'Game of Thrones' gets the love in Dubrovnik

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A crowd of tourists just outside Dubrovnik's Old Town.
A crowd of tourists just outside Dubrovnik's Old Town. Photo Credit: Christina Jelski

DUBROVNIK, Croatia -- "This tour won't be a Game of Thrones tour," our guide, Tanja Bosnic, informed us before we entered the gates of Dubrovnik's Old Town. "Just wanted to let you know, in case that was what you were expecting."

While said partly in jest, the disclaimer was apparently a necessary one, as tours centered around the filming locations of the hit HBO television series have proven incredibly popular in recent years. Bosnic has learned that it's better to be upfront than risk disappointing an excited fan. 

A tourist takes a photo while sitting on an Iron Throne replica at a souvenir shop in Dubrovnik's Old Town.
A tourist takes a photo while sitting on an Iron Throne replica at a souvenir shop in Dubrovnik's Old Town. Photo Credit: Christina Jelski

I was touring the medieval city as part of a press trip with Adriatic Luxury Hotels, which operates a dozen high-end hotels and villas throughout the city. The group's Hotel Dubrovnik Palace has likewise benefited from the Game of Thrones halo effect, with the property gaining media buzz after serving as home base for the cast during filming of the series' eighth and final season in 2017.

The show has left an indelible mark on Dubrovnik's tourism landscape as a whole, with many crediting Dubrovnik's recent tourism boom in part to Game of Thrones' widespread appeal. 

Indeed, Game of Thrones-themed souvenirs are ubiquitous throughout Dubrovnik's Old Town, and at one particularly enterprising souvenir shop, a replica of the Iron Throne is marketed to great effect as a free photo op with any purchase. Right next door, one can indulge at the Game of Cones ice cream shop. Several streets down, a life-size statue of Game of Thrones character Tyrion Lannister stands watch by the door of a novelty shop.

Dubrovnik's streets feel a little less crowded after 5 p.m., when cruise ship passengers head back to their ships.
Dubrovnik's streets feel a little less crowded after 5 p.m., when cruise ship passengers head back to their ships. Photo Credit: Christina Jelski

Iconic Old Town destinations are also commonly referred to by their fictional Game of Thrones counterparts. For example, Fort Lovrijenac -- a Dubrovnik citadel visible from the northern end of Old Town -- has become so synonymous with the series that it's been nicknamed the "King's Landing Fort," according to Bosnic.

With Dubrovnik seeing visitor numbers surge past the 4 million mark last year and overtourism an increasing concern, I wondered if the city's locals were at all critical of the sudden rise in Game of Thones-related travel.

Bosnic insisted, however, that most locals embrace the Game of Thrones connection, in part because many were hired and brought on set to serve as background actors during the show's filming. 

Instead, she said, it's the big cruise ships that have borne the brunt of the blame.

Zrinka Marinovic, public relations manager for Adriatic Luxury Hotels, agreed, while lauding that Dubrovnik Mayor Mato Frankovic has cracked down on the cruise industry with new regulatory efforts. Larger ships are no longer to dock directly in the historic city center, and just up to two cruise ships are allowed to dock in Dubrovnik per day.

Marinovic views the moves as a step in the right direction.

Tourists crowd around to snap a photo of Fort Lovrijenac, a filming location featured frequently on "Game of Thrones."
Tourists crowd around to snap a photo of Fort Lovrijenac, a filming location featured frequently on "Game of Thrones." Photo Credit: Christina Jelski

"The large cruise ships have certainly been a big part the problem," she said, adding that the influx of ships -- whose travelers are known for spending less than other visitors -- have altered Old Town's retail landscape, resulting in an inordinate number of shops catering to cruise customers and selling only "cheap souvenirs, ice cream and water."

Despite the recent changes, Old Town can still become unbearably crowded from morning until the early evening, when the cruise passengers head back to their ships. Marinovic recommended opting for accommodations outside of Old Town's walls, preferably at a hotel with beach access.

"It's so important to choose quality accommodations in Dubrovnik," she explained. "Because you don't want be in Old Town in the morning, or arrive there too early. Instead, it's better to spend your morning at your hotel, go for a swim and wait until 5 p.m. or so to come into Old Town, when the cruise ship passengers have left for the day. You can really have a much better time that way."

It was sage advice. After a morning and afternoon spent at Adriatic Luxury Hotel's recently renovated Hotel Bellevue, we met our tour guide outside Old Town's city gate at 5:30 p.m., just as crowds within Old Town's narrow, winding streets began to thin. We were able to cover plenty of ground, and when dusk fell, our tour concluded at a prime spot overlooking the sea and Fort Lovrijenac. 

As the sun set behind the fort, we joined a throng of people jostling to snap the perfect selfie in front of the landmark. 

Cruise ship passengers or not, it was clear that Dubrovnik tourism isn't likely to be on the downswing anytime soon.

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