How do you escape the tourists in one of Europe’s most crowded cities?
On its surface, the city of Dubrovnik, Croatia, has it all: a fairy-tale setting on the Adriatic Sea, centuries of history, quaint shops and restaurants hidden along charming cobblestone streets, and picture-perfect red-roofed buildings amid a rugged mountain backdrop. All these things and more make the city a gem of the Dalmatian Coast and a long-time beacon for tourists, and recent years have even seen unprecedented tourism growth thanks to both the ever-growing cruise ship industry and the city’s role in a little television show called Game of Thrones.
Indeed, Dubrovnik has joined the likes of Venice, Barcelona, and Greece in dealing with the pains of over-tourism, places where an influx of crowds have angered and annoyed locals and visitors alike as well as threatened the continued existence of the historical structures that spurred tourism in the first place. You’ll hear many a visitor to Dubrovnik cite the crowds and general Disney-fied feel of the city as a major turn-off. But a recent visit showed us that finding the sweet spot of crowd-less bliss here is possible, and once you do, you’ll see that city of fairy tale yore in all its charming, old-world glory. Here is our guide to escaping the crowds and falling in love with a place that deserves all its popularity.
Understand That Dubrovnik Is Taking Steps to Ease Over-Tourism
The first good news is that the government of Dubrovnik is listening to concerns about over-tourism and is making strides to reduce the crowds. A 2015 UNESCO report recommended that the city welcomed no more than 8,000 cruise ship passengers per day; anything more than that would be considered “tourism blight” and potentially affect the integrity and infrastructure of the city the organization declared a Heritage Site in 1979. In 2016, reports had the city exceeding this number 22 out of 244 cruise ship days, and in 2017, the city’s mayor Mato Frankovic arranged a deal with the cruise ship industry. This arrangement stages the arrival of ships so there are only two visiting Old Town each day and limits the number of cruise ship tourists to 4,000 at a time.
Visit in the Fall
Thanks to its temperate Adriatic climate, there’s not a bad time to visit Dubrovnik, but you’ll still want to plan your trip around the weather and the crowds. While temperatures rarely reach below freezing, locals will insist that the post-holiday blues are very real and January and February aren’t particularly beach-friendly. But those sunshine-filled high season months of June, July, and August are also when the masses descend upon Dubrovnik and when you’re likely to encounter the staggering Old Town crowds everyone complains about. The perfect solution is to visit in September and October. You still have gorgeous weather (September in Dubrovnik is virtually indistinguishable from August, weather-wise), but the crowds will have vanished substantially. The closer to Christmas, the fewer chances for a true beach day, but the holiday season here has its charms, including a festive collection of Christmas markets.
Don't Go to Old Town Until After 5 p.m.
When people complain about the crowds in Dubrovnik, they’re really talking about the crowds in Stari Grad (Old Town), the area surrounded by the stunning architectural achievement that is Gradske Zidine (the City Walls), and where the charming medieval vibe is resolutely crushed when you’re shoulder to shoulder with a thousand other tourists. These streets are indeed quite pretty, from the collection of monuments and fountains representing days past to the shining limestone Placa, the main artery of the city that inspires people-watching. But these streets are also very narrow and involve many stairs, which makes for traffic jams of epic proportions, especially when you’re jockeying for a spot with the cruise ship crowds that descend upon the city during the afternoon. The easy way to avoid this (yes, even in the summer) is to start your explorations in the Old Town after 5 p.m. when the cruise ship passengers have mostly returned to their ships and you can actually breathe while wandering the streets. Plus, you’ll still have a few hours of sunlight and can capture gorgeous sunset photos of Lovrijenac Fort.
Get a Hotel With Beach Access
So, if you’re not supposed to explore Old Town until 5 p.m., what exactly is there to do? The first tip is to resist the urge to stay overnight in Old Town. There’s only one official hotel within the city walls, which books up very quickly; the rest of the accommodations are guesthouses and Airbnbs. While these certainly have their charms, not to mention a seemingly prime location, remember that you will be trapped within the throngs of people during peak crowd times. The smartest choice for lodgings is to remember that Dubrovnik is at its heart a seaside city and to choose a hotel with beach access. Here you can spend your pre-sightseeing afternoons relaxing alongside the Adriatic Sea and waiting for the crowds to disperse.
Stay at an Adriatic Luxury Hotels Property
You can’t go wrong with any of the 12 properties that are part of the Adriatic Luxury Hotels group, a collection of stunning yet affordable luxury hotels that capture the beauty and spirit of the city through their decor, menus, and hospitality. They range from the iconic and celebrity-friendly Hotel Excelsior, one of Dubrovnik’s first major hotels, to the small but mighty stylish boutique Villa Orsula. Each one offers Croatian hospitality, delicious restaurants highlighting traditional Croatian cuisine, and that ever-important beach access. But the highlight of the collection is the newly-renovated Hotel Bellevue. Carved into the cliffside over Miramare Bay, just a 20-minute walk from Old Town, the minimalist modern hotel is an elegant testament to the Dalmatian Coast, with breezy rooms that all offer balconies and stunning views of the Adriatic. Its pebbly private beach (adjacent to a public beach in case you need some extra breathing room), indoor pool, and full-service spa offer multiple options for passing the time until Old Town is ready for you. The company is also excellent at planning any number of excursions into Old Town or the surrounding islands for guests.
Be Picky When Dining and Drinking in Old Town
Old Town has an overwhelming number of restaurants and bars catering to visitors, some of which are, yes, total tourist-traps. Actual Dubrovnik residents will nearly always be found dining outside the city walls, and while you’re encouraged to explore non-Old Town eateries, chances are you’ll need a place to dine and/or drink while inside the historic quarter. For fine dining with zero pretension, Restaurant Posat, located just outside the Pile Gate, serves classic Croatian cuisine in a sophisticated, open-air setting. There’s also Staro Loza, housed within a 500-year old palace in the heart of Old Town and serving traditional Croatian dishes with contemporary touches; be sure to sit on the rooftop level for the best table in Old Town, with a view of the medieval rooftops as well as the sea. If you’re just looking for drinks, there’s the cozy, candle-lit wine bar D’Vino and its impressive selection of Croatian wines. Or if you’re here for sunset, follow the wooden signs pointing to “COLD DRINKS” through a literal hole in the city walls to Buža, where you can grab a spot on the terrace overlooking the sea; this place fills up crazy fast so if you didn’t nab a table at least a few hours before sunset, set up shop on the rocks alongside the bar instead (you can even go for a swim if you’re feeling brave).
Don’t Get Lazy With Shopping
Croatia has a long history of its craftspeople creating unique, culturally-meaningful items, but these days it’s easy to fall into the trap of waiting to buy a cheap, made-in-China keychain or magnet at the airport. And in Old Town, you’ll be tempted by the huge number of vendors hawking Game of Thrones merchandise that you can easily find on HBO’s website. Luckily, there are still plenty of options for high-quality items handmade by locals. Silver jewelry is big here, with many shops selling replicas of traditional designs originating from when Dubrovnik was its own kingdom. Be on the look-out for the famous botuns, small spheres that are now sold as necklaces and earrings. You’ll also see older women on the streets of Old Town and within shops like Bačan selling traditional and hand-stitched embroidery and needlecraft products. And when in doubt, there’s always a bottle of wine; Croatian wines are still a rarity in the United States.
Take a (Non-'GoT') History Tour
While the Game of Thrones tours currently reign supreme in Dubrovnik, you can and should opt for a walking tour of Old Town to orient yourself with the long, fascinating history of the city, which was its own fully independent republic for 450 years. It was conquered by Napoleon in 1808 and then became part of the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1815, and eventually part of Yugoslavia in the 20th century. While it remained remarkably intact despite the region’s violence throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, it was finally besieged in 1991 during the Balkan civil war, which caused significant damage to much of the city’s historic buildings. Luckily, much of the city has since been rebuilt to its former glory. All this history, and the winding twists and turns of the streets of Old Town itself, can be a lot to take in, and a tour is a perfect way to get acquainted with all you’re seeing, from the grand Rector’s Palace to the fascinating Franciscan Monastery, which still holds the world’s oldest pharmacy, founded in 1318.
If You Are a 'Game of Thrones Fan,' Manage Your Expectations
Of course, if you are a fan of Game of Thrones, there’s a lot you’re going to like about this place, from the bevy of souvenir shops and themed stores (Game of Cones anyone?) to the large selection of tours taking you to filming locations throughout the city. And while Old Town will give you major King’s Landing vibes for sure, it’s important to realize that many of the most distinctive parts of the fictional city were CGI. The biggest culprit is King’s Landing’s most recognizable landmark, the Red Keep; while the interior scenes were filmed with Lovrijenac Fort (which is a popular stop on many a GoT tour), the Keep’s distinctive towers were completely computer-generated. In addition, the majority of locations you’ll be getting a glimpse of are going to be relatively minor, but most fans will enjoy visiting the Jesuit Steps, which Cersei made her infamous walk of shame down.
Go on a Day Excursion
Dubrovnik is a surprisingly small city (the Old Town walls wrap around for just 1.2 miles), but you can make your trip feel much more expansive by taking any number of delightful day trips to the surrounding towns of south Dalmatia. The most popular of these adventures is renting a yacht (or any boat), packing snacks and a few bottles of wine, and sailing to the Elafiti Islands, a lush collection of laid-back islets perfect for a day of doing nothing but relaxing. Hiring a boat is surprisingly cheap (think €1,000 for a boat that fits ten for the whole day; smaller ones go for €500, once again for the whole day). The crew will be in control of the boat while your only responsibilities will be deciding where to stop for a swim. Only three of the islands are inhabited, and while you’re more than welcome to explore them (there are a few interesting ruins, some monasteries, and lovely hikes), it’s best to spend your time in the water. But be sure to stop for lunch at Bowa Restaurant, where you can enjoy the daily catch in an over-the-water bungalow.
Other worthwhile day trips include the many wineries of the Peljesac Peninsula, which holds nearly 250 wineries that produce bold reds using the Palvac Mali grape. Or visit the small village of Mali Ston, renowned for its 100-plus year history as an oyster-farming community, producing some of the tastiest oysters in the entire world thanks to century-old practices and the unique nutritional make-up of Mali Ston Bay. One of the town’s oldest oyster-harvesting families, the Sare family, offers boat tours to see their farming in action. You can then head back to Bota, the family restaurant, and taste for yourself how delicious they are.
Talk to Some Locals
Finally, you’d be remiss if you didn’t try and connect with some actual Dubrovnik locals while you’re in town. Yes, over-tourism has certainly affected residents in negative ways, but tourism is still the biggest part of the city’s economy, with the majority of locals working in the tourism sector. All in all, Croatians are friendly and eager to talk about their hometown, so feel free to strike up a conversation with your bartender or a shop owner to learn just how Dubrobnik’s transformation over the past few decades has affected the people who live here. Your best option is to book a dinner with Marija Papak, who offers dining experiences at her home, where you’ll experience a true home-cooked Croatian meal; this includes homemade bread, freshly carved prosciutto, a traditional peka (lamb cooked under an iron bell), endless local wine and homemade grappa, and a deeper understanding of the city that goes far beyond the complaints about its crowds.