We have no problem making the claim: Dubrovnik is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. With its mix of deep blue waters, picturesque mountains, and an old town so well preserved it has the power to transport you to another time, there is really nowhere quite like it. Unfortunately, the secret is out.
Tiny Dubrovnik is visited by almost 1 million people a year, and it is only getting more popular thanks to a certain HBO show (yup, Game of Thrones is shot in Dubrovnik). If you’re not careful, you are likely to be swept away in the waves of cruise ship passengers and miss out on much of the charm of this magical city. Lucky for you, we’ve put together a surefire guide to seeing the town without feeling like a tourist.
SEEING THE SITES
The main tourist attraction in Dubrovnik is the “old town”, and the most popular activity is to walk the medieval city walls. While we don’t always agree that the doing the most touristy thing is the best, in this instance, the masses are right: walking the walls is a must. The 360-views of the city are unforgettable, and climbing all those steps will make you feel better about grabbing extra pastries at breakfast. So what’s the best strategy for avoiding the crowds? Get there when the walls open (8am sharp) — it is the best time to get unobstructed pictures of the city and (for a few minutes anyway) enjoy the city’s beauty with some peace and quiet.
Exploring the old city itself is also a must. The rows of historical monochrome white buildings with green shutters lining the shiny marble main street (called Stradun or Placa) are truly incredible. Although you’re going to run into crowds at all times of day on the main drag, the smaller side streets are fun to explore and some are blissfully tourist-free. Also, a great place for an aperitivo or coffee is Gradska Kavana, at the foot of the Stradun; the slightly elevated outdoor patio is a great spot for people watching.
WHERE TO STAY
There are several hotels within the old city walls, but we recommend staying on the outside — the old city is where you’re going to run into the biggest mobs of tourists (aka where all cruise ship visitors head), so it’s best if your home base in Dubrovnik is somewhere a little more relaxing and peaceful.
Our favorite spot to stay is the Villa Dubrovnik — this charming luxury hotel located only a 10 minute walk from the old town has it all: amazing sea views, first-class amenities, and a pool area right on the water. After a long day sightseeing, you can't beat having a Croatian wine or an Ozujsko (the local beer) on their rooftop bar, looking out at the old town and the Adriatic Sea. If you aren't staying at Villa Dubrovnik, it is worth it to stop by for lunch at Al Fresco Bar Giardino. Their fresh fish is expertly prepared and is absolutely delicious, particularly the John Dory.
WHAT TO EAT
Dubrovnik can be a food lover’s paradise (especially if you are into seafood), but you need to know where to go and be smart about avoiding tourist traps. Many of the restaurants within the walls serve mediocre (and nearly identical) food at elevated prices.
For a modern twist on classic Croatian cuisine, head to Pantarul (we liked the grilled tuna and as well as the risotto). A 7-minute cab ride from the old city, Panatrul is a favorite of locals and traveling foodies, serving a mix of meats, seafood, and pasta. Know that reservations are a must.
If you prefer to stay close to the city, try Lady Pipi (try the grilled seafood, especially the langoustines) or Sesame (the Fig salad, lamb, and wines were great). Lady Pipi, located at the north end of the old city (inside the walls), has the best grilled seafood in town; local catches (including tuna steaks and langoustine) are thrown directly onto PiPi’s outdoor brick oven. It is casual and rustic, but a must for seafood lovers. Sesame, which is a 5-minute walk from the old city, is a bit more upscale. The service is top-notch, and the kitchen churns out well prepared Croatian favorites (sea bass, lamb).
If you’re feeling really causal, try Pizzeria Tabasco. Located just outside the city walls, it is a popular local pizza joint that serves freshly made pies. The quality is good, the price is right, but we still don’t know what’s up with the Tabasco (don’t worry, it’s not in the pizza sauce).
If you stay in Dubrovnik for more than a few days, take a day trip outside the city and visit some of the less traveled (but equally awesome) areas. For the sea-lovers, there’s no better way to experience Croatia than renting a boat for the day and cruising around the Elaphiti Islands. Be sure to stop for lunch at the spectacular and secluded Villa Ruza restaurant on Kolocep Island. The views are stunning, and their fresh catch of the day is incredible.
If, instead, you prefer staying on dry land, schedule a day trip to Montenegro, Bosnia, or even head north to Ston, Croatia, home to supposedly some of the best oysters in Europe.
Photo by Tom Uhlenberg