Montenegro has a fair share of magnificent medieval history, but one city on the country’s Adriatic coast has an Old Town so spectacular, UNESCO describes it as the best preserved in Europe. And heritage is only the start of the adventure for families in captivating Kotor.
The city of Kotor has a gorgeous setting. Surrounded by soaring peaks on the edge of the fjord-like Bay of Kotor it almost inevitably invites comparisons to several of Norway’s cities. But you only have to breathe the air to know you’re in a much warmer part of the world here: especially in summer when temperatures rise to 32˚ and the sea’s swim-perfect, under a cloudless blue sky.
Built between the 12th and 14th century, Kotor is one of Montenegro’s famously lovely medieval cities where ancient traditions continue to thrive and the customs and courtesy of the past are still very much in evidence today. Though its delightful time-stood-still appearance, along with legends by the dozen, shouldn’t lead you to think there’s anything at all stuffy about this little Mediterranean city. History in Kotor is alive and lively, you only have to visit in February for the annual Mardi Gras Carnival to see that: the original event harks back to the Middle Ages, but today’s colourful masked parades, uninhibited pre-Lent feasting and sense of all-out fun is as much fabulous family festival as time-honoured tradition.
Yet Kotor isn’t shy when it comes to traditions and has quite a few that kids are only too keen to observe. Not least because several have been created specifically for them.
Visit in July and you could be forgiven for thinking that under 18s run the city, at least for the first 12 days of the month when the Kotor Festival of Theatre for Children is in full swing. Don’t worry about missing out on anything, even the streets in this fully pedestrianised city are packed with performance during the festival. There are workshops and masterclasses for kids of all ages, all over the place. And if you normally find history a hard sell on holiday, astonishingly authentic re-enactments are the fantasy-made-real experiences which could convert kids into museum-fiends for life.
Should that turn of events happen sooner than expected, Kotor has no shortage of museums to satisfy young cravings. The Medieval Museum sweeps visitors into the intrigue of the Middle Ages when the city’s desirable location appealed to both Ottoman and Venetian empire builders. And if that’s not exciting enough, it also has an incredible dressing-up box, and not just for kids. So if your holiday to-do list includes getting kitted out in authentic medieval armour, your wish is the Medieval Museum’s command.
Of course Kotor’s beautifully preserved Old Town is the city’s greatest museum of all and comes with the bonus of wonderful Mediterranean weather, pedestrianised streets and endless elegant squares scattered with equally enticing cafés. It’s an inspiring area too, so don’t be surprised to come across artists and musicians on your wanderings, particularly during summer festivals like Kotor Art, Don Branko’s Music Days and the International Festival of Klapa which draw creative types from all over the world.
However, the one Kotor arts festival must-do for families is Boka Night in the middle of August. It’s a single evening of festivities where everything from traditional boat painting to music is celebrated and every single Old Town square is given over to festivities; out-dazzled only by the legendary Boka Night firework display. It may be one-night-only, but it’s one kids will never forget.
When the Ottomans and Venetians were coveting Kotor back in the day, they probably spared a few moments thought for the city’s exceptional larder: as well as its excellent seaport and various other natural advantages. Happily whatever else has changed over the years, olive oil and sensational seafood, miraculous fruit and vegetables, and a serious local talent for cooking, is still very much in evidence. Don’t miss at least one morning browse round the City Marketplace, even the most food-shy of kids will be awed by the abundance. And always leave room for dessert here, Kotor’s cremeshnitte alone could tempt you to up sticks and move to the city permanently.
1. Take a boat tour and go island hopping round the Bay of Kotor. Pick a cruise that stops off at Our Lady of the Rocks and see the church with one of the city’s oldest and most intriguing stories.
2. Head to super-clean and very family-friendly beaches at Bajova Kula or Orahovac – about 10 minutes drive from Kotor on Kotor Bay – and go safe swimming in the balmy Adriatic. Sea temps sit at about 22˚ in summer.
3. Visit the town of Risan where older kids will appreciate the unique mosaics of Hypnos, the God of Sleep, set in an Ancient Roman villa. Risan’s 25 minutes drive west of Kotor.
4. Bring starstruck kids of all ages to join in the fun (and learning) at the annual Kotor Festival of Theatre for Children in July.
5. Discover the city’s seafaring past and plenty of thrilling pirate tales – along with some fine cannons – at Kotor Maritime Museum.
6. Bold kids will enjoy a trek in the mountains round Kotor, because they’re amazing. For well marked trails and all-level hiking start with Mount Sveti Ivan.
7. Catch a water-taxi in Kotor and spend a day on the nearby Tivat Riviera, home to no less than 17 sandy, sunny, Adriatic beaches.
8. Explore the UNESCO World Heritage Old Town. The fortified walls stand at 260m above sea level at some points, and its medieval architecture, beautiful streets and squares are collectively considered to be the best preserved medieval urban centres in Europe. Plus it’s pedestrianised which makes it easily doable with kids.
9. Spend a day in the lovely town of Perast, just north of Kotor, and set a family challenge of seeing as many of its 16 historic palaces as possible.
10. Lake Skadar National Park is just over an hour’s drive south of Kotor, one of the most remarkable wetlands in Europe, packed with wildlife and perfect for a family day out.
Direct flights from London to Tivat Airport, two hours and 55 minutes.
Kotor city centre is 20 minutes’ drive from Tivat Airport.