Dubrovnik in a Nutshell (Croatia)

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Tony and I were fortunate enough to live in Dubrovnik for a year and a half in 2008/2009 while he played for the famous JUG Water Polo Club.  Our apartment was located right outside of the Old Town, up a huge stone stairway that was a pain to climb but provided us with the most incredible views.  We had a large terrace overlooking the Old City and beyond, and we would constantly use our open barbeque for grilling and sip cocktails while admiring the sunsets.  We currently live in Dubrovnik again (2012/2013) but this time in the "new" area called Lapad, which has leant to a new experience.

Dubrovnik has already become a prime tourist destination, but living there year round and actually skipping the highest-tourism summer months really gave us a feel for the culture and the land. Our first year in the city, I taught English for Media, Journalism and Public Relations at the University of Dubrovnik, which gave me a chance to connect with the younger generation apart from Tony's teammates.  My students were driven, ambitious and very interested in getting out into the world, and I saw this as representative of Croatia as a country.  Although it is not yet a part of the European Union (projected for July 2013), it seemed like it was at least taking steps in the right direction towards eliminating corruption and assimilating globally.

I was often impressed with certain aspects of Dubrovnik that seemed ahead of their time-- for example, when you park anywhere around the Old City, you just text the number on the sign by your car to a service on your phone, and the parking payment is taken out of your phone bill.  There is also widespread wireless internet, which is uncommon for other Balkan countries.

In terms of tourism, it's not hard to see that Dubrovnik is absolutely stunning and offers so much in terms of history, art, cuisine and much more.  Having lived there, I am constantly asked by people planning a trip on what the "must sees" are for the region.  Therefore this blog post is dedicated to the basic Dubrovnik-- what you should probably do on your first trip related to sightseeing, eating and drinking.  It should be noted that I never lived in Dubrovnik during the peak summer months, so most of these activities are based around Spring or Fall travel (the best times to go!)

WHAT TO DO

1) Walk the Old City Walls: The best time to do this is in the early morning before the crowds and heat, or right at sunset.  The entire walk takes about an hour depending on how fast you go (there is one cafe to stop at for a beer along the way).  I recommend taking it very slow and stopping to enjoy all the spectacular viewpoints and vistas.

2) Take the Gondola up to the top of Mount Srd: The journey in the cable car only takes about three minutes, but what a view!! Once you get to the top, relax with a cocktail at the outside or the glass-enclosed bar.

3) Visit the Island of Lokrum: According to a legend, this is where Richard the Lion-Hearted was shipwrecked in 1192 after returning home from the crusades.  Even more of interest to me is the fact that Maximillian (also once the Emperor of Mexico) built a summer palace on this island.  You can still stroll through the ruins and the extensive gardens he built.  Don't be surprised if you bump into a peacock-- the island is full of them.

Tony and I used to love to pick up sandwiches at Buffet Skola in the Old Town and then take the short boat ride over (10 minutes).  First we would wander the ruins, and then cross the island to sit on the rocks by the sea and have a picnic.  You can also swim or rope jump in the Dead Sea (a small lake in the middle of the island), hike to the Fort Royale, or grab a beer and listen to the live guitarist at the small bar near the landing--- where they are super-friendly!

4) Ride the Scenic Train through the Konavle Wine Region: My former employer, Gulliver Travel, offers an excellent Excursion to this quaint wine region about 20 minutes south of Dubrovnik. A cute little train will take you to 3 or 4 wineries for tasting, as well as stopping at a local farm for a "Peasant's Brunch" of bacon and onions cooked in the old style. You will also stop in the village of Ljuta to visit a flour mill and learn about interesting local arts and crafts.

5) Cruise the Elaphite Islands: If you are in the Old Town or along the promenade in Lapad, you will see various venders trying to sell you a 3-island trip to the Elaphite Islands. I'm pretty sure most outfitters run the same tour-- an all-day or half-day boat trip departing and returning from Dubrovnik and stopping on the islands of Kolocep, Lopud and Sipan (fish picnic lunch is usually included as well). Although it's touristy, it's definitely worth the trip, and I can personally recommend the Tour offered Gulliver.

WHERE TO EAT

Like all touristy spots, you need to be careful when dining in Dubrovnik because you can easily end up eating badly and overpaying.  Here are my suggestions for both inside the Old Town and nearby:

In the Old Town:

1) Kopun: This is a welcome addition to the Old Town, located up the stairs on the back right hand side if you enter through Pile gate. It's the only restaurant in the beautiful, peaceful plaza high above the Old Town fray, and opposite a beautiful Cathedral.  They specialize in dishes of "castrated rooster", but the anchovies, homemade "fuzi" pasta with truffles and shrimp, and the "sporki macaroni" (dirty macaroni-- pasta with tender meat) are also excellent.  Pair your meal with a carafe of the 'domaca vina', or house wine.

2) Lucin Kantun: A tiny place with an open kitchen and "tapas" like servings of small but really tasty food-- good prices.  Try the eggplant mousse, prawns with lentils and the lamb skewers with lavender and honey.

3) Taj Mahal: Another tiny place but when the weather is nice there are several big wooden tables outside as well.  Delicious and home-cooked Bosnian food and specialty beer from Sarajevo. Definitely start with the burezdike, a type of pastry filled with spiced ground beef and topped with sour cream-- SO delicious. To follow, everything on the menu is good!

4) Lokanda Peskarija: The quality of the seafood at this place is questionable, but the atmosphere, location and prices are unbeatable.  If it's cold, sit inside on the cozy second level terrace, but if it's warm enough grab a table on the patio overlooking the marina.  The food comes served in big black cast iron skillets and pots, so it's fun to share.  Try the cheese and the fried little fish.

5) Nishta: This vegetarian restaurant is a refreshing change from the local cuisine. Think spicy and international-- cold avocado gazpacho, falafel, lentil curry with fresh Naan and even a burrito.  All dishes we have tried are fresh and tasty, including a new addition of "quinoa sushi".

6) Buffet Skola: A hole in the wall on one of the first alleys to the left when you enter the Old City.  They bake their own fresh bread each morning and then simply top it with delicious salty prosciutto and fresh cheese.

Outside of the Old Town:

1) Glorijet: This is my favorite restaurant in Dubrovnik-- the best of typical cuisine like grilled squid with chard. It's totally a local place and we often went there with Tony's team for dinner, drinks and live music. I recommend the fresh seafood sampler to start (with delicious marinated anchovies and smoked tuna carpaccio), followed by oysters and fish, or whatever good meat they are featuring. Don't order from the menu-- just ask the friendly staff to recommend the best dishes that day-- you won't be disappointed.

2) Taverna Otto: This restaurant on the main road that runs along the harbor was recently remodeled inside (now boasting cavernous stone walls and colorful prints) and also has a nice outside patio for warmer days. The menu is simple, with an odd standout being the chicken breast with hummus and fresh celery root salad. They offer interesting lunch specials during the week and often hold wine & food pairings and various tastings, so check their website/facebook for more info before you go.

A platter of the freshest oysters at Glorijet Restaurant.

3) Konoba Vinica (Monkovic): Another tried and true spot, this restaurant is about 20 minutes south of the Old Town in a town called Gruda.  It still has a working water wheel and is decorated with old farmhouse goods and tools.  Unbelievable lentil & chickpea soup and lamb under the bell (a special technique used to cook lamb that involves covering it with a giant metal "bell" and ashes for several hours-- so call in the morning to reserve).  I also recommend the pasticada (a meat and pasta dish) and the chocolate souffle. We would often end up sitting around the fire at the end of a meal, drinking rakija and eating figs.

Note: Every Sunday morning there is a performance of local folk dancing right across the street in Cilipi-- it's a perfect thing to do before a long and boozy lunch at Monkovich.  

4) Leut: This fish-focused restaurant is also about 20 minutes south of Dubrovnik in a town called Cavtat and is definitely worth a visit in the warmer months when you can sit outside right on the water (I have recently become obsessed with it!). For appetizer, order whatever the housemade specialty of the day is (the last time we went it was this unbelievable marinated fish with onions and raisins), followed by the creamed shrimp risotto. If you still have room, choose a fresh fish from the platter they will bring out for you and have it simply grilled or roasted in white wine. You can wash it all down with a bottle of ice-cold Posip Cara, one of my favorite whites. Afterwards go for a walk along the seaside promenade and then around the little peninsula that leads you back to the parking lot-- a stunning 20 minute path with great views and many good spots to jump in the sea or sunbathe on a rock.

5) Kasar: This awesome restaurant is housed in an old summer residence dating from the 15th century, and the outdoor tables literally perch right on the edge of the bay (about a 20 minute drive north of Dubrovnik). If you come early you can hike along the water, and then get a prime seat once you've worked up an appetite! Start with a mixed selection of whatever 'antipasti' they are offering that day-- fresh anchovies, octopus salad and fish carpaccio when we were there. For your second, order fresh seafood and leave them to prepare it as they wish! Wash it all down with a local bottle of white (maybe a Posip Cara?). Suggestion: on your way back to Dubrovnik, stop at Gverovic Orsan (directly across the bay from Kasar in Zaton Mali) for dessert and coffee or an after dinner drink.   This is the absolute perfect place to go on a hot day-- the outside tables are literally on a dock in the water, so you can jump in for a swim and then lay out in the sun to dry off.  Try the crepes or 'pancakes' and maybe a local walnut rakija.

6) Vila Ruza: This is a MUST DO-- this incredible place is located on the Island of Kolocep. Hire a private boat (you can easily find one asking around at the port) to take you here. Make sure to reserve a good table on the water ahead of time and then plan to arrive a few hours before your reservation. When you arrive, hang out in the bar area and order cocktails and the prosciutto and cheese with their homemade olive oil-- the best I have ever had anywhere, and that is saying a lot! When it's time for dinner, just go with the fresh catch of the day, and hang out as long as you can to savor the sunset and listen to the live guitar music. Love this place!!!

WHERE TO DRINK

1) Hotel More: This boutique hotel is reachable either via a main road on the Babin Kuk Peninsula, or from a great walking path that begins in Uvala Lapad and extends along the Peninsula. For drinks you have several options-- if it's warm enough, I recommend sitting outside on their patio literally on the sea, where you can hang your feet in the water as you sip your cocktail. They also have a stunning bar/patio on the top floor, where you can go if it's a little chilly or if you want great sunset views (there's an inside section as well). The third choice is their "Cave Bar"-- literally a cool cave that extends over several different levels and offers all kinds of unique seating.

2) East West Beach Club: This beach bar and restaurant is located a few minutes outside of the Ploce gate of the Old Town.  Enjoy a good cocktail as you lounge on one of the beach beds with white linen curtains.  It's a great place to swim and take in sun, and it turns into a happening bar and disco at night.  Also inquire about the Thai Massages offered inside-- legitimate and reasonably priced and a great way to unwind.

3) Buza Bar and the No-name bar outside of the Old City Walls: When you walk the walls of the Old Town, you will probably notice that there are two separate bars on the outside of the city walls, directly on the sea.  One is called "Buza" and I don't think the other has an official name, but they are probably the best bars in the whole city on a warm day.

To find them, walk to the back and right of the old town and up... look for signs for "Cold Drinks".  We literally sit there for hours, drinking beers and campari sodas and jumping into the sea when we get hot.  It's fun to watch the cruise ships glide by as well.

WHERE TO STAY

1) Rent an Apartment: I think this is by far the best answer to accommodation in Dubrovnik.  Look online ahead of time for apartments for rent, or if you're coming in the off-season, simply stop in at the tourist office and get a list of available places.  It's cheaper than a hotel and our guests were always pleasantly surprised by the locations and quality of the places we found.

2) Hotel More: Also mentioned in the "Where to Drink" section of this post, I have really gotten to like this hotel over these past months. It's the perfect size (38 rooms & 5 suites), has a good restaurant and awesome bars, and boasts one of the best locations in the city. Most rooms also have balconies and the view is pretty much unbeatable. This is the place to stay if you want to experience the sea but stay away from the Old Town crowds.

One of the pools at the Radisson Blu Dubrovnik.

3) The Radisson Blu Resort & Spa: This new hotel has quickly become my favorite in the region-- I was first impressed by their ability to stay open throughout the winter season, by creating innovative diversions such as a giant Christmas tree, enclosed ice skating rink and a superb lounge bar filled with English books and board games (for those dreary winter days). The hotel is located about 15 minutes north of Dubrovnik, on a large, beautiful plot of forested land directly on the sea. I can already tell that it will be absolutely spectacular during the warmer months-- the outside boasts a full promenade of various pools, bars & restaurants (including one spot dedicated solely to truffles), but the unique architecture makes everything blend into the natural surroundings effortlessly and doesn't leave you feeling like you're at Disney World. I have also heard that the Spa facilities are the best around, which I will soon confirm since they are offering a special "Spa Day" during the month of April for around $70 (includes a 55-minute massage, mini-facial & use of the facilities).

4) Hotel Rixos: My Mom stayed here when she visited Dubrovnik back in 2010.  It is a really beautiful and upscale hotel, and when it's not prime high season the prices are reasonable.  It's located about a 15 minute walk from the Old Town, right on the sea, with spectacular views.  One the best parts of the hotel is the Spa where I highly recommend getting the Turkish Bath treatment-- don't ask, just try--- you will be happy you did.  Note: In off-season they offer better rates on all treatments and massages.