How to escape the crowds in Dubrovnik, Croatia
There is no doubt that Dubrovnik is a stunningly beautiful city. Surrounded by ancient city walls, perched on the edge of the blue waters of the Adriatic Sea, its popularity soared after the Game of Thrones series used it as its “King’s Landing” location. Lord Byron called it “the pearl of the Adriatic,” and he was right.
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The Old Town of Dubrovnik is small: 96.7 ha (239 acres) inside its old walls, according to Wikipedia. Firmly established by the Middle Ages, it was ruled by a string of powers over the centuries, though generally not directly: it enjoyed the “protection” of the Byzantine Empire at one point, for example, it was a “vassal state” of Hungary, and later it became a “tributary” of the Ottoman Empire. In other words, it stayed relatively independent and its wealth grew. By the 15th and 16th century, it had become an important maritime city rivalling Venice. It was during that time that its beautiful Renaissance buildings were built. Unfortunately, an earthquake in 1667 destroyed many of them and weakened the state; 5000 citizens of the city died.
What visitors see inside the ancient walls today is a densely-packed and atmospheric old town with a mix of structures from both before and after the earthquake. Divided roughly in two by a main street called Stradun, the city has three entrances: Pile Gate, Ploca Gate and Buza Gate. The streets are narrow and cobbled, without cars. Here and there they widen into small and exceedingly charming plazas, usually covered with cafe seating and umbrellas. Many of the narrow side streets are actually stairways. The city walls are a particularly popular attraction, less than two kilometers (1.2 miles) long. Visitors can walk on them and see the city from all angles. The entire old town became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, when it was still part of Yugoslavia.
Overtourism in Dubrovnik
The problem is that Dubrovnik’s beauty brings with it the modern scourge of overtourism. Dubrovnik’s population is about 42,000, and that includes residents of the city outside of the walls. When cruise ships stop there for short visits, they spew thousands of tourists who head straight for Dubrovnik’s Old Town, trying to see all the main sights in a matter of a few hours. Adding to the burden, budget airlines operate out of dozens of European cities, bringing hordes of vacationers and stag parties.
I visited Dubrovnik last summer, but only for a day. Less than a day, actually. My husband and I were on a road trip from northwestern Greece, where we had attended a friend’s wedding, back home to the Netherlands. We had about three and a half weeks for the trip, and because of the World Heritage website I’m developing, I was mostly interested in seeing the more obscure UNESCO sites that people don’t generally visit. We didn’t plan ahead, usually booking a hotel sometime in the afternoon for the same evening. I knew that Croatia is a popular destination in the summer, so we spent more time in neighboring countries – Albania, North Macedonia and Montenegro – before arriving in Croatia in mid-July.
But we were passing so near to Dubrovnik, and it is a UNESCO site, after all, so we decided to stop and take a look. We would decide then whether we’d stay longer or move on. It didn’t take long for us to make that decision. While I could appreciate that it’s a beautiful place – I especially enjoyed spotting the small sculptural details on many buildings – I just don’t like spending time in large crowds. At that point just coming out of the pandemic, I was still rather jumpy about people being near me.
So how can you escape the crowds?
What follows are some ways to beat the crowds in Dubrovnik. Some of these we did – though not always intentionally – and some of these I wish I had known about.
Timing your visit
Timing is key, whether we’re talking about time of year or time of day.
What time of year is best for visiting Dubrovnik?
The high season in Dubrovnik is in the summer months: June, July and August. So the short answer to this question is that the best time to visit is any other time of year. In the shoulder seasons – April, May, September and October – your chances of still having sunny days are good, though it might be too chilly to swim. The low season is November through March. You may get some rainy days, but mostly the weather will be mild. While you still won’t have Dubrovnik entirely to yourself, at least it won’t be teeming.
What time of day is best?
Cruise ships often stop nearby and Dubrovnik’s Old Town is the main event, so plan your days around their schedules. Go to the Port of Dubrovnik’s website and open the pdf there. It shows every single planned cruise ship visit of the entire year. You’ll notice that in June, July and August, at least one cruise ship visits almost every day. On some days it can be as many as five! You’ll also notice that most of them arrive in the morning and leave in the afternoon.
So the best times of day to visit are early morning before about 9:00 and in the evening from about 16:00 or 17:00. You’ll get the added bonus of getting the best lighting for your photos at those times of day. A word of warning, though: we arrived in Dubrovnik in the early evening – about 17:00, I’d guess – and perhaps there were no cruise passengers there anymore, but it was still very crowded!
For a summer visit, some strategies
If summer is the only time you can visit, here are a few ways you can at least somewhat avoid the crowds:
Where to enter the Old Town of Dubrovnik
Again, think of this in terms of the cruise ships. Their excursions enter the city through Pile Gate, considered to be the main gate. And while that is indeed an interesting and imposing entranceway, it can slow to a crawl because of the huge crowds of cruise ship passengers trying to squeeze through. Instead, enter via one of the other gates: Ploce Gate or Buza Gate. Of course, if you avoid the times when the cruises arrive, there’ll be fewer crowds. While there were many people around, we didn’t even have to slow down as we walked through Pile Gate in the late afternoon.
Best places to see in the Old Town
There are some really lovely sights to see in Dubrovnik. The Franciscan Monastery – dating to the 14th century, but later redone as a Baroque church – also contains a pharmacy dating to 1317. The Dominican Monastery houses some paintings by Titian. The Church of St. Savior is a Renaissance creation dating to 1520. And the Dubrovnik Cathedral was rebuilt after the 1667 earthquake but is still worth a look for its Baroque interior.
Probably the most popular sightseeing destination in the city is the wall walk. The wall (13th-17th century) is still complete and entirely encircles the old town. It includes three fortresses (plus two more that are separate from the wall) and 16 towers. One of the fortresses – St John’s Fortress (1346) houses an aquarium as well as the Maritime Museum.
And of course, there are the Game of Thrones filming locations, and many Game of Throne themed walking tours.
How to avoid the Dubrovnik crowds in summer
Here’s the thing, though: these sights are the ones that get included in those cruise ship excursions and walking tours. They are the busiest places. So here are a few suggestions:
- Check the hours that the wall walk is open and don’t go there until an hour or two before it closes for the night. Or try right when it opens in the morning.
- Avoid the heat of the day altogether – it gets very hot in Dubrovnik in the summer! Instead, book a hotel with a pool that can keep you happily entertained in the middle of the day. Visit the city in the early morning, spend the middle of the day at your hotel, then go back out in the evening.
- Wander the side streets. I don’t know a percentage, but I’d guess that a good 50% of the tourists stay within a block or so of the main road, Stradun. The side streets are interesting too though. And the further you get away from that central area, the less crowded it’s likely to be, especially if getting there involves climbing steps!
- Visit the more obscure museums, like the tiny synagogue, the Ethnographic Museum, or the Natural History Museum.
Get out of town
You could also escape the crowds in Dubrovnik, rather obviously, by going elsewhere, either as day trips or as added destinations. Here are some suggestions:
Hvar is an island off the coast of Croatia quite a ways north of Dubrovnik. You can take a ferry from Dubrovnik to Hvar, which is also the name of a small and pleasant historical town on the island, in about three and a half hours. Most people, including locals, go to Hvar for the beaches, and it’s certainly less crowded than Dubrovnik on a summer day. It would make a pleasant overnight trip or you could spend a few days for some real relaxation. You could easily combine enjoying the small-town ambiance of Hvar and/or the island’s second town of Stari Grad with spending days at the beach. Plus, the trip on the ferry itself gives you beautiful off-shore views along the Croatian coastline.
If you really want to get away from any human contact, even in the peak season, check out Hvar’s UNESCO site, Stari Grad Plain. It’s a UNESCO site because it is unchanged since it was first colonized by Greeks back in the 4th century BC. An agricultural area growing olives and grapes, its stone walls divide the parcels of land in an ancient Greek style, and small stone shelters still stand. Rent a bike, motorbike or car in Hvar or the town of Stari Grad and go take a look. We went there and, believe me, you will have the entire place to yourself. The road through the plain is unpaved and flat. To be honest, there’s not much to see but dry fields edged by stone walls and lots of olive trees and grapevines, but it is definitely quiet and uncrowded!
Technically, this isn’t actually out of town. It’s just outside the Old Town. A cable car extends from a location a bit inland of the Old Town – about a 10-minute walk away – and takes passengers up to the top of Srd Hill. As you can imagine, it’s a popular place to go, and even some cruise tours will go there, so I can’t really say you’ll escape the crowds. However, it opens at 9:00 every day except in January and February, when it’s closed. Get there in time to get that first ride, and you won’t meet the tourist mobs till they arrive later. Enjoy the view over Dubrovnik, then take the hiking trail from there to Fort Strinčjera, enjoying more views as you go.
The cable car is busiest leading up to sunset, but I know from other sunsets in other cities that people tend to leave as soon as the sun dips below the horizon. Yet the best and most colorful sky is often after the official sunset. Stay, and the crowds will thin, but don’t miss the last cable car down!
Lokrum Island is just off of Dubrovnik – you’ll see it from the city walls. This tiny island is a popular place, especially for locals, to spend a day or half-a-day. Most cruise line excursions won’t go there, so the crowds won’t be so bad. The island is covered in cypress, pine and olive trees, and it also has a botanical garden with lots more trees and peacocks too. You’ll also find a medieval Benedictine monastery with a very pretty cloister. There are some small pebbly beaches, and you can snorkel and swim to your heart’s content, but watch for the signposts indicating nudist beaches. By the way, Lokrum Island was also used for some Game of Thrones locations.
The ferry to Lokrum only takes about 15 minutes, leaving from Dubrovnik Old Port. It comes and goes often in the busy season. You could visit the Old Town early, then leave for Lokrum when the huge crowds arrive, then return in the evening once they’ve left again.
On the water
Kayaking seems to be a thing in Dubrovnik, and a sea kayak tour would get you away from the madding crowd. Take a sea kayak to Lokrum Island, see the walled city from the sea and make a stop at a cave as well. Or try a sunset kayaking tour that includes wine and bruschetta.
Another less athletic option is to take a boat trip to see Dubrovnik’s walls, Lokrum and Fort Lovrijenac from the water. You can do this on a historical sailing ship at sunset or in a modern glass-bottom boat during the day. Or opt for a sunset dinner cruise.
Going to the beach is, of course, also an option, and there are lots of great beaches in Dubrovnik. Sveti Jakov beach (St. John’s Beach) is nearby, set in a very picturesque curved bay. It’s likely to be crowded, but not as crowded as Dubrovnik in the early afternoon! The sand is pebbly so bring beach shoes and, of course, plenty of sunscreen!
Consider traveling inland
Croatia’s most popular destinations, like Dubrovnik, Split, and a long chain of popular beach towns, are all along its Adriatic coast. But there’s plenty more to see inland. Plitvice Lakes National Park, for example, while popular, won’t be as crazy busy as Dubrovnik. That’s mostly because it offers a range of trails to choose from, which disperses visitors to view the UNESCO-listed waterfalls and lakes of the park from different locations. At Krka National Park you can swim in a beautiful large natural pool with waterfalls. If you’re into hiking or even mountaineering, try Risnjak National Park or Paklenica National Park.
Compare rental car deals from Dubrovnik.
Unfortunately the other best-known historical cities in Croatia – Trogir and Split, which are both also UNESCO-listed – are right on the coast and just as crowded as Dubrovnik. Somehow they felt a little less claustrophobic to me because they’re not hemmed in by massive defensive walls. Both are beautiful historic cities worth seeing, though just like Dubrovnik, I’d suggest saving your visits to the off-season. Split is a city that has grown around and incorporated a Roman-era palace and fortress, while Trogir is a well-preserved medieval town.
Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kotor in Montenegro are two more historical cities you could see in a day trip. Unfortunately, both get very crowded, though not as much as Dubrovnik. Kotor gets cruise ships and while Mostar doesn’t, some cruise ship excursions go there.
Some general tips
- In the summer, Dubrovnik is not a place to do last-minute booking. Book your accommodations ahead. Use the map function to find a place that’s in the Old Town or nearby.
- If you’re going to be in Dubrovnik – or anywhere in the region – in the summer, wear sunscreen all day, reapplying it frequently. Especially on or near the water, the danger of burning is high. Wear a sunhat and sunglasses.
- Bring water everywhere you go, unless your budget allows very frequent cafe stops for a cold drink.
- Wear good supportive shoes, flat shoes. Cobblestones are uneven and a sprained ankle could ruin your vacation.
- The cruise ship schedule is published for the whole year. If your plans are flexible, use the schedule to plan your Dubrovnik visit. There are, very occasionally, days when no cruise ship is scheduled to arrive. If you can, plan around one of those days.
- If you are in Dubrovnik just for the day from a cruise ship, you have two options. I’d suggest either sightseeing on your own (using another entrance to the city) or booking an independent tour guide who might be able to help you avoid the worst of the crowds.
Why is Dubrovnik so popular?
Dobrovnik is a beautiful walled town dating to the Middle Ages, with some stunning Baroque architecture. But in recent years its increased popularity stems from the fact that many scenes from “Game of Thrones” were filmed there.
Is Dubrovnik worth visiting?
Yes! Dubrovnik Old Town is beautiful and full of medieval, Renaissance and Baroque buildings.
Dubrovnik or Split?
Both! Dubrovnik is most known for its dramatic setting and Renaissance and Baroque architecture, while Split has a Roman palace at its core, elements of which were incorporated into its later architecture.
When is the best time to visit Dubrovnik?
It’s extremely crowded in the summer months, so the best time to visit is in the shoulder seasons, i.e. April-May or September-October.
During the summer, how can I avoid the crowds in Dubrovnik?
Visit the Old City early in the morning or in the late afternoon to avoid the cruise ship crowds.
Where should I stay in Dubrovnik?
Book a hotel either right in the walled city or near enough that it’s easy to get there. If you’re visiting in the peak season, book a hotel with a pool so that you can retreat there to avoid the crowds and cool off.
What are some day trips I can take from Dubrovnik?
Lokrum Island for trees and beach. Cable car ride up to Srd Hill for the view and hiking. Historical sightseeing in Mostar (Bosnia-Herzegovina) or Kotor (Montenegro).
What are some places to visit on a weekend trip from Dubrovnik?
Hvar island for pretty small towns and beaching; Mostar (Bosnia-Herzegovina), Kotor (Montenegro), or Split (Croatia) for history; Plitvice Lakes, Krka, Risnjak or Paklenica National Parks (all in Croatia) for nature.
Have you ever visited Dubrovnik in the summertime? Do you have any other advice to share? Please add your comment below!
My travel recommendations
- Skyscanner is where I always start my flight searches.
- Booking.com is the company I use most for finding accommodations. If you prefer, Expedia offers more or less the same.
- Discover Cars offers an easy way to compare prices from all of the major car-rental companies in one place.
- Use GetYourGuide to find walking tours, day tours, airport pickups, city cards, tickets and whatever else you need at your destination.
- Bookmundi is great when you’re looking for a longer tour of a few days to a few weeks, private or with a group, pretty much anywhere in the world. Lots of different tour companies list their tours here, so you can comparison shop.
Other travel-related items
- Get a Priority Pass if you fly a lot so that you can use airport lounges while you wait for flights. Plan your visits around meals and/or drink times and it’s definitely worth the investment!
- I’m a fan of SCOTTeVEST’s jackets and vests because when I wear one, I don’t have to carry a handbag. I feel like all my stuff is safer when I travel because it’s in inside pockets close to my body.
- Airalo is an e-sim card. You buy it through an app and activate it when you need it. I tried it on my trip to Thailand and it worked just like any other sim card, but without my having to fuss with physical cards.
- I use ExpressVPN on my phone and laptop when I travel. It keeps me safe from hackers when I use public or hotel wifi.