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Dubrovnik and the Elafiti Islands: Jewels of the Adriatic

Dubrovnik Old Town ice cream

Dubrovnik’s skyline

Dubrovnik is known as ‘the jewel of the Adriatic’ – and for good reason. Its dramatic location on a rocky promontory above the almost impossibly bright blue Adriatic Sea cannot fail to blow your mind.

First impressions are everything. The city shouts ‘look at me’ and shimmers like a sparkling jewel before your eyes. Dubrovnik is a relic preserved in amber – it’s almost as if somebody had turned back time and reset the clock.

Like Venice, it’s a city with a strong relationship to the sea and the islands dotted around its coastline. Once inside the city’s gates, its pedestrianised streets and maze of medieval alleyways continue to draw comparisons with its Venetian neighbour.

Here’s my guide to exploring this World Heritage city on a week-long holiday… plus there’s a few special tips on surviving the city’s tourist crowds!

Day 1 – Dubrovnik’s Walled City

Dubrovnik walls and view

Dubrovnik’s fortified walls

After a short Jet2 flight from Newcastle, we arrived at Dubrovnik Airport – and experienced one of the fastest flight arrival turnarounds in history. Twenty minutes after disembarking from our plane, we were sitting in a private hire car taking us to the apartment we’d booked overlooking the city’s marina. Remarkable.

After dumping our bags and taking a quick shower, we strolled into town to explore its most famous tourist attraction – Dubrovnik’s Old City Walls . You can see the imposing walls from a mile away – and they dominate the seafront as you approach the city’s gates.

Walking the walls is a great introduction to the city, not least because they provide astonishing views over Dubrovnik’s red tiled rooftops, church spires and towers.

Dubrovnik Old Town

View from the walls – Dubrovnik Old Town

Finding the entrance to walls is harder than you might think – but eventually we discovered a small gap in a wall which led to stairs spiralling up to the ticket booth.

After gasping at the extortionate entrance fee – £30 each – we decided to take the grand tour anyway. After all, these walls cost a fortune to maintain… and it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Once on the wall route, you discover that that this is no ordinary walking tour.  It seems to take forever to complete the 2 kilometre circuit, but the route is peppered with intriguing towers, turrets and terraces so there’s never a dull moment… and there’s a different viewpoint at every turn.

Dubrovnik walls and view

Walking the walls

The ice cream cafe half-way around the walls near Mincheta Fort is well worth a stop on a very hot day… and also boasts the only toilets we could find on the entire wall route!

We walked for what seemed like an hour or more… past roof top gardens, dangling washing lines, perched patios, and even a basketball court jammed in between higgledy-piggledy houses.

The stunning bird’s eye view of Dubrovnik’s historic sites was well worth the steep admission price. Many of the views are incomparable, and not doing the tour would be missing ‘the best of Dubrovnik’.

Dubrovnik street view from walls

Dubrovnik street view from the walls

The oldest quarter of the town walls is to be found in the Arsenal area where you feel as if you’ve been zapped back in a time machine. No wonder “Game of Thrones” used Dubrovnik as one of its main filming locations. It feels like travelling back to an earlier era.

What surprised me the most?

Probably… the thickness of the walls which are as wide as 3 metres in places. They were designed to be almost impenetrable, and even modern technology during the Croatian Wars couldn’t flatten them, although some sections have been restored after being shelled in the 1990’s.

Dubrovnik Old City Walls

Dubrovnik Old City Walls

The sheer scale of the Dubrovnik Old City Walls justifies the tag ‘ Seventh Wonder’ – and there are superb views across the bay to the islands and beyond.

Built between the 12th and 17th centuries to repel invaders, it’s a miracle that the walls have survived the ravages of time including the 1991 Croatian War.

After descending the final flight of stairs, we were back in the town, nursing sore feet and tired limbs. All this walking in the burning heat requires a drink or two.

We headed to a bar through another strange hole in a wall – and descended down a series of steps to a patio overlooking the sea. A couple of beers later, all felt well with the world – and our feet – so we headed back to our apartment on the Lapad peninsula and spent the night at a cheap local restaurant called Otto’s. It was time for an early night.

Dubrovnik beach bar

Happy hour – the beach bar

Day 2 – The Lapad Peninsula 

Waking up with sunshine streaming into the apartment was bliss, especially in October when the days were getting darker and colder back home in the UK.

Today it was time to relax and unwind so we took a walking tour of the Lapad Peninsula which has its own distinctive vibe.

It’s characterised by many big modern hotels and tourist restaurants, some a bit too blingy and over-the-top for my liking… but there are phenomenally beautiful views across the bay from wherever you look.

Marina Dubrovnik

The Marina and Orsan restaurant

The peninsula juts out from a shallow, wide bay which is home to some of Dubrovnik’s most popular beaches and family attractions. Nearby there’s the city’s yachting marina which has recently been expanded.

We took the coastal footpath which winds around the edge of the bay, a great way of getting a flavour of the peninsula. It’s a relaxing walk with plenty of fabulous viewpoints and rocky beaches with platforms where you can climb down into the sea for a dip.

Off-season there’s a chilled vibe but I can imagine it being very busy during the peak summer months.

Lapad peninsula Dubrovnik

Lapad Peninsula bar

Our first stop was breakfast at the Hotel More. Its famous cave bar is carved into the rocks – and the patio boasts unparalleled views across the bay.

The cave bar is sparkling and beautiful, boasting real stalagmites and stalactites. You can hear the sound of dripping water and the next generation of stalagmites being formed. It’s like nothing I’ve seen before, a truly magical place.

It was hard to decide whether to sit outside on the terrace looking out across the Adriatic or chill out inside the ‘bat cave’ with its dramatic caverns. But chill we did – with an early morning coffee and biscuits.

Lapad peninsula Dubrovnik

‘The bat cave’ at Hotel More

The cave bar resembles a film set, a location from a 1960s James Bond movie, set underground in a tropical ocean. I half expected 007 to emerge from the shadows looking tanned and fit after a swim in the outdoor pool.

There’s a central plinth which reminded me of the tardis from “Dr Who” with a metal and glass table built over the floodlit cave system. Look down and you’ll see the geology of the rocks below your feet.

This is a fabulous place to relax… and it was hard to motivate myself to leave this cave retreat – but duty called. After lounging on the comfy sofas, I tore myself away and rejoined the coastal path around the peninsula. By now the thermometer was hitting the mid 20s, not bad for a mid October morning.

Dubrovnik Hotel More cave bar

The tardis cave?

Back on the walking track, there were great views across the perfect azure blue sea – and we were enjoying lapping up the sunshine and holiday atmosphere.

There were lots of classy mega-hotels along the next part of the route and I was sorely tempted by the idea of a cocktail on the shoreline. Instead we continued through a lovely park where I took a break on a shaded seat and watched the world go by .

Eventually the path joins the main hub of the peninsula, a pedestrianised street of shops and restaurants called Kralja Zvonimira where we enjoyed a late brunch. The only downside is that it’s slightly touristy and there are lots of stalls with people giving the ‘hard sell’ flogging boat trips.

Later that night, we returned to the lovely marina restaurant – Orsan – which was recommended by the locals. It’s a must for lovers of high quality fish and sea food. We grabbed a shaded outdoor table with views across the marina, and dined by candlelight. A glorious end to a relaxing day.

Day 3 – Dubrovnik Harbour and Lokrum Island

Lokrun island Dubrovnik

Lokrum island

Today was down in our calendar as an action-packed, adventure day so we set off early for Dubrovnik Harbour where we caught a small glass-bottomed boat to Lokrum Island, a short ride away from the mainland.

The boat trip takes a slightly circuitous route so tourists can get a better view of Dubrovnik’s impressive walls from the sea before arriving on the island itself.

Lokrum is perhaps best-known as one of the filming locations used in the making of “Game of Thrones”. Its Benedictine monastery featured in the series together with other locations. Look out for “Game of Thrones” fans making pilgrimages over to the island.

Lokrun island Dubrovnik

Lokrum’s lush scenery

Lokrum is renowned for its lush and green vegetation with woodlands, tropical plants, cacti and gorgeous flowers adding to the feeling of being in a very different place to the mainland.

We walked the island’s perimeter, enjoying its many small but interesting historic features including the “Dead Sea Lake”, an inland saltwater pond popular with bathers. Don’t forget your swimming gear because this wild swimming pool is a real treat.

It’s hard to believe that Lokrum was once a major seat of learning in the 1770s, it’s so peaceful. Today the crowds flock to its monastery to enjoy the peace of its cloisters and its chilled vibe.

Lokrun island Dubrovnik

The Benedictine monastery

Don’t expect to find Dubrovnik’s best restaurants here although there are a couple of decent eateries. It’s a bit of a tourist trap and prices are understandably steeper than elsewhere. Sitting on the cool, shaded cafe terrace by the monastery cloisters is a life-saver on a hot day though.

Next door to the monastery is the ruined Romanesque Basilica dating from the 12th Century, a lovely sight which takes you back to the time when Lokrum was an important outpost in the Republic of Ragusa.

Throughout the island, there are a few surprising animals and wildlife including peacocks, dark brown rabbits and a good selection of migratory birds. The Botanical Gardens boasts a collection of intriguing plants from around the world, if horticulture is your thing.

Lokrum island Dubrovnik peacock

Lokrum’s peacocks

My favourite parts of the island were the quieter fringes with their fabulous views out to the Adriatic. You can make a full circuit of the island’s pathways if you’re feeling like a hike – and the distances aren’t excessive… alternatively there’s a short circular walk to the cafe and back.

The highest section of the island is Fort Royal on Glavica Hill, a circular stone fortress built in 1806 by the French. You can catch a glimpse of the fort from the boat, if you don’t fancy the walk.

Don’t expect lush, sandy beaches on Lokrum. This is essentially a rocky outcrop with a few stony platforms for sunbathing and lounging. You can also scramble over the rocks to see the superb sea views.

Lokrum island Dubrovnik

Lokrum island

Nudist alert! Lokrum is well-known for having a naturist beach on its eastern shore, but we decided to skip ripping our kit off this time around.

We were feeling tired so it was time to stroll back to the boat and return to Dubrovnik.  The sea was so clear that we could see hundreds of shoals of tiny, silvery fish swimming under the boat, a lovely sight.

Back in Dubrovnik Harbour, it was time for late afternoon glass of wine and a snack, so we made a bee-line for the nearest cafe with VIP seats overlooking the bay.  Another end to a glorious day of sightseeing.

Dubrovnik harbour

Dubrovnik harbour

Day 4 – Cruising to Lopud

The previous evening had been spent at a local bar watching Croatia play Wales in the football – but this had resulted in everyone getting up late after a few too many beers!

After lunch, we decided that we couldn’t lie around all day so what better way to recuperate than a relaxing boat trip to another nearby island.

Rather than choosing a luxury yacht or the “Game of Thrones” replica barge, we opted to take the old ferry ship – the Postira which departed from the port not far from our apartment.

The ship looks like something out of Yugoslavia’s Soviet era and has what you might call “a lot of character”.

Dubrovnik old ferry

Postira ferry

Run by Croatia Ferries, it’s a bit of a rust bucket dating back to the 1960s but it’s quick, cheap and efficient. At only £6 for a round trip, it’s OK in my eyes, even though it reminded me of a battle ship.

It has great views from its decks and, though it mightn’t have a BBQ or DJ on board, it’s a colourful experience which is less touristy than taking one of the standard charter cruises. It also has a bar and serves snacks.

Postira makes the return trip from Dubrovnik to the islands four times daily. There are no cars on board, just foot passengers… so it’s a relaxing experience and much cheaper than the charter cruises.

Dubrovnik catamaran

Catamaran cruise to the islands

Lopud was our choice of destination for the afternoon trip. It’s part of the Elaphite Islands which lie a short distance off the coast, and it’s only 50 minutes from Dubrovnik port.

The sea was calm, the sky was blue and we could see land on both sides of the boat, ideal for nervous sailors like me.

We got overtaken at one point by a speedy catamaran. I must admit that I didn’t fancy being exposed to the elements on the cat’s open deck despite the boat’s sleek design and cool vibe.  I’ll stick with the Postira!

Lopud

First view of Lopud

Our first port of call was the tiny island of Kolocep, only 30 minutes from Dubrovnik – it’s famous for its family friendly beaches and clifftop walks.

We stayed on till the next stop at Lopud, a very beautiful island with a lovely harbour of white stone buildings with rustic burnt sienna tiles.

Lopud has a great sense of history and a few stand-out attractions including the spectacular Church of Our Lady of the Rocks, perched on the island’s tip.

Lopud

Lopud’s charming village

We’d also come on a pilgrimage to see the “Your Black Horizon” Pavilion, a collaboration between artist Olafur Eliasson and architect David Adjaye. Eliasson is renowned for his dramatic light installations like the ones that wowed the crowds recently at the Tate Modern in London.

We walked 1/2 mile to the pavilion through the fields at the back of the village on a very hot day and I was super excited. But when we arrived at the pavilion, it was shut and padlocked. There was no indication of when it might reopen.

Lopud My Black Art Horizon

Black Art Horizon

I was fuming. This was the final opening day of its season and we’d checked times and dates carefully.  I stormed off to the village in a huff, but cheered up when a golf buggy offered us a lift to the island’s famous beach at Sunj.

It’s an uphill hike so the free lift was a stroke of luck in the heat. The buggy veered around bends to the quiet side of the island where the lovely beach lay head of us.

My partner Tony took no time stripping off and diving into the water whilst I sat watching on the shingle beach. It’s a super spot and we finished off the trip with a beer on the terrace of the bar. Beware though – the beach toilets are really disgusting!

Lopud beach Croatia

Lopud beach

We didn’t linger too late and grabbed a taxi ride back into town which is worth the small fee because the bus doesn’t venture up to this end of the island.

There was still time to visit the old church and fortress, and enjoy a quick beer on the harbour front. I was determined to have my dollop of culture so dropped in at the church.

The Church of Our Lady of the Rocks is a brilliant place, stuffed with beautiful artworks and Renaissance treasures with a stunning herb garden which is a good place to sit and reflect on the scenery.

Lopud island church Croatia

The Church of Our Lady of the Rocks

Beyond the garden, a pathway leads unexpectedly into the old fortress from where there are sensational sea views which took my breath away.

It’s a real hidden gem and the perfect spot to watch the sun coming down or simply escape from the modern world.

This was where islanders kept watch for potential invaders, rival armies and pirates – and today it’s a great place to get a 360 degree panoramic view of Lopud and its coast.

Lopud Croatua

Lopud Fort

Time was ticking so I sped back at the harbour to catch the ferry and was just in time to see the Postira dock on the pontoon.

I was surprised to see the eclectic selection of goods being carried on and off the boat including large planks of joinery wood and huge boxes full of locally produced olives.

The journey back was magical as we watched the sun slipping away with an orangey, amber glow from the deck of the Postira.

Lopud olives croatia

Olives being loaded

Later that evening, we went local again. We took a punt on a mid-priced, cosy restaurant called the Redstone – not far from the marina – and the food was pretty darn good.

We had the place to ourselves as it was their quiet night so were waited on hand and foot. I’d definitely go back as it’s a good bolt hole.

And then to bed… but not before trying the local vino which was pretty strong – and made me sleep like a baby!

Croatia cruising

Return trip by cruiser

Day 5 – Action Adventure and Art

By this stage of the holiday, Tony was feeling in need of a bit of outdoor adventure so we split ourselves into two separate trips.

I’m a poor swimmer so decided to “do the cultural sights” whilst he threw himself into a sea kayaking trip around Dubrovnik’s coast. Kitted out in the hired gear, Tony was paired-up with a fellow singleton and  headed off in a bigger group of about 20 kayakers, led by an expert tour guide.

Dubrovnik coast and kayakers

The kayak kids

I watched them depart, half wishing I’d taken the plunge, but with my history of falling in, I think it was a wise choice to stay with my feet firmly on dry land.

My first stop was the Rector’s Palace in Dubrovnik Old Town just off the main trawl in a charming Gothic-Renaissance style building which looks almost Venetian.

The original medieval castle which stood here had a troubled and explosive history – it was blown up, rebuilt, blown up again, and then succumbed to an earthquake. Perhaps it’s not that surprising when you discover that it was used as a gunpowder store.

Rector's Palace Dubrovnik

Rector’s Palace

Today’s palace is an altogether calmer place where I enjoyed escaping from the burning heat outside. Its cool, marble interiors were a godsend!

Don’t miss the strange staircase with sculpted hands on every rail as you ascend to the palace’s main function rooms and the rector’s study.

A slightly odd selection of sedan chairs are scattered throughout the palace together with weird mechanical clocks. But the period rooms are definitely worth the admission price and there are good views of the city’s historic streets from their windows.

Dubrovnik Gallery of Modern Art

Dubrovnik Gallery of Modern Art

I’d declared this as ‘museum day’ so my next port of call was the city’s Modern Art Gallery which overlooks the sea road, a short walk out of town.

This is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea and I’m sorry to say that I thought the gallery’s art collection and exhibitions were really mediocre. I shouldn’t be too harsh because Croatia is a small country and boasts hardly any big name international artists… but this was simply dull.

A couple of pieces in the exhibition made me smile – so all was not lost – including a surreal bicycle climbing the stairs with a picture frame.

Dubrovnik Modern Art Gallery

Bike art

It’s worth the trip to the upper terrace with its striking colonnade of sculptures and beautiful sea views… and the gallery shop is really good if you’re looking for unusual gifts.

I didn’t linger very long and headed back into town to meet Tony at Kayak Adventure HQ.

He still wasn’t back from the trip. I wondered if he’d fallen in and survived the rigours of a three hour paddle… rather him than me.

Dubrovnik Gallery of Modern Art

Sea views – Dubrovnik Gallery of Modern Art

I arrived far too early – so thought that a walk up to the Lovrijenac Fort would be a good way of killing time. What I didn’t know was that there’s a huge number of steps up to the top. I gave up counting when I reached 90!

When I reached the fort gates, I realised that you can’t go inside the fort unless there’s a theatre performance taking place. I was left admiring the view across the bay and Sulic beach below. This made the steep climb almost worthwhile.

Looking across the water, I spotted a great restaurant – Ala Mizerija – one of many ‘rock bars’ perched on top of Dubrovnik’s coast, but how to get to it was a bit of a mystery. Defeated by tiredness, I trudged back to the Kayak Centre instead to greet Tony.

Dubrovnik coast and bar

Ala Mizerija bar

As I reached Adventure HQ, the kayakers were making their way back to the ‘beach’ – and I regretted not taking the plunge with them… although they looked really knackered!

Tony crawled out of his kayak, looking shattered after the three hour trip, although he never stopped talking about how great it had been.

It was time for another relaxing drink in Dubrovnik’s most famous open air ‘cave bar’ – called Buza – where the outdoor sitting area extends out across the rocks to the sea below.

Kayakers and Dubrovnik fort

Kayakers and Dubrovnik fort

You can watch the intrepid divers throwing themselves off the rocky cliffs below the bar – but please don”t copy them as it looks potentially lethal.

Buža’s bar seats are at a premium but we bagged one with the best view over to the island of Lokrum. It was pure bliss at the end of a busy day of action adventure and arty antics under a burning sun.

Many visitors cite Buža as their favourite Dubrovnik bar and I wouldn’t argue with them. It’s located in a ridiculously pretty location, reached through a door in the Old Town walls.

Dubrovnik beach bar

Buža’s terraced bar

It’s not the easiest bar to find but once there, it’s a great place to chill out with a cold beer. Then it was back home for a meal at our favourite local restaurant, Taverna Otto (near the marina), and then early to bed.

Day 6 – Island Hopping – Sleepy Sipan

Dubrovnik Sipan island

Sipan harbour

Waking up early, I took time to read some of the books in our apartment including a glossy tone about the Elaphiti Islands which proved to be invaluable.

After reading about Sipan, I knew that I had to check out this laid back island, famous for its old chapels and ruined palaces. Nicknamed the “Golden Island”, it’s a 75 minute boat ride from Dubrovnik ferry port.

It’s the most fertile of the Elaphites and it was once known as the breadbasket of the Ragusan Republic because of its wealth of crops.

Sipan is the largest of Dubrovnik’s island chain and was once a summer getaway for Dubrovnik’s rich families in the 15th Century – and many built palaces here.

Sipan Croatia

Sipan’s sleepy harbour

When we arrived at the small harbour of Sudurad, it was obvious why Sipan has a reputation for being a sleepy backwater. Life slows down to a snail’s pace as soon as you disembark from the boat!

I’d read one Trip Advisor review from someone who said: “The people are grumpy and unwelcoming, there isn’t much of anything to do and while the views are pretty, they’re also crowded and not worth more than a couple of hours”!

That person who arrived on a charter cruise, did what many folk do. They never walked further than than 100 metres from the harbour.  This is a great shame because Sipan has much to offer, if you’re willing to take a hike around the island’s interior.

The Greeks called the island Gypanon or ‘Eagle’s Nest’, and the Romans re-branded it Tauris because its shape resembled a bull’s head.  The remains of the Roman Villa Rustica can be seen in part at Sipanska Luka. It was just off this coast that Caesar and Pompey met in 47BC as they battled for power, with Pompey escaping by the skin of his teeth.

Sipan Croatia

Sipan’s lush interior

Sipan’s golden age extended from the 10th Century to the early 1800s when it was a bustling island with around 7,000 inhabitants and over 40 Renaissance summer villas and palazzos, many with ornate gardens and shaded terraces.

Today its population has dropped to just 550 residents and its wealth and influence has dwindled. But look carefully and you’ll see the remains of the defensive walls dating back to ancient Illyrian times.

Venture inland along sunken paths and you’ll discover the exotic interior of the island, and you’ll stumble upon scenic hamlets like Frajga and Odak with their artisans’ houses built from local stone.

Sipan tower Croatia

Towering history

Suđurađ is certainly a sleepy village, but there’s a lovely 16th Century castle known as the Skočibuha Palace, once the home of a wealthy merchant. Next door there’s a 16th Century tower built as a defence against marauding pirates.

It feels as if there are many untold stories from this golden age and it’s hard to find much on tourist websites about this history so it needs a bit of detective work.

After a bit of research, I discovered that the wealthy Sorkočević family built the palace as a summer residence in 1563 using their fortunes made from merchant shipping. They were one of many rich families who built summer homes here and used the island as their personal playground.

Sipan Croatia

Vineyards

We used our common sense and followed the main road out of the harbour along a small road towards the west of the island. Not far from the town, there’s the Family Danicic vineyard which has a tasting room.

Plavac Mali is one of their wines and it’s the main red wine grape grown along the Dalmatian coast. I’d tried in a Dubrovnik restaurant a few days earlier and had been impressed by its rich taste with hints of blackberries, cherries, and spices.

But we decided to plough on to the nearby chapel which lies at the crossroads further along the route after walking through more vines and lush, green vegetation. It’s a fantastically unspoiled landscape.

Sipan Croatia vineyard

Sipan’s local wines

We were in search of Sipan’s large number of tiny chapels. It’s hard not to fall over one everywhere you go – there are around 34 churches, built between the 7th and 16th centuries.

It’s surprising to find such a large number of chapels on a small island, but you have to remember that this was once a vibrant cultural and religious centre, a place of worship and serenity. There’s a church for every 14 citizens, although only 19 are still working churches today.

We stumbled upon the ruins of St. Peter’s church (11th Century), the church of St. John (11th Century) with its frescoes, and St. Michael’s. The small chapels are simple but beautiful, being mostly built from local limestone.

Sipan chapel Croatia

Island chapel

Further along our route, the scenery became wilder with scrubby vegetation and hills planted with cypresses before we reached fields filled with fruit trees and small bushes.

We saw olives, figs, carob trees, almond trees, and groves of orange and lemon trees. Sipan features in the Guiness Book of Records for having the greatest ratio of olive trees to human inhabitants for an island of its size!

There was an overwhelming smell of wild herbs too and I detected a whiff of thyme and rosemary.

We came across a strange fruit tree with bell-shaped red and yellow ‘berries’ with hard shells. and dark green leathery leaves, which looked native to the Mediterranean. Eventually we discovered that it was a strawberry tree, thanks to a Google search.

Sipan Croatia carob trees

Strawberry tree

By the time we’d completed our circular walk, it was getting late and our ferry was almost due. We finished off the coastal leg of the walk, wandering along lovely bays and pebble beaches, each with its own distinctive timeless quality,

Back at the harbour there was just time for me to take a quick hike to see the old Benedictine monastery whilst Tony was enjoying a well-deserved bottle of beer on the sea front.

It’s about a 15 minute walk to the monastery but well worth the uphill trek because the ruins are fantastically picturesque and look like a romantic Turner landscape painting.

Sipan Croatia

Sipan’s sleepy harbour

The monastery is well sign-posted until you get to the top of the village, and then it’s best to follow your nose. Eventually you’ll see a hole in the hedge on your right and the distinctive tower of the monastery building beyond.

There’s a small pathway to the monastery which, although now ruined and overgrown, is still beautiful in the late afternoon light.

Over the road there’s yet another old chapel hidden among the undergrowth down a footpath. Both are lovely and unexpected finds. Then it was time for the brisk walk back to the harbour before the boat went without me!

Sipan Croatia

Old ruins

Although the island is the largest of the Elaphite Islands, Sipan is quite small at just over six square miles but there’s still plenty to do over the course of an afternoon trip.

Sadly, we didn’t have time to get to Sipanska Luka on the west side of the island – it was a trip too far when you have tired, aching legs.

Also look out for the ruins of the summer residence of the Dubrovnik’s Archbishops which dates from the 15th Century, and the late-Gothic Rector’s Palace.

Dubrovnik island sunset

Sipan sunset

My advice would be to time your excursions on Sipan around the local buses, which tie-in around the ferries. There’s a bus which connect Sipanska Luka with Suđurađ but beware – it isn’t very frequent.

And don’t forget to take a map or an App with the island’s maze of roads marked on it.  It’s easy to navigate, if you know where you’re going.

I’d definitely recommend taking the last ferry back at sunset when the sun drops down and the sky turns a brilliant shade of burnt gold.

Sipan island tourist map

Sipan island map

Day 7 – War and Peace

Tito Dubrovnik Red Museum politicians

Face to face – when Tito met Stalin

Today is ‘history day’!

I’ve given myself the enjoyable ‘task’ of finding out about the history of Dubrovnik in just a few short hours.  Croatia has suffered its share of troubles and conflicts over the last few centuries so it was time to check out its chequered past.

I thought that a good starting point would be the Red History Museum near the cruise ship terminal on the far side of the marina. It’s a great place to bone up on the history of the former Yugoslavia.

It’s just my sort of museum… stuffed with intriguing exhibits, unexpected finds and “quirky” popular culture, told through interactive displays. It’s cool, classy and fun.

Dubrovnik Red Museum car

Communist car – the Yugo

The Red History Museum transported me back in time with its lively mix of politics, people and portrayals of everyday life.

From Communism and Miss Universe to secret police and rock n’ roll, you can experience how it felt to live in the experimental socialist regime known formerly as Yugoslavia.

It was interesting to find out how the Communist party started in Yugoslavia and how it operated during and after the Second World War. The dark side of communist politics is also shown in a very accessible way.

Dubrovnik Red Museum room

Typical 1970s dining room

I learned a lot about the methods the Yugoslav secret service agencies who made sure everyone was ‘’happy’’. Some of the secret police’s methods were terrifying, and there’s an interesting mock-up of an interrogation room.

The communist regime had a big impact on people’s lives from home life, business and work to design, architecture, music and sex education.

There’s lots of tremendous trivia too. I discovered that the world’s first rice-filled chocolate bar was made in Yugoslavia – and learned about ‘acceptable’ communist pop music.

Dubrovnik on fire

Dubrovnik in flames

My next museum stop was the War Photo Gallery back in Dubrovnik’s Old Town, probably the best museum in the city by a mile. This is the place to go if you love photography.

War Photo specialises in stark images of conflict and war zones throughout the world taken by some of the world’s best photographers.

The museum is one of the world’s best galleries of war photography and does a brilliant job in exposing the myth and the intoxication of war.

Dubrovnik War Photo

The impact of war

There’s a permanent collection of images from the Croatian war and Yugoslavian conflicts as well as changing exhibitions of a high calibre.

It exposes the raw impact and terrifying injustices of war on innocents and combatants alike.

Words cannot convey the emotional impact of these photographs. They are breathtaking, illuminating and poignant in equal measure… and there’s much to be learned about Croatia’s bloody history here.

Dubrovnik Croatian War

A city under siege – Dubrovnik during the Croatian war

After visiting the gallery, there was only one thing to do- go for a stiff drink nearby. We toyed with the idea of booking a table at the poshest restaurant in town – Nautika – but the prices were as mouth-watering as the food looked.

We decided to go local and picked a Croatian-Mediterranean seafood restaurant called Bistro Glorijet in the suburb of Gruž near the old port. It was recommended by locals for its seafood and olde worlde vibe.

We chose the fish ‘special of the day’, swordfish fresh out of the Adriatic, served with saute potatoes and char-grilled aubergines. I’d recommend this place, not least because they gave us a free glass of Croatian wine.

Nautikus Dubrovnik

Nautika – Dubrovnik’s finest

Day 8 – Dubrovnik’s Back Streets 

Woke up with aching legs and arms today after the kayak adventure and the town walk in the heat yesterday. A late start was inevitable but that wasn’t a problem. Dubrovnik is pretty chilled and things move at a leisurely pace.

Our plan of getting up early and catching the bus over the border to Bosnia to see the famous bridge at Mostar bit the dust though. A shame. Perhaps next time…

Dubrovnik alley

Typical Dubrovnik alley

With the late start, we decided to explore the lesser known back streets of Dubrovnik. Turning off the Stradun, Dubrovnik’s busiest tourist street, we took one of the steep side alleys and walked to the top of the town.

It’s much quieter as you move away from the main trawl. I loved getting a glimpse of normal life beyond the crowds as we twisted and turned to explore the maze of old streets.

As you dive from alley to alley, its a joy to see ordinary people stringing up their washing, and feral cats looking for scraps of food. Every street looks as pretty as a picture postcard.

Dubrovnik alley

Route to the top of town

Despite the solitide, you’re never far from a street full of eateries or bars, and there’s every chance you’ll end up back at the famous Onofrio’s Large Fountain, a great meeting place if anyone in your party gets lost.

This circular water feature was built in 1438 and is decorated with sculptures and masked figures. The fountain is a symbol of Dubrovnik’s resilience – it was damaged in the 1667 earthquake and then again during the Croatian War of 1991-1992 but has since been restored.

Its smaller brother – the Little Onofrio Fountain, is at the other end of Stradun, if you want to be a completist.

Dubrovnik Onofrio Fountain

The Onofrio Fountain

When we got back to the Stradun, a large consignment of cruise ship tourists had descended on the Old Town. It was mass tourism hell so I decided to venture further beyond the city walls.

A local had told us the strange tale of a derelict hotel in Dubrovnik populated entirely by cats. At first, it sounded like an urban myth. It was hard to believe that a five-star hotel could be overrun by moggies, so I decided to track down the hotel for myself.

During the late 1980s the Belvedere Hotel was a five star retreat with an enviable position overlooking the Adriatic Sea when Dubrovnik was part of Yugoslavia. But its tranquil paradise was shattered by Serbian shells with the outbreak of the Croatian War of Independence in 1991.

Dubrovnik coast

The Belvedere Hotel coastline

The Belvedere suffered massive shelling and damage and was left abandoned for nearly 20 years. It was only then that the army of cats moved in.

With some trepidation, I set off alone and took the bus to the end of the line at Viktorija. From there I walked 1/2 mile to the Hotel Belvedere through streets lined with smart houses and beautiful gardens cascading down to the sea.

I’ve long been fascinated by ‘dark tourism’ and abandoned places, and this relic of the bloody war with Serbia was a place I needed to see for myself.

Hotel Belvedere Dubrovnik cats

‘Belvedere Cats’

Two cats beckoned me down the path to my right which was unfenced. The feline duo were keen to show me around their home. Apparently, every night they’re joined by hundreds of other cats who feed on scraps in Dubrovnik Old Town by day. As darkness falls, they return to the shelter of The Belvedere.

As I clambered down the uneven, crumbling concrete steps, I was shocked to see what was left of the hotel – the original sign, the crumbling cupola, and a tangled web of wires and cables. There was broken glass everywhere and the strange sight of abandoned swimming pools and even a helipad.

This was a fascinating journey of discovery,  a walk on the dark side of Dubrovnik’s past history. I climbed down to the basement of the hotel but the whole vibe was a little uneasy. I didn’t want to overstay my welcome and headed back to the safety of the main coast road.

Read the full story on my Belvedere Hotel Dubrovnik blog post

Hotel Belvedere Dubrovnik helipad

The helipad at the Belvedere – dark tourism

Walking back to the Old Town, it reminded me how transient these leisure playgrounds can be in the face of war or the breakdown of a country’s economy.

Later that night, I discovered that a rich Russian has bought the Belvedere Hotel and there are plans to demolish it to make way for a swanky mega tourism development. I felt sad that this piece of Dubrovnik’s history is to be swept away but – in honesty – it’s a miracle has survived for so long, locked in a weird time capsule.

But it also seemed symptomatic of Dubrovnik – the city that has remained so long preserved in aspic, and celebrated for its golden age long gone.

Somehow it seemed like a fitting end to our journey which had been memorable for the many surprising places and hidden gems we’d discovered along this part of the Adriatic coast.

Dubrovnik – Top Travel Tips

Dubrovnik tour guide

Watch out for roving coach parties

Avoiding the tourist crowds

Beat the queues and get to Dubrovnik’s Old Town early in the morning. Later in the day can be good too after the tour buses start to head home.

Avoid the days when the mega cruise liners come and dock in the town’s harbour. The Old Town’s Pile Gate and The Stradum are big tourist magnets, as is the harbour front.

Don’t book a holiday at the peak of the busiest summer season – look at a spring or autumn trip instead when it’s a little quieter.

Croatian costumed woman

Costumed woman with merch

Alternatively, visit some of the city’s quieter attractions such as the Franciscan Monastery just off The Stradun with its lovely Romanesque cloisters, inner courtyard and bell tower.

The monastery museum is eclectic, to say the least,  but you do get to see St Blaise’s foot, preserved in a gold and silver case.

Whatever happened to the rest of St Blaise’s body is open to conjecture. But his feast is celebrated annually on 3 February when the saint’s head, a bit of bone from his throat, his left and right hands are paraded in Dubrovnik’s streets.

Dubrovnik Old Town monastery

Dubrovnik’s Franciscan Monastery

For a different take on the city and its islands, take to the seas – locals use boats like buses in Dubrovnik so why not join the club?

Take the local ferry to the islands or jump on one of the many charter boats, yachts or cruisers, a relaxing way to see the coastline and islands.

Some boat and ferry trips will take you further up the Croatian coast to Split and Hvar but these are longer journeys and are best combined with a two centre holiday.

Charter boat Dubrovnik islands

Charter boat to the islands

Best Aerial Views

For a bird’s eye view of Dubrovnik, take the impressive walking tour of the Old Walls or head to the Dubrovnik Cable Car from where there are great views across the Adriatic.

I can’t tell you if it’s good value for money because I don’t have a head for heights and avoided the cable car like the plague!

Alternatively, look for a quiet bar or book a trip to one of the islands furthest from Dubrovnik or visit Korcula, a beautiful historic town set on its own peninsula.

Dubrovnik Old Town

Dubrovnik Old Town

Where to stay?

Most of the big Dubrovnik hotels are located outside the Old Town walls on the Lapad Peninsula or to the east of the city near the Modern Art Gallery. The new Excelsior caught my eye with its enviable sea views – but rooms are priced at £190+ per person, per night.

There are lots of small hotels in the Old Town but bear in mind, there are no cars allowed inside the walls so you’ll have to drag a heavy suitcase over cobbles and up steep alleyways when you arrive and depart.

Another option is to rent an apartment which is what we did and it worked well for us – although you’re unlikely to get a swimming pool. Websites like booking.com have lots of choice and include user reviews.

Dubrovnik posh hotel

The Excelsior luxury hotel

The Lapad Peninsula is very touristy with super smart hotels. I’d recommend going slightly off peak season because this area gets very busy in summer.

There are regular buses into the Old Town, a 15 minute ride, but they get very crowded at busy times and sometimes tempers get frayed as queuing doesn’t seem to be a big thing in Croatia!

Cruise ships

Dubrovnik coast cruise ship

Mega-sized cruise ship

Cruise ship arrivals at Dubrovnik harbour can play havoc with your schedule because the passengers and their tour groups tend to head to ‘honeypots’ in the main historic centre.

Few venture further than the main trawl because they have limited time in the city. When two big ships arrive on the same day, it can be the very worst of mass tourism hell for anyone caught up in their itineraries.

If you like looking at these cruise boats, there are great views of them from the old port at Gruz where they line up along the dock front.  We had a bird’s eye view of them from our apartment balcony.

Top Highlights

Dubrovnik Old Town

Dubrovnik Old Town – shopping opportunity!

If you have only limited time in Dubrovnik, take the main tourist walk down The Stradun, the city’s lovely pedestrianised main street which is lined with shops and cafes.

Don’t miss the beautiful old Sponza Palace and Orlando’s Column which are must-see attractions together with the Old Walls. These can be completed in an afternoon without busting a gut.

Allow at least a half or full day for trips to each of the Elaphiti islands. Lokrum is the nearest is island from Dubrovnik – and a half day is plenty of time to see it.

Dubrovnik's Stradun

The Stradun – city highlight

Swimming and sunbathing

Dubrovnik doesn’t have many ‘golden sand’ resorts because it’s coastline is mainly rocky but Banje Beach is perhaps the best bet, if you can live with the artificial sand.

There are lots of wild swimming opportunities along this coastline – and many hotels, bars and islands have designated swimming areas, often roped off.

Lokrum has a naturist beach for those who like to get their kit off completely and lie around naked.

Wild swimming Lopud

Swimming at Lopud

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