Pets allowed
Not Allowed
Elevation Gain
950.00 m (3,116.80 ft)
Trail type
Loop
Distance
13.00 km (8.08 mi)
Please respect the outdoors by practicing Leave No Trace. Learn more about how to apply the principles of Leave No Trace on your next outdoor adventure here.

Hiking in Europe can be a strange mixture of nature and civilization, and perhaps nothing embodies that so much as St. John’s Fortress of Kotor. Kotor is a small and unassuming town surrounding the Bay of Kotor, rising up from the Adriatic Sea on the western coast of Montenegro. Kotor is situated smack-dab between the ocean and Lovćen National Park, located in the mountains directly behind St. John’s Fortress.

Kotor’s history dates as far back as Roman founding around 168 B.C. Over time, Kotor changed hands, passing from from Hungary to Bosnia to Austria to France to Nazi Germany, and finally to Montenegro’s independence. St. John’s Fortress is considered predominantly a fifteenth century structure, but the walls were actually built during a huge span between the ninth and nineteenth centuries. With walls anywhere from 2 to 16 meters high sprawling for about 5 kilometers, it’s an impressive architecture feat alone.

The fortress itself is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. To hike it will require you to pay a small sum of €3 to gain entry. If you look at the map at the entrance to the fortress (see the images of this adventure for the map), you’ll notice various colored routes separated into categories of risk: Blue is “relatively safe,” yellow is a “zone of increased risk,” and red is a “high risk zone." Many of the red paths are actually closed to visitors, though the barricade is never anything more than some caution tape and “Do not enter" signs. Having safely explored a variety of these closed paths myself, it would not seem they patrol the closures with much fervor. If you do opt for the red routes, know they are not rated high-risk zones for no reason. Some of these sections traverse narrow brick walls on exposed mountainside. For a confident and sure-footed hiker, it’s no problem.

To begin the hike, you have three entrances to choose from, noted on the map. If the €3 entry fee is too steep, you can also access the fortress via the Ladder of Cattero, now a footpath that was once the only route connecting Kotor to the inland villages of the mountains. This trailhead is located farther north than the north fortress entrance, on the other side of the Scurda Canal from Old Town. This trail is yet another option for hiking the fortress, especially if one wants to include Krstac Pass (940 m) on their list of fortress sites to see. It begins with a mind-numbing series of switchbacks to Restaurant Nevjesta Jadrana, and the trail as a whole has over 70 switchbacks. Pay the entrance fee and hike the far more interesting path up the fortress. If you link into the Ladder of Cattero later on to access deeper into the mountains, you always take the switchbacks for a fast descent, but save yourself the monotony rather than the money on the way up.

Most people start at entrance B, located at the main cathedral in the heart of Kotor’s Old Town. The most popular hiking route goes from entrance B, left toward points eight and 14, the fifteenth-century, baroque-style Our Lady of the Health Church (which was constructed to protect the people of Kotor during the plague outbreak), and straight up the moderate path from there. Upon my hike, I actually went left from entrance B, toward point nine and the high-risk red path. I then descended along the primarily traveled path.

However, there are many loop potentials and intersecting pathways across the fortress to forge your own route. There’s little fear of getting lost. Look for directional arrows painted on the walls of the fortress and for red and white targets used to mark the hiking trails. If all else fails, just keep going up! There’s really no mistaking the top of the fortress.

The pathways, regardless of chosen route, will vary from stone steps to dirt pathways, some of them very overgrown with prickly potentilla bushes. Be especially mindful about footing, particularly as you get to the higher portions of the fortress. The marble steps are polished and worn from hundreds of years of travel, and they can be quite slippery.

The top of the fortress is the Castle of St. John. about 1.2 kilometers from the entrance via the most direct route. While an expansive structure open to exploration, much of the castle lies in ruins. While portions of walls still stand, the roofs of its structures more or less crumbled to various earthquakes in the region. The 1979 earthquake, in particular, caused much of the damage and resulted in the Fortress’ addition as an endangered site on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

After visiting the Castle of St. John, make sure you make your way back down slightly to the Castle of San Giovanni, marked by the flag of Montenegro flying over the walls. Not only does this afford one of the best views of the Bay of Kotor and surrounding town, it’s also where you can gain access to the mountains behind the fortress. Be on the lookout for a subtle hole in the fortress wall marked by a red and white circle target. Pass through this hole and down the makeshift rubble staircase on the opposite side into the sparsely forested, desolate hills of Lovćen National Park. In the valley just ahead, you’ll see the remains of a small chapel and a continuing path posted as leading to a cheese factory. Even if you aren’t going all the way to Krstac Pass, continue the short distance (less than 0.5 km) to the “shop,” which is really just a local home out of which they make and sell goat cheese, milk, and rakija, a very strong fermented fruit brandy popular in southeastern Europe.

Beyond this, you can continue along the path and rejoin the Ladder of Cattero. Continue upward along the path until you reach an intersection with a signpost bearing various estimated hiking times. Go in the direction of Krstac Pass (the lower route) for a moderate day hike with some excellent end views. After the sign, the trail is briefly easygoing but quickly gains steam as you pass a danger sign. From this point, the trail to the pass gets steep and laden with loose, rocky terrain. The drop-off on the side is daunting at times.

To return back down to Kotor, choose whatever path you prefer; it’s all (literally) downhill from there. Part of the bliss of this area is the vast possibility of hiking trails in a relatively confined area. It’s so easy to switch things up and take a different route down from that which you took up.

Logistics + Planning

Preferable season(s)

Spring
Summer
Fall

Congestion

High

Parking Pass

Entrance Fee

Open Year-round

Yes

Pros

Easy to get off the beaten path. Unique landscape. Historical. Expansive vistas. Different routes of various difficulty. Choose your own adventure.

Cons

Popular tourist attraction. Treacherously slippery steps.

Trailhead Elevation

16.00 ft (4.88 m)

Highest point

2,952.76 ft (900.00 m)

Net Elevation Gain

2,900.26 ft (884.00 m)

Features

Family friendly
Vault toilet
Historically significant
Big vistas
Wildflowers

Typically multi-day

No

Permit required

No

Location

Field Guide

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