City Breaks

Finding the Gems in Overcrowded Dubrovnik

by Elisabeth Robinson
Costumes Photos by Elizabeth Robinson.

Yes, Dubrovnik is a culturally rich and stunningly beautiful city. It is also hideously crowded. (Thanks for nothing, Game of Thrones and mega cruise ships.) Which means it takes work to find the gems amid the throngs. Herewith, a cautionary tale of overtourism.

I'd heard for years what a stunning city Dubrovnik was. And it is, just like Audrey Hepburn in Madame Tussaud's or one of those roped-off Louis XIV rooms is at the Met. Preserved, expensively restored and about as alive as a taxidermied falcon.

Buffed by millions of little tourist feet every year, its pedestrianized streets are so shiny you'll need a pair of crampons for your morning stroll or last-day lust for a Game of Thrones souvenir dishtowel. (The government actually has to roughen up the streets periodically.)

But my niece and I were determined to see the sights. When she suggested “The Stairs of Shame,” I asked her what its historical significance was, and promptly felt like I should climb them myself: I was one of those people who managed to miss the worldwide GOT phenomenon. 

We discussed the difference between visiting a site where a TV series was filmed and, say, where James Joyce wrote Ulysses, as we joined the open-mouthed hordes shuffling our way to see it.

Besides some helpful GOT trivia, my two days in Dubrovnik taught me an invaluable lesson in trip planning: Don't fall for aerial photos. Even I look stunning from a helicopter.

Azur restaurant.

But what's it like down there, what's happening now? Not much, but if you find yourself in Dubrovnik to meet your mother's cruise ship or on your way to somewhere else (as we were), I have four tips for you:

1) Stay at St. Joseph's, a charming townhouse right in the old town. Sure there are splashy resorts outside the city walls, but you can stay in a splashy resort in Phoenix. St. Joseph's location is ideal for ducking into your charming air-conditioned room after a morning street-buffing session and ducking back out for some not-as-good-as-in-Italy Italian-y food. St. Joseph’s friendly staff will meet you at the city gate, haul your luggage through the throngs, book tour guides and restaurants, or, if you're just too tired to open another tourist menu, bring you a bowl of pasta from the taverna next door.

2) Have lunch at Rudjer, a tranquil, leafy oasis next to the Diocesan Classical Gymnasium of Ruđer Bošković. From oysters to pizza to grilled fish, the food is excellent and the setting so lovely you might pick cherries from the courtyard tree and wind up staying for dinner.

3) Have drinks at the self-proclaimed "most beautiful bar in the world" — Bard Dubrovnik. This is the rare case where reality lives up to the hype. Carved out of the exterior city wall, you can gaze at the Adriatic for hours while sipping a Karlovačko and listening to great tunes. You can even go for a swim from its rocky shore.

4) Come dinner time, Azur serves delicious, inventive Cro-Asian cuisine, like K-Pop chicken sliders and Salmon Pillows on black babaganoush, listed on a chalkboard menu whose playful categories—"Get Your Hands Dirty" and "Fork It" reflect chef Vedran's philosophy of fun — as opposed to fine — dining. It's all wonderful, tucked in a quiet corner. Far, in other words, from the maddening crowds.

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