Today, it is known as The Pearl of the Adriatic. But in 1991, as the Croatian War for Independence raged through the region, life in Dubrovnik was anything but beautiful. For months, as the Yugoslav People’s Army rained shells upon the city, Dubrovnik lost access to fresh water and electricity, while at least 15,000 residents were displaced as refugees. By the time Croatian forces broke the blockade in its eighth month, more than 560 of the old town’s 824 buildings had been damaged by projectiles; nine were destroyed by fire.
Two decades and millions of restorative dollars later, this stunning seaport has been reborn as the heart of Eastern Europe’s riviera, the Dalmatian Coast. Since the war’s end, Dubrovnik has also become a magnet for travelers from across the globe—a place to eat world-class seafood, gaze upon iconic orange rooftops, and soak up the ever-present sun on white pebble beaches.
But make no mistake, this surge in international tourism has transformed the city into a crowded, chaotic place in the peak of summer, as cruise ships unleash hordes of day trippers in the harbor each morning. However, with a little bit of planning and a few smart decisions, Dubrovnik can still be a quiet, relaxing, and eye-opening vacationer’s paradise.
So if you find yourself in the heart of Dalmatia, here are some budget-friendly ways to spend three days.
Broke Into The Old Apartment
There are few recent travel trends that have thrilled me more than the rise of short-term apartment rentals. For the price of a cramped, depressing hotel room, regional rental websites—such as Adriatic-Home.com and Dubrovnik-Private-Accommodation.com—offer apartments of all sizes, styles, and price ranges, perfect for the budget-conscious long weekender. So snag a three-day rental in the hillside Ploče neighborhood east of the old town, where you’ll have your very own kitchen and a view from the terrace that steals the show (Lazarina 3).
The Old And The Beautiful
When you consider Dubrovnik’s history of varying influences and alliances, it seems only fitting that this city has such an international draw. From its founding as the Republic of Ragusa, Dubrovnik was able to maintain its independence under the protection of Byzantium, Venice, Hungary, and the Ottomans, to name a few, until surrendering to Napoleon’s army in 1806. After subsequent annexations by the Habsburg Empire and the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, today’s old town of Dubrovnik is a living, breathing museum of a rich and diverse history.
Spend your first morning and afternoon getting acquainted with the pedestrian promenades and breathtaking architecture of this delightful walled city. Begin your stroll at the Ploče Gate, above which you’ll notice an alcove statue of St. Blaise, the patron saint of Dubrovnik. St. Blaise, always depicted with a model of the city in his left hand, is credited with saving Dubrovnik in 971, when he had a rather helpful vision of an impending Venetian attack.
As you enter the fortified old town, you’ll be greeted by the city’s energetic pedestrian thoroughfare, the Stradun. Take your time perusing the shops, cafés, and churches that line the Stradun—but don’t forget to explore the narrow alleys and staircases that cross it. You’ll discover quickly that Dubrovnik is a joy to get lost in, with charming new passages around every corner.
It’s Hip To Be Square
In a town where peace and quiet can be rare, the beautiful Ruđer Bošković Square is a gem hidden in plain sight. At the heart of this lovely plaza is Restaurant Kopun, a star of Dubrovnik cuisine that boasts as its terrace backdrop the façade of St. Ignatius Church. Whether you opt for fresh, local seafood or the young rooster for which it is named, you’ll find that Restaurant Kopun is breathing new life into traditional Croatian fare (Poljana Ruđer Bošković 7).
That’s Gold, Jerry! Gold!
Ease into the day with coffee and breakfast on your terrace in Ploče, admiring the city as it shines in the morning sun. Make a pit stop at the market for picnic supplies, and ramble down to the pristine, pebbly strip of Banje Beach. Happily situated at the base of Ploče, Banje Beach is one of the city’s most vibrant people-watching destinations with an incredible view of the old town and the island of Lokrum. So stake a claim and be happily occupied for hours—the cool, sparkling Adriatic water is the perfect antidote to the midday heat.
Nestled on the southern edge of Dubrovnik’s protective ramparts is Café Bar Buža, a picturesque café that clings to the rocks above the city’s favorite diving spot. Find a shaded seat, order a glass of wine, and watch daredevils plunge into the Adriatic from an intimidating rock known as The Lion. And although it’s easy to let the hours sail by, make sure you’re on the move well before sunset—you’ll appreciate the late afternoon light at your next destination (Crijevićeva 9).
If These Walls Could Talk
Since its founding more than a millennium ago, Dubrovnik has been protected by a network of defensive stone walls that were built between the eighth and 16th centuries. Measuring 6,360 feet in length and up to 82 feet tall, the city walls were trumpeted as one of the great fortification systems of the Middle Ages, as they were never breached by an opposing army. (Napoleon’s forces were invited in on the condition that they would respect Dubrovnik’s independence. How sweet.)
Today, a late afternoon stroll along the city walls, towers, and bastions is an absolute must for Dubrovnik veterans and first-timers alike. And as the sun lowers over the orange rooftops, keep your eyes peeled for HBO film crews—these walls are a prominent set location on Game of Thrones (access the walls by St. Savior Church, near the Pile Gate).
Toni, Toni, Toni
Once you’ve fully explored the city fortifications, make your way back toward the Stradun, where countless budget-breaking dinner options await you. But tucked into an alley just south of the pedestrian promenade is Spaghetteria Toni, a charming trattoria serving simple, reasonable, and delicious Italian pastas. With a table outside and a bowl of pasta Bolognese, you’ll find the perfect capstone to a long, relaxing day (Nikole Božidarevića 14).
The Lion King
As legend would have it, King Richard the Lionhearted was on his way home to England from the Third Crusade in 1192, when he was shipwrecked and cast ashore on Lokrum, the forested island in Dubrovnik’s bay. Hundreds of years later in 1859, the future emperor of Mexico, Archduke Maximilian Ferdinand of Habsburg, had a mansion and garden built on the same island, complete with magnificent pathways and botanical wonders.
Today, Lokrum is a peaceful, quiet respite for travelers looking to escape the daily bustle of the old town. With a picnic lunch and a ticket for the quick, inexpensive ferry from the old port, you’ll spend the day swimming in solitude, strolling through a former Benedictine monastery, and admiring families of Canary Island peacocks introduced by Maximilian.
Welcome To Sarajevo
Tucked inside the old town’s maze of streets is Taj Mahal, a dining destination that, oddly enough, has nothing to do with India. Instead, you’ll find a simple, east-meets-west menu of traditional Bosnian dishes. Snag a table outside and try Bosnia-Herzegovina’s gift to the world, ćevapi—grilled minced beef kebabs served in a warm flatbread pocket. You may just find yourself on the next bus to Mostar (Nikole Gučetića 2).
After dinner, make your way back to the Stradun, and spend your last Dubrovnik evening in the midst of its energetic promenade. Take your pick of gelato vendors and outdoor cafés—all you’ll need is a glass of wine to enjoy the last few hours of a weekend well-spent.
A Few Notes
When it comes to crowd avoidance in Dubrovnik, there are two simple options. First, consider visiting in the shoulder seasons, from May to June or September to October, when the weather is beautiful, the old town is tourist-free, and the prices are blissfully lower.
But if you’d rather experience the Dalmatian Coast in its full summertime glory—and it’s glorious—just make some smart choices about where you spend your time. Summer days—when the old town is clogged with cruise ship day trippers—are a perfect time to escape to the beach. Those same crowded streets will be back to normal by late afternoon.
TITLE: The old town of Dubrovnik | FRIDAY: The old town of Dubrovnik; the old town, from Apartment Lukre; the 18th century cathedral | SATURDAY: Banje Beach; the city walls; the Stradun, from the city walls; the old town, from the city walls; the view from the city walls | SUNDAY: The rocky shore of Lokrum.