Kotor, Montenegro
Credit: Richard I'Anson / Getty Images

Kotor, Montenegro

In the very best way possible, Kotor, Montenegro is a veritable backwater. To get there, you first have to sail down the Adriatic Sea's Croatian coast, pass into the Gulf of Herceg-Novi, carefully cruise through the narrow Verige Strait, and then, finally, continue east and then south through the sky-blue Boko Kotorska (Bay of Kotor). Your arrival will be unmistakable, as the splendor of Kotor unfolds before you. You'd swear you were in a Norwegian fjord, were it not for the 100-degree temperature, Venetian-style architecture, and really cheap (but good) beer.

Kotor packs its harbor front like a symphony orchestra sits on a stage. It has to, because immediately behind it rise steep, craggy mountains with Mediterranean cypress trees growing high and thin from the solid rock. The lack of cover makes it easy to see Kotor's ancient walled fortress from the water, and from nearly every place in town, for that matter. Enormous stone walls snake up the mountain for nearly three miles, tracing out an arc of protection from the seafront to the fortress buildings atop the mountain and back down. At night, the entire length of the walls is floodlit, making for one spectacular view.

To reach the top of the mountain, put on hiking boots, slip the town's gatekeeper three euros, and then climb 1350 semi-crumbling steps to the top. After reaching the fortress on the peak, head back down to one of the many open-air cafes in the city's charming and seemingly prosperous old town. Or, should you visit in the scorching heat of mid-summer, you won't be faulted if you simply stop halfway up and buy a beer from the vendor who invariably sits with his ice chest in the welcoming shade of the ancient Our Lady of Remedy church (built by 14th-century plague survivors). It's the perfect place to hang out and thank your maker, while gazing up towards the unforgiving, winding rocky top and down to the sparkling azure and terra cotta scene below.

The stari grad (old town) is a jumble of narrow streets and town squares filled with medieval architecture, 12th-century churches, and small shops. The seafood in Kotor is fresh and tasty, and places like the Cesarica and Luna Rossa have good reputations. We're especially fond of the outdoor Scorpio Caffé: Here, shaded by the spire of St. Nicholas's church, you can view the fortress, use the free Wi-Fi, enjoy relaxed but gracious service, and drink your fill of Karlovac or Nikšiko beer for practically nothing. As the locals say, Ziveli!

More information: Besides the elaborate coastal route mentioned above, for which you'd need to charter your own boat, Kotor can also be reached by flying to the nearest airport at Tivat (TIV), about five miles away. Montenegro Airlines offers the most nonstop flights from European hubs such as Belgrade, Copenhagen, London-Gatwick, Paris, and Rome, among others.