Dubrovnik is a one-town tourist industry on its own, with endless things to do all year round. As stunning as the clear blue sea around it, the former centre of the independent Republic of Ragusa invites superlatives and attracts the lion's share of Croatia's visitors. Read on for our insider's guide to the best things to do in Dubrovnik.
RECOMMENDED: More great things to do in Dubrovnik.
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Nab the best table at Nautika
Just outside the Pile Gate, Nautika is the snazziest place in town, with two panoramic terraces, impeccably staffed with starched white-tablecloth formality and, for visiting celebrities, privacy away from the paparazzi. It has also recently been renovated, reopening in May 2015 in time for the new season. For your one holiday blow-out, try and book a sea-view table on the Penatur terrace or on the Lovrijenac/Brsalje side. Chef Mario Bunda insists on the freshest fish (ask for recommendations) - shellfish are a speciality, particularly in dishes from the Elafiti islands such as Lopud brodet. Cream of scampi soup with black truffles is another favourite.
Sip Croatia's finest wines
Dubrovnik's first real wine bar, D'Vino was partly set up by Sasha, half-Australian, half-Croatian, in 2008. In comfortable, modern, intimate surroundings ten paces from the Old Town's main street of Stradun, you can choose from more than 100 domestic varieties, some six-dozen available by the glass. Every decent Dalmatian, Istrian and Slavonian label is here, including Grgić Plavac Mali and Zlatan Plavac. The house wine begins at a reasonable 25kn and the new management lays on wine tours too. Try and grab an outside seat if you can.
Appreciate recent history
New Zealander Wade Goddard came to the Dubrovnik as a photographer during the Siege in the early 1990s - and stayed. Affected by what he saw and keen to broaden the public's understanding of what happens in wartime, in 2003 he opened War Photo Limited. The gallery could have easily limited itself to Goddard's experiences in Croatia, but he quickly expanded its remit to exhibit works by leading exponents of this brave art from flashpoints around the world. The first floor houses these hard-hitting images in regularly changing exhibitions, while above you can see what was happening here in the 1990s. What today seems completely serene was then raging with bombardment and fires. Works are sold as limited-edition prints. Comments in the visitors' book sum up the venue nicely: 'It moved me beyond words,' is one typical entry.
Snag a sassy souvenir
Stride down the main street of Stradun and all you see are tacky souvenir shops selling overpriced, Asian-made toot. Turn a corner from the Old Port to steeply rising Sv Dominika, towards the Ploce Gate, and you come across this modest doorway. Dubrovačka kuća proffers high-quality gifts at affordable prices. The tasteful ceramics and glassware you see are the result of a link-up with the Museum of Arts & Crafts in Zagreb, while local products include wines, olive oils, bath salts, sweets and flavoured spirits. The English-speaking lady behind the counter offers useful advice without being pushy, and you come away pleased to have done your duty as a tourist without the feeling that you've been fleeced.
Splurge at 360 degrees
At this top-drawer setting, you get top-drawer cuisine, perhaps even the best in Croatia. Here under expert gastronomic stewardship, you can expect meticulously sourced food, painstakingly created and immaculately presented - along with a setting, atop the Old Port, second to none. Ingredients to create dishes of mainly Mediterranean ilk are flown in fresh from around the world or selected from markets in and around town. Desserts provide an honourable finale to one of the finest meals you'll have all year. The wine cellar comprises 6,000 bottles. Beg for a booth in the gun chambers.
The only bar in a street filled with restaurants, seconds away from Stradun, Buzz has won over a local crowd thanks to its good vibe, pleasant interior of colourful chairs and witty deco, craft beers such as Istria’s San Servolo – and reasonable prices, not an epithet you could grant to its neighbouring restaurants. There’s also organic lemonades, cocktails, whiskies and cognacs – and carefully selected rock, pop and jazz.
Romance at the Villa Dubrovnik
For once, the hotel blurb is spot on. The newly reopened five-star Villa Dubrovnik is the most romantic spot in Europe's most romantic resort. The reason? Well, first there's the stunning location, set on a rocky outcrop giving the perfect view of the Old Town, the backdrop to any sunset cocktail at the hotel's panoramic Bar Giardino. Secondly, there's the private beach, pools indoor and out, the bed linen of Egyptian cotton and Mediterranean flavours concocted at the in-house Restaurant Pjerin. All 40 rooms, set on descending terraces, have sea and city views. But the clincher is the water shuttle that allows you to make the journey across the water to the Old Town - and make it back again under the stars. No wonder the hotel's slogan reads, 'Romance Forever'.
Take the cablecar to Srđ
Opened in 2010, the gleaming orange Cablecar you see scaling the steep incline high up over the Old Town is both a tourist attraction and a piece of history. Mount Srđ has figured in key moments in the city's history, not least during the 1991 conflict. Mount Srđ served as a frontier against the Turks and a Napoleonic fort and, most notably, where brave Croats kept Serb forces at bay in 1991. It's pricy, but this matters little as you rise up in no time, the Old Town nearly vanishing as a panorama of Adriatic blue dominates the horizon. In the space of five minutes, halfway along, below you is the reason so many thousands come every year. Expensive it might be, the cablecar is simply a must for a complete visit to one of the world's most beautiful cities. At the cablecar station, the Panorama restaurant offers the same view, along with seafood platters, cocktails and fine local wines.
Visit a medieval pharmacy
Of all the Old Town treasures, the Franciscan Monastery and its Old Pharmacy Museum are the real gems. Don't be put off by the crowds - try and go at the end of the day. In a narrow passageway dividing the monastery from the Church of Our Saviour is the entrance to the famous Old Pharmacy, still in operation after 700 years, and beautiful cloisters leading to a peaceful, petite inner garden courtyard dotted with orange trees. One of the oldest in Europe, if not the oldest, the pharmacy is still a working chemist's. Old locals totter in for their regular prescriptions as tourists peruse the jars and vessels from yesteryear. Most local sources give the date of the pharmacy's foundation as 1317 - all records were burned in the fire of 1667. Many of the containers and poisons you see date from the 15th century. Also on display through the back are disturbingly large grinders and other implements, giving a perspective to our moaning about modern health systems. While medicine has improved, the prescription book shows us that doctors' handwriting has obviously gone the other way.
Find the ideal beach
Dubrovnik's city beach, Banje, is a short walk from the Ploče Gate. It's good for kids, with showers, deckchairs and sunloungers for hire, plus jet skis and inflatables. Yet it's not for locals. They head for Sveti Jakov, down the coast past the Villa Dubrovnik, a 20-minute walk along quiet, tree-lined Vlaha Bukovca. Buses Nos.5 and 8 run most of the way from north of the Old Town. Although this is everyone's favourite beach, it's rarely crowded. The sun stays warm until late in the evening, bathing the Old Town in a golden light. It's part shingle, part pebble, with showers, sunshades, and a bar and restaurant at beach level. It is accessed via a long stairway you'll be reluctant to climb back up.
Sink the perfect sundowner
For those not used to the high-end surroundings of the Hotel Dubrovnik Palace, the Sunset Lounge may come as a shock, not least after the bone-shaking ride on rickety old city bus No.4 from the Pile Gate to its terminus here. Walking through the swish lobby in reasonably smart dress (T-shirts OK, shorts and flip-flops a no-no), your eyes are immediately drawn to a floor-to-ceiling panoramic glass façade of idyllic sea-blue view, interrupted by the occasional boat drifting towards one of the lush Elafiti islands. On a clear day you can see Mljet. It's not a painting and you're not dreaming. Find a chair in the vast, chic interior and take a drinks menu. Cocktails hit the spot in summer. There are also unusual Croatian specialities, such as specialist brandies made by the Perković family, flavoured by carob from Komiža on Vis, figs from Šibenik or young walnuts from Dalmatia. Snacks are little pricy but this is once-in-a-holiday stuff, and you may as well go the whole hog and order up a half- or full bottle of Moët et Chandon and have done with it. As the sun sinks and the mood mellows, you're bound to linger until the piano player comes on in the evening.
Have your own island idyll
An uninhabited isle on Dubrovnik's doorstep, Lokrum is an unspoilt isle lush with pines, palms and cypress trees. Its verdant coastline beckons from the hotel windows of Ploče. Dotted with diverse ruins and remnants - medieval, ecclesiastical, Napoleonic, Habsburg - it has long been given over to nature. Although taxi boats disgorge tourists from Dubrovnik every half-hour - you can be drinking a beer in Dubrovnik's main square and be here in 20 minutes - no-one may spend a night here. Ancient superstition links back to the curse placed on Napoleon's troops by the Benedictine monks they removed. Subsequent mishap befell the Habsburgs who turned Lokrum into their own summer pleasure zone - hence the peacocks and botanical gardens. After a leisurely stroll, you can take a dip in the warm, saltwater lake and drink a beer or cocktail at the Lacroma bar, that conveniently overlooks the jetty. The last boats leave around 7pm, depending on the time of year.
Go sea kayaking
Dubrovnik's signature outdoor activity for visitors, sea kayaking is organised for complete beginners as a half-day jaunt with lunch on Lokrum island thrown in. You only need turn up, go through a few paddling techniques in shallow, protected waters, and the Adriatic is yours. Sea kayaks are more comfortable than conventional kayaks. Their length, with extra cargo capacity, allows the kayak to move smoother and easier in a straight line. Experienced kayakers have circumnavigated Ireland and Australia in one. For lesser mortals, the calm waters from the Pile Gate to the verdant, car-free island of Lokrum is, under guidance, a doddle. Some companies also offer sunset paddles, with wine and cheese thrown in. Children aged eight to 16 are welcome but must be accompanied by an adult.
Browse the market in the Old Town
The oldest market in Dubrovnik is located in the prominent, baroque square of Gundulićeva poljana. Centrepiecing it is a statue of 17th-century poet Ivan Gundulić, who surveys the piles of fruit, vegetables and dried delights. A short stroll away by the old harbour, a modest fish market also does good trade.Saturday is everyone's weekly shop, so get here early. Some traders offer seasonal cheese, olives, honey and Mediterranean spices. Others sell home-made loza and travarica, strong, flavoured brandy, the type you can't buy elsewhere. In one corner, by the Rector's Palace, stalls sell lavender and cantarion oils, ideal for aromatherapy, and sachets of dried flowers. Every day at noon, as stallholders approach the last working hour, and watched by equally punctual, attentive cats, an official brings a bucket of corn to feed the pigeons sat patiently on the nearby roofs. Suddenly, scores of birds fill the sky. This is the signal for locals to slope off slowly and congregate over coffee at one of the many terrace cafés.
Sink a beer at Buža
Far from the downtown flock, five minutes along a back alley, the bar table of your dreams is set on one of two panoramic terraces atop a rocky sea-view promontory propping up the city walls: Buža I and Buža II. Find your niche, gawp at the awesome sunset and sip a four-euro beer. At No.I, you can even dive naked into a moonlit Adriatic. Buža, meaning 'hole in the wall', suits boozers, swimmers and sunbathers alike. Of the two, Buža I is the most basic but perhaps the most enjoyable - maybe because of easy access to and from the sea, via metal steps fixed to the rocks. From the cathedral, walk down Ilije Sarake as far as the dining destination of the Azur. Diagonally opposite is a doorway; negotiate the stone staircase and behold! At differing levels according to the rock formation, tables appear - as does a bar counter and, occasionally, films projected onto the cliff face. Buža II is the better known. It has a straw roof, waiters in logoed T-shirts and dinky wooden trays. From the open square of Rudjera Boskovića, by the Jesuit church, follow a sign saying 'Cold Drinks With The Most Beautiful View'. Ahead an arrow points to 'Cold Drinks'. Buža II attracts an older crowd, who put their feet up on the railing separating shoe sole from sheer drop. Elvis or Gene Pitney is the music du choix.
Walk the City Walls
The easiest and most popular itinerary for visitors to Dubrovnik is the stroll around its fortifications. It also should be the first, as it allows the newcomer to get their bearings and gain an appreciation of the scale of this intricate jewel, and the skill of those who designed and constructed it. You also get breathing space from the high-season masses below. This is an elevated promenade and history lesson in one.
As you arrive in the Old Town through the Pile Gate, the main entrance and ticket office to the City Walls is right there. You can set your own pace, take an hour or an afternoon. Audio-guides in English are sold at the main entrance but most visitors are perfectly content with random vistas of red tiled roofs or, better still, the panoramic blue of the Adriatic, interspersed with pristine white stones jutting into it down below from varying angles. A couple of cafés provide pit stops at the harbour end, where there's also an open terrace for that eye-popping backdrop, ideal for holiday snaps.
Experience Dubrovnik Summer Festival
Croatia's biggest cultural bash is the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, 47 days and nights of classical music, theatre, opera and dance performances (mainly) around the Old Town. Something akin to Edinburgh without the fringe, it has been staging high-brow culture in Dubrovnik for more than 60 years. Shows bringDubrovnik's historic jewels to life. Shakespeare is performed open-air at the Lovrijenac fortress, orchestras play at the Sponza Palace, piano soloists at the Cathedral, ballet takes place after dark outside St Blaise's Church and all kinds of events have the moonlit City Walls as a backdrop. In all, some 70 venues are used - even Lokrum island. Book ahead for the biggest events - for others you can pay on the door. For the most prestigious events, smart dress, although not obligatory, is expected. Also remember that there will be a number of free performances around the streets of the Old Town throughout festival time - you needn't have to pay through the nose, or pay at all, to get swept up in the whole event.
Catch a top DJ at Club Culture Revelin
A club venue since summer 2011, hosting Fatboy Slim and Martin Solveig in 2012, this 16th-century fortress at the eastern end of Dubrovnik's Old Town has become the place to go after drinking-up time has been called in the town centre's other bars. Luckily, Dubrovnik's military architects had the foresight to construct what is an ideal venue for a club: the stark interior of bare stone blocks, complete with arched aisle spaces and lofty barreled roofs, provide the perfect backdrop for the state-of-the-art light-show. What Renaissance Ragusans might have made of the lithe females dancing in cages is another question entirely. With an elongated bar, large dancefloor and plenty of surrounding nooks and crannies, it's the kind of place that can cater for large numbers of people without making them feel pushed around. A lot of leading Croatian pop and rock acts perform here throughout the year.
For those seeking a spot of luxury, Dubrovnik has a wealth of chic beachside bars with VIP sections and the facilities to go with them. Coral Beach Bar is a lavish hangout with kingsize loungers, and Banje Beach Bar is swanky enough to have fashionistas sipping cocktails on its terrace.
Hit the waves on a boat trip
Dubrovnik may be one of the hottest destinations in Europe at the moment, but there’s no getting around the fact that, in peak season, the city really suffers from its popularity as a cruise port. The solution? Explore the city's landmarks and surrounding coastline by boat. You can hire a speedboat to the hidden restaurant Villa Ruza, hop along the Elaphati islands and explore the Kolocep's Blue Caves, illuminated inside with an electric, slightly eerie aqua light.