Dubrovnik, also known as “the Pearl of the Adriatic,” is an exquisitely preserved medieval city located on the southern coast of Croatia.
Although the bombings that occurred here in 1991 horrified the world, Dubrovnik has bounced back with an enchanting vigor that has secured its place as one of the most-visited destinations in the Mediterranean.
It’s easy to see why tourists have been flocking to Dubrovnik more and more in recent years. Probably has something to do with that whole “Game of Thrones” thing?
But if you were to do a quick scan for tips on visiting Dubrovnik right now, you’d probably come across several reviews describing frustrating experiences in a city absolutely overrun with tourists. A few examples:
“The Old City is small to begin with, and when you add enormous crowds of tourists, it becomes overwhelming.”
“It’s like the Adriatic Disney World.”
“It’s just so crowded. And in the summer heat, it’s a recipe for a miserable disaster.”
According to Croatia Tourism, nearly half of Dubrovnik’s annual tourists arrive by cruise ship. People coming from these cruise ships absolutely flood the historic Old Town, which normally inhabits only 1,000 residents. Most of whom opt to get out of dodge and rent out their homes during the summer months.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned not only in my travels, but from growing up in an incredibly seasonal and ‘touristy’ town, it’s that if the locals don’t want to be there, you probably don’t either.
So when should you go?
Don’t let the poor planning of others talk you out of experiencing this incredible place. Dubrovnik, and most of coastal Croatia for that matter, is very seasonal. So you have some options.
Peak tourist season in Dubrovnik, as with most of the Mediterranean, is in July and August, but can start as early as June and doesn’t wind down completely until October. If you’re planning your trip to Croatia in peak season, all I can say is Godspeed. You are choosing to put yourself in a tiny town with thousands of people it’s not built to handle. And it’s surrounded by walls, so you’re literally stuck there unless you choose to get out of town when the cruise ships are in port, which is from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. So what’s the point?
We arrived in Dubrovnik in early March. While there were a couple windy days, we had great luck with the weather overall. Temperatures were mild– upper 50’s to mid-60’s– but it was sunny every day. We even got to work on our tan at the beach for a few days, and we’re native Floridians, so we probably have a lower tolerance for ‘cold’ beach days than most.
We pretty much had the city to ourselves, but all of the shops and restaurants were open, so it was the best of both worlds.
March is still just outside of true ‘shoulder season’, though, so you do run the risk of a rogue day weather-wise. Another thing worth noting, if you choose to visit Croatia in the off season or shoulder season, make sure you do your due diligence in terms of planning tours and transportation. Some ferry routes and connections, for example, don’t start running until May, and the ferries that are running do so a lot less frequently. A lot of the websites aren’t very up-to-date, so I would make sure to double- and triple-check everything via phone before booking.
A rough and rainy arrival
Although the weather was great for most of the trip, the day we arrived was one of those aforementioned ‘rogue’ weather days. Really, really rogue. We hate flying as it is, so without going into all the details, I’ll just say it was enough of an ordeal that our flight on a small charter plane next month has magically morphed into a road trip 🙂
Despite the stormy weather, our first impression of Dubrovnik was awe-inspiring. We could barely make out the city’s ancient walls and little red roofs as we navigated the switchbacks down the mountain to the coast, but as we got closer, Dubrovnik appeared out of the mist, revealing a medieval scene straight out of a movie.
It’s easy to see why it’s such a popular location for filming movies and TV shows. Set designers don’t have to do much to it.
No, really. We were told that Robin Hood had just finished filming a few days before we arrived, and the only thing they brought to set were wooden doors to put on the entrance gates.
Where to stay
Don’t stay in Old Town.
Now hear me out. Dubrovnik is actually a lot bigger than we originally thought. It’s quite long, geographically speaking, with Old Town on one end and the Lapad neighborhood on the other. It takes about 40 minutes to walk between the two.
While there are a TON of accommodations in Old Town, they are obviously going to be your most expensive options. You can easily see all of Old Town in a day, so if you’re going to be there for a little while, I would opt to stay elsewhere. You’ll get more for your money, and other activities outside of Old Town will be easily accessible.
Our apartment was absolutely fantastic. Definitely my favorite thus far. It was situated right in the middle of Old Town and Lapad, with a stellar view of Gruz Harbor, the main maritime entrance to Dubrovnik. We were a 15- to 30-minute walk from everywhere, which was a good thing because there was a 24-hour bakery downstairs and we needed all the exercise we could get.
We highly, highly recommend this place. It’s perfect for two people, and our hosts were great. Here’s the link if you want to check it out: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/12337644
If there’s one thing you have to do in Dubrovnik
Walk the ancient city walls. They are among the largest and most complete fortified city walls in Europe. They protected the freedom and safety of the ‘civilized’ and ‘sophisticated’ republic of Dubrovnik that flourished in peace and prosperity for five centuries.
From the walls you’ll take in the best views of Old Town, get an intimate look at local life through tiny little backyards dotted with clothes lines and vegetable gardens, and access the elaborate fortifications Dubrovnik is best known for.
The walk will take you about an hour and a half (double that if you go in peak-season), and you’ll pass by 17 towers, five bastions, two corner fortifications and the St. John Fortress, one of Dubrovnik’s main attractions.
Where: Enter via the Pile Gate
Cost: 150 KN per person
If there’s one thing you don’t have to do in Dubrovnik
It’s the cable car ride up Mount Srd. Don’t get me wrong, the views are great.
But in our opinion, it wasn’t really worth $20USD per person. If you have your heart set on seeing the view, I would opt for the hiking trail up the mountain instead of the cable car. Or you could take the cable car up and hike down, or vice versa.
Overall, if you have some extra money and time, there are better things to blow it on, like…
FANTASTIC(ally cheap) seafood!
The Old Port on the east side of town is a great place to relax and people-watch with a bucket of mussels.
Total cost? About $12. TWELVE. DOLLARS. Now you see why we thought the cable car was such a rip-off.
All we ate the entire time we were in Dubrovnik was seafood, and it was amazing everywhere we went. The southern region of Croatia is home to some of the most sought-after oysters and mussels in the country, and in some cases, all of Europe. The salty water from the Adriatic Sea adds some extra brine to them, and, well, you just have to try them for yourself.
In terms of seafood restaurants, you really can’t go wrong as long as you stay away from the tourist traps. They’re easy to spot– if someone comes up to you and tries to get you in the door, or if the menu is in multiple languages and/or has photos of every dish, don’t go there.
Go to Lapad
The Lapad neighborhood is a 30 to 40-minute walk from Old Town. The walk itself is a fantastic excursion, with beautiful vistas in all directions.
Lapad Bay has a promenade of several bars, restaurants, ice cream and coffee shops. Normally, there’s a wide sandy beach (sandy beaches are very rare in Croatia), but it was under construction while we were there.
The joys of off-season travel.
It ended up being a happy accident, though, because we stumbled upon a boardwalk that goes around the entire Lapad peninsula. It’s nice and shady, with several little ‘beach’ access points along the way.
We found our perfect piece of rock and made an afternoon of it. Hot dogs and wine are not required, but recommended. (Croatians love their hot dogs. They are like full-size pigs-in-a-blanket, wrapped in delicious puff pastry. DELICIOUS.)
The weather was great, but the water was a little too chilly for our taste. (Pat’s going to kill me for this.)
Apparently there is a nudist community of sunbathers somewhere west the Lapad Beach area. We didn’t see them, but figured we’d mention it.
Other sites worth visiting
There is so much to see and do in Dubrovnik, but obviously a big part of planning what you want to do will depend on the time of year that you choose to visit. For example, if you’re looking to do a lot of water-based activities, don’t go in March.
Things to do on your trip to Dubrovnik:
- Take a guided walking tour: Make this the first thing you do, as Dubrovnik’s rich history will give you the context to truly appreciate the incredible place you’re in.
- “Game of Thrones” walking tour: I’ve never watched Game of Thrones, so we didn’t actually do this tour, but I did ask around and it got great reviews.
- Cave Bar More: An awesome spot for drinks in Lapad. It’s a boutique hotel overlooking the sea, and the bar is inside a cave. Open April 1 – November 1.
- Go on a sunset cruise: We’re partial to Viator sailing trips, but there are a ton of companies in Dubrovnik that offer something for every budget, from basic sunset sails to more intimate trips for small groups (or private for a couple) with dinner and drinks. If you are visiting outside of May through September, double check availability prior to booking. Most will confirm availability with you before charging your credit card, but you want to avoid going through the headache of getting a refund if at all possible.
- Go on a day trip: If you have extra time, there are several options for day trips near Dubrovnik. Many of them can be booked through Viator for a more ‘all-inclusive’ experience, or you can do them on your own:
I’m sure you can see why we decided to make Croatia our ‘home base’ for the next couple of months. Check back soon for more on our island hopping, road tripping, and other must-do’s in this amazing place.