Dubrovnik Old Town – Croatia’s Star Destination

FULLY UPDATED ON 14/08/2021

Please Note: All information in this post is pre-pandemic. Do review and follow relevant travel advisories before finalising any plans. Find entry regulations for the Republic of Croatia here.


Dubrovnik is beautiful.

That’s evident from the moment you step over the drawbridge across the (now dry) moat and through the Pile gate – watched over by a benevolent Saint Blaise – onto the gleaming promenade: the Stradun. It’s 16th century limestone paving worn so smooth, it could be mistaken for marble.

Along the length of the main thoroughfare – Stradun – that was once a water channel bisecting mainland Dubrovnik from the Roman island of Ragusium, an eclectic array of religious structures ranging from the Baroque to the Neoclassical, vie for attention with bustling, touristy cafes.

An orderly grid of narrow alleys tightly packed with three storey stone buildings slopes down towards the Adriatic in one direction and climbs steeply up the hillside on the other. Forming a most picturesque cluster of terracotta roofs that makes for breathtaking panoramas from high ground.

Dubrovnik - View from Srd hill
Dubrovnik: Birds eye view
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Stradun after dark
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The church of Saint Blaise. The Rector’s palace on the left was closed for restoration. At the far end is the Roman Catholic Assumption Cathedral

But the beauty feels strangely unreal.

The onus of catapulting this once obscure Dalmatian port onto the world tourist map, and in the process, transforming its character and demographics, lies fully with the location scouts for Star Wars and Game of Thrones.

With more than 80% of its residential buildings converted to tourist rentals and with just about 300 permanent residents within the walls, it now has the feel of a museum rather than a living city. Almost like a movie set awaiting a call to action. Nearly every single business (within the Old Town walls) caters to visitors.

So is Dubrovnik worth going to?


Aerial view of Dubrovnik, Old Town. Guide to the very best things to do in Dubrovnik Old Town: How to walk the walls, amazing views and restaurants and detailed travel tips.

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Yes! It is a UNESCO city and Croatia’s star destination for a reason.

And once you get over the feeling of having stepped into a fantasy set and learn to sidestep the cruise ship surge (even in early May!), there is a lot more to do than click selfies at key Game of Thrones locations.

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As local as it can get in Dubrovnik. Children gather in Luza square late evening. Sponza Palace is beyond and the arched opening at right leads to Ploce gate.

SCAR OF CONFLICT

The architecture – most reconstructed post a 1667 earthquake – reflects Dubrovnik’s importance as a trading port rivalling that of Venice and Genoa during its time as the Republic of Ragusa. It is also representative of the the wily diplomatic skills that helped thwart seiges and maintain relative autonomy for four whole centuries, even while it changed hands from Byzantine, to Ottoman, to Austro Hungarian and to the Venetian republic, before its eventual fall in the early nineteenth century to victorious French forces.

Nearly half of those historic buildings suffered serious damage when Dubrovnik’s capacity to withstand sieges was put to the test once again in 1991 – despite the fact that it was already designated a UNESCO Heritage site – by the (mostly Serbian) Yugoslav People’s Army, opposing Croatia’s secession from erstwhile Yugoslavia.

Dubrovnik prevailed yet again.

The physical scars of what is now termed the ‘Homeland War’, have been patched up to strict UNESCO guidelines. The loss to life is commemorated in a moving audio visual display within the Sponza Palace at one end of the Stradun, and in the museum up on Srd hill.

The sight of a young girl shedding quiet tears before a movie clip of the shelling is a startling reminder of that all too recent conflict, whose emotional scars are yet to be relegated to the dim realm of history.

Dubrovnik: War damage
A post war image of the Stradun by Romano Cagnoni (Photo credit: romanocagnoni.com/gallery/darkness/

 

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The restored Stradun today

 

Dubrovnik view
Restored rooftops and Lokrum island beyond.

WHAT TO DO IN DUBROVNIK

EXPLORE DUBROVNIK OLD TOWN

The Stradun is the axis along which you find Dubrovnik’s most important landmarks. Luza Square at one end, dominated by the church of St Blaise, is the core of the Old Town where its major events are celebrated. 

The Palace Sponza is significant for being one of few structures that survived the 1667 earthquake that destroyed Dubrovnik Old Town. Built in 1522 over a rain water collection spot – from which it gets its name – it has seen many incarnations from a mint and armoury to customs bonded warehouse. It now holds the city’s ancient archives and a memorial room for its war martyrs or ‘Dubrovnik Defenders’.
Hours: 9.00 -21.00 May-Oct; 10.00 – 15.00 Nov-April
Entrance: 25kn

The Franciscan monastery with its beautiful cloister and the adjacent pharmacy said to be the third oldest functioning pharmacy in the world, is a stand out among the many wonderful religious structures along this street.
Hours: 9.00-18.00 Apr-Oct; 9.00- 14.00 Nov-Mar
Price: Adults 40kn; Children: 20kn

If you like art, Vlaho Bukovac’s exquisite paintings in the Museum of Moden Art are unmissable. (I cannot imagine why I hadn’t heard of him or of Ivan Meštrović, another renowned Croatian sculptor/architect, or seen any of their work before!)
Hours: 9.00-20.00 (Closed Mondays); Entrance: 120kn (Pricey even if includes entry to a half dozen other museums)

Then there is the Judean history in the city’s lone synagogue, as poignant as the story of the Jews of Calcutta or the Armenians of Madras.
Hours: May – Oct: 9.00-21.00; Nov-April: 10.00 am – 3.00 pm
Entrance: 50kn

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From the terrace of the Museum of Modern Art

 

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We chance upon the fabulous “Lake Collection of Picasso Ceramics” at the Saint Clare Monastery.

 

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My favourite of over a hundred shots of these steep alleys

WALK THE OLD TOWN WALLS OF DUBROVNIK

Walking the length of the massive two kilometre long fortification encircling the entire city has got to be the single unmissable part of any Dubrovnik itinerary. The word spectacular feels inadequate to describe the views into the city and out across the ocean against its red tiled rooftops. 

Ponder the fact, as you survey the massive proportions of the walkways, that these walls were never breached. The French were invited in on condition that they respect Dubrovnik’s independence!

Tickets can be bought at either of the three entrances: near the Pile Gate, beside Fort St. Johns, and beside Fort St. Luke. We started at the Pile Gate entrance. You complete an anti-clockwise circuit around the walls wherever you choose to begin. It is best to start early or just before sunset. Don’t forget to carry a hat, sunscreen and water, there’s little shade along the top. 

Hours: 8:00 to 18:30 (Apr-May, Aug-Sep); 8:00 to 19:30 (Jun-Jul); 8:00 to 17:30 (Oct); 9:00 to 15:00 (Nov-Mar)
Tickets: Adults: 200kn; Children: 50kn. No foreign currency is accepted…only Kunas or credit cards. The ticket includes entrance to Lovrijenac fortress a key Game of Thrones site.

TAKE THE CABLE CAR UP TO MOUNT SRD

To truly appreciate the city and its renaissance planners, you need to go above and beyond the city walls. The 778 meter cable car ride up to mount Srd is an experience by itself. Drinking in the birds eye view from the panorama restaurant on top was a particular highlight.

The museum of the Croatian War of Independence housed in the 19th century Fort Imperial is also worth checking out if the country’s recent history is of interest to you.

Cable Car: Hours: 9.00-23.00 June-Aug. Varies other months. Confirm exact timings and prices here; Entrance Single: Adults: 90kn; Children 40kn; Entrance Return: Adults: 140kn; Children 60kn. Lower cable car station is about ten min. on foot from the Old Town. 
Museum: Hours: 8.00-21.00; Entrance: Adults: 30kn; Children below 12: Free

PICNIC ON BANJE BEACH 

Another highlight was our late picnic on the rocks bordering a deserted Banje beach (just beyond the Ploce gate at the far end of the Stradun), watching darkness descend over that magical skyline in utter, unexpected silence, save for the rhythmic lap of waves at our feet.

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View from the wall

 

Dubrovnik cable car
Panorama from Srd hill accessed by cable car or by foot. It is possible to drive up as well.

 

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Lovrijenac fort viewed from Srd hill.

 

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View from our picnic spot on our final evening.

BEST DAY-TRIPS FROM DUBROVNIK

Beach buffs can hop across on a ferry to Lokrum, the little islet just off the coast. The ferry route to Lokrum (Portoc Bay) is currently served by Lokrum – Grad Dubrovnik.

Spend a day in Cavtat. 

Ston is another great town to visit for its seafood, especially snail. It is easily included enroute to Split. 

Or take the ferry over to Korcula. We ditch our plans to visit Korcula because the logistics are complicated and also because we, in our slow(er) travel mode, are too lazy to make the effort.

A MONTENEGRO DETOUR

View of the bay over the rooftops of Kotor from halfway to St. John's fortress.

We do, however, cross the border to spend a night in Kotor. An easy detour that is somewhat marred by bad weather but is still an enchanting teaser for a future visit to Montenegro*.

Best to drive over (1.5hrs) or take the bus (2.5hrs). We used a private taxi transfer organised by our landlady.

DUBROVNIK TRAVEL TIPS

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GETTING TO DUBROVNIK

By Flight from most international destinations and the capital, Zagreb, to Zračna luka Dubrovnik

By ferry from Southern Italy (Bari) and some of the outlying islands like Korccula and Hvar and even Split.

Dubrovnik’s Port is in the Gruz neighbourhood about 2.5km from the Old Town. Jadrolinija, Krilo & TPLine are the main domestic ferry companies.

By Road –

Car and Bus from Montenegro (1 1/2 hrs from Kotor), Bosnia Herzgovinia and Split (3 1/2 hours). 

It is easy to pick up bus tickets from the bus station (2km outside town) just before your journey. Some of the journeys can be booked in advance online at GetByBus or BusRadar.

Note: Driving to or from Split will involve briefly passing through Bosnian territoty at Neum so you might need to show your passport at the border. Entry requirements for Croatia are valid for transit through Neum. See Visa section below.

ENTRY VISAS

Croatia is a member of the EU but not (yet) a Schengen Member State. All citizens of EU member states and American, Canadian, British, New Zealand and Australian citizens can travel to Croatia without a visa for a 90 day stay.

Holders of dual or multiple entry Schengen documents, as well as national visas and residence permits of Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Romania do not require an additional visa for Croatia. If not you need to apply for a Croatian visa prior to arrival.

Holding a valid US visa wasn’t enough although it worked for our transit through Germany. (Remember Lufthansa or British Airways will not let you board if you do not hold valid transit papers.)

*Indian citizens considering a visit to Montenegro from Croatia need to apply for separate Montenegro visas unless you hold valid US visas.

Bosnia Herzegovina, on the other hand, does not recognise US papers (for Indians), but will allow short stays on multiple-entry Croatian visas. The embassy took its own sweet time to respond to my query, or we would have fitted in a night in Mostar enroute to Split.

Got your head spinning? It’s a wonder I travel at all with my Indian passport woes!

GETTING AROUND DUBROVNIK

Taxis are plentiful for transfers and for day-trips. Ubers are available from June – October. Ferries are another common means of transport if visiting outlying islands. Schedules vary based on seasons. Check links above.

BEST TIME TO VISIT DUBROVNIK

Spring – between April to May – and September & October are the best times with the summer crowds thinning out and wait times at border crossings reduced.

🆕 Want to know the least crowded time to visit? Here’s an App. that predicts the number of visitors in the Old Town on any given day!

WHERE TO STAY

Considering almost all of the buildings in the Old Town have been repurposed exclusively for tourists, there is no dearth of exceptional private accommodation within the walls and just outside.

We were hosted by Airbnb in a lovely apartment that we loved for the extra space it provided for our four night stay and for its location just off the Stradun. If you haven’t signed up on Airbnb yet, use my referral link to get more than ₹1000 off on your first stay.

If you prefer full service hotels St. Joseph’s is one of few within the walls housed in a 16th century building.

Hotel Excelsior and Villa Dubrovnik are the plushest hotels located close to the Old Town outside the Ploce gate. They offer shuttles to the Old Town.

CHECK FOR MORE OPTIONS TO FIT YOUR BUDGET HERE

Be aware that due to the sloping nature of Dubrovnik’s geography (Old Town) properties further north of the main street – Stradun – will require climbing steep steps. Also, few properties within the Old Town will have elevators.

WHERE TO EAT

There is no shortage of fresh seafood in Dubrovnik. Our food highlights are, strangely, both vegetarian: a vegan starter named Twister (meatballs made of eggplant and rice served with zucchini spaghetti and date sauce!) in Nishta, around the corner from our apartment, and a pricier, pizza-like truffle and burrata in Gil’s, just off the Stradun.

Other great meals are at Pronto (seafood) and Azur serving fusion food. Combine the latter with sunset drinks at the cliffside Buza bar…a must do. As is the Panorama Restaurant up on mount Srd for the views. Tables with a view close to the railings will require advance booking.


Disclaimer: Our stay in Dubrovnik was hosted by Airbnb.


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Madhu is an Interior designer turned travel blogger on a long sabbatical to explore the world. When not crafting stories on The Urge To Wander, she's probably Tweeting @theurgetowander or sharing special moments on instagram.com/theurgetowander

49 thoughts on “Dubrovnik Old Town – Croatia’s Star Destination

  1. Thank you for posting the after war photos, Madhu. I think you made a good choice by coming in May. This summer the crowds were impossible to manage. Beautifully written and illustrated. Thank you!

  2. Dubrovnik has always been the biggest pull for me to visit Croatia – I am not at all surprised that it has been taken over by tourism but it still looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous in your photos. The deliberate bombardment by the Yugoslav People’s Army created a major international outcry; I read that they reneged on an earlier promise not to shell the old town. Thank goodness the World Heritage Site was painstakingly restored to its former condition!

  3. Fabulous post and pictures, Madhu! My parents went to Croatia 2 years ago and they sang praises of Dubrovnik. Do you know when is their off-peak season? And by the way, I’m probably one of the very few travel writers/bloggers who have not seen a single episode of Games of Throne 🙂

  4. You even captured the waning (waxing?) moon, and the Lode Star, in your photograph,”The Stradun After Dark!” The best image………I now want to visit Montenegro Madhu…..

  5. As always, the combination of your words and pictures are inspirational. Another location added to my places to visit before I die or am to old to move under my own steam.

  6. Fabulous pictures! A friend recently sent me door pictures from Croatia! They looked so vibrant!
    Love the views from the top, the cobbled alleys and the architecture of the houses! 🙂 Thanks for sharing Madhu! 🙂

  7. Gorgeous post Madhu! I admit I was astounded to learn that there are so few permanent residents and the town has been taken over by tourism. I think that is a high price to pay as you loose so much cultural heritage. I still would love to see it. Gorgeous photos!

  8. A fascinating journey and through your narrative I felt as though I was walking through time. The night photographs are beautiful, the shine on those centuries old lime stone walkways is amazing, as is the architecture. Your images show off the beauty of Croatia Madhu!

  9. Fabulous account on Dubrovnik, Madhu! I felt like reading an article straight out of a National Geographic Traveler or Condé Nast Traveler. As much as we want a place to be as ‘authentic’ as possible, there is a reason why places like Dubrovnik is packed with visitors, driving the locals away to nearby cities or villages where living cost is cheaper. It looks like you couldn’t ask for a better weather when you were there. Marvelous photos!

  10. You are so right that Dubrovnik feels almost fake, almost Disney-esque, almost not a real living city at all, and YET it is worth every minute one spends in it! We simply marveled at its beauty and history and quaintness and just ignored the fact that we were timing our walks to avoid the cruise ship hordes. (As an aside, we loved Nishta! I’m a vegetarian, but my daughter is not, and she loved it as much as I did.)

    1. It is picture perfect Niranjan. We came across many roof top views across Croatia, but nothing else came quite as close to these iconic views. Thanks for stopping by:)

  11. I get just as much enjoyment out of your reports as I do out of National Geographic, Wonderful pictures and descriptions. We feel like we are walking the streets with you.

    1. Aww, what a lovely compliment Ian! Glad you enjoyed this virtual journey with me. Thank you very much for your company 🙂

    1. The architecture is beautiful, but Croatia is more about stunning panoramas Sha. The pristine coastline coupled with medieval cities against mountain backdrops make for some major visual spectacles.

      1. I see…shall have to make sure I get there to have a look around then…thanks for the photos 🙂

  12. Wonderful photos Madhu, especially the one of the steep alley – fabulous shot! I think Dubrovnik just made our endless list, even if it is a museum city. It looks thoroughly captivating.
    Alison

    1. Ha, that endless list! Just to stretch it a bit more, Zadar was our favourite of the Dalmatian cities we visited, although it was far less striking visually. Post coming up…hopefully soon 🙂 Thank you very much for your visit and lovely comment Alison.

  13. Your photos are beautiful as always, Madhu, but I especially love the night shots. We were there so many years ago (pre-war) and so a much quieter place. Cruise ships. Sacrilege! I can still see the glint of sunlight on the Stradun and feel the heat on those city walls if I close my eyes. 🙂

    1. Thanks muchly dear Jo. I imagine there were more local people as well. Pre-war is about the time I visited London! 🙂

  14. The stradun after dark was my fav of the pics – but all so nice and five a feel for this place – would love to visit Croatia some year – hope u have a nice well m- peace

    1. The entire country is visually stunning Sue and considerably cheaper than the rest of Europe.Hope you get there soon 🙂

  15. I love the views over the rooftops and the steep alley image is fabulous. I don’t think I’d want to climb up or go down either though. It seems a pity that hardly any locals live there, the world has gone crazy hasn’t it? How does Croatia rank in all the places you’ve been Madhu?

    1. That alley shot is my favourite too Gilly. Our apartment was thankfully located closer to the flat part of town. But you should know that none of the rentals within the walls have elevators, so if you do go, you will need to confirm your apartment is housed in a lower floor.

      Croatia – even without having visited the Istrian coast – ranks very high on visual appeal. But as a package, I much preferred the Basque region in Europe and find more inspiration (as a blogger) in gritty Asian destinations! Myanmar and even just four days in our dirty, smoggy capital have each inspired over half a dozen posts while I struggle to churn out one for each of these gorgeous cities! 🙂

  16. We had a day in Dubrovnik via cruise ship. A spectacular place – but your stay was better because yours was longer … plus you’ve captured it so well in this post. Love the night pics … after all, I didn’t get to see that.

    1. Thank you dear Frank! Staying the night does gives one a better perspective of a place than rushing in and out on a daytrip. But it also involves more juggling of time and logistics as opposed to the freedom of a cruise/tour.

      1. We governed out time there, but it was still too short … .then again, that’s a downside of cruising … Nonetheless, we’re glad to visit this gem.

  17. What a delight to revisit Dubrovnik through your eyes and your lens: those terra cotta roofs and the blue sea. I particularly love the night time shot of the Stradun and the perfect shot of the steep alley. You also brought back lovely memories of a ramble round Lokrum. Can I ask how much you plan before you visit a place, and how much you just nose out once you arrive? I’m trying to develop the perfect strategy for a four-day stay in a totally unknown place, so I don’t leave regretting what I miss!

    1. Thank you Meg. Glad this brought back fond memories.

      Normally, I plan down to the minutest detail! This trip was unplanned and I hastily put together an itinerary based on our daughter’s from a few years earlier. Looking back we feel we could have fitted in a lot more than we did in our 13 days in Croatia – an average tourist itinerary covers the entire Balkan region in less time – but we are beginning to enjoy the slower pace, with a lot more eating and drinking and lingering 🙂

      1. Thanks. I’m finding summer’s good. I can be out for a few hours early, return for breakfast, go out again and then doze before a third adventure. I packed. A heap into four days in Gdańsk, but still have a list a mile long of things I wish I’d done. In Dubrovnik I was a bit away from the city centre and that used up valuable time.

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