Dubrovnik, Croatia: An Unexpected Pearl

This post is part of a series of stories from my October 2021 travels in Croatia.
More to come…

At this point, after nearly two years of pandemic-induced dormancy, my passport was itching. As restrictions are lifting across the world and vaccinated travelers like me are navigating new-but-workable rules and regulations, it was time for an adventure. And this exchange with my travel buddy, Jenni, should tell you everything you need to know about how much convincing we need to get wrapped up in each other’s adventures.

That initial exchange was in June, and we crossed our vaccinated fingers things would continue to improve and travel would still be possible come fall. As it became more and more promising this Croatian adventure would indeed get off the ground, our plans took shape. I’d seen photos of Croatian National Parks that sparked the original desire to visit the country — so those locations were key to our itinerary — and, as is typical of my travel planning, once I started digging — Croatia came to life and our itinerary filled out nicely. 6 days turned into 10, and we couldn’t wait to explore a new country for both of us.

As we rounded things out and realized a car would be the ideal way to travel in-country, and with flights still (frustratingly) limited as international travel recovers from the pandemic — we identified Dubrovnik, Croatia as the ideal city to meet up and start our road trip. Getting there wasn’t easy… but worth the 30+ hours of travel time for me.

Our 10-day route: Hugging the coast south-to-north from Dubrovnik to Rovinj, through Slovenia to Italy for our flights home.

Don’t Underestimate Dubrovnik

What started out as merely a good place to begin our trip turned out to be one of our favorite stops of the week. Dubrovnik looked cute and all, but I didn’t anticipate we’d love it.

I was wrong.

Dubrovnik was charming and unique and friendly and GORGEOUS.

We arrived after dark, but woke up ready to give Dubrovnik a shot. And the most iconic piece of Dubrovnik — the wall. Constructed between the 12th and 17th centuries, the walls that enclose and protect Old Town Dubrovnik were once practical and impenetrable — and now beautiful and unique.

Portions were flat, portions were steps. Then more steps. But walking the wall is the most perfect way to see and experience Dubrovnik.

The walls are iconic. All over the city we saw artists with interpretations of the walls — sketches, painting, sculpture, photos. Dubrovnik loves its wall.

Walking the full perimeter took us a few hours — with plenty of pauses to take in the gorgeous view of the Adriatic Sea and the rooftops of Dubrovnik —

And the cats.

So many cats.

The cats are at home in Dubrovnik, and no one seems to mind them at all. The photo of the black cat above — was taken from our table. DURING dinner. We were outside, but from what I saw during our few days in town – being outside wasn’t required for a visit from one of Dubrovnik’s dozens (hundreds?) of cats. They were all clean and healthy and it is as if the entire town decided to collectively own cats. They don’t act like strays – they act like they own the place. As only cats can.

Higher than the Rooftops?

During our planning we noticed something unique in Dubrovnik that offered an even MORE elevated view of the town, so — not typically up for the more ‘touristy’ options — we bought tickets.

Yes, Dubrovnik has a cable car that climbs from just beyond the walls of old town, up to the top of Hill Srđ – offering panoramic views of Dubrovnik and the Adriatic Sea.

The above photo shows the perimeter of old town, enclosed by the wall. We walked the whole thing!

To be honest, we thought the Cable Car was overrated and we preferred the rooftop view to one obscured by cables. But! We indulged in a drink and a snack at the Panorama Restaurant before riding back down.

Exploring Old Town

Once we had our fill of seeing the city from the rooftops – and beyond – we spent the afternoon exploring the maze of alleys and steps that form the heart of Old Town. Jenni is a management and entrepreneurship professor and has such a heart for small business — so we chatted with every shop owner we met about how the pandemic has affected them and Jenni sprinkled them with ideas for new products or services — and if they had been in the city long enough they shared stories about the war that affected the city in the early 90s. A photo below shows damage to a street sign in the Old Town from shelling. Once you start looking, it’s easy to spot bullet holes and fire damage around the city — painful reminders of a dark chapter.

Night and Day

I’ve (re)learned this lesson many times in many places, but was reminded of it during our stay in Dubrovnik: see the city at night. The first time I remember feeling this way was in Paris, years ago when Jenni and I backpacked during our college semester abroad. We walked around at night and I remember thinking it just felt different than all the postcard pictures and famous viewpoints I’d expected.

Dubrovnik was similar. It just had a different personality at night. Stained glass we hadn’t even noticed in the daylight was lit brightly and shone into the strada. This clock tower caught our eye and we couldn’t budge until we watched the bright blue dials turn at the 5-minute mark. Everywhere you looked, couples and friends were settling into patios and terraces for dinner and the sounds of chatter and laughter were in the air.

And then there was the sunset. We found a perfect spot on the terrace of the Dubrovnik Excelsior — and watched the sky show off until the last shred of light disappeared into the sea.

What about Game of Thrones?

If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, perhaps Dubrovnik looks familiar. When we started doing homework about the city, we quickly discovered it’s a destination for GOT fans — which we are not. There are tours that take visitors to key locations around the city to recreate scenes from the show, and more than a handful of shops selling GOT trinkets and souvenirs.

To our pleasant surprise, it was a pretty light touch. Maybe this was because we visited during the shoulder season and tourists were light anyway, but I was happy to barely notice the GOT filter on the city. If we’d been looking for it – it was there – but for those out there not into the show — not to worry. It doesn’t spoil the view.

Recommendations – if Dubrovnik is on your list

So we fell in love with charming, beautiful Dubrovnik. We spent a day and half there, and I’d go back in a heartbeat. If you’re considering Croatia – don’t underestimate Dubrovnik, and consider these spots as you make your plans:

  • Lodging: We used Airbnb and stayed outside of Old Town. Staying right in the middle of Old Town may seem convenient — but it’s a whole area of steps and stairs everywhere you look. And no cars. So the convenience of getting into your lodging and maneuvering the alleyways of Old Town – felt cumbersome to us. Stay outside the walls and Uber. If you’re not into Airbnb – check prices at the Dubrovnik Excelsior. The view was perfection.
  • Food: We had breakfast at the same place twice – Dubrovka Cafe 1836. Our table was right on the water, breakfast was delicious, and the service was excellent. Dubrovka’s sister restaurant Arsenal was in the heart of Old Town (photo of the black cat above) and complemented great food and service — with a round of free shots of cherry brandy. Welcome to Croatia!
  • Uber was easy and convenient. Later in the week we got more comfortable driving in-country, but those first few days we kept the car parked.

Dubrovnik. The great walled city Lord Byron once called ‘The Pearl of the Adriatic’.

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