Croatia’s Dalmatia coast has become exceedingly popular over the last few years, thanks to its beautiful islands, stunning old town cities, and of course, Game of Thrones filming locations! I needed a week’s holiday this month (before summer and high tourism season hits), and hadn’t been before, so it seemed perfect. I did half the week in Dubrovnik, then the second half in Split, further up the coast, including day trips to Plitvice Lakes and 5 Islands. Sadly, the weather didn’t cooperate for me, and I had about two sunny days out of the whole week, so some of my plans had to be altered to adjust… Still, I think I made pretty good use of the time I had. Anyways, Dubrovnik first of all!
Day One – Historic Old Town Sights
I arrived in Dubrovnik early afternoon on my first day, after an early flight out of Edinburgh, and an easy transfer on the airport bus to the Ploce Gate (east) of the Old Town. The city of Dubrovnik today spills out well beyond the ancient walls, stretching up on to the steep hillside, but most of the major tourist attractions lie in and around the Old Town. I had booked an apartment for three nights, at a pretty reasonable price given it was just off the main street inside the walls! It was pouring with rain when I arrived, but luckily I was able to check in earlier than the advised time, with only a short wait. I wasn’t going to let the rain stop me from sightseeing though, so I dropped off my stuff, pulled on my raincoat, and headed out again.
The first thing I did – and that I would recommend most people do! – was buy the Dubrovnik card. It was 300 kuna for the 3 day pass (also comes in 1 or 7 day options), and got me into most attractions for free, plus discounts on some other stuff, so although it was pricey at first, I ended up saving a good deal of money with it. It also included most of the museums, which was great for the wet weather, and meant I popped into a couple that I probably wouldn’t have bothered with, had I been paying for them all individually.
Then I set off through the back streets. The main street is called Stradun or Placa, and is a wide boulevard lined with tourist shops and restaurants. The rest of the Old Town, is a maze of tiny, narrow streets, with stairs stretching into the hill on either side. It’s beautiful just to wander through, snapping some photos along the way, and as the Old Town isn’t that big, you won’t get that lost! I knew I was headed for the east end of town, where most of the major sights were, and soon stumbled on the first quite quickly, Saint Ignatius Church. Croatia is predominantly Roman Catholic, so every church or cathedral I found was lavishly decorated inside. This first one certainly set the tone, with ornate images and scenes depicted around the walls. From there, it was just a quick hop down the steps to Dubrovnik Cathedral, a grand baroque building. Since it’s just across the Adriatic Sea, there’s a lot of Italian influence in the art and architecture of the city. The cathedral actually felt a little smaller inside than the first church – lower ceiling certainly! – but it had no shortage of splendid decoration inside either.
Along from the cathedral lie several of the town’s most important buildings. First, I visited the Rector’s Palace (included on the Dubrovnik card), a Gothic style building, and started to learn a little more about the city’s history. Dubrovnik was a self-governing republic for centuries, and the Rector was the elected official whole led the city. They held elections every month though, so no one got too used to the power! And for his month, the Rector lived in this palace, and most state affairs were conducted here. The tour actually starts in the prison and courtrooms, then proceeds upstairs to the Rector’s private chambers and meeting rooms. The courtyard is particularly pretty, and may be recognisable to some – it was used as part of Qarth, in Game of Thrones, when Daenerys talks with the Spice King.
After the palace, I wandered along to see the Church of St Blaise, a Venetian style baroque church, this one dedicated to the patron saint of Dubrovnik – there are statues of him everywhere! There’s also the Gothic-Renaissance Sponza Palace, where the city archives are now stored. The church seemed to be closed to visitors, and the palace wasn’t included on the Dubrovnik card, so I only saw these from the outside. I turned into the back streets on the other side of Stradun and wandered through those back towards the Pile Gate (west). Here there is Big Onofrio Fountain (the small version is next to Ploce Gate), named for its architect, and which has brought fresh drinking water from an aqueduct and into the city since the 15th century!
Just beside the fountain, I visited the Franciscan Monastery, included on the Dubrovnik card. The courtyard inside is so pretty, lined with columns, and surrounding a small garden – beautiful even with the rain pouring in! There’s a small exhibition of artefacts from the city’s history, and the pharmacy here is the 3rd oldest in the world (though it was closed being Sunday when I went). My last location for day one was the Marin Držić House – it was on the card, and I probably wouldn’t have gone otherwise! It was interesting though, as he is basically considered the Croatian Shakespeare. The exhibitions inside are all a little different, like a family tree on the wall or significant dates up the staircase, plus posters from his theatre productions. It was small, but something different to stop by at on my way past. That more or less sums up day one though!
Day Two – Game of Thrones & City Walls
It was still grey and rainy on day two, so I took a bit of a long lie before starting my day. Had the weather been better, I might have done a full day trip from Dubrovnik, likely to some of the islands in the area, and squeezed everything else into two days, with earlier starts. There seemed little point island hopping in the rain though, so I spread my days out at a more leisurely pace. Anyways, I headed out late in the morning, and started off with a walking tour, with Dubrovnik Walking Tours. There are no free tours in Croatia, so I had to buy a ticket upfront – a little unusual for me, as a free tour guide, but I got a discount with the card! I chose the Game of Thrones & Dubrovnik combination tour, as I wanted to learn more about the city’s history, but also find out where the GoT locations were without doing a whole 2 hour tour dedicated just to that. It was a good mix of the two, and the guide even worked behind the scenes on the show, so he had some great insight – and made plenty of jokes about spoilers, without giving anything away!
The tour started by the Pile Gate, where he talked about the importance of the city walls to protect Dubrovnik, and showed us that this area was used to film the riot scene in King’s Landing. We headed down a secret passage outside the walls, to stand where the moat once was. Here he gave us an overview of the city’s history – how it was an independent republic for centuries, before becoming part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then Yugoslavia, then eventually Croatia as we know it now. We then headed down the waterfront, to the area now nicknamed ‘Blackwater Bay’, since it was used to film various scenes for Game of Thrones there, including Myrcella sailing to Dorne, and Sansa, Littlefinger, and Shae meeting down by the pier – and appeared again in the season 8 finale! He also pointed out Lovrijenac Fort, overlooking the Old Town, built to protect the city (mostly from Venice) – but it has thinner walls than the Old Town, in case it was ever captured by enemies, so it easier for Dubrovnik to destroy itself! The doors in the cliff side were also used for filming the killing of Robert Baratheon’s bastards. Our guide also explained that inside the fort was used for filming as well, as was Minčeta Tower on the walls, so we could visit themselves ourselves later.
We headed back inside the Old Town walls then, pausing again at Pile Gate – this time for him to talk about St Blaise, with his statue above all the city entrances. Pile Gate was also used when filming Jamie’s return to King’s Landing, after being released by Robb Stark. They closed the gate for this scene, something that used to happen every night when Dubrovnik was a republic, and the keys were given to the Rector. Now, they are always open but were closed specially for that scene! Back inside the Old Town, we headed down the Stradun – many of Dubrovnik’s streets were used to film various King’s Landing street and market scenes – and he talked about the major historic sights around Ploce Gate, which I had visited yesterday. The tour finished at the Jesuit stairs, leading up to St Ignatius Church – now nicknamed the Walk of Shame stairs, as they were used to film that iconic scene with Cersei, coming down from the Sept of Baelor. I was glad I did the tour – I try to do walking tours as an introduction to most cities I visit now, when possible, but it was good to have the filming locations thrown in as well (though there are even more that I didn’t have time to visit!). I doubt I would have recognised or found them all myself, and the guide was especially interesting, having worked behind the scenes!
After the tour, it started raining again, so I headed to the Ethnography Museum (included with the card), located inside an old granary building. The building in itself was pretty interesting for that reason, and the exhibitions inside included all sorts of artefacts and objects from everyday Croatian life, including agricultural equipment, traditional clothing, and the like. There was also a temporary exhibition about a Romany festival in danger of being forgotten. I also took a walk down by the Old Port area – which had been far too windy to venture near the day before! – where there are plenty of small boats moored, and companies advertising their island day trips. I headed back to the apartment after that, for a rest and a coffee, before continuing with my day.
The City Walls had been highly recommended to me before coming on this trip, and seem to be the most popular sight in Dubrovnik – and are also included on the card, so how could I not? I waited until later in the day to go, in the hopes that they would be a little quieter by that time, though there were still plenty of people around. The Old Town is very touristic in general, so there’s just no avoiding the crowds, thought the cruise shippers and day trippers do tend to leave by late afternoon! If this was May though, I can only imagine how busy it gets in summer, so I’m glad I came when I did, even if the weather wasn’t that great!
Anyways, I picked up my ticket and climbed the stairs up on to the walls, entering next to the Pile Gate. They’re pretty easy to walk along once you’re up there, with a few stairs up and down along the way, and it does get a little narrow in places, which is why they operate a one-way system, going counter-clockwise. The walls offer incredible views, over the terracotta tiled roofs and narrow streets of the Old Town, and beyond, out over the Adriatic Sea and to Lokrum Island across the water. The rain cleared up as I progressed too, casting the perfect golden hour lighting over the city. There’s a couple of bars and cafés along the way, so you can spend even longer up here – I think I took a little over an hour to go around, taking photos along the way. You can also enter and exit at various points, but you can’t re-enter, so I recommend doing the whole thing.
The first half, I had the sea on one side and the town on the other, but then for the second half I was able to look out over all of it as once. You can see both details in the streets as you go, and sweeping views over the whole town, so there’s plenty to take in. Also, a few more Game of Thrones locations along the way – Fort Bokar is where Tyrion and Varys strategise, the Dominican Monastery steps are where speeches are made against the Lannisters, and Minčeta Tower is the House of the Undying. The Walls appear plenty other times throughout the series, as do Dubrovnik’s streets in general. Minčeta Tower is also the highest point of the walls, near the end of my circuit, but honestly, the view is as good from the wall below the tower as well!
The ticket for the walls also includes entry to Fort Lovrijenac, just across the bay outside the Old Town. I headed over straight after, to try and make the most of the evening light, though it had clouded over again by the time I got up. There’s plenty of stairs to get in there as well! The inside of the fort is largely empty, with many cavernous rooms open to the elements – but it is recognisable as the Red Keep from Game of Thrones, used several times in the series! From the top, the views over the Old Town are remarkable, as you can see all the way around the walls. Definitely don’t miss out on this!
Day Three – Kayaking & Lokrum
My third day was the only one where the weather forecast looked good, so I had booked to go sea kayaking that morning. It nearly got cancelled though, as I had an early morning email saying the weather wasn’t good – but by 8am (I had booked for 9am) it had improved so they contacted me again to say it could go ahead. The other people had already rescheduled for later in the day, so they ended up running it just for me, with the guide. I didn’t know this before showing up, and my introverted self doesn’t love one-on-one time with strangers, but half the time we were too far apart to really need to talk much. You can just rent a kayak, without a guide, and I’ve done sea kayaking before, but as I was alone I thought for safety reasons it was better to have someone else nearby in case anything happened to go wrong.
We started at ‘Blackwater’ bay outside the walls, and paddled out past the fortresses towards the open water. We went all the way around Lokrum Island, which was good as the guide gave me a few suggestions of what to see there that afternoon, and I could start to get my bearings on it already. We went inside some of the caves around its shores as well, though the first was too waterlogged to go inside properly, after all the rain over the last few days. Part of Lokrum has a nudist beach as well, which he said isn’t his favourite part to paddle past, but it was still a bit too cool and breezy in May for anyone to be out! By the time we circled the island, I was feeling pretty tired – I have the stamina to walk a lot, but my upper body strength is basically non-existent!
Instead of circling all the way towards the city though, we headed straight ahead for the shore just along from the Old Town, where there is Betina beach, hidden inside a cave in the hillside. It was definitely a welcome break! And there was no one else there, being further away from the town and hard to access from the land side. They advertise this as a swimming location, but since I was pretty tired and the sea is still quite cold at this time of year, I skipped it and just relaxed on the sand for a little while. Then we made our way back towards the city, paddling past the Old Port and pausing as boats sailed past us. This was where I got the best views looking towards the Old Town, and we made our way around the edges of the walls, towering high above. Of course, from down here you can’t see anything inside them, but it gives you a greater sense of how big and imposing they are! The whole tour took about two and a half hours in total, finishing back in the bay where we started.
After changing and grabbing some lunch, I then headed down to the Old Port again to catch the ferry over to Lokrum. It only takes 10 minutes to sail across, and I got discount with the Dubrovnik card. The ticket is for a return trip, and also includes entrance to the island’s national park. There were plenty of other people visiting it that day, but it is still much quieter and more secluded than the Old Town, with its hordes of day trip tour groups. There’s plenty to see on the island as well! I headed to the southern end first to see the natural features around the rocks on the coast, including the arched bridge that the guide had pointed out to me that morning, and the ‘Dead Sea’, a natural swimming hole with saltwater coming in from the sea. Lokrum is also full of rabbits and peacocks living there, and the latter were in mating season, so the males were calling out and fanning their feathers plenty!
In the centre of the island, there is an old Benedictine monastery and a house where the Austrian archduke Maximilian once lived. The island is said to have been cursed by the monks when they were forced to leave after living their for centuries, and now anyone who stays the night or takes something from it will die – Maximilian became Emperor of Mexico, but was betrayed and executed, and his wife went insane. His nephew inherited the island, but his ship sunk and he drowned on his way there! The ruins also now contain a visitor centre, about the island’s history, legends, and flora & fauna. Lokrum was used for filming scenes in Qarth, for Game of Thrones, so there’s now an exhibition about the series, including an Iron Throne that was donated by HBO for people to sit in – there are several replicas of thrones in visitor centres around Croatia, but this is the only genuine one donated by the series itself!
I then went for a walk around the other half of the island, which is all covered in forest, so it was a peaceful place to roman around. The highest point of the island is Fort Royal, and you can visit inside the ruins and climb all the way up to the top. There are great views out to sea from up here, but the trees obscure the Old Town in the other direction. However, as I descended the hill again, I followed the path around the northernmost side of the island, and here there are breaks in the trees that open up to excellent views of the City Walls! My timing was also perfect, as I circled back to the ferry port just in time for the next boat. They only run once an hour at this time of year (more frequently in summer), and I spent around three hours on Lokrum in total. As this had been my earliest start of my three days in Dubrovnik, I was pretty much ready to head back to the apartment and relax after that!
Overall, I really enjoyed Dubrovnik. There’s so much history to discover here, and plenty of sights and attractions to fill a couple of days. The Game of Thrones locations are an added bonus as well, though not the main reason I chose to travel here. Three days was a good amount of time to spend here too, as I was able to comfortably fit in everything I wanted to see and do, without feeling rushed and without having too much time to spare and getting bored. In better weather, I would have gotten up earlier and condensed my activities to fit in a trip to the Elafiti Islands most likely, but I would be doing some island hopping later in the week, so I wasn’t too upset about it. I probably would have skipped Lokrum to do that as well, and I’m glad I went there in the end, as it had far more to see than I’d initially expected!
And yes, the Old Town does get crowded and is very much catered to tourists now, which is a shame as I felt you didn’t get to see that much of the local culture, but I was told there are plenty locals still living inside the walls. I was definitely glad I went in May though, as even if the weather wasn’t ideal (though the rain was unusual for this time), I managed to avoid the hectic summer time crowds! Anyways, after my third night there, I departed the next morning for Split – stay tuned for that!