“Environment shapes the spirit,” I write in my notebook on my last night in Dubrovnik—and I’m pretty sure it’s not just the wine talking. Set along an island-laced stretch of the Adriatic Sea, with the soaring Dinaric Alps as a backdrop and the cinematic Old Town at the center of it all, this Croatian city hit the jackpot in terms of physical appeal. That perhaps explains why, in spite of all manner of historical destruction—a 17th-century earthquake, Cold War Communist oppression, the Balkan Wars of the 1990s—the vibe among the 40,000 people who live here bursts with good humor, hope and resilience, a sense of belonging. Whether you’re gazing down from the City Walls, imagining flying overhead on a Game of Thrones dragon, or looking back from an island-bound motorboat, it’s hard to imagine being any other way in a place like this.
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Churches, crypts, colonnades, and carbs in Old Town
I’m standing on my balcony at Villa Dubrovnik, wondering which way to turn. To my left is the green nub of Lokrum Island; to my right, a surging mountainside; and, straight ahead, the craggy coastline, culminating in the fortified walls of Old Town. It’s the kind of spectacle that makes you question the usefulness of language—even George Bernard Shaw was reduced to describing this city as “paradise on Earth.”
It’s unclear what Shaw would have had to say about Villa Dubrovnik. A 56-room Modernist building jutting from seafront cliffs, it was built in 1961 to house the city’s political elite, and it retains an air of exclusivity. There’s no splashy entrance, just a streetside elevator that whisks guests down to a world of effortless style, impeccable service, and wall-size windows yielding that view.
I descend the tree-shaded terraces and plop into the sea, enjoying the sense of seclusion before the scurry that lies ahead. Today, I’m exploring Old Town, a dense concentration of churches, palaces, fortifications, and family homes hemmed in by the belt of battlements and turrets that make up the City Walls. Even before I got here, I had a mental image of all this, mostly with dragons overhead and men running around with swords. There’s no denying that Game of Thrones has been a boon for Dubrovnik—fans of the show flock here to gaze upon the Red Keep (Fort Lovrijenac), the House of the Undying (Minčeta Tower), and other fantasy landmarks—but there’s more to Old Town than what’s presented in the HBO blockbuster.
I enter the walled section via the medieval Ploče Gate, overseen by a statue of Sveti Vlaho, the city’s patron saint, and the snout of a cannon poking through a portal. The real story of Dubrovnik (formerly Ragusa) begins in the 7th century, the plotline threading through its years as an independent republic and thriving trading hub, its occupations by foreign powers, its plagues and palace intrigues. For all the seeming might of its fortifications, Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) has seen its share of devastation: A 1667 earthquake leveled the ancient city, and artillery fire rained down during the 1991–92 Siege of Dubrovnik, a battle in the Croatian War of Independence.
The blocky limestone used in the post-quake rebuild had several benefits. It’s sturdy, and also lovely to look at—luminous in the daytime, sepia-toned at night. The main street, Stradun, is paved with the same stone, which, be warned, is slippery when wet. At one point, I catch the eye of a pigeon as it slips and falls on a damp patch; it’s an awkward moment for both of us.
Old Town’s historical hodgepodge comes to a head in Luža Square, which is skirted by a medley of Baroque, Gothic, and Romanesque structures, some as old as they look (Orlando’s Column, 1418), others not (the Renaissance-style Bell Tower, rebuilt in 1929). Two of the city’s most dazzling churches are here, too—Dubrovnik Cathedral and the Church of Saint Blaise—along with the grand Marin Držić Theatre, whose namesake author sits outside, cast in bronze, his aquiline nose shiny from generations of rubbing.
At the entrance to the 15th-century Rector’s Palace, one of the few historic buildings to have survived the quake (along with the exquisite Sponza Palace nearby), I make my way past a profusion of cherubs and vaulted arches and enter a colonnaded courtyard. Beyond this is a crypt containing an exhibition of photographs of the Siege: burning houses, kids playing in the rubble, boarded-up storefronts daubed with folksy images (angels, boats, birds).
Crisscrossed by narrow alleys, which invariably lead to a precipitous flight of steps or a cockeyed square, Old Town is not easy to navigate—which is fine when you’re having a stroll, but not so great when you’re late for lunch. Finally, I find Taj Mahal, a cozy-cool Bosnian eatery known for its hearty traditional fare. I take an alleyway table and order buredžike, meat-filled pastries topped with sour cream, followed by hadžijski ćevap, a beef and veggie stew. When the waiter offers the dessert menu, my Fitbit explodes.
Back on Stradun, lumbering west toward Pile Gate, I spot one of the shops that was pictured in the Siege exhibit. It’s a jeweler now, presided over by an elderly woman who, when I show her a photo of the blazing building on my phone, clasps her chest. “That is here,” she says, leaning in for a closer look. “It was a shoe shop then.” She shakes her head and goes outside to wash the windows.
Nearby is the Large Onofrio’s Fountain, whose ornate spigots have trickled here since 1438. I take a sip and cross Stradun to the Franciscan Monastery, which is home to an order that dates back to the 1300s, along with an apothecary museum that displays the scales, pipettes, and cauldrons the friars used while dabbling in medicine.
I could use a restorative tonic myself, so I head for Buža Bar. Hewn into cliffs below the City Walls, this eccentric spot invites guests to perch, puffin-like, on a scattering of tiny vertiginous terraces, suggesting a lax approach to health and safety but a staunch dedication to social media accounts. I totter onto one of them and order an Aperol spritz with a splash of vertigo. “People sometimes jump in,” the waiter tells me, nodding at the frothy waves below, “but not everybody likes that.” You don’t say.
My dinner destination is nearby, and I put Google Maps to the test as I search the warren of alleys, some lined with gift shops and bars, others draped with laundry and potted plants. “Turn left,” my phone tells me. “No, the other left.” Eventually I find the Jesuit Stairs, which were modeled on Rome’s Spanish Steps but are now known for the “Walk of Shame” bit in GoT. At the top stands the wildly ornate St. Ignatius Church; beside this is Kopun, whose menu puts a modern spin on Croatian standards.
Ana Bitanga, Kopun’s affable manager, waves away the idea that I try something light. “Carbs,” she says, delivering a šporki makaruli (pasta in beef sauce). “We also serve it with croquettes—because if you can fry carbs, even better.” Then come capon stewed in a porcini mushroom sauce and served with forest berries, a couple of glasses of Dalmatian wine, and a platter of baked peppers, rounded off with a refined peasant-food dessert of egg custard, oranges, and cookies. It’s fantastic but, you know, hic. “People here have a love of comfort,” Bitanga notes. “Thank God for all the stairs.”
I end my evening with a Croatian pinot noir in the lauded wine bar D’Vino before heading back to the hotel, where I take in the view from the terrace. Old Town’s glowing walls seem to be suspended between sea and sky, like something out of a fairy-tale, only better.
Exploring forts, eating oysters, and paddling kayaks around the islands and the coast
I start the day with breakfast at Villa Dubrovnik’s sun-washed restaurant. From here, Lokrum looks close enough to swim to—at least for someone who hasn’t just devoured a Slovenian omelet with spicy sausage and onions. Instead, I walk to Old Town’s picturesque port and take the 15-minute ferry ride.
There are dozens of islands around Dubrovnik, but Lokrum is especially popular—partly because of its close proximity, partly because of its staggering beauty. A mile or so from north to south, the island bristles with a continent’s worth of plant species. It also has fantastic beaches, a salty lake known as the Dead Sea (where I have a soothing float), a lush botanical garden (where I prong myself on a cactus), and an Instagram-friendly replica of the Iron Throne (“Say Dothraki!”).
It’s worth mentioning that this throne stands amid the ruins of an 11th-century Benedictine monastery, its cloister roamed by bands of assertive peacocks, descendants of birds brought here in the 1850s by Austria’s Archduke Maximilian. A bracing climb up a nearby hill, meanwhile, leads to the stocky turret of Fort Royal, from where Napoleon’s occupying troops were able to train their sights on Old Town’s muddle of terracotta roofs.
It’s almost lunchtime, so I head back to the port—only I don’t, because I’m lost again, maybe permanently this time. Then, just as I begin to entertain the prospect of a peacock and pine cone salad, I see the ferry boat through the trees. “Wait!”
From the Old Town docks, I take a half-hour drive up the coast to Brsečine Harbor, where I board a motorboat and hurtle toward Šipan, the largest of the Elaphiti Islands. Our destination is BOWA, a restaurant run by a family who not only own several eateries but catch much of the seafood served in them. The boat docks before a cluster of stilted cabanas and a dinky old stone building that doubles as the kitchen, set on a secluded, wooded beach. Here, closely observed by Pepe, the resident cat, I tuck into platters of superb seafood—seared tuna belly, swordfish ceviche, grilled octopus. Even the salt is diligently curated, crystalized from local pools (“Everything else is dust,” I am told). “You’re not finished yet,” says the waiter, proffering an apple cheesecake. “We are running late, but for the good things this is OK.”
My greatly extended lunch continues farther up the coast in Mali Ston, a medieval town known for the defensive walls that snake into the hills behind it. I join a small group aboard another boat and head out to the Bota Šare Oyster & Sushi Bar. Here, on a floating platform fitted with a bar, a crew member hauls up a rope festooned with shellfish. “Whoa!” says the guy beside me, which sounds about right.
I adore oysters, so it’s a special treat to have them right out of the sea, seasoned with nothing more than the brackish water. There is also an abundance of white wine on hand, along with the herbal grappa that is invariably served with the comment: “Our cure for COVID!” We sit for a while, sipping and slurping, bobbing on the minty blue bay. It’s hard to think of a finer way to spend a sunny afternoon.
That said, I have another historic coastal town to visit: Cavtat, about seven nautical miles southeast of Old Town. We dock beside a pretty promenade bracketed by two 15th-century landmarks: Our Lady of the Snows Monastery and the Church of St. Nicholas. Inside the latter is a painting of Christ ascending over the town, which is equally inspiring and panoramic.
My next stop, the Hotel Croatia Cavtat, proves difficult to find, despite it being a 487-room property shaped like an ocean liner. Eventually, having climbed through a thicket of pine woods, I come upon the hilltop resort, whose swish modernity is mitigated by its pastoral location; it’s basically a country retreat on steroids. The terrace of my spacious suite has views that rival those enjoyed by the ascending Christ: green-brown mountains, turquoise sea, and the orange-topped tumble of Cavtat.
At the hotel beach, I rent a kayak and paddle in the direction of Rat, a forested peninsula that’s home to a bar I want to visit. About halfway across the bay, it occurs to me that the paddling thing doesn’t work with the bar thing, so I settle for a vigorous loop of the peninsula, ditch the boat, and make my way back on foot.
Meandering through the woods, I come across Šipun Cave, which is said to have been a dragon’s lair in days of yore; beyond this is Beach Bar Little Star, a funky seafront joint said to be the best sundowner spot in town. I order a beer, sit back, and watch the sky turn from pink to orange to black. It’s lovely out here, the decks around me full of chatting locals, but I still have a spooky cave to walk past. Time to go.
Dinner is at the acclaimed seafront restaurant Bugenvila, where I take a seat on a leafy terrace and start with an order of lobster-claw bisque. Before long, I am joined by an attentive cat. (There always seems to be at least one in these parts.) We both enjoy the bisque, but we’re really blown away by the main course: succulent ox cheeks braised in red wine. I skip dessert and order another glass of Croatian syrah, at which point the cat loses interest and walks off. I hope the dragon doesn’t get him.
Vegan kebabs, Communist curios, and Dubrovnik’s best dive bar
I’m back in Old Town, dropping my bags at St. Joseph’s. With low-hanging Murano-glass chandeliers and exposed stone walls, age-addled beams and trompe-l’oeil etchings, this centuries-old townhouse turned boutique hotel is full of both flair and sense of place; it’s like something Philippe Starck might have dreamed up if he’d been born in Croatia in 1587.
From here, I’m off to Gruž, an increasingly hip industrial neighborhood a few minutes north. My first stop is Urban & Veggie, a snazzy vegan restaurant across from Luka Gruž Harbor. “This is a city of meat lovers,” says owner Ivo Dadić, seated on the vine-draped back terrace, watching as I devour a splendid vegan kebab. “People thought I was mad when I opened, but we are changing minds.”
It’s just a short walk to TUP, a former carbon graphite factory that’s now the centerpiece of the neighborhood’s revival. Among the enterprises that have set up around here are a music studio, a brewery, a ceramics workshop, and the rooftop Love Bar, which is fast becoming one of the hottest venues in town. There’s also the Red History Museum, where I meet cofounder Krešo Glavinić. “Gruž is becoming the center of local social life, but also for tourists,” he says. “It’s interesting for people to come and meet the locals.”
The museum houses a beguiling clutter of artifacts related to the decades when the city was under Communist rule, beginning with a vintage Yugo at the entrance and extending into a series of rooms set up like a typical 1970s Croatian household. Visitors are encouraged to nose through the cabinets, listen to a Beatles cover band on headphones, or tap messages on a clunky typewriter. At one point, I thumb through a magazine with Linda Evans on the cover, and Glavinić smiles.
“They wanted to make this ‘new Socialist’ man,” he says, “and the new Socialist man wanted to watch Dynasty.”
Lunch is at Pantarul, a popular spot in neighboring Lapad, where I have steak tartare with crème fraîche, which is great, and pan-seared foie gras with caramelized apples, which is even better. Afterward, I take a quick detour to the waterfront Cave Bar More, where you can sip fancy cocktails in a troglodytic setting (watch your head around the stalactites). I can’t help but try the Game of Thrones cocktail, made with pink gin, golden falernum, blue Curaçao, tonic, and something called “magic mix.”
On my way back to Old Town, I stop to catch the Dubrovnik Cable Car, which trundles to the peak of Mt. Srd, 1,352 feet above sea level. The journey up is a bit of a nail-biter (one of my fellow passengers keeps making jokes about the cables snapping), but it’s a small price to pay for what has to be the best view in town.
After making the dizzying descent, I stop in at the studio of artist Romana Milutin Fabris, whose wonderfully vibrant local scenes caught the eye of Pope John Paul II. When our conversation turns to the Yugoslav Wars of the ’90s, I mention that I’m eager to visit Caffe Bar Libertina; I’d seen a picture of it in the Siege exhibition, showing its patrons drinking and smiling like they hadn’t a care in the world. “The owner’s a friend of mine!” Fabris says. “I’ve known him all my life!” With this, she whisks me off in the direction of Dubrovnik’s best dive bar.
Upon our arrival, owner Luci Capurso greets Fabris as if he hasn’t seen her for years. (She was here an hour ago). “You want one?” he says, producing a large bottle of Travarica liqueur. The woman beside me jabs my arm with her finger and says, “You don’t need push!” As we sip our drinks, Capurso recalls singing in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest with his folksy group, the Dubrovnik Troubadours. “We came fifth,” he says. (Wiki places them seventh.) Down the bar, a couple of older guys break into song, presumably a rendition of the Troubadours’ “Jedan Dan.”
I say goodbye to my new friends and head off to meet Ivica Vlašić, who is driving me to his family’s vineyard about five miles west of the city. Nestled in the foothills of Malaštica mountain, Vardia is not the largest vineyard around (500 vines), but that’s part of its charm. “We do everything ourselves,” Vlašić says, leading a small group along a steep donkey trail. “At harvest time we have friends help—each chooses a row to pick, and at the end we have a barbecue.”
The wine—a crisp, citrusy white—is fantastic, and it’s hard to imagine a nicer spot to be drinking it: surrounded by olive, fig, and cherry trees, overlooking mountains and sea. Our host turns out to be as entertaining as he is informative. “The birds enjoy the vines, too,” he tells us. “We’ve tried nets, scarecrows, everything. They just bring their friends and carry on. My father says that the only reason they eat the grapes is because they’ve never tried the wine.”
Back along the edge of Old Town, I’ve got one final sightseeing foray in mind: a walk atop the City Walls, a 1.2-mile loop that provides a more intimate perspective of the historic quarter. At one point, I turn my attention away from Fort Lovrijenac and lock eyes with a guy standing at his kitchen window. The moment serves as a reminder that Dubrovnik is more than just a conglomeration of domes and turrets, a postcard-pretty sprawl of red roofs, or the site of the fictional Battle of Blackwater Bay. As Fabris told me earlier: “This is home. I belong here.”
Dinner is at Restaurant 360 Dubrovnik, a Michelin-starred standout built into the City Walls. I take a seat overlooking the old port, my arrival heralded by the clanging Bell Tower and the delivery of a wine list the size of an atlas. The tasting menu begins with an “Overture”: a vanilla chip with foie gras, potato soufflé with smoked eel, and an Oreo cookie–like presentation of olive biscuits, goat cheese, and honey. “Start from the left,” my waiter tells me, “and work your way right.”
So it goes for the next couple of hours: red shrimp with cauliflower and caviar; mackerel with bonito dressing and white turnip; sea bass with cuttlefish fagottini; slow-cooked pork neck with a spicy veal glaze; and so on. The food is wonderful, as is the wine, not to mention the view. I can’t recall the last time I felt so thoroughly happy. I say this to the guy clearing my table. He smiles: “Dubrovnik will do that to you.”
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