Cetinje | A Small, Elegant City Of History And Culture

Cetinje is a small, elegant city which displays its history and culture through an array of centrally located sights within a precinct of well maintained gardens that include graceful palaces, museums which were once stylish embassies or public buildings, sizeable monasteries and historic churches.

Cetinje is the modern cultural capital of Montenegro and remains the official residence of Montenegro’s President. Cetinje’s past reaches back as far as Rome and has since absorbed influences from major adversaries such as the Ottomans, Venetians and Serbians. The 15th Century was a significant period in the history of Cetinje because it was then that the city became the capital of Montenegro. It is for this reason that even a little knowledge of some of Cetinje’s history and culture will significantly add meaning and enjoyment to your visit of Cetinje’s sights.

Cetinje can be enjoyed whether you stop for a short visit as you make your way to Lovcen or Skadar Lake, or if you choose to take more time to assemble a picture of Cetinje’s community and cultural landscape.

Where is Cetinje?

Cetinje is located about half way between Budva and Podgorica and rests in the shadow of nearby Mt Lovcen, a major feature of the karst-dominated Lovcen National Park.

Close up overview of part of the city of Cetinje
Historical Cetinje is in the basin of the foothills of Mt Lovcen

Cetinje is therefore a convenient place to stay should you choose to visit Skadar Lake National Park and Lovcen National Park, or if you are en route to Bosnia via Podgorica. A route from Kotor or the nearby Montenegrin coast to Cetinje is included in our post describing Skadar Lake.

A Brief History of Cetinje

Why the History of the Crnojevic Dynasty is Important to Your Visit

The history of the sights of Cetinje we see today is bound up in the family Crnojevic. During the 15th century the Crnojevics resided in the Principality of Zeta (now identified as stretching from the north of the Skadar Lake basin to its south. Zeta was under the jurisdiction of Djuradj Brankovic, a Serbian tyrant, who ruled under the condition that he pay an annual tax to the Ottoman Empire. During Djuradj’s rule Zeta’s was occupied by both the Venetians and the Serbians and this resulted in a loss of Crnojevic territory which was then under the patronage of Stefan Crnojevic at Žabljak (near Podgorica).

Stefan, in time, negotiated an agreement that made him a vassal of Venice, undisputed as the ruler of Zeta. Stefan now exercised authority over territory that included Cetinje and the surrounds of Mt Lovcen.

Stefan Crnojevic was succeeded in 1465 by his son Ivan (Ivan the Black). It was during Ivan’s rule that Cetinje became the capital of Montenegro. He moved his government and court from the Skadar Lake basin to Cetinje in order to avoid possible reprisals following the signing of a treaty between Venice and the Ottoman Empire. The treaty sealed the 1479 Ottoman victory at Skadar Lake and because Ivan had actively opposed the Ottoman invasion by supporting the Venetians, he abandoned Skadar Lake to construct his palace and monastery (1484) at Cetinje (Castle Church).

The rule of Montenegro passed to Ivan’s oldest son Djuradj. The history of both Djuradj (d. 1503) and his younger brother, Stefan, is contested, but it is generally accepted that Stefan was killed in battle against the Ottomans and Djuradj was credited with providing Cetinje with a printing press (1494), ostensibly transported from Venice.

A statue of the founder of Cetinje stands proudly in the city centre

The inscription on the statue of Ivan Crnojevic reads, ‘On occasion of celebrating five centuries from the establishment of Cetinje, a monumental sculpture of the founder of the city Ivan Crnojevic made by academic sculptor Ante Grzetic was erected in 1982. The monument depicts a strong male figure holding a shield and a sword in his hands, as symbols of defence and justice.’

An Overview of the Sights of Cetinje

Cetinje has been described elsewhere as ‘an integrated hotch-potch of architecture ranging from Ottoman to Communist Yugoslavian’. We don’t share this view. Instead, Cetinje appears to exhibit three distinct and diverse precincts, each interesting within itself, each with its own history and charm, and each able to be appreciated for what it uniquely contributes to the diversity and culture of the city.

Cetinje’s most visited precinct, the historical and cultural precinct, is organized within a small city centre which is decorated with well-arranged gardens. Broad thoroughfares lined with trees, spacious cafes and restaurants give the area a generous, expansive perspective. You will also observe imposing buildings that served as former embassies. These buildings are visually and architecturally beautiful and are worth visiting because which government ever constructed an embassy in a foreign country without spending a mountain of money on it. When you wander away from the city centre you will encounter the streets and lanes of the less-maintained commercial precinct and the interesting shop fronts that reveal a past ethos and serve as reminders of previous eastern governance. And behind the commercial precinct is what we found very interesting, the sights associated with the residential precinct, its distinctive architecture setting the identity of Cetinje.

There is more than adequate parking available around the city and because accommodation is usually within walking distance of the city centre, it is unlikely that you will need to use your car if you have one.

The Historical and Cultural Precinct of Cetinje

The historical sector of Cetinje is located in the city centre and is beautifully landscaped and maintained. It is within this sector that you will locate the majority of buildings and monuments associated with past privilege and the sophisticated culture that would have prevailed.

The central precinct of Cetinje features well organized and maintained gardens
Njegosev Park in central Cetinje

Although Cetinje is no longer the capital of Montenegro (this has moved to Podgorica), there are a largish number of substantial historical and cultural buildings to visit, as well as former embassies.

The National Museum of Montenegro is comprised of five separate buildings, these being the Historical Museum of Montenegro, the Museum of Fine Arts of Montenegro, the Museum of King Nikola, the Ethnographic Museum and Biljard Palace, the Museum of Petar II Petrovic Njegos.

The principal building of the National Museum of Montenegro is the former Parliament building (1909) which houses the history, archaeology and art museums. It is located adjacent to both the Monastery of Cetinje and the Biljard Palace. It’s enormous and you can’t miss it.

The Museum of Fine Arts (1950), located in the National Museum building, concentrates on Montenegrin and Yugoslav art.

The Museum of King Nikola (1926, formerly the residence of Nikola I Petrovic Njegos, the final ruler of Montenegro) is located in Dvorski Square in front of the Biljard Palace. The museum displays a collection that draws from the residences occupied by the Montenegrin dynasties, supplemented by military and historical resources transferred from other museums. (Image Credit Vberger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

King Nikola Palace, now a museum: Image Credit Vberger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
King Nikola Palace

The Ethnographic Museum (1951) was transferred from the Biljard Palce to the former Serbian Embassy (1987) opposite the Museum of King Nicola in Dvorski Square. The museum focuses on textile and design.

The Biljard Palace, a Russian construction that dates to the 19th Century, is located in front of the Cetinje Monastery, It is here that the Montenegrin Prince-Bishop, venerated at his named mausoleum in Lovcen National Park, produced the work that brought him admiration. Njegos’ preserved legacy in the form of military paraphernalia and personal effects was committed to a museum in 1951.

The Billiard Palace in Cetinje is surrounded by stone walls which enclose spacious grounds
The enclosure of the spacious grounds of the Biljiard Palace in Cetinje

There are many other sights in Cetinje to visit apart from the National Museum that reflect the city’s important diplomatic and cultural role in Montenegro.

Cetinje’s National Library comprises the mosaic-decorated former French Embassy (built 1910) on Njegosey St which is located opposite the Ministry of Culture of Montenegro, and the former Italian Embassy with its traditional linear architecture and classical arches.

The former Russian Embassy is now the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Montenegro. (Image Credit: adeáš.Dohňanský, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The former Russian Embassy in Cetinje: Tadeáš.Dohňanský, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Russian Embassy Cetinje

The lovely Djukanovic Palace (1910) is located along from the National Museum on Njegosey St.

The beautiful residence of the President of Montenegro is nestled amongst the trees of Njegosev Park Njegoseva St. The Blue Palace was built for Prince Danilo Petrovic (1916) and has since seen several uses until its current official role. (Image Credit: The Blue Palace, 1896 –, CC By 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Image of Blue Palace at Cetinje and Image Credit MrSco (uživatel Flickru), CC BY 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Blue Palace Cetinje

All of these venues can be visited, are all clumped together for easy access, and there are walking tours available with guides to help you. Alternatively, Cetinje is such a small city you could accomplish the same on a personal walking tour with a map and sufficient information. Each building carries a plaque to identify it and its use.

A Brief History of the Cetinje Monastery

Ivan (The Black) Crnojevic, who founded Cetinje as outlined earlier (Why the History of the Crnojevic Dynasty is Important to Your Visit), constructed his original medieval monastery in 1484 at Cipur. This is now the site of the small but elegant Castle Church. Ivan’s monastery was devastated by the Venetians during the 17th Century, not as the result of invasion, but as the result of an explosion that was calculated to occur after the Venetians withdrew from Cetinje following their default to the Ottomans.

Cetinje Monastery adjacent to the Billiard Palace
The Cetinje Monastery

The succeeding Cetinje Monastery of 1701 was built on the location of the former residence of Ivan Crnojevic. This monastery included some of the fragments from Ivan’s original 1484 monastery. It experienced several more attacks and it is now as it appeared following its restoration in 1927, refurbished using the abundant supply of limestone that surrounded it.

As you wander through the precinct you will see that reproducible cubes of limestone form the basis of much of the masonry, worked smooth and laid in horizontal courses, giving the buildings a sense of permanence and strength. The masonry most visible is in the Biljard Palace and the Cetinje Monastery.

The Cetinje Monastery was indispensable to Montenegrin life, being the holy site from which influence was exerted over the culture and politics of the periods. It served to rally Montenegrins to protect their territory from a number of states, particularly the Venetians and the Ottomans. In this respect, the Cetinje’s past was parallel to the histories of both Kotor and Budva.

The long street-side façade of the Cetinje Monastery
The façade of the Cetinje Monastery

Most monasteries in Europe claim significant artifacts, these being the remains and graves of important national persons, and others objects of a religious kind. The Cetinje Monastery is no exception. The monastery displays authentic iconography, icons and manuscripts that date back to the medieval, some of the manuscripts being from the printing house of Ivan Crnojevic. The monastery values two of its holy relics in particular, these being the mummified hand of John the Baptist and a fragment from the cross of Jesus. These relics are kept in the monastery’s chapel, the hand of John in a jewel-encrusted golden casket.

Should you visit St Peters Monastery, dress modestly which means chest, arms and legs must be covered. You will probably only be given access to one or two rooms so best not to assume that you’ll be able to lose yourself in what is a sizeable site.

The dates for the construction of the original monastery are contemporaneous with the dates of construction of the Byzantine monasteries at Meteora. We discuss in that post some of the features of the Byzantine monasteries of the period, including their external and internal architecture, location and decoration of the Katholikon, important relics and artwork, and monastery life in general. The Meteora monasteries and St Peters Monastery have much in common and given much freer access is made available at Meteora, a review of the post may add insight into the monastery at Cetinje.

The Contribution of the Crnojevic Printing Press to the Culture of Cetinje

A mural of the historic Crnojevic Printing Press in Cetinje on the window of an older shop
Mural tribute to the Crnojevic Printing Press in Cetinje

There is general agreement that the Crnojevic printing press originated in Venice but agreement has not been reached on who brought it to Cetinje and when. Some ascribe the importation of the press to Ivan the Black between 1476 and 1478, while a competing explanation is that the press was imported by Ivan’s son Djuradj following his building of the monastery at Cetinje. However, there is consensus that the printing house in Cetinje was established within the monastery and after retreating from Zabljak (Skadar) following Montenegro’s fall to the Ottomans, Djuradj used the press circa 1494 to ensure the preservation of Cetinje’s culture in the Cyrillic script.

The Place of the Castle Church in the History of Cetinje

The Castle Church in Cetinje built on the foundations of Ivan Crnojevic’s 1484 medieval monastery
The historic Castle Church in Cetinje

The Castle Church was built in 1890 on the foundations of Ivan Crnojevic’s 1484 medieval monastery. The church contains Ivan’s remains, as well as those of King Nikola and Queen Milena, who authorised the church’s construction. Nicholas ascended the throne in 1860 and is remembered for his defence of Montenegro against the Ottomans, for exposing Montenegro to western customs, and leading Montenegro to sovereignty.

The Role of the Vlaska Church (1450) in the History of Cetinje

The historic Vlaska Church in Cetinje which was associated with 16th Century battles with the Turks

The plaque in front of the church reads,

“The Vlaska Church was built around 1450 by shepherds (vlasi) at the site of a large Necropolis – a Christian graveyard with old tombstones. The church has been extended and reconstructed several times. The present architectural forms – a nicely built one nave church with a bell-tower of-the, spinning wheel type -originate from the time of the last comprehensive renovation carried out in 1564. Two old tombstones in front of the church, under which are buried, according to tradition, the, famous. Montenegrin hero Bajo Pivljanin and his wife, date back to the 14th century. The high esteem in which the Montenegrins held this holy church, dedicated to the birth of the virgin Mary, is testified to by the fence of its courtyard made out of 1544 barrels taken from the Turks in the wars of 1555 and 1876-1878…”

There are 1544 rifle barrels in the fence of the Vlaska Church in Cetinje
The barrel fence of the Vlaska Church in Cetinje

The Commercial Sights of Cetinje

Immediately adjacent to the historical sector are the commercial buildings. These buildings are interesting because of their original style. Some of the commercial buildings have had their facades restored or painted by government or owners in an attempt to improve presentation and street appeal. This is particularly the case if the buildings are on the main corridors leading towards the city centre. You can look for eastern European influences as you make your way through the area.

The Residential Sights of Cetinje

The interesting residential precinct is only a few streets back from the city centre. A wander through the streets identifies authentic home life and best reflects national diversity and ethnicity. Rapid urban development in the nineteenth century resulted in the typical residential home that consisted of two floors, a functional attic and a garden. The preservation of these relatively old homes in urban blocks is the signature of Cetinje’s urban and architectural heritage.

The Physical Sights Surrounding Cetinje

Cetinje is surrounded by limestone due to its position within the Dinaric karst zone
Cetinje is enveloped by the sights dominated by the limestone of the karst landscape

These rocks are typically observed by anyone who has visited ‘limestone caves’, the limestone being susceptible to reshaping by groundwater which carries weak carbonic acid. The acid reacts with the carbonate. As a result, Cetinje also has a cave system, the Lipa Cave, which is only about 6km SE of Cetinje (off the M2.3 highway). The formation of the cave was largely encouraged by faulting that resulted from the crust being compressed. Springs were also produced, common in karst landscapes, and the same fault that promoted the cave system at Lipa also channels the water from the springs in the region to the Crnojevica River (see Skadar Lake)

Our Thoughts on the History and Culture of Cetinje

Cetinje is an elegant city with an old-world persona. Cetinje’s sights in the forms of historical buildings, parks, museums, palaces and former embassies can be seen in a day even if you visit the museums. However, it is a familiarity with the appealing historical and cultural sights of the small, elegant city of Cetinje that makes a visit particularly worthwhile.