Road trip: Montenegro

It’s always exciting to discover something a little off the beaten track, and Montenegro has certainly had a reputation for being an uncommon destination. Of course, that’s slowly changing: it’s no surprise that this Eastern European gem is attracting visitors to its crystal-clear waters, emerald forests and majestic mountains. Add ancient towns formed from a patchwork of architectural styles with fortified walls, and you have yourself an enchanting coastal escape. Make Montenegro your next adventure and ride along the open roads from Podgorica to Perast, fitting in as much in between as possible.

Even for such a small country, there’s a tremendous amount to see. You could easily spend a week or two wandering along its charismatic coastline without even touching the National Parks, mountains and inland cities. But if you’re a carpe diem kind of adventurer, then a high-energy road trip might be for you. This whirlwind tour, starting in Tivat and making its way clockwise around the country, takes a week to complete, coming in shy of 500 kilometres and 10 hours at the wheel. Here’s a breakdown of the best towns, cities and parks to visit along the way.

Tivat marina. Getty/Nastasic

Day one: Tivat – Kotor – Perast

Distance: 24 kilometres
Time behind the wheel: 35 minutes

Tivat seems like an obvious starting point, not only for its direct flights into Montenegro, but for its location right on the coastline and its proximity to all the quirky coastal towns along the way. With time being of the essence, and with each town being relatively small, it’s easy to tick two or three off your list in one day. 

Begin by touring Tivat itself, one of the more glamorous port towns, where gleaming yachts bob up and down in the marina facing a swanky central promenade. A recent makeover has left the town looking more like Monaco than Montenegro, but there’s still the friendly locals and laid-back atmosphere of a sleepy coastal town to enjoy. If you find yourself falling in love with Tivat’s easy-going charm, then you might want to consider a stay at Regent Porto Montenegro, an effortlessly regal abode overlooking the yacht-lined harbour – you might be tempted to spend an extra night or two thanks to its lavish interiors and award-winning spa.

Kotor, Montenegro. Getty/RudyBalasko

Jump in the car and make the short drive to Kotor, arguably the most atmospheric town along the bay. Wedged between sloping hills on three sides, the views here are simply spine-tingling, and the cobblestone streets themselves are enchanting. The town’s roots stretch back as far as medieval times, and it’s easy to see that through the different styles of churches around town. Whilst here, stand sentry on the city walls or visit St Tryphon’s Cathedral – the gilded altar inside is considered the town’s most valuable treasure.

End the day in Perast, a gorgeous Venetian-style town on the other side of the bay to Tivat. The town’s prosperity has faded a little, but its timeless charm still rings true. The town won’t take long to explore: it has one central street, with St Nicolas Church at its heart. For views over the city, head to Tvrđava fortress, where you can see the blanket of terracotta roofs slope down to the azure waters below.

Day two: Durmitor National Park

Distance: 154 kilometres
Time behind the wheel: Two hours and 30 minutes

Brace yourself for one of the longer drives today: to compensate, you’ll be seeing some incredible views of the Montenegrin countryside as you head inland. To break up the journey, stop at Slano Lake, one of Montenegro’s three man-made lakes (but the views are no less picturesque for it). Another 80 kilometres or so north, and you’ll reach Durmitor National Park. Breathtaking to the last degree, the National Park covers the dramatic Durmitor mountain range in a thick blanket of fir trees of the richest green, making the waters sparkle even more so. The park is teeming with wildlife, so expect the air to ring with the sounds of birds chirping and twigs breaking under foot (or paw – furry friends roam free here).

Tara Canyon, Durmitor National Park. Getty/Westend61

There are 18 lakes in the park, and the most famous (and crowded, if you can ever call Montenegro crowded) is Black Lake. Its ominous-sounding name alludes to the inky shadow cast by one of the mountains behind the body of water. The lake’s border is around three-and-a-half kilometres, making it an easy stroll after a long journey (or an even quicker cycle, if you brought your bike along). Those with an insatiable appetite for adventure streak could head to Tara Canyon, deep in the heart of the park, where you can raft along the Tara River and gaze up in awe at the majestic mountains – an imposing 1,300 metres high. For somewhere to stay, Zabljak is three kilometres outside the National Park, and becomes a hive of activity for hikers and nature-lovers in the summer. 

Day three: Biogradska Gora National Park – Kolašin

Distance: 103 kilometres
Time behind the wheel: Two hours and 10 minutes

A 90-minute drive through the winding, rocky valleys of northern Montenegro brings you to Biogradska Gora National Park. Biogradska’s claim to fame is being one of three surviving primeval forests in Europe, meaning the land’s biodiversity thrives like no other. Full-day tours are available to book, where you’ll hop from one spectacular activity to another, including boat rides on the glacial lakes and spotting the multitude of wildlife that roams free. Of course, if you’d rather wander through the beech, fir and elm trees alone, then there are plenty of paths to take you away from the crowds and enjoy the true sanctuary of this centuries-old woodland. 

Biogradska Gora National Park. Getty/Nicholas Olesen

Half an hour outside the National Park sits Montenegro’s main mountain resort, Kolašin. In winter, the place is teeming with skiers and snowboarders taking advantage of the snow-covered slopes, but it’s still idyllic in the summer, with its two picturesque main squares fringed by emerald forest. Set up camp here for the night, dining at one of the local restaurants – try Brav u Mlijeku, a hearty casserole-type dish made from lamb stewed in milk with potatoes, carrots, rosemary and garlic, cooked over coals for deliciously tender meat and warm flavours. 

Day four: Kolašin – Podgorica

Distance: 72 kilometres
Time behind the wheel: One hour and 15 minutes

Leave the cobblestone piazzas and the high-altitude life behind as you head towards Montenegro’s gleaming capital, Podgorica. Its turbulent history – the city has been conquered and reconquered time and again by Romans, Turks and Hungarians – means that wandering its streets is like walking through the pages of a history book. Of course, a large part of the capital was destroyed during World War II, meaning the majority of the city is made up of brutalist towering structures jostling alongside Ottoman and Austrian architecture. As capitals go, Podgorica is pretty small, so it’s easy to get around and see everything in a day or two.

Culture vultures have their fair share of options, but with time being short, head to the Museum & Gallery of Podgorica and the Centre of Contemporary Art at Petrović Palace. You’ll be able to dive into Montenegro’s past, from the Roman era through to the artefacts and folk costumes of more recent times. Then, it’s time to look forward at Petrović Palace, with its 1,000-strong collection of international works, ever-changing exhibitions, and occasional literary nights and classical music concerts.

Podgorica. Getty/Tuul & Bruno Morandi

It’s hard to ignore the spectrum of architectural styles going on in the city, and it’s worth visiting one or two of the sites that makes up its skyline: the recently consecrated Cathedral of Christ’s Resurrection is a vision in white stone and mosaic frescoes, dedicated to the Serbian Orthodox church. Step inside, and you’ll probably be reminded of Vatican City: elaborate chandeliers hang from the ceiling and golden crosses adorn the walls, making it a true sight to behold. 

End the evening with something a little more laid-back: eight kilometres outside the city you’ll find Šipčanik Wine Cellar, one of the coolest in the country (and arguably the whole of Eastern Europe). This former military compound was turned into an ambient dining space in 2007, and boasts over a thousand litres of wine within its concrete-lined walls (so maybe think about getting a taxi here and back). From wine tastings to full-on dining menus, take your pick of options and enjoy something that wouldn’t feel out of place in a French château (just make sure to book ahead to avoid disappointment).

Day five: Podgorica – Cetinje

Distance: 36 kilometres
Time behind the wheel: 40 minutes

While it may be tempting to rush off and get back on the road, you shouldn’t miss out on a breakfast or brunch in the capital: there are plenty of choices, of course, especially as Montenegrins prefer to take their time over their morning coffee. Restobar Štrudla is a cosy pick in the middle of the city’s bar district – but the atmosphere is much more chilled in the mornings. Try crnogorske priganice, a Montenegrin specialty of fried dough balls served with honey and cheese.

Cetinje Monastery. Getty/maylat

Trade one city for another and head a little south to Cetinje, considered Montenegro’s cultural capital (it’s also the country’s former capital). It’s home to more museums than its big brother Podgorica, but retains a small-town charm with its cosy cottages and stately mansions – many of which are now galleries and public spaces. Why not get acquainted with some art at the Montenegro Art Gallery, or the edgier Miodrag Dado Ðurić Gallery, where the work of one of the country’s most beloved artists resides. 

It’s all about the history in this city, which becomes most evident as you visit Cetinje Monastery: while its foundations date back to the 15th century, the monastery itself has had the misfortune of being destroyed three times over during various wars, being last rebuilt in 1786. Many of the original features (or what’s left of them) have been reused in the restorations, so its architecture is just as interesting as its history. 

If you find yourself with a spare couple of hours, then just four kilometres outside Cetinje is one of Montenegro’s most fascinating attractions: Lipa Cave. Millions of years old, the interiors are like something from a prehistoric movie, where gigantic stalactites loom overhead and stalagmites as large as tree trunks rear up, creating at once an eerie yet awesome sight. There are two-and-a-half kilometres of passage to explore, so be sure to wrap up warm – the caves stay chilly all year long.

Lipa Cave. Getty/zoroasto

Day six: Lovćen National Park – Budva

Distance: 70 kilometres
Time behind the wheel: One hour and 45 minutes

By now you’ll know this country is one of spectacular natural beauty, but there’s still one last facet to explore: the 6,000-plus acres of Lovćen National Park. For many Montenegrins, this park is the pride and joy of the country, famed for its majestic black mountain and statue of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš that resides on the second-tallest peak. Often considered the country’s greatest ruler as well as being a philosopher and poet, his final resting place couldn’t be more fitting: on one of the highest, most beautiful points in the land, looking over his domain. The black mountain itself, Mount Lovćen, even gave Montenegro its name. Home to over 2,000 plant species, the abundance of flora and fauna in this National Park is due to their advantageous location, high in the mountains and enjoying a mild Mediterranean climate. See for yourself as you hike along verdant paths and gaze up ahead at a crystal-blue sky.

The black mountain, Lovćen National Park. Getty/Sam Brockway

Saving the best for last? The mountains will feel a world away once you descend and drive south to Budva, the beating heart of Montenegro’s coastal scene. A far cry from its once-sleepy reputation, Budva has come alive with a slew of bars, restaurants and shiny high-rises that jut out over what remains of the Old Town (like so much of Montenegro, it’s been subject to damage in several wars over the centuries). For those picture-perfect snaps, Stari Grad is the place to be: it’s a smaller-scale Dubrovnik without the throng of (dwindling) Game of Thrones tourists. Sip beer in a cobblestone piazza, marvel at the views from the Citadela, or venture to one of the sandy coves to while the hours away.

Indulge a little on your final night here: Forsage Gastro Lounge is nearly unbeatable when it comes to seafood and fine dining, but meat-lovers won’t be disappointed with generously sized portions, either. For somewhere to stay, Hotel Lusso Mare sits on the outskirts of the town, a 15-minute stroll to the seafront: a perfectly calm ending to the last night (or nights) of your Montenegro adventure.

Day seven: Budva – Tivat

Distance: 35 kilometres
Time behind the wheel: 50 minutes

Depending on your flight back home, you might want to head to Tivat early and enjoy one last stroll along the flashy harbourfront. Those with a little more time on their hands could also take it easy away from Budva’s crowds, with a visit to the pebbly Ploče beach. The parking is free (hurrah), and there are small freshwater pools for you to relax around before making the last stretch of your road trip, back to Tivat. Take one last wistful look along the glamorous promenade, where speedboats and yachts line the marina, then it’s onwards to the airport to fly back home.

Budva’s Old Town. Getty/EXTREME-PHOTOGRAPHER