The ancient city of Dubrovnik may seem like something out of Game of Thrones, perhaps because some of the most pivotal scenes from the series have been filmed there, but the well-preserved medieval city has much to offer anyone interested in actual history and architecture.
The history of the city, once the independent Republic of Ragusa, is inexorably tied to the sea and its location between the great powers of Europe, most significantly the Republic of Venice and the Ottoman Empire. For centuries, its fortified walls allowed the city to repel seaborne invaders. Approaching from the south, where the airport lies, those walls are on spectacular display. The sea beyond the cliffs to your left, a wall of mountains to your right. You reach a turn and there is Dubrovnik, jutting out into impossibly pristine blue waters, those enduring walls a reminder of past dangers.
Today, sparkling Dubrovnik masks its past suffering, whether ancient sieges, a devastating earthquake in 1667 that destroyed most of its structures or the brutal bombardment by Serbian forces in the Yugoslavian wars of the 1990s. As a well-preserved jewel, not to mention magnet for cruise ships, the city can be prone to a barrage of visitors, especially in summer. But its beauty makes looking past the hordes easy enough.
What is there to see in Dubrovnik, you may ask? First and foremost, you see the city itself. The old town is surrounded by thick towering medieval walls, while the narrow streets reveal restaurants and bars seemingly tucked in every nook. The car-free old town is an explorer’s delight, though much of it is up and down steps and the concept of a street is more like a cobblestone pathway or stairway. Bring sneakers for your exploration.
A tour of the City Walls (100hrk, about $16) takes you in a loop above and around the city. This 6,000 foot structure formed the defenses for ancient Dubrovnik and is replete with a fort, cannons and towers, including the unusual Minčeta Tower, which angles down to its base rather than touching it at a right angle. The views of the old town and the Adriatic beyond are simply spectacular. Be warned, you can expect about 90 minutes to two hours of moderate exercise and a good deal of climbing up steep, narrow steps. Bring plenty of water and either a hat or strong sunscreen. Cafes along the wall provide a respite but the sun can be quite relentless. You have a choice of three entrance points with the busiest point being near the Pile Gate; however this is also the most logical entry.
The walls integrate a number of forts, including the Fort of St. John overlooking the Old Port. This structure holds the Maritime Museum as well as an Aquarium. The port itself serves as home to numerous sightseeing boats so it’s worth a peek but isn’t really a destination in itself. Circle around and duck through the Ploče Gate, the city’s other ancient portico, for a sterling view of the harbor and the fort without the tour boat hawkers.
The Game of Thrones Tour of Dubrovnik (180hrk) meets every day at 12:15pm and 5pm at the Big Fountain of Onofrio just inside the Pile Gate. Onofrio, a Neapolitan who designed the city’s water supply, conceived the fountain in the 15th century but its original second story was destroyed in the earthquake. The two hour Game of Thrones Tour takes in various sights from the show from the Pile Gate itself to Lovrijenac Fort, which overlooks the ancient center from a towering bluff outside the gates. From here you can almost envision the Battle for Westeros unfolding in the harbor below.
Back inside the walls, stop at the Luža, or Square of the Loggia, where the Orlando Column remains the city’s meeting point for groups of friends and visitors alike. Towering above is a Clock Tower dating back to the 15th century and the neighboring Loggia of the Bell, its four bells ringing whenever the city was threatened by invaders. Nearby, the Rector’s Palace no longer administers the government affairs of the city, instead housing a historical museum which traces the history of the city through artifacts and paintings.
Heading down the Stradun (also known as Placa), you will pass numerous cafes and shops. The street dates back to 13th century when it was a marsh separating the island of Ragusa from the mainland. Returning to the western end in the direction of the Pile Gate, duck off to the right to visit the Franciscan Monastery. Like many buildings in the city, most of it was rebuilt after the 1667 earthquake. Stepping inside, you leave the tourist masses behind and enter a cool courtyard with a fountain dating back to the 15th century. From there, explore the pharmacy with its decorative displays and the Franciscan Museum with its extensive collection of religious art.
Eating & Drinking
Dubrovnik offers numerous choices for diners from pizza shops and casual konobas (taverns serving food) to very high end dining with a view. The cuisine of Dalmatia is heavily oriented towards the sea, though seafood can be extremely expensive. The region’s wines run the gamut from Posip, a light, often simple white wine from Korcula, to bold, tannic Plavac Mali, a relative of Zinfandel. Fans of reds should look for Dingač, which is the country’s highest quality red, produced in a tiny area high on the Peljesac Peninsula.
Proto (Široka 1, website) specializes in fish recipes from old Croatian fishermen and the restaurant certainly delivered our best meal in Dalmatia. While seafood like the famous Ston oysters and mussels from the Adriatic is fresh and impeccable, don’t miss the snails cooked in Dingač wine sauce with garlic, butter and brandy. The extensive Croatian winelist features plenty of inexpensive bottles from around the country.
Lucin Kantun (Od Sigurate bb) is a casual konoba offering traditional dishes at wallet-friendly prices. The alley setting proves a cooling respite from the heat of the day while the tapas-style small plates offer plenty of variety. Best for lunch.
Nautika (Brsalje 3, website) provides much more of a splurge with a view that cannot be matched. Perched outside the city walls, this ultra-romantic restaurant offers unobstructed views of the walls, Adriatic and Lovrijenac Fort. Just be prepared to spend big for the view – and remember to reserve an outdoor table on the lower terrace. The upper terrace offers a comparatively less interesting view.
For an unparalleled view of the Adriatic in a fun/tacky environment, don’t miss Buza Bar (Crijevićeva ulica 9, look for the Cold Drinks sign and duck through the wall). Sure the drinks aren’t cheap and you’ll have to jostle for a good seat, but the cheeky staff and vista more than make up for it. If you’re lucky, some intrepid souls will jump off the cliffs in front of you.
For Croatian wine, La Bodega (Lucarica 1) in a renovated building on Stradun across from Orlando’s column offers dozens by the glass and outdoor views of the Luža. For a more upscale wine destination, duck into Razonoda (Od Puca 1, website), a new wine bar in the swank Pucic Palace, a boutique hotel that occupies a 17th century building in the center of the city. The winelist includes 70 Croatian wines by the glass paired with venison sausage and cheeses from the island of Pag. High end touches are everywhere including coffee made in the Chemex system and beer from Croatia’s first craft brewery, San Servolo.
Getting There: Dubrovnik is served by an international airport thirty minutes to the south of the city. Take an Atlas or Elite bus to the city for about €5 one-way. Both will drop you off at Pile Gate or the main bus station. A taxi will cost around €30.
Getting Around: The old city is walled off and pedestrian only so if you are staying inside the city walls, you will have to walk from one of the two entry gates. The main sights are easily reached on foot and it’s unlikely you will need to take any transportation within the city itself.
When to Visit: Summer can be hot and also brings the most visitors. Spring and fall are ideal times to explore the city, relatively crowd free.
Currency: Koruna (hrk), some prices such as hotel rates will also be quoted in Euro but you can pay in local currency
Language: Croatian. English is widely spoken in Croatia
Tipping: Leave some change or round-up as appropriate. Up to 10% in upscale restaurants. Round-up taxi fares
Visas: Americans do not need a visa to visit Croatia for less than 90 days