When Mike was in the very earliest days of his Navy career he spent a summer on a submarine in the Mediterranean. The sub stopped in several ports during their deployment including cities in Portugal, Italy, Morocco, and Gibraltar – coincidentally all places I’d love to travel (not via submarine, though, thanks.) Even with all that stiff competition Dubrovnik, Croatia was still the place that stood out in his mind, and that he always wanted to visit again. Now that I’ve seen it for myself I can understand why it captured his imagination.
Dubrovnik is BREATHTAKING.
That's right, I busted out the italic, bold, all caps, so you know I'm serious. The city is built on steep rocky ground that slopes toward the deep blue Adriatic Sea. The landscape is dotted with spiky cypress trees, olive bushes, and purple irises. It’s gorgeous in a way that’s hard to believe or describe. Really you just have to go and see it for yourself because pictures alone don't do it justice.
We were lucky enough to visit in early April when the orange trees were blooming and before the cruise ships and tourists of the high season descended in earnest. Many of the Croatian people we met complimented us on our timing. So, I pass that tip along to you: April, September, October are the name of the game if you’re looking for a little breathing room.
We were there for five days and I could have made good use of at least five more. It’s definitely a place I could return to happily. Here’s what we did:
Vacation Rental by Owner (VRBO) I continue to be a huge fan of VRBO for finding unique places to stay. Case in point: we found an efficiency apartment owned by a Croatian family in Old City Dubrovnik. Simply outfitted with all the essentials (including WiFi - woot!) – the true selling point was the terrace garden partially bounded by the city walls. Way more personality than a hotel, and situated in an unforgettable location.
Old Town Dubrovnik This ancient city is beautiful and what’s even more amazing is that people continue to live and work within the walls in ways that are both super modern (the aforementioned WiFi) and old-school. We attempted to 'live' there too and went to the post office, did a spot of grocery shopping, and perused the daily green market. Definitely plan to spend a day winding your way up and down through the narrow streets and stairways.
The Wall In my mind this is a totally separate activity from the rest of Old Town. We went up near the Pile Gate (tickets were 100 kuna, or $20 USD) and from that vantage point the views of the city, mountains, and sea are spectacular. It took us almost 3 hours to walk/climb the 3km because I couldn’t stop taking pictures – “shutterbugging” was Mike’s term – so be prepared…
Buza Bar is the stuff of legend for a reason. It’s an open-air bar that clings to the rocks outside the wall (cliff jumping optional) and an amazing spot to soak in even more sea views and simultaneously wet your whistle. I recommend Ouzjsko Limon, aka the shandy of Croatia. Finding it is half the adventure, so I’ll just give you a hint: walk along the sea-side edge of the old city wall and look for the ‘cold drinks’ sign that points the way.
Pelješac Peninsula Mike and I like cities, but we also love to see the countryside when we travel, especially if it’s wine country. The Pelješac Peninsula is an easy day trip from Dubrovnik and a offers a great opportunity to sample some Croatian wines, or stop in the town of Ston which produces sea salt the old-fashioned way (shallow sea water fields + sun) and is the source of Croatia’s oysters.
Korčula is an island off the coast of the Pelješac Peninsula and contains what appears to be a miniature version of Old Town Dubrovnik – fortified walls, Cathedral and all. The short boat trip from the mainland is an excellent excuse to be out on the crystal clear water.
Mostar (Bosnia) So, this isn’t actually in Croatia, but day trips are available through several Dubrovnik tour companies. Mostar is also ancient city, but unlike Dubrovnik it was formerly part of the Ottoman Empire and that influence can be felt in the architecture, traditional clothing, and decorative crafts. It's probably best known for the bridge that spans the river and the long tradition of brave people diving from the center span. (I was not one of them.) We didn’t see anyone attempt it while we were there, but word on the street says $100 euro will convince one of the young men lingering at the center to show the crowd how it’s done.
Gverović-Orsan (Zaton Mali, Dubrovnik) came recommended by a friend who dined there several years ago and still remembered the experience, which seems to be the unofficial motto of Dubrovnik. The food is excellent – fresh and prepared with a light touch that honors the ingredients – and the waterfront setting in a rustic stone boathouse on a small inlet is lovely. The standouts in a fantastic menu: gnocchi with lobster, wood fired scorpion fish, and crepes with ground almonds and Grand Marnier sauce. We wanted to eat here every night of our trip.
Nautika (Dubrovnik) specializes in modern Mediterranean dishes made with locally sourced ingredients. The food is very good and the service is excellent, but it’s the setting that really makes Nautika memorable. The restaurant terrace overlooks the dramatically lit walls of Old Town and has views of the Adriatic. Very romantic and perfect for a special dinner.
Oliva Pizzeria (Old Town Dubrovnik) I probably should be embarrassed to admit it, but after almost a week away from home we were in the mood for something familiar, like a piece of pizza. Plain cheese is my yardstick and Oliva’s compared very favorably to our neighborhood “by-the-slice” joint. Croatia is just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, so culinary crosspollination is inevitable and Italian food is generally a safe bet when you're tired of ćevapi.