Dubrovnik is one of those places that somehow just doesn’t seem quite real. Is it a fairy tale? A place in Game of Thrones (which used it as a filming location) or Lord of the Rings? But no, Dubrovnik is the thriving southmost city of Croatia, the EU’s latest member. Vibrant, busy and loud, the streets of this small but beloved city thrumb with life. But from here, beyond the ancient streets, beyond the beaches, up above the peninsula full of
Holy Mary of Spilice Church on Lopud Island, Croatia
Built in 1483, the beautiful Church of Marija od Špilice or Mary of Spilice was constructed as part of Lopud Island’s Franciscan Monastery. Lopud Island is one of the three Elafiti Islands in the Adriatic Sea off the coast of southern Croatia. Lopud was first inhabited by the Greeks and then the Romans, though no architectural ruins remain. Once part of the powerful and ancient kingdom of Ragusa, the island hosts some spectacular medieval ruins – such as this Franciscan monastery, as well as a second monastery, several hermitages, aristocratic villas, a couple of forts and far too many churches to count. Though Lopud’s main Franciscan monastery is literally crumbling around itself, the complex still contains a working church. It’s a miracle that Lopud’s monastery is still here – it has survived earthquake, fires, annexation, dereliction, war, and other disasters, and yet here it is today, overlooking Lopud’s lovely harbour, marvelling visitors to this tiny, bucolic island every day in the 21st century.
Pro tip: Most people only visit the island (along with the other Elafiti Islands) as day trip from Dubrovnik – unsustainable tourism. However, the best way to visit the island – or any of Croatia’s islands – is to spend more time than an hour or two – or even the night.
Irish author George Bernard Shaw once said “If you want to see heaven on earth, come to Dubrovnik,” – and yes it is that pretty. The white-stone marvel overlooking the dazzlingly blue Adriatic Sea is a true architectural beauty. By day, Dubrovnik, also known as Ragusa, is a tangled canvas of azure, orange and pearl-grey, and by night, it is a cheery glow of yellows and gold brushstrokes. Dubrovnik is made up of an array of wide boulevards and narrow alleys, a jungle of styles – Baroque, medieval, gothic. It wasn’t always so. In 1991, after the not-so-peaceful breakup of Yugoslavia, poor Dubrovnik was besieged for more than 7 months by the Yugoslav People’s Army in the scarily-recent year of 1991. The Old Town in particular suffered greatly at the hands of this pointless shelling, and it took more than a decade to painstakingly return Dubrovnik to its former glory (a fate that mirrors that Warsaw and Dresden after WWII, and most likely Notre Dame de Paris after the 2019 fire). Today, Dubrovnik is under a different kind of siege. While Game of Thrones, Instagram and cruise ships have succeeded in putting Dubrovnik on the map, it has gone too far. The explosion in popularity has pushed poor Dubrovnik to the brink of unsustainable overtourism, an affliction that unfortunately also affects other well-known destinations like southwest Ireland, Barcelona, Iceland and Prague. They are now staggering cruise ship arrivals to spread out the numbers, but until big cruise ships are forbidden to dock in small and medium-sized cities (Dubrovnik has just 45,000 inhabitants!), the problem will persist. For the sake of historic and heritage preservation, do not travel on big cruise ships (nothing over 250 people…) or coach tours as these forms of mass tourism are ruining national monuments.
Pro tip: As stated, do not travel on the big cruise ships. Instead, visit Dubrovnik in the off season (Oct-early April). If you’re dead set on arriving by sea, take the ferry from Bari, Italy across the beautiful turquoise Adriatic Sea – not only is it a lovely way to travel, it is cost effective and saves you a night of accommodation. Food here is similar to Italy – expect a lot of pizza and fish!
In most cities, the harbour, or “the docks” district is one of the least favourable parts of town – rough, rundown, dirty, overgrown, a bit forgotten. In Split however, this is not the case. One of Croatia’s loveliest cities (home to the amazing Diocletian’s Palace, the dramatic Marjan Hill, the stunning Trg Republike square, and a labyrinth of beautiful, winding streets), Split’s harbour and waterfront, called the Riva, is a charming promenade and one of Split’s loveliest places. The Riva was born some 200 years ago the French of Napoleon’s time lived there, though it has changed face and form several times over. Today home to an inundation of cafes, restaurants and bars, it is the throbbing heart of modern Split. And yet the Riva does not forget its maritime past, with piers, boat slips, customs houses and Port Authority buildings new and old framing the waterfront. The Riva is snuggled up behind the famous Diocletian Palace, ancient churches and an important monastery overseeing modern and traditional waterfront activities.
Pro tip: The Riva can be quite a busy place at all hours of the day, though it is at its liveliest in the evenings. Climb the nearby Marjan Hill for spectacular views over the harbour and watch the boats as the come and go.
In many ways, Zagreb is a strange little inland city. When one thinks of Croatia, turquoise waves, orange clay roofs, pristine beaches, soft grey stone, and giant pizzas come to mind – which is a very good description of coastal cities such as Split and Dubrovnik. Both Split and Dubrovnik are amazing destinations in their own right, but have very little to do with Zagreb. One of Europe’s smaller capitals – and one of its least well-known – Zagreb is a hipster inland city resisting mass tourism as hard as it can. The city glitters with its regal governmental and public buildings, shines with its colorfully painted facades, softens with its broad urban squares and parks. Unlike international Split where the air rings with a dozen languages, Zagrab is decidedly Croatian. It is too far from the shiny surface of the Adriatic Sea to attract the same numbers as its coastal cousins, too small to pull in the crowds that other ‘continental’ Central European places like Prague, Budapest, Vienna or Krakow have managed to draw. Instead, Zagreb is quietly humming along to its own markedly Croatian beat – and is all the better for it.
During summer, Croatian beaches become a hot-spot for beach tourists – meaning that it’s best to avoid the country from June-August. However in spring or fall, Croatia is absolutely wonderful. Soft waves lap against Dubrovnik’s rocky shores, ancient forts and lighthouses peer over rocky outcrops, restaurants and cafes line the city walls, smooth stone avenues skirt through the town centre while tiny alleys whip and wind their way around the main plaza. Here, orange clay roofs contrast with the turquoise blue of the famous Mediterranean. Founded in the 7th century on a rocky island named Laus to have provided shelter for refugees from the nearby Roman city of Epidaurum, Dubrovnik still has one of the rockiest shorelines on the Med. Most of what you see in this magnificent city today is due to its maritime power gained under the Republic of Ragusa in the 15th-16th centuries. Not only has Dubrovnik been recognised by UNESCO, but CNN attributed it to being among the top 10 best preserved walled medieval cities in the world!
Vivid colours are one thing that Split does not lack. Turquoises and azures, cerulean and sapphire – blues of every shade – are the principle colours associated with this ancient Croatian city, as the Mediterranean laps gently against the city’s feet – but there are other colours too. Pinks sprout from Trg Republike (Republic Square), both from its beautiful stone walls as well as the bright flowers that encircle the cafes. Oranges – in the way of clay tiles – dress the roofs of the ancient city (much like in Dubrovnik). And greens decorate the walls, here in the way of brightly-painted shutters, elsewhere via luxurious palm trees and other exotic vegetation that fans Split’s streets, contrasting against the somber stone. In any case, Split is a city of vibrant life and colours!
Look at that colour! These deep, cobalt blue waters belong to Croatia’s coast along the Adriatic Sea, the body of water dividing Italy from Croatia. This little Balkan country has been drawing attention over recent years as the place to be during summer! Perhaps a bit over-crowded, the country does not want for beauty. From ancient ruins (such as the Diocletian Palace in Split), to delicious food and wine to rival Italy’s cuisine, to an incredible coastline easy to experience by boat, to friendly locals who can’t wait to show tourists their culture, all the way to the unbelievably blue waters such as those above, Croatia seems to be blessed. And what better way to visit than by boat? Whether you take a small tourist “island-hopping” boat, a cruiser that travels up and down the coastline, an immense Mediterranean cruise ship or even a ferry from Italy or Albania, Croatia must be experienced via the water. And if you do visit Split, be sure to climb the little hill called Marjan just outside the city centre, as the view from the top is to die for!
This little Croatian capital has a challenge competing with Croatia’s beautiful Dalmatian Coast cities, its lovely beaches and its magnificent national parks. And yet, this offbeat inland capital has its own charm. It sports a downtown full of cafes and restaurants, decorative spires rising above the rooftops, statues that pop up in unexpected places. Meandering quirky streets carries you among adorable shops that surround the traditional old town. Regal palaces now converted into museums and institutions line the avenues shooting out of the centre. Colours slide off the facades of houses and palaces alike. When the sun is shinning, people stroll down the streets, lounge in the parks and drink a cold, local beer on sidewalk tables. Brides in wedding gowns pose for photo-shoots and students picnic in the grass. Though the beach is far away, and Zagreb is neither as beautiful as Dubrovnik or as historic as Split, it is still well worth the time to stop by this little Balkan capital!
Clip-clip, tally-ho! Jump out of the way because the Royal Kravats are coming by for the changing of the guard! The Royal Kravats, Zagreb’s light cavalry, have their roots in the French Royal Army during the 17th century. Anyone who has a basic knowledge of French can probably guess where the name comes from: “Kravat”, or “cravate” in French, means “necktie,” which was a Croatian special forces unit known for both their military prowess and the special scarf around their necks. Today, the position is ceremonial but still very exciting when in a great whoosh! a dozen speckled horses trot by you and down the cobblestoned streets of the Croatian capital, carrying decorated military officers on their backs, complete with capes, furry hats, and of course, cravats!
10 years ago–hell, 5 years ago–Croatia didn’t make the map. Today, a lot has changed; Croatia is now one of the most popular destinations for tourists from both Europe and abroad. Why? Well, with a view like this, what’s not to love? Cheery orange roofs, rugged rocky outcrops, sandy beaches, palm trees, pizzas, dramatic fortresses perched on cliffs, prices cheaper than Italy but with a view of the same Adriatic Sea. Out of all former states of Yugoslavia, the EU’s newest member has come the farthest. Dubrovnik, who shares the title “Croatia’s Crown Jewel” with Split, is one of Europe’s busiest “cities.” While this influx of travelers has been great for the Croatian economy, it also means that you should expect to see large numbers of tourists while visiting these two cities. However, in between, you will find smaller–but no less beautiful!–places such as Hvar, Brac, Bisevo, Sipan, Trogir. No matter what, Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is to die for!
Located not far from Dubrovnik, Lopud Island–1 of 3 main isles of the Elafiti Island archipelago–is known for sun, sand, and orange clay roofs. Croatia itself has become immensely popular of late as a prime summer vacation spot. Dubrovnik and Split are bustling and active cities–though of course beautiful and unforgettable! But why not escape the city centre? For a country with so much coastline, a country known for its beaches and waters, why not get out on that famous water? Why not see the beautiful Dalmatian Coast from a boat? You will surely be rewarded. These isles are but a taste of what is out there. Lopud itself is small, less than 5km2 with a population of 22o. On it, you’ll find a Franciscan monastery–you can just see the church spire in the distance (could you imagine monks being here? Did they chill on the beach then like we do now? Probably not…). Along the sandy shores of Lopud, there are also a few other small ruins, many adorable houses, a lot of palm trees, and some amazing views!
Republic Square, or Prokurative as it is known locally, is Split’s magnificent (and largest) of public squares. Because of its Neo-Renaissance style and usage of Venice as a model, walking through Trg Republike is like stepping into Venice. And it’s not only this square that one has the feeling of being in Italy—Croatia and Italy share a long history dating back thousands of years. Located just across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Croatia was geographically located at the centre of the Roman Empire. This proximity bound the Dalmatians to the Venetians—who were regarded as the Mistresses of the Adriatic—as they shared both culture and language. Today, though Croatia and Italy are two separate countries speaking languages from two separate language families, the pair have much in common: architecture, food, weather, lifestyle, landscape. Yet still, even with all of these superficial similarities, the people still hold onto their own traditions, their own uniqueness, their own culture—and Croatia is a country worth getting to know.
Dubrovnik is an up and coming tourist destination. Sporting beautiful streets, delicious foods, amazing views, orange-tiled roofs, ancient ruins and the lovely Mediterranean, it’s like Italy–without the Italians. And with locals who natively-speak a slavic language but who also speak rather amazing English. And with better prices. And maybe slightly less tourists. In 1979, it was declared a UNESCO site, and in 1991, it broke away from Yugoslavia. Because of the political turmoil, people just didn’t go to Dubrovnik for a long time. But, then something changed. Politics settled down, and this “new” country began to grow. Somebody “discovered” it and told their friends who then in turn told their friends. Now hoards of people visit Dubrovnik. But don’t let that deter you! Dubrovnik is a Mediterranean masterpiece!