Like something out of a picture-perfect fairy tale, the Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia, is a walled medieval city set right on the sea, with drawbridges (used in the 1991-92 war) and 18-ft-/6-m-high gates guarding the main entrances. The entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but it's also very much a living, breathing city.
From the crenulated ramparts and watchtowers, there are some perfect vistas of the medieval city, with its cluster of signature bright red clay roofs, and outwards to the Adriatic Sea, nearby islands and mainland mountains. Because the Old Town is blissfully free of motorized traffic, the main streets (Placa or Stradun), squares and alleyways are perfect for exploring the city on foot.
Most of the inhabitants of Dubrovnik live outside of the Old Town's city walls. However, inside those walls, several hundred residents still live in historic homes, and the streets and alleyways are crammed with tiny shops, bars, cafes and restaurants that spill out onto the street.
The serious damage from the Serbia-Croatian War in the early 1990s has been completely repaired. Locals are still keen to point out the shrapnel and bullet damage that has been retained as a reminder of those dark days, which still come up frequently in conversation.
Dubrovnik also offers a spectacular natural setting, which includes soaring rugged mountains running along the coast, dramatic cliffs plunging into the sea, tiny deep coves with pebble beaches, offshore islands and unbelievably crystal-clear waters. This draws visitors as much as the historical medieval town.
In addition, many of Dubrovnik's stunning luxury and boutique hotels are destinations in themselves, easily commanding some—or much—of guests' leisure time. Many visitors return year after year to luxuriate in their favorite hotel or resort.
Dubrovnik has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe because of its warm climate, seaside setting and its rich historic and cultural heritage. In addition, many Game of Thrones fans visit the city to see the original locations that were used in the popular TV show. Dubrovnik's increased popularity also means that the city is facing the challenge of accommodating more visitors, especially during the busy summer season. Therefore, the number of visitors in the old town at any one time is limited to 8,000 people in order to protect historic buildings.
Dubrovnik is a coastal town overlooked by a range of rugged mountains, the largest of which is Mount Srd. Just 6-9 mi/11-14 km across the mountains is Bosnia and Herzegovina, and 25 mi/40 km to the southeast is the border with Montenegro. Westward across the Adriatic Sea is mainland Italy.
The old walled city is seated on a small peninsula toward the southern end of the metropolitan area. Residential and tourism development extends primarily northwestward to the hilly peninsulas of Lapad and Babin Kuk, and along the flat mainland section called Gruz, where there are markets and the large port of Gruz. On the east and inland sides of the old walled city, there's the residential Ploce neighborhood. Most people live on the larger bifurcated peninsula (Lapad and Babin Kuk).
The main thoroughfare is the wide, marble-paved Stradun, which runs west to east from the Pile gate to the Ploce gate. Originally called Ragusa, this is where all the grand buildings, churches and squares, which occupy several streets in depth, are found. From there, the town consists of a series of steep stone climbing paths and steps, lined by buildings all the way up to the soaring city walls.
Just 15 minutes by boat from the town harbor, set just outside the stone walls, is the peaceful and undeveloped island of Lokrum, and 25 minutes northwest from the main port of Gruz are the beautiful Elaphite Islands.
Most of the island-studded coast of Croatia is generally referred to as the Dalmatian coast. Dalmatia runs from the island of Rab in the north down to the border of Montenegro. Dubrovnik is located in southern Dalmatia.
The history of Dubrovnik is complex and checkered. Roman and Illyrian (from ancient Albania) remains have been found in Dubrovnik, but the site was more permanently occupied in the seventh century. People from the Roman city of Epidaurum, fleeing the invading Avars, settled on the rocky outcrop south of a marshy channel—this eventually was filled in to become the Stradun, the city's present-day main thoroughfare. On this site, they built a fortified city called Ragusa or Ragusium.
Croatian people who settled on the slopes of nearby Mount Srd and on the northern side of the Stradun called their city Dubrovnik. Over the years, the populations mixed, and the city was unified.
This region was under the protection of the Byzantine Empire, but in the 11th century, Dubrovnik and most of Croatia fell under the dominion of Venice, the eastern Mediterranean's greatest maritime power. After 150 years of Venetian rule, Dubrovnik was transferred to the authority of the Hungaro-Croatian kings. As a republic, the city was left to run most of its own affairs, heavily paying off nearby countries in order to maintain its valued independence.
Over the centuries, Dubrovnik developed into a maritime trading power that stretched from England to Goa, India, with its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries. By the late 16th century, Dubrovnik had one of the leading fleets in the world.
In 1588, the city sent ships to join Spain's "Invincible Armada," which was defeated by the English fleet (led by Sir Francis Drake) off the French coast. Dubrovnik sailors also accompanied Columbus on his journeys west to the New World.
Dubrovnik's successful maritime trade and shipbuilding prowess lead to great wealth and cultural development that accumulated over the centuries. The Republic also made great strides in modern laws, medical services, water supply systems, culture and the arts. They established a pharmacy in 1317 (still open and one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe), a hospital, an orphanage and schools. They abolished slavery in 1418. The Stradun was paved in 1468.
In 1667, a huge earthquake hit Dubrovnik, greatly destroying most of the walled city's interior buildings and crippling the Republic. This, and a decline in maritime trade, lead to the gradual decline of the Republic.
In 1806, Napoleon's French forces defeated Austria and, as a result, Dalmatia was conceded to the French. Napoleon and his troops relocated to Dubrovnik, a strategic location. Tragically, invading armies destroyed the city and demolished the substantial Dubrovnik merchant marine fleet. In 1808, the French Marshall Marmont officially dissolved the Dubrovnik Republic. When Napoleon was defeated at Liepzig in 1813, the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Dubrovnik.
After World War I, Dubrovnik joined the Kingdom of Serbs, Croatians and Slovenes, which in 1929 became known as the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. In 1944, Joseph Broz Tito's Partisans liberated the city from German occupation.
In the aftermath of the war, Tito's dictatorship and particular brand of communist rule kept Yugoslavia united. His liberalized travel and economic policies provided Croats with a better quality of life than others in the Eastern Bloc. However, after Tito's death in 1980, and the fall of the Soviet Union a decade later, a power vacuum allowed ethnic and nationalistic disputes to take hold of the region.
Resisting President Slobodan Milosevic's attempts to keep a unified Yugoslavia with power centered in Belgrade, Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Serbs within Croatia, who had the support of the Yugoslav People's Army, then declared their own borders within the Croatian state. These actions precipitated an invasion by the Yugoslav army.
Dubrovnik was not part of the Serb-Croat disputed territory but fell under siege from October 1991 to August 1992. The bulk of Yugoslav forces attacking Dubrovnik were from neighboring Montenegro. On just one day (6 December 1991), 5,000 shells rained down on the city. During the siege, snipers shot people in the streets, 70% of the city's buildings were damaged, and 200 defenders and 100 civilians were killed. Residents were saved by the thick ancient city walls, behind which they lived during the siege.
Today, Dubrovnik has been restored to its former glory. Five-star hotels have emerged to pamper travelers, an airport serves the city, it's one of the world's most popular cruise ports, and the only visible war damage was left there intentionally to remind people of what was lost.
In July 2013, Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union, another major milestone for Croatia and its people. While its location at the far southern end of the long Croatian coast puts it very far from Europe, the Istrian Peninsula and other more northern coastal cities, Dubrovnik's natural setting and luxury hotels continue drawing international visitors.
The walled city of Dubrovnik's Old Town is about 1 mi/2 km in circumference and completely enclosed by ancient stone walls. Quite wonderfully, there is no motorized transport within it. Some sections are quite hilly, with steep stone stairs and cobblestone roads, so you'll need comfortable footwear for your explorations. Most of the main sites can be seen without negotiating the steps and steep alleyways leading off the main street. Ploce gate in the east allows access to the city without entrance steps.
Walking around the wall battlements will provide a good overview of the city's main sights, which are all within minutes of each other. However, if you're visiting in July and August, especially during the Summer Festival, be sure to get an early start because this is the busiest season. When the number of visitors in the Old Town goes above 6,000, longer queues should be expected to get into sights. If the number exceeds 8,000, access is denied by local authorities.
Perhaps the most enjoyable time in Dubrovnik is spent strolling through the alleyways peeking in the little shops, stopping in tiny bars and absorbing the medieval atmosphere of a walled city and its well-preserved architecture.
There are a few nightclubs, a sole hotel casino and a cinema, but most of the evening action is centered on the city's cafes and bars. Sometimes these establishments have live music, and seasonal music bars and occasional discos are open on the Lapad Peninsula. The larger hotels often have a piano bar, lounge or nightclub located in their facility.
There is a limited LGBTQ scene in or around Dubrovnik, and most places aren't particularly LGBTQ-friendly.
The local food, known as Dalmatian, is classic Mediterranean cuisine, which means that it's mainly seafood: red snapper, squid, cuttlefish, octopus and shellfish. And the preparation couldn't be any simpler—most seafood, fish and vegetables are simply grilled with olive oil, garlic, rosemary and lemon juice. The most popular meat dishes are pork, lamb and veal. Just about every restaurant seems to have a special risotto dish.
You'll find restaurants all over the city, but the Prijeko (a thoroughfare running parallel to the Stradun) is packed with tables and chairs during the summer.
International cuisine is on the rise in Dubrovnik, with pizzerias and pasta restaurants, as well as Asian restaurants, available to diners. The big luxury hotels also offer multiple restaurant options and a broader range of international cuisine. But all offer fish and other local specialties in a more elegant and refined (and more expensive) atmosphere.
In true Mediterranean style, opening hours are variable and inconsistent; if business is quiet, a restaurant may close early, or it may stay open later if it's busy.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a dinner for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than 100 HRK; $$ = 100 HRK-200 HRK; $$$ = 201 HRK-300 HRK; and $$$$ = more than 300 HRK.
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