A cluster of isles and islands found along the Dalmatian Coast, the Elafiti Islands are one of Croatia’s most popular destinations and make an easy day trip from nearby Dubrovnik. Fourteen islands make up the small archipelago, but only the largest three - Kolocep, Lopud and Sipan – are inhabited and linked by ferry and taxi-boat to the mainland, making them the focal point of island hopping tours.
Despite their popularity among day-trippers, the trio of islands remain largely unaffected by the spoils of tourism, dotted with a mere handful of hotels and maintaining many car-free roads. Koločep benefits from being the nearest island to Dubrovnik, celebrated for its dramatic coastal cliffs, tranquil pebble beaches and shaded olive groves, whereas neighboring Lopud is best known for its well-preserved 11th century Benedictine monastery, 16th-century churches and sandy Šunj beach.
Perched on a 37-meter cliff top jutting out into the Adriatic Sea, it’s easy to see how the dramatic Fort Lovrijenac earned itself the nicknamed of ‘Dubrovnik’s Gibraltar’. The mighty stone fortress is one of Dubrovnik’s most recognizable landmarks, looming over the western gate to the walled Old Town and providing a striking backdrop to the annual Dubrovnik Summer Festival.
Immortalized on-screen as part of the fictional King’s Landing in HBO’s hit fantasy drama, Game of Thrones, Fort Lovrijenac has further cemented its place at the top of tourist itineraries and few views are as breathtaking as looking out over the coastal city from the cliff top ramparts. Built in the 11th century, the fortress was once an impenetrable stronghold, with its 12-meter thick sea walls and infamous 3,000kg bronze ‘Guster’ cannon.
The medieval core of Dubrovnik and the focal point of most city itineraries, Dubrovnik’s Old Town is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site, made up of a warren of limestone-paved streets and painstakingly restored medieval architecture. The pedestrianized center is still surrounded by its 15th-century fortification walls and walking along the ramparts provides expansive views over the town.
Navigating the labyrinth of the Old Town unveils many of the city’s most impressive buildings, now flanked by an array of modern shops, restaurants and hotels. Highlights include the reconstructed gothic-renaissance Rector’s Palace; the baroque-style Cathedral of the Assumption, built in the 18th-century; and the landmark Bell Tower, which looms 31 meters over Luza Square. Don’t miss a stroll along the main thoroughfare of Stradun Street, a tour of the Franciscan Monastery and Museum and a visit to the striking 16th-century Sponza Palace.
Dubrovnik’s distinctive orange cable cars speed 778 m (2,552.5 ft) in around three minutes to the top of Mount Srđ from the Lower Station positioned just north of the sturdy walls of the city. Opened in 1969, the cable car was destroyed during the Balkan Wars of Independence in the 1990s but was reopened in 2010; today it serves up to 2.5 million visitors each year who make the journey to enjoy the peerless views across the terracotta rooftops of Dubrovnik, the indented coastline of Dalmatia and the island archipelagos sprinkled across the Adriatic Sea. Sitting at 405 m (1,328.75 ft) above sea level, the scenic viewpoints around the upper cable car station on Mount Srđ are popular local spots for weddings; there’s a souvenir shop selling Dalmatian olive oils and landscape paintings plus the Panorama restaurant, serving up delicious Croatian dishes along with its far-reaching views; book an early-evening table in advance to enjoy the spectacular sunset sliding into the sea.
Travelers looking to explore untouched Croatia while getting a true taste of the Adriatic Sea will find all they’re looking for at Elaphite Islands. This cluster of coastal escapes stretches from Dubrovnik to Peljesac and boasts thick foliage and unspoiled natural wonders that have become difficult to find on the mainland.
Just three of these favorite getaways—Lopud, Sipan or Kolocep—are accessible to visitors, but their diversity means there’s still something for everyone in the Elaphite Islands. Kolocep, the smallest of the three, is surrounded by brilliant blue waters and proves a remarkable respite for tired travelers. Sunj beach has made Lopud the most visited of the three, but those in the know say despite its popularity, Lopud is still perfect for a quiet escape. Sipan, the largest of the three islands, offers travelers the most to do, including tours of some of the stately aristocratic manors of the Dubrovnik Republic.
Pile Gate is a grand entrance into Dubrovnik’s Old Town, on its western wall.
Built in 1537 to protect the city from invaders and monitor trade, Pile Gate was originally reached via a wooden drawbridge, which was raised every evening, the gate locked and the key handed to the prince in an elaborate ceremony.
Pile Gate has an outer and inner gate with statues of St. Blaise, the city’s patron saint. The St. Blaise statue in the niche of the interior arch is the handiwork 20th-century Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. You’ll also find an old door here that dates back to 1460.
As you pass over the stone bridge towards the outer gate you’ll notice a green space below. This space used to be the moat, another defense mechanism to deter those who wished to infiltrate the city.
Dubrovnik’s Old Town is completely surrounded by enormous stone walls that date back to the 10th century. Up to 6m (19ft) thick and 2.5m (8ft) high in places, Dubrovnik's Ancient City Walls were built to protect the city and deter would-be invaders.
You can walk along the entire (2km/1.2mi) length of the ancient walls today and it is one of the best ways to appreciate the majesty of the Old Town (and get some great views over the Adriatic sea). There are 2 towers and 2 forts incorporated into the walls that were built and/or strengthened in the 15th century to bolster the city’s defences. The Minceta Tower protects the city’s northern edge; the Bokar Tower protects Pile Gate (the city’s main entrance); Lovrjenac Fort protects the west, and the Revelin Fort protects the eastern entrance.
A mere 1km from Dubrovnik, the small island of Lokrum makes a welcome escape from the city and with regular boats making the 15-minute trip, it’s an easy excursion from the mainland. Nicknamed the ‘Island of Kings’, legend has it that King Richard the Lionheart was shipwrecked on Lokrum Island following his 1192 crusades. Continuing its royal connections, the island was bought in 1859 by Maximilian von Habsburg, the Archduke of Austria, who transformed its 12th-century Benedictine abbey and monastery into a summer palace.
The Abbey and its formal gardens remain one of the island’s principal highlights, but equally impressive is the botanical garden of the Dubrovnik Oceanographic Institute and the Fort Royal, an early 19th-century French fort, which tops the Lokrum Hills. For many though, a visit Lokrum is simply an excuse to soak up the idyllic scenery – swathes of pine and cypress forests, olive groves and rocky coves that make up the Lokrum island nature reserve.
With its grand Baroque façade standing proud over Luza Square, the Church of St Blaise is one of the most beautiful buildings of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Originally built in the 14th century, the church was badly damaged in the 1667 earthquake and much of the present structure dates from its early 18th century reconstruction. Dedicated to the Dubrovnik’s patron saint and protector, the domed church is the handiwork of Venetian architect Marino Gropelli and is built on the plan of a Greek cross.
The church is best known for its remarkable silver statue of St Blaise, one of the city’s most important sculptures, depicting the saint holding up a model of the 15th-century city. Additional highlights include the exquisite stained-glass windows by local painter Ivo Dulcie, a pair of 15th century St. Blaise and St. Jerome sculptures by Nikola Lazanie and a collection of the Saint’s relics, which are famously carried through the streets of Dubrovnik each February 3rd.
Standing on Luza Square among some of Dubrovnik’s most impressive architecture, including St Blaise Church and the lovely Sponza Palace with its appealing mixture of Gothic and Renaissance architecture, Orlando’s Column was erected in 1418 at what remains the political and social heart of the city. Here public meetings and executions were held on the small stone platform guarded by wrought-iron railings that tops the column. The stone carvings adorning the four sides of the column were created by master craftsman Antun Dubrovcanin and represent the heroic knight Orlando, who was the nephew of Frankish Emperor Charlemagne; according to legend he was credited with saving Dubrovnik from Saracen pirates in the eighth century and here he is depicted surrounded by figures of minstrels and balladeers.
Just through the main Pile Gate into Dubrovnik’s Old Town, Onofrio’s Fountain stands to the right of Stradun, the main thoroughfare through the cobbled streets. The fountain was constructed between 1438–40 and it is the ingenious end point of an aqueduct that traveled 12 km (7.5 miles) from a spring at Šumet – which still supplies Dubrovnik’s water today – into the city. Both fountain and aqueduct were designed by architect Onofrio della Cava; the latter has a huge brick central dome, originally topped by a dragon, and 16 elaborately carved water taps spouting over a stone trough. Although the dragon was destroyed in the earthquake of 1667, the fountain is one of the city’s most important landmarks and provides shade and respite for weary visitors. A smaller fountain, decorated with leaping dolphins, stands at the opposite, eastern end of Stradun; this was also designed by Della Cava and originally supplied water to the market traders on Luza Square in front of St Blaise Church.
Built into the eastern flank of Dubrovnik’s fortified walls adjacent to Fort Revelin, the 14th-century Dominican Monastery is designed in a combination of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture that is seen in several of the city’s palaces and churches. The monastery’s church was rebuilt several times over the centuries and was used as an army depot during Napoleon’s occupation of Dubrovnik in the late 18th century; today its single nave features a massive painted Gothic cross by Paolo Veneziano, dating from around 1384, St Dominic by 19th century painter Vlaho Bukovac — widely regarded as Croatia’s finest artist — and sparkling contemporary stained glass in the apse. The elaborate 15th-century Gothic cloister of the monastery surrounds a shady garden that was used as stabling for French army horses and their troughs can still be seen between the cloister’s pillars. The well in the garden provided water for Dubrovnik’s residents when the city was under siege in 1991.
Dubrovnik’s cathedral was originally built in the 12th century in Romanesque style and – according to legend – at the behest of King Richard the Lionheart of England after he was shipwrecked on the island of Lokrum along the Adriatic coast. This building was destroyed in an earthquake in 1667 and was replaced by today’s Baroque version, which is the work of Italian architects Andrea Buffalini and Paolo Andreotti. Approached up a grand flight of steps and with a landmark dome, the triple-aisled cathedral is dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary and has an imposing façade guarded by Corinthian columns and a Titian triptych sitting above the main altar; damage caused by a direct hit from a shell in the Siege of Dubrovnik (1991) has since been repaired.
One of the foremost landmarks of Dubrovnik’s atmospheric Old Town, the bell tower stands at the eastern end of Stradun, the main thoroughfare, and looms over Luza Square. The 31-m (102-ft) stone tower is topped with a stumpy dome and flanked by some of Dubrovnik’s most spectacular architecture, including the lovely Sponza Palace, St Blaise Church and Orlando’s Column. Constructed in 1444, the tower was badly damaged in the earthquake of 1667 and began to lean alarmingly; by the 18th century it had fallen into disrepair and it was not until the late 1920s that repair work began and the tower acquired its present shape and clock, the face of which resembles an octopus and also portrays the phases of the moon. Consequently, very little of the original tower has survived to the present day except the two-tonne bronze bell, which was cast by master metalworker Ivan Krstitelj Rabljanin from nearby Rab Island.
The 16th-century Renaissance playwright Marin Držić is to Croatia what Shakespeare is to Britain and he is revered as the first person to write drama in Croatian; his comic plays are on every school syllabus. He lived a rackety life with little career success but his works were resurrected in the 19th century during the rebirth of Croatian cultural heritage; his plays regained popularity yet again in the 1930s and are still performed each year at summer’s Dubrovnik Festival.
The museum dedicated to Držić is located in the Gothic townhouse in which he was born in 1508. It offers a library of modern texts plus a few set-piece reconstructions using waxwork models of his major characters and period furniture. There’s also an audio-visual presentation of some of his texts; among the displays are temporary modern-art exhibitions and contemporary cartoons.