While the Italian Adriatic coast has long been a byword for sophisticated holidaying, Croatia’s Dalmatian coast has only been discovered by global tourists relatively recently.
It’s not hard to see why it has become so popular: the Adriatic waters lap up against some of Europe’s most beautiful coastline, punctuated by picture-perfect villages, stark cliffs, and hidden beaches.
Dubrovnik is the undoubted jewel in the Dalmatian crown, an ancient city that has seen more than its fair share of conflict over the years.
Indeed, it has weathered countless wars, multiple occupations (by the Byzantines, the Venetians and the Romans) and survived a seven-month siege during the Balkans War, but still it stands, as beautiful as ever.
The city of 45,000 stretches along the coast, but the focal point is the Old Town, housed inside 1.2 miles of walls, built to protect the inhabitants from the marauding Saracens in the 9th century.
The main function of the walls these days is to provide a backdrop to countless tourists’ photographs, but it’s within the walls that the real beauty of Dubrovnik is revealed. From the cloisters of a Franciscan monastery and the third-oldest pharmacy in the world, to the 19 churches spread around the town, this is a place that wears its past on its sleeve. Most tourists start at the Stradun — the main thoroughfare that cuts the Old City in two — which is dotted with cafes and restaurants.
Head to Luza Square first and marvel at the incredible Gothic-Renaissance architecture of Sponza Palace and The Rector’s Palace.
The white limestone paths are slick from millions of footsteps and we recommend heading to the west side of the Old Town to get a glimpse of how the locals live. It’s filled with narrow alleyways, tiny grocery stores, hole-in-the-wall cafés and lots and lots of steps. Oh, and lots and lots of tourists.
Ah yes, the tourists. In some ways Dubrovnik has become a victim of its own success — its narrow lanes are increasingly thronged by tour groups, multiplied by the countless cruise ships that dock here every year.
Wandering through the Old Town can, at times, be a frustrating experience, particularly when held up by a horde of selfie-stick wielding visitors.
Its popularity has only increased since HBO’s hit show “Game of Thrones” first aired (the Old Town being used is the setting for King’s Landing). There are plenty of locals taking advantage of that fact, from Game of Thrones-themed shops (Jon Snow pillowcase anyone?) to Game of Thrones-themed tours. Despite the crowds and the occasional tackiness, the Old Town is undeniably beautiful.
Wander along the city walls just before sunset or take the cable car up to Mount Srdj which overlooks the city, and prepare to be amazed by the views.
There are not many places that combine heritage and beauty quite like Dubrovnik does.
And, if the crowds get too much, it’s not hard to find somewhere slightly more peaceful, whether that be a café tucked down a side street, or a tiny fishing village a few miles away. Cavtat is one such place — a small, seaside town where red-rooved houses slope down towards a pretty harbor. Cafés and restaurants line a small promenade, while pleasure boats bob in the azure waters. It’s hard to think of a better place in which to do nothing.
There are multiple daily sailings from Dubrovnik’s Old Town port, although we recommend staying at least a night.
If you are feeling adventurous, head even further south and cross into Montenegro, which is filled with tiny, picturesque villages, endless wooded hillsides and spectacular fjords.
If you do decide to stay in Dubrovnik however, we recommend Villa Dubrovnik, a five-star hotel that juts out over the Adriatic, each room offering spectacular sea views.
With a minimal design and white color palette, it’s reminiscent of a Miami beach club. It’s about a 20-minute walk south of the Old Town and is a lovely respite from the crowds further north.
It’s easy to overstate the crowds however, and in the early morning, or after dark, you can walk the narrow, silent streets of the Old Town completely alone.
It’s moments like this, with the Adriatic crashing against the shore, the town’s lights twinkling on the hillside, when you realize just how special Dubrovnik is.