View from the way down to the town of Kotor and the Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

Kotor Fortress Hike: Complete Guide to St. John’s Fortress

November 23, 2023

Kotor, a picturesque coastal town in Montenegro, is a jewel at the tip of the stunning Bay of Kotor.

As soon as you arrive, it’s clear why this destination is a must-see in the Balkans and an increasingly popular tourist favorite. With its unique blend of natural beauty and historical charm, there are indeed few places in Europe like Kotor.

In Kotor, the UNESCO World Heritage-listed medieval old town, with its maze of narrow streets and historic buildings, impresses everyone quickly. Walking within Kotor’s historic walls, you’ll find charming little shops and restaurants set alongside old churches and other historic buildings, all contributing to the city’s enchanting atmosphere.

In short, Kotor is an excellent destination both for nature enthusiasts and for those who love Balkan culture and history.

The outstanding attraction of the town is the Kotor Fortress, a real must-see when visiting Kotor.

So, this article will focus specifically on the Fortress of Kotor, also known as St. John’s Fortress, and will provide you with all you need to know about the fortress. Our goal is to furnish you with information that will make your journey to the Fortress of Kotor easier and, with proper preparation, ensure you have a pleasant trip.

Now, let’s look at the questions that might arise if you’re planning to visit Kotor Fortress.

What to know about Kotor Fortress

Kotor Fortress, a stunning landmark on the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, is located in the historic heart of the town. This impressive monument is part of one of the most important medieval defenses of the Adriatic and has a special place in the history and culture of the region.

The Kotor City Walls, part of the Kotor defense system, are long and complex. They stretch for about 4.5 kilometers, on several levels, with numerous watchtowers and gates.

The main subject of our article, the Fortress of Kotor, is built high up on the hillside, providing excellent views and protection of the city. Walking along the walls, you can enjoy stunning views of the Bay of Kotor and the surrounding mountains.

Inside the fortress is a unique world: narrow passageways, small ruined rooms, and steep staircases can be found within the fortress.

Nowadays, the Kotor Fortress is still an impressive sight and a popular tourist destination. Visitors can walk around the old buildings and their ruins in a very spectacular location while enjoying the wonders of nature.

By the way, the fortress is known by many names, you can find it on the internet and on maps under the following:

  • Kotor Fortress or Fortress of Kotor
  • St. John’s Fortress or Fortress of Saint John
  • Fort of St. Ivan
  • San Giovanni Fortress or San Giovanni Castle: Italianized version
  • Tvrđava Sveti Ivan: In Montenegrin

All these names refer to the same fortress in Kotor, which is located on the mountainside above the town.

History of Kotor Fortress

The exact construction date of the Kotor Fortress itself is not known, it was likely built gradually over time.

Numerous historical sources indicate that the hilltop above what is now Kotor was first fortified during the Illyrian period, with the Romans beginning their construction efforts in 168 BC.

Later, in 535, Byzantine Emperor Justinian I ordered the fortification of the town and the establishment of a fortress above it.

Between the 15th and 18th centuries, during the reign of the Venetian Republic, the fortifications underwent significant improvements in response to the growing Ottoman threat. During this period, Kotor emerged as an important commercial and military center on the Adriatic Sea. The fortress endured numerous sieges and attacks in the following centuries, notably those by the Ottoman Empire and the Habsburg Monarchy.

At the end of the 18th century, the area was annexed by the Habsburg Monarchy, subsequently falling under Russian and French control.

In the 20th century, both the town and fortress became part of Yugoslavia, and later, present-day Montenegro.

How to get to St. John’s Fortress in Kotor?

Kotor Fortress can be reached by two different routes:

  • the official toll road, which leads up from the old town via steps
  • or via an alternative hiking trail that starts from the Scurda and leads up a winding, gravel road outside the city walls

We generally recommend the toll route, for several reasons. For one, the entrance fee is not that expensive, €8 in 2023. On the other hand, the stairs make it quicker and easier to get up to the fortress, which is otherwise quite high up. Thirdly, on the way up the steps you will find many wonderful viewpoints, many more than on the alternative route.

The advantage of the alternative hiking route is that it is free of charge, and there are fewer tourists than on the main route. The views are still spectacular, but less photogenic than along the main route.

For hikers, it may seem like a cheap option, but it’s important to note that if you go down the toll trail, you could easily be charged the price of admission afterward.

Overview of the Kotor Fortress hike

Basically, we count the official toll route in our overview.

Starting point: Two starting points from the Old Town of Kotor: marked on Google Maps as “Road to Fort St. Ivan (San Giovanni)” and “Trailhead to the fortress”

Tour length: 1.2 km (0.75 mi) – one-way

Steps: 1.350

Elevation gain: 235 m (770 ft)

Difficulty: Moderate

Time needed: upwards 45 minutes, downwards 25 minutes

Entrance fee: €8 per adult in 2023

Now let’s look at the details:

The official, main route has two starting points from the Old Town of Kotor: on Google Maps they are marked as “Road to Fort St. Ivan (San Giovanni)” (address: CQGF+74V, Rd to the Fort of St. Ivan) or “Trailhead to the fortress” (address: CQFC+GJ4, Ulica 2 (sjever-jug)).

After a short distance, you’ll reach one of the toll booths, which is typically staffed during the day. Here, you can purchase your ticket, priced at €8 in 2023. Payment can be made in cash or by credit card.

Once you’ve bought your ticket, the more challenging part of the hike begins, marked by a long stretch of continuous zigzagging and steep stairs. In some places, you will find more and more viewpoints, some with quite large observation decks.

The hike can be quite strenuous during the day due to the high volume of people and the staircase’s narrowness, which is broken in places. Therefore, it is highly recommended to wear hiking shoes or comfortable, non-slip sports shoes for safety and comfort.

Below are the details of the sights you’ll encounter along the way. After a short but demanding climb, you will arrive at Kotor Fortress, the highlight and final destination of the tour.

You’ll see the view is getting more breathtaking as you get closer to the fortress, but you can also enjoy it for longer if you take a break at the fortress.

Tickets to Kotor Fortress

As mentioned earlier, you can buy tickets on the spot. You can pay by cash or credit card. Keep your ticket, as you will need it to scan it at the gate on exit.

Can the Kotor Fortress be visited for free?

Indeed, it is theoretically possible. Toll booths are not staffed the whole day. It has been reported that entry is possible early in the morning, in the evening, and during the winter months without purchasing a ticket. However, this cannot be guaranteed.

Another option is the above-mentioned free hiking trail, often referred to as the Ladder of Kotor (or Ladder of Cattaro).

Through this route, you can access Kotor Fortress via a longer and more challenging trail without a fee. However, it should be noted that there are increasing efforts to prevent circumventing the toll in this manner. Therefore, the availability of this toll-free route to the fortress is not guaranteed.

How long is the hike to Kotor Fortress?

The distance on the main road is about 1.2 km from the Old Town. So the total distance for the round trip is approximately 2.4 km.

The elevation gain is 235 meters, which, even in this short stretch, shows that you have to be prepared for a continuous, tiring climb. However, the stunning views and the experience are well worth the effort.

How many steps to reach the Kotor Fortress?

According to several sources, the Kotor Fortress can be reached in about 1.350 steps. Admittedly, we didn’t count, but the hike was not short.

So hang in there, take a break on the way, enjoy the view, and remember that it’s absolutely rewarding!

How long does it take to get to St. John’s Fortress?

With moderate physical fitness, we got from the old town to the fortress in about 50 minutes. However, we took frequent breaks and stopped to take photos in every possible place.

If your physical fitness is better, you can climb to the fort in 30–40 minutes. However, elderly people, families with small children, and other people with reduced mobility should plan for more, about 1 hour, for the ascent.

The way down is much faster, even with photo stops, you can get back to the old town in about 20–30 minutes.

So, in total, including the way up, viewing the fortress, resting, stopping at the best views, taking photos, and the way down, plan about 2–3 hours to visit the Kotor Fortress.

On the way to Kotor Fortress

You will also find many interesting places along the way until you reach the Kotor Fortress.

These are the ones that are worth stopping for a few minutes:

  • Church of Our Lady of Remedy: The iconic little church of Kotor is perched on the mountainside, next to the road leading up to the fortress.
  • Osmatračnica: An observation deck after the Church of Our Lady of Remedy, from where you get a fantastic view of Kotor, as well as the road leading up and the church. Near this, you will find one of the best photo spots in Kotor!
  • Kotor City Walls: As you climb uphill, after a large viewing platform, you will see the upper section of the Kotor City Walls. On the way, you will therefore pass along interesting walls and ruins. You will also have plenty of photo opportunities here.

Plus: You’re likely to see some interesting flowers and some cute cats along the way.

Finally, you’ll arrive at the Kotor Fortress, which can be recognized from a rickety metal bridge. No comment on the safety of the bridge… we survived.

When you reach the fortress, it’s also worth taking a walk around (the outside is better, the inside is pretty disgusting), sitting down for a rest, admiring the panorama it offers, and taking as many photos as you can.

The best time to visit Kotor Fortress

The best time of year to visit the fortress is late spring and early autumn. The most recommended months are May, June, September and October. This is when the weather is usually at its best. It is not as hot for hiking as in summer, and there are fewer crowds.

As for timing, if you go early in the morning or in the evening at sunset, there are not too many people, so it is worth considering these two times of day to visit.

Guided tours to the Kotor Fortress

Of course, there are some guided tours available to Kotor Fortress, which you can choose from either on the spot or online.

If you want to book a guided tour online in advance, we recommend Viator.

Top recommended guided tours on Viator:

How to prepare for the hike?

Be sure to check the weather in advance and only start your hike on a rain-free day. If it rains, the steps can be very slippery.

Additionally, wear hiking shoes, comfortable clothing, and bring some food and drink with you (although they sometimes sell it on site).

In summer, don’t forget the heat and sun protection, as the route is not shaded.

In summary, Kotor Fortress is not just an impressive piece of architecture, but also a symbol of Montenegro’s rich history. Walking along its old walls and looking out at the Bay of Kotor, you get a sense of the centuries-long story of this place. Whether you love history, enjoy hiking, or just like seeing beautiful places, visiting this fortress is a memorable experience that really shows what Kotor is all about.

Where to stay in Kotor

There are plenty of hotels in and around Kotor, so it won’t be easy to choose. To help you decide, we recommend some of the best:

Hyatt Regency Kotor Bay Resort: perhaps best of all, a wonderful five-star hotel a little further from Kotor, a short drive away, with stunning interiors, private beach, bay views, parking, and available off-season at a good price

MAISON W: a small, five-star hotel a few kilometers from the sights in Kotor at a very good price

Boutique Hotel R Palazzo: a beautiful and modern 4-star hotel in Dobrota, close to Kotor. It has a magnificent view of the bay

Hotel Monte Cristo: an old-style four-star hotel in the old town. Recommended for those who arrive without a car and want to stay close to the main attractions

D & Sons Apartments: very affordable apartments in the old town, ideal for families, especially those arriving without a car

Other attractions in and around Kotor

Kotor has plenty of other popular attractions that are well worth a visit.

Here are some of the best things to do in and around Kotor:

Explore the Old Town

The Old Town of Kotor is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, full of narrow streets, old churches, and historic buildings. See Kotor’s famous churches like St. Tryphon’s Cathedral and Saint Luke’s Church. Take a stroll around the city walls, and check out Kampana Tower and the similar Gurdić Bastion. While walking around the Old Town, walk through the city’s interesting centuries-old gates, such as the Sea Gate and the River Gate (North Gate). And don’t miss the famous Clock Tower either.

And if you want to visit a museum, head to the Maritime Museum or the Kotor Cats Museum.

Boat trip in the Bay of Kotor

Discovering the Bay of Kotor is best done by taking a boat trip. Many small and large cruise companies offer a variety of boat trips in the Kotor Bay. Choose from them and visit the most beautiful spots of the bay.

Here are some of the best:

Visit Perast

This beautiful little town is just a short drive from Kotor and offers stunning coastal views and is close to two beautiful islands, Saint George and Gospa od Škrpjela ( Lady of the Rocks).

If you have enough time, take a few hours or a whole day to explore Perast and the two nearby islands.

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