We flew from Philadelphia on American Airlines, the only nonstop flight from the US into Dubrovnik. I was anticipating that the airport was going to be super crowded given the massive number of visitors coming to Dubrovnik in recent years. Surprisingly, getting out was very easy. We called an Uber and, in less than five minutes, were whisked away. The sea of red tile roofs against the azure blue waters took our breath away as Dubrovnik’s Stari Grad [Old Town] came into view. Sometimes, when you do research about a place and see pictures of what it looks like, you are disappointed when you actually get there. In this case, the photos did not do justice to the splendor of Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian coast.
Understanding Dubrovnik’s Roots
As we walked the narrow medieval stone streets, Dubrovnik’s rich history of perseverance and success as a city throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance became obvious. Originally settled by the Romans, Dubrovnik was controlled by the Venetians for centuries. The Venetian influence is apparent in the architecture of many of the buildings. After Venice’s decline, Dubrovnik negotiated a treaty with the Ottomans to pay a tribute in order to maintain its independence. In the early-1800s, the French, led by Napoleon, took control of Dubrovnik. Then, after the fall of Napoleon, came the Austro-Hungarian rule of the Habsburgs until 1918. Dubrovnik was part of Yugoslavia from World War I until World War II. During World War II, the Italians controlled Dubrovnik until 1943 followed by occupation by the Nazi Germany. Then, after World War II, Dubrovnik, and the rest of Croatia, came under the rule of the communist regime of Tito. In the 1990s, Dubrovnik suffered physical, economic and emotional losses during the Homeland War that followed declaration of Croatian independence. Finally, Croatia established its sovereignty and Dubrovnik became part of a modern Croatian democracy.
Walking Tour of Dubrovnik’s Stari Grad
After researching tours of Dubrovnik, I thought that I had to be a diehard Game of Thrones fan to truly appreciate the city. This could not be further from the truth. While many iconic scenes in Game of Thrones were filmed using Dubrovnik as a backdrop, there is so much more. We went on customized, four-hour private walking tour of Dubrovnik with Vesna. She did an excellent job of incorporating history, architecture, culture, and Game of Thrones.
Stari Grad is a fortified city that was built immediately adjacent to the Adriatic up on two hills with a small valley in between. We entered the old town through one of the city’s two stone gates. The old Ploca entrance has a drawbridge that used to be pulled up at night. The fortification was originally built as a single wall but was modified during early Renaissance to reflect advancements in artillery. To withstand cannon fire, a double limestone wall was constructed with dirt and rocks in between. The medieval city walls are one of the few things that remain after the devastating 1667 earthquake that destroyed almost all of Dubrovnik’s buildings.
You do not need a ticket or to pay any kind of entrance fee in order to walk through the old town. Needless to say, the center street of Stari Grad is filled with tourists, souvenir shops and cafes, and over-abundance of gelato shops. And, even if you are not a Game of Thrones fan, your guide will point out the series’ most notable backdrop spots. But, the key is to get off the beaten path, get away from the crowds and explore. The buildings lining the narrow streets were rebuilt of limestone in the Baroque style following the 1667 earthquake.
Dubrovnik is the home to the oldest Sephardic synagogue in use today and the second oldest synagogue in Europe. Jews were allowed to live in Dubrovnik since 1352. The Roman Catholic city government tolerated the Jews because they performed jobs that the Catholics were not allowed to do. Then, following the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, some of those who were expelled ultimately settled in Dubrovnik. Jews lived peacefully in Dubrovnik until the Nazis persecuted them during World War II. Following the war Tito’s communist regime disavowed any and all religions. Despite the turmoil of the 20thcentury, a small but vibrant Jewish community still exists with a functional synagogue and a small, well- curated museum of Jewish history. Tip: Entrance fee is 50 kuna—cash only.
Walking on the walls gave us great insight into how the city defended itself. The people who lived within the walls were expected to participate in guarding and defending the town (since there was no formal army.) There are several places that you can buy a ticket and climb above the city. While you can walk as much or as little as you like, I would recommend allotting at least an hour for the wall. And, if like us, you want to meander and take it all in, two hours is a more realistic time estimate. Tip: Entrance fee is 200 kuna—credit cards accepted.
Rooftops Tell The History of Stari Grad
One of the more sobering moments during our tour of Dubrovnik was differentiating between buildings that had been destroyed during the Homeland War and those that had survived. Vesna described, in vivid detail, what it was like to live during the period when Stari Grad was shelled by Yugoslav/Serbian forces. She pointed out that roofs with a lighter, more mustard color tiles were from before Homeland War. The roofs replaced due to bomb damage were more orange/red. Sadly, we realized that the Homeland War affected many, if not most, of the buildings within the city walls of Dubrovnik.
When to Visit the Walls of Stari Grad
We started our walk along the city walls at 4:30 pm. I would strongly recommend a late afternoon start for several reasons. Dubrovnik can be very warm. During our visit in mid-September, the thermometer topped 82 degrees Farhenheit every day. Different height walls means there is a fair amount of climbing up and down stairs. The limestone walls heat up and, there really is no shade. Now, you could walk the city walls early in the morning and mitigate some of these issues. But, the overwhelming reason to choose a late afternoon start is the view from the wall, above the crowds, as the sun sets over the Adriatic and Stari Grad.
Fort Imperial on Srd
Napoleon’s army built a fortress high above Stari Grad to protect the harbor and city below. It’s at least a two hour hike up a 1352 ft mountain or you can take a gondola like you see at a ski resort. We elected to take the gondola. At the top are panoramic views of Stari Grad, Lokrum (a nearby island) and the Adriatic. The fort is also the home to the Homeland War Museum. Tip: You can buy a one-way, round-trip and combo (includes museum entrance) ticket at the gondola base—credit cards accepted.
From the fort, we were able to see Bosnia literally on the other side of the mountain ridge—only a few of miles away. We then decided to hike down the series of switchbacks that make up the loose pebble trail back to the old town. The walk down took about an hour. If you choose to walk, make sure to bring water (there is no shade) and sturdy shoes. A walking stick is a plus as many of the rocks and pebbles slide under your feet.
Tips for Visiting Stari Grad, Dubrovnik
- The height of the tourist season in Dubrovnik is July and August. Try to visit during Mid-April, May, June, September and October since these periods are somewhat less busy. But don’t be deceived—there will still be lots of tourists.
- The Pile gate is the site of the transportation center and this is where everyone is dropped off. There is a sea of tourists and umbrella or flag-waving guides. To enter the walled city, try to go through Old Ploca gate where there are significantly fewer people.
- Understand that on some days there are as many as five cruise ships that arrive for a day in Dubrovnik. The walled city is busiest in the middle of the day when large groups descend on the city. Try to go early in the morning or in the evening. All those folks who came on a tour bus or cruise ship for the day are gone by the evening. Use the middle of the day to go to Fort Imperial or swimming in the Adriatic. Only about 1000 people live within the city walls. By the time we went out to dinner, with most of the tourists gone, we were able to fully enjoy the old town’s charm.
- Last, but not least, make sure to find time to go for a swim in the Adriatic. Climb down a ladder into the water at the urban beaches of Dubrovnik (a concrete platform.) Or visit one of the pebble beaches where you will have to walk on pebbles and rocks as you get in. Bringing water shoes will help save your feet. Don’t expect sandy beaches here—you won’t find them.
Are you dreaming of going to Dubrovnik? I’d love to help you plan it. Book your 30 minute over the phone complimentary immersive vacation consultation with me using my online scheduler to find a time that’s convenient for you.