When I think back on all the tiny moments, changes in circumstance, and missed opportunities that led me to Ulcinj, Montenegro, it’s a miracle I made it there at all.
As you probably know, I follow a strict by-the-seat-of-my-pants mode of travel (or at least I have been up until recently), and when I look back on this entire year of travels, I’ll be honest–my path makes no fucking sense. There were motives behind each and every move I made, of course–personal ones that I’ve only shared with a select few–and to try to explain how I wound up in Ulcinj (I’d have to take you all the way back to February of this year) I’d need another blog post entirely.
Instead, let’s just go back in time by a few micro decisions that won’t take a whole lot of explaining.
The last post I wrote in the European Summer Travel Series was about the staggeringly beautiful Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. But I didn’t arrive in Ulcinj directly from there; I spent three hot and sticky days in Tirana, the capital of Albania, first.
Being the perspicacious readers that you are, you probably also recall that I absolutely hated my time in Tirana and couldn’t wait to haul ass out of there, across the border to the sparkling green pastures of promise awaiting me in Montenegro.
All I knew about Montenegro before that summer was that it was home to a mountainous bay named Kotor. Since that was already firmly affixed to my to-do list, I did a little more research which revealed a number of other appealing destinations along the country’s southern coast. The one that really jumped out at me? The city of Budva.
As I zoomed past photo after photo of Budva’s seaside charm, I became determined to make it my base for the upcoming weeks. I searched high and low for hostels, finding nothing (not even dorm beds) for less than $20 per night. Like so many other summer destinations in Europe, I was unwittingly arriving (or attempting to arrive) in Budva on the exact dates of a major music festival that was driving prices through the roof.
Highly frustrated at this point and unwilling to fork over so much money just to share a room with 8 strangers, I recalled an alternative suggestion the hostel staff in Tirana had made: Hostel Pirate, the recently opened (and perhaps only) youth hostel in the lesser-known coastal city of Ulcinj.
I gave it a quick look and it passed my initial tests of “Does it look clean?” and “Is it cheaper than $20?” So I made a booking for four nights, slightly begrudgingly at first, but knowing that it was entirely my fault for making plans at the last minute (oh, did I not mention this was the same morning I was set to leave?).
Ulcinj happens to be the southernmost city on Montenegro’s coast, so I chalked it up as an unexpected stop on the way to Budva further north. And hey, maybe I’d even give kitesurfing lessons a go!
A taxing afternoon of travel later, and I arrived in the little city that was about to steal my heart…for so many wonderful, unexpected reasons.
Ulcinj, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…
Don’t panic, I’m not about to plunge ass-first into a cheesy travel knockoff of Sonnets from the Portuguese…but I am going to tell you about all the fun things to do in Ulcinj, because, as I learned, it’s often overshadowed by bigger, noisier, more developed (think skyscrapers) Budva and in this humble blogger’s opinion, it deserves far more love.
And for the record, Budva is not exactly the charming little beachside town I once believed it to be. I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t visit, but Ulcinj has much of the same to offer and with far fewer tourists. Just sayin’.
Explore Ulcinj’s many beaches
How do you take your beaches? Rocky? Sandy? Nude? Well, you’re in luck, because Ulcinj has them all. And seeing as I was there during July (which sure as hell felt like the hottest month of the year, even if it wasn’t) there aren’t many better options than taking a dip in the (surprisingly salty) Adriatic Sea.
Most beaches are accessible by foot. The main beach in town, known as Little Beach, is a 15-minute walk from Hostel Pirate and typically where most of the action happens. It’s also quite small, as the name suggests, so during the heat of the day, it’s packed from end to end with tourists baking themselves to an absolute crisp like I’ve never seen in my life. Seriously, I’m talking zero sunscreen, sprawled out on the sand like a beached whale, sometimes snoring, almost always being partially buried in sand by small children. But I digress.
If Little Beach isn’t your thing, you can continue your stroll by heading south. You’ll find plenty of incredible viewpoints for photos on your way down the rocky coastline.
Then, simply follow your ears toward the thumping bassline of the many beachside clubs. These aren’t so much beaches, but decks and diving platforms built out over the water on an otherwise rocky cliff. They vary in size and music selection, but the people watching is guaranteed to be gold no matter which you choose. My favorite was Aquarius Beach Club which offered cabanas, dance floors, a bar, and plenty of young energetic people looking for a good time.
Continuing along the coast, you’ll stumble upon a beach club specifically for the ladies, er, Ladies Beach. This hidden alcove is reserved for baring it all, free from judgment, free from insecurity, and most importantly, free from creepy old men’s lingering eyeballs. I knew I had to give Ladies Beach a try; I’m not into the idea of mixed nude beaches (especially crowded ones) but I wanted to be naked, damn it, and this seemed like a nice way to ease into the experience. Not only that, but they offer a sulfurous mud treatment which is supposed to leave your skin feeling soft as a baby’s bum. Yep, I was rubbed down head to toe in the buff by a complete stranger–voluntarily.
If you’re really ambitious and want to continue walking the coastline, a footpath will lead you on a forty-five-minute trek to the lovely strip of sand known as Long Beach.
There is plenty of room for spreading out on this 13-kilometer beach, with bars and restaurants nearby when you need a refreshment. At the very end of Long Beach, if you’re REALLY REALLY ambitious, you’ll find the mixed nude beach on Bojana Island (Ada Bojana). But it might be advisable to hire a taxi back to Ulcinj.
Finally, in the direction opposite the beaches I’ve just listed, accessible by bike or car (walking not recommended) you can find Valdanos Beach, a rather Greek looking rocky beach surrounded by 800-year-old olive trees. The drive to get there is quite picturesque, but unlike the other beaches, activities are limited to swimming and drinking beer. There is a restaurant on-site, and using a chair for the day will cost you 5€.
Of course, these are only some of the beaches in Ulcinj’s vicinity. I left many others undiscovered, perhaps for another visit down the road.
Discover Stari Grad Ulcinj
Ulcinj has a Stari Grad (old town) that may not be as well-preserved as others around the Balkans, but it leaves nothing to be desired in the way of incredible views.
I found myself meandering its narrow streets one evening just before sunset and got a glimpse into life as it was long ago, in simpler times.
When the sun finally said goodnight, I was treated to a spectacular blue hour that I just couldn’t tear myself away from. I found peace sitting on the stones at the base of the Stari Grad walls, peering across the marina to the city, losing myself in thought as my eyes drifted back toward the blue nothingness stretching beyond the sea.
Should you be so inclined, there are a handful of restaurants operating within the old city walls, and a meal or a glass of wine while looking down over Little Beach would be a lovely way to spend an evening. They’ll be priced for tourists, no doubt, but sometimes the right ambiance is worth paying a little extra.
Eat, eat, and then eat some more
Typical Montenegrin food, on the whole, is nothing to write home about. It’s heavy on meat, typically paired with a starch like bread or potatoes, and often greasy and fried. The popular fast food option is one that can be found throughout the entire Balkan Peninsula, a stuffed pastry called burek. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good burek. But too much of a good thing (in this case fried, greasy deliciousness) can lead to, ahem, less than desirable outcomes. So DO eat the burek, filled with meat, or cheese, or both–but then save room for Ulcinj’s other treats.
In Ulcinj, ice cream is practically religion. I can honestly say that I’ve never seen a higher consumption of ice cream and gelato anywhere in my life (something tells me Italy might beat them out, but I guess that would make sense, being neighboring countries and all).
The second most abundant street food? Pizza! Okay, so maybe there’s more Italian influence than I let on. Pizza–huge, floppy slices of it, selling for 1 measly euro a slice–was everywhere.
You might be thinking none of the above sounds all that appealing. Maybe you’re a little more health-conscious, or not a 10-year-old. That’s alright! Because every day in Ulcinj–every. single. day.–there’s a local farmer’s market bursting with the freshest produce you can find. On Fridays, vendors come from villages far and wide to hawk their goods alongside locals, going to great lengths to convince you that their peaches are the most delicious (Hellooo free samples!).
Fall in love with Hostel Pirate
When I finally lugged my excess baggage up to the front door of Hostel Pirate, I was greeted by the very people who would come to feel like a little family when my 2+-week stay was finally over. The two owners, Diana and Sasha, gave me a warm welcome; I was then given an orientation by their first and only volunteer at that time, a young Romanian guy named Silvio who came to be a very close friend in a short time. You know, the kind of friend you know you’ll never see again but share a warm and genuine connection with nonetheless.
Each night, bottles of beer were provided to guests, which encouraged plenty of socializing. When quiet hours rolled around, we’d head down to the beach, 2-liter beer bottles in tow, and settle into a circle on the sands of Little Beach, which is deserted in the evenings.
Every now and then, Sasha and Diana would host a barbecue for all of the guests, grilling up traditional sausages (known as ćevapi) and other meats alongside a plethora of side dishes; conversations flowed as freely as the beer, wine, and rakia.
On an average day when those lame travelers were, ahem, slaving away on their laptops instead of out exploring the city, any one of the staff would be on hand to share a quick meal with or cup of coffee. They even began to miss me hanging around on the days when I did manage to make it out.
Needless to say, it was a bittersweet goodbye in the end. I knew it was time to move on, but the memories I made in Ulcinj and at Hostel Pirate will be with me for years to come.
Honorable Mentions (also known as The Things I Wish I’d Done)
I was reasonably productive during my stay in Ulcinj, so needless to say, I didn’t get around to doing it all. But there were a few other things I really wish I’d made time for, including:
- Visiting Ulcinj Salina, an important ecological site that’s home to countless species of migratory birds and the only place in Europe you can find flamingoes in the wild
- Renting a bike from the hostel and cycling to Long Beach
- Experiencing the local nightlife at one of the dance clubs along the beach
- Renting a jet ski, going tubing, or doing any other water-based adventure activity
Have you ever heard of Ulcinj, Montenegro? It truly stole my heart, and I can’t wait to return.