The Downside to Dubrovnik Old Town

I was thrilled to be in Dubrovnik. It’s a destination I’d wanted to visit for a long, long time. And in the looks department it didn’t disappoint. I also met some passionate people who I liked immensely in Dubrovnik.

But there were times when I was relieved to escape the Old Town.

And the reason for that is the sheer volume of cruise passengers and the impact they’ve had on the city.

Tourists in Dubrovnik Old Town, Croatia

They’re tourists, I’m a tourist. Beautiful cities attract tourists. Many can absorb them. But Dubrovnik Old Town is actually quite small and there can be as many as 10,000 cruise passengers descending on those lovely, cobbled streets in one day. It’s simply too many at the one time.

Arriving by local bus at Pile Square was an extreme culture shock. Admittedly we’d just come from Hvar and so were still in ‘La la, what lovely countryside and tranquil, empty coves’ mode. Alighting from the bus and into the manic throng of cruise traffic being rounded up like confused sheep was like suddenly finding ourselves in The Year of Living Dangerously. It was overwhelming.

Similarly, trying to actually get through Pile Gate was like re-enacting a mob scene from Game of Thrones (filmed there in case you didn’t know). It was a bottleneck.

Visitors to Dubrovnik Old Town, Croatia

At peak times there’s no stepping up side streets to get away from the big packs, they’re everywhere and therein lies problem number 2. The balance of tourists to local people is seriously one-sided. We were told by a local that under 1000 people now actually live inside the walled town.

The character of any place is defined as much by its people as by bricks and mortar. The lack of residents means that whilst Dubrovnik is gut-wrenchingly beautiful, it has the slight air of an historic theme park about it during peak cruise visiting times.

It also means that nearly everyone is there to make money from visitors and that clearly can push prices up and quality down.

Seafood Risotto, Dubrovnik

On our first night we ate at a restaurant in the Old Town even though we’d been advised by a couple of Croatians on our travels that the restaurants in Dubrovnik Old Town weren’t great. Most of the menus were the same and we figured that although the food might not match the standard of the food we’d enjoyed in Croatia so far, it would be decent enough.

Wrong.

We’d picked an attractive looking restaurant in a picturesque alley just off the main drag. The waiter was polite and professional – no faulting him at all – and we ordered a bottle of plavac mali wine and a couple of what we thought were safe bets; beef gnocchi and seafood risotto.

You don’t need to be gourmet of the month to know that when your food arrives within three minutes of ordering it that a) it’s not freshly cooked and b) it’s not going to be very good.

My gnocchi was microwaved. Microwaved pasta. Pasta only takes minutes to cook, there’s no need to take short cuts – pasta is a short cut. Serving up food like this is taking the piss.

The wine, however, was excellent.

The substandard meal cost us more than any other in Croatia.

The next day we spotted a sign outside a restaurant which partly explained what the problem with some restaurants in Dubrovnik might be. The sign read ‘Full Lunch Served in under 30 Minutes’.

Cruise Ships in Lapad, Dubrovnik, Croatia

And here we are back at the cruise passengers again. It’s all about getting people who have limited time in and out quickly so they can both eat and see the sights during their brief visit to Dubrovnik.

It’s not a recipe for quality dining.

Clearly there are exceptions but you’ll probably have to fork out quite a lot to eat well. We had asked the PR woman at our hotel, who was also a qualified guide, where she’d eat in the Old Town if she wanted a decent meal but didn’t want to pay a lot. The question flummoxed her which spoke volumes.

For me, some Dubrovnik restaurateurs have taken their eye off the gastronomic ball. It can happen in destinations that don’t have to work hard to attract visitors and who don’t have much of a local population to act as quality control.

Ironically, a genuine fast food joint, Good Food ( it seemed popular with younger Croatians) opposite the Museum of Icons, served great snacks at non-inflated prices. Sandwich fillings were generous fresh and tasty plus they had a range of local specialities like prickle, a Dubrovnik cake.

Cannon and Cruise Ship, Dubrovnik

I don’t intend this to come across as a hatchet job on Dubrovnik. It is a beautiful city and I’d recommend to anyone that they should visit.  But there are little signs of complacency and I wish there was more of a control regarding the number of cruise ships offloading their passengers at any one time.

Knowing what we know now, we’d do things differently if we were to visit the Old Town again.

We wouldn’t:

  • Visit any time before 2pm (there’s a much more relaxed vibe later afternoon and in the evening).
  • Eat meals in the Old Town. But we would happily snack at places like Good Food.
  • Buy bottled water at silly prices, instead we’d fill our bottles from the Onofrio Fountain inside Pile Gate. We figured this out after spotting others doing it. The spring water was lovely.

Old Dubrovnik after dark, Croatia

Jack is co-owner, writer and photographer for BuzzTrips and the Real Tenerife series of travel websites as well as a contributor to lots of other places. Follow Jack on Google+




16 Comments

    • Thanks Mike. Croatia is quite an incredible country. Just about everywhere is a scenery overdose, the food’s wonderful and the people have a brilliant sense of humour.

  1. I literally just got home from Dubrovnik yesterday. I loved it there and spent a week enjoying its charms and thousands of tourists.
    I will tell you though that I had some fantastic meals while in the Old Town. At night time when all of the cruisers have gone back to their ships the place clears out and you can breath and enjoy some really great, non-rushed food. My favourites were Pupo, Kopun and Taj Mahal (a Bosnian restaurant that everyone and their mom recommends it was fantastic). Look for the restaurants off of the main streets and hopefully you will find something good. Also the best gelato is at Dolce Vita.
    I thought the best times of the day were between 7am-10am and after 6pm. between 10am-6pm sometimes you can hardly move.

    • I think part of the problem for us was that we’d had wonderful – sensational in some cases – meals everywhere else in Croatia and had absolutely loved the vibe in Zadar. In some respects Dubrovnik old town felt a bit like a model on a catwalk; beautiful to look but, in a way, playing a part.

      If we go back we’ll be sure to try those recommendations. Thanks Cailin.

  2. So glad I visited Dubrovnik in the 1970s – saw the beauty without the marauding hordes! It´s why I never like to revisit anywhere – I´d be horrified to go and experience what you´ve described here Jack! Luckily not all the country is like this
    and you don´t have to go too far to find it. Great photos as usual, but I especially like that last one – the beautifully coloured stone is shown to perfection (and not many people about to boot!)

    • Like Cailin mentioned in her comment, there’s a much more relaxed scene after the cruise passengers have departed. It’s still a great city worth seeing… but with a bit of planning. We were tied into being there at a certain time because of a commission so we experienced the old town at its busiest.

      Thanks for the comments about the pics. I was pleased with the last one as well 🙂

  3. Yes, there are only about 900 people living in the Old Town now. The cruise ships have been a problem for a few years but the town is ever expanding its cruise ship capacity. If I may make a small plug: I recommend that visitors look at the cruise ship schedules and plan their visits to the Old Town accordingly. If you’re in Dubrovnik for a few days, it’s possible to avoid them. They are available free for download here: http://www.croatiatraveller.com/southern_dalmatia/Dubrovnik/cruise-schedule.html

    Great pictures, BTW!

    • We were there just before the season started and it was a case of manic mornings but not so busy in the afternoon. By the time we did a tour of the walls about 3pm it was cruise-passenger free. October may be similar.
      I can see the appeal of staying in the Old Town and I’ve read plenty of reports from people who loved staying within the walls. But the truth is we were glad to be staying outside in the Lapad area as it was a relief to have a base that was away from the Old Town, especially at the busiest times.

  4. This cruise ship passenger problem is slowly going to get worse. (I hear Kotor, in Montenegro, is in danger of going the same way) But, as you say, the old city takes on a completely different – and enjoyable persona at night, after they’ve gone back to their ships. Live music from open fronted bars, and if the food is substandard, there are many buses to Lapad and Gruz port, where quality and value is so much better.
    I went to Zadar this year and preferred it to Dubrovnik for the reasons you highlighted in your article.

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