Whenever we were planning our Croatian road trip, Dubrovnik was one of the must see destinations. Could this walled town famously described by English poet Lord Byron as being the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ live up to our high expectations?
Arrive at a Room with a View!
We arrived shortly after sunset on a warm August evening, having travelled to Dubrovnik by bus from the town of Makarska about 160km north. The drive followed the spectacular Dalmatian coastline much of the way and we even got to enjoy a short stop close to the Bosnian town of Neum en route! The main bus station in Dubrovnik is quite a distance from the old town so, if like us you are actually staying inside the walls of the old town, you will need to take a taxi. Dubrovnik is hilly, very hilly and the walled town has steps, lots of steps … more than 4000 allegedly. So be prepared and your body might even thank you for giving it a great cardio workout! The taxi from the bus station to the old town cost us 83 Kuna, which equals £9.50 / €11 / $12.50. The owners of our accommodation advised us to be be left at Buza Gate, because there were fewer steps to negotiate from there … great advice! Vehicles, apart from essential services, are not permitted inside the walled town so you will not be getting left off at the door of your holiday home inside the old town. There are no large hotels within the old town. They are available outside of the old town, but we would recommend staying in one of the beautiful buildings inside the walls to fully soak up the atmosphere of this unique and historic location. We were staying in Villa Four Winds on Kunićeva Street. This beautifully restored four-bedroom property is jointly owned by a young brother and sister, who early this year decided to expand the family’s tourism business into hotel ownership. We were welcomed by Ivana on arrival and she helped us up the stairs with our luggage to what she assured us was their best room. Nigel had done his research before booking and so he was very happy when he entered the room and saw that it was the exact room that he had wanted! The long bus journey and carrying luggage up steps in the heat was soon forgotten when we saw the views from the windows in our room. If there is a room in the old town with better views we would be surprised! From one window, we had a view across the entire town as far as the sea and from the other window we had a view across more pretty rooftops to the island of Lokrum and the bay filled with yachts and the occasional cruise ship. Each of the rooms in Villa Four Winds is named after a ‘wind’ such as the Mistral and ours which was called Bura. The rooms have tea and coffee facilities, room safe, flat screen TV and air conditioning. Despite it being hot whenever we were there, we never found it necessary to use the air conditioning. Being so high above the town, there was always a nice breeze through the windows. Another thing that you probably won’t need if staying in the old town is an alarm clock. There are a number of churches and cathedrals within the town and their bells start around 6am and they ring fairly regularly – not just on the half hour! Sleeping in probably won’t be an option but with having only 48 hours, your time is precious!
As we had arrived in the late evening and would be leaving early in the morning three days later. We basically had two full days to see as much of Dubrovnik as we could. So what would our top four recommendations be to get as much of the Dubrovnik experience as possible?
1 – Step back in Time!
The star of the show is undoubtedly the old town, which is surrounded by its impressive thick 15th century walls. Our main suggestion would simply be to wander its streets and alleyways and soak up the atmosphere and the beauty of its architecture. It’s difficult to get really lost (although we succeeded once) and if you need to stop for a rest, a cafe or restaurant is never far away. If you are staying outside of the old town, you will probably enter through Pile Gate where most local buses stop. Cross the stone bridge and wooden drawbridge to enter the town close to the harbour from where the ferries and island tours leave. Continue to walk straight ahead and you arrive at the impressive wide central avenue called Stradun. This is possibly the most famous avenue in all of Croatia and it is thronged with people day and night during peak season. During peak season it does get hot and very busy, especially when the cruise ships arrive. Our recommendation would therefore be to explore the town in the early morning or late afternoon. Running off Stradun, there are a multitude of quaint alleyways, many of which contain restaurants. Once you move further away from bustling Stradun you find yourself in quieter streets where locals still live and where you will also find rooms for rent. At times it feels like every local in Dubrovnik has a room for rent but our advice would always be to only stay somewhere approved and regulated by the local tourist offices where standards are more assured. To list all of the historic buildings would take forever, as there are so many. Best to call at the local information office in the old town or bring a guide book. Many of the buildings charge a small entrance fee but some are free to enter. At night the old town remains a magical place with its streets and alleyways lit by ornate lanterns and often the sound of classical music filling the air. As we already mentioned, there are many restaurants but getting a table may still take some time unless you book ahead. We found Dubrovnik to be rather more expensive than the other parts of Croatia which we visited so you should perhaps budget for that accordingly.
2 – Walk above the rooftops!
A walk around the city walls is a must for most visitors to Dubrovnik. If visiting during the peak summer months we would once again recommend that you do this either in the early morning or early evening around sunset. Not only will you avoid the crowds but you will also avoid the hottest part of the day when the stones you are walking on become so hot you can almost feel them burning through your shoes! The walk is approximately 2km long and there are sometimes steps involved which shouldn’t come as much of a shock! The walls range in thickness from 1.5 metres to 6 metres and you should allow one and a half hours on average to complete the walk to allow for photo stops. When you look down on the town from the walls, you will notice the patchwork of colours made by the red roofs. Many are centuries old but you will also notice some newer ones which replaced those damaged in the shelling of 6th December 1991. It is best to begin your walk at the Pile Gate entrance and turn right. There are a number of museums which you can visit during your walk such as the Maritime Museum. There is a small additional entrance fee for these. The walls open at 8am most of the year but closing times vary depending on the time of year. The admission fee is 120kn for adults and 30kn for children.
3 – See the City from above!
For a unique birds eye view of Dubrovnik and its surrounding islands, why not take the cable car to the top of Mount Srdj. The journey to 405 metres above sea level takes about three minutes and leaves from close to Buza Gate just outside the city walls. The cost is 120 Kuna return or 70 Kuna one way. Yes, it is possible to walk to the top of the mountain but we would not recommend it, especially during the heat of the summer! The original cable car was destroyed during the Croatian War and along with the usual panoramic restaurant and souvenir shop at the top, you can also visit the Imperial Fortress, which dates back to 1812. A number of displays within the fort tell the story of the 1991 to 1995 Croatian War ( 30 Kuna entrance charge ). It became the symbol of the defence of the City of Dubrovnik when, despite being heavily outnumbered, the 31 men inside its thick walls kept the forces of Serbia and Montenegro at bay. During the ‘homeland war’, considerable damage was caused to the old town and surrounding areas. Almost 70% of buildings in the old town were damaged in some way. On 6th December 1991 warships, aircraft and artillery fire attacked the old town for much of the day killing many people and destroying a number of buildings. It’s incredible that the town was able to be restored to it’s former glory.
4 – Find Paradise on your Doorstep!
Escape the crowded streets of Dubrovnik and spend a few hours on one of its many nearby islands. The island of Lokrum is a boat ride of just under 15 minutes away but feels like a world away. Unlike with some of the other islands, there is a regular service to and from Lokrum roughly every half hour during the peak season at a cost of 120 Kuna return. Some of the other islands have a more infrequent service, which may not suit your plans for the day. Lokrum’s first claim to fame was that King Richard the Lionheart sheltered on the island on his return from the third Crusade. The island contains a Franciscan monastery dating back to the 15th century as well as a Botanical garden and a fort. The Botanical garden, containing over 500 plants, was created by Maximillian of Habsburg who bought the island in 1859. He was a keen traveller and brought seeds back to the island from his travels to Chile, Australia and South Africa etc. Something else which he introduced to the island was peacocks from the Canary Islands. They clearly adapted well to their new surroundings as they can be seen wandering freely all over the island. Rabbits have also made their home on the island and they too are totally at ease with visitors. At the highest point of the island is Fort Royal Castle, which was started by the French in 1806 and completed by the Austrians around 1835. There is a rather steep pathway up to the fort and some further steps to get to the very top but the views make it worthwhile. Incidentally, Fort Royal is one of a number of filming locations in and around Dubrovnik for the the series Game of Thrones. There are a number of bathing areas around the island, including one for naturists! Lokrum has a cafe for light snacks such as salads and sandwiches etc but somewhat surprisingly, it also has an amazing restaurant, which we somehow managed not to see on our walk earlier in the day! A member of staff from the cafe escorted us the short distance through the forest to a beautifully designed restaurant set amidst palm trees and exotic flowers. The food matched the quality of the surroundings and it is now without doubt high up on our list of favourite restaurants! We actually arrived on the 10am boat from Dubrovnik, planning to stay perhaps until early afternoon but the combination of the tranquility, scenery, great restaurant and the chance to soak up the sun at one of its bathing areas meant that we ended up staying until 7pm!
To sum up …
Dubrovnik blew us away at first sight and we don’t you could fail to fall in love with the beautiful walled old town. It definitely isn’t somewhere to take young children in strollers. Anyone who has difficulty with steps, please be aware that they are impossible to avoid here. To us, three or four nights gives enough time to explore the city. If you choose to stay longer, is also possible to visit other islands from Dubrovnik or even take a tour to nearby Montenegro or Bosnia. July and August are very busy months and locals have told us that September is a nice month to visit with less crowds but still nice weather
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