Ostrog Monastery is a beautiful monastery built into the mountainside way up near the top of the mountain. It reminded me a bit of Tiger’s Next Monastery (Bhutan), but on a smaller scale and without the 4 hour hike to get there. It’s an incredible engineering feat, especially considering it was built in the 17thcentury!
The Monastery belongs to the the Serbian Orthodox Church and is still an active place of worship and pilgrimage today. I read that anywhere from 100,000 to 1 million pilgrims and visitors come to Ostrog each year. I couldn’t find verification on this number, but I can’t imaging 1 million people driving the winding road up to the monastery and back, so I’m inclined to believe that closer to 100,000 is more accurate. Either way, whenever you visit, know you won’t be alone!
Throughout this post you’ll find some “expert tips”, things we learned during our visit that we wish we would’ve known ahead of time, as well as “kid tips” for those of you traveling with kiddos.
The History of Ostrog Monastery and St Basil of Ostrog
Ostrog Monastery is dedicated to it’s founder, Vasilije the Metropolitan Bishop of Herzigovina. He started building the Monastery with three caves already present in the rock face. The first the church Vavadenja, the second was for storage and sleeping quarters for guests, and the third was a small chapel to keep religious artifacts. He continued to build and expand beyond these three caves throughout his life. He died at the Monastery in 1671 and was buried at the Lower Monastery.
Seven years later, in 1768, the Abbot of nearby St Luke Monastery had a vivid dream commanding him to go to Ostrog and open the grave. After the dream recurred three times, he finally decided to listen. Upon opening the grave, he found Vasilije’s body perfectly intact and smelling of basil. Vsilijje was taken the Church of Presentation, in the Upper Monastery, and was eventually anointed St. Basil. His body remains in this location today.
Present Day Monastery
The Upper Monastery was rebuilt between 1923 and 1926 after a fire destroyed most of it. Two cave churches were spared in the fire and now serve as the main areas of the Monastery. They both have incredible frescos that have remained largely intact over the past few centuries, which is quite impressive considering they were painted directly on the stone walls.
The Lower Monastery was built in 1824 and is centered around the Church of the Holy Trinity. To be honest, we didn’t actually visit, so I can’t offer a lot of advice or information. If you’re spending the night, the (paid) dorm rooms are located just up the road from the Lower Monastery.
*expert tip – There’s a great view from a few of the switchbacks on the road to the Upper Monastery. If you’re driving, make sure you pull all the way over for the view so you’re not obstructing traffic!
Visiting Ostrog Monastery
The parking for the Upper Monastery is only 10km off the main highway, but the road is quite winding and narrow. Most places are wide enough for 2 vehicles to pass one another, but there are many blind corners that require everyone to slow down to stay safe. The road above the Lower Monastery has too many narrow switch-backs for buses, so at least there’s no risk of running into a bus along the way. It’s a SLOW drive, so give yourself more time than you might think is needed.
If you’re scared of heights (like me), prepare yourself in advance…the road’s cut into the side of the mountain just like the monastery. It feels like you’re driving right along the edge of a cliff, which you basically are! Thankfully there are guard-rails the whole way. These made me feel a tiny bit better, but my stomach was still flip-flopping nervously most of the drive.
*kid tip – If you’re traveling with little ones (or have a disabled parking permit) you should be able to drive all the way up to the Monastery. You may have to persuade the guard that it’s necessary (we did see people with strollers walking from the lower parking lot), but with some convincing it should be possible.
*expert tip – When you enter the parking lot, drive around the stone building to your right. There’s an “upper” parking area that’s well shaded and right beside the entrance to the walking path, so it’ll save you a few steps.
Once you make it to the parking lot you’ll be able to relax and breathe a bit easier (at least until the drive down)! It’s only a few hundred meters (and many hundreds of steps) up the path between the parking lot and the monastery, thankfully all in the shade. Some of the stones are a bit slippery so watch where you’re stepping! There was another tourist walking up behind us who slipped and fell quite hard only a few stairs up. She was okay, other than her pride, but it definitely made us all a bit more conscious of where we were stepping.
It’s not uncommon to see pilgrims walking barefoot from the Lower Monastery to the Upper Monastery. It’s a significantly further uphill climb compared to the parking lot (about 3km), and not one I’d be in a hurry to do. I guess the benefit to bare feet is more traction on the rocks. Some even do it on their knees, although we didn’t experience that during our visit.
Once you arrive at the gate, take a moment to marvel at the beauty of the Monastery (and catch your breath after all those stairs!).
*expert tip – Bathrooms are located at the end of the parking lot (we didn’t use them, so I’m not sure what condition they’re in. I suggest bringing your own toilet paper just in case). Turn left as soon as you get to the top of the stairs and you’ll see a “WC” sign pointing you in the right direction.
*expert tip – There are water fountains to the left of the entrance gate. This is potable water and is great if your husband accidentally thought the ancient-looking water pump at the beginning of the walking path works and dumped out your water bottle before you’d barely began the climb!
We arrived just after 6pm on a random Wednesday in August, and there was some kind of prayer service happening. A couple monks were standing on a covered platform changing and praying. Around the courtyard a wide variety of people stood listening to the haunting sounds. It created quite a somber mood that brought so much more meaning to the experience. Sure, it’s a beautiful place for tourists to come take pictures (like us!), but it’s also an incredibly important religious site where pilgrims bring their burdens, pray and find some relief from their suffering.
The Church Of The Presentation
We listened to the liturgy for a while, then noticed that some people were still entering the church so we decided to follow along and visit while there weren’t as many people. As we walked up the stairs and along a pathway, I thought it odd that the entire path was covered by bit blue umbrellas. Randy started explaining to the girls that the umbrellas kept the sun off the people standing in line to get into The Church Of The Presentation during the day. (totally didn’t click for me!)
This church is home to the relics of St Basil and is the main site in the Monastery. It’s not uncommon for there to be a large line, especially in the busy summer months and during the weekend. It can also get quite busy in May when pilgrims come to celebrate St Basil of Ostrog Feast Day. St Basil died on April 29th(Orthodox calendar) which translates to May 12thin our present-day Gregorian calendar. This day marks a huge celebration at Ostrog Monastery, which often continues throughout the month of May.
Outside the entrance of the church, just to the left, there’s a basket where pilgrims can leave a gift. It’s customary for people to bring clothes, food or blankets for the monks to keep as needed or distribute to the poor. Since we were traveling we didn’t bring anything with us to donate, but I’d read that cash works just fine too! (although you shouldn’t leave cash in the basket, put it in one of the many donation boxes found throughout the Monastery).
As we entered the church, my first thought was that it was quite small and dark. Calais marched her way up to the front and a Monk practically shoved a cross in her face (he did it nicely, but he definitely pushed it in front of her in a way that made the intention clear!). I quickly told her to kiss the cross, which she did. The monk then motioned for me to lift her up…so I did and then I told her to kiss the photo in front of her (not sure if she was supposed to or not, but it felt like that was the thing to do). Once I put her down I told her to cross herself and move out of the way…I had to repeat it all over again with Kacela!
Once Randy and I also had a turn, and I fished out a few euros to put in the donation box, then took a hurried moment to admire the frescoes on the walls. I wish I would’ve taken the time to look at the walls BEFORE we went to the monk. After we finished I just wanted to high-tail it out of there because I was sure we did something wrong and felt a bit like a fraud. There wasn’t anyone ahead of us to copy so we just made it up on the fly, although I’m sure they’re used to tourists not knowing what to do.
*expert tip – It IS customary to kiss the cross, and if it’s not busy you can kiss or touch your forehead to the photo of St Basil as well. If it’s busy, make sure you admire the room before you get to the relics, because once you’re done a monk will be waiting to usher you out so the next person can have a turn.
The Church Of The Holy Cross
After leaving the Church Of The Presentation we made our way inside and up a few sets of stairs to the highest floor of the Monastery. The Church Of The Holy Cross is found at the top of the stairs and to the right. The frescoes on the walls are beautiful, and quite well preserved, especially considering the rest of the Monastery (other than the Church Of The Presentation) was burnt in a fire.
This small church was much more low-key and we were able to take the time to properly admire the paintings on the walls. No one else was in the church with us, other than the Monk who quietly read in the corner and ignored us. I imagine the frescoes in here were similar to the ones I wasn’t able to properly see in the Church Of The Presentation.
Outside this church there are a number of tiled murals on the walls. The few people who were lingering were taking photos, despite the no photo sign on the entrance. They were in plain view of the Monk, and he wasn’t saying anything, so I also snapped a few pics with the girls (who both scolded me for breaking the rules).
The View & The Vine
The best part of the Monastery, aside from the religious significance and incredible engineering, is the spectacular view over the valley below. It’s beautiful from the entire complex but seemed to have a special charm from the highest floor. Perhaps, it’s because you can see where the stark white wall seamlessly joins the cliff face above it, making me feel like I was part of the mountainside, if only for a moment. Or maybe it’s just because I knew I was that much higher so my brain subconsciously thought it was better. Either way…it’s a pretty incredible view!
At the far end of highest balcony, opposite the church, there’s a vine growing out of the mountain. The locals consider this a miracle as nothing should be able to grow out of pure stone. They named it, aptly, the Miracle Vine.
Ostrog Monastery Traditions
Pilgrims travel to Ostrog Monastery for healing, both physical and spiritual. There are many documented miracles, even today, of people being healed here. Visitors will often take with them a token (holy water, candles, souvenir tokens) to touch friends and family unable to make the journey, so they’ll also be blessed by St Basil. There’s a small gift shop at the bottom of the stairs in the white building, and another between the prayer rooms in the building with the arches.
As with many religions, lighting candles to pray for the living or dead is important. After purchasing candles from the kiosk (which may have a long line, so queue up and be patient!) you can enter one of the prayer rooms located on either side of the kiosk in the arch-building. Each room has two high troughs on either side, and a lower trough in the middle at the back. As with most Orthodox churches, one side will be to pray for the living and the other will be for the dead.
*expert tip – Candles are available in all shapes and sizes. The smallest ones start at 10 euro cents per candle and increase in value from there.
After praying on the “dead” side at the Cetinje Monastery a few days earlier (a lovely local corrected the girls and helped them move to the other side because she thought that was more appropriate for the children), we opted for the middle! This had the added bonus of being lower and easier for the girls to reach too. They’d also both decided to buy 10 candles, which they had to light one at a time, so I knew we were going to be there for awhile!
The custom is to kiss the candle, light it with one of the candles already in the stand, then set it into the sand (in the water) while saying the prayer.
*kid tip – Try to find a place where the sand is deep, it’ll be easier for the kids to get the candles to stand up straight. And try to discourage them from buying 10 candles…2-3 is likely enough!
Useful Things To Know Before Visiting Ostrog Monastery
This is an active Monastery so respectfully dress is required. Both males and females should have their shoulders and knees covered, and women should refrain from showing excessive cleavage. You’ll see many women with their heads covered, but this isn’t necessary.
*expert tip – There isn’t a change room at the top, so make sure to change in the car in the parking lot.
How To Get To Ostrog Monastery
The easiest way to get to the Monastery is by renting a car and driving yourself and is reasonably done from either Kotor or Podgorica as a day-trip.
Driving From Kotor to Ostrog Monastery
The highway is excellent from Kotor to Ostrog Monastery, at least until you turn off the highway at Bogetici. As you leave Kotor you’ll wind around the bay before you start climbing up the mountain. Make sure to leave a few minutes to stop and take in the spectacular view of Kotor Bay from the pullouts along the side of the road.
The drive from Kotor first takes you west (around the bay), then North, then East to Niksic, and then South. You’ll definitely feel like you’re going the round-about way, but that’s what happens in this mountainous country.
Alternatively, you could drive the Serpentine road to Lovcen, then to Cetinje and finally via Podgorica. If you’re doing a day trip from Kotor I’d suggest to go this way initially and return via Niksic. You could also include a stop at Njegos Mausoleum in Lovcen and the National Museums in Cetinje along the way. (Total drive time is approximately 2 hours either way, although the Serpentine road to Lovcen is unpredictable as it’s very narrow and occasionally gets clogged up with tour buses)
How To Get From Podgorica To Ostrog Monastery
The drive from Podgorica to Ostrog Monastery is much simpler than from Kotor and should take less than an hour. Just head straight up the Niksic Highway to Bogetici. You can turn off at Danilovgrad and take the secondary highway as well. We considered this (it actually looks to be a straighter road than that from Bogetici), but had enough white-knuckle, single-lane driving so decided the shorter route was the better option.
Best Tours To Ostrog Monastery
Best Time To Visit The Monastery
Ostrog Monastery opens every morning at 6am, however the closing time seems to be up in the air. Everywhere I looked it appears that the Monastery closes at 5pm in the summer (May to September) and 4pm in the winter (October to April). However, we arrived around 6pm and saw plenty of people still driving down the mountain around 8-8:30pm. To be on the safe side I’d plan to show up before the posted closing hour.
I’d suggest visiting closer to closing hour as the light in the evening is incredible and it’s going to be less busy. Also, the Monastery is lit up beautifully at night and would be worth seeing. If you’re not spending the night you’ll have to drive down the curvy road in the dark, but there shouldn’t be any vehicles coming up it to worry about.
Spending The Night at Ostrog Monastery
The Monastery is well set up to accommodate overnight guests, and has been doing so since it was founded in the seventeenth century.
The most comfortable option is the 8-10 person dorm rooms, segregated by male and female, near the Lower Monastery. These cost 5 Euro per person and there’s parking space available in front of the building.
The Upper Monastery has two options, both of which are free. There’s the large (sleeps more than a hundred) triple-bunk dorm room, or blankets available to sleep in the courtyard. You’ll also need to bring your own pillow if you’re sleeping outside, and pack some food for dinner and breakfast as no meals are provided.
We initially thought of spending the night and sleeping in the courtyard, and the girls were pretty excited about it. However, when we arrived and realized that the courtyard is concrete stones, and the blankets available are thin (so we’d need a lot to just be comfortable) we decided against it.
No matter where you sleep, wake-up call is at 5:30am.
Where To Stay Near Ostrog Monastery
There are a few great options near the Monastery to spend the night.
We ate dinner and slept at Koliba. It’s most of the way down the switch-backs, but still high enough to have an excellent view over the valley. You can see part of the monastery from the restaurant, but sadly it’s not a great view.
There are lovely two-bedroom cabins available that fit up to 6 people and have a private bathroom. The other option is a twin room (2 single beds) with a shared bathroom. Some of these have air conditioning and some don’t. I’d recommend the rooms with A/C!
We didn’t have A/C, and kept our window open all night. It cooled the room down nicely but Kacela ended up with a number of mosquito bites on her back. Randy & Calais ended up closing their window because Calais was freaking out over the mosquitos, so they sweltered for the night. I think the A/C would’ve been a better option (but wasn’t available since we showed up at dinner and booked a last-minute room). All rooms include a cooked to order breakfast.
Cost: 13.50Euro/person for basic twin room with shared bathroom (including breakfast), kids ages 7-12 pay 70% of the adult price. A/C was an additional few euros per person.
This hotel comes highly recommended and has a great view of the monastery. It’s found on the “new highway” towards Danilovgrad. The prices were a bit out of our budget, but if you’re looking for something a bit more comfortable than a twin room with shared bathroom, this is your place!
There are a number of private cottages available to rent in the mountainside around Ostrog. If you’re planning on spending a few days, or are traveling with a family, these may be your best option.
Where To Eat Near Ostrog Monastery
There are a number of small café-style restaurants right beside the Lower Monastery. They were all closed up when we were leaving around 7pm, so don’t count on them if you’re leaving late. We preferred to get further down the switchbacks before it got dark, so opted to eat at Koliba. The view is fantastic and the food was quite good and reasonably priced. This seems to be a popular place for people to stop in for breakfast after an early morning visit to the Monastery.
Bogetici also has a few more café and restaurant options close to the highway.