At the heart of Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, the “Pearl of the Adriatic” was one of Europe’s most popular tourist destinations in the eighties—until it was ravaged by bombs during the Balkan conflict. Now that the marble streets have been mended and the Baroque-era buildings patched up, savvy travelers in search of a quieter alternative to Prague and Budapest are migrating south. Aside from the carefully preserved medieval walls, there are the beaches: Late summer and early fall are the ideal times to lounge by the azure sea and sip cocktails at fashionable outdoor cafés.
1 Book your flight on British Airways, which requires just one plane change. Catch the 6:30 p.m. from JFK to Heathrow, then take a one-hour bus ride to Gatwick for the late-morning flight to Dubrovnik (from $500 if you book the flights separately). Total travel time: twelve hours.
2 Finding decent accommodations within the walls of Old Town, the part of Dubrovnik that dates from the seventh century, can be a challenge. Try the Puci´c Palace (385-020-326-222; $600), a three-year-old, five-star actual Renaissance palace-cum-hotel that overlooks the lively market square, or the friendly, family-run Karmen Apartments (385-020-323-433 or firstname.lastname@example.org; $125).
3 The best way to get a sense of Old Town is to walk its thick fortification walls, which are 80 feet high at some points and pass through a plethora of fortresses and turrets. The one-hour stroll affords great views of terra-cotta-tile rooftops, hidden monastery courtyards, and the surrounding coastline.
4 Outside Ploce Gate, the stone buildings and courtyards known as the Lazareti were quarantine houses for travelers during the Renaissance. Today, they’re performance spaces and galleries (Desa and Otok are two of the best), where you can shop for contemporary Croatian art and listen to D.J.’s. Back in Old Town, stop in War Photo Limited, Dubrovnik’s most riveting gallery, run by former war photographer Wade Goddard.
5 Just off the marble-paved main drag, the Stradun, sits the fifteenth-century Dubrovnik Synagogue, the second oldest in Europe. You’re likely to have the place all to yourself while you take in seventeenth-century furnishings, Torah scrolls, and other artifacts from the town’s once-flourishing Jewish community.
6 Take a break from history and plop down just outside of Ploce at pebbled Banje beach, where sunbathers come for the crystal-clear waters, cocktail bars, and views of Old Town. For something less touristy, take city bus No. 4 out to Uvala Bay beach, where locals flock for swimming and sunning.
7 Sip on sweet Dalmatian wine and watch the sunset at Buza, a relatively clandestine café wedged on a rocky terrace between Old Town’s walls and the sea. (At the COLD DRINKS sign, walk through the buza, or hole in the wall.) For the closest thing to a scene, hit an outdoor café at the Stradun, order a shot of loza—the local grape brandy—and watch the locals partake in the korzo, the nightly promenade. For party-till-sunrise options, check out Latino Club Fuego just outside the Pile Gate.
8 Avoid the restaurant hawkers on Prijeko Street and head straight to Sesame, a local favorite ten minutes by foot from the Pile Gate. Take a seat on the terrace, start with a few oysters from Ston (Croatia’s oyster gold mine, just up the coast), and move on to grilled Adriatic squid or lobster pasta.
9 Food and drink are Dubrovnik’s most prized souvenirs. Stop by Franja Coffee & Teahouse on Od Puca Street in Old Town for jars of figs in honey, wild-rose brandy, olive oil, and wine (made with the local mali plavac grape).
10 Escape to Lokrum, a woodsy island about ten minutes away by boat-taxi. In addition to a Napoleonic fort and a ruined monastery housing a great seafood restaurant, you’ll find hiking trails and quiet beaches: the perfect way to relax before the journey home.