Known as the pearl of the Adriatic, the city of Dubrovnik is a shining fortress that has been standing along the coast of the Mediterranean since the 13th century. Despite a terrible earthquake in 1667 and more recent shellings in the 1990s Balkan war, the city stands in its full glory, after having been restored with the help of UNESCO.
This city, and the neighbouring Lokrum island, is best known for being the backdrop of King’s Landing and Qarth in Game of Thrones. I can still remember the first time I walked into the city – it truly felt as if I had walked onto the set of the HBO series. Even without the extras and house banners rolling off the walls, it still felt truly epic to walk by the massive stone walls in the city.
There isn’t another place in the world like Dubrovnik, with its cobblestone streets, steep stairways, houses stacked upon each other and secret museums and shops at every corner. You could walk up and down the city for days and never get tired of it, there’s always something to be discovered just around the corner.
One of the things you absolutely have to do when you’re there of course is to take a walk around the city walls. This will provide you with a bird’s eye view over all of Dubrovnik. From up here, you will see how packed the city is within the perimeter of its walls. I love looking at all the little red roofs stacked almost as if on top of each other. I especially like the houses that are built alongside steep steps right up to the wall – there is something fantastical about the way in which they are organised.
The city walls walk takes about two hours. There is a maritime museum well worth visiting at the halfway mark. Not only is it filled with artefacts of Dubrovnik’s history as a major trading port, it is also a great place to cool off from the unrelenting sun that beats down upon the fortress.
The most iconic part of the walk is the Minčeta Tower. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan, you’ll know this as the location where Dany enters the House of the Undying, in search of her stolen dragons. The tower is the highest point of the walls and the views from here are spectacular.
The other memorable location is the Pile Gate. This is the main city gate into Dubrovnik’s old town, and it is truly impressive. I absolutely love the entrance to this gate, which begins with an old stone bridge crossing a moat before entering the city. On the other side, it is equally as charming, with a zig zig ramp leading right onto the main street of the city.
Many people do not venture much outside the city walls, however, the surrounding neighbourhood is well worth a wander around. A little outside the main gate are several more Game of Thrones locations, including the pier where the Lannisters see Myrcella sent off to Dorne and Fort Lovrijenac, where many of the scenes in the interior of the Red Keep were shot. If you have a ticket for the wall, this will grant you entry into Fort Lovrijenac as well within a 24 hour period, so don’t throw away those tickets (like we did!).
Among the many wonderful things about Dubrovnik is the constant sense of discovery that pervades the city. You never know where you’ll find something unexpected. Its steep stairways and high walls obscure the view ahead of you, such that you’ve no idea what you’ll see until you finally get to your destination.
One of these wonderful secret spots is Buza Bar, the ‘hole in the wall’ bar. Its entrance is located on the southern end of the city. To find it, keep turning right after you’ve entered the main gate until you hit the wall that skirts the coast. You’ll eventually notice the queue of people standing in line to get in. Sadly, this is a case of ‘things ain’t what they used to be’. I remember being here five years ago, when it was a bar with only a couple of tables and chairs mostly frequented by local tourists (i.e. tourists from the Balkans) – today, it has become so popular that it is impossible to get a seat, especially when you most need a drink. If you do however manage to find a place (try your luck around two or three PM), you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the sea, and the beautiful island of Lokrum.
A museum I highly recommend visiting is the Ethnographic Museum. It’s located quite a climb up some steps on the south western side of the city. The walk up is a charming one, populated with nice restaurants and cafés we highly recommend stopping for a drink at, should the climb tire you. The museum itself is interesting architecturally, provides a great view of the city, possibly second only to the view from on top of the wall, and is filled with many interesting artefacts.
Secret “Locals Only” Neighbourhood
One thing I absolutely love about Dubrovnik is sneaking up the passages that lead you right into the backyard of some granny’s home. It’s so full of tourists that you’ll sometimes forget that families that have been living in this city for centuries continue to do so in some of the city’s old stone houses. If you wander around enough, you’ll find whole mini neighbourhoods that are locals only, with only the occasional lost tourist wandering by.
You’ll have to be careful however, as many of the steep stairways and cobblestone streets in these non-touristed neighbourhoods lead to dead ends, sometimes right into someone’s front yard. Without intending to, you might end up trespassing! But when you look at how all the houses are crammed up so close to each other and against the fortress wall, sometimes you can’t help but think its a wonder there’s any space at all for paths that connect them together.
St. Ignatius Church
Dominating south eastern views of the city is the Church of St. Ignatius. The 1667 earthquake interrupted its initial construction, and it was only finished in 1725. I like its Baroque architecture and its imposing silhouette rising out from the mess of stone houses and red tiled roofs below. There are on-going restoration works being done on the church, and old artefacts continue to be dug up, revealing ever more about the past of the church.
Personally, I think Dubrovnik is best at sunrise and at sunset. Not least because at those times, the day is cool enough you can enjoy the city without becoming completely drenched in sweat. Everything is also more beautiful during the golden hour, with the warm sunlight reflecting off the city’s off-white stone buildings.
The Duke’s Palace
I’ve visited the Duke’s Palace several times, but I still find it a wonderful place to spend an afternoon in. It features prominently in Game of Thrones as the home of the Spice King of Qarth. If you’ve seen the series, you’ll immediately recognise the beautiful staircase that Dany ascends to greet the nobility of Qarth.
I love the skilful combination of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque elements in palace’s courtyard, with its elegant columns and delicate arches. I particularly love how the sunlight pours in through the glass covered ceiling, illuminating the stately courtyard.
Within the rooms of the palace, the decor becomes more Baroque. The basic architecture is still mostly Neo-renaissance with a bit of Gothic thrown in, but the furniture is gilted and extravagantly carved, covered with all sorts of ornamentation.
There’s lots to see and do inside Dubrovnik, but nothing beats simply walking around its narrow streets, exploring the shops and restaurants that can be found at every turn. There are many places that are tourists traps, but if you look carefully, you’ll still find plenty of places with genuine soul to them.
The city still has its secret gems. One place we enjoyed was the Konoba Paloma Croatica. It was a little place we discovered just off the main thoroughfare. We were attracted to it mostly because of its homely menu of Croatian comfort food. That, and the fact that it was the only restaurant without waiting staff at its entrance trying to drag you in. There’s nothing fancy about the place, but we loved it nonetheless. The owners are two sisters who were born in the city, and the restaurant is actually their family home. The menu is a collection of their family hits – the meals they loved to have regularly, along with some holiday specials.
We’ve been to Dubrovnik many times, and will continue to visit it whenever we are in Croatia. I absolutely love this magical city, with its walls that bear the marks of its illustrious history and all its secret corners. Although I’ve walked the city to death, I always feel there’s still yet something to be discovered.