‘Nothing is for free, except the water of the fountain’, is a popular saying among Dubrovnik locals. The fountain is 15th century Onofrio fountain, one of the most famous landmarks in the city. It’s the first thing you see on entering this beautiful old city through Pile Gate, the city’s natural entry point where most tour buses and city buses stop.
Dubrovnik is expensive, especially by Croatian standards. Not only for the inhabitants of the city, but also for visitors. Food, accommodation, entry fees, trips, parking. Everything comes at an elevated price, most of all in high season when the Unesco World Heritage listed city receives more people than it can really handle.
First visit to Dubrovnik
The higher prices and the prospect of huge crowds made us a little bit anxious about our first visit to this city that had been on our wanderlist way too long. But now that we were doing a three month road trip across the Balkans – the first part of a year of traveling – Dubrovnik was a must-see on our itinerary.
But how much would the Pearl of the Adriatic shine for us?
Being a year on the road meant being mindful of our expenses, but we’re experienced enough travelers to find our way around that. What we were dreading most were the anticipated huge crowds, even in the second week of June, when we’d be visiting.
The first day already felt very crowded to us. Looking for a spot to take a picture with as few people in it as possible we got into a conversation with a waiter who told us he thought it was a quiet day. In a month’s time it would be tourist hell, he said.
We understood what he meant the next day. With three large cruise ships docked for the day at Gruž harbor (totaling 5000-6000 passengers) and a national holiday in Croatia the streets were packed. We couldn’t imagine being here in July or August, when up to 10.000 cruise passengers would enter the city on certain days! The horror.
With our Dubrovnik planning tips we show which ways there are to beat the crowds and save some of that hard earned money at the same time. And of course we tell you what sights in Dubrovnik you absolutely have to see. The city is best enjoyed, however, by leisurely walking around this open air museum (which is free!), although the many stairs can leave you gasping for breath…..
Short history of Dubrovnik
The old city of Dubrovnik is a self-contained city surrounded by ancient stone walls. Dubrovnik was the focal point of the Republic of Ragusa, a maritime republic that existed from 1358 to 1808, when it was annexed by Italy. An earthquake in 1667 severely damaged the city, but many of the beautiful Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque churches, monasteries, palaces and fountains are still preserved.
The city got damaged again in the 1991-1995 armed conflict, when Croatia sought independence from the Serb dominated Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Through a major restoration program co-ordinated by UNESCO much of this was repaired again. In its heydays about 5000 people lived inside the city walls. Nowadays this is about 1.500, a number that is steadily dropping.
Dubrovnik planning tips
Stay outside of the city
It may seem very romantic to stay inside the city walls, but prices here are ridiculously high. The next best thing is staying outside of the city walls, but here a room for a few nights still comes at a premium. Many people stay in Lapad with plenty of bus connections to the old city, but still prices are relatively high here too.
Our advice is to stay outside of Dubrovnik, for example in the string of towns south of the city, like Mlini or Cavtat, that have plenty of affordable accommodation options and good public transport connections to the city (at least every half hour, the bus taking 15-30 minutes, depending on where you stay).
We stayed in the village of Plat between Mlini and Cavtat, where we rented a big one bedroom apartment (cooking ourselves a few times) with a huge balcony overlooking the Adriatic Sea for only 32 euros per night at Blue apartments. The short commute back and forth to the city was only a minor inconvenience. Driving into the city is not a good idea anyway, with not enough parking space and parking rates of 25-40 kuna per hour (we mostly paid 5 kuna per hour elsewhere in Croatia).
Buy a Dubrovnik Card
Normally we’re very skeptical about Tourist City Cards. Usually they’re not really worth the money unless you intend to visit a lot of museums. And we’re not that fond of visiting museums, we rather enjoy the sights outside. But we do want to include the Dubrovnik Card in our Dubrovnik planning tips. It’s worth considering, especially if you are going to visit the City Walls – and you will want to!
The entrance ticket to the City Walls has been raised to a hefty 150 kuna (20 euro) over the past few years. The one day Dubrovnik Card – which allows entry to nine cultural-historical monuments – is 171 kuna when ordered online. So by visiting one other sight you’re already making money. Now we have to admit that most of those sights didn’t really interest us, but we found the Franciscan monastery and the overpriced Rector’s Palace (80 kuna entrance fee!) worth the extra 21 kuna.
The Franciscan monastery and museum are interesting for a short visit to see the Old Friar’s Pharmacy, one of the oldest in Europe and experience some rare moments of solitude from the city hectic. The recently renovated Rector’s Palace houses the not very interesting Cultural History Museum, but the Gothic-Renaissance architecture is worth a look.
Come out of season
The crowds can be overwhelming at times. The best time to avoid them is by visiting Dubrovnik in the off-season. This can be as early as April and as late as October. These months have the added benefit of being less hot. We already thought it was way too busy (and hot) in June. Having experienced very busy tourist destinations elsewhere in Croatia already in May, we expect this to be no different in Dubrovnik. It’s the most visited tourist destination in Croatia after all.
Check the cruise schedule
The crowds in Dubrovnik are at their worst when cruise ships are in town. Cruise season lasts long in this part of the world and especially in July and August there’s almost no way around it. But it’s worth checking out the cruise ship schedule published by the Dubrovnik Port Authority to see how many cruise ships are in town and how many passengers they carry. With this knowledge, plan accordingly.
Visit early morning
The best option to enjoy the city in relative peace, however, is to try to get up early. We know, it’s hard when you’re on vacation. We sure had our difficulties getting up on time to get to the Stradun, the 300 meter long main street of Dubrovnik, around 7.30 in the morning before the tourist masses arrived. But it was totally worth it to see Dubrovnik free of tourists. Partially that is, with a growing number of people having the same idea….
Escape to Lapad
When the tour groups arrived we took the bus to Lapad, which is a suburb of Dubrovnik. The beach and promenade were one big construction site, but there’s a nice and quiet coastal walk toward Babin Kuk. It also takes you to Gruž harbor where you can see the big cruise ships that brought in all the tourist cattle that chased you away from the old city.
Walk the City Walls in the morning
Dubrovnik’s City Walls are a must-see and it’s best to walk them early in the morning, both to escape the blazing sun – there’s almost no shade – and to avoid the tourist hordes. Early in the morning is also best for photography. We climbed the walls around 10 AM and thought this was already too late.
The walls are 1.940 meters in length and are ranked as one of the best-preserved fortification systems in Europe. The damage it incurred during the Croatian war in 1991 has been completely restored. Next to the bastions, towers and citadels, the walls – being up to 25 meters high – afford a unique view of the city. Red roofs everywhere. We spent about two hours to walk the entire length of the walls, but it can take much longer when topping for drinks on one of the terraces both on and outside the walls.
Don’t miss Lovrijenac Fort
Lying outside the city walls on a promontory on the opposite side of a small cove separating it from the old town, Lovrijenac Fort offers some great possibilities for nice pics of Dubrovnik and the city walls. This is best done late afternoon. Entrance to the fort is included in the City Walls ticket and imagine our surprise to find almost nobody there! Granted, the fort itself is of minor interest.
Take the cable car up Mt Srd
One of the best Dubrovnik planning tips is to take the cable car up 412 meter high Srd Mountain for some spectacular views of the old walled city below. Although the cable ride up and down only takes about three minutes the cost of the ticket is almost 20 euro per person. Luckily we were offered complementary tickets by the cable car company. If you don’t want to spend that kind of money: it’s also possible to walk up or take the car up a narrow road to the upper station.
There’s a viewing platform just as you exit the cable car, but here the cables of the cable car are in your view of the city. For better views you have to go down the stairs of the cable car station, turn right as you exit and walk to the white cross, past the terrace of the Panorama Restaurant, where they are much better. You can take some awesome photos with yourself in it here.
It’s also possible to turn left and head over to the Empire’s Fort (Carska Tvrdava). There’s a photo exhibition about Dubrovnik during the 1991-1992 bombings that requires an entrance ticket. The guy at the ticket booth was nice enough to let us climb to the roof of the fort for free for some great photo-opportunities. We made some neat close-up pics of the city center from here. Walking a little bit further there are some more panoramic views of Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian islands.
It’s best to arrive just an hour before sunset. That way you can see the city below in the most beautiful light and enjoy a spectacular sunset over the Adriatic Sea if you’re lucky. We had a partial sunset, clouds drifting in at the moment suprême.
Go for a swim
Though most people see the city as a cultural destination our Dubrovnik planning tips wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some beach time opportunities as well. The closest beach to the old city is Banje Beach which actually offers a good vantage point for photography as well.
Going out to Lokrum Island (the island you see from the city), the Elaphiti Islands or beautiful Mljet are some other great options to get out of the city. There are a lot of organized tours to these islands, but it’s just as easy to arrange by yourselves (and much cheaper). If you’re visiting Korčula, than it’s better to go to Mljet from there.
Stroll the city at night
As is often the case walking around a city in the evening or at night has its own romantic charm. This is especially so in old historic cities. Dubrovnik is no exception to that rule. Don’t expect to be alone though. We found Dubrovnik still pretty crowded until late in the evening.
Game of Thrones Tours
Sorry, no Game of Thrones tips here, we never watched the series. But don’t worry, there are enough GoT tours offered throughout the city (it’s actually very hard to miss them..).
Do you have any other essential Dubrovnik planning tips? Please let us know!