Nestled in a shallow bowl surrounded by clipped woods and frozen limestone peaks, Cetinje, 670m above sea level and 30km west of Podgorica, is the spiritual heart of Montenegro. Once the royal capital of the country, it also withstood repeated Turkish assaults over the centuries – thus the town exerts a peculiarly romantic hold over many Montenegrins.

Travelling in the 1930s, Canadian journalist Lovatt Edwards described Cetinje as ‘sleepy and undistinguished, a city of pensioners’ – and while this simple mountain town of around 20,000 inhabitants retains a languid, almost timeless air, it certainly offers a pleasing antidote to Podgorica’s faceless modernity.

The town’s wide, tree-lined boulevards might now be somewhat shabby in places, and the pastel-coloured tenements a little flaky, but Cetinje’s once illustrious past is still very much in evidence, thanks to some grand, if timeworn, public buildings and a raft of fin-de-siècle mansions that now accommodate diplomatic residences.

What to see and do in Cetinje

Trg Umjetnosti and around 

Dividing up the northern and southern halves of Njegoševa is Trg Umjetnosti, a modest little square in and around which are a number of historically interesting buildings, including several former embassies. On the west side of the square is the former British Embassy, the last of the embassies to be built in Cetinje (1912).

Nearby, on Voyjvode Batrića, is the former Russian Embassy, dating from 1903 and now serving as Montenegro University’s Faculty of Fine Arts. The largest and most flamboyant of all the missions, it’s architecturally reminiscent of St Petersburg, with late Baroque styling by Italian architect Corradini. The nearby former Turkish Embassy is the state school of drama, while the former Bulgarian Embassy is now a restaurant.

The former Russian Embassy was built in 1903 © Gennadiy Solovyev, Shutterstock

Northeast of Trg Umjetnosti, just beyond the former Turkish embassy on ul Baja Pivljanina, is the smoothly symmetrical bright cream-coloured Zetski Dom Royal Theatre. Constructed piecemeal between 1884 and 1892, it was Montenegro’s first purpose-built theatre, staging the country’s first play, The Balkan Empress – written by Prince Nikola himself – in 1888. Reconstructed in 1931 following a battering by the Austro-Hungarians, it took on its present incarnation in the wake of the 1979 earthquake.

Just 100m further down from the British Embassy stands the stately Blue Palace, built in 1895 for Crown Prince Danilo and so named on account of its colour, though it’s actually more mottle-grey in appearance. Immaculately restored, the palace is now the official residence of the President of Montenegro, though he very rarely visits or stays here.

King Nikola’s Museum 

Taking centre stage on Trg Dvorski is King Nikola’s Museum (also known as King Nikola’s Palace), a long brown-plastered building that looks more like a lesser 19th-century mansion than the home of Montenegro’s only monarch. The only slight concession to grandeur is an extended porch atop which is a ceremonial balcony. The gilded period of his reign has been beguilingly recreated in salons arranged as they would have been; save for a chair and desk, there’s little remaining of Nikola’s original possessions, as most of it was pillaged during World War II.

King Nikola’s Museum is home to an impressive display of arms © Katsiuba Volha, Shutterstock

In addition, there are now romantic displays of arms, sparkling decorations, and banners including a company standard emotively riddled with bullets from the major 19th-century encounter with the Turks at Vučji Do.

Ethnographic Museum

Probably the most diverting of Cetinje’s museums is the splendid Ethnographic Museum, housed in the beautifully restored former Serbian Embassy diagonally across the square from the Royal Palace. The greater part of the collection comprises a sumptuous assortment of Montenegrin costumes dating from the 19th century; men would typically be attired in a jerkin, a tight-fitting, finely embroidered waistcoat, while women’s traditional costume consisted of a košulja, a frilly cream-coloured blouse, over which a koreta, a long, light-green sleeveless jacket, would usually be worn.

National Museum and Art Gallery (Narodni muzej Crne Gore)

A grandiose edifice completed in 1910, the Government House (Vladin Dom) accommodates the sprawling National Museum and Art Gallery of Montenegro. The ground floor is devoted to Montenegrin history, with a voluminous collection of artefacts spanning the centuries, but predominantly focused on the country’s military affairs. Admirable though this arsenal of trophies is, it’s a trifle repetitive and not helped by the absence of decent English captioning; that said, the display of Turkish battle standards seized at Grahovac (1858) and Vučji dol (1869) – the Turks were comprehensively routed at both – is impressive.

More satisfying is the art collection on the first floor, which offers a thoroughgoing assessment of 19th- and 20th-century work by artists from countries of the former Yugoslavia. Pre-eminent among these was the Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, though the pieces on display here are far from representative of his best work – you’re better off making the trip up to Mount Lovćen to view his immense sculpture of Njegoš’s Mausoleum.

Cetinje Monastery 

At the western end of town, sheltering beneath the rock, Cetinje Monastery (Cetinjski Manastir) was completed by the founder of the Njegoš dynasty, Prince-Bishop Danilo in 1701. Part church, part fortress and part munitions store, the monastery building housed a rudimentary administration under the aegis of Danilo and his successors, who fused together the functions of prince and bishop to forge a dynasty of theocratic rulers.

A tiny cruciform chapel, carved from neatly hewn stone, contains the tombs of Prince Danilo and Petar I, the uncle of the celebrated poet king. Its most celebrated, if somewhat macabre, relic is the right hand of St John the Baptist: having endured a rather circuitous route via Constantinople, Malta, Russia and Estonia, the wizened hand (minus two fingers) ended up in the possession of the communists in Serbia after World War II, before being transferred to Cetinje in 1978. It’s held within a glass coffin, and you can ask one of the monks to see it.

Cetinje Monastery was built in 1701 © Dizfoto, Shutterstock

Here, too, is the treasury (though frustratingly it’s only open to groups), holding a fine display of 15th- and 19th-century icons and religious books. The most important of these is Oktoih (The First Voice), a gospel dating from 1493; it’s one of the oldest printed books in existence and certainly among the first ever printed in the Slavonic language. Here, too, you’ll find the staff and seal of Ivan Crnojević, metropolitan crowns and mitres bright with jewels, and an intricate ornamental cloth embroidered by Catherine the Great.

Most monasteries produce their own rakija – fruit brandy – and this one is no exception. There are beehives here, too, which interestingly yield honey from the flower of pelen or wormwood, as in absinthe. On a small rise above the monastery is the site of the tablja, a small stone tower built by Petar II in 1835, which was used for impaling Turkish heads on.

Ćipur Church 

Separated by the crocus meadow from the present-day monastery stands a court chapel, which was built in 1886 by Prince Nikola on the foundations of the central church of the original 15th-century Crnojević Monastery. Some remnants of this early monastery are still visible and the place continues to be known quaintly as cipur (derived from the Greek word kipuria meaning ‘vegetable plot’).

This picturesque church was built in 1886 © nadtochiy, Shutterstock

Inside the diminutive Church of the Virgin Mary’s Birth at Ćipur, a simple, single-aisled structure, are the gleaming marble tombs containing the remains of King Nikola I and Queen Milena, which were transferred here from the Russian Church in San Remo in 1989 – an event that, for many Montenegrins, symbolised the end of communism.

Getting to Cetinje

Aside from hiring a car or taking on a tough bike ride, the only means of access to Cetinje is by bus, most easily from Podgorica (45mins), Budva (40–50mins), Tivat (1hr 20mins), Kotor (1hr 30mins) or Herceg Novi (2hrs 20mins); buses run roughly every 30 minutes to and from these towns.

The bus station is at the northeastern extremity of town on Trg (the square) Golootočkih Žrtava. A ticket from Podgorica costs around €3, from Tivat €4.50 and from Kotor €5. Minibuses supplement these services but their timings are subject to variation. Note that there is no public transport from Kotor via the Ladder of Cattaro and Njeguši.