It’s not an overstatement when visitors describe Dubrovnik, the medieval walled city on the shores of the Adriatic, as a fairy tale destination. The ancient fortifications, which withheld invaders for hundreds of years, is most newly famous as King’s Landing on HBO’s recently-wrapped Game of Thrones.
Dubrovnik rooftops — Photo courtesy of Kristin Amico
Can’t decide what to do first? Local tour guides Daniel Slezak and Alexandra Cram offer insider tips on how to spend a day in the Old Town taking in a thousand years of history, or day-tripping along the scenic coastline.
Born in Dubrovnik and a resident during the 1990s war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia, Slezak then lived in other parts of Europe before returning to Croatia. Now back in his hometown, he’s a tour guide for Urban Adventures, leading guests on history, food and pop culture explorations.
“The city is incredibly beautiful and evokes another time, blending elements of the medieval, baroque and Renaissance. The minute visitors enter the imposing gate into Old Town, they’ll be transported to another era,” Slezak says.
Here are his tops picks for first-time visitors.
View from city walls — Photo courtesy of Kristin Amico
“Dubrovnik city walls are a must,” he notes. You can walk high above the fortified city, peering down onto the red-tile roofs and the Adriatic. It’s the closest you’ll come to a time machine, as the view is largely the same as it was for residents in the Middle Ages. Go first thing in the morning or about an hour before admission closes to avoid the largest crowds.
The main pedestrian promenade in Old Town dazzles with its limestone street dating back to the 13th century. Stroll the strip, whose bricks shine from 800 years’ worth of polish, just after sunrise for a rare chance to gaze at the 15th-century bell tower, baroque St. Blaise’s Church and the Gothic-Renaissance marvel that is Rector’s Palace without another tourist in sight.
Mussels in Croatia — Photo courtesy of Croatian National Tourist Board
Northwest of the Old City, on Gruž Harbor, Glorijet is ideal for lunch or dinner. “It’s a truly local experience that captures the concept of Croatian food, which is about using fresh ingredients and preparing them simply,” says Slezak. The traditional seafood restaurant serves up the catch of the day and offers plenty of local wine. Choose from daily grilled fish specials, seafood risotto or giant bowls of fish stew.
Mljet National Park
Mljet Island — Photo courtesy of Dubrovnik Tourist Board
For a breezy escape from sweltering mainland temperatures in summer, the national park on Mljet Island can’t be beat. Hike meandering trails under forested canopies, swim in one of the island’s two tranquil saltwater lakes or visit a Benedictine monastery. Bike rentals are available on the island, too. The trip from Dubrovnik is about 60 to 90 minutes each way.
Beach Pasjača Konavle — Photo courtesy of Croatian National Tourist Board
That sliver of Croatian land that stretches just south of Dubrovnik (from Cavtat to the Montenegro border), is famed for its picturesque countryside, neat rows of cypress trees and epic beaches. Rent a car, ride along an established cycling trail or take a day tour to visit wineries or small villages with traditional crafts.
After a successful career in film production, Canadian-born Alexandra Cram landed in Croatia in 2006. Her love of outdoor adventures and appreciation of the local gourmet fare led her to create Piknik Dubrovnik where she guides guests along scenic hikes or aquatic excursions, punctuated by a picnic meal.
“Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian coast have an exceptional combination of history, natural beauty and a bountiful harvest,” says Cram.
Here are her favorite places to experience jaw-dropping sunsets, hillside hikes and memorable food and wine.
Old Town Market, Gundulic Square
Old Town Market — Photo courtesy of Dubrovnik Tourist Board
Around 8 am, just as tourists start queuing to climb the city walls, residents on the other side of town go shopping. Vendors in Gundulic Square set up under petite umbrellas selling produce plucked from small plots nearby. In spring, find fresh greens and berries, while the ripest tomatoes and figs will tempt in late summer.
Shoppers will also find lavender sachets, dried fruit, locally-produced fruit brandy and handmade souvenirs.
Mt. Srd — Photo courtesy of Dubrovnik Tourist Board
“Skip the cable car and opt for the invigorating hike up the mountain, then soak in the famous views of Old Town and nearby islands,” says Cram. The path, just over a mile, zigzags with a few steep areas, so proper shoes, sun protection and plenty of water is advised.
Avoid hiking during the hottest midday hours. Instead, plan an early morning or sunset excursion. Expect the hike to take about an hour each way, but the unparalleled vistas along the trail are worth the sweat.
Cliff Bar Ala Mizerija
Cliff Bar Ala Mizerija — Photo courtesy of Kristin Amico
With views of the Lovrijenac Fortress and the beaches below, this cozy cliff bar is where you’ll find locals and tourists enjoying a beer and sardines on the terrace while watching the sun dip behind the Adriatic. There’s casual outdoor seating and a small drink and snack menu.
Lokrum monastery — Photo courtesy of Kristin Amico
The leafy island, about 15 minutes away by ferry, has a friendly population of peacocks and rabbits and makes for a tranquil place for a picnic lunch. Explore a stone monastery with botanical garden and a small saline sea, perfect for swimming.
Legend has it the Benedictine monks, who lived there for nearly 1,000 years and were evicted at the end of the 18th century, put a curse on future residents as they fled the island. There are no hotels and overnight stays are not allowed.
“Get out of the city and experience a quieter side of the country while tasting the exceptional wine and food of Croatia,” advises Cram. About an hour north of Dubrovnik, the peninsula is dotted with wineries. Tour cellars including Milicic, Matusko or Korta Katarina.
Dig into the region’s famed seafood, too. A favorite restaurant is the casual Ficovic in Hodilje. Savor squid ink risotto, oysters, prawns or whatever is freshly hauled from the sea that morning.