You’ve probably heard that the must-see old town of Dubrovnik is overcrowded and expensive, especially since it has been re-discovered by fans of Game of Thrones, the HBO hit series featuring memorable scenes that were filmed in historic locations here. Here’s how to do a day trip to the “Pearl of the Adriatic” from Montenegro that will bust some of the tourist trap myths and help you plan an enjoyable visit. Even if, like me, you haven’t gotten around to binge-watching GOT.
Cross the Border Early
Starting from Kotor, take your car to the ferry crossing (fare: 4.50 euros per car) and follow the Adriatic highway to the main border checkpoint outside the city of Herceg Novi. Arriving before 7am means you probably won’t have to wait more than 20 minutes to get through TWO passport controls for Montenegro and Croatia. We heard horror stories from people who waited up to three hours to cross later in the day, especially on weekends. Montenegro is not yet a member of the EU, and new security procedures put in place since the migrant crisis mean longer waits to cross the border.
Where is Everybody?
Arriving early allows you to snag a sweet parking spot just outside the old city walls. We followed the signs to the Pile Gate, but ended up in a small lot at a different entry point, strategically located near the cable car station. Pay in advance for about 5 or 6 hours at the parkomat, which takes credit cards, and put the ticket on your dashboard.
As you enter the spotlessly washed-down streets of the Old Town before 8 am you may wonder, “Where is everybody?” Make your way to the Luža Square, the intersection of the two main strada, where your companions will mostly be merchants setting up for the crowds later in the day. Use this time to get close to attractions like the Onofrio Fountain that will be mobbed by mid morning.
Or just take a caffeine break as you wait for churches and museums to open at 9 am. Contrary to rumors of ripoff prices as high as 7 euros for a cup of coffee, we paid about as much as you’d expect for a tall latte at Starbucks.
One Way Traffic
At 9 am, we arrived at the Pile Gate, one of two entrances to the city walls. We would have started earlier if we had known the time opening time has been moved to 8 am in the summer. (Now you know.) Go to the ticket kiosk and be prepared to pay with kuna or a credit card — euros not accepted. (150 kn for adults, 50 for kids). Climb the stairs and notice the sign saying you can walk in only ONE direction.
Just accept the fact that the pace will be dictated by the slowest child, senior or obsessed selfie-taker. The flow keeps moving like a well-managed Disneyland line, and will allow you time to enjoy the magnificent views.
Keep your tickets handy; they will be checked midway through your walk near the restrooms at the opposite Ploce Gate.
Also standing by are members of Croatia’s Red Cross, offering first aid and assistance to those who appear to be suffering from the heat. Sunscreen and a hat are essential. By noon, the walls are again semi-deserted when everyone breaks for lunch to avoid the mid-day sizzling temperatures.
Below the cliff facing the sea are the “buza” bars, a cool spot for drinks if you choose to linger awhile.
The Wow Factor
While the walls and plazas are crowded, you can visit Dubrovnik’s churches in relative solitude. Some of the interiors have a real “wow” factor, such as the splendid Sicilian fresco in the Jesuit church.
Old city walls not only keep out invaders: they also cut down on any possibility of a breeze reaching the tiny back streets on a hot summer day. Pizza places tucked in the narrow lanes are said to be one way to beat the high restaurant prices, but we didn’t find them to be all that cheap or inviting. Instead, we ended up choosing the Arka restaurant on an open plaza leading to the Jesuit church. Vegetarian choices were prominently featured next to the traditional Balkan meat dish cevapčiči and even their version of a “Mexican food” burrito!
Our table was next to a large fan, and the house white wine was served with a side glass of bottled-water ice cubes to keep it cold. The check: about what you’d expect to pay for a nice lunch with beer/wine in the US — about $20 per person.
War and Peace
The cable car to the top of Mount Srd (pronounced “surge”) provides more than a spectacular overview of the old town and coastline. After centuries of peace through diplomatic relations with all its neighbors, Dubrovnik was caught up in the Balkan War. Don’t miss the war museum tucked into a fort dating back to Napoleonic times. The battle to control the strategic mountain top led to the siege of Dubrovnik for seven brutal months in 1991-92. Croatia’s defenders were relatively unprepared, since no one really thought the Serbian-led armed forces would attack a protected UNESCO world heritage site. Hundreds of shells hit their mark on ancient walls that were not designed to withstand modern artillery.
You’ll be stunned to see how much rebuilding was needed to restore the picture postcard town you have just visited. The mountaintop fort has its own freshwater well, but the townspeople were not so lucky. They scrounged for bread and water, taking shelter in what was left of their damaged homes. Media coverage at the time was criticized for paying more attention to the buildings than the human casualties. The museum — and another war exhibit in the old town — gives Dubrovnik’s courageous people the respect they deserve. The cable car round trip ticket for an adult was 140 kuna (about $22). Combined with the war museum, 170 kuna. There’s a museum discount for students with ID.
The Long Way Back
We couldn’t figure out how to avoid a longer wait on the return drive to Montenegro. Leaving Dubrovnik by 3pm meant a 30 minute wait to exit Croatia, followed by a frustrating one-hour crawl to the Montenegro entry point, where the guy didn’t even look at our passports: two from Slovenia and one from the USA. There is a better option if your passports are all from Europe. Drive a little longer to use a local border crossing near Vitaljina where the wait times are reported to be much shorter. However, there are reports of some non-EU passports not being accepted there.
Terry’s Travel Tips
I planned this trip using Lonely Planet Montenegro, an excellent guide to the must-sees, which includes Dubrovnik in neighboring Croatia. But, as noted in this post, some of the prices and opening hours have changed since its most recent edition in 2013. Time for an update, Lonely Planet?
Limited Mobility Challenges: We didn’t see anyone with a wheelchair or stroller during our walk of the city walls. However, disabled travel websites report that it IS doable. (Respect!) The cable car is an accessible way to get a panoramic overview.
Currency: Euros are widely accepted in both Croatia and Montenegro. However, some of the attractions in Dubrovnik only accept Croatia’s currency, the kuna, or credit cards as noted above.
Stranger Danger: Due to lingering fallout from the war, cars with Montenegro license plates reportedly have been targets of vandalism when parked in Croatia. Be sure to park in a guarded parking lot. Also, make sure your rental car package includes the needed border-crossing documents to take the car outside Montenegro. Plan ahead to save money and book ahead through Auto Europe before you leave the United States.