A Rough Guide to Croatia : Things to do in Dubrovnik City.

View over the western bay of Old Dubrovnik and Pile
View over the western bay of Old Dubrovnik and Pile

A Rough Guide to Croatia : Things to do in Dubrovnik City

Dubrovnik can work wonders on your calf muscles.

If you ever visit the place then be prepared for lots of stairs to climb.

To be fair this really refers to the Ploče district more than anywhere else.

This is in the eastern part of the city beyond the walls of the historic Old Town.

Much of that sector of Dubrovnik has been built on the rocky hillsides which descend down to the shores of the Adriatic Sea.

Hence the preponderance of a multitude of steps aside and across the streets.

But for your urban mountaineering efforts you will arrive at moderately-priced accommodation in plentiful supply. We booked at short notice and arrived without arranging a place to stay beforehand.

We still managed to find somewhere pleasant to stay at a reasonable rate. But of course always better to plan ahead and you should have lots on offer.

In fact many rooms and flats are rented out by locals in their own domestic households which lends a pleasant informality and homeliness to your stay.

TOP 5 THINGS TO SEE AND DO IN DUBROVNIK
1. See the historic old town, walk the walls and visit the museums.
2. Book a stay in Lapad Bay among the hotels, spas and fine restaurants.
3. Visit nearby Lokrum island or take a boat trip to many other islands.
4. Ride the cable car up the hills and watch sunset on the Adriatic.
5. Dance the night away in the thriving nightlife of clubs and discos.

But make sure you check the exact location of your holiday abode before you book, especially if you have heavy luggage.

Otherwise you may experience a short but strenuous burst of intensive exercise which will test not only your leg muscles but also your temperate disposition and choice of colloquialisms.

A warm welcome

Nevertheless one you ascend the heights of the stony incline you should be assured of a warm and friendly welcome.

The people of Dubrovnik are fantastic hosts and will help you to enjoy a pleasant stay in their city.

We were guests of a marvellous old lady who had a permanent smile and a very warm and cheerful personality.

A life touched by tragedy as her late husband had died of a heart attack brought on by the stress of bombardment during the Balkans War of the early 1990s. It was a testament to her strength that she maintained her positive outlook.

At your accommodation you will perhaps find yourself under a trellis-work of grapevines in a shaded arbour surrounded by flower beds and vegetable patches. The Croatians are enthusiastic tillers of the soil and value the merits of partial self-sufficiency. Fresh is best.

There are actually not many people in Dubrovnik as it is a small city of less than 50,000 inhabitants. This 'Pearl of the Adriatic' only seems larger as it is stretched out along the coastline.

A cable car ride to the hilltops will bestow splendid views over the city and the sunset over the sea and islands can be spectacular.

The urban habitat in nature

The buildings on the east side of Dubrovnik are mainly the result of quarrying in the hills behind the city. They therefore tend to blend into the natural rocky surroundings of the area in an organic conglomeration of walls, roofs and windows.

Many houses are made of rough-hewn blocks of stone with a natural, untouched texture whilst others are more finely cut by the hands of local craftmanship. But either way they suit the terrain without disrupting the natural order.

Eastern Dubrovnik and the old city walls
Eastern Dubrovnik and the old city walls

Most also have an off-white colour that mixes effortlessly into the hillside in an aesthetically pleasing view from the waters of the Adriatic. From the opposite perspective, as the homes are on a steep slope, many have wonderful views over the sparkling waters to the horizon.

The old monoliths remain

One of the notorious exceptions to the vernacular of Ploče is the Excelsior Hotel. A 7-storey block of architectural vandalism that clearly is a badly constructed fly in the ointment.

You may assume it was a modern imposition of capitalism and greed in the face of a laissez-faire town planning department. But you would be wrong. In actual fact I was told by locals that this 5-star carbuncle of luxury is a tired old relic of the Communist era.

However it was built in 1913 long before General Tito was in power although it doesn't look antique by any means. This is because it was restored in 2008. But whatever the provenance it certainly resembles a Stalinist outrage indeed and would do disservice to the worst Siberian Gulags if the facade is anything to judge.

Bougainvillea in the streets
Bougainvillea in the streets

Nevertheless, elsewhere is attractive and pleasing on the eye.

As you head west towards the old historic part of Dubrovnik you can enjoy a colourful stroll.

Pass under the omnipresent bougainvillea, admiring the stone and the colourful vegetation as you walk.

While below are the shimmering waves stretching towards the ancient walls and ramparts.

The Old Town of Dubrovnik

The Old Town of Dubrovnik is crammed inside incredibly strong fortifications.

In places they are up to 20 feet thick and 80 feet high. They have stoutly protected the city from attack since the 12th century.

Nowadays the Old Town is quite rightly a UNESCO Heritage site because of its special status as a place of cultural and historical significance.

Founded in the 7th century it grew into an important maritime centre which developed strongly in the 15th and 16th centuries. However a terrible earthquake in 1667 led to a decline in the fortunes of Dubrovnik.

It also suffered the depredations of invaders over the centuries with the Venetian Republic, the French, the Hungarians, the Ottomans and the Austrians all taking control of the area. In modern times it was occupied by the Italians and then the Germans in WW2 and it came under attack from Serbia and Montenegro in 1991 during the aforementioned Balkans War.

Terracotta rooftops of the Historic Old Town
Terracotta rooftops of the Historic Old Town

Retail therapy and night-time revelry

Within this robust and impregnable outer shell you will find encapsulated a hive of commercialism and modern tourism. Shopkeepers ply their trade, restaurants vie for hungry diners.

An international coterie of consumers mingle in the streets and alleyways. You will hear languages, dialects and accents not only from Europe but from all corners of the world. Young and old are attracted to Dubrovnik as it caters for all tastes and all ages.

Night-time in the Old Town of Dubrovnik
Night-time in the Old Town of Dubrovnik | Source

At night the young and energetic take over the darkened streets of the Old Town.

They will party until the early hours in bars, clubs and discos like Fuego and the hugely popular Revelin.

But this historic centre has much more to offer in terms of history and architecture.

There are heritage museums and churches to visit plus a maritime museum and an Aquarium.

You will also find authentic arts and crafts shops, markets and traditional bars where local Croatians gather.

Pleasure trips from the harbour

Just outside the comforting walls lies the harbour area which is bustling during the summer months.

Ringed by restaurants the waters of the little port are swept apart by the regular pleasure boats that come back and forth throughout a busy day of sightseeing.

On the pierside employees of the tour companies beckon you earnestly as soon as you come into their view.

There is the pressure of slightly fierce competition from different booths along the line offering a variety of trips on the sea. An embarassment of pitches on offer.

Leaflets flutter in the air like naval signal flags shaken in the hands of outstretched arms as the sales staff lean forward to lessen the distance from your cash and capture your attention.

However occasionally you will notice the scantily-clad and perhaps buxom female staff relaxing on their high-stools casually smoking a cigarette almost like Amsterdam's finest.

Dubrovnik as a travellers hub

With all this seaborne traffic plying the waters Dubrovnik is therefore not only a fine host for its many international visitors. It also serves as an excellent base from which to sample the delights of the Dalmatian coastline further afield.

Boat trips are available to the countless islands along the Adriatic, the nearest of which is the charming little island of Lokrum which is a stone's throw across the water from the Old Town.

The Old Town of Dubrovnik and Lokrum Island
The Old Town of Dubrovnik and Lokrum Island | Source

But even if you don't have your sea legs you can travel inland for some landlubber tours. You can even visit other countries and take a day-trip to Mostar in Bosnia-Herzegovinia or follow the undulating coast of Montenegro with its spectacular mountain scenery.

There are mini-bus tours leaving from just outside the eastern gate of the Old Town where a booking office is located. Don't forget your passport as you will be crossing borders beyond the European Union.

The western side of the city

These farther flung atttractions are to the south and east of Dubrovnik but we are ignoring the western reaches of the city. On the other side is a much larger and more modern section of the city.

Next to the city walls is the suburb of Pile which has hotels and elegant villas amongst pleasant floral surroundings. It also has the famous 'Nautika' restaurant which overlooks a small bay at the water side.

Many gardens and orchards throughout the city have figs, olives, peaches and oranges growing from their trees. You will also see many trees, bushes and grass verges along the roads as modern Dubrovnik has lots of verdure to enhance and naturalise the urban landscape.

Nature and structure in Dubrovnik
Nature and structure in Dubrovnik | Source

Further west the city has a large harbour at Gruz that, unlike the Old Town, is not restricted to small pleasure cruises.

Here international shipping is accommodated in its deeper waters and huge ferries transport people to and from places like Venice, Ancona and Bari in Italy, the Croatian city of Split as well as the many islands in the Adriatic. You can even travel all the way to Athens.

High season tourism

The city can become really busy during high season when hundreds of tourists at a time disembark from the cruise ships. In fact for temporary periods the ships are the tallest buildings in the area as they tower over the local houses. Although in the cold and quiet winter months many hotels and restaurants close down.

But in the summer the city is lively especially during the big festival season of July and August. This was inaugurated in 1949 and today still attracts the prestige and glamour of the patronage of notables in Croatian society right up to their President.

President Ivo Josipović was actually there during our stay and resided at the Hotel Argentina in Ploče. Security staff augmented the hotel doormen and porters around the entrance. The President later made the stroll under the bougainvillea to the Old Town accompanied by his entourage.

The main harbour in Dubrovnik
The main harbour in Dubrovnik | Source

The western streets have much less of the history or the impressive charm of the old battlements and buildings of the Old Town. However there is still much to do and see and to help you get around there is a tourist card for sale.

As well as allowing you free entry into museums or discounted prices for selected shop and restaurant purchases it gives you unlimited travel on the buses around the city. The cost of the card depends on how many days you want to use it.

It does not allow repeat visits to attractions, just one single visit, but if you sample a lot of Dubrovniks cultural delights you will save money.

If you appreciate modern architecture and engineering then you will marvel at the Franjo Tudman Bridge which spans the mouth of the Rijeka Dubrovačka river at the Port of Gruz.

It was opened in 2002 and was designed in an aysmmetric style with a huge pylon radiating cable-stays on its east side. It is named after the 1st President of Croatia in the post-Communist era and who was elected in 1990.

The Franjo Tudman Bridge over the Rijeka Dubrovačka
The Franjo Tudman Bridge over the Rijeka Dubrovačka | Source

The hotel complexes of Lapad, Babin Kuk and Župa

A 20 minute ride from the bus terminus at Pile will take you to the Lapad area. It has an attractive bay wrapped in pine woods with clear waters, rocks and plenty of tree-lined shade.

Tree trunks descending almost horizontally bend towards the water providing a natural green umbrella of tangled branch and foliage.

Perfect shade in which to relax although it can be a struggle to find a flat, comfortable spot to sit on the hard surfaces. One intrepid couple were swimming across the breadth of the bay hopefully remaining aware of the boats crossing their path.

Bay of Lapad in Dubrovnik
Bay of Lapad in Dubrovnik | Source

Above the trees loom luxury hotels with fine restaurants.

Unlike the holiday apartments these offer professional and higher quality services.

Perfect for those who would like to spend more on their vacation.

No steps to climb either as the roads will take your bus, taxi or hire car to the rear where there are plenty of parking facilities.

The Cave Bar in Lapad
The Cave Bar in Lapad

Within the deep recess of the rock walls you will find the Cave Bar.

This is owned by the Hotel More which lies above.

The secret inside the bar is a vertical cavern of stalactites and moulded rock formations.

These have been slowly shaped by water over thousands of years.

The result is quite an astonishing theatre of sculptured Geology.

However it does cross the mind that such a spectacular display of natural history would be better served.

Perhaps in the hands of a public museum rather than a commercial premises.

There are more hotel complexes at Babin Kuk which is on the northside of the Lapad Peninsula.

It contains Dubrovnik's largest beach called the 'Copacabana' although it is pebbled unlike the soft sands of its more famous namesake. But Babin Kuk is normally quieter than Lapad and is ideal for families.

There are more top hotels in Župa which is along the coast to the south of the city. The area also has lots of variety. As well as beaches and sheltered coves on the shoreline there is an attractive valley inland and impressive mountain scenery.

There is no doubting that Dubrovnik is one of the top holiday resorts in Europe. It has a great deal of variety and interest to offer almost everyone.

There is a certain amount of commercialism but not on the scale of other popular destinations in places like Spain, Greece and Italy. It is certainly cheaper than most places of comparable quality.

A pleasant mix of culture, history, fun and frolics is available. Couples, groups of young singles, families with children as well as senior citizens can all find something to enjoy.

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The harbour of Dubrovnik Old Town at night.
The harbour of Dubrovnik Old Town at night. | Source

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