The rooftops are a clue to Dubrovnik’s character. At first glance, they fit the lustre of the Old Town’s gleaming limestone streets. The neatly overlapping red and orange tiles seem so deliberate, an extra layer of professionally-applied make-up on this model city. They’re the perfect coating on the Old Town’s irresistible beauty.
That is until you realise the lighter coloured tiles are scars, repairs made after a shelling blitz during the Balkan War in the early-1990s. It’s a city that pulls you in on a superficial level — few cities in the world are so brazenly gorgeous — but keeps you there with its complexities and contradictions.
Dubrovnik has a go-it-alone streak, partly born from a 550-year history as an independent republic which finally ended in 1808. Its inhabitants tend to identify with the city far more than they do with Croatia — Dubrovnik is an exclave, separated from most of Croatia by a three-mile stretch of Bosnian coastline. When the country joins the EU in July 2013, customs controls will be tightened and local people face the nightmare of four stringent border crossings if they want to travel to the rest of the country.
These are people the rest of the country pigeon-hole as being too laid-back for their own good. Then again, that’s an image everyone on the Adriatic coast seems to have of those living to the south of them. The people of Dubrovnik say it about the Montenegrins, who in turn say it about the Albanians.
The string of islands off Dubrovnik’s coast, and the flotilla of boats that flock to them on a weekend, belie a population who are mountain people at heart. Ask them to take you to their favourite restaurants and you’ll probably head up into the dramatic bone-dry mountains that provide the city with its enviable backdrop.
The Old Town may supply the initial siren call, but it’s this setting that encourages a longer stay. Away from the herds of cruise ship passengers licking ice creams on the picturesque streets — overcrowding is something the city desperately needs to address — Dubrovnik oozes a blissful calm. The slumbering villages on the islands, surrounded by the clear blue waters of the Adriatic, evoke long-held fantasies of the perfect Mediterranean idyll, while the walking trails unleash a sense of freedom that has delighted visitors for centuries.
See & do
Old Town: The hyperbole about Dubrovnik’s Old Town is entirely justified. The gleaming stone buildings, red-tiled roofs and steep, narrow passageways make it staggeringly picturesque. The further away from the main street — Stradun — you go, the more interesting the finds.
City Walls: The Old Town is packaged up by the city walls. A full circuit of the ramparts clocks in at just under one-and-a-half miles. It’s all about the views, but it’s the details you notice on the way — such as rooftop basketball courts and nuns unwinding hoses inside the convent — that bring it to life.
Mount Srđ: The best views of Dubrovnik don’t come from inside the Old Town — they come from the mountain looming over it. Ascend in the cable car and walk down the winding rocky path to sample the majesty of the setting at its best. www.dubrovnikcablecar.com
Sea kayaking: The usually millpond-esque and blazingly blue waters of the Adriatic Sea are perfect for paddling around. The coast somehow looks even more impressive as you navigate it at close quarters. www.adriatickayaktours.com
The Rector’s Palace: When Dubrovnik was an independent republic, the Rector’s Palace was the seat of power. Today it’s a mish-mash of grand rooms, old furniture, temporary exhibitions and former jail cells.
War Photo Limited: Dubrovnik’s museums are pretty underwhelming, but this gallery is the exception. The permanent exhibition focuses on the Balkan wars of the 1990s, capturing striking scenes from mid-battle and the resulting human suffering. The excellent temporary exhibitions reflect the museum’s stated aim of exposing ‘the myth of war’. www.warphotoltd.com
Lokrum: A 15-minute ferry hop over the water from the Old Town’s harbour, Lokrum is the perfect escape from the crowded city. It’s a chilled-out island, ideally suited to a lazy walk, a tour of the 11th-century monastery, and a leisurely swim. The latter can be undertaken from the beach, in a picturesque saltwater lake or off the rocks at the far side of the island where the nude bathers hang out.
Elafiti Islands Cruise: Island life is much slower, as becomes abundantly clear on Koločep, Lopud and Šipan. Numerous operators offer day cruises to all three, and you only need to walk 300ft or so from the jetties to find hillside walking trails, old churches and semi-ruined stone fortresses. When the sun’s out, they’re as close to the peaceful Mediterranean dream as you’re probably ever going to find. Elite Travel heads to the Elafitis on a replica of a 16th-century galleon. www.elitetravel.hr
Old Town: Ask locals for the best place to shop and they’ll probably say ‘Italy’. Be warned: The Old Town is awash with souvenir tat and outrageously overpriced fashion boutiques. As a rule, the narrow streets running at 90 degrees to Stradun are slightly better than the larger ones running parallel.
Morning Market: Fresh fruit and veg, cutesy trinkets aimed squarely at tourists, various Dalmatian firewaters and inexplicable numbers of lavender pouches can be found in Gundulićeva Sqaure before noon.
Guliver: For leather goods — especially colourful bags — Guliver keeps the prices fair and the quality high. www.guliver.hr
Dubrovačka kuća: Easily the best option for personality-packed souvenirs, Dubrovačka kuća on Od sv Dominika offers handmade ceramics, paintings by local artists and jewellery with character, local jams and liqueur. T: 00 385 20 322 092.
£ Orsan: The word ‘marenda’ is a handy one to know at lunchtime — you’ll generally be given the option of a simple but good fish or chicken dish that’s not on the menu. Orsan is the best place to try it — the waterside yacht club setting is superb, and the marenda dishes cost just 40kn (£4.48). www.restaurant-orsan-dubrovnik.com
££ Rozario: Prijeko is a street full of lazy, poor quality restaurants, but Rozario, at the end of it, is several classes above the rest. Local produce and surprisingly inventive takes on traditional dishes are what it does best. www.konoba-rozario.hr
£££ 360: The new venture from Maltese chef Jeffrey Vella, 360 has an astounding location built on a terrace of the city walls. You’ll pay a premium for the views, but service is sharp and the variety of dishes on the menu is a welcome change. www.360dubrovnik.com
Accommodation in Dubrovnik is highly seasonal — prices in July and August can be extortionate, while many hotels close over winter. Private accommodation found via the likes ofwww.dubrovnikapartmentsource.com usually offers the best value.
£ Amoret Apartments: In the heart of the Old Town, and with far fewer steps to negotiate than many rivals, the spotlessly clean Amoret Apartments come with kitchenettes and antique furniture for added character. www.dubrovnik-amoret.com
££ Hotel Lapad: The best value of Dubrovnik’s four stars, Hotel Lapad has been smartly refurbished and has a marvellous suntrap of a pool. www.hotel-lapad.hr
£££ The Hilton Imperial: Occupying a wonderful 19th-century building, its trump card is its location, just outside the Pile Gate — most other luxury hotels are a bus ride away from the Old Town.www.hilton.com
Like a local
Check for the rope: On very busy days, a rope is put up at the Pile Gate entrance to the Old Town, with an entrance and exit on each side. Locals know if they see the rope, the Old Town will be nightmarishly packed with cruise ship passengers, and they stay well away. Wednesdays tend to be busiest, Mondays quietest.
Leave it later: The cruise ships tend to depart between 2pm and 5pm — so the Old Town is best tackled later in the afternoon. The city walls, in particular, are best walked after 5pm.
Bus cards: Buy a bus card from ticket booths or shops near bus stops, and each ride costs 12kn (£1.34) instead of 15kn (£1.67).
Buza: Accessed through an arch in the city walls, and then down a number of steps, Buza is built right onto the rocks, with a terrace for watching the boats go by and the sun go down. A better place for an early evening beer is hard to imagine. www.cafebuza.com
Cave Bar More: The terrace of the Hotel More’s bar doubles as a deck for sun-worshippers, but go inside and you’ll find yourself within an extraordinary cave, complete with stalagmites and stalactites. It’s classy and intimate. www.hotel-more.hr
D’Vino: This Old Town wine bar is a great port of call for anyone wanting to sample Croatian wines beyond the bog-standard house red, with its detailed tasting notes and friendly, knowledgeable staff.www.dvino.net
British Airways flies from Gatwick year-round. Jet2 flies seasonally from Edinburgh, East Midlands, Manchester, Newcastle, Belfast and Leeds-Bradford. EasyJet flies from Gatwick and Stansted, while Monarch flies from Birmingham, Gatwick and Manchester. www.ba.com www.jet2.com www.easyjet.com www.monarch.co.uk
Average flight time: 2h35m
The Old Town is entirely pedestrianised, but the Libertas buses link up the rest of the city efficiently, running until the early hours. Taxi drivers usually have at least transactional English. To head out to the islands independently, Jadrolinija runs frequent ferries. www.jadrolinija.hr
When to go
Peak season runs roughly from July to mid-September. This is when temperatures are most uncomfortable, crowds are most unbearable and hotels are pricey. Much of the town closes down during winter months. The best compromise is May, June, mid-September or October.
Need to know
Visas: No visas are necessary for UK citizens.
Currency: Kuna (HRK or kn). £1 = 8.94kn.
Vaccinations: No vaccinations are required.
International dial code: 00 385 20.
Time difference: GMT+1.
How to do it
Regent Holidays offers three-night city breaks in Dubrovnik, including British Airways flights from Gatwick and accommodation at the Hilton Imperial. Prices start at £415 per person. www.regent-holidays.co.uk
The Rough Guide to Croatia. RRP: £13.99.
A copy of the English-language local newspaper The Dubrovnik Times can be picked up at any local tourist office. You are also able to view it online at www.dubrovacki.hr/pregled/the-dubrovnik-times
A PDF version of the handy Dubrovnik In Your Pocket guide can be downloaded at www.inyourpocket.com/croatia/dubrovnik
Published in the May/Jun 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)