down the southern route. I would say that in terms of difficulty they are similar.
Entry costs €3 for adults and kids under 13 are free, although adults only pay during the peak tourist season which is May – September. Technically the walk never closes or opens however the charging stations become active at about 7:30am until the sun sets. Prior to that you could walk up for free.
This is the route we took
I plotted our route with a phone app and although there are no contour lines this gives you an idea of how steep the route is. The route actually comprises mostly of worn stone steps but there are occasions where you can leave the path – although you’re advised not to.
You can download this route from AllTrails
Those bloody cruise ships!
At any one time there can be up to four cruise ships docking in the bay of Kotor and this swells the population by over 6,000 people.
Now I am not saying that all of them are podgy-waisted, loud-mouthed, beige-wearing Yanks or umbrella-yielding, arm-warmer-claddened Chinese, but that was certainly the impression we got that day.
Go Out Of Season
On our way up we were greeted by this large American and her husband attempting to parent our kids by telling them not to lean over the edges and then drawl-screaming at the top of her lungs. I swear that is all I could hear on the way up and it drove me mad!
When we were halfway up, we couldn’t stop off at the church due to the number of umbrellas blocking the way.
I’d estimate that despite leaving to walk at 10 am we were four of four hundred people walking and the town below probably had about 3,000 people in it.
It’s busy and we felt that because of that, the town and walk had lost some of their charms. I would definitely recommend visiting Kotor out of the holiday season.
Church of Our Lady of Remedy
If you don’t stop to take photos, the walk should take about 45 minutes. The halfway point is the Church of Our Lady of Remedy.
At an altitude of 100m above sea level (not very high), the church was built in 1518 by survivors of the 14th-century plague and became a pilgrimage site.
I couldn’t get any photos because it was THAT BUSY and because I am not in the least bit religious!
Do look down!
Looking down upon Kotor’s terracotta rooftops is one of the joys of this walk. The old town is small and cramped and a jiggly-piggly mess of overlapping rooftops and clotheslines.
I found photographing the roof-tops addictive as there always a different angle or view to try and get and the details in the houses mesmerising.
You can explore the small fort
Nearing the top, we first came to the small fort: an explore-at-your-own-risk (and we did), historic playground of empty rooms with floors overgrown with green growth. We navigated our way through the crumbling walls, going up stairs just to see where they led.
Take a detour to St. George’s Church
Just beyond the small fort, we came to a fork in the road. We decided to take a detour and climb through a window in the walls. A narrow dirt path led into a small valley between two hills, where we saw a small, rather dilapidated church.
The door was open, but what a pity: the interior was ruined and we could only see some faded fragments of old frescoes and a stone altar at the end. This appeared to be the church of St. George, built 1000 years ago on the back side of St. John’s hill.
Explore at your own peril
We love a bit of adventure so when we saw the danger and no entry advised, we headed straight for it like bees to honey. I was going to use the phrase like a pig in shit… and I suppose we are. We love a bit of risk!
Eventually arrive at Kotor San Giovanni Fortress
The fortress which sits roughly 250 meters (820 feet) above sea level is mostly a hollowed out shell however it is quite big and with more rooms and levels to explore.
You’re entirely free to climb on anything and explore what you want. Once we’d arrived at the fortress, we decided to stop for a bite to eat and got out our mini picnic. It was hot work climbing all those steps and we needed to replenish before heading back out to explore some more.
Check out the exceptional view from the Kotor San Giovanni Fortress
The phenomenal views from the fortress stretch the length of the bay and give you uninterrupted views across the valley although you might have to wait a while for a photo without other people in it…
I told the kids I was going higher to take a photo of them and when I looked back down, Imogen (our youngest) was trying to climb the barriers to ‘get a better view’. They were absolutely told to get off!
Lose your head over the pretty stones and doorways
If you like old architecture, decaying stones, carved doorways, secret passageways and more, you’ll enjoy what this fortress has to offer.
Kotor – like something out of a fairytale?
Kotor is beautiful. Surrounded by those looming walls the town itself is small and quaint. The medieval architecture makes it a UNESCO heritage site for good reason and whilst I’ve heard people describe it as a ‘fairytale village’, I wouldn’t describe it as such.
It’s pretty but as I’ve said previously I think mass tourism has spoiled it.
Looking for a harder hike?
Let’s be honest in saying this walk isn’t exactly a hike. The stone steps are so worn and slippy that an American tourist told me they were marble! They’re not marble just in case you’re wondering.
But if you’re looking for something a little more hike look at the zig-zaggy pattern on the map above. That’s The Ladder!
Hiking ‘The Ladder‘ is a harder hike and runs up the back of the mountain, perpendicular to Kotor’s walls. Called “The Ladder” because of it’s steepness and over seventy switchbacks it offers just as good views but minus the hoards of people.
It is still busy, as hikes go, but nothing in comparison to the Fortress.
How to hike The Ladder
The path begins just before you get to the Old Town (coming from Perast), shown below on the map.
You can turn this hike into a circular hike by returning down onto Kotor’s walls. For a much steeper hike you can head on up to Nevjesta Jadrana which is a restaurant perched high above Kotor valley. You will have certainly earned a meal and I’m happy to report that the food is pretty good!
A very short video from Kotor San Giovanni Fortress
A very short video from the top of the San Giovanni Fortress
Our Top Tips on Visiting Kotor San Giovanni Fortress
- Wear suitable footwear. I saw people struggling to climb in flip-flops. Yeh, no shit! The steps are worn and slippy so wear something with some sole grip.
- If it’s possible, avoid the summer holiday or whenever a cruise ship is in.
- Start early in the summer months to avoid the heat. The sun starts heating up at around 10 am.
- Take water or cash. There is water for sale at various points on the routes during the summer months.
- Put your empty bottles in the TRASH BAGS and not on the floor. It is disgraceful how much rubbish there is up there.
- Buy a painting from the man at the top (if he’s still there). His work is talented and prices start at €15.
Where Could You Stay In Montenegro
We stayed in two places around Kotor Bay (not in Kotor itself) as we extended our trip in Montenegro by two weeks. We were there for more than a month in the end and loved it.
The best way to see Montenegro is to hire a car and self-drive (click here to see how much a car might cost you)
If you don’t like staying out of town, use this interactive map which sources accommodation across multiple platforms for you
If you’re not confident driving but still want to go on tours, have a look here to see what you could do
See how easy it is to Pin this
What else can you do in Montnegro?