From an American point of view, one of the few places we hear a lot about in Croatia is Dubrovnik. Located in the south along the Adriatic Sea, the city has always benefited from its seaside position, today the wealth though comes from the 1 million tourists giant cruise ships bring every year instead of goods passing through the city’s gates. Those cruise ships though are the reason why so many of us know about this remarkable town, their experiences ultimately shaping opinions of friends and family as they return home. But their presence at first worried me. I like cruises, but I really dislike being caught in the middle of cruise ships swarms, hordes of tour groups loping about. But as I learned Dubrovnik is a lot more than just a cruise port.
Walking Through a Fairy Tale
Dubrovnik is one of the few remaining medieval walled cities in the world, and as corny as it sounds walking through town really is like strolling through time. Originally founded in the 7th century, Dubrovnik hit its stride in the 15th and 16th centuries when it found itself in a prominent geopolitical role thanks to its incredible wealth and skills in diplomacy. As I strolled down the main thoroughfare, it was as if I was a 16th century merchant entering the gates for the first time. The massive stone buildings, the imposing gates and the beautiful views were all meant to impress and intimidate and they still serve that function today.
But it’s not a harsh city, not even close. The buildings may be imposing, but they’re also welcoming in their own unique way. Dubrovnik is particularly adept at welcoming strangers, a role it has been practicing for throughout its centuries of existence. Even though the city is old and heavily touristed, I still felt as if it was my little secret. Dubrovnik is a magical, fairy tale city that looks more than a Hollywood backlot than a real, tangible place. There’s a reason why The Game of Thrones shoots on location there, it conveys a fairytale appeal that is hard to resist.
Practically Speaking – Getting Around
Of course though there are a lot of tourists in Dubrovnik, no doubt about it. I visited during what is technically considered the shoulder season and still felt the crush of people at times. The key is to spend several days there and to get out early in the day for the best experiences. Cruise ship passengers will only visit during the middle of the day, so the early morning and evening hours are much less chaotic and definitely more enjoyable.
But even during the midday rush I was able to get around town and enjoy myself. Dubrovnik has a unique quality that is hard for a city to achieve; it convinces visitors that they too can find hidden little corners unknown to anyone else. Maybe it’s the veritable labyrinth of alleys that make up the old town, or the quiet cafes hidden under the massive city walls. However it is done, this illusion is complete and the effect is impressive. After a few short hours I felt as if I understood the city, could navigate it easily and walk with the stride of someone ‘in the know.’ That’s what we all want when we travel and Dubrovnik makes this feat very easy to achieve.
While there are certainly famous sites and buildings to visit, I think Dubrovnik is better thought of as a series of magical moments. These will of course vary from person to person, but they will happen and will transform the travel experience into something truly memorable. One of mine was walking along the top of the city walls, looking down at the city from high above. From there I better understood the map of the city, but could also see some of the famous views for which Dubrovnik is so very famous. The effect of the orange buildings, high walls and the deep blue sea all in the same view is truly mesmerizing. Another important moment was enjoying wine and dinner at a cafe off of one of the many alleys found throughout the city. The sun slowly set, going from magic hour to gloaming to night in a slow but beautiful progression. I sat there with new friends chatting, laughing and just enjoying the spirit of the city.
No matter what your own personal magic moments are, they will happen and will absolutely define the experience for you.
Dubrovnik is a hard place to quantify. Unlike some other cities I can’t list for you a series of landmarks you should see, or name a dozen restaurants you have to try. Instead it’s a much more ethereal travel experience, one that you feel instead of touch. I personally think that’s the best sort of trip and it’s also why I fell so deeply in love with this remarkable city.