Breaking news: The French Riviera is officially passé. The new hot spot: Dubrovnik, Croatia. Indeed, crowds are once again flocking to this wondrous city on the southernmost stretch of Croatia’s coast, as enchanted by its beauty today as the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, who once proclaimed, “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik.”
While you may have first heard of this UNESCO World Heritage Site in the early 1990s, when images of a city under fire flashed across TV screens during the break-up of Yugoslavia, that episode of the city’s history now seems a distant memory. The city has been magnificently restored to its former glory to emerge as one of the most fashionable vacation spots in all of Europe.
Dubrovnik’s resurgent popularity should come as no surprise, however – this “jewel of the Adriatic,” as the coastal resort town is often referred to in tourist brochures, is breathtakingly beautiful. The city’s fortified old town overlooks the dazzling Adriatic from a shelter of limestone cliffs and its marble-paved streets are lined with marvelously preserved churches, stately palaces, squares, and terracotta-roofed townhouses. Meanwhile, down below, along the seaside coast, fine beaches beckon – as do a slew of offshore islands – making Dubrovnik uniquely appealing to history buffs and sun worshippers alike.
With all that it has to offer, you could easily fill an entire week exploring Dubrovnik’s historical relics and beachside pursuits. With its compact old town, a whirlwind tour of the major sights can be handily accomplished in two to three days; add in some beach time and out-of-town excursions, and you’ve got seven days of vacation.
Dubrovnik’s wonderfully scenic old town is a joy to explore on foot. While the area can definitely be discovered independently, we do recommend taking at least one guided walking tour to gain insight into its fascinating history, which dates from the 7th century; Discover Croatia runs full-day tours from $50/person with lunch, while Atlas Travel Agency covers the same ground in private tours for about $180 (for two people).
Any visit to Dubrovnik should start with a walk along the city’s main claim to fame, its 25m-high City Walls (Gunduliceva Poljana 2; daily May–Oct 9am–7pm, Nov–April 10am–3pm; $5), accessed to the left of the old town’s northernmost Pile Gate. The 2km circuit will take you along the impressively preserved ramparts, parts of which date from the 8th century (though most of the fortification actually took place between the 13th and 16th centuries); the stroll provides a terrific introduction to the city, with marvelous views of old town rooftops, domes, and church spires glimpsed along the way – just don’t attempt this one-hour walk in the middle of a summer day, as there’s no shade from the harsh sun.
The next major landmark to visit is the Rector’s Palace (Pred Dvorom 3; June–Sept Mon–Sat 9am–1pm & 4–5pm, Sun 9am–1pm, Oct–May Mon–Sat 9am–1pm; $2.50), which will give you a taste of Dubrovnik’s 15th-century heyday, when it rivaled Venice as the most important trade center in the south Adriatic. This Gothic-Renaissance building once served as the seat of government (interestingly, city rectors couldn’t leave the premises during their month-long terms, so the palace was a de facto prison!); today it houses the Cultural Historical Museum (same hours) with a smallish but informative collection of paintings, period furniture, and other historical tidbits, as well as a striking atrium used for classical concerts in the summer months.
Dubrovnik also boasts several important religious centers worth seeing. You’ll find a couple of impressive monasteries: the Dominican Monastery (Sv Domina 4; daily 9am–5pm, til 6pm in summer; $2.50), home to an orange tree–filled Gothic cloister and museum showcasing religious paintings from the Golden Age; and the Franciscan Monastery (Placa 2; daily 9am–5pm, til 6pm in summer; $3.30), site of the city’s oldest pharmacy (allegedly also the oldest in all of Europe) and a curious collection of ancient medical books and laboratory equipment in its treasury. The next point of interest not to be missed – literally! – is Dubrovnik’s grand cathedral (Kneza Damjana Jude 1; daily 6.30am–8pm; $1.70) with its remarkable Baroque architecture; head to the treasury to find a multi-paneled altar painting by Titian, the famed Renaissance master, and a relic skull of St. Blaise, Dubrovnik’s patron saint. For a point of contrast, also be sure to visit the the city’s 15th-century synagogue (Žudioska 5; May–Oct Mon–Fri 9am–8pm; call 385/20 321 028 for other opening times; free), said to be the second-oldest in all of Europe.
To round out your visit, head to Luža Square, anchored by the free-standing Orlando’s Column, which dates from 1418. Here you’ll also find the architecturally eclectic Sponza Palace; it dates from 1522 and once served as a mint and custom house but today houses the State Archives; its courtyard and atrium serve as a summer venue for art exhibits and concerts. Had enough history? There’s an aquarium inside St. John’s fortress (Damjana Jude 2; Mon–Sat 9am–1pm & 5pm–7pm; $2.50) and a Museum of Modern Art (Put Frana Supila 23; July–Sept Tues–Sun 10am–1pm, 5pm–9pm, Oct–June Tues–Sun 10am–7pm; $3.30) that features works by contemporary Croatian artists.
HITTING THE BEACH
While you can spend days on end exploring Dubrovnik’s ancient monuments, not all is history-heavy in this sunny Adriatic city. Dubrovnik’s coastal setting lends itself well to beach and poolside activities, too. Several hotels have pools overlooking the old town; our favorite of these, the four-star Villa Argentina, is reviewed below. Even if you don’t book yourself into a hotel with a pool, there are still plenty of beach options within easy reach. You can catch some rays on the Banje Beach, just east of the old town, below the 16th-century Lazareti complex that once quarantined city visitors for 40 days; the sand here gets pretty crowded in summer months. Another good spot is the recently renovated East West Beach Club on an excellent strip of sand close to the old town Ploce gate; you’ll find beach chairs and food on hand. The best bet of all, however, is across the bay from the beach club: the forested (and supposedly haunted) island of Lokrum, a mere 20-minute ferry ride away from the old town port and trimmed with a succession of pretty coves and rocky beaches; you’ll also find a derelict 11th-century Benedictine monastery and a lush botanical garden to explore here when you need a break from tanning.
DAY TRIPS FROM DUBROVNIK
If you have the time, we also recommend making a couple of excursions outside Dubrovnik. The Trsteno Arboretum, a 15th-century clifftop villa estate with a spectacularly landscaped garden planted with oleander, rosemary, lavender, pomegranate and cypress trees (daily May–Oct 7am–7pm, Nov–April 8am–3pm; $3.50), is just 30km north along the coast. Most buses heading north of town will stop here, so it’s easy to visit independently, but you can also join a half-day guided tour for about $35.
If you can go further afield, head to the scenic, car-free Elaphite Islands, which are accessible by ferry from the Dubrovnik harbor (several departures daily; 25- to 100-minute trips, depending on the island port); all-day cruises to the three most popular islands – Kolocep, Lopud and Šipan – are also available for about $30.
As the number-one tourist destination in Croatia, Dubrovnik has a wide range of accommodation options for every budget. For ambience and character, you can’t beat the hotels in the historic old town, but, for a true Mediterranean experience, stay in a hotel on the oustkirts of town – the pricier ones feature swimming pools surrounded by lush gardens. Our favorite, and one of the best luxury in town, is the Gran Villa Argentina, a splendid four-star hotel a short walk from the old town, with expansive and airy guestrooms, wonderful sea vistas, and a stellar swimming pool. Other good options include the moderate, beachfront Hotel Splendid, with 59 comfortable rooms, contemporary decor, terraces, and fine amenities; the Hotel Lero, the best budget choice within walking distance of the old town, with 152 comfortable en-suite doubles equipped with air-conditioning and TV; and the height of luxury, the Pucic Palace, a pricey five-star old town hotel occupying a renovated Baroque noble home and boasting 19 exquisite rooms with antique furniture, mosaic-tiled bathrooms and plush amenities. For more of our favorite local hotels, see our Shermans Top Dubrovnik Hotels directory.
You’ll find the best of Dubrovnik’s restaurants in the old town – from upscale eateries with sea-facing rooftop terraces to traditional and moderately priced spots with atmospheric stone interiors. Fresh seafood, prepared in a distinct Mediterranean style (with a lot of homegrown herbs and olive oil) features strongly on the city’s restaurant menus, while delicious gelato (ice cream popular in nearby Italy) is a must-have desert. You can try both of these at Atlas Club Nautika, an exclusive restaurant outside the old town gates with amazing views from its outdoor terrace, a pricey menu of deliciously prepared seafood, and an impressive wine list. Opposite the Dominican Monastery, Labirint is an atmospheric restaurant inside the ancient ramparts that serves a variety of Mediterranean seafood and meat specialties and doubles as a nightclub come evening. The renowned Proto is right in the center of the old town, with a rooftop terrace and a menu focused on fresh fish; it’s a good place to sample Croatian wines. Finally, Lokanda Peskarija is a cozy and inexpensive restaurant in the old town harbor that dishes up excellent seafood snacks, such as grilled shrimp and black risotto, in an authentic Dalmatian setting.
When To Go
From mid-July to mid-August every year, the city comes alive during the Dubrovnik Summer Festival with open-air theater performances and concerts staged in old town forts, courtyards, and squares. This high-profile event attracts a slew of culture buffs and artsy types, and the vibrant café-bar scene spills out onto the streets; it’s also the priciest season. You’ll pay less to go the rest of the year and, since Dubrovnik is among the sunniest towns in southern Europe it’s great to visit all year long – though the sea might be too cold for swimming. Winters are beautiful and serene (unless you happen to be there on February 3, during the annual Feast of St. Blaise that celebrates the city’s patron saint with religious processions and festivities); otherwise, Dubrovnik’s pristine streetscapes seem frozen in ancient time.
There are currently no direct flights to Dubrovnik from the U.S. Of the major airlines that service Croatia, Alitalia and Lufthansa are the only ones to fly to Dubrovnik in high season, with Alitalia goaing via Rome or Milan, and Lufthansa connecting via Frankfurt; outside of peak season, these two airlines, as with others, like CSA Czech Airlines or Air France to Zagreb or Split, from where you’ll have to make your way onward by connecting flight or car. Our preferred route involves flying into Split and renting a car to make the scenic three-hour drive to Dubrovnik along the Adriatic coast; if you’re short on time, however, can easily connect to Dubrovnik via Croatia’s domestic airline Croatian Airlines. Another option is to book an air-and-hotel package with TravelTime or Croatia Travel, the only U.S. package providers specializing in Croatia; TravelTime, for one, offers an eight-day winter package to Dubrovnik, with four-star hotel accommodation, round-trip airfare, and meals.