With its picture-perfect red roofs set against the deep blue Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik has become one of the most adored Mediterranean ports for cruisers.
That adulation is both a boon and a bane. On the one hand, it brings more and more cruise ships and passengers to the city – some 466 cruise calls were recorded in the first eight months of 2019, up from a total 475 in 2015 – which in turn brings port fees and people with money to spend.
On the other hand, the medieval old city, which is about the same size as Disneyland Paris, is too small to accommodate the thousands of tourists and cruise passengers trying to squeeze into its narrow streets each summer (2019 saw some 1.5 million overnight visitors and about 800,000 cruise passengers, according to the Dubrovnik Tourist Board).
When Unesco warned in 2017 that it might revoke the city’s World Heritage status due to overtourism, the authorities acted. In 2019, a limit of two ships and a maximum 5,000 cruise passengers at any one time was imposed. Additionally, starting January 1, 2021, the city is slapping a tax on cruise ships of between 2,000 and 40,000 kuna (£227 to £4,525), depending on their size, which works out at an average £1.20 a head.
It sounds draconian but it should make things more pleasant for everyone, and so far at least cruisers are not missing out as schedules have been juggled to make sure ships passing through the Adriatic can still visit.
Viking Cruises, MSC Cruises, Silversea, Holland America Line, CroisiEurope, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean International are among the many cruise lines that will be there in 2020, along with Celestyal Cruises, which is visiting Dubrovnik for the first time in December on new out-of-season Romantic Adriatic voyages round-trip from Venice.
Small ships such as SeaDream’s diminutive duo anchor off the old city harbour and tender passengers ashore, but most vessels dock in Gruž, about 1.5 miles from the old city. It takes about 30 minutes to walk from the port to the city, and there is a steepish hill to negotiate, but it’s a pleasant walk. Alternatively there are always plenty of taxis and shuttle buses.
Taxis take euros, and you can use them in most restaurants and bars, but Croatia’s official currency, kuna, will be needed for the key attractions.
Once inside the pedestrian-only city walls, most first-time visitors make a beeline for the steps that lead to the top of the city walls. It costs about £22 and the full circuit is just over a mile, but it takes ages because you have to keep stopping to admire the fabulous views over the city’s picturesque terracotta rooftops, turrets and towers on one side and the calm Adriatic on the other.
Another good vantage point is from Sr Mountain behind the town. There’s a cable car to the top (about £19), and you can visit the Homeland War Museum remembering the 1991 conflict with Serbia while there, but most people are content to enjoy the views.
The best way to explore the old city is to just wander the maze of narrow streets, marble-paved squares and steep alleyways, peeking into churches and admiring the beautiful palaces you stumble across here and there. For a cultural fix, there are maritime, modern art and history museums to explore.
For those keen to get an insight into the city’s history, culture and cuisine there are various walking tours, including Game of Thrones themed outings that take fans to locations where scenes from the programme’s fictional city of King’s Landing were filmed.
Guides take GoT devotees to the 11th-century Fort Lovrijenac that guards what was known in the HBO series as Blackwater Bay, and share behind-the-scenes stories at locations such as Pile Gate and the Jesuit Stairs. An optional extension to Viator’s Games of Thrones Tour visits Trsteno Arboretum, which doubled as King’s Landing’s palace garden.
Cruisers back in Dubrovnik for a second or third time and keen for something new to do can take a 15-minute ferry ride from the old harbour to the island of Lokrum, where there’s swimming, snorkelling and a botanical garden to explore, or see the old city from a different vantage point on a kayak tour around the walls.
There are also trips to Cavtat, about 12 miles south of Dubrovnik, a pretty town with sandy beaches, a picturesque waterfront and plenty of restaurants, while oenophiles can go wine-tasting in the Konavle Valley, an hour outside the city.
First published in January 2020