Dubrovnik has been on my radar far longer than the existence of Game of Thrones. I’ve been daydreaming about seeing the walled Old City from the moment I heard of it and saw pictures. A few years ago, driving to Slovenia from Montenegro I was desperate even to get a glimpse. I had to see that it was real with my own eyes. It was incredible even if it was just for a few seconds.
This time Jaka and I were taking the journey to Dubrovnik so he could attend a conference. We stayed in Cavtat which is about a 20-minute drive past Dubrovnik. On the way down I was glued to my map watching for when I might see it again. I took like ten pictures in the span of those few seconds even though I knew I would be going the next day. I can’t put my finger on it. The whole night I was squirming and giggling over the thought I would actually walk the walls the very next day.
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After an anxious night of sleep, I was up early the next day to venture to the Old City by myself. It feels so cliche every time I say it but Dubrovnik might be one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. I had the dumbest biggest smile on my face the entire time I was there. There was something so magical and unique about the sheer size of the walls and all of the architecture. I would not say it is the best place to visit and get a taste of Croatia; it is very crowded, incredibly expensive, and honestly, very touristy. But if you love medieval towns, then you must visit at least once!
Of course, I cannot write this article without mentioning Game of Thrones (no spoilers!). I visited the weekend the series finale aired so it was extra exciting for me. I’m a fan of the show and cinematography so seeing the places they filmed was really amazing. It’s so cool to see how they transform seemingly mundane spots to iconic scenes many of us know and reference. I will mention a few spots below.
So after the longest intro ever I want to dive into the history of Dubrovnik a bit because it is really interesting for such a small place. Then I will share some tips to get the most out of your travels (aka don’t repeat my travel fails) and share some of the things you shouldn’t miss when visiting.
History of Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik is a city in the southern part of Croatia. It is primarily known for the Old City of Dubrovnik which is one of the world’s best-preserved medieval cities and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The history of Dubrovnik’s origins is a bit unknown. While there is documentation showing a settlement here in the 7th century there is archaeological evidence of a pre-Christian settlement.
Due to its location, it benefited greatly as a port operating in the Adriatic Sea. I won’t go greatly into detail about which kingdom or country Dubrovnik was part of over its history because we will be here all day. A very similar situation to other European cities in this region. Although, differently, because of its location and importance as a port it also operated for periods of time as a free state.
Dubrovnik greatly benefited from this maritime economy and was more exposed to new ideas and was the first in the region to adopt certain aspects of art, architecture, and institutions. For example, the longest continuously operating pharmacy in the world is in Dubrovnik. They also established social housing in 1347 and banned slave trading in 1418. A very progressive agenda for a city that now appears frozen in time.
One thing the tour guide shared which I found very fascinating was that because Dubrovnik is a very small walled city this makes it more susceptible to spreading illnesses. When anyone arrived to the city they were required to stay in a quarantine building for 40 days. Even those who were citizens and have returned home from abroad. They went to great lengths to avoid an epidemic that they would open delivered letters over boiling vinegar and even had a group of “plague police” composed of the immune.
For the next 500 years, Dubrovnik would be under French, Venetian, and even Austrian rule. After this, they began alliances with Slovenia and Serbia, became part of Croatia and eventually formed the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, after their declaration of independence in 1991, Dubrovnik was attacked by Serbia and Montenegro and a significant portion of the city was damaged. Almost 100 civilians killed. When in Dubrovnik you will see signs and maps explaining the main attack and showing which buildings were hit. You can even see some of the damage on buildings that were not repaired.
I know for some this is a very sensitive topic, especially for locals, and I am not trying to make broad strokes over a complicated history, but more of an introduction for context. I clearly cannot discuss history and politics at length in this format, but I do encourage you to read more about the places to you travel to, take a tour, and talk to locals. Places are living communities with stories so don’t shy away from learning them!
Now for some slight clarification. Dubrovnik is actually larger than the walled city you see in photos. It has a population of approximately 42,000 but the Old City only has about 1500 or less. This is for a range of reasons but a major one is that the cost of living in the Old City is not possible for locals. They discovered renting out their homes to travelers would make them very good money and they can live elsewhere. Dubrovnik is very expensive. I was warned and still found myself very shocked at the prices everywhere I went.
This is an important topic that I won’t push now, but it is a growing issue throughout the world as tourism becomes more and more accessible, affordable, and (let’s say it) trendy. Remember that even though you are on vacation, this is someone else’s home. So be mindful of local customs, traditions, and the people.
Dubrovnik is now also famous because of Game of Thrones. Walking through the city you hear lots of tourists referring to it as King’s Landing as it was the inspiration for the show and a few notable scenes were filmed in Dubrovnik. You can even take a Game of Thrones tour through the city to see the various filming locations.
How to get to Dubrovnik
There is always an option to drive to Dubrovnik depending where you are but don’t underestimate the length of Croatia! We drove from Ljubljana and it took about 8 hours. If you are driving from the north of Croatia note that you must enter into Bosnia and Herzegovina at one point for a few kilometers before getting to Dubrovnik. Check your visa requirements. If you are a US citizen you do not need a visa.
Dubrovnik is serviced by the Dubrovnik Airport which is in Čilipi, a 30-minute drive south of the city. This page does an excellent job of sharing which airlines you can use from each European country to Dubrovnik.
Ferries run between Bari, Italy and Dubrovnik, Croatia and you can check the availability through Ok Ferry.
Buses operate throughout Croatia and other major cities. I suggest using Rome2rio to find the best deal!
Travel Planning Tips for Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik’s Old City is small and I mean very small. You can literally see the other side once you enter and you can walk from one edge to the other in a couple of minutes. Essentially I would say one day is enough for a brief visit but walking around on the cobblestone is exhausting and depending on your pace maybe two days would also be perfect. This gives you enough time to enjoy the City Walls, the museums, the fortress, and maybe a tour.
The city is very expensive. Many people suggest staying elsewhere. I stayed in Cavtat which is about a half hour away on a bus. Note that Cavtat, while cheaper than Dubrovnik, was still on the expensive side for Croatia. I really enjoyed my time there as well. It is a beautiful small town on the coast with lots of restaurants and bars.
The 10 bus runs at the top of the hour, every hour between Cavtat and Dubrovnik. A return ticket cost me 50 HRK(~7.50 USD). Just be careful to get off the bus at the right stop which is right outside the walls, otherwise, you will end up in the center of Dubrovnik and it is about a 25-minute walk to the Old City…speaking from experience.
If you do opt to stay in Cavtat I suggest visiting Hotel Croatia because it is a beautiful building with some incredible viewpoints. I visited their spa and got a really nice massage. If you book a massage with them you can also access their pools and saunas.
When is the best time to visit? The shoulder season, so spring or fall are perfect to avoid crowds and extreme heat. I have heard from other travelers how packed the Old City gets during the summer so be mindful when you visit. I even suggest visiting as early as possible in the morning to beat the crowds regardless of when you go.
While Croatia is in the European Union they are not Schengen Area and they do not use Euros.
If you are driving into Croatia try to have Kunas (HRK) available to pay tolls – some may not take other currencies. Once in any of the cities, there are exchange places everywhere or you can use any ATM to withdraw your money in Kunas. Watch the conversion rate! Many of the ATMs had very steep rates and using my bank’s conversion was much better (you will see this option on the ATM).
What to see and do in Dubrovnik
When you first arrive at the Old City of Dubrovnik you will encounter the main entrance called the Pile Gate. In the past, it had a drawbridge and there was also a moat around the city. Today there is a stone bridge that leads you into the city.
City walls were first built about 700 years ago in response to the Ottoman Empire. An additional wall was placed at the Pile gate because of the invention and use of canons, but fortunately, it never saw any. The walls are 2 km (1.2 miles) in length and go completely around the Old City. Tickets to walk on the walls are 200 HRK (Croatian Kuna) or approximately 29 USD. The ticket will give you access to the wall and to the Lovrijenac Fort. Hours for the walls vary throughout the year so check the site for the most up to date information.
Be mindful that while the wall seems easy at just 2 km it is actually more difficult than it appears. It is not a very flat surface, there are a lot of stairs, and no protection from the heat and sun. I was very fortunate to visit on a cool day in May but even then it got quite warm at some points. Plan to do the walk early morning or later in the day if possible.
It took me 1 hour to do the whole thing, while I was going fairly quickly I was stopping to take a lot of photos. The crowds can slow you down significantly as some parts of the wall are very narrow and you have to wait for others.
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In 1438 Dubrovnik built a clever water supply system that you can see and use today and part of that system is the Onofrio’s Fountain. The water system brought water from 12km away! Originally the fountain had sculptures around it, but after an earthquake in 1667, they were destroyed. Today you can see carved masks around the structure, and drinkable water does still come out.
The pharmacy was founded in 1317 and is still serving the public today. They still use some of the old Franciscan recipes for some products, like their famous skin cream. You can also visit the pharmacy museum to see some of the old tools and products that were used long ago. Next to the pharmacy is the Monastery Museum which displays religious art and artifacts.
At this point, you have entered the Pile Gate, through the City Walls, and are standing at the start of a long wide street. Next to you is the Monastery and Fountain (mentioned above). You are on Stradun.
Just 300 meters long this is the longest and widest street in the Old City and literally runs the length from the Pile Gate to the Ploče Gate. It is impossible to get lost in Dubrovnik’s Old City because of this.
All of the shops and restaurants along this street are not allowed to have signs sticking out – as you might have noticed in the photo. This encourages people passing by to browse inside each window. This is also the youngest part of the Old City. The buildings are only 300 years old and are sitting where there was once water. The buildings found on parallel streets are as old as 700 years.
Built in the early 1500’s Sponza Palace has served many functions throughout its existence in Dubrovnik from customs to mint to even armory. Today it houses the city archives.
The Rector’s Palace previously held government administrative offices and the living quarters for the rector. The rector was a type of governor who, in this case, served for only one month. Their job was to stay in the Rector’s Palace the entire time. Every night the people would close the gates to Dubrovnik and give the Rector the keys, and in the morning he returned them to the people to open the city.
Before the current structure, there was a medieval defense building, but after a few explosions (due to storing gunpowder inside) it needed to be rebuilt several times. Today it houses the Culture History Museum.
There is a cable car that you can ride to the peak of Srd Mountain giving you aerial views over the Old City of Dubrovnik. To find the cable car leave the Old City from the Buža Gate and cross the parking lot. Cable cars leave every few minutes and can fit 30 people in each carriage. A round-trip ticket for an adult is 150 HRK (~23 USD). You can buy a ticket directly from the station. Hours vary on the month and weather. At the moment due to a contract issue, the cable car is closed until June 30, 2019. Check this site for the most up to date information.
When you are on the city walls you cannot miss this large fortress built on top of a huge rock measuring 37 meters. Records suggest Lovrijenac dates back to around 1301, but others suggest it is probably prior to this. The Venetians wanted to build a fort here to attack Dubrovnik but once the locals heard of their plans they quickly built their own in just a few months. The fortress was repaired many times since its original build, and the walls facing the sea are almost 12 meters thick.
Lovrijenac is familiar to some because part of the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series takes place at the fort. It is also familiar to some others as the Red Keep in Game of Thrones. Some scenes were even filmed here. When you purchase a ticket to walk along the walls you will also receive entrance to the fort.
Pietro Passalacqua, a Roman architect, designed the Jesuit Stairs inspired by the Spanish Steps in Rome. If you are familiar with them then you will see it immediately. The stairs also have taken on a new meaning to many (once again) thanks to Game of Thrones. You will see lots of people reenacting the scene shot in this exact place and getting their picture taken here.
At the bottom of the stairs, you will be near the market where you can find fresh fruits and vegetables during the day. At the top of the stairs is another square with St. Ignatius Church.
Where to eat in Dubrovnik
I read about this small sandwich shop called Buffet Škola (Antuninska ul. 1), right off of Stradun not far from the Pile Gate so I thought I would check it out. It was a great option for lunch. This tiny place with maybe three tables, bills of different currency plastering the walls, and about three different options on the menu. I got prosciutto and oil-cured cheese on freshly baked bread that was very similar to focaccia. All of the products are locally made and delicious.
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As per usual I can’t help but thank you for taking the time to read this post – I know it is a bit long. I really had a wonderful time visiting Dubrovnik and was excited to share it with all of you. If you have any great tips or suggestions for any who might be visiting in the near future please leave them in the comments!