My parents are currently living it up in Dubrovnik exactly two years after I visited the city to rapturous acclaim. Every day for the next week I will be reminded of the glorious week I spent there courtesy of my Facebook memories so I thought it was time to put pen to paper – so to speak – and write about this beautiful city.
There are two types of tourists currently flocking to Dubrovnik to enjoy its undoubted charms. The first group numbers discerning travellers who appreciate the history, culture, architecture and location of the so-called ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’. The second, newer, group are fans of TV’s fantasy drama sensation Game of Thrones for whom the city doubles as King’s Landing, the capital of Westeros – Dubrovnik has been used as a location for the series since 2011. Both groups can happily discover the beauties of this spellbinding spot quite independently of the other – but if you’re a discerning traveller and a fan of GOT, you’ve got double the number of reasons to make Dubrovnik your next travel destination.
Dubrovnik has enjoyed considerable popularity as a tourist attraction since the mid-nineteenth century. That reputation took somewhat of a dent in the early 1990s as Croatia was emerging as an independent nation from the former Yugoslavia, when indelible images of the old city being bombarded by Serbian and Montenegrin forces shocked the world. A quarter of a century on Dubrovnik, along with Croatia in general, is now firmly back as a travel favourite with tourism figures climbing every year.
Dubrovnik has around 1,000,000 visitors annually and a high proportion of those travellers arrive by cruise ship. Sensibly, the liners dock in nearby Gruz Harbour, not the old port, but you can expect a heavy influx of visitors into the old city virtually every day in the summer. When you consider that the city’s population is fewer than 45,000 you can imagine how busy it can get as tourists can double that on a daily basis. Aim for May or September if you wish to avoid the bigger crowds but still enjoy the buzz and the best of the Mediterranean weather.
One noticeable visual aspect of the old town – and you should absolutely stay here if you can – is the lack of uncontrolled external signage that creates such an unsightly assault on the eyes in many cities. In Dubrovnik each shop, restaurant or bar is announced through the simple expediency of regulation green shutters and a uniform sized lantern, decorated to the proprietor’s taste, hanging over the entrance. This minimalism is extended to direction signs to be found around the old city – burgundy coloured fabric banners are hung at the end of most streets listing the establishments to be found there. Other tourist hotspots blighted by out of control signage should definitely take note.
The automatic focus for any new traveller is the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site and a stunning labyrinth of narrow streets, Gothic, Baroque and Renaissance churches, palaces and fountains, not to mention the imposing 2 kilometre medieval wall surrounding it. A stroll around the battlements is the perfect orientation to commence any visit and provides stunning views over the port and orange tiled rooftops. The walls are up to 6 metres thick in places, and rise and fall as you negotiate your way around. A hostile army has never breached this defence since it was built in the 14th and 15th centuries. As you peer out from Minceta Tower, Fort Bokar and St John’s Fortress atop the walls you begin to appreciate why. As if the walls weren’t enough of a deterrent, there are also two imposing detached fortresses on either side – St Lawrence and Revelin – to further daunt any would-be aggressors.
After circumnavigating the walls, head over to the Stradun (also known as the Placa) the 300-metre thoroughfare that runs through the centre of the town connecting the western Pile Gate and the Ploce Gate in the east. Most explorations of the city end back at the Stradun where the limestone pavement, polished by over five hundred years of footsteps, shines like polished marble. Despite being small in size the traffic-free old town certainly packs plenty into its tidy circumference. At either end of the Stradun are two fountains built by Onofrio della Cava in the fifteenth century to provide fresh water for the townspeople. You’ll also find the Church of St Blaise (Dubrovnik’s patron saint) off the Stradun, as well as regular tourist photostops in Orlando’s Column, the impressive clock tower, and the former Customs House, Sponza Palace. Opposite the larger of the two fountains you’ll also spot the fourteenth century Franciscan Monastery which houses one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe, exquisite cloisters and one of the most beautiful courtyards you’ll ever see.
In the square at the eastern end of the Stradun the sightseeing continues with the Rector’s Palace, now a museum dedicated to the history of Dubrovnik. Museums feature large on any visitor’s Dubrovnik itinerary, and it must be said that the buildings the museums are housed within are worth the price of admission alone. It’s advisable to invest in a modestly priced Dubrovnik card that gives entry onto the walls as well as the Maritime, Natural History, Ethnographic and Rector’s Palace museums. 1, 3 or 7-day versions of the pass are available. Not included in the card, but essential ‘must-dos’, are trips up the cable car to Fort Imperial on Mount Srd that sits 400 metres above the old town, plus the War Photo Exhibition dedicated to photojournalism in recent and ongoing global conflicts. Both heavily feature the ‘Homeland War’ of 1991-95.
If the Stradun is one of the main magnets within the old city, the other is the old port where you can linger for hours drinking a coffee or a Spritz as you watch a variety of boats come and go. You’ll undoubtedly be assailed by reps trying to sell you trips on glass bottom boats – and to be fair you’d be hard pressed to find clearer waters anywhere – or you may even be tempted to sign up to a three-hour sea kayaking excursion if you’re feeling particularly energetic. One trip highly recommended to take from the port is the short fifteen-minute taxi-boat to the island of Lokrum that overlooks the harbour. Legend has it that Richard the Lionheart was shipwrecked here on his way back from the Crusades – nowadays you’ll find a botanical garden, Fort Royal Castle (built by Napoleon), a monastery and a Lazaret (a quarantine station for maritime travellers). You can also try a dip here in the island’s Dead Sea (a salt-filled lake linked to the open sea) – if you forget your swimming costume you can always seek out the nudist beach on the southeast of the island instead.
One of the more appealing aspects of a visit to Dubrovnik is there is little chance of running out of things to see or do. You can have an action packed two or three-day onslaught on the old town if you’re short of time but if you want to stay longer there’s plenty of other attractions. The entire Dalmatian coastline is studded with spectacular beaches, and you can reach quaint Dubrovnik Riviera towns such as Cavtat, Ston and Trsteno with ease. You can also opt for a day at sea, the most popular excursion being an island hopping jaunt to the Elafiti Islands comprising Kolopek, Sipan and Lokud. If you’re feeling in the least bit piratical, you can even undertake this cruise by galleon. Even further afield the more adventurous traveller can sign up for a number of one-day trips to adjacent countries – Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovina (where the parents are currently en-route to as I type) or a scoot down to Montenegro are easily doable in a day, as is Sarejevo if you set off early. Just remember you will need your passport.
But, really, there is no need to leave the old town if you don’t want to, and indeed, why should you? There’s a vast choice of cafes and bars, so if all you want to do is people watch and chill out, then it’s tailor-made for relaxation. For such a small area, every second building seems to contain a restaurant or a bar. Wander up the steep narrow streets off the Stradun and you’ll fall over an eatery every thirty paces, or so it seems. Naturally, Adriatic fish and shellfish feature heavily on the menu but meat eaters are also well catered for.
Living the high life is another of Dubrovnik’s undoubted attractions – it’s currently considerably less expensive to eat out and drink here than in many other popular European tourist destinations. Although a member of the EC (since 2013) Croatia is sticking to its own currency, the Kuna, for the present time and that’s definitely a bonus for holidaymakers.
Maybe, besides the medieval looking townscape and fortified forts and walls, this former reputation as a nest of intrigue is another reason why Game of Thrones was attracted to Dubrovnik as a location, where it’s remained on the shooting schedule through seasons two to five (Malta, who provided locations for King’s Landing in the first series of GOT, must be kicking itself). Apparently, despite the secrecy the producers wish to maintain around plotlines, the GOT sets aren’t always closed to the public in Dubrovnik, which makes for some very imaginative shooting in between the town’s daily business. Be prepared to see GOT aficionados re-enacting scenes from the series just before they excitedly post them to Instagram, and possibly scratch your head as they exclaim, ‘this is where the Purple Wedding was’ or ‘this is where the crowd threw dung at King Joffrey’. No matter if you don’t know Petyr Baelish from Richard the Lionheart or Tyrion Lannister from a capon, Dubrovnik has got the lot. GOT – Get Over There.