48 hours in ... Dubrovnik

Croatia's jewel has emerged from the war with its attractions intact. Tobias Grey takes time out to scale the walls and explore the beaches of Dubrovnik
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The Independent Culture
Why go now?

Since the war ended, tourists have been slow returning to Dubrovnik. Now restored to peace and to its former glory (UNESCO ensured that the city's buildings were rebuilt using traditional techniques), this is a perfect time to beat the rush and discover the treasures of the Old City (Stari Grad). Add to that a Mediterranean climate (20-26C till the end of September), and the clear, warm waters of the Adriatic appear more inviting than ever.

Beam down

Croatia Airlines (0181-563 0022) flies non-stop to Dubrovnik from three UK airports, but only one, one day every week, from each: Mondays from Manchester, Tuesdays from Gatwick, Sundays from Stansted. The return fare is pounds 275 (or pounds 10 less from Manchester). On other days, connections are available via Zagreb, though this will increase the fare. A Croatia Airlines shuttle bus covers the 14 miles from the airport in half an hour, and costs about pounds 3. More details from the Croatia National Tourist Office, 2 The Lanchesters, 162-164 Fulham Palace Road, London W6 (0181-563 7979).

Get your bearings

The Old City of Dubrovnik is an enchanting mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture built from limestone quarried in the surrounding region. Recent excavations have revealed material dating back to the 7th century, though the structure of the Old City as seen today was fully realised during the 15th and 16th centuries. A massive earthquake in 1667 all but destroyed the city, leaving only the Sponza Palace intact. This called for a extensive programme of rebuilding, which explains the varied architectural styles.

Perched at the southernmost point of Croatia, Dubrovnik is the last port of call for islands in the northwest corner of the Adriatic. A diverse natural habitat owes much of its beauty to Croatian sailors who brought back sub-tropical species of flora and fauna from far-flung lands.

The Stradun is the main thoroughfare and meeting point for the Old City, most of which is pedestrianised. Buses will drop you outside the Pile Gate, the main entrance on the west side of the city. A seven-minute walk along the Stradun will take you to the Ploce Gate, by the old port, in the east of the city. Boats sail from here to the surrounding islands, usually on an hourly basis.

The Atlas Travel Agency (00 385 20 442222) is just outside the Pile Gate, near the bus station. Someone is always on hand to arrange sightseeing tours, fishing trips and water-sports activities.

Check in

The Dubrovnik Hotels Group (00 385 20 421611) runs 30 establishments to the south and west of the Old City, most either in the Bay of Gruz, Babin Kuk or on the Lapad Peninsula.

Probably the best four-star hotel (no five-star hotels yet) is the Villa Dubrovnik, V. Bukovca 6 (00 385 20 422933; double rooms pounds 110 per person), south of the Old City, 10 minutes' walk from Ploce Gate. Each room is air conditioned and equipped with an elegant, flower-filled terrace, with access to the private beach. Another luxury four-star hotel, also in the south, is the Argentina, F. Supila 14 (00 385 20 411506; double rooms pounds 89 per person), complete with fitness studio and tennis courts.

A cheaper option is the comfortable Hotel Zagreb, S. Kralja Zvonimira 27 (00 385 20 431011; double rooms pounds 16.70 per person). Situated on the Lapad Peninsula, it's ideally placed for a nearby sandy beach, from which you can take a 30-minute boat trip to the verdant island of Lopud; boats leave at 10am and 11am daily, returning at 5.30pm and 6.30pm.

Take a ride

Buses depart regularly from the Pile Gate in the Old City. Tickets cost 5 Kuna (roughly 50p) from newspaper kiosks, or 10p more if bought on the bus; be sure to carry spare change. To hire a car or scooter, try Gulliver Rent-a-Car, Stjepana Radica 31, in Gruz (00 385 20 411088).

Lunch on the run

Try the Delfin Sandwich Bar, Lucarica 2, just off the Stradun, near the Pile Gate. At the other end of the Stradun is the picturesque market on Gundulic Square, where locals gather every day to sell freshly picked fruit.

Beach life

Most hotels have private beaches; locals head for the shore near the end of the old port. Alternatively, take a 15-minute ferry ride from the old port to the island of Lokrum (six departures daily). Lokrum is blessed with a beautiful botanical garden, pleasantly shaded and creaking with the incessant hum of grasshoppers. The island also offers a rocky nudist beach and plenty of hidden coves, as well as a 12th-century Benedictine monastery, which now serves as a belvedere.

To the southeast of Dubrovnik lies the resort of Cavtat, accessible by boat (the last return sailing is at 6pm) or by the no 10 bus from Dubrovnik's bus station. If you tire of Cavtat's beach, check out its several museums and churches.

Cultural asides

Climb the city walls, 7m thick at some points, for the best views of the magnificent Stari Grad. The focal point of the city is the Sponza Palace, now home to Dubrovnik's most important cultural institution - the Archive. A minute's walk away is the Rector's Palace, a marvellous Gothic and Renaissance building that houses the History Department of the Museum of Dubrovnik.

Also worth a look is Dubrovnik Cathedral, which contains the city's treasury and the head and the arm of Dubrovnik's patron saint - St Blasius. Museums worth noting are the Rupe, with its 15 underground grain silos hewn out of solid rock in the 15th century; the Maritime Museum, which chronicles Dubrovnik's ship-building and trading prowess; and the nearby Aquarium. There are a number of galleries in the Old City, including The Gallery of Fine Arts, a stately stone palace in Frana Sulpice Way, to the east of the Ploce Gate, which features works by both local and international artists.

Window shopping

When Dubrovnik was rebuilt near the end of the 17th century, it was compulsory for Baroque houses to have shops on the ground floor, a practice preserved along the Stradun. Artisanal shops around the city sell traditional handicrafts: embroidered napkins and table cloths, folkloric dolls, porcelain and pottery.

An aperitif

Throughout the city, cafes and bars spill out onto the streets. These provide a perfect setting for sampling rakija, a legendary lubricant made from grapes and prunes. A good spot for morning coffee is the Gradska Kavana, an enormous cafe near the Ploce Gate; it's a good spot to watch the world go by. An interesting little bar is Club Otok, Pobijana 6, which draws a an artistic crowd until the small hours. The one word to remember is pivo, which means beer.

Demure dinner

Excellent restaurants are thin on the ground, but three come highly recommended. The Nautika, just outside the Pile Gate, affords a great sea view from its candle-lit terrace, plus delicious platters of fresh seafood. The friendly Dominos Steak House, just off the Stradun, serves up top-quality cuts of Croatian beef in a small courtyard. Pick of the bunch, though, and a favourite with locals, is the Dundo Maroje, also near the Stradun; the entree of steak tartare is exquisite. To follow, plump for the black risotto or spaghetti with scampi. There is no need to reserve at this time of year, and all three restaurants accept the major credit cards.

A night on the tiles

A good place to start is the aforementioned Club Otoka, where a mix of Pink Floyd and Tom Waits will get the sunshine out of your system. Then head on down to the Cafe Troubadour for some hard jazz. There are few nightclubs - try Arsenal, just outside the Pile Gate, for house music from 11pm-4am. Sometimes the Gradska Kavana cafe holds dinner dances, and there are several little bars tucked away off the Stradun for a final nightcap.

Sunday service

The city's principal places of worship - the cathedral and church of St Blasius - are both Catholic, with daily services at 6pm and 5pm respectively. The latter is worth a visit for its extravagant Baroque interior, complete with magnificent altars in coloured marble.

Take a hike

Dubrovnik is surprisingly green, especially around the forested Lapad Peninsula. This was home to Dubrovnik's noblemen in the 16th century, whose luxurious villas boast lush gardens with fruit trees and fish ponds, testament to their lavish lifestyles during Dubrovnik's golden age.