There’s nothing that quite compares to Dubrovnik for sheer beauty and history: Medieval walls surround twisting alleyways filled with tiny shops and elaborate churches that lead to a perfectly preserved town center with polished stone streets. Views of the sparkling Adriatic Sea greet you everywhere you look. In fact, the entire walled Old City is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning no matter which way you turn, you’ll be met by something worth exploring.
Ships either tender right into the Old Port (just a two-minute walk to the center of the walled Old City) or dock at Gruz, about one and a half miles from the city walls. Cabs are readily available, as are public buses; the ride should take about 15 minutes from Gruz.
Several large churches vie for attention, especially the Serbian Orthodox Church, but don’t miss the following highlights of Dubrovnik as well.
All of Old Town Dubrovnik is encircled by a perfectly preserved medieval stone wall built in the 1200s; the city appears to be a fortress from afar. Walk the path on top of the walls for an experience you won’t forget. From high above the city, you can look down into the winding stone alleyways and the architecture that comprises the city and gain a bird’s-eye view of the life within the walls. Look up and you’re greeted with spectacular views of the ships that fill the harbor. There’s a small fee to make the loop that’s just over a mile.
Tip: Make sure you hit the walls, so to speak, as soon as you arrive in port. The passageways are narrow and fill to the brim as the day progresses; it’s also hot up top with no shade, so early is the way to go. (Enter the walls from the Minceta Tower by the Pile Gate.)
For an aerial view of Old Town, as well as views out over the Dolomites and vistas of the sparkling blue sea, don’t miss riding on the cable car (Frana Supila 35a) to the top of Mount Srdj. You’ll travel about 1,500 feet in just three to four minutes, with a hang-on-to-your-hats lurch in the middle of the journey (which adds some extra oomph for thrill seekers). Up at the highest point, you’ll feel like you’re on top of the world with the city spread out below and expansive views of the aqua Adriatic waters and the verdant islands that line the coast.
The Old City’s main thoroughfare (also called the Placa) is as great for people watching as it is for strolling. Shops and restaurants line the wide boulevard (including stops for decadent gelato), which runs from the Ploce Gate to the Pile Gate. Near the Pile Gate is the impressive Big Onofrio’s Fountain, which supplied water to Dubrovnik in the Middle Ages (it’s a great meeting place in case your group gets separated). Toward Ploce Gate is Orlando’s Column, erected in 1417 as a symbol of the freedom of Dubrovnik.
You can visit one of oldest pharmacies in Europe at the beautiful Franciscan Monastery and Museum (Placa 2), tucked away near the Pile Gate. The brick exterior walls hide a lovely interior courtyard surrounded by Gothic pillars and a cloister with frescoes from the early 1200s. There are beautiful medieval relics on display, as well as the main attraction, a pharmacy, built by the Franciscan monks in 1317. European monks were respected pharmacists, and on the premises are the well-preserved remains of their practice, including pottery, tools and medicine bottles. If you need an aspirin, today a separate part of the building houses a working pharmacy (the new kid on the block at 100 years old). Next door is a baroque church that you can visit as well.
The 15th-century Rector’s Palace (Pred Dvorom 3) was once the seat of government in Dubrovnik and is filled with magnificent architectural details. Inside is the City Museum, where you can learn about the history of the city and see the portraits, furniture and clothing of the wealthy former dukes of Dubrovnik. They ruled the city from 1358 to 1808 when it was known as the Republic of Ragusa.
Tucked away on Zudioska ulica (Jewish Street) is the 16th-century Dubrovnik Synagogue, the oldest Sephardic temple in the world, the second-oldest synagogue in Europe (after Prague’s Old-New Synagogue), and the only Jewish museum in Croatia. The exhibits are small but very moving, paying tribute to the 20,000 Croatian Jews who died in the Holocaust. Torahs from the 13th century and other well-preserved memorabilia can be viewed downstairs; upstairs is the original prayer space.
The Dubrovnik Aquarium is home to giant sea turtles, slippery eels and stellar starfish. It’s a perfect stop if you have small children in tow. Half the fun is its location inside the colossal Fort of St. John (Sv. Ivan) near the Old Port (where cruise passengers arrive by tender). There’s a small maritime museum located in the fort that explores the city’s ship-building and boating history.
Water, water everywhere, but how best to see it? Kayaking is all the rage in Dubrovnik, with the crystal-clear and calm Adriatic Sea making paddling easy even for beginners. Not only is the boating great, but the views of the old walls from a sea-level perspective are stunning. You’ll also get a chance to visit hidden caves and snorkel and swim in the warm waters.
Buza Bar is an off-the-beaten-path spot that will make you remember your trip to Dubrovnik long after you return home. In the southern ramparts of the Old City, you step through a dark space in a brick wall (“buza” actually means “hole”), pick your way down uneven stairs, and then behold stellar views of the sparkling Adriatic from a bar built right into the terraced cliffs. There is no better spot to soak up the sun, kick back with a local Ozujsko beer and watch the water. If you’re feeling the heat and want to cool off, follow the lead of those in the know and leap into the sea. Yes, from the cliff. (Really.) There’s a long rope ladder to help you climb back up again.
When you’re ready to escape the walls of Old Town, it’s time to hop over to lovely Lokrum Island, one of the more than 1,000 islands that dot the waters off Croatia’s coast. It’s just a 15-minute boat ride from Old Port, but a world away from the crowds. Bring your bathing suit for a dip in the Dead Sea-like saltwater lake, which has a small pebble beach. There’s a snack bar, lounge chairs for rent, and for fascinating photo ops, gentle peacocks roam the island.