Exploring the Old Town of Dubrovnik, Croatia
After shooting to fame for its involvement in the popular ‘Games of Thrones’ television series, the city of Dubrovnik in Croatia has become one of the world’s most visited cities. This is especially so in summer, where each day sees 1, 000 visitors from cruise ships alone! However, don’t let this deter you – set against the backdrop of the sparkling Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik slowly but surely manages to charm the heart of every visitor that sets foot in the city.
The highlight of Dubrovnik is its old town, which functions as the beating heart of the medieval city. Surrounded by 2 kilometres worth of stone walls, the old town is a treasure trove of smooth stone alleys, an eclectic range of shops and cafés, as well as various religious sites and fortresses.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, it’s no wonder that Dubrovnik is known as ‘The Pearl of the Adriatic’. Most visitors enter the old town through the main Pile gate, a stone gate that dates back to 1537. It isn’t hard to locate the main gate as it’s right next to the main bus station.
The Pile gate is overlooked by two forts, namely the Minceta Fort and Bokar Fort. The Minceta Fort is the highest point of the city walls, standing at a height of 25 metres. During the annual Dubrovnik Summer Festival, various performances are held at The Bokar Fort, which is also home to a popular ocean-side bar.
Once you’re inside the Pile Gate, take a stroll down the 300-metre long main street (“Stradun” or “Placa”). The street boasts a wide array of cafés, boutique shops and souvenir outlets. The street connects the Old Town’s two main gates, that of Pile and Ploce.
You’ll pass by the distinctive dome-shaped Onophrian Fountain, which was created by a famous artist from Naples in 1438. The fountain has sixteen sides, with a unique stone-carved masked face on each. A faucet extends out of the mouth of each face, from which streams of potable water flow. Now, the fountain functions as one of the old town’s main congregating points.
Built in 1444, the 31-metre high clock tower stands at one end of the main street. The tower has a large bell at the top, which chimes at noon every day. The chiming is caused by ‘Baro’ and ‘Maro’, two bronze figures holding mallets positioned at either side of the bell. These figures are known as the ‘Green Men’ (‘Zelenci’), as they’ve turned a peculiar shade of green after being exposed to the salty air from the Adriatic Sea.
The Franciscan Monastery contains the oldest-operating pharmacy in the world, which dates back to 1317! The monastery is also home to an incredible library boasting 20, 000 books and more than 1, 000 authentic manuscripts.
The monastery was initially built for defence purposes, where the monks would be the first in line to defend the city in the case of an enemy attack. This was because the monks were unmarried and did not have a duty to protect their wives and children; they could thus be trusted to put the city’s safety first.
Perhaps one of the best ways to explore the Old Town is simply to ditch an itinerary and get lost in its labyrinth of back alleys. Duck into the side pathways and discover shops peddling traditional goods such as essential oils and artisan cheese. These narrow streets were previously used by the French (during the occupation of the city) to quickly buy what they needed before cutting through the city to return to their posts.
Every shop is uniquely designed; you never know what you’d find! I visited during the low season where most shops were closed; however, I heard that these streets are a bustling hub of activity once summer comes around!
Any visitor to Dubrovnik should arm themselves with good shoes and be ready for a good workout – as there are over 4, 000 steps in the Old City alone! The most famous set of steps is the Jesuit Stairs, a flight of Baroque steps featured in the ‘Walk of Shame’ scene from the ‘Game of Thrones’ series. Don’t be surprised to see many fans taking multiple photos on this particular flight of steps!
The 18th-century Church of St. Ignatius of Loyola is located at the top of the Jesuit stairs. It’s home to Dubrovnik’s oldest tower bell, which was cast in 1355. Inside the church, spectacular frescoes depict the life of St. Ignatius.
The Old Town is just next to the harbour, where you can rent kayaks and small boats for the day. A popular excursion from the harbour is a short 15-minute ferry ride to Lokrum Island. Ferries to Lokrum Island leave every 30 minutes and cost around HRK40 (~SGD8) for a return trip.
The harbour is protected by the St. John Fortress, which previously protected Dubrovnik from pirate raids.
The St Blasius Church was built as a tribute to St. Blaise, the acclaimed protector of Dubrovnik. In 971, Venetian ships intended to launch a surprise attack on Dubrovnik – an attack that was later thwarted by St. Blaise, who appeared to the priest of Dubrovnik Cathedral in a dream to deliver his warning.
Standing in front of the church is Orlando’s Column, which comprises a stone pillar and flagpole that were built back in the 1400s. The stone column depicts a medieval knight named Orlando, who helped defend the Republic of Ragusa during a siege in the 800s. This enabled Dubrovnik to remain a free trade city-state; the column hence represents Dubrovnik’s hard-earned freedom.
Sponza Palace has functioned as a secular public building since its construction in the early 1500s; today, it serves as the city archives, boasting more than 100, 000 documents that date from the 10th century. Until the 20th century, the building’s atrium was frequented by merchants looking to do trade with each other.
Dubrovnik was hit by a terrible earthquake in 1667; however, Sponza Palace was one of the few buildings to survive the disaster. There’s a statue of Marin Drzic near the palace; Drzic was said to be Croatia’s greatest Renaissance playwright of all time. It’s said that rubbing the statue’s nose – or even sitting on his lap for a photo! – will bring anyone good luck.
There are plenty of food options within the old town – pamper yourself with a romantic Italian dinner in a rustic tavern or fuel up with a hearty taco. There’s something for everyone!
Standing at a height of 40 metres, the Lovrijenac Fort played an integral part in Dubrovnik’s defence strategy. An inscription above its gate reads ‘Non Bene Pro Toto Libertas Venditur Auro’ –translating to ‘Liberty Should Not Be Sold at Any Price’ – and pays testament to how the fort helped to keep the city and its citizens safe. During the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, the fort is also home to a traditional re-enactment of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
The views from the fort are simply gorgeous as well.
Entry to Lovrijenac Fort is included in the ticket for the city walls, which is Dubrovnik’s most popular attraction. A 2-hour walk along the city walls will reward you with spectacular views of the turquoise Adriatic waters as well as a canopy of orange-tiled roofs. The walls can be accessed from three places – near the Pile Gate, Ploce Gate and Maritime Museum – and can only be explored in an anti-clockwise direction.
Alternatively, you can also feast your eyes on an aerial view of the old town from Mt. Srd, a 400-metre high hill that stands sentinel above Dubrovnik. You can choose to either take a cable car, bus or embark on a hike to reach the summit of Mt. Srd; I recommend taking a cable car to the top and hiking back down to Dubrovnik. The views along the way are simply gorgeous!
If you’re visiting during summer, you might want to cool down at Banje Beach, located a short walk from the old town. The postcard-perfect beach boasts glittering waters and soft sandy shores – a perfect recipe for some mid-day summer respite.
Enjoy views of the old town as you stretch out on your mat or deck chair.
Once dusk falls, the entire old town is illuminated by soft white lights. This is when Revelin Culture Club, a popular nightlife spot located on the eastern side of the old town, comes to life inside a 500-year-old medieval fortress.
In winter, the main street is transformed into a winter carnival of sorts, with musical performances held on a stage every night.
No matter the time of year, the Old Town of Dubrovnik is an absolute delight to explore. It’s compact with all attractions within walking distance, making it easy to explore even if you’re tight on time.