Welcome to Dubrovnik
With high stone walls rising up out of the rocks, Dubrovnik, Croatia looks like it’s been set in the ocean itself, the water around it a deep azure, fading into teal, then a light green, until the small, clear waves gently roll onto shore, the sound of stones rushing over each other as the water drags them back out to sea. A fairytale city, full of red-roofed buildings, endless stairs, and stray cats.
Don’t let that last one deter you. That was one of the reasons I loved the city so much.
When my fiancé and I touched down at the small Dubrovnik airport, the prospects didn’t look good. Our weather apps predicted rain and cold for the duration of our six day vacation. I was supremely disappointed–I had come to Dubrovnik to escape the rain, living in the Netherlands.
We stayed at an AirBnB, which, if you’re traveling on a budget, I would recommend over a hostel or one of the extremely expensive hotels. Our location was about a half hour walk from the Old Town, and a half hour walk in the other direction to Lapad beach, passing the marina.
One thing to understand about Dubrovnik is that the city is set into the craggy sides of the sharp, steep mountains that rise almost straight out of the ocean. The Old Town itself is a bit flatter, located at the bottom of these hills in a makeshift valley that has been filled in over time, though there are steep stairs down all the side streets. If you’re looking for a nice seaside vacation but are worried about getting in a good leg and booty workout, then Dubrovnik is your jam.
After settling into our accommodation, we walked to the Old Town, along one of the main streets lined with trees, then down the picturesque stairs with old doors set into white stone walls, green vines and colorful blooming flowers draped artistically over them. The rain only made it all more enchanting, coating everything in dream-like mist and brightening the colors.
We arrived at Pile Gate, the main entrance into Old Town. The walls were built in the medieval era and have withstood time and war. We passed through the massive gate, down a grand staircase and onto the main boulevard. The entire Old Town is a pedestrian zone, the streets paved in white stone worn smooth by thousands, if not millions, of feet. One of our favorite discoveries was a store full of gummy candies (of which we may have eaten too many. It’s a vacation! We’re allowed to binge!)
We decided just to walk around and get an idea of the layout and feel of the city. We ended up walking down back streets and side alleys, coming across vibrant gardens through rough stone arches, trudging up stairways whose gutters had turned to miniature waterfalls in the pouring rain. I drained the battery of my phone taking pictures, it was that beautiful. As I mentioned, there were stray cats everywhere, though they tended to run away if anyone approached them. We also found the famous Buza bar, which literally means “hole-in-the-wall”. Indeed, the entrance is an unassuming hole through the city walls, which leads you to a terrace built right into the rocks that the city walls are set on. In better weather, people jump off these rocks into the sea, but today the water was too choppy. We didn’t stay for a drink, with the wind and rain howling around us, but it looked like a cool place to be.
Friday, a miracle happened. The sun decided to ignore the weather report and shone down all morning and most the afternoon. We made good use of this and walked over to Lapad beach, which is one of the biggest beaches in Dubrovnik. If you don’t feel like walking, you can take the Number 4 bus from Pile gate. We enjoyed the morning stroll from our AirBnB, about a half hour, along the harbor and up and over the hill. We stopped at a Pemo, the local grocery chain, and grabbed some local baked goods for breakfast, before continuing on our way.
If you want a white sandy beach vacation, then this is not the city for you. Dubrovnik’s beaches are rocky, basically just lots of stones piled on top of each other. Make sure to bring water shoes or sandals if you want to wade in, as we discovered that going barefoot can be a bit painful. There’s a beach where you can rent chairs for 35 kuna each, or just stretch out on the concrete. The water was cold at first as we waded in, but we got used to it very quickly. It was luxurious to lay out in the warm Dalmatian sun, made all the better by the unexpectedness of it.
However, in the afternoon the clouds started rolling in, and the wind started picking up. We had been out for a few hours, so we packed up and headed home, where we showered, changed, and walked down to Old Town for some dinner. There are many good restaurants in Dubrovnik, lining the main street and extending down all the streets that branch off it. Our favorite was Restaurant Portun, located on the left off the main street as you come in from Pile Gate. I ordered the Risotto Orlando: risotto with local spices, tossed with prawns and dyed black with squid ink. It even turned my tongue black! (don’t worry, it comes off). It was incredibly delicious, and we even ended up going back a second time to get it again.
Dubrovnik City Walls
Our third day was super chill, a luxury we could afford by staying in the same location for six days rather than trying to cram in as many places as possible (which is my usual mode of travel). Our plans that day were to do the City Walls, which are a must-do for Dubrovnik, as they’re one of the main things that make up the city’s identity. It’s a bit expensive, at 120 Kuna (about €16), but the cost is worth it. We spent almost 3 hours walking around the walls, taking in the new angles and views of the city at every turn. Several people whose houses back up to the wall have created a thriving business by selling beverages, snacks, and art to the tourists. We bought some ice cream and ate it as we looked out over the glittering water towards Lokrum Island, the breeze cooling us as the sun shone down. The whole journey was gorgeous, especially on the north side of the city in between Ploce and Pile gates, where the whole Old Town is laid out below you, church towers rising above the red-tile, blue sea beyond.
For a late lunch, we went to Taj Mahal, which is not Indian food (as you would expect), but Bosnian food. We got the mixed meat platter for two and holy moly, it was a LOT of meat. And it was also very good quality food. There was a little stray kitty who trotted over as soon as our food was brought out and who sat by my feet the whole time, waiting for me to drop anything (which I may have “accidentally” done. I’m a cat lover).
We ended the day by trekking up to Fort Lovrijenac, which is just outside Pile Gate. The fort has some beautiful views of the Old Town, and it was a nice place to enjoy the sunset and view.
We took the bus back to our AirBnB, which are 15 kuna for a one-hour ticket, or 30 kuna for a day pass. The buses go one way along a circular route, all of them passing through the stop at Pile Gate. It’s a bit hard to find information about the stops (and they don’t announce which stop is next on the bus). Also, sometimes there isn’t a sign posted with the stop name, though they are all marked by yellow markings painted on the street that say “BUS”. It’s not the most efficient system, but it only took us about a day to figure it out.
As a side note, I highly recommend a Dubrovnik pass. The three day pass is a great deal, as it lets you into most the major sites, such as the City Walls, and also gives you a bus pass, good for 10 rides. Those things combined basically pay for the cost of the pass.
On Sunday, we rented a car and drove to Mostar, Bosnia. I have a separate post about that experience, but it was beautiful, humbling, and haunting. It definitely made me want to explore more of the Balkans.
Trip to Lokrum Island
Monday, we returned our rental car at way too early in the morning, went back to bed for a couple hours, overslept, and basically ran to the Old Town harbor to catch the ferry to Lokrum Island. You can easily do the Island in about 4 hours (tanning and swimming included), but I would recommend making a day of it. Ferries leave from the Old Town port every hour, on the hour (in the summer every half hour), and the last ferry comes back at 6pm. The journey takes about 10 minutes, and the price for the ferry (in May 2016) was 100 kuna.
The island is beautiful. There are no overnight facilities and no one lives on the island, except for peacocks and tons of cute, fluffy bunnies. We explored the Franciscan monastery ruins, where a number of Game of Thrones scenes were filmed, and even hosts an “iron throne”. There’s also the “Dead Sea”, a pool of water that is fed through a narrow channel between the rocks, so that the water there is a bit stagnant and saltier than the ocean. It’s a beautiful relaxing place, shaded by the surrounding trees. We continued on and found a spot on the many flat rocks on the south side of the island. There are metal ladders going down into the ocean, but water was too rough to attempt any swimming. We relaxed and read in the sun, occasionally chasing away a peacock that decided he wanted to eat our ice cream.
Make sure you bring sturdy shoes if you decide to hike up to the Palace Royal, as the roads aren’t well-paved and you’ll be picking your way over sharp stones. We did it in flipflops and it was slow going, though the view at the top was worth it.
That evening we had dinner once again at Restaurant Portun, ordering the black risotto one more time (yes, it’s that good). We then wandered down through Ploce gate and down to Banje Beach. There’s a restaurant and popular nightclub there, but the beach is open to the public. The stones of this beach are a bit smaller than Lapad, but it is still rocky.
Further down the coast is Sveti Jakov, another beach that we unfortunately didn’t have a chance to get to, but it is most frequented by locals and gets the best sun, especially in the evening. You can take a bus most the way there, or just walk another 15 minutes from Banje.
Our last day we walked again to Lapad and enjoyed as much sun as we could before we had to head back, shower, and catch our flight.
The airport is about a half hour drive away. A taxi doesn’t cost too much, around €30, or there’s a bus that runs every so often. We were fortunate that the manager of our AirBnB was willing to drive us for a cheaper price.
As we drove along the highway, high above the city, steep rocky cliffs dropping off into the beautiful clear water. The Old Town was spread out below us, until we rounded a corner and it was gone. The sun shone between the clouds, and the many islands off the coast were like green jewels set in a deep teal silk. It had been a wonderful vacation; relaxing, fun, interesting, delicious. Everything I had wanted, with my expectations surpassed. Dubrovnik is a charming city, Croatia a beautiful country, one that has captured my heart. I know for certain that I’ll be back.