Thanks to Game of Thrones’ popularity, easy cruise ship access and cheap flight connections to many European cities, Dubrovnik has become Croatia’s most visited tourist destination.
The city’s fortified Old Town has become so popular that the city council introduced a crowd monitoring system. Out of interest, we had a look: A whopping 42,000 people entered through the city gates in the 24 hours before we published this post. At the same time, only 1,500 inhabitants are left within the city walls.
While we’ll write about our experience in Dubrovnik and how to best visit the city (in a sustainable way) in a separate article, today’s post is about three beautiful cities along the Dalmatian coast we recommend people visit to give Dubrovnik and its people a bit of a breather. Let’s spread the love.
Before we reveal the worthy alternatives to Dubrovnik, let’s first have a look at what we believe these three should bring to the table to be considered serious contenders.
Why are these three worthy alternatives?
Our three gorgeous, less crowded and more affordable alternatives to Dubrovnik must have most of the following:
- a well-preserved and sizable Old Town (ideally with intact city walls)
- UNESCO World Heritage site/s
- a coastal location with a Mediterranean climate
- local charm with family-owned shops and restaurants
- easy access by air/sea
- easy access to offshore islands
- affordable prices.
Since we are talking about Dalmatian coastal cities which all have frequent ferry connections to their respective offshore islands, we can tick off points three and six already. We’ll check out the other five points for each city individually.
Our suggestions are not in the order of most to least favourite. We liked them all – otherwise, we wouldn’t include them here. The order is purely a geographical one: travelling north from Dubrovnik along the Dalmatian coast.
Split – The city chosen by a Roman Emperor
As a setting for Game of Thrones scenes (and with a small Game of Thrones Museum) Split shares some of Dubrovnik’s fame. But thankfully, it’s not quite as busy (yet) as it’s smaller sibling 200-odd kilometres further down the coast.
Contrary to Dubrovnik, which was founded around 614 AD, Split is over 2,200 years old.
About half of Split’s Old Town is made up by Diocletian’s Palace, which was created for the Roman Emperor over 1,700 years ago to live here during his retirement. A UNESCO world heritage site, it’s not just one big building, well it sort of is but isn’t. The rectangular structure is about 215 by 180 meters in size. Yes, you read correctly. The palace stretches over several city blocks in either direction.
These days, it’s more like a city within the city, rather than a single building. Smaller (but equally impressive) palaces created during Venetian rule are lining narrow alleyways, while 3,500-year-old black granite sphinxes guard some of the original parts of Diocletian’s Palace. It’s a fascinating mix of architectural styles.
Split may not have Dubrovnik’s city walls but the Old Town is magnificent, and the palace walls are pretty impressive too. So, definite ticks for our first and second testing points.
Exploring Split’s Old Town is easily done on foot. If you like listening to the stories and anecdotes of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic local, join history professor Ana and her colleagues for a free walking tour.
If you prefer exploring Split at your own pace you can do that too:
- The Tourism Office at Peristyle square, essentially the courtyard of Diocletian’s Palace, offers maps with a self-guided walking tour. There are also blue information plaques and frames dotted around the Old Town which explain the history of what you see.
- Another option are the self-guided tours by GPS My City.
When it comes to lunch or dinner time, don’t eat within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. This is Tourist Central. Restaurants are packed, and prices are high. Venture a few side streets west from People’s Square: there are hardly any tourists and prices are sensible. For example, sharing a set lunch at Mia Fiaba, consisting of a soup, salad and mixed grill main course, cost us EUR10.
Accommodation costs in Split were the highest out of our three alternatives but still 20% cheaper than in Dubrovnik (for a similar distance from the Old Town). Ticks for testing points four and seven.
Even if you’re just transiting through Split on your way to or from the islands, make sure you stop here for a few hours. It’s worth it.
The luggage storage in the train station costs only HRK15 (about EUR2) for a medium-sized locker fitting two carry-on size suitcases or backpacks. The storage places along Obala Kneza Domagoja (the road between the bus/train station and the ferry terminal) were more expensive, and some of them were open to one side, making it easy for a passer-by to just grab a bag and disappear.
Day trips from Split
Want to see more than just Split? No worries. Great day trips from Split include the towns of Omiš (25km south-east of Split) – a treasure for adrenaline junkies, and Trogir (25km west of Split), another UNESCO world heritage site thanks to its beautiful Venetian architecture.
And have we mentioned the islands? Brač, Hvar, Vis, Biševo’s Blue Cave and the Nature Park of the Lastovo Archipelago – the choice is yours.
How to get to Split
As for our fifth testing point: Split has an international airport (IATA code: SPU), situated approximately 20 kilometres west from its Old Town, with regular flights to many European destinations.
There are frequent shuttles buses between Split Airport and Split Old Town. If you’re not in a rush, you can also take the cheaper integrated public transport service, consisting of bus #38 between Split Airport and Kaštel Stari train station, and the train between Kaštel Stari and Split’s main train station.
Šibenik – The charming city with two UNESCO sites
Situated 80 kilometres north of Split and slightly larger than Dubrovnik, is the underrated city of Šibenik.
We liked Šibenik – and not only because we had wonderful short-term rental hosts. While a popular summer destination, Šibenik still has a very local feel to it. Or as one of the locals put it: It’s like a big village. A definite tick for our fourth testing point.
Founded in the 9th century by Southern Slavs, Šibenik is about 200 years younger than Dubrovnik. Nevertheless, the city is home to two UNESCO world heritage sites:
- the 15th-century Cathedral of St James in the centre of the Old Town and
- the 16th century St Nicholas Fortress which guards the entrance of the waterway that leads from the sea to Šibenik.
St Nicholas is included in the UNESCO list as part of the Venetian fortification system in the Adriatic. St Nicholas is only one of four impressive fortresses in the city. The other three – St Michael, Barone and St John – loom high above the city, each on its own hill.
While we are all for preserving historic architecture, Šibenik’s local government went a little overboard in our eyes when it came to restoring St Michael and Barone. St Michael, the closest fortress to Šibenik’s Old Town, houses a small museum and is mostly used as an event space these days. Barone fortress (about 500 metres to the east as the crow flies) tries to bring history to life with the help of virtual guides and augmented reality.
A similar AR/VR approach is being taken at St Nicholas, which was opened to the public in June 2019 after years of restoration. It seems though the guardians of the fort have learned from the (over)revitalisation of St Michael and Barone, as a more empathetic approach was taken in the restoration of St Nicholas.
Don’t get us wrong: it’s worth hiking up to the forts, even just for their magnificent (sunset) views over Šibenik and out to the islands of the Adriatic.
If you want to visit both St Michael and Barone, you can save money by buying a combined ticket (which is valid for 7 days).
Want to walk (intact) city walls? You certainly can walk on top of the walls of the fortresses of St Nicholas, St Michael and Barone. Not quite like Dubrovnik’s city walls but pretty close. And with views to match (if not even more stunning).
The fourth of the forts, St John (located about 400 meters north-east of St Michael and 300 meters north-west of Barone), is currently undergoing renovations and can thus not be accessed. You can however easily walk from Barone up to St John, and watch the sunset from there. It’s the highest one of the three hillside forts and has the best (sunset) views in our opinion.
To see the interior of St Nicholas Fortress you will need to join a guided tour. The tour includes a boat trip from Šibenik’s Harbour through St Anthony Channel to the fort (and return) with about an hour to explore the fortress.
Even if you don’t visit St Nicholas Fortress, St Anthony Channel is worth a visit.
Home to the remnants of cave-turned-church St Anthony’s chapel, Hitler’s Eyes (old navy tunnels used during WWII to protect German warships from airstrikes) and old military barracks used during Yugoslav times, you can hire a bike or walk along the promenade that flanks the channel’s left side (as you look out to sea) all the way to the fortress.
Thanks to its fortifications, Šibenik is one of the few cities along the Dalmatian coast that successfully avoided Ottoman rule. Caught in the fight between the Venetian and Ottoman Empires in 1646, the city’s inhabitants were so adamant about protecting their city from the approaching Ottomans that they built St John and Barone fortresses in only 58 days (and with their own funds, even though they were under Venetian rule at the time).
But that’s enough about the forts. Let’s talk about Šibenik’s Old Town. There are guided walking tours on offer, but it’s also super easy to explore the squares, alleyways and cobblestone stairs on your own. You never know where the next turn leads, and you’re almost guaranteed to get lost. But that’s part of the fun. Ticks for testing points one and two.
A beautiful tranquil spot to have a rest from all the exploring is the medieval monastery garden of St Lawrence (which you pass on your way up to St Michael). Prices at the garden café are very reasonable if you want to stop here to have a drink or bite to eat.
Just outside the Old Town, wedged between Stankovačka and Starčevića Ulica, is Šibenik’s produce market. Locals go here early in the morning to stock up on fruit, veggies, meat and seafood.
If you rather have someone else cook for you, head to Šimun on Ulica Fra Jerolima Milete (halfway between the market and the train station). This unassuming little restaurant (open Monday to Saturday) serving traditional Balkan cuisine at very reasonable prices, was recommended to us by our host, and it didn’t disappoint.
Speaking of affordability: Our accommodation in Šibenik, a few blocks away from the Old Town, was 2/3 of what we paid in Lapad, 3km away from Dubrovnik’s Old Town. A definite tick for our seventh testing point.
Day trips from Šibenik
If Šibenik is not enough to keep you occupied for days, head to Primošten. A 40 minutes drive south of Šibenik, Primošten’s Old Town is situated on an island, complete with cobble-stoned streets that just invite you to wander. Plus, if it’s a hot day, Primošten is known for its gorgeous beaches. So, don’t forget your swimsuits.
Šibenik is also the gateway to Krka National Park (~20km north of Šibenik’s Old Town) and the laid-back, (largely) traffic-free and less touristy islands of Krapanj, Kaprije, Prvić, Žirje and Zlarin, a few kilometres offshore.
How to get to Šibenik
As for our fifth testing point: Šibenik conveniently sits between two international airports. Split Airport (IATA code: SPU) is the closest, approximately 50 kilometres to the south-east. Zadar Airport (IATA code: ZAD) is approximately 80 kilometres to the north-west of Šibenik.
Don’t worry: you don’t need to hire a car to travel between the airport/s and Šibenik:
Zadar – The once largest fortified city in Dalmatia
Our third alternative to Dubrovnik, the ancient city of Zadar, is situated 75km north of Šibenik.
Similar to Split, Zadar’s Old Town is located on a peninsula. Similar to Dubrovnik, it managed to retain (some of) its city walls. Though dating back to the 4th century BC, Zadar is about 1,000 years older than Dubrovnik.
Similar to Šibenik, Zadar avoided Ottoman rule thanks to significant fortifications, which made Zadar the largest fortified city in Dalmatia in the middle of the 16th century. Together with Šibenik’s St Nicholas Fortress, the fortified city of Kotor and other fortifications on the Western side of the Adriatic, Zadar’s defensive system is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Unfortunately, a large part of this magnificent city was destroyed by Allied bombings during WWII. What is left (and has been restored) however, is worth a visit.
Take the Roman Forum for example: Laying partially buried under the Byzantine Church of St Donatus and St Anastasia’s Cathedral, you can vividly imagine life here back in Roman times. There are even altars which were used for blood sacrifices during Roman times and a Roman column which was used to publicly humiliate wrong-doers in the Middle Ages.
Zadar’s Old Town is very compact and easily explored on foot. If you’re looking for a self-guided walking tour: fellow Kiwi travel bloggers Travel Kiwis have put together an easy to follow 3.3km loop that covers all the important sites.
Like Šibenik, Zadar has a small but excellent produce market just inside the city walls (the fish market hall is part of the city walls).
If you prefer to dine out, even the restaurants in the Old Town and/or with sunset views won’t burn a hole into your wallet.
Our accommodation in Zadar, a mere 10 minutes’ walk from the Old Town, was 2/3 of what we paid in Lapad, 3km away from Dubrovnik’s Old Town. That’s also a tick for our seventh testing point.
Day trips from Zadar
For a different experience, you can jump on a ferry to the beaches of Preko, or join day tours to the Kornati and Telascica National Parks or Dugi Otok.
How to get to Zadar
Zadar has an international airport (IATA code: ZAD), situated approximately 10 kilometres east of Zadar’s Old Town.
There are regular flights from/to many European countries and frequent bus services between the airport and the city centre. That’s ticks on all fronts for Zadar too.
Feature photo by Sergii Gulenok on Unsplash