A city guide to Dubrovnik

Croatia’s southernmost city may be famous for its dramatic ramparts and Adriatic views, but there’s a more engaging way to explore. Slip into side streets packed with seafood restaurants, paddle to islets, and explore sleepy satellite towns.Monday, 6 January 2020

By Tamsin Wressell
Photographs By Francesco Lastrucci

“It’s an intimate city — you can’t miss anything, and it all loops round,” says Vesna, my guide for the evening. We’re sitting outside one of the many bars that sprawl onto the Stradun, the main street, in Dubrovnik’s Old Town. The sun is setting behind the clock tower, a flock of swallows is circling above and the street is packed with pedestrians. 

“People-watching is pretty much all we do,” she continues, with a smile. She’s lived here her whole life and I’ve asked how to best spend my time in the historic city. Vesna’s answer echoes that of other locals I’ve spoken to. First and foremost, unwind, they said. Have a drink, eat some food, and look around. 

It’s an excellent approach to experiencing Dubrovnik. From our table, I can see new layers of history with every slight tilt of my head: the 14th-century Old Pharmacy at the Franciscan Church and Monastery, to my left; Big Onofrio’s Fountain, in front of it, dating from the 15th century; and St Blaise’s Church to my right, constructed in 1715. This city, encircled by old stone ramparts, stacks up the beauty points — but the crowds can be, at times, a little frenetic. “It’s a tourist city and a city for tourists. You can’t change that,” Vesna sighs. 

In 2016, UNESCO threatened to remove Dubrovnik’s World Heritage Site status unless it curbed its number of tourists. Today, over 500 cruise ships a year still dock on the city’s pretty Adriatic shores. For this reason, Vesna suggests avoiding the Old Town in the afternoon (when cruise passengers fill the streets). “This is when we locals take a bus to a nearby town, or go to the beach, or have coffee somewhere,” she says. Early morning or late evening — they’re the best times to appreciate the beauty of the city. 

“The wine and food is world-class here. Beyond the history, that’s what we have,” says Ivica, my kayaking guide the following afternoon. We’re having a post-paddle coffee on the island of Lokrum, just off the coast. We’ve left the chaos of the Old Town behind us and peacocks are pecking at the crumbs around our feet in the island’s labyrinthine gardens. The part of my brain programmed to London life is looking for the time, for what’s next — I want to plan the rest of the day. Where should I eat, I ask. 

“Well, the city is food — it’s just built that way, to reflect our culture,” Ivica says. “The Old Town is basically one big restaurant once the gates are closed. So you could do many things. But spending time running around? That’s not how we do things or what the city should be for. People come here for a few days and push everything in. But we take our time. We eat. We relax. Now that’s Dubrovnik.” 

Later, when I think back on my time in the city, I realise he was right — the best of its offerings have food and drink at their heart, and the backstreets of the Old Town — a melee of bars and restaurants — are best explored leisurely at dusk; this approach made my culinary discoveries all the more delicious. The food in Dubrovnik is simple yet fresh with Mediterranean ingredients like fish, olive oil and parsley at its core. The seafood was the lightest I’ve tasted; the wine, incredible. And when my belly was full, I spent time ambling through the city and its harbour. By the coast, I counted the waves lapping rhythmically at the shore. In the city, I watched the people. I took my guides’ advice: I put London from my mind, and I unwind. 

See and do

Old Town: Dubrovnik’s main attraction, its historic quarters, are enclosed by stone ramparts. Be sure to veer into the winding back streets for restaurants, bars and cafes. 

City Walls: This is a tourist hotspot — and priced accordingly (tickets cost 200 kuna /£23). Arrive before 09.00 to experience city views in relative peace. Head to the entrance by Cogito Coffee — a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in the east of the Old Town — to avoid the queues at the busier western entrance.  

Mount Srd: This 1,350ft hill overlooks the Old Town and the coast. Take a cable-car — or hike up, if it’s not too hot — to the top to catch the sunset over the Adriatic. There’s a view point as well as the Panorama Restaurant & Bar, which has al fresco seating.  

Dolce Vita: With the city walls trapping the sun’s heat, ice cream pit stops are, unsurprisingly, abundant in Dubrovnik. Dolce Vita is better priced than those on the main drag and offers incredible scoops of Dubrovnika, a flavoursome mix of candied orange and dark chocolate with pistachio and hazelnut, among others.  

Saints Hills Winery: An hour-and-45-minute drive north west along the coast, this winery is worth hiring a car for. The wines here are aged in French oak and the views of the vineyards from the restaurant — where you enjoy a pairing menu and watch the setting sun — are divine. 

Ston: En route to Saint Hills Winery, stop by the village of Ston which is famed for its preserved stone walls and oyster restaurants. Tuck into a seafood platter at Konoba Bakus, where members of the town’s sizeable stray cat population will inevitably be stretched out under the tables. 

Banje Beach: Walk a few hundred metres east of the city walls, through Ploce Gate and past the harbour and you’ll reach the closest beach to the Old Town. It’s a great spot to swim or try out watersports. 

Nota Kayaking: Ivica and Srdan run this small kayaking company. Paddle out with them to Betina Cave for a dip in beautifully clear waters before navigating the coastline and coves of Lokrum Island, off the coast. 

Glam Beer Therapy: Located in an alleyway off the main street, this is a great spot to take respite from the heat — and crowds. It’s one of the few places in the city with both artisanal coffee and Croatian craft beer on the menu. Try the Dubrovnik
Beer Company’s Fortunal Pale Ale for something zesty. 

Buy

Gunduliceva Poljana market: This market in Gundulic Square, just in front of the Church of St Blaise, is open Monday to Saturday from 07.00 to 17.00. The local produce sold here includes fruit and vegetables, soap, lavender, oil and candied orange. Go early to avoid crowds. 

Uje: Specialising in all the products you can shake out of a Croatian olive tree, this deli outfit has four outlets in the Old Town. Expect pastes, oils, soaps, jams and different varieties of the fruit itself, as well as other locally produced epicurean and cosmetic treasures. 

Bonbonnière Kras: Handmade filled chocolates, pralines and cookies line the walls of this chocolate shop by the harbour. Products come from the iconic Croatian chocolate factory Kras, which has been running since 1911. 

Like a local

Dubravka 1836 Restaurant and Café: The oldest cafe in Dubrovnik (founded in 1836, of course) sits alongside the city walls and serves up a menu of Croatian staples. But locals choose it for one special reason: the welcome breeze that blows through it from Mount Srd to the sea. 

Cavtat: Escaping to nearby Cavtat is a good option come afternoon. The town has plenty of restaurants and beaches on which to while away a lazy afternoon. A bus heads here frequently from just outside the city.

Make a splash: While Banje is a great beach near the city, it’s also a popular one. When the crowds get too much, stand on its shores facing the sea, walk right along the seafront, towards the Old Town and you’ll stumble across a rocky outcrop — a peaceful gem where finding a spot to place a towel isn’t a competitive sport. 

Sleep

Hotel Ivka: This small, family-owned three-star on the Lapad peninsula is a half-hour walk, or short bus ride, from the Old Town and a 10-minute walk from a promenade on the coast. Single rooms from €25 (£21) per night, half-board with food and local wines served at the hotel’s restaurant.  

Hotel Lero: A four-star hotel, with a spa and an outdoor swimming pool, just a 15-minute coastal walk away from the Old Town and five minutes from the beach. A poolside bar and restaurant serve Croatian dishes. Rooms from £58 per night.  

Villa Orsula: A five-minute walk from the centre, this five-star boutique hotel, set in a white stone villa overlooking the Old Town and coast, has its own vine-draped terrace and a private beach. Rooms from £604 per night. 

Eat

Presa: The regional staple dish of cevapi — a kebab-style dish of grilled, smoky beef sausages served with flatbread and sliced onion — is a delicious cheap eat at this popular street food spot, just off the Stradun. It’s a small space, but there’s some outdoor seating in the little alley outside. 

Bistro Tavulin: This Old Town dining spot serves traditional Dubrovnikan cuisine. Start with a local fig grappa before moving onto a plate of delicate shrimp tortellini. 

Posat: This fine dining spot sits just outside the city walls, affording great sea views. Expect al fresco meals with plenty of fresh seafood — the catch of the day is often brought over live so brace yourself for what can be a difficult encounter.

After hours

Buza Bar: Tucked away just beyond the city walls, this cliff-side bar is one of the best in town for sundowners, as well as being the go-to spot for cliff diving.

Candlelit concerts: Beyond a handful of heaving nightclubs, Dubrovnik’s late-night options are thin on the ground. Luckily, come 21.00 every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, atmospheric classical concerts are held by candlelight at St Saviour Church in the Old Town. You can buy tickets from the tourist office or at the church itself. 

The Bar by Azur: Aperol spritz cocktails are ubiquitous in Dubrovnik, but finding more upmarket mixology can be a little tricky. The Bar by Azur is one of the few places with an extensive menu of creative, expertly blended cocktails. Drinks are best enjoyed al fresco on street-side tables in the cool of dusk. 

ESSETNTIALS

Getting there
British Airways flies direct from Gatwick to Dubrovnik. EasyJet flies direct from Manchester, Belfast, Edinburgh, Bristol and London. 

Average flight time: 4h15m.

Alternatively, Dubrovnik can be reached via Eurostar from London’s St Pancras International to Brussel-Zuid, then via bus with Flixbus.       

Getting around
Dubrovnik is best explored on foot (the Old Town is pedestrian-only). Outside of this, Cavtat can be reached by local bus. There are regular daily sailings from the Old Town Port to Lokrum, or the island can be reached by kayak

When to go
Dubrovnik has hot, dry summers (average 30C) and, typically, wet and mild winters (average 12C). The best months to visit in are September and October (around 26C), when the weather is a little cooler and the beaches and streets less crowded. 

More info
visit-croatia.co.uk

How to do it
British Airways
offer three nights in Dubrovnik, staying at Berkeley Hotel & Spa, including return economy flights from £294 per person.   

Published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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