Nothing can prepare you for your first sight of Dubrovnik. Completely encircled by thick fortified walls, with a maze of gleaming white streets within, it is truly one of the world's most beautiful cities. And it never gets old; whether you're admiring it from the top of Mt. Srđ, from a kayak out at sea, or standing in the middle of the Stradun looking around you in awe, your imagination will run wild picturing what it looked like when the walls were built eight centuries ago, without any suburbs or highways around it, just this magnificent stone city rising out of the sea.
In the 7th century AD, residents of the Roman city Epidaurum (now Cavtat) fled the Avars and Slavs of the north and founded a new settlement on a small rocky island, which they named Laus, and later Ragusa. On the mainland hillside opposite the island, the Slav settlement called Dubrovnik grew up. In the 12th century, the narrow channel separating the two settlements was filled in (now the main street through the Old Town, called Stradun), and Ragusa and Dubrovnik became one. The city was surrounded by defensive walls during the 13th century, and these were reinforced with towers and bastions in the late 15th century.
From 1358 to 1808, the city thrived as a powerful and remarkably sophisticated independent republic, reaching its golden age during the 16th century. In 1667 many of its splendid Gothic and Renaissance buildings were destroyed by an earthquake. The defensive walls survived the disaster, and the city was rebuilt in Baroque style.
Dubrovnik lost its independence to Napoléon in 1808, and in 1815 passed to Austria-Hungary. During the 20th century, as part of Yugoslavia, the city was a popular destination for European travelers, and in 1979 it was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. During the Homeland War in 1991, it came under heavy siege. Thanks to careful restoration, few traces of damage remain. It’s only when you see Dubrovnik yourself that you can understand what a treasure the world nearly lost.
Naturally, as one of the world's most beautiful cities, it has also become one of the most popular with tourists. During the past decade, the number of private accommodation units exploded, and an increasing number of cruise ships brought massive crowds into the walled city, negatively impacting not only the visitor experience, but the quality of life for locals, many of whom simply moved out. In 2019, Dubrovnik had its highest tourist numbers ever and plans were in place to address sustainability issues. But in 2020, COVID-19 brought everything to a crashing halt. Cruise ships stopped sailing, flights were grounded, and while other regions survived on domestic tourism, Dubrovnik, which is not well connected to the rest of the country by land, saw tourism drop by 80%. It was devastating for the economy, but also provided an opportunity for locals to reclaim the city for a summer: kids played soccer in the Old Town for the first time in many years and seasonal workers had the time to enjoy their beaches and islands for themselves.
It's not the first time that Dubrovnik's fortunes changed practically overnight. It has rebuilt itself before and will undoubtedly rise again. But one thing is certain: it will take a few years for numbers to reach the heights of 2019, so if you were ever planning to visit Dubrovnik, now is the time.