In October 2021, I ventured out to Dubrovnik, Croatia for the first time. Dubrovnik has long been on my list, especially as a Game of Thrones fan. Further Croatia was supposed to have been part of a cancelled Summer 2020 family vacation. Finally, Delta Air Lines operated a season JFK-DBV flight summer of 2021, and I took advantage of this easy access to the Dalmatian Coast.
I flew out to JFK and had a long layover wherein I took advantage of and finally visited the TWA Hotel. Beautiful and historic architecture and a must visit for any aviation nerd, sadly it is poor service and lack of upkeep of all the furniture and fixtures, many of which are historic.
Croatia, despite all the hype and popularity to this day, did not disappoint. There are definitely tourist bits and components to Dubrovnik, but do your research and/or find the right guides and tours and you’ll discovered some of the more hidden bits of King’s Landing. It is truly a stunning place to visit. Rich in history, a lot of which I was actually unaware of until I visited, friendly people, plenty of activites and styles of travel to choose from, surprisingly delicious food (I did not know what to expect as opposed to having little expectation), and affordable and impeccable wines. On one of my days, I also booked a full day tour to visit neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina, well worth it, and I’ll cover that in my next post.
I only spent 3 nights here, and one of my days was spent in another country. I would recommend visiting Croatia and I personally cannot wait to return one day to island hop along the coast, visit Split, and go deeper into the wine country.
By the way, plenty of lists out there on best restaurants. But upon consolidating the various recs and committing to these two in my limited time, I can for sure vouch that Pantural and Konoba Dubrava are two fantastic restaurants you should not miss during a visit to Dubrovnik. And a culinary experience not to miss, is to eat the UNESCO Heritage rated Oysters of Croatia, specifically ones that come from Ston, near Dubrovnik. I had no idea oyster farming here was UNESCO Heritage!
I landed in Dubrovnik in the late morning, almost noon. I had booked my hotel through Mr and Mrs. Smith travel, and the Smith perk was complimentary roundtrip airport transfer, as such I was able to take advantage of this and had the hotel arrange my airport car transfers. Other options are Uber, taxi, bus, rent a car, or arrange for a private transfer or book a shared shuttle. There is not metro system in Dubrovnik, but the bus system is easy to navigate and figure out, and their English website is actually quite well done.
I booked the Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik, which is right on the water and is steps away from Old-Town. There is a historic wing and modern wing. I had just arrived at the start of low season so rates were good but sadly a few amenities and restaurants were closed. Further the hotel was a bit short staffed/ utilizing staff from other closed hotels due to COVID. Over all the experience was very disappointing for what is supposed to be one of the top hotels in Dubrovnik. The service was terrible for the most part, inconsistent and there was simply a lack of attention to detail and engagement from the staff, except maybe from the bar and restaurant staff. It does have a great location and wonderful views though. However, there are so many other options in town. If luxury, probably Villa Dubrovnik is a wiser choice, albeit it is further away from everything, for other choices plenty of boutiques in old-town and there are chain hotels as well. AirBnB is another solid option, there were plenty alongside Excelsior offering similar views.
After changing, storing my bags (room was not ready), and having a quick walk around the hotel ground, it was time to meet my guide for my Game of Thrones tour.
Tour the Game of Thrones Walking Tour
There are almost too many Game of Thrones tours to choose from these days in Dubrovnik. It can be overwhelming to decide which is for you. If you, like me, would prefer a private/small group tour that successful blends in Game of Thrones with actual history and culture, then I highly recommend booking with Tom of Tour The Game of Thrones. There are a few tours to choose from, if I had a choice I would have done the full day tour, but I only had half a day, so I went with the 5-hour tour, Complete King’s Landing tour. For single participant at HRK 1500/EUR 200 (obviously cheaper the more people you have!), the tour included tour guide services, entrance ticket for the Fort of St Lawrence and Trsteno Arboretum as well as the transportation to Trsteno Arboretum, Mountain o St Serge. Tom went above and beyond. He even took me to a few extra sights and was kind enough to take me to my dinner restaurant following our tour on his moped. He is responsive, honest and so full of knowledge of both Game of Thrones and Croatia/Croatian history and culture. If you’re lucky, you might run into his sister on the streets who was an extra on the show and can tell you all about it! I cannot recommend his tour enough. It was the perfect combo introduction to Dubrovnik and Croatia that I needed. And I pretty much got to see all of the main Game of Thrones sets and sights in Dubrovnik, including the Trsteno Arboretum, which most tours dont go to as its about a half hour drive outside the city.
Note: Do not skip Lovrijenac Fortress, it offers incredible views of Old-Town and is worth the climb. To avoid crowds and get a feel of what its like to live in the historic old-town, meander the streets of the South Side of Old-Town which is where most local residents live and is away from the tourist shops/restaurants and hustle and bustle
The tour ended just after sunset and right in time for my dinner reservation at Pantarul (reservation required), a local restaurant in the more residential/local area of Dubrovnik away from old-town and its tourist trap restaurants. Pantarul means fork in local dialect, they use 100% locally sourced ingredients, bread and butter and many other things are made fresh in house. The food here was so fresh and delicious. The menu does change day-to-day depending on what is available. That night I had tuna tartar and goat cheese, followed by Grilled Turbot risotto, Dubrovnik is known for risotto. This dish really good, super fresh and aromatic and not too salty. All paired with a few glasses of organic GRK white wine, a grape grown and found only on Korcula island in Croatia, it is an amazing white wine.
Afterwards, I ordered an uber and headed back to the hotel.
Following a complimentary breakfast at the hotel, which was just ok, I was picked up at the hotel for my full day Bosnia and Herzegovina Tour. I booked this through Viator. More on it on my next post, but suffice to say, well worth it. You can also easily rent a car and do drive to Bosnia yourself.
Upon return to Dubrovnik in the evening, my tour driver was very nice and accommodating and drove me up the mountain to Konoba Dubrava restaurant (reservation highly recommended). An atmospheric hilltop restaurant serving traditional Croatian and Dalmatian dishes in a semi-traditional setting. The thing to order here is the Croatian national dish: Peka, which is meat or seafood roasted with potatoes inside a steel or cast iron bell-shaped lid/pan over coal fire. Peka refers to the bell-shaped lid. NOTE: At Konoba Dubrava you have to pre-order your Peka 24 hours before your meal as it takes at least 24 hours to prepare.
I was warmly greeted and sat at my table with heat lamps (it was chilly at night in October), and offered Hazlenut liquor as a welcome shot. I ordered some Croatian red wine served in a decanter. An incredible octopus salad, that they cook in the Peka, allowing the octopus to be so tender, juicy, and melt in your mouth heavenly goodness. Croatian donuts with cream cheese, fluffy and chewy. The main event was the Lamb and Veal Peka, it was phenomenal. Full of flavor and that extra smokiness from the coal fire, the meats were tender and juicy and the steak potatoes absorbed all the juices. I ordered for 1 person but it was still so much food, I was only able to finish half of my Peka, sadly. Then I finished the meal with a shot of Rakija (rak-yi-a), the national liquor, a Croatian brandy, which was quite tasty actually. Suffice to say I was so full. I ordered an Uber, which thankfully did not take long to get up the hill and was whisked back down to the hotel (5-10 minute drive, given the narrow hillside road).
Following another mediocre breakfast paired with a stunning sunrise, it was time to meet my guide for a half-day culinary adventure.
Peljesac Wine & Oysters Premium Private Tour
Originally I had nothing planned on my last day in Dubrovnik. But upon doing research and chatting with my GOT Tour Guide, Tom, I learned more about the region’s wines and Oyster and found out that Oyster farming in Ston, an hour away, is a UNESCO Heritage cultural tradition. Tom was unable to secure a wine tour, though he did make the effort to contact his go to wineries and was willing to take me! As such, upon a google search, I came across Dubrovnik Premium Wine Tours by Doria ltd. They offer a range of food and wine tours. I managed to find the Peljesac Wine & Oysters Premium Wine Private Tour that fit my schedule, was available and hit what I wanted to do. I was searching for a tour that would have oyster tasting in Ston, visit at least one winery for a wine tasting, and it happened that this tour also included some time to explore the Great Wall of Ston, which apparently is the second longest in the world after the Great Wall of China. For one person the tour was 205 Euros, and of course cheaper the more people you have.
The tour exceeded my expectations. After an hour drive, we arrived in Mali Ston, on the Pelješac Peninsula, the main wine region of the Croatia, and home to historic oyster farms. We met Mario, a retired Commander of the 5th Battalion of Croatia army who fought in the Balkan war, and is now retired and farming oysters. He takes us on his boat and we are out in the bay to his plot of oyster farm. He shows me oysters in various stages of growth and farming as well as explains oyster farming, he does not speak English, so my guide translates. Shortly after he takes out his own family brewed white wine and gets to work at chucking oysters freshly plucked from his farm. WOW, the oysters were fresh, juicy, enough buttery texture but not overwhelming, not too salty just enough, and surprisingly not sandy at all. Went down smoothly and refreshingly. Paired nicely with his white wine. Despite Mario’s limited English, he did manage to remind me, as I was eating the fresh oysters, that “you are eating very good viagra.” What a dude.Most oysters are no longer farmed in the true traditional way of utilizing wood silts, rather farmers rely more on plastic barrels and concrete, as its less labor intensive and resilient to weather.
Next up was a visit to Milos Winery, a 500 year old family winery, yes still run by the same family. After a short tour and explanation of the family’s winemaking and vineyards (the vines are not located by the family home/tasting room), we had a tasting of some endemic Croatian wines. By far my favorite was a 2003 Stagnum, Plavac Mali (the only kind of grape this winery uses, local Croatian grape grown in the peninsula). After some delicious wine tasting, we headed to the Historic Ston wall, which was built to protect Ston from Venetian invasion because Ston was the home and producer of the biggest asset at the time, Salt. You pay a minimal entry fee and can climb the wall at your leisure. You can climb the entirety of it but that takes a couple hours. I did not have that much time so I just climbed the portion around the historic town.
Afterwards, it was time for the hour’s drive back to the hotel. The remainder of my day was spend working and having some food at the hotel. None of it was exactly worthy to note here. Except perhaps the Fig Tart.
Woke up bright and early, checked out, grabbed my breakfast to go, which they do arrange for you but dont proactively offer. And was whisked away to the airport for my early morning flight out.
Dubrovnik is not to be missed. Yes, it is very popular and lots of people flock here and old-town will get crowded and overwhelming at peak-summer months in the heat. However, it really is beautiful and worth visiting. Visit during off-peak times is also nice, October was great. Weather was perfect during the day, not hot or cold, a bit chilly at nights but was not bad at all. And there are no crowds. The food is all very fresh and near guaranteed to be organic. Wine flows and is very affordable for the quality and history of it. Of course, you cannot miss those UNESCO farmed Oysters.