A First-Timer’s Guide to Croatia

Nov 26, 2017

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Ask any Games of Thrones fan about the show’s real-life locales, and they will likely mention Dubrovnik, Croatia, which is the stand-in for the bloody capital of Westeros, King’s Landing. But there’s more to Croatia than just passing references to the Lannisters.

Here’s what first-timers should know about Croatia.

Dubrovnik at night.
Dubrovnik at night.

Yes, Cersei Lives Here

Dubrovnik’s Old City is defined by its massive stone walls and ports. Originally built in the 10th century, the Old City walls survived earthquakes and wars to become a UNESCO World Heritage site. You can walk along the tops of the city walls alone or on guided tours.

Those fortress walls guard a jewel box of a city, filled with exceptionally preserved Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque buildings, palaces and plazas.  Some of those public spaces, such as the Jesuit Stairs in front of Gundulić Square, are instantly recognizable to fans of the HBO series. (The Jesuit Stairs are where Lena Headey’s Cersei faced an unruly crowd to start her penance.)

Nestled in those plazas are a range of restaurants, bars and shops. Late into the night, people sit outside with drinks or amble from bar to bar.  With the exception of chilly and rainy January, locals say the weather is temperate nearly year-round.

View from Hotel Excelsior
View from Hotel Excelsior

You May Spot a Lannister

If you want to experience Croatia from Lannister heights of luxury, book yourself into the Hotel Excelsior, where Queen Elizabeth II and Elizabeth Taylor have stayed. It’s only a 10-minute walk from the Old City walls and is built directly into the cliffs. Rooms feature dramatic Adriatic Sea views, as well as a private patio where guests can dive directly into the sea. Built over 100 years ago, the Excelsior underwent a major facelift and debuted its new luxe look this year.  Amenities include sumptuous bathtubs, oak floors and dark wood furnishings, plus a freshwater pool and steam bath.

The hotel restaurant, Sensus, has seating overlooking the Croatia coast and features contemporary Mediterranean dishes and a large selection of Croatian wine. It also has a wall of fame where you’ll find photos of celebrity guests. Among the photos, you’ll see Game of Thrones stars like Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey.

Culture Club Revelin in Dubrovnik.
Culture Club Revelin in Dubrovnik.

You Can Party Inside a Medieval Fortress

While the crowd can be a bit on the young side, it’s hard to miss the humongous nightclub that was clearly built in the Middle Ages. Culture Club Revelin is not the most subtle of clubs, but it’s certainly an experience. Drinks are decently priced, and there is a steady stream of international DJ talent as well as a brigade of committed go-go dancers. It’s only open on Saturday night, from 11:00pm to 6:00am, so plan accordingly.

Freshly caught oysters in Ston Mali Bay.
Freshly caught oysters in Ston Mali Bay.

Oysters Are Harvested in Front of You

Ston is a small town about one hour from Dubrovnik, and it too is encircled by defensive stone walls (the largest in Europe). Those giant fortifications protect Ston’s salt mines, said to be in production since the Middle Ages.

Mali Ston Bay is naturally loaded with salt, which sets up the perfect conditions for briny oysters. Officially called European flat oysters, they don’t exist anywhere outside this bay. And while demand is high, there are only so many mollusks that can be bred. The result? You can only savor these oysters in the restaurants surrounding Ston, plus a lucky few in Dubrovnik. Or you can book a private tour with a fisherman, who will lift up nets of oysters and deliver a meaty oyster within minutes.

Pro tip: These oysters offer a bracing taste of the ocean. They are best eaten without condiments, or with a small squeeze of lemon, at most.

You Can Island Hop by Uber

Launch the Uber app in Croatia and along with the typical car options, you’ll see a boat icon pop up. It’s not as extravagant as it sounds because island hopping in Croatia is the national pastime, and the costs come down if you split the cost among a small group.

Croatia is dotted with a range of islands, some inhabited, some not. Some feature hiking trails, nude beaches and even wild peacocks. Head toward the Elafiti Islands, an archipelago of 13 islands that feature coves, hidden bays and fishing villages.

Prices in the app vary, so that you can book a boat to take you just one place to another, or you can charter a boat for a full day. Captains will take you to spots for diving and snorkeling, or whisk you to seaside restaurants.

Ocean-aged wine from Edivo Vina.
Ocean-aged wine from Edivo Vina.

You Can Drink Wine Aged Underwater

Edivo Vina, located in Drače on the Pelješac peninsula, claims to be the country’s first underwater winery. Evido’s Navis Mysterium wine, made from native Plavac Mali grapes, is aged above ground for three months then transferred to the ocean floor. The terra-cotta amphorae stay in the ocean for up to two years, where they develop a crusty layer of shells, coral and algae. If you plan ahead, Edivo offers supervised scuba dives to its underwater cellars. A small number of bottles and amphorae are kept in a location near the winery. Contact Edivo Vina to organize dives.

All photos courtesy of the author.

What would you tell a first-timer about Croatia?

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