There was a time when Croatia was a reasonably well-kept secret among travelers in the know. Overshadowed by its Mediterranean neighbors—Greece and Italy—Croatia was part of the Communist hodgepodge that was Yugoslavia, a fact that likely contributed to its relative anonymity. Then there was the war which tore through the Balkans in the 1990s, and many people who were perhaps unaware of Croatia before suddenly only associated it with bombings and phrases like “ethnic cleansing.”
But those days are over. Croatia is now one of the most popular destinations on the Mediterranean rim, and is especially popular as a port of call for cruise ships. But the tipping point for Croatia, and for Dubrovnik, in particular, undoubtedly came with the popularity of Game of Thrones. The series is filmed, in part, in Dubrovnik’s Old Town, and the popularity of the series brings tourists by the thousands to the city, as evidenced by the Game of Thrones tshirts, tote bags, coffee mugs, and magnets for sale in its shops.
So is Dubrovnik really that great? Is it worth braving the Game of Thrones throngs to see the Pearl of the Adriatic? The answer is an emphatic YES. Dubrovnik is a spectacularly beautiful city, its terra cotta tile roofs a striking contrast against the deep blue of the Adriatic. And with more than 250 days of sunshine each year, there really is no bad time to visit Dubrovnik.
Most visitors to Dubrovnik are understandably drawn to its Old Town, the famous walled part of the city that doubles as King’s Landing and graces a zillion postcards, calendars, and coffee table books. Without question, a view of the Adriatic as you walk along the city walls is spectacular, particularly at sunset. The Old Town is equally impressive on the ground, and there are a number of walking tours available.
Beyond beautiful views of the coastline, the Old Town is also home to virtually all of Dubrovnik’s most noteworthy sites. A short walk inside the Pile Gate is a 14th century Franciscan monastery which is built around a serene cloister. The Old Pharmacy Museum is located on the grounds of the monastery, and houses an interesting array of relics, including ceramic medicine jars, icons, doctors’ records dating from the medieval period, and paintings. As well as artifacts, the museum is also a functioning pharmacy, and is believed to be one of the three oldest operating pharmacies in the world.
The main walkway through the Old Town is called Stradun, and along this sunbaked thoroughfare, there are countless shops, restaurants, and narrow alleyways leading deeper into the heart of the city. Stradun leads to the Sponza Palace, bell towers, the City Cathedral, and Orlando’s Column, a pedestal where criers once announced the news and where miscreants were publically shamed.
Stradun eventually leads to Gundulic Square, which is home to an open-air market. On virtually any day, the square is lined people selling fruits, vegetables and other items. The square is surrounded by cafes, and it makes a great place to stop, have a cup of coffee, and do some people-watching.
Farther along in the Old Town is the Old Harbor. It’s worth walking over to the Old Harbor simply for the view and for the opportunity to take some great photos, even if you don’t get on a boat. But getting on a boat is highly recommended. From Dubrovnik, it’s possible to visit one of the many islands off the coast, or to simply take a short cruise. Croatia’s coastline is spectacular, and as beautiful as Dubrovnik is on the ground, it’s even more picturesque from the sea.
The easiest island to get to from Dubrovnik is Lokrum, a short ferry ride away from the Old Harbor. Lokrum was once the site of a Benedictine monastery and later became a holiday spot for the Emperor Maximilian, who brought in exotic plants from around the world, such as vanilla and agave, which now grows on the island in abundance. The island is inhabited by families of strutting peacocks and dozens of rabbits, but no humans. Although many people make the ferry ride to Lokrum and enjoy a day or an afternoon there, no one lives on the island or stays overnight; because of a series of unusual deaths centuries ago, the island is believed to be cursed. Curse or no curse, Lokrum is a popular destination as a day trip from Dubrovnik, and the ferries full of tourists seem untroubled by its somewhat sinister reputation.
Taking a cruise around Dubrovnik’s coast offers the opportunity to see the ancient walled city in all its splendor. But the best way to get a birds’ eye view of the city is to take a cable car to the top of Mount Srd, the low-lying mountain that forms a backdrop to the city. For those unafraid of heights, the four-minute ride to the top provides spectacular views over Dubrovnik and the Adriatic Sea; on a clear day, you can see for almost forty miles.
Walking the streets of Dubrovnik, it’s difficult to imagine that this beautiful city was at war in the not-distant past. In the 1990s, when the former Yugoslavia broke apart, Croatia was attacked by Serbian forces, and although Dubrovnik is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and thus believed to be safe, it, too, was attacked. From Mount Srd, one can see that some of the tile roofs of the Old Town are a slightly different color; many of them had to be replaced as a result of the shelling. It’s a grim part of the city’s history, but those who want to learn more about it should visit War Photo Ltd., a photo gallery in the Old Town that documents that tragic period, as well as other conflicts throughout the world.
There’s one caveat about Dubrovnik: the city has become a very popular cruise destination, and each ship brings hundreds of tourists into what is a relatively small city. The peak of cruise season is June through August, and when there are several cruise ships in port, the Old Town becomes extremely crowded. Travelers who are in the city in the high tourist season but want to avoid the crowds should check the cruise ship schedules online, as some days are less congested than others. Crowds aside, Dubrovnik is a lovely city that offers a mix of Greek, Byzantine, and Venetian influences.