Almost everything worth seeing is centred on the compact, crowded Old Town. To get the best view, and one of a stupendously clear, blue Adriatic lapping the rocks below and stretching way beyond, embark on a stroll round the City Walls. Audio-guides are available at the main entrance inside the Pile Gate to the left. An hour should suffice but take as long as you like.
You’ll spend the bulk of your time within the 15th-century ring of fortifications, in the small square half-mile of gleaming medieval space bisected by 300-metre-long Stradun. As you flit between the main gates of Pile and Ploče, guided by the list of places on the maroon flags, each venue with its own logoed white lamp, barkers on every side-street corner call you up to the bland tourist restaurants on Prijeko.
Cats scatter in from the old harbour, a cacophony of tour guides give their spiels. All is free of traffic until you reach the bus-choked hub outside the Pile Gate. Beyond, over the drawbridge, stand the Lovrijenac Fortress, used for productions of Shakespeare classics during the Summer Festival and the permanently busy main road to the ferry port at Gruž, and Lapad.
Exiting the Old Town via the Ploče Gate takes you past the attractive old harbour, where taxi boats set off for the nearby island of Lokrum. Beyond the gate stretches Banje beach then a string of luxury hotels.
Back inside the city walls is the main square and crossing point of Luža, where you’ll find the landmark astronomical clock tower (sadly, a modern rebuild of the 1444 original); Orlando’s Column where all state declarations were read; the smaller of Onofrio’s fountains, and a prosaic statue of Shakespeare-era playwright Marin Držić, installed in 2008.
The other sights are within easy reach. On the south side of the harbour, round the corner from the Rector’s Palace, St John’s Fortress and the Aquarium. The former houses an attractive collection of ships’ models, paintings and photographs detailing Dubrovnik’s seafaring history; while the latter consists of a gloomy collection of tanks containing Adriatic sealife.
Walking round from the old harbour, along the rocks fringing the sea-lapped city walls, are spots used by bathers and divers. The most popular is by one of the Buža bars, its jagged stones planed flat for sunbathers. Metal steps cut into the rock to help you clamber back up.
In front of the clock tower, the baroque Church of St Blaise, named after the protector of Dubrovnik through the centuries of trade, torment and tourism, was rebuilt after the 1667 earthquake. Inside, the altar, with a statue of the saint, is the main draw. The stained-glass windows are a modern addition.
On the other side of St Blaise, the adjoining squares of Gundulićeva poljana and Bunićeva poljana are busy day and night. Market stalls cover the pavement in the morning, entertainment for diners and coffee drinkers at nearby terraces; bars kick into gear after dark.
At the other end of Stradun, by the Pile Gate built in the 15th century, the main drawbridged entrance to the Old Town, stands Onofrio’s Great Fountain, less ornate than how it looked before the 1667 earthquake. Behind the Franciscan church nearby, the Franciscan monastery, embellished with beautiful cloisters, houses what is claimed to be the world’s oldest pharmacy and a museum of religious artefacts.
The best contemporary gallery is War Photo Limited, with changing exhibitions of of conflict photography from around the world, with one room devoted to the 1991-95 war in Croatia.
Once considered one of Europe’s most prestigious arts events but nowadays somewhat provincial, the Dubrovnik Summer Festival (Dubrovačke ljetne igre) offers a mixed bag of serious music and drama, with most shows taking place at atmospheric, open-air stages set up around the Old Town. The classical concerts in particular are well worth attending, although tickets should be booked well in advance, passing visitors may enjoy the street performances and processions which run for the length of the festival, from July to late August.
RECOMMENDED: more great things to do in Dubrovnik.
Great things to do in Dubrovnik's Old Town
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. The main entrance and ticket office is by the Pile Gate – having scaled the steps, you can set your own pace, taking an hour or an entire afternoon. Dubrovnik Walks is an agency offering walking tours of the City Walls run by knowledgeable locals.
The original church, allegedly funded by Richard the Lionheart in recognition of the local hospitality when shipwrecked on Lokrum in the 1190s, was lost to the 1667 earthquake. In its place was built a somewhat bland, baroque affair, free but unenticing to walk around. The main draw is the treasury at one end, a somewhat grotesque collection of holy relics. The arm, skull and lower leg of patron St Blaise are kept in jewel-encrusted casings, another box contains one of Christ's nappies, and wood from the Holy Cross is incorporated into a finely crafted crucifix from the 16th century. Perhaps the most bizarre artefact is the creepy dish and jug designed as a gift for the Hungarian King Mátyás Corvinus, who died before he could receive it.
Managed by conflict photographer Wade Goddard, who came here in the early 1990s this gallery exhibits works by some of the world’s leading exponents of this brave and often unrewarded art. See website for details of this year's principal exhibitions.
The attractive, 16th-century former customs house and Ragusa mint is used to house the extensive state archives. Several rooms off the arcaded groundfloor courtyard are used to display photocopies of the archives' most treasured historical documents. A small room opposite the ticket office holds the Memorial Room of the Dubrovnik Defenders. Covering the 12 months from October 1991 (although keen to point out that isolated attacks continued until the summer of 1995), the exhibition contains portraits of the 300 defenders and civilians who died during the siege and the tattered remnant of the Croatian flag that flew atop strategic Mount Srđ.
The most historic monument in Dubrovnik, the Rector's Palace was rebuilt twice. The first, by Onofrio della Cava of fountain fame, was in Venetian-Gothic style, visible in the window design once you ascend the grand staircase to the Rector's living quarters. Thereafter Florentine Michelozzo Michelozzi was responsible for the loggia façade. On the ground floor, either side of a courtyard, are the prison and courtrooms of the Ragusa Republic, and a glittering display of medieval church art. Upstairs, where each Rector resided for his month's stint, is a strange assortment of items: sedan chairs, carriages, magistrates' robes and wigs, portraits of local notables and Ivo Rudenjak's beautifully carved bookcase. One curiosity is the clocks, some set at quarter to six, the time in the evening when Napoleon's troops entered in 1806. The same ticket is valid for the Archeological Collection, a small but attractive collection of medieval carvings as the Rector's Palace) right by Ploče gate.
Between the Sponza Palace and the Ploče Gate, this monastery is best known for its late Gothic cloisters and late 15th-century paintings of the Dubrovnik School in the museum – in particular masterpieces by Nikola Božidarević, including his Our Lady with the Saints. On the walls of the monastery church are a beautiful wooden crucifix by Paolo Veneziano from 1358 and a painting by renowned fin-de-siècle artist Vlaho Bukovac from Cavtat, The Miracle of St Dominic.
The more haphazard of the two open-air bars cut into the sea-facing rocks, Bard Bar welcomes sunbathers, divers, drinkers and film fans. Its entry faces the terrace of the Konoba Ekvinocijo; on the wall is daubed '8-20 Topless Nudist'. Down a stone staircase are bar tables and metal steps towards the sea. Films are also shown.
The more well known of the cliff-face bars; tourists follow the 'Cold Drinks' sign from the open square of Rudjera Boškovića. Prices are a little steeper but you get a thatched roof and table service. Buža II also the same jaw-dropping view – if you can find a table in high season.
A good place to pick up your beach picnic contents is this popular market in the heart of the Old Town. It mainly sells fruit and veg but you'll also find nuts, olive oil, lavender, honey and local spirits.
One of the oldest pharmacies in Europe is, quite remarkably, still a working chemist's for locals, and in the complex of the Franciscan Monastery where beautiful cloisters lead to the Old Pharmacy Museum by a pretty courtyard. There you'll find disturbingly large grinders and implements used by the medical profession in the Ragusan era.