The flavours of Europe mingle into Dubrovnik
Encased in impressive fortifications, the Old Town of Dubrovnik, with its Baroque buildings and smooth limestone streets, is framed by thickly wooded hills and the glorious blue of the Adriatic, its source of power for centuries. Founded in the seventh century, Dubrovnik was once one of the Mediterranean's wealthiest maritime republics. The virtual city-state fought fiercely to maintain its independence from a number of would-be invaders, and in 866-867 it resisted a 15-month siege by the Saracens. The city was a thriving maritime power during the expansion of the neighbouring Ottoman empire in the 15th century, its strategic position on the Adriatic making it an important link between the Ottoman east and Christian west. It was during its Golden Age in the 16th and 17th centuries when many of its most impressive buildings, churches and monasteries were built.
As well as a wander around its tiny backstreets, Dubrovnik also has a number of museums, and two Gothic-Renaissance style palaces that are well worth a visit: Sponza Palace, home to the city archive and the Rector's Palace, the former seat of the Dubrovnik Republic's government. Here, the Cultural Historical Museum has decorated rooms with old portraits and furniture on display. The Franciscan Monastery also has a small museum and a pharmacy, which has been open since 1317.
A comfortable bed
The Pucic Palace, Od Puca 1 (www.thepucicpalace.com; 00 385 2032 6222; double rooms from €369 [Dh1,942] per night) is one of only two hotels within the old walls. Once home to a wealthy merchant prince, this 17th-century Baroque building was recently renovated as a boutique hotel. The bathrooms are decorated with Italian mosaic tiles and porcelain-lined copper baths, and there's al fresco evening dining in the restaurant, Defne.
Just outside the city walls, the Excelsior Hotel (Frana Supila 12; www.alh.hr; 00 385 2043 0830, double rooms from €293 [Dh1,537] per night) overlooks the Old Town and the Adriatic. During its 98-year history, this five-star has hosted everyone from Queen Elizabeth, King Olaf and Jean-Paul Sartre to Elizabeth Taylor and Edward Kennedy. Renovated in 2008, rooms have Wi-Fi and flatscreen TVs. The waterside terrace is a great place to soak up the sun or for romantic but informal sunset dining, with views of the Old City and the island of Lokrum.
For something more exclusive and private, Villa Agave (Frana Supila 12; www.alh.hr; 00 385 2043 0834) is a luxury hideaway on a cliff overlooking the sea and the Old Town a five-minute walk away. Once owned by a famous archaeologist, the three-bedroom villa has a study, four-poster beds, five outdoor terraces, a small pool and steps down to the sea. Reserved through the Excelsior Hotel, the villa can come with a private butler, chef or limousine, features loved by celebrity guests who include Kevin Spacey and Morgan Freeman. It costs from €4,500 to €7,000 (Dh23,610 to Dh36,850) per night.
Find your feet
Pile Gate is the drop-off place for cars, taxis and buses and is where you'll find the tourist office. For a sense of the city's layout, allow a couple of hours to walk around the city walls (admission 70 Croatian kuna [Dh50]) from just inside Pile Gate. Nearly 2km long, the walls are between 3m and 9m thick and up to 25m high, with sheer drops down into the sea. Dubrovnik was extensively damaged by shelling in a seven-month siege in 1991-1992 during the Croatian War of Independence. However, it has gradually been restored, as the view over the mix of new and old terracotta-coloured roofs shows. From this vantage point you can also see into streets below, into gardens or even through the odd open window.
The cable car, which reopened last June, is just outside the north city (Buža) entrance. It takes three minutes to climb Mount Srd just behind the city (73 kuna [Dh52]). There is a cafe and viewing platform at the top and coastal views range up to 60km on a clear day.
Book a table
Dubrovnik's cuisine has Italian and eastern influences, including everything from risottos to spicy goulashes. Not surprisingly, seafood is a speciality and the restaurant Proto (00 385 2032 3234; main courses from 74 kuna to 110 kuna [Dh51 to Dh78]) uses the recipes of Dubrovnik fishermen as a base to create tasty dishes such as Lobster Ponta Oštra - stuffed lobster gratin with wild rice risotto, truffles and mushrooms. Marco Polo (00 385 2032 3719; main courses from 66 kuna to 95 kuna [Dh47 to Dh67]) is hidden away in a tiny courtyard near St Blaise's Church - try the black risotto made from octopus ink. Gils (00 385 2032 2222) is a little more expensive, with mains such as veal fillets with polenta, goat's cheese, truffle and port, or chicken with carbonara ravioli and quail egg costing from 184 kuna to 220 kuna (Dh131 to Dh157), but has a chilled out vibe and sea views.
Meet the locals
The morning Green market on Gundulic's Square (open from 6am to noon, Monday to Saturday) is where you'll find residents buying and selling fresh produce such as cheeses, perfumes and aromatic oils. Lavender, dried fruits and dried-orange candy are specialities. For people-watching, try the elevated stone terrace outside the city cafe, Caffe Gradska Kavana (Pred Dvorum 1; hot drinks from 12 kuna [Dh9]), where residents meet and greet over morning coffee.
Dubrovnik is a Unesco World Heritage Site so there aren't any gaudy signs to advertise shops, but you'll still find designer boutiques, craft shops and jewellers on Stradun and its side streets. Gold is popular and jewellery is sold by weight. The jewellery characteristic of the area, Morcic or Mori, is a black enamelled good-luck charm depicting a man's head with a turban. The original image is said to have been inspired by the Moors but it is also claimed that the jewellery was worn to commemorate victory over the Turks in the 16th century. Other local specialities are olive oil, ceramics and embroidery.
What to avoid
During summer, visiting cruise-ship passengers can crowd the city. Try to explore in the afternoon or evening when they have left.
On the sea side of the Old Town, walk around the backstreets and you'll find a small sign saying "Cold Drinks". Follow it to find the Buza Bar through a hole in the city walls. Here, outdoor tables are set on a tiny cliff-side terrace with steps down to the sea. This is where those-in-the-know - locals and tourists - gather to watch the sun go down with a cold lemonade.