A few years ago I read in Lonely Planet’s magazine about Kotor being the top destination for that year. Since then I wanted to go backpacking Montenegro, a country that only got its independendence in 2006 after a peaceful referendum. It sounded like a magical place in an unexplored region.
But I was not the only person that had read this. Kotor is no longer the hidden gem it once was and Montenegro is quickly developing to become the Monaco of the Balkans. Luxury yachts and throngs of beach tourists dominate the coast in summer.
Kotor might have been too crowded for my liking, but Montenegro did not fail to impress me. With most tourists sticking to the beach, it is not difficult to find more quiet and off the beaten path places. And as beautiful as the bay of Kotor might be, it gets even better when you travel inlands.
Montenegro is probably the best destination in Europe for nature lovers and has no less than 5 National Parks. The Montenegrin name of the country is Crna Gora which means black mountain and the rocky hills dominate the landscape. Pockets of virgin forests are the home of bears, wolves and deers. I came for Kotor, but found a wild beauty with incredible nature.
Backpacking Montenegro: A travel guide for the budget traveller with a 2 week itinerary
How to get to Montenegro?
The most exciting way to get to Montenegro is by taking the famous train from Belgrade to Bar. This journey crosses the Dinaric Alps and is one of the most scenic train journeys in Europe. For more information on this train click here.
Alternatively you can either fly into Podgorica or take a bus from neighbouring Bosnia, Albania or Serbia.
1. Podgorica (1 day)
Montenegro’s capital is not at all representative for what the country has to offer. It was one of my least favourite cities in the Balkans and I did not find any reason to spend much time among the grim-looking Soviet flats. If you do happen to find yourself in Podgorica there actually is one reason to stay here.
Day trip to Ostrog monastery
Podgorica offers one of the cheapest and most adventurous ways to visit the Ostrog monastery. The monastery is perched in a cliff 900 meters above the valley.
Even though the view is enough reason to visit, most people come in search for miracles. Thousands of pilgrims of different faiths believe in the power of Saint Basil. Stories abound of unexplainable cures and spiritual inspirations.
The relics didn’t do much for me, but nevertheless it was a beautiful serene place. I left impressed by the devotion of the visitors and the stunning location.
Logistics: From Podgorica there are seven daily trains to Niksic that stop in Ostrog. The journey takes 45 minutes and costs less than 2 euro. From the train station it is a steep hike up the mountain (1 – 2 hours).
2. The bay of Kotor (4-5 days)
This is probably the reason for many people to add Montenegro to their bucketlist. The charming old town of Kotor gets more busy every year. Despite the amount of tourists, Kotor remains a good place to stay for the independent budget traveller. Amidst the luxurious boutique hotels are some cheap backpacker hostels like Old town hostel , Pupa hostel & Montenegro hostel.
Kotor can keep you busy for a day or two. Strolling through the narrow streets with the old stone houses, walking up the fortress to see the view and visiting the cat museum.
In addition there are some great day trips. The old town hostel offers the Great Montenegro tour and the North Montenegro Tour. If you have little time I can recommend them. They are professional and you get to see Montenegro’s highlights in only two days. However, with most places I wished we had more time and it is not too difficult to visit them on your own.
Logistics: Kotor has frequent buses to Niksic, Cetinje, Budva and Podgorica (1 – 2 hours). There are also buses to Zabljak for Durmitor NP (3-4 hours).
Day trip 1: Lovcen NP & Cetinje
Cetinje is the historical and cultural capital of Montenegro where the Petrovic royal family ruled the country for centuries. Some of their palaces are still there and so are several museums that will teach you more about Montenegro’s rich past and traditions.
Cetinje is a small town with a pleasant boulevard. You can easily spend an hour or two walking around in the historical center. The ancient Serbian orthodox monastery is also worth a visit. The frescoes inside are beatiful and it is home to several relics such as the right hand of John the Baptist.
Cetinje is located at the foot of Mount Lovcen. From Cetinje it is easy to arrange a trip by taxi to the Lovcen Nattional Park and the mausoleum of Nhegos on top of the mountain.
The early 19th century political leader, philosopher and poet played a big role in Montenegro’s history. The mausoleum was built in his favourite place. The peak of the Jezerski mountain. The views are amazing and on a clear day you can see almost all of Montenegro and it is easy to recognize Kotor bay and Skadar lake.
Logistics: Take a bus to Cetinje and from there you can negotiate a taxi to Lovcen NP (20 euro with waiting time).
Day trip 2: Perast
There is more to the bay of Kotor than Kotor town alone. If you want to get away from the party scene and all the tourists there are some beautiful and quiet places nearby.
One of them is cute little Perast that overlooks a monastery on an island. If I were to come back to the bay of Kotor I’d rather stay here then anywhere else in Montenegro.
It will probably be difficult to find budget accomodation in Perast, but if you want to escape the crowds it will probably be worth it to spend a bit more.
Logistics: Perast is 20 minutes away from Kotor by bus.
Day trip 3: Bar, Budva & Sveti Stefan
Montenegro’s coast offers charming old towns with majestic mountains in the background. The scenic bus rides between the towns offer stunning views on the blue ocean. Personally, I found the journey more spectacular than the towns itself. Beautiful as they might be, they are also extremely crowded.
The modern ports of Budva and Bar were uninspiring with resorts, souvenir shops and the typical beach tourists. You will have to make a bit of an effort to find beauty here, but in Montenegro it is never far away.
From Bar you can walk an hour up the hill to the fortress in Stari Bar. The old town was once one of the most important settlements in Montenegro, untill it was destroyed by an earthquake in 1979. The new town was built down the mountain. It’s only in recent years that renovation work has started to bring back the ruins to its former glory.
Near Budva is Sveti Stefan, one of the most photographed places in Montenegro. The fortified island with the old 15th century town villas is now owned by a resort. Only guests can enter the island through a narrow causeway.
Logistics: Between Kotor, Budva and Bar are frequent buses (less than 2 hours).
3. Durmitor National Park (3-4 days)
My favourite place in Montenegro was Durmitor NP. It is one of the reasons why I want to come back to Montenegro and spent at least 4 to 5 days in this stunning National Park. There are plenty of day trips from the coast, but you will only see the tip of the iceberg.
It’s easy to visit the park on your own and Hostel hikers den in Zabljak will help you to explore some of the spectacular trails. For example, the hike to the highest peak Bobotov Kuk. Check this excellent guide from Sandy feet for tips and advice.
Then there is the 10 kilometer hike to mountain Curevac at the edge of the Tara canyon. Check the guide from Traveltramp for that one. If that all sounds a bit too much for you there are also easier hikes to the beautiful lakes that dot the landscape.
The most famous lake is the black lake that is only 3 kilometers from Zabljak. The glacial lake surrounded by pine forests has a 4 kilometer trail around the lake that takes between 2 and 3 hours.
Logistics: From the coast or Podgorica you can get a bus to Zabljak (3-4 hours)
Day trip to Tara gorge and river rafting
From Zabljak it is also an easy day trip to the famous bridge over the Tara gorge, the deepest gorge in Europe. Here you can go rafting or ziplining. I am not that adventurous, but the view from the bridge is enough reason to come.
Lake Skadar National Park (2 – 3 days)
Another place where I wished I could have stayed a couple of days was Lake Skadar. This birdwatchers paradise is the largest freshwater lake in the Balkan. With more than 260 different bird species it is also one of the best birding spots in Europe. From the small town of Virpazar you can organize boat excursions, birdwatching tours, kayaking and cycling tours with either Lake Skadar Adventure tours or Tourist Agency Outdoor and more.
Logistics: Virpazar is on the main train line from Belgrade to Bar. From Podgorica and Sutomore there are frequent buses to Virpazar (less than 1 hour). Virpazar has several accommodation options starting from 15 euro per night.
When to go backpacking Montenegro
If you want a more quiet experience in Kotor try to avoid the summer months when Montenegro is also getting unbearably hot. Spring and autumn are the best months to visit.
Backpacking Montenegro: how to keep it on a budget
Montenegro uses the Euro and is one of the more expensive destinations in the Balkans. Prices in Kotor are similar to prices in Western Europe. However, there are several ways to keep things cheap.
Another reason to visit in spring and autumn is that it is low season and prices will be slightly lower. Also the more inland you go, the cheaper things will be. I hope that this guide has convinced you that the inland is definetly worth it. On top of that you will get more value for your money.
Travelling on a budget is very well possible in Montenegro. There is a good public transport network with frequent buses between the major towns of Podgorica, Cetinje, Zabljak, Kotor and Budva. Durmitor and Skadar NP are easily accesible. Only the National Parks of Lovcen, Biogradska Gora and Prokletije require your own transport.
Another tip is to eat like the locals do. Go to one of the traditional bakeries and buy yourself a burek with yoghurt for breakfast. The pastries are filled with cheese, meat or spinach and are a perfect start of the day.
Every town also has a fresh farmers market where you can buy fruits and vegetables. Cevapcici, the balkan version of kebab, is a cheap take-away snack that is easily available. If you want to eat out get away from the restaurants for tourists and see where the locals go. It will be cheaper and the food will be better.
For cheap accomodation there are hostels in Podgorica, Zabljak, Kotor and Budva. Otherwise look for the sign ‘sobe’. These are people that have a room available in their house. Airbnb also has some cheap options.
Ellis is a travelblogger from the Netherlands with over 20 years of experience as an independent budget traveller in more than 50 countries. She has a Master degree in Cultural Anthropology and Global Health with a specialization in South Asian cultures and the Caucasus.