Dubrovnik: An Escapist's Guide
Travel writer and Dubrovnik expert Mary Novakovich explains how you can experience Croatia’s ever-popular crown jewel without having to battle the crowds.
It’s Croatia’s most-visited destination, and Dubrovnik’s intense beauty never fails to captivate. Medieval walls wind around the exquisite Old Town, its shiny marble streets lined with handsome, green-shuttered stone houses. The deep blue of the Adriatic Sea is a sparkling backdrop – a vivid contrast to the stark, barren mountains that rise up from the coast.
But there are times when Dubrovnik’s popularity can get a bit too much. Cruise ships have been nonstop visitors to this Adriatic port for decades, dislodging thousands of people every day during much of the year. To add to the numbers, fans of Game of Thrones have also discovered Dubrovnik and are paying homage to the locations used in HBO’s fantasy drama.
Stay one step ahead
There are, however, ways of escaping the crowds. The first thing to do is to check the website of Dubrovnik’s Port Authority: portdubrovnik.hr will be your bible during your stay. It shows which ships are arriving every day, and – crucially – the number of passengers expected to descend on the city. If you see that several thousand people are expected to arrive on a certain day – up to 7,000 in high season – that’s your cue to steer clear of the Old Town until about 4pm.
After that time, relative calm returns to the city. That’s when locals perform the Croatian version of the Italian passeggiata – the džir – and take a leisurely stroll up and down the Stradun, the gleaming thoroughfare that slices through the Old Town. It’s hard to find a more alluring high street in Europe than this marble-paved marvel.
For the best introduction to Dubrovnik, take a walk around the city walls, nearly two kilometres of medieval fortifications that follow a crooked path around the Old Town. From here you can catch tantalising glimpses into everyday Dubrovnik life as you pass terracotta rooftops, colourful gardens and noisy playgrounds. The imposing sight of Fort Lovrijenac on the headland across the bay rears up on your right, and access to this massive 16th-century fort is included in your ticket. Save some energy for the 165 steps you’ll want to climb later. During the Dubrovnik Summer Festival in July and August, the fortress is a suitably brooding setting for performances of Hamlet.
Nearly two kilometres of medieval fortifications follow a crooked path around the old town
Bring a hat and plenty of water, as there’s no hiding from the sun while you’re up on the walls. It will take about two hours to do the fortifications justice, stopping along the way to savour glorious views of the Adriatic. Unless you want to share the walk with throngs of cruise passengers, come after 4pm when most people will have returned to their ships.
Discover secret beaches
One of the sights you’ll spot during your walk on the walls is forest-clad Lokrum. Only a 15-minute boat ride from Dubrovnik’s Old Port, this tiny island of wooded trails and rocky beaches is a tranquil antidote to the busy Old Town. Bring a picnic with you as you explore the island’s shaded footpaths and the ruins of an old monastery. There’s a shallow saltwater lagoon that’s an inviting place for a relaxing dip. Bring swimming shoes (and possibly a sponge mat) if you want to splash about on the rocky beaches on the southern side. If you want to find (or avoid) the naturist beach, look out for the FKK sign.
Back on the mainland, beach lovers will immediately spot the white pebbles of Banje Beach just beyond the Ploče Gate on the eastern side of the Old Town. This honeypot of a beach – which has a public area as well as sunloungers for hire – can be overwhelmed in the summer. But if you walk another 20 minutes further eastwards along the coast, you’ll see the steps leading down to Sveti Jakob Beach just beyond the church of the same name. Unlike many Croatian beaches, Sveti Jakob has a sandy area as well as the ubiquitous pebbles, and it’s considerably quieter than Banje Beach. It’s also one of the most beautiful in the region.
There’s a shallow saltwater lagoon that’s an inviting place for a relaxing dip
North of the Old Town are the Lapad and Babin Kuk peninsulas, which are served by regular buses and where you’ll find most of Dubrovnik’s hotels as well as a greater choice of beaches. Lapad Bay can get busy, so carry on to Babin Kuk on the northernmost part of the peninsula. Stroll along the long winding footpath that leads to Copacabana, a family-friendly beach with watersports on offer. If you’re in the mood for pampering and excellent cocktails, check out the Coral Beach Club next to Copacabana.
For an easy day trip, take a boat from the Old Port to Cavtat, an enchanting little village on a two-pronged peninsula 17 kilometres southeast of Dubrovnik. Its palm-lined waterfront is an attractive sight as your boat approaches the quay. You’ll have plenty of restaurants and cafés to choose from, as well as beaches and a pleasant pine-shaded path that runs for seven kilometres around the peninsula.
In the old town, the best places are tucked into narrow alleyways and not always easy to spot
Wine and dine
For fine dining with fabulous views, head to 360 Restaurant (360dubrovnik.com) set in a medieval arsenal overlooking the Old Port. Oyster fans can feast on celebrated Ston oysters at the Bota Oyster & Sushi Bar (bota-sare.hr). For innovative cuisine mixing Croatian and Asian, try laid-back Azur (azurvision.com) on a tiny street near the aquarium. There’s a similar Asian flavour to the creative menu at Pantarul (pantarul. com) in Lapad.
As you walk down Stradun, you’ll be accosted by touts drumming up business for their restaurants on the parallel street Prijeko, which is up a steep flight of steps. Ignore them, as there’s only a handful of good-quality Prijeko restaurants. They include Nishta (nishtarestaurant.com), a rare vegetarian restaurant in Croatia; Stara Loza (prijekopalace.com), the classy restaurant attached to the equally smart Prijeko Palace hotel; the Italian-influenced Wanda (wandarestaurant.com); and the cosy Rozario (konoba-rozario.hr). Walk up another steep set of stairs to find adorable Lady PiPi at Antuninska 21 in the shadow of the city walls.
As you wander along the southern side of the Old Town, you might see a sign reading: ‘Cold drinks with the most beautiful views’. Duck through the gap in the wall and you’ll find Buža Bar carved into the cliffs. As it’s one of the most popular places for a sundowner, you might have trouble squeezing in. For a setting just as magical, have a drink in the Cave Bar at Hotel More overlooking Lapad Bay. This natural cave was discovered during the building of the hotel, and the outside terrace is also a superb choice for a sunset drink.
In the Old Town, the best places are tucked into narrow alleyways and not always easy to spot. D’Vino (dvino.net), a buzzing little wine bar, is just off Stradun near the Pile Gate. Convivial Dionysus Wine Pub is at Za Rokum 5 and, like D’Vino, it’s a good place for a crash course on Croatian wine.