Like something out of a picture-perfect fairy tale, the Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia, is a walled medieval city, 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 city and the Adriatic Sea. Because the Old Town is blissfully free of 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, the streets and alleyways are crammed with tiny shops, bars, cafes and restaurants that spill out onto the street at every conceivable point.
The serious damage from the Serbia-Croatian War 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 has become one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe because of its warm climate, proximity to the sea 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. Its 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 mountains, the largest of which is Mount Srd. Just 3 mi/5 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. Residential and tourism development extends southeast (the Ploce District) along the coast for a short distance and northwest to the nearby port of Gruz. But most people live to the west of the Old Town on the larger bifurcated peninsula, where one part is called Lapad and the other Babin Kuk.
The wide, marble-paved Stradun runs from the Pile gate to the Ploce gate and separates the old city of Ragusa to the south from old Dubrovnik to the north. The Ragusa side has all the grand buildings, churches and squares; the other side has steep climbing paths and steps to the city walls.
Just 15 minutes by boat from the town harbor is the peaceful and undeveloped island of Lokrum, and 25 minutes northwest from the main port of Gruz are the beautiful Elaphite Islands.
The island-studded coast of Croatia is generally referred to as the Dalmatian coast.
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. The Stradun was paved in 1468, but the name Dubrovnik was not officially adopted until the early 20th century.
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.
General unrest in the Balkans forced Dubrovnik to develop into a maritime trading power that stretched from England to Goa, India. 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.
In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte arrived under the pretext of preventing a Russian invasion—but his troops stayed put. 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 the war.
In July 2013, Croatia became the 28th member of the European Union, another major milestone for Croatia and its people.
The walled city of Dubrovnik's Old Town is about 1 mi/1.6 km in circumference, but there is no motorized transport within it, 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 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.
Dubrovnik's nightlife scene is mostly limited to a Mediterranean cafe or bar lifestyle. There are a few nightclubs, a 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 gay and lesbian scene in or around Dubrovnik, and most places aren't particularly gay-friendly. However, the Troubadour Hard Jazz Cafe is a popular meeting spot for the gay community.
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 a steak house, 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, an eatery 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; $$ = 100 HRK-250 HRK; $$$ = 251 HRK-400 HRK; and $$$$ = more than 400 HRK.
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