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