Dubrovnik, Croatia: perfect old town, perfect swimming, but slightly overrun

07/25/2013

TL;DR for our Dubrovnik Post:

  • Photos from Dubrovnik
  • Favorite Moments: Secret swimming spots, daily gelato, walking the wall, & kayaking
  • Walked:
    in Dubrovnik: 194,583 steps / ~98 miles
    in Total: 1,378,308 steps / ~689 miles

Of the places that we wanted to see in Croatia (the Istria Peninsula, Split, Dubrovnik, and Plitvice National Park), Dubrovnik was the furthest away from our entry point (Split). We headed there straight away with the plan to take the (twice a week) ferry back north to Split. It wasn’t a short bus ride south (about 5 hours)– in hindsight it might’ve made sense to look a little harder at the (considerably more expensive) flights straight into Dubrovnik instead of taking the bus. On the plus side, the bus ride was quite scenic (be sure to get a right-hand seat for coast viewing) and it briefly drove through Bosnia, which was kind of cool.

We’d heard that Dubrovnik was a bit overrun with tourists, so we opted for a guesthouse on the Babin Kuk peninsula out of town (a decision we ended up being really glad we made!). It was a 8-10 minute bus ride into old town, but it also had its own collection of swimming spots, hotels, restaurants, and worthwhile experiences.

Croatia has a long-standing guesthouse culture. However you find your way into town, expect to be assailed by adorable little old ladies with three-ring binders trying to sell you a cheap place to stay. All you have to say is the word “reservation” and they melt away. These guesthouses seem like the way to go if you want to avoid the (quite homely) resorts around Dubrovnik. You can see plenty of them on AirBnB and Booking.com (which has a fabulous supply of European lodging).

The Old Town
Dubrovnik is without a doubt the most photogenic medieval city that we’ve seen. The walls and buildings are a creamy white with red roofs and the large stones that make up the streets are buffed to a slippery shine from all of the foot traffic that hits the city every day.

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The old town is small, easily explored within a day, effectively with one main street leading from the main gate to the harbor and a mass of charming side streets up the hill in both directions. You can walk the wall itself for spectacular views of the town, the sea, and the fort across the little inlet near the gate you came in. It’s a bit pricey (“to help maintain the old wall”) but the 2km walk is worth it. Towards the end of the walk, keep an eye out for Lady Pi Pi on the street below- a tasty/cheap restaurant hidden up the hill from the main gate with a delightfully tacky fountain.

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Expect to be pitched kayaking/snorkeling tours at the gate. These were ~$40/person and included lunch and are a great way to see the outside of the walls. The snorkeling was pretty weak (no fins, a lack of snorkels, and old masks) but any time you’re swimming in the 75 degree Adriatic sea, you won’t be complaining.

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There are assorted glassbottom boat tours, “pirate cruises”, sunset cruises, etc (these are sold from booths all over old town and Babin Kuk/Lapad Peninsulas), but we didn’t find any of these terribly appealing. The one thing we would’ve liked to do but didn’t was ferry out to Lokrum Island, a national park and nature reserve that features an abandoned monastery, some nice walks, and some solid swimming spots (including a nude beach on the southeast of the island).

Reports of tourist swarms weren’t exaggerated. Alex found a web site that told how many cruise ships/passengers were pouring into the city each morning (9,900 on one of the days, in addition to folks already in town, bus tours, etc), so we planned our forays accordingly to minimize the mobs.  If you use the site, just click the month number you care about and confidently hit the button that says “Prikaz izvješća”.

Walk out into the harbor area and swing right and eventually you’ll curve around the wall to see a great swimming area built off the rocks outside the walls (there are also a few restaurants outside the walls that feature swimming and cliff jumping, so keep your eyes peeled when you’re doing the wall walk).

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This points to an important lesson– always wear or bring your swimsuit and water shoes wherever you go on the Dalmatian Coast. Croatians are not blessed with any sandy beaches, but they have some of the warmest, prettiest, and calmest water we’ve ever seen. So the industrious Croats rolled up their sleeves and created “beaches” by cutting staircases down to the shoreline, pouring concrete over the most promising spots (creating pretty “decks” with natural rocks poking out) and bolting metal ladders into rocks.

The results are tiny little bathing areas that can accommodate a dozen or more swimmers and sunbathers. Sometimes, you’ll also find nice little gravel beaches that were a little bit easier, but these have a lot more swimmers. We greatly preferred the secret-feeling swimming areas we stumbled upon. We both agreed this was our favorite swimming we’ve ever experienced in the whole damn world… No gritty sand, no crowds, calm turquoise waters, and more privacy than you’d expect in this playground for western Europeans. The only downside was that water shoes are an absolute must (the rocks are sharp and there were a few sea urchins). If you don’t own a pair, you can buy them around town for $15 or so.

Getting the Hell OUT of Old Town
There is no doubt that Old Town is a glorious sight to see (more than once) but I wouldn’t for a moment recommend that anyone actually stay there unless they wanted to be wading through crowds for their whole vacation. This gives you two worthwhile options: Babin Kuk/Lapad peninsula (a forked peninsula where we stayed) and Cavtat, a lovely little town in its own right a 30-40 minute bus ride south.

Option #1 – Babin Kuk & Lapad Peninsula
We stayed at a quiet little guesthouse called Guesthouse Radovic , which was right along the coast, featuring views of the cruise ships and the Tudjman Bridge. It was a 5 minute walk to a bus into Old Town for the days where we wanted to brave the crowds. It was also (delightfully) smack dab on a walking trail, which looped all around the peninsula.

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Walking the whole thing is an easy afternoon activity. The whole walk is dotted with occasional resorts, restaurants, and a few structured beaches (Copacabana can be accessed by cars and scooters and features a bar and a crazy inflatable water playground for kids, but is a touch crowded. Cava beach is quieter and near the Cava Bar and is just a bit further along the path (better if you don’t have kids). But if you hold out for the dozens of informal swimming platforms on the other side of the peninsula, you won’t be disappointed.

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The peninsula also features a little strip of restaurants and shops on the way to the main gravel beach in the armpit where the peninsula meets the mainland. The restaurants and bars there seem about the same– a mix of seafood-centric Croatian and Italian food with overpriced drinks– but they’re perfectly enjoyable. Our favorite spot was Pizzeria Nemo Problemo(off the main drag), where we could get a tasty pizza, caprese salad, and a mess of cold white wine for $25 or so.

Option #2 – Cavtat
Even if you don’t stay in Cavtat, it’s worth a little day trip south. It has it’s own little port/downtown area that’s plenty charming (with the obligatory pizza/seafood places), a pretty little church, and gorgeous mausoleum on the hill with a stunning view. Cavtat has a peninsula of its own that is (you guessed it) dotted with amazing swimming areas. These were probably some of our favorites, with pine forests leading right up to the rocky shores and a chorus of cicadas singing to you from the shade as you swim.

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Cavtat is a little sleepy if you want to party in Croatia, but for us it was the perfect speed. The only downside we see to staying there was that it was a bit of a trip to Dubrovnik old town (you can take a bus or boat) and it is right on the path to the nearby airport (noisy from time time!).

Would we go back?
I think we’d both be delighted to visit Dubrovnik again– it’s pretty high on our “places we could hang out for a month or more” list that we’re building on this trip. It’s not cheap and it’s not terribly nearby for when we’re based out of the Seattle area. For Alex it was her favorite place so far, providing a great tempo of eating, drinking, walking, getting too damn hot, and swimming (we’d go through that cycle 2-3 times per day). For my tastes, it was a little light on a distinct culture/cuisine (Croatia seems like a weird melting pot of slavic and mediterranean cultures, with the food being fresh, tasty, but kinda dull).