Dubrovnik’s walled old town may be tiny, but you’ll find enough buried in its nooks and crannies to keep you occupied for days
Sheets of rain soaked through my ill-advised summer dress and turned a walk around the magnificent walls into a slippery hazard. This was my second time in Dubrovnik, Croatia’s southernmost town. The first time, I enjoyed blazing sunshine and every day was made for flip-flops. This time I visited in the winter and the weather, though milder than the UK, was less predictable.
But that did nothing to diminish the romance that oozes from this magical place. If anything, dramatic downpours added to its charm – and created a great excuse to duck into the nearest bar for a warming Travarica, or herb brandy. And, when the sun did come out to bathe the rock in a golden glow, it seemed all the more special.
I stayed at the very grand Dubrovnik Palace, described by locals as “the best hotel in town”. It looks like it has emerged naturally out of the cliffs, with different levels jutting out like giant steps, and a series of outdoor pools. Best of all, it’s only a 10-minute bus ride from the walls of Dubrovnik’s Old Town.
Old Town charm
From above, the Old Town looks like a living museum – a tapestry of yellow, orange and terracotta rooftops, surrounded by thick stone walls and lapped by the translucent azure waters of the Adriatic Sea. The main road, the marble-paved Stradun, runs dead straight through the centre. With cars banned, the pace of life here is a sexy saunter, as opposed to the angry stride of many big cities. You could spend hours exploring Stradun’s 300 metres – stopping to sip a cappuccino in one of the pavement cafes, poke around in a bookshop or choose some Croatian wine from a specialist dealer.
But the size of the Old Town, and claims in guidebooks that you can ‘do it in a day’, belie its depth. Cobbled streets wind charmingly upwards from the Stradun, opening up new worlds of bars, restaurants and cafes. After one night you might think you have seen everything, but the next night I promise you will find a new, ‘undiscovered’ street or plaza to explore.
There are plenty of interesting places for a cold pivo, or beer. Fresh is an ultra-cool bar off the Stradun, with cosy sofas in the corners and a neon walkway to the bar. Like pretty much all bars here, it’s cheap too – you can get giant vases of cocktail for the price of a pint in London. A real find – literally, because it’s pretty well hidden – is Buza Bar. From inside the south wall you’ll see a small doorway and signs saying ‘cold drinks’ and ‘the best view in Dubrovnik’. They’re not lying – follow them and you’ll emerge on the other side into a café that clings to the walls with tables and chairs spilling outside over the rocks. It's ideal for a sunset view over the sea. Even better for a lazy day of swimming and sunbathing.
My first port of call was a pub that had become my favourite last time. A cosy stone cellar with wooden beams, a huge mahogany bar and a maze of tables and chairs, the friendly atmosphere and free cherry brandies called me back. Like many other pubs in the town, it was now an Irish bar, called Katie O’Connor’s. Thankfully, the only change inside was a Guinness pump and small Irish flag. And it still served cherry brandy – the perfect tipple after a day in the rain.
A great place to soak up the alcohol is Mea Culpa, a cute little pizza place – turn right halfway down Stradun, with your back to Pile Gate, and you’ll find it on the cobbles of Za Rokom. The huge pizzas are big enough to share, and best washed down with a pivo.
Then there are the treasures lying just outside the Old Town’s two gates, Pile Gate to the west and Ploce Gate to the east. Dipping its toe playfully in the Adriatic, the harbour nestles in a half-moon outside Ploce Gate. This is the place to grab a plate of fresh seafood, which is a failsafe and delicious option along the Dalmatian coast. Try the black squid ink risotto at Lokanda Peskarija.
The next day, the harbour becomes the launch pad for day trips to nearby islands. Croatia’s coastline has 1,185 islands, making Dubrovnik the ideal base for explorers. The leafy island of Lokram, with pine trees, a monastery, pebble beaches and its own nudist beach, is just a 10-minute boat ride away. Or catch the ferry from Dubrovnik port (situated in Lapad, a short bus journey from the Old Town) to Kolocep, a stunning paradise island of green and gold, with beautiful beaches and hidden coves to explore. It is worth extending your trip to stay a couple of nights and enjoy its restorative powers.
You can also cruise over to the village of Cavtat, less than an hour from Dubrovnik’s harbour. You sail into an idyllic little harbour that doubles as a billionaires’ playground – the Russian oligarchs keep boats the size of hotels here. It is definitely worth a stroll and is a haven away from Dubrovnik’s weekend crowds if you fancy a change for dinner. Try Restaurant Kolona for the tastiest fresh fish.
Within the walls
But the real pleasures of Dubrovnik lie within, and upon, the Old Town’s ancient walls. Damaged by an earthquake in 1667, the town has an infectious sense of pride and wears its scars – a pile of rubble here, a piece of shrapnel there – like jewellery. There is even an old guillotine just inside the east walls, which you can stick your head in for a hilarious (and, yes, perfectly safe) photo opportunity.
From the magnificent, if crumbling, Onofrio Fountain (it was part destroyed in the earthquake) just inside Pile Gate, to the imposing clock tower at the opposite end of Stradun, Dubrovnik packs in the culture. In between these landmarks are some gorgeous little shops, where you can pick up anything from a designer handbag to a bottle of cherry brandy.
Then there are those famous walls, a vertiginous highlight for any visitor, even in a downpour. A walk around their 2km, up steps, down slopes and around turrets, gives fantastic views over the rooftops and out across the sea.
At the end of the last day, I huddled under a parasol outside the tiny but charismatic Café Troubadour, a jazz café just inside Ploce Gate. Clutching a pint and pulling my inadequate cardigan around my shoulders, I watched people skid by looking for shelter in one of the many bars as the rain hammered down. And I could not think of a place in the world where I would rather be. Rain or shine, delightful Dubrovnik has cast a spell on me.
Where to stay
Rooms at the Dubrovnik Palace cost from £85 per room per night.
Thomson flies from London Luton to Dubrovnik, from £52.99 one way, including taxes and charges.