Elegant Dubrovnik is a city of beauty and power, all worn to a sheen by the footsteps of the million tourists who visit it every year. The highlights of this majestic city, known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, can be seen in a long weekend. I spent 3 days in Dubrovnik exploring its UNESCO-listed Old Town and stunning coastline.
It was dark when my plane touched down so I wasn’t expecting much of a view on my way into the city, but the sight of the illuminated city walls took my breath away. The sheer size of them is incredible. As someone who is eternally content in medieval old towns (and also a Game of Thrones fan), I knew this was going to be a good one. Even better when I awoke the following morning to the smell of the most delicious fresh bread filling the empty cobbled streets.
If you’re going to be travelling around the Balkan area, Dubrovnik is the perfect introduction. Immense and immaculate, it has an air of well-manicured beauty. Surrounded by wooded coastline, it’s long been a seaside resort for the well-heeled (and was one of the premier resorts of Yugoslavia). The Old Town is one of the most impressive medieval centres in Europe, even more so considering extensive damage during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s.
Dubrovnik is now synonymous with overtourism and crowding – I visit in September, with my elbows at the ready. But the crowds were not as bad as I expected (although it does seem eerily empty in the evening in comparison). As with Santorini, there’s talk of limiting the cruise ships in a bid to stem the tide of tourists. In the meantime, you can use Cruisemapper to check how many ships are due in.
As the locals have mostly moved out of the Old Town, it’s a bit lacking in atmosphere (and expensive) compared to some of Europe’s historic cities. But if you treat it as a city/beach break combo, it’s transformed – Dubrovnik is one of the best beach cities in the Mediterranean. It’s also a fantastic base for day trips. I reckon 3 or 4 days is perfect: just enough to get a taste of the area and enjoy its pleasures.
The real highlight – in my opinion – is the beauty of the surrounding coastline. Dubrovnik is Croatia’s most southerly city, and the capital of the Dalmatia region – a long, narrow stretch of land between the sea, Montenegro and Bosnia-Hercegovina. Don’t miss the opportunity to see the Old Town from the sea, and take in some of the neighbouring islands too.
A QUICK HISTORY LESSON
Originally a Greco-Roman settlement, Dubrovnik was a blend of Latin and Slav cultures for a long time. It came under Venetian rule from 1204-1358. Afterwards, it retained independence and became a city-state – the Ragusan Republic – and a major maritime superpower.
Most of the city you see today is the result of rebuilding after an earthquake in 1667. The walled town has streets of musky stone and green-shuttered windows; draped in greenery and cut in half by its main street, Stradun.
It all makes sense when you realise that most of the Old Town is built on what used to be an island. The island and the shoreline were separate settlements. Eventually, the channel was filled in and Stradun marks that line. A good tour guide will point out the difference in the architecture on either side.
The alleys leading down to Stradun are steep. It’s worth the trek up (either to the city walls – or taking the cable car – or both) because one of the best things about Dubrovnik is the view from above. Its handsome red-tiled roofs, jutting out into the sea. It’s from above that you get a real sense of Dubrovnik as a fortress supreme. Most of its most impressive medieval architecture dates from the 15th-16th century golden age when merchant money was flowing in. The Ragusan Republic existed in various forms until 1808, when French occupation was followed by Austrian.
Two names you’ll see everywhere are St Blaise, Orlando and Onofrio – who are these people?
Well, Onofrio della Cava was the architect of the Rector’s Palace as well as the fountain which bears his name and is a popular meeting place. St Blaise is the patron saint and protector of Dubrovnik, whose name is given to several churches and a huge festival in February. And Orlando was a 9th-century knight who saved the city from a Saracen attack.
FOOD IN DUBROVNIK
Dubrovnik is a great place to eat – if you’ve got loads of money. With so many cruise-ship passengers and day-trippers passing through, the Old Town is full of predictably average restaurants. Expect expensive seafood and pasta. Two well-regarded places to eat in the Old Town are Lady Pi Pi (there’s a statue that explains the unusual name) and Kopun. You can pick up some ingredients at Gruž Market, or the less touristy market near the port. Barba is a popular spot for craft beers and a Croatian take on fast food; the octopus burgers are less exciting than they sound but it’s at least central (if not particularly cheap). I preferred unassuming (but tasty) budget sandwich joint Buffet Škola.
Unfortunately, I can’t recommend taking a food tour in the city. I took one on my first night, hoping for an insight into Dalmatian food culture and a few hidden spots in the city for good grub. Sadly the food tours are really general and overpriced; more like a walking tour with a few bites to eat.
I won’t name the tour company I used, but I was still hungry at the end of the tour. Having talked to other travellers, it’s not a complaint limited to the one company. Save yourself the money; there are plenty of better value walking tours.
Where Dubrovnik does excel is in delightful bars. The most well-known amongst tourists is Buza Bar. Buža means ‘hole’ in the old tongue, and that’s how you access these bars (there are in fact two) – through a hole in the old city wall. Here you’ll find simple (though not cheap) bars with cold beers, good music, beautiful people and an amazing view. They’re well-signposted thanks to their popularity with tourists.
Another gem is Cave Bar More, which is out on the area of Lapad which is opposite the port and home to some of the best hotels. If that’s too far for you, there are a number of great wine bars in the Old Town. My favourite is the cosy D’Vino which offers a tasting flight of Croatian wine which is definitely the best value thing I found in Dubrovnik. D’Vino also organises tours to the region’s vineyards, which strike me as being the best tour option if you’re really into your food and wine.
DUBROVNIK’S MAIN HISTORIC SITES
- City Walls
- Rector’s Palace
- Lokrum Island
- Franciscan Monastery
- Sponza Palace
- Lovrijenac Fortress
- Onofrio’s Fountain
- Dominican Monastery
- Maritime Museum
- Dubrovnik Cathedral
Here are my recommendations for what to see and do with 3 days in Dubrovnik.
Day number one is for the classics; take in the best views of Dubrovnik from the city walls and Mount Srđ.
WALK THE CITY WALLS
Start with the City Walls, because it’s the highlight and also the best way to orientate yourself. Get up early because by 10am the tour groups (and hot sun) will have taken over.
There are three entrances; Inner Pile Gate, St Lucas Fortress, and St John’s Fortress. Tickets are 150HRK and include entrance to Lovrijenac Fortress (the Red Keep, for GoT fans).
It’s fascinating to see the city from above, you can see how it’s all patched together. Don’t forget the amazing panoramic views. If you get thirsty there are a couple of cafes and vendors along the wall selling coffee and freshly squeezed pomegranate and orange juice. A leisurely circuit is around one mile and takes roughly 2 hours.
WAR PHOTO LIMITED
War Photo Limited is an exhibition of war and conflict photojournalism. Although there’s a focus (and permanent exhibition), it also displays photos from conflicts around the world. This affecting museum was one of the highlights of my trip. It’s a great primer for the complicated history of the former Yugoslavia if – like me – you’re a bit confused about it all.
The old quarter or Dubrovnik these days is very manicured and well kept; restaurants are shiny and tidy with artful planters draped in alleyways and romantic string music and allegro menus. The photos on display at War Photo Ltd help put it all in context, particularly if you’re too young to remember the conflict. There are some incredible photos of the Seige of Dubrovnik in 1991-1992.
OLD PORT + LOKRUM ISLAND
Walk down to the Old Port (which you will have spied whilst walking the walls). There’s a Maritime Museum if that piques your interest. If not, hop straight on a boat to Lokrum Island. This is the island that you can see from the city walls; it’s really not far away. Regular boats make the trip from the Old Port throughout the day and it takes just 15 minutes, making it the easiest way to squeeze in an island trip.
Lokrum is a nature reserve and is home to a small salt-lake, a botanic garden, some peaceful beaches, and a Benedictine monastery (the gardens of Qarth in GoT), and lots of peacocks.
There are no vehicles of any kind, and no inhabitants – nobody is allowed to stay overnight on Lokrum thanks to a curse the monks put on the island as they were forced out by the French in the 1700s.
The final thing you shouldn’t miss on your first day is the take the Cable Car up Mount Srđ. This takes you up into the hills behind Dubrovnik, granting you the most incredible views for sunset.
There’s a restaurant up at the summit as well as the Museum of Contemporary History which gives information on the armed conflict of the 1990s.
The lower station is just behind the Old Town on the Ploce side.
Today is Game of Thrones Day. If you haven’t seen it – well, I’m not sure I believe you. Afterwards, take in some modern art and hit the beach.
GAME OF THRONES TOUR
As I’m sure you know, Dubrovnik is the principal location for the fictional city of King’s Landing – the capital of the Seven Kingdoms. Many of the locations you can visit on your own whilst walking around the city, but I recommend geeking out on a walking tour for insider gossip. Longer tours are available which take in the sites outside the city such as Trsteno Arboretum.
Standard tours last 2-3 hours . Included locations vary, but some of the filming locations in Dubrovnik are:
- Lovrijenac Fortress – The Red Keep
- Trsteno Arboretum – Palace Gardens
- Rector’s Palace – Spice King’s Palace
- Ethnographic Museum – Littlefinger’s Brothel
- Jesuit Steps and St Dominic Street – Cersei’s Walk of Atonement
- Minčeta Tower – House of the Undying (exterior)
- Lokrum Monastery – Palace of Qarth (here you can also find the Iron Throne)
Check out this site for a self-guided walking tour.
Banje is Dubrovnik’s main beach and is just a 5-minute walk (if that) from Ploce Gate. From here you can see the Old Port and the island of Lokrum whilst reclining with your gelato. It’s defined by its pebbly shore and the EastWest beach bar/club where the young and beautiful come for late afternoon sundowners and to pose on day beds. Watersports are available for the easily bored.
Whilst you’re in the area, you can nip into the Museum of Modern Art Dubrovnik (Momad) and Dubrovnik Contemporary Gallery.
Banje can get crowded though, being so close to the city. If you prefer a less busy beach, walk or take the bus (numbers 5 or 8) down the coast to Sveti Jakov. It’s an idyllic little cove further down the coast with a few sun loungers, a beach bar and a great view of the Old Town and Lokrum on the horizon. During the high season, there is a boat if you’d prefer to avoid the 160 or so steps down to the beach.
A third day in Dubrovnik gives you an opportunity to relax and see the surrounding area. I think the best thing about Dubrovnik, once you’ve got over the initial awe of the architecture, is it’s proximity to lots of little islands and bays that you can reach by boat. You’ve got a couple of options here:
- Sea Kayaking. Dubrovnik is one of the best places in the Mediterranean for sea kayaking.
- Cavtat. The charming coastal town Cavtat is one of the Dubrovnik area’s main resorts, think beaches and Renaissance villas. An upmarket day out.
- Elaphiti Islands. The little trio of inhabited islands closest to Dubrovnik (Koločep, Lopud and Šipan) are known as the Elaphiti Islands. You can take in all three on an organised cruise, or pick up one of the numerous small ferry boats leaving throughout the day from Dubrovnik port. For the best beach, head to Šunj on Lopud.
- Pelješac Peninsula. This beautiful peninsula to the north of Dubrovnik is famous for its vineyards and oysters and makes an excellent outing for foodies and wine buffs.
- Korcula. Increasingly known as Croatia’s wine island, Korčula also has a stunning walled old town – almost like a miniature Dubrovnik. It’s possible to day trip on an organised tour.
- Mljet. Croatia’s greenest and most beautiful island – one for the nature-lovers. It’s possible to day trip on an organised tour.
If you’d rather go further afield and take in another country then it’s also easy to organise day trip tours to Kotor in Montenegro and Mostar in Bosnia and Sarajevo.
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