Croatia’s capital city and widely regarded as one of the most brilliant jewels in this corner of the world, Dubrovnik was built on the wealth of sea trade and for centuries thrived as an independent city state known as Ragusa.
While the medieval power of Ragusa has long since gone its fantastical collection of palaces, churches, monasteries, fountains, forts and bastions very much live on. Protected in their entirety behind ancient walls which date back to the 12th century, the Old Town of Dubrovnik is so exceptional its entirety has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Wandering the maze of centuries-old streets here is like walking through a museum where everything has been gloriously frozen in time. Visit the hushed cloisters of a medieval monastery, gaze upon the impossible blues of the sea from an ancient turret or wander amid the splendors of the Rector’s Palace where the leaders of Ragusa once lived and worked.
Alternatively you can explore a little further afield and visit islands with atmospheric ruins and Napoleonic forts, take a tour of a winery or learn how silk is produced using methods which have been employed for many centuries.
To keep you refreshed and fed Dubrovnik offers a wonderful dining scene where fresh-as seafood reigns supreme along with some truly unique drinking venues which include terraces carved into the cliff and a subterranean cave filled with stalactites.
It is perhaps little wonder that that this amazingly beautiful place – known as the Pearl of the Adriatic – was chosen as the filming location for the phenomenally successful HBO series Game of Thrones and today visiting the ‘Red Keep’, the Sept of Baelor, King’s Landing and many more sites is a popular tourist activity.
A Morning in Dubrovnik
The ancient fortified walls of Dubrovnik’s sensational UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town are an endless series of well-preserved towers, forts and bastions. Many who visit here are intent on exploring every one of these historical gems as they stroll and doing so can easily occupy a whole morning. Alternatively, you can combine walking certain sections of the wall and visiting one or two of the principle forts with checking out some of the other Old Town highlights such as its ancient monasteries, beautiful Baroque churches, fountains, colorful markets and the stunning Rector’s Palace.
Just before you break for lunch take the quick ride on the cable car to see Dubrovnik from on high.
Strolling the Old Town Walls
Stretching for almost 2km, Dubrovnik’s walls completely surround the original town, built to protect it from attacks – principally those of the Venetians and Ottomans – that may have arrived from either seaward or landward directions. Originally raised in the 12th century, the walls as you see them today mostly date from the 15th century, added to and strengthened over the next 200 years that followed. Fortified towers were constructed at strategic points or those deemed in need of greater protection, many of them created by the Florentine master-architect Michelozzo.
The combination of 25m high walls – as thick as six meters in places – along with the bastions, towers and forts together formed a formidable and virtually impenetrable defense system.
Remarkably well-preserved, the soft gray and white medieval walls are continuously backed by a canvas of serene sky and sea in vivid Adriatic blues and offer incredible elevated views over the red-roofs of the Old Town. Every twist and turn seems to reveal yet another highly photogenic vista which will leave you sighing at the incredible beauty of it all.
The walls in their entirety – particularly those facing the sea – have been much used as filming locations in the Game of Thrones series, mostly representing King’s Landing,
To begin your morning’s adventure there are several entry points to the walls with the 16th century stone-constructed Pile Gate – the principle access to the Old Town – set at the end of a medieval arched stone bridge one of the options. Game of Throne fans may recognize this highly fortified entrance as it was used many times over as a film set. One of the most memorable of these being the scene where the Lannister royals are attacked by a mob after Myrcella’s farewell.
The Minceta Tower
One of the wall’s six main fortresses, this landward protecting tower which dates back to the 1300s is the first you will arrive at from the Pile Gate. As the highest point of the entire barricade, the round Minceta Tower’s views are unparalleled and a magnificent way to begin.
If you are a Game of Thrones fan and this tower feels a little familiar it is because it doubled as the House of Undying which Daenerys visited in season two.
Taking eleven years to build, this 16th century fortress’s strength was both tested and subsequently proven to be incredibly successful when the great earthquake of 1667 failed to topple it. While much else of the town lay in ruins, the civic leaders gathered in the interior vaulted rooms here to discuss reconstruction plans. The fort also became the temporary storage site for many of the city treasures which had been salvaged from the catastrophe.
Irregular in form, Fort Revelin – which stands detached from the walls – kept guard over the Old Port, an area deemed one of those most at risk from attacking enemies arriving by sea.
Today this imposing fort plays host for several events in the Dubrovnik Summer Festival from its beautiful terrace during July and August while the rest of the time it is a nightclub venue.
St. John Fortress
Another of the port’s major protection points, the fortification complex of St. John – also known as St. Ivan – was completed in 1557 incorporating earlier forts which date back to the 1300s.
Today this imposing masterpiece of military architecture is home to the Dubrovnik Aquarium and the Maritime Museum. This gem of a museum which is set over two levels takes visitors on a journey through the region’s rich sea-faring heritage. Encompassing elements of both trade and tradition, the exhibits found within the fort’s vaulted rooms include paintings, models, naval charts, shipyard tools, ship instruments and finds from medieval shipwrecks.
Along with the Minceta Tower, 15th century Fort Bokar which juts into the sea was intended to guard and defend the city’s main gate. Rising on two levels, this defense point is another of the Game of Thrones filming locations, most obvious in a scene with Tyrion and Lord Varys discussing how best to defend the capital from imminent attack.
There is one major fort which although a highly significant part of the town’s defense system isn’t part of the city walls – Lovrijenac, also known as St. Lawrence. Perched high atop cliffs and sitting on a jut of land which faces the Pile Gate, triangular St. Lawrence is arguably the most striking of all the town’s fortresses, built to ward off attacks from both land and sea. With walls an incredible 12m thick on the seaward side, legend claims that this imposing fort was started and finished in just three months when it was originally constructed in the 11th century. What you see today principally dates from the 1600s with adaptations made following damage in the earthquake of 1667.
St. Lawrence has three large terraces which are utilized during the Dubrovnik Summer Festival as stunning open-air theater venues.
Grand and majestic, St. Lawrence has also played the part of the Red Keep in the Game of Thrones series and has appeared over and again in scenes including that of the tournament thrown in honor of Joffrey’s name day in season two and during the unforgettable Battle of the Blackwater.
Besides the major fortresses and defense points the city walls in all have 17 points of interest to explore. These include the Sveti Spasitelj Fortress which has some lovely views of the island of Lokrum along with a panorama from above of the town’s beach and the 14th century Asimon which guards an inner gate. While some choose to explore the walls by themselves there are many who prefer to take a tour so that they can learn all about the history of each major point as they go.
Additionally, a good proportion of those who arrive in this beautiful corner of the world are one of the millions of fans of the phenomenally successful HBO’s Game of Thrones series so, not surprisingly, tours which take fans around the many filming locations are very popular.
Morning Coffee in Dubrovnik
Quite where you slot in a morning pause from your explorations for coffee is entirely up to you but if you choose to divide the morning between the walls and the Old Town center this could make a convenient point for a break.
The main street – Stradun – is peppered with cafe choices while the main square – Luza Square – which sits at its end has several more. Taking a coffee break here at one of the street tables surrounds you with historical magnificence. Bordering the square can be found Sponza Palace, the Rector’s Palace, St. Blaise Church, Orlando’s Column and Small Onofrio’s Fountain. Once choice here is the Congo which serves as bar, restaurant and cafe all in one.
Gogito Coffee Shop
If you happen to be something of a coffee snob and someone with connoisseur requirements you need to head to the Gogito Coffee Shop. Located down a tranquil little side street not far from the foot of the St. John Fortress, this small-sized roast-their-own gem serves what many consider the best coffee in the entire city. Gogito has only a scattering of alfresco tables but as it is so well tucked away often the only other customers will be locals who are in on the secret.
Another lovely Old Town choice is Pupica which sweet-treat lovers will find especially appealing. Gorgeously kitted out in shabby-chic style and with vibrantly-colored tablecloths, this combined cafe and patisserie offers a full selection of teas, coffees and cold drinks along with a sensational array of homemade cakes, brownies, muffins and other confectionery.
Cave Bar More
Dubrovnik’s most unique café – Cave Bar More – is located a little outside of the center but is so stunning many consider it worth the effort to get there. This gorgeous venue which is both café and bar is located inside a genuine stalactite- and stalagmite-filled cave in the subterranean depths of the Hotel More. As you sip on your coffee in the blissfully cool temperatures you are surrounded by bare rock and some beautiful lighting which make Cave Bar More perhaps the most atmospheric café you will ever visit. There is also a lovely range of terraces outside sprinkled about with cushioned wicker chairs or highly loungeable tub-like seats along with some sunbeds right at the water’s edge, all of which give you an incredible view of Lapad Bay.
Highlights of Dubrovnik’s Old Town
Like many old towns in this part of the world one of the best ways to enjoy them is simply to wander the labyrinth of gorgeous lanes steeped in history and find the treasures by chance. However, there are without doubt a few absolute not-to-be-missed highlights. While you can of course wander freely under your own steam one of the best ways to ensure nothing gets left out is to join up with a tour. This way you will also learn a great deal more about the architectural styles made up of a Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance mix as well as the fascinating stories behind each historical treasure.
On arriving through the Pile Gate you will instantly meet the Old Town’s main thoroughfare known as the Stradun which traverses the area all the way across to the Old Port on the eastern edge.
Big Onofrio’s Fountain
The first thing you will see is the distinctive 16-sided and cupola-topped Big Onofrio’s Fountain. Dating from the 1500s, this historic relic which is still functioning today was once much more sculpture-adorned but many of these were destroyed in the 17th century earthquake. Its original pipe-work connected to a water source 12km away.
To the left of the Stradun on entering can be found the 14th century Franciscan Monastery which is a highlight for both its gorgeous cloisters and a remarkable pharmacy which has been in existence for many centuries. A leafy oasis of calm surrounded by beautiful ancient arches, the orange tree-filled courtyard here is a must-visit while next door can be found the pharmacy. As visitors admire the displays of centuries-old pharmaceutical relics here made up of beautiful old jars, antique curios and at times unidentifiable artifacts locals come to collect their prescribed medicines; an element which gives the whole a rather surreal air.
When you leave be sure to check out the easily missed gargoyle which protrudes from a wall near the monastery entrance. Ancient in origin, this carved owl was once an outlet for rainwater draining from above and today its well worn appearance is due to something more besides the toll of the centuries. Legend has it that those who can stand on its head facing the wall and while balanced in this precarious fashion can simultaneously remove their shirt will find themselves perpetually lucky in love. With the tiny gargoyle barely protruding from the wall this task is of course all but impossible but it hasn’t prevented many from trying over the years.
At the port end of the main street can be found what is generally considered to be the Old Town’s brightest jewel – the stunning Rector’s Palace. This beautiful landmark which mixes Gothic and Renaissance styles was built in the 15th century on the site of a castle and later a cathedral which was burned in a fire.
Both home and government seat to the then Republic of Ragus’s elected leader, this majestic and highly ornate building displays very obviously the full rein of the wealth and power of the town’s prosperous medieval era. One of the oldest buildings in the entire town and one of the very few which survived the huge 17th century earthquake, the Rector’s Palace today allows visitors to wander not simply amid some of the most exquisite architecture but also to enjoy a dazzling collection of historical exhibits. These include paintings, sedan chairs and an array of ceremonial clothing and wigs belonging to former serving rectors and their council.
If you wonder why many of the antique clocks have been stopped at 5.45 this was the exact time the Napoleonic forces stormed the town in the early 19th century.
Just a stone’s throw from the Rector’s Palace can be found the town’s cathedral which although still over 300 years old is one of the Old Town’s newer additions. Dubrovnik’s original 12th century cathedral was sadly one of the 17th century earthquake victims.
Today this beautiful Baroque building is home to a dazzling – and at times bizarre – collection of golden and silver reliquaries. The giant glass-fronted cabinet which holds them is itself a sensational sight in rich reds and golds with shelves especially built to display the treasures. The jeweled and gilt casings of the reliquaries form the same shape as the holy relic body part within which means skulls, arms and legs are all represented. Included within the collection are relics said to be the swaddling clothes of Jesus, the head, arm and leg of Saint Blaise and splinters from the cross on which Jesus was crucified.
Orlando’s Column, which for many centuries served as a strong symbol of freedom for the independent state, is not far from the cathedral entrance. Now 600 years old, the figure represented is one of the most famous knights who ever lived and the inspiration behind much literature of both the time and since – Roland.
The other side of the Stradun from the cathedral is where you will find the sensational Sponza Palace. While the vast majority of the Old Town’s architectural beauty is represented with Baroque features incorporated during the rebuild which followed the earthquake in the 1600s, the 16th century Sponza Palace represents Renaissance architecture. This palace, along with the Rector’s Palace and the Revellin Fortress are all that was left of the town’s original Gothic and Renaissance-styled buildings – a factor which makes them especially significant.
This magnificent building can only be entered today through special arrangement but its facade alone is worth gazing upon to admire its beauty and detailing.
Besides the cathedral other Old Town churches worthy of a visit include the lovely dome-topped St. Ignatius of Loyola which has a 14th century bell-tower and beautiful frescoes inside its gorgeous interior and St. Blaise Church. This latter, besides the Baroque beauty which marks so much of this wonderful town, is most significant for the remarkably preserved body of St. Silvan within who is on full display for all to see. Representing one of the ‘incorruptible’ saints, St. Silvan’s earthly remains appear almost untouched by time and the gory throat gash – his cause of death in the 4th century – very plain to see.
The town also has a second monastery, known as the Dominican Monastery, whose 14th century interiors are home to some priceless works of art by 13th century masters. For a bit of local color you can wander the town’s markets which include the main market within sight of the Rector’s Palace and the larger Gruz market which is set within the former villa gardens of the powerful Gundulic family. Along with a variety of locally produced fruit, vegetables and fish you can also find honey, lavender products, fragrant spices and unusual oils here.
Those who are avid watchers of the Game of Thrones series will no doubt recognize many buildings and areas as they explore both the main sights and hidden corners of the Old Town. As previously mentioned guided tours which take you round all of the filming locations are possible but you can also find many of them yourself. The Rector’s Palace, for example, doubled as the opulent home of the king in Qarth who Daenerys approached to petition for ships while the Ploče Gate became the entrance to the Red Keep. Lesser obvious locations include the elegant Baroque-styled Jesuit Staircase which was used for the Great Sept of Baelor’s steps and where Cersei commenced her naked walk of shame in season five. Another spot is the exterior of the Ethnographic Museum Rupe which became Peter Bailish’s brothel while the atmospheric St. Dominic Street was used over and again to film any scene which was set in the marketplace of King’s Landing
Ride the Cable Car
No matter how difficult it is to tear yourself away from the endless delights and discoveries of the Old Town be sure to leave a small gap for one of the city’s major highlights – the Dubrovnik Cable Car. The ride itself is just four minutes in length but during that time you will ascend to the top of Srd Hill from where the views are most definitely of the magnificent variety. Overlooking the red-roofed Old Town you can trace out all your morning pathways and highlights with the major additional bonus of panoramas which take in the sparkling Adriatic.
Located near the hill-top station you will also find the Homeland War Museum which will be of great interest to all those who would like to learn something of the war of independence in the 1990s. For five years Dubrovnik was a city under siege as Serbian, Croatian and Montenegrin forces fought for supremacy. Relating such relatively recent history the thought-provoking exhibits are excellent and include news reels of the time, maps, firsthand accounts and documents. The fact that the museum is housed inside Napoleon’s Imperial Fort makes wandering here especially atmospheric.
Lunch in Dubrovnik
21st century Dubrovnik has established a very real culinary presence which means, should you choose to explore this side, it can be a true gastronomic journey. The city has something for everyone – from secret spots hidden down atmospheric alleyways in the Old Town to waterfront venues sure to impress even the most discerning with their sensational settings and fine dining cuisine. While seafood very definitely leads the menu choices there are plenty of other options too.
Yacht Club Orsan
The Old Town has the greatest cluster of choices for dining with the town beach of Banje and its sprinkling of restaurants just a short hop from the Ploče Gate adding more options still. If you want to escape the center’s hustle and bustle for lunch head to the Lapad peninsula – around 4km from the Old Town. Ringed around with gorgeous beaches, this just of land is home to the Yacht Club Orsan which despite the instant images such an exclusive-sounding name might conjure up is almost entirely frequented by casual-lunching locals. As settings go this one is a true treat – its tree-shaded waterside tables giving you beautiful views of the boats bobbing in the natural harbor – and the whole is suffused with an air of calm and tranquility. Essentially a fish and seafood restaurant, Orsan offers daily specials too and despite its luxurious surroundings, magical setting and high quality cuisine charges pocket-friendly prices.
Another elegant lunch venue with views – this time over the red rooftops of the Old Town – is the Restaurant Dubrovnik. Totally secluded while still surrounding you in medieval splendor, the Restaurant Dubrovnik has a well-established reputation for its high quality cuisine making up a menu offering both traditional and contemporary Mediterranean dishes. So exceptional is this lovely little rooftop venue it has earned itself a mention in the Michelin Guide.
For those looking for an Old Town quality seafood option which won’t overstretch the budget head to Lokanda-Peskarija. Set right beneath the city walls and with a waterside location at the old port, this little gem offers a large and beautiful terrace so you can make the most of your lovely surrounds. Very popular with locals, this restaurant also offers a lovely interior space on its upper gallery where you will be surrounded by rich dark woods, roof beams and stone walls and has a truly tucked away ambiance perfect for an intimate lunch.
An Afternoon in Dubrovnik
The city of Dubrovnik has more than enough delights to keep you fully occupied and fascinated for quite some time and you could spend several days never straying outside the city limits.
However, the Dubrovnik surrounds are also full of incredible places and experiences which range from nature hikes on gorgeous islands to heading out into the countryside to learn about such things as silk making and wine growing.
Just a short 10 minute boat road from Dubrovnik’s Old Town brings you to the wonderful uninhabited island of Lokrum. Brimming with natural beauty, girdled by stunning beaches and sprinkled about with historic relics, Lokrum also offers you the opportunity to see the magnificence of the ancient Old Town walls from an entirely different perspective.
You can simply stroll this island nature reserve following the pathways which transverse the center and take you around its edges or you can spend your time exploring the island’s man-made highlights which include a Napoleonic Fort, a botanical garden and the ruins of a monastery which also served as a residence for a self-proclaimed Mexican emperor.
Located at the island’s center and perched aloft its highest point can be found Fort Royal. This is one of Dubrovnik’s 19th century leftovers from the Napoleonic wars. The golden age of the Republic of Ragusa was in full decline when Napoleon’s troops entered the city in 1806 after blockading the ports and subsequently taking control. During their eight years of power which followed Fort Royal was constructed. A short climb to this circular fort’s rooftop offers some lovely Dubrovnik and Adriatic views.
Perhaps the most atmospheric place on the island is the crumbling ruins of the Benedictine monastery. Founded in the 12th century, generations of monks had lived here for centuries until their forced eviction in the 19th century when Napoleon’s forces took control of Dubrovnik. Their removal has given rise to a folklore legend which relates how the monks, in a somber ceremony on the night before they left, cursed any and all future occupiers. History does indeed tell us of a series of catastrophic events for Maximilian I – self-proclaimed Emperor of Mexico – who claimed the island for a summer residence in the latter part of the 19th century, converting a portion of the former monastery into a luxurious villa. He was executed by the Mexican government, his wife became insane and other members of his family fell to assassination and suicide.
The oldest parts of the monastery ruins, including a Romanesque-Gothic tower, date back to the 12th century while only two wings remain of the Renaissance-styled 15th century building constructed a little south of the original. Maximilian’s villa, which incorporated the latter buildings of the monastery was constructed in the mid 1800s.
Today the monastery and villa house a restaurant, a small museum and a Game of Thrones-themed exhibition complete with an ‘iron throne’ replica. Lokrum, like many other Dubrovnik locations, has played host to the production crew of this phenomenally successful TV series who used the monastery to film several scenes.
The lovely botanical gardens you can find here were once the grand private gardens of Maximilian, themselves extended from the former landscaped herb and plant-filled Benedictine gardens of the monks. Maximilian, incidentally, is also the man responsible for the many peacocks inhabiting the island.
Besides its many other treasures both natural and man-made, Lokrum Island is also home to the exceptionally lovely and lush greenery-surrounded Dead Sea Lake or Mrtvo More which makes for a lovely cooling dip. With a clarity which is incredible, the shallow waters here are salty as the lake is fed directly from the sea via a subterranean channel.
While simply hopping on one of the highly regular taxi boats which depart for Lokrum Island from the port are one way of doing things there are also other options. If you want to get a bit more active join one of the kayak tours which are even suitable for those who have never set foot in a kayak before. These not only let you explore the highlights of Lokrum but typically also take you on a paddle around the imposing city walls to view them from below. They will also often include a detour to one of the lovely hidden away water-access only beaches such as Betina with its caves and beautiful snorkeling.
Another way of doing things if you want to combine Lokrum with a few other sights and don’t relish the effort of paddling a kayak is to take a boat tour. Such half-day trips typically transport you around some of the coast’s most beautiful sights such as the Lapad Peninsula and Kolocep Island, take in beaches both secluded and more populated to enjoy food and drinks, explore caves and generally offer time for snorkeling and swimming in the beautiful Adriatic blues.
If you’re ready to experience the beauty of Dubrovnik in person, contact one of our vacation planners today!