The Pile and Ploce Gates, the two entrances into Dubrovnik’s Old Town, once had drawbridges that lifted during the overnight hours, forcing visitors wanting to enter to wait outside its stone walls until morning. The bridges no longer lift, yet the bottlenecks of morning visitors remain.
This compact, seaside city in Croatia has drawn millions of travelers from around the globe for years. Its popularity grew when HBO’s “Game of Thrones” used it as a primary location and visitors soon overwhelmed the city, particularly in the summer. Officials have introduced measures to manage the crowds without limiting the number of visitors, but according to the Croatian National Tourist Board, this year is on pace to become the city’s busiest ever.
Yet a trip to “Pearl of the Adriatic” need not require jostling with other tourists, bumping about like a stream of rambunctious salmon. Planning takes artful timing, minor sacrifices and a bit of luck. Here are six ways to start.
Game the cruise ship schedule
Dubrovnik is a mainstay on the itineraries of cruise ships navigating the Mediterranean, and 377,000 passengers disembarked last year, according to the city’s Port Authority. This year that number could jump to 500,000, as up to five ships are expected to arrive daily during the high season.
Every cruise ship’s arrival sends an avalanche of humanity barreling toward Old Town, mostly between 7 and 9 a.m. In this surge, a few hundred to several thousand people congregate at the two gates, waiting in lines of up to two hours to enter the Old Town, and then typically disperse to view the city’s biggest draws — its ramparts, the main street, or Stradun, or scenery related to “Game of Thrones.”
To avoid joining this ebb and flow of cruise ship passengers, monitor the port’s schedule online. The Port Authority’s schedule and sites like Cruise Dig offer cruise ships’ arrival times as well as the potential number of travelers disembarking. The number of passengers arriving is more important than the number of ships.
A two-hour buffer should be enough to avoid the crowd at the gates, the Jesuit Stairs (best known from the “Walk of Shame” scene in “Game of Thrones”) or the city’s other major attractions.
The city also offers Dubrovnik Visitors, an online resource that estimates how crowded the Old Town is at any moment, and also uses machine learning to forecast visitor numbers during future dates.
Ditch the golden-hour photo shoot
The city’s streets empty somewhat in the late afternoon. Day-trippers shuffle out while other visitors rush to the city walls for selfies or even the occasional marriage proposal in front of the setting sun. The golden hour is a better time to take in the Old Town, with a stop by Onofrio’s Fountains before getting lost in the narrow passageways and streets.
If you do need a photo you can hashtag, check the passages and stairways below the walls for unique shots; there will be much less jostling for space.
But don’t skip the city’s fortifications entirely. Undulating terra-cotta roofs rippling off into the distant, glistening Adriatic Sea remain a vista unique to Dubrovnik. It is best experienced as soon as the walls open at 8 a.m., before the crowds and before the sun rises high. A visit is 35 euros ($38), but the Dubrovnik Pass, which costs the same, offers access to the city walls as well as discounts to other attractions and free public transport.
Take a breather in a monastery
One can find respite from the congestion by ducking into one of the city’s two monasteries and their courtyards. Each offers stone walkways lined by arches, with lush greenery at the center and history everywhere. They are open daily from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The 14th-century Franciscan Monastery, just past the Pile Gate, features elegant pillared columns encircling a courtyard with a small fountain and orange and palm trees (entrance: €6). Next door is the oldest operating pharmacy in Europe, with formulas, tools and tincture bottles on display.
The Dominican Monastery, closer to the Ploce Gate, offers a grander version of the same charms, housed within a larger complex blended into the city’s fortifications (€5).
At both monasteries, the atmosphere encourages hushed tones and meditative silence, perhaps good spots to sip water while contemplating Dubrovnik’s knack for simultaneously preserving and commodifying its historic beauty.
Find life outside the walls
Veteran travelers often steal away to the Gruz and Lapad neighborhoods to find better cuisine, easier access to nature and fewer crowds. These neighborhoods are the de facto urban heart of Dubrovnik, where many of the approximately 40,000 locals actually live, and can be reached from the Old Town by a 30-minute walk or a 10-minute bus or cab ride.
The waterfront in Gruz offers relaxing eateries as well as a nightclub, Klub Dubina, and local craft brewery, the Dubrovnik Beer Company. For traditional seafood dishes under a vaulted ceiling, have anything grilled at Glorijet. One of the city’s more inventive vegetarian restaurants, Urban & Veggie, offers homemade gnocchi with cashew Parmesan and refreshing lemon tarts.
Across from Gruz, Lapad’s lush greenery includes the Velika and Mala Petka Forest Park. A promenade along the sea wall reveals several improvised swimming areas and a beach.
The neighborhood eateries here offer variety, experimentation and unique experiences. Ponat Beach Bar has a slick combination of seaside bites and drinks that can stretch your night beyond midnight. Or have a coffee or a nightcap in Cave Bar More — which claustrophobic visitors should probably skip.
A green oasis, just offshore
What’s the antithesis of Dubrovnik’s imposing city walls and terra-cotta roofs? An island covered in pine, cypress and olive trees, just offshore.
Lokrum Island, a 10-minute ferry ride away, is one of the few spots even locals visit to beat the summer crowds. The island has a visitor center, bars and restaurants, but also botanical gardens and peacocks roaming the remnants of an abandoned medieval monastery.
The more adventurous can head to FKK Rocks, at the island’s southeast corner, to partake in Croatia’s long history of nudist beaches (bring a thick towel — the rocks can be uncomfortable on bare skin).
In the visitor center, one can find a “comfortable” seat on the original Iron Throne from “Game of Thrones,” given by HBO to the city of Dubrovnik.
Ferries leave the Old Town port about every 30 minutes (€7). Entry to the island, €27.
Head farther to sea
Only 50 of Croatia’s 1,244 islands have permanent residents, leaving most of the truly unspoiled nature offshore. The Elaphiti Islands, six miles northwest of the Old Town, gives visitors and city residents alike a close-up view of nature. The eight islands and five islets include cozy coves and secluded beaches that trump most of the mainland’s swimming options. (In Croatia, the coastline is public access.)
Three of the islands — Sipan, Lopud and Kolocep — have modest villages with few residents. After the bustle of Dubrovnik, time here feels much slower.
Renting a vessel offers the best chance to create a one-day island-hopping itinerary, and most have skippers available for an additional charge. Prices vary, a group of four can expect to pay about €70 per person for a smaller skipper-less motorboat, with costs increasing along with the size of the vessel. Some companies, like Dubrovnik Boats, offer either custom or prepackaged tours, and craft of various sizes.
Kayaks are also available for rent, with most tour outfits located at Sulic Beach, by the Pile Gate. Again, prices vary, depending on whether you’re joining a group tour or going solo, but expect to spend around €40 for about four hours out on the water.
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