WHAT TO DO
Dubrovnik is an enchanting fairytale town on the Adriatic Sea. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this beautiful Croatian city is one of the most prominent tourist destinations in the Mediterranean Sea. Exploring the famed Old Town takes you back in time with its limestone streets, baroque buildings and ancient city walls. The prosperity of the city was historically based on maritime trade, when it was the capital of the Republic of Ragusa. The names Dubrovnik and Ragusa coexisted for several centuries. Ragusa, recorded in various forms since the 10th century, remained the official name of the Republic of Ragusa until 1808, and of the city within the Kingdom of Dalmatia until 1918 - while Dubrovnik, first recorded in the late 12th century, was in widespread use by the late 16th century. The name Dubrovnik comes from 'dubron', a Celtic name for water. In 1991, after the break up of Yugoslavia and the establishment of the Republic of Croatia, Dubrovnik was besieged mostly by Serbian soldiers of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) for seven months and suffered significant damage from the attacks. Although the shelling of Dubrovnik horrified the world, the city has bounced back with vitality to delight visitors again.
There's no better place to begin your adventure than in and around the Old Town. While there are a few ways to enter the old city, the suggested starting point is the imposing Pile Gate, built in 1537. Notice the statue of Saint Blaise, the town's patron saint and formerly the protector of the independent Republic of Ragusa, set in a niche over the Renaissance arch. After passing through the outer gate you'll come to stairs and a ramp leading down to an inner gate dating from 1460, topped once again by a Saint Blaise statue, this one by leading Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. As you pass through the Gothic arch you'll immediately be struck by your first view of Placa, or as it’s commonly known, Stradun, Dubrovnik’s limestone paved pedestrian promenade. Nearby is one of the city's most famous landmarks, the Large Onofrio Fountain. This circular fountain was built in 1438 as part of a water supply system that involved bringing water from a spring seven miles away. Originally the fountain was adorned with sculptures, but it was heavily damaged in the 1667 earthquake and only 16 carved masks remain - with their mouths dribbling drinkable water into a drainage pool. Note: its sibling, the ornate Little Onofrio Fountain, is in Luza Square at the other end of Stradun. Next to the Large Onofrio Fountain is the Franciscan Monastery. Within this monastery's solid stone walls is a gorgeous 14th century cloister, a historic pharmacy and a small museum with a collection of relics and liturgical objects - including chalices, paintings and gold jewelry. Before you head inside, stop to admire the remarkable pieta over the church door, sculpted by the local masters Petar and Leonard Andrijic in 1498. Unfortunately, the portal is all that remains of a richly decorated church that was destroyed in the 1667 earthquake. Its baroque replacement is adorned with ornate altars capped with large paintings. Access the cloister and the museum via the small passage between the monastery church and Saint Saviour's church. The cloister is one of the most beautiful late Romanesque structures in Dalmatia. Notice how each capital over the incredibly slim dual columns is topped by a different figure, portraying human heads, animals and floral arrangements. At the center is a small square garden that’s shaded by orange and palm trees. Further inside is the original location of the third oldest functioning pharmacy in Europe, which has been in business since 1317. It may have been the first pharmacy in Europe open to the general public. The room is now part of the monastery's museum, with pharmacy displays taking up one wall and the rest filled with religious artifacts and art.
From there, stroll along Stradun until you reach Luza Square and Saint Blaise's Church. Dedicated to the city's patron saint, this beautiful church was built in 1715 in the ornate baroque style. The interior is notable for its marble altars and a 15th century silver gilt statue of Saint Blaise (within the high altar), who is holding a scale model of pre earthquake Dubrovnik. Be sure to notice the stained glass windows designed by local artist Ivo Dulcic in 1971. In front of the church in the square is the Orlando Column. Luza Square once served as a marketplace, and this stone monument – carved in 1417 and featuring the image of a medieval knight – used to be the spot where edicts, festivities and public verdicts were announced. The City Bell Tower marks the eastern end of the Old Town's main thoroughfare. This slender dome capped tower has a large curvy clock face known as ‘the octopus’ and a two ton bell struck by two bronze jacks named Maro and Baro. One of the few buildings in the Old Town to survive the 1667 earthquake, the Sponza Palace was built from 1516 to 1522 as a customs house, and it has subsequently been used as a mint, treasury, armory and bank. Architecturally it's a mixture of styles beginning with an exquisite Renaissance portico resting on six Corinthian columns. The first floor has Gothic windows and the second floor windows are in a Renaissance style, with an alcove containing a statue of Saint Blaise. Just inside the building, before you enter the cloister, is the Memorial Room of the Defenders of Dubrovnik, a heartbreaking collection of black and white photographs of the mainly young men who perished between 1991 and 1995 during the battle for Dubrovnik. The first and second floors house the State Archives, a priceless collection of manuscripts dating back nearly 1000 years. Though the archives are not open to the public, copies of the most precious and significant pieces are exhibited in a display on the ground floor.
No visit to Dubrovnik would be complete without a walk around the spectacular City Walls, the finest in the world and the city's main claim to fame. From the top, the view over the Old Town and the shimmering Adriatic is sublime. You can get a good handle on the extent of the shelling damage in the 1990s by gazing over the rooftops - those sporting bright new terracotta suffered damage and had to be replaced. The first walls to enclose the city were built in the 9th century. In the middle of the 14th century the defenses were fortified with 15 square forts. The threat of attacks from the Turks in the 15th century prompted the city to strengthen the existing forts and add new ones, so that the entire Old Town was contained within a stone barrier 1 mile long and up to 80 feet high. The walls are thicker on the land side – up to 20 feet – and range from 5 to 10 feet on the sea side. Round Fort Minceta protects the landward edge of the city from attack, Fort Bokar and Fort Lawrence look west and out to sea, while Fort Revelin and Fort Saint John guard the eastern approach and the Old Harbor. Fort Minceta is at the highest point of the City Walls and was originally built in 1319 as a square tower. The top terrace boasts superb panoramas of the Old Town and is visited as part of the City Walls walk. There are entrances to the walls from near the Pile Gate, the Ploce Gate and the Maritime Museum. The Pile Gate entrance tends to be the busiest, so entering from the Ploce side (eastern entrance) has the added advantage of getting the steepest climbs out of the way first (you're required to walk in an anticlockwise direction). Note: don't underestimate how strenuous the wall walk can be, especially on a hot day. There's very little shelter and the few vendors selling water on the route tend to overcharge. Next, head to the Rector's Palace at Pred Dvorom 3. Built in the late 15th century for the elected rector who governed Dubrovnik, this Gothic Renaissance palace contains the rector’s office and private chambers, public halls, administrative offices and a dungeon. During his one month term the rector was unable to leave the building without the permission of the senate. Today the palace has been turned into the Cultural History Museum, with artfully restored rooms, portraits, coats of arms and coins - evoking the glorious history of Ragusa.
Close by is the Cathedral of the Assumption. Built on the site of a 7th century basilica, Dubrovnik's original cathedral was enlarged in the 12th century - supposedly funded by a gift from England’s King Richard I, the Lionheart, who was saved from a shipwreck on the nearby island of Lokrum. Soon after the first cathedral was destroyed in the 1667 earthquake, work began on this, its baroque replacement, which was finished in 1713. The cathedral is notable for its fine altars, especially the altar of Saint John of Nepomuk, made of violet marble. The most striking of its religious paintings is the polyptych of the Assumption of the Virgin, hanging behind the main altar, by 16th century Venetian painter Titian. To the left of the main altar is the cathedral's treasury. Dripping in gold and silver, it contains relics of Saint Blaise as well as over 150 other reliquaries largely made in the workshops of Dubrovnik’s goldsmiths between the 11th and 17th centuries. Not far away at Zudioska 5 is the Dubrovnik Synagogue. With a religious practice that can be traced back to the 14th century, this is said to be the second oldest still functioning synagogue in Europe and the oldest Sephardic one. Sitting on a street that was once the Jewish ghetto, the synagogue also houses a small museum exhibiting religious relics and documentation on the local Jewish population, including records relating to their persecution during World War II. Adjacent to the Old Town, the previously mentioned Fort Lawrence was built to guard the city's western approach from invasion by land or sea. Saint Blaise gazes down from the walls of this large free standing fortress, constructed atop a 120 foot high promontory. There's not a lot inside, but the battlements offer wonderful views over the Old Town and its large courtyard is often used as a venue for summer theater and concerts. Note: the fort features as the Red Keep in the popular TV series Game of Thrones.
Next, make your way to the cable car station at ulica kralja Petra Kresimira IV. Dubrovnik’s cable car whisks you from just north of the city walls up to Mount Srd in under four minutes. From the top of this 1400 foot high hill, Dubrovnik's Old Town looks even more surreal than usual - like a scale model of itself. The commanding views take in all of Dubrovnik and Lokrum, with the Elafiti Islands filling the horizon. It's this extraordinary vantage point that made Srd a key battleground during the 1990s war. That story is told in Dubrovnik During the Homeland War 1991-1995, an exhibition housed in Fort Imperial at the summit, near the cable car terminus. This permanent exhibition is dedicated to the siege of Dubrovnik during the 'Homeland War', as the 1990s war is dubbed in Croatia. By retaining control of the fort, the local defenders ensured that the city wasn't captured. The displays provide in depth coverage of the events, including photographs and video footage. Note: the exhibit is open every day from 8a-10p. After enjoying views of the city, head out to Lokrum. Only a 10 minute ferry ride from Dubrovnik's Old Harbor, lush Lokrum is a beautiful, forested island full of holm oaks, black ash, pines and olive trees. It's a popular swimming spot, although the beaches are rocky. Note: boats leave roughly hourly in summer (half hourly in July and August). Another splendid swimming spot is Banje Beach - it's the closest beach to the Old Town, just beyond the 17th century Lazareti (a former quarantine station) outside Ploce Gate. Although many people rent lounge chairs and parasols from the beach club, there's no problem with just flinging a towel on the beach if you can find a space. Conclude your Dubrovnik experience at Lapad Bay. Bounded by the forested Petka hills on one side and the crest of Babin Kuk on the other, Lapad Bay is a busy string of pebble beaches, beachfront hotels and pedestrianized promenades. There are plenty of diversions here, both in and out of the water, including lots of cafes and bars. Note: be sure to have a drink at the rad Cave Bar More.
WHERE TO EAT
Dubrovnik has plenty of great places to eat and enjoy a drink. Start your day at Cogito, located near the Maritime Museum in the Old Town at Od Pustijerne 1. It has the best coffee in town along with fresh juices and teas. Nearby at Kneza Damjana Jude is Konoba Ribar. A rarity for the Old Town, this little family run spot serves local food the way locals like it, at local prices. It doesn't attempt anything fancy or clever, just large portions of traditional favorites such as risotto and stuffed squid drenched in olive oil and garlic. It's set in a little lane pressed hard up against the city walls. Located next to a market at Gunduliceva Poljana 8 is Kamenice. Known for a simple menu of Dalmatian specialties, its signature dishes include squid risotto, mussels in buzara (white wine) sauce, as well as fried 'small fish' and calamari to die for. But as the name translates to ‘oysters’, start your meal with some fresh Ston oysters. Note: the restaurant is easily spotted by its blue and white striped chairs in the square. If you fancy shrimp, head to Pink Shrimp at Kuniceva 2. This petite streetside eatery highlights its namesake, one of the key Dalmatian ingredients, preparing it several different ways - including tartare, tempura and fried. Coupled with a simple yet striking wine list, the menu makes for a tasty light lunch or evening snack option. If it's pizza you crave, make your way to Pizzeria Tabasco at Hvarska 48. Tucked away between the Old Town and the cable car station, this joint is a local's favorite with its wood fired pies.
For the best sandwich in town, do try Skola at Antuninska 1. Tucked away on a narrow side street just off Stradun, this sandwich outlet has been around for decades. Serving platters of Dalmatian delicacies - prosciutto, cheese marinated in olive oil, salt cured sardines and seasonal vegetables, or packing them into delicious homemade bread, this tiny eatery delivers good value for your money. Tucked away at Miha Pracata 8 in an Old Town alley, Pupo is a good choice for seafood but remains especially loved for its sweets. Leave room for a slice of Dubrovnik almond cake or skip around the corner to its sister patisserie, Pupica, for coffee and cake. For more tempting treats, visit Dolce Vita at Naljeskoviceva 1. Over a dozen different kinds of sumptuous, creamy gelato are on offer at this sweet spot. Alternatively, choose from a substantial menu of cakes and pastries. Note: you’ll have no trouble finding it, as its bright orange chairs and lanterns featuring an ice cream cone pop out from a narrow side street just off Stradun. For the best ice cream in town, head to Peppino's at Od Puca 9. With over 20 tempting varieties of thick, delicious gelato on offer, this artisanal ice cream shop serves everything from your standard chocolate to funky remakes based on popular candy or cakes. The premium ice cream has an even richer flavor and gluten free scoops are also available.
Tucked away in a quiet side alley at Cvijete Zuzoric 2, Zuzori couples Dubrovnik street ambience with Mediterranean delights served with a contemporary flair. Highlighting local ingredients sourced from local people, it delivers an upscale restaurant experience in a casual setting. Go with the signature dish, the black octopus risotto. Restaurant Dubrovnik is located at Marojice Kaboge 5. One of the city's most upmarket restaurants, it has a pleasant informal setting, occupying a covered rooftop terrace hidden among the venerable stone buildings of the Old Town. A strong French influence pervades a menu full of decadent and rich dishes, such as duck confit and perfectly cooked steak. Found at Brsalje 3, Nautika bills itself as 'Dubrovnik's finest restaurant' and it comes pretty close. The setting is sublime - overlooking the Adriatic Sea and the city walls - and the service is faultless. As for the food, it's sophisticated if not particularly adventurous, with classic techniques applied to the finest local produce. Note: for maximum silver service drama, order the salt crusted fish. Michelin starred Restaurant 360 is at Svetog Dominika. Dubrovnik's glitziest restaurant offers fine dining at its best - with flavorsome, beautifully presented, creative cuisine, an impressive wine list and professional service. The setting is unrivaled - on top of the city walls with tables positioned so you can peer through the battlements over the harbor. Note: go for the 5 course tasting menu with wine pairing. Highlights include Adriatic crab with leek cream, turbot with cauliflower cream and chocolate mousse.
Situated under the shade of pines at the Orsan Marina (Ivana Zajca 2), Orsan quite naturally highlights fresh seafood. Delve into the house favorites: grilled octopus and Orsan risotto - featuring cuttlefish, shellfish and scampi. A fine selection of local wines complete the perfect seafood menu. Another excellent place for sea creatures is Proto, located at Siroka 1. This historic and highly praised restaurant offers some of the finest seafood in the city. In business since 1886, it started out serving fish specialties prepared according to old recipes, which were handed down by Dubrovnik fishermen. These secret dishes have remained intact to this day. Fine seafood and high quality service define Proto. My favorite restaurant in Dubrovnik is Horizont, located near the Ploce Gate just outside the city walls at Put od Bosanke 8. The most sought after tables at this chic eatery are out on the lane, although it's pretty nice inside too, with stone walls and a bright turquoise bar. The bistro style dishes on offer (lamb chops, pork fillet, chicken ballotine, fish of various sorts) are exceptional. The pasta dishes and risottos (seafood tagliatelle, prawns and mussels risotto) are also marvelous. Note: the restaurant is open every day from 5p-12a and reservations are recommended.
End your evening in Dubrovnik with a drink or two. Watch the sun set over the Adriatic at Buza, found off Od Margarite at Crijeviceva ul 9. Locating this ramshackle bar on a cliff feels like a real discovery as you duck and dive around the city walls and finally see the entrance tunnel. However, Buza is no secret - it gets insanely busy, especially around sunset. Wait for a space on one of the concrete platforms, grab a cool drink in a plastic cup and enjoy the vibe and views. Another cliff bar pressed up against the seaward side of the city walls is Bard Mala Buza, located at Iza Mira 14. This one is lower on the rocks and has a shaded terrace where you can lose a day (or night) quite happily, mesmerized by the Adriatic vistas. Nearby at Buniceva poljana 3 is Mirage. Sip cocktails and watch tourists mill around in this prime spot on a central square behind the Cathedral of the Assumption. If you're interested in sampling top notch Croatian wine, D'vino at Palmoticeva 4 is the place to go. As well as a large and varied wine list, it offers tasting flights presented by friendly and knowledgeable staff, plus savory snacks and platters. Note: sit outside for the authentic Old Town alley ambience, but check out the whimsical wall inscriptions inside. Finish up at Matusko, located at Prijeko 6. An outpost of the largest winery on the Peljesac Peninsula, this swanky little wine bar offers an opportunity to sample some of Croatia's acclaimed Dingac and Postup reds in an atmospheric, almost cave like setting.
WHERE TO STAY
Dubrovnik offers a number of places to call home during your stay and there are 2 that I especially enjoyed. Both are in prime locations and provide exceptional service, modern amenities and comfort. The first is the Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik, located at Marijana Blazica 2. Set in a grand 1890s building and a 20th century villa, this stately hotel is a short walk from both the medieval Franciscan Monastery and the 16th century Pile Gate beside the Old Town. Relaxed rooms feature flat screen TVs, free WiFi and iPod docks, plus minibars, and tea and coffeemakers. Upgraded rooms add balconies, sea views and separate sitting areas, as well as access to an executive lounge. Other amenities include an elegant restaurant, a lobby bar and a terrace bar. A spa features an indoor pool, a hot tub and a sauna, plus a steam room and a gym.
A second option is Villa Dubrovnik, located at Vlaha Bukovca 6. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Adriatic Sea and the Island of Lokrum, this contemporary hotel is not far from the 15th century Rector's Palace and the Cathedral of the Assumption. Streamlined rooms with wood furnishings offer complimentary WiFi and flat screen TVs, as well as terraces and living areas with sofas. Upgraded quarters add sea views, and some have whirlpool tubs, separate living rooms and outdoor hot tubs. Additional perks include a chic wine bar, a cozy lounge and a refined restaurant with a terrace. An upscale spa features an indoor pool, a sauna and wellness treatments, plus a sundeck.
Dubrovnik has a fascinating history, beautiful scenery, delicious cuisine and an Old World charm. It treated me well and I look forward to returning.