Dubrovnik, Croatia (Old Town)

After a year or so off from international travel, I decided to take the month following the completion of my MBA to see more of Europe. And, since this is one of the few times I’ll have the privilege of enough time to take the full month just to travel, I figured I’d hit a couple of places that require a bit of extra work to visit – whether it be a connecting flight, long bus / train ride, or other logistics that might make it difficult to see in a one or two week itinerary.

Dubrovnik was one of those places – just far enough that there aren’t typically direct flights in / out unless you’re already in Europe and typically requiring another connection for the flight home as well. We hopped on a connection from Amsterdam and two hours later were flying in over the absolutely gorgeous Adriatic coast. We arrived midday in Dubrovnik, with the sun beating down as we checked into our hotel and immediately started the ~10 minute walk to the Old Town.

Of course, the Old Town was absolutely packed with tourists, but it was nice to at least look around the old city a bit as we attempted to stave off jet lag. Ultimately, succumbing to sleep was a foregone conclusion (and our exhaustion was compounded by a weekend of friends’ wedding events preceding our red eye to Amsterdam). Unwilling to totally give up on our first day, we fortuitously stopped in at the nearest, less-touristy looking restaurant – which we’d later discover was the Michelin-rated Fish Restaurant Porto. We eagerly searched the menu for local specials.

We started with Croatia’s famous Mali Ston oysters, which have received the EU’s “Designation of Protected Origin” (similar to how champagne is only “champagne” if it’s from a certain region in France). Apparently, the Adriatic just outside of Ston has the perfect mix of freshwater and seawater, which makes the oysters incredibly flavorful – briny, but not overly so. I certainly loved them! Next, we shared the octopus ragu over polenta, which felt like a great mix of the various influences in the region – very similar to traditional meat ragu and polenta from neighboring Italy, but the octopus was a clearly Croatian addition. We completed the meal with freshly grilled fish and homemade pasta with a creamy wine and truffle sauce. We’d quickly discover that Croatian food essentially takes the best of Italian food, lightens it up slightly, and then adds interesting twists like seafood in dishes you’d expect to be meat-based, or fruit instead of vegetables as garnish on a savory dish.

The following morning, I woke up (not so) bright and very early and decided to just head to the Old City to watch the sunrise before returning to the hotel to meet my fiance for breakfast. It ended up being a fantastic choice and two of the best hours I’ve had in a long time. I ended up walking about 3 miles in the two hours I spent before 7:30am, and had no regrets.

The old town is absolutely gorgeous in the morning’s colors. This morning was especially interesting too as there was a thunderstorm in the distance when I set out, so the contrast between the dramatic sunrise colors, classic orange roofs, and deep navy skies was breathtaking. Photos honestly can’t really capture it, and I see why Dubrovnik’s old town has been a popular choice of set for shows like Game of Thrones.

My favorite sight of the morning (although there were many amusing ones) was watching two large, butchered pork halves being shuttled from a delivery truck through the city walls to the Michelin-starred restaurant just inside on a wooden hand cart. It seemed like most of the deliveries were happening this way – essentially the trucks go as far as they can (many make it through that tiny gate and then play chicken attempting to pass one another as they progress further into the old city!) and then porters distribute all the daily supplies to the various restaurants, cafes and shops. It seemed like almost every restaurant in old town was getting an influx of propane gas, meat, vegetables, and, most importantly, tons and tons of beer. Of course, the previous day’s detritus had to be removed, so there were garbage trucks dutifully collecting refuse and crews out dutifully setting up the many chairs, tables, and umbrellas needed to shade diners from the harsh midday sun.

Once inside the city walls, the views were great due to the absence of tourists and the colors of the sunrise. Amusingly, the only non-locals I saw were other photographers and we quickly developed a mutual code of conduct, peeking around the corners before proceeding, careful to avoid getting in each other’s shots!

It was especially incredible to see the main streets absent of tourists, as they truly clog the entire Old Town as soon as 9am rolls around. I took a photo from the city walls around 10am, and the street below was jam packed with people.

On my first pass through the old town, I decided to walk the entirety of the main drag in order to see where it led (spoiler alert, the city’s walls are on both ends, and the opposite side leads to the remainder of normal Dubrovnik). However, I did get a great view of the old fort, as well as a thunderstorm over the Adriatic (and a rainbow!). There also seemed to be a bird feeding frenzy happening, which was amusing.

I decided to purchase a couple pastries from a local bakery nearby, which was truly the only thing open at the time. I also saw a local filling up her water bottle from a fountain in a nearby square, which I found charming. The pastries were good, but nothing too special – the first was essentially a pretzel with salt and caraway seeds, the second a spinach and feta roll.

Then, I was off to start exploring the labyrinth of streets within the winding old town. I love exploring these medieval towns without other people because I can suspend my disbelief and pretend I’ve traveled back in history, at least a little bit. The best part is seeing the little pieces of everyday life, like people waking up and hanging laundry, sweeping their front doorstep, feeding the cat on their stoop. I also love wandering a labyrinth of streets and ultimately being rewarded with beautiful views.

I stumbled upon a nice little fruit market set up in one of the main town squares (although this would transition to your typical tourist market selling all sorts of cheap-looking souvenirs by the time we returned after breakfast). On offer were some of the most gorgeous figs, grapes and berries I’ve seen.

Then, the thunderstorm I’d seen over the Adriatic earlier started to catch up with me – I continued exploring, but had to duck in away from the rain a couple times. Fortunately, the caretaker of the city’s cultural museum appears to be a cat lover and there were no less than five felines hanging out under the museum’s covered entrance waiting for breakfast, so I hung out there. The storm itself made for great ambiance and fantastic contrast against the city’s bright orange rooftops on my way back to the hotel for breakfast, though!

Our hotel offered a surprisingly good selection of local Dalmatian treats with the complimentary breakfast, including the best anchovies I’ve ever had, two types of Dalmation smoked ham / salami, cheese in olive oil, and a Dalmation-style custard similar to a custard or flan. After indulging, we headed back to the Old Town so my fiance could enjoy some of the sights and we could sample some of the museums.

Immediately upon arriving in the Old Town, we stumbled upon Holy Burek, a fast food option offering a variety of bureks (essentially dough wrapped around some kind of filling – we opted for spinach and cheese). Of course, we had to try one. It was… honestly not as exciting as the ones we tried back in Chicago when we visited a Serbian bakery.

First up on the sight-seeing list, we decided to walk the city walls, which of course offer great views above the entire city and out above the Adriatic. On our way to the entrance to the walls, we ran into a monk who appeared to be very earnestly feeding the many pigeons of Dubrovnik – he fed them a full baguette of bread, seemingly not caring at all as they dive bombed him repeatedly. He was still feeding them a full ten minutes later once we had ascended the city walls, and we affectionately if somewhat sacrilegiously referred to him as Padre Pigeon for the remainder of the day.

The way up to the walls is a set of very steep stairs, which unfortunately have been significantly worn down over the years and were slick with rain from the morning’s thunderstorm. That being said, the crowd was pressing and we made it up! The views are incredible and give you an incredible view over both the Adriatic and the city, from literally every single angle as you quite literally walk a full circle around the whole city as you go.

Amazingly, there are people who live right up against the walls themselves (can you imagine the rent?!). They were going about their morning business, hanging laundry, having breakfast, and occasionally waving hello to the many, many tourists constantly passing by.

The city walls offer a great view across the Old Town Dubrovnik skyline as well (and you can see the throngs of tourists who were present by 10am!).

Then, we ventured back down off the walls (a somewhat terrifying climb down very, very steep stairs) and headed to our first museum: the Old Pharmacy. The Pharmacy used to be affiliated with the Church, so it still retains some of the architectural and iconographic qualities it would have in the past. The pharmacy itself is one of the oldest in Europe (I read somewhere it’s the third oldest and has been in use since the fifteenth century, but couldn’t corroborate that on premises).

It didn’t offer much to look at substance wise, although the interior of the courtyard was beautifully styled. They also had a good collection of remedy jars, scales, and metal pans that would have been used in the old apothecary. Unfortunately photos of the exhibits were discouraged, but they also had a great collection of religious vestments and jewelry that were part of the museum’s collection, despite not being explicitly pharmaceutically related.

Then, we headed back to one of the churches on the main square, where a nun and I had exchanged pleasantries as she was opening up earlier in the morning (she was probably surprised that I was there around 6am, but the church was dry and seemed inviting during the thunderstorm!). The decor was beautiful and the stained glass was fascinatingly modern for such an old structure. We visited a couple other churches in the Old Town, but this was by far the most “ornate” of the lot.

After that, we headed for the cultural museum. The museum also discouraged photos of the exhibits, but had some interesting pieces in the collection, while also being a sight in itself (I loved these old railing holders!).

The collection included:

  • A variety of religious iconography and portraits of famous individuals from Dubrovnik over the years, primarily from the 16th-19th centuries
  • An amazing collection of 16th-18th century chests made from wood and metal, showcasing how the internal gears and locking mechanisms worked (these were truly cool and I wish photos had been allowed – apparently they were so commonplace that few still exist in Europe despite their frequent use historically; they’re also known as “armada chests” today since many of the best preserved versions have subsequently been found in wrecks of Spanish armada ships)
  • A collection of 16th century Italian “sedan chairs” decorated with the various coats of arms of the families who owned them
  • Antique musical instruments, including a beautiful piano forte

After the museums, we decided to head for lunch and landed at the Michelin-rated Taj Mahal restaurant, which actually serves Bosnian food. We ordered way too much food because, unbeknownst to us, Bosnian portions are absolutely massive. Our waiter later told another table, “Bosnians are famous about large portions” and that felt incredibly apt.

We also quickly learned that Bosnians love meat and have created a multitude of ways to showcase it. The feast included: the Bosnian meze platter, which included cured sausage, cured beef tongue, and a Bosnian smoked ham, as well as fresh green peppers with Kajmak cheese and a sampler of Bosnian peppers and olives), which were both spicy and flavorful; the Genghis Khan plate, aptly named as it easily could have fed four instead of two and included: cevapi (essentially Bosnian kebabs), pljeskavica (a type of ground beef patty), suđukica (traditional sausage), a chicken kebab with roasted veggies, rumsteak (essentially just a piece of steak) and a very moist grilled chicken thigh. Oh, and each of those things was included twice, just ‘cuz. Of course, this was accompanied by cabbage, onions and a side of a delicious yogurt sauce. We finished the meal with baklava and espresso, which was delicious.

After lunch, we migrated back to the hotel to relax before dinner. Also located in the Old Town, Zuzori was a great choice for dinner. In classic fashion, we probably ordered too much food, but it was delicious.

We shared the fresh tuna carpaccio (which was dressed with caperberries, capers, pomegranate, radishes, and nectarines), the smoked swordfish and saffron risotto, and the truffle pasta. All were delicious and filling, yet lighter than expected.

We ended the day with a walk back through the Old Town to our hotel, where the Church was all lit up and the stained glass on display.

Overall, a great day in Old Town Dubrovnik! We’re switching hotels tomorrow to see the other side of the city and potentially do some day trips, so we’re excited to see what the less touristy spots in Dubrovnik looks and feels like.

Edit to add another great Old Town Dubrovnik memory after spending some time relaxing on the beach at our hotel the next couple days: for our final day in Dubrovnik, we decided to treat ourselves to a more “fine dining” evening out, and somehow lucked into finding an incredible rooftop restaurant with one of the best menus we’ve tried recently: Restaurant Dubrovnik (their SEO makes finding them online challenging, but if you use the Croatian word “restauran” it comes up!). We essentially crafted our own tasting menu, which included an amuse bouche of truffle cream with shaved salted egg yolk, the smoked eel and mussels on a piece of bread soaked in olive oil with caviar and crushed pistachios, the “crunchy” ravioli (which hilariously came with a “carpaccio” of mushrooms), a fantastic palate cleanser with a fois gras ball, topped with truffle and served with a “citron” (vodka, sparking wine and citrus juice) served in a snail shell, the mushroom risotto with truffle and seared fois gras (truly one of the most incredible things I’ve ever tasted – the depth of flavor and textures were legitimately incredible), the lobster with parsnip puree, and lamb coated in crushed pistachios, served with Croatian potatoes. We finished with the tiramisu, which was a lovely experimental, deconstructed style dessert featuring pastry cream and a truly truffle-filled bite (mushroom truffles, not the chocolate kind – it was super unexpected but incredible!). The waiter also offered great wine pairings and talked me into an espresso martini to finish, which didn’t disappoint! 100% would recommend to anyone looking for a romantic evening in Dubrovnik!

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