After spending nearly a year living in Montenegro, I’ve visited a lot of destinations. Whether spontaneously or in more deliberately planned trips, my boyfriend, Marko has shown me around his beautiful country and every day, I look forward to seeing more of it.
I was recently asked by a travel blogger on Instagram if I had ever been to Budva as they had recently visited. This harmless comment made me cringe and it was only because of the mentioning of Budva.
It is time for some brutal honesty from me. I have lived here for nearly a year and driven past Budva multiple times with no desire to turn in that direction at the stoplights and there is a reason for that.
Budva is a hot topic of controversy among Montenegrins
Since I first arrived in Montenegro, I have noticed that the mentioning of Budva amongst locals causes eyes to roll, heads to shake and negative comments to roll freely. I never really understood why but it made me not want to visit Budva.
Maybe that was ignorant of me to merely accept local opinion as gospel but upon close inspection, the commonly held negative attitudes towards Budva from Montenegrins seemed to have a firm basis.
Uncovering the truth about Budva
Marko and I decided to interview some people who come from different parts of Montenegro, from different age groups to uncover why Budva is Montenegro’s most controversial destination. We simply asked ‘what are your thoughts on Budva? Good and bad.’
I wanted to dive deep into this mystery and share with you a different side to the frequently told story of ‘Budva is the best destination in Montenegro’ and an aspect of tourism that is often forgotten, local insight.
Montenegrins are generally great at having nuanced discussions and opinions. It isn’t all black and white for them. So, I can share with you both the best and worst of Budva according to Montenegrins.
Some initial responses included “I hate Budva”, ” I don’t like Budva,” “Budva is garbage” and “socialists saw it as the capital of tourism but it is now kitsch”.
I then looked further into each individual researchable opinion and reluctantly made an appearance in Budva.
A fortified fairytale old town surrounded by a circus of buildings | Budva Old Town
It is important to note, that every single person who I asked had positive things to say about Budva’s old town and it was referred to as ‘cool’, ‘beautiful’, ‘pretty’ and ‘amazing’. Locals of Budva love to meet in the old town for a coffee as a standard, very much enjoyed socialising ritual.
The most controversial thing about Budva is the buildings that surround the old town which was often referred to as ‘a circus of buildings’ because there is no cohesiveness in the building styles.
When you drive past Budva, from afar, you will see a tiny fortified old town surrounded by kilometres of mismatched buildings all tightly packed in. It is quite a shocking sight.
Its resemblance to other cities was often commented on, ‘a cheap version of Dubai’ came up a few times.
The ugly buildings reveal an ugly truth
Bad building policies, corruption and the ability for people to build whatever they like with no ramifications were also mentioned. I have been told that people moved away because they didn’t like what became of Budva.
Who cares about a bunch of ugly buildings? Well, it isn’t that simple.
After digging online I found reliable evidence that supports the claims of corruption and political scandals specifically relating to the buildings in Budva. I came across documentation from a UN supported, non-governmental organisation MANS which aims to fight corruption and organised crime that impacts Montenegrins. The document that I found ‘Urban Planning Captured by Corruption’ goes in-depth about case-studies from Montenegro where corruption in the building of properties has taken place.
Budva was mentioned several times. There were two major cases in which government-owned property was sold for significantly less money in dodgy deals. In these two cases alone, the damage to public interest totals to over 50 million euros collectively. Money that could’ve gone back into infrastructure for the public lined pockets of wealthy investors and politicians.
Another case found that a multi-storey building was illegally built in an agricultural zone in Budva and this is apparently a commonplace problem.
In Montenegro and especially in Budva, rules and laws are often disregarded by those who have a responsibility to protect spaces at a local and national level. Penalties are seldom enforced for those who don’t comply. MANS concluded that ‘corruption and organised crime are an integral part of the planning and construction industries’.
Notably, 2 of Budva’s recent mayors have been arrested for corruption and being involved in organised crime. And that ladies and gents is the tip of the iceberg.
Increased tourism led to this rapid building
During the early 2000s, the rapid building started in Budva to meet the demand for properties that were fed by mostly foreign capital. A significant amount of vegetation was removed to make way for touristic establishments, including a forest which was once perched on the sea. Their tourism industry was exploding and to keep up with this growth a lot of the rules went out the window. Citizens of Budva generally benefitted from this, Montenegro’s new luxury car driving ‘upper class’ was created by this boom. Money was poured into tourism for Budva also to the benefit of the same people.
However, this was done and still is done to the detriment of the rest of Montenegro which also creates a lot of animosity towards Budva. “Because of political reasons, it has developed over time so much while the rest of the bay area is super stagnant and falling apart,” said one woman.
The property corruption and inequal tourism investments are just a few examples of the people being let down by their government. For most older citizens of this country, this is old news, they have accepted that it is what it is. While interviewing a mature-aged lady, a lot of my serious questions were met with roaring laughter. For younger citizens of this country, the future can look very bleak when you don’t have much faith in your government and a lot of the best and the brightest jump ship, to other countries for a better life.
The older citizens lament over what Budva could have been if its development was actually planned.
Some of the best nightlife in Montenegro
One of the young interviewees stated that she purely goes to Budva for the nightlife and otherwise totally avoids Budva. She suggested that nightlife was the prime reason why Montenegrins visit Budva.
‘Top Hill’ and ‘Casper Bar’ were highly recommended by several Montenegrins. During the summer, Budva comes to life as Montenegro’s best party destination, with outrageously loud music pumping from all angles.
Beautiful beaches that are too expensive to enjoy
The beautiful beaches that surround the old town were a standout positive point about Budva but for most Montenegrins, it is too expensive to enjoy. With the average monthly pay being 300-400€ per month, paying 20-30€ for a day (to rent a sunbed, to pay for parking, food and drinks) on the beach is not an option.
When visiting Ričardova Glava beach, I was appalled by the amounts of rubbish strewn across the beach and tumbling in the waves. This was the first time in my life I had seen rubbish in the ocean like this. While this was just before summer, kids were playing amongst this rubbish and people were swimming in it.
‘Fancy’ cafes operate at this beach in this area which is sometimes referred to as the ‘Budva Riviera’. But there is nothing fancy about polluting our oceans and who knows how much they contribute to that litter but they certainly turn a blind eye to it despite it being right in front of their faces.
In fact, everything in Budva is too expensive for most Montenegrins
‘You need to spend a lot of money to have a good time in Budva’ was a common sentiment. Just to park near the old town it cost 5€ per hour. So, 1 hour of parking is half a day of work of pay for most Montenegrins.
For cost comparison, it is 1€ less to park near the Trevi Fountain in Rome.
And that is just the parking. And yes, you can definitely find cheaper parking, we found some for 1€ per hour. However, even at this low price, it obviously adds up.
Unfortunately, this is normal for most touristic places in Montenegro, that locals generally cannot afford to visit in summer without breaking the bank because prices for everything are put up too high to maximise earnings from tourists.
Crazy crowds embarking on a tiny old town
I visited in mid-spring. We struggled to just walk to the gates of the old town, stuck between the hordes of people, including the seemingly endless lines of day-trippers on walking tours. Marko assured me that it wasn’t actually crowded considering how bad it can actually get.
A few people I interviewed said that the crowds were abnormally large and one said they didn’t like the type of crowd that Budva attracts.
Not all that glitters is gold
Budva isn’t Montenegro’s shining example of tourism despite what official advertising and social media may allude to.
The only thing that Budva is a shining example of is the rampant corruption and greed that exists in the Montenegrin government. The ugly sea of buildings that surround the old town of Budva is a concrete example of corruption and public interest being ignored. Budva is also a great example of how a town can be destroyed by tourism.
While this probably won’t affect your visit, it affects the people and the environment of Montenegro.
And I don’t know about you but I like to go to places where locals actually recommend that I visit and not a single local has recommended that I visit Budva. To me, local people have an authoritative kind of knowledge and experience that guidebooks and travel writers (including myself) often lack and that should be respected.
Is Budva worth visiting?
Now, I am not saying, ‘don’t visit Budva’ but I am saying don’t make Budva your only destination.
When you read somewhere that Budva is the number 1# destination and the ‘centre of tourism’ in Montenegro it sets certain expectations.
I read a number of disappointed reviews on TripAdvisor from people who were expecting a ‘little Dubrovnik’ that they read about in their guidebooks. The reviews from people who only visited Budva when coming to Montenegro often stated they never want to return to Montenegro again.
This isn’t the Montenegro that I or the locals know and love.
My Montenegro makes me want to cry when I think of leaving it. The beauty of the landscapes, the old historical cities and towns and the overwhelmingly good-hearted people have won me over more so than any destination I’ve ever come across.
Alternatives to Budva in Montenegro
Two locals from Budva admitted that while they love their old town they don’t understand the hype about Budva. Most Montenegrins we’ve asked say anywhere is better than Budva and I tend to agree.
If you are here for the history and to experience a charming medieval old town go to Kotor instead of or in addition to Budva.
While I have been scathing about Kotor in the past, in my opinion, it is still magnitudes better than Budva.
If you don’t like crowds don’t visit either of these places during peak seasons, instead visit during Spring and Autumn.
Ulcinj is probably the most closely matched best alternative to Budva, they look visually similar, both having walled medieval old towns, surrounded by the sea and beaches.
By all means, if you are travelling for nightlife go to Budva, that is what locals recommended most strongly.
In the world of travel writing, the locals are often forgotten
While travelling we sometimes forget people live in these places, I want to remind you that they do! And your travels to their homes affects them in all kind of ways that you may have never expected, in both positive and negative ways.
In my opinion, tourism should benefit and enrich a place and its people (and not just the richest of the rich) but in the modern age of mass tourism, it can be destructive. For Budva, tourism growth led to immense financial benefits for a select few and immense destruction for society and the environment overall.
There is often more to the story than a few paragraphs in a guidebook.
Heck, there is a lot more to the story than what I just wrote and it can get really complicated.
While I know some don’t care about this as long as they get their ‘trophy’ Instagram photos or they can ‘tick off another country’, this post is for those who care.
Because I figure you care if you got this far into this post.
Not all the glitters is gold and this is especially true for Budva, the most controversial destination in Montenegro.
Do you have anything to share about Budva?
Being that Budva is a very controversial destination I expect opinions to wildly differ, feel free to share your opinions below, I would love to hear them.