Dubrovnik, the 'Pearl of the Adriatic', is justly seen by most as an absolutely unmissable site for those travelling along the coast of Croatia and looking for the region's history - a must-see! It is a city full of history, rich with cultural and artistic events, and a popular filming destination (recently, the venue for King's Landing in Game of Thrones). For all of these good reasons it has sat on top of the list of most-visited places in Croatia for some time now.
Whether you take a look at the historical centre of Dubrovnik from the heights of Mount Srđ, inland, or enjoy the rare privilege of approaching the city from the sea, one eye-catching highlight will grab your attention first… Any guesses?
The Old Town of Dubrovnik, once known as Ragusa, occupies a steep rocky peninsula on the southern coast of Dalmatia. It is surrounded by magnificent city walls, easily the place's most recognisable feature. The walls are a fantastic monument, crowning the Ragusans' effort to defend their home-town, built during the Golden Age of the Republic of Ragusa and often described as awe-inspiring and breathtaking. The fortification system in its entirety consists of the walls surrounding the Historical Centre itself, together with two free-standing fortresses - Revelin to the east and Lovrijenac to the west. The wall-walk, almost two kilometres (about 1.24 miles), along the ramparts is immensely popular with tourists. While some of them are constantly trying to catch a suitable spot for an Instagram photo, or others are daydreaming about the world of Game of Thrones, most are looking for the historic meaning of the monument. But what is that story?
The city walls bring us back to a time when the fortifications were a key to Dubrovnik’s (or Ragusa's) success and prosperity. The philosophy underlying their construction can be shortly explained with the old Ragusan saying written above the gates of the Lovrijenac fortress - Liberty is not to be sold for all the gold in the world! That's the inscription we can see. What it implies, and what the visitor at the time would have read between the lines is: “look who we are, what we have and what we can afford!”. The story of these massive city walls brings us back to the heyday of Ragusa, a rich trading Republic with the means to defend itself.
Archaeology - evidence for the earliest fortifications
The story of the fortifications on the rocky peninsula named Laus where the first settlement was established goes way back into the depths of history. No doubt, modern Dubrovnik’s position has been of high strategic importance since early times, due to its location on the highly significant Eastern Adriatic sea-route from present-day Greece and Albania to the central Dalmatian islands and further towards the northern shores of the Adriatic, and thus from the Eastern Mediterranean, from the shores of Constantinople and the Near East, to Venice and other ports connected with Italy and Central Europe.
It is still unclear whether the city was founded by Greeks or Romans some time during the last few centuries BC - a few finds suggest they had recognised the attractiveness of the location - or whether occupation began only when the area passed to Byzantine ('East Roman') control, from the fourth century AD onwards. What we do know is that the first archaeological building remains belong to a fifth or sixth century Byzantine fortress erected on the eastern part of the peninsula, close to the location of the Cathedral: our first protective wall. This is the point in time, so far as we know, that the story of Dubrovnik's defences begins.
An archaeological excavation trench was opened during the 1980s next to the Cathedral of the Assumption in the heart of the Old Town. It revealed part of a Late Antique fortification wall, that is to say the era we call also Late Roman or Early Byzantine elsewhere.
Evidence for the old city walls preserved between the lines of historical sources
The turmoil of the Early Medieval Ages brought various new peoples to the Dalmatian coast. Probably from the seventh century the first Croats (Slavs migrating to the region from somewhere further north and/or east) came to the territory on the headland opposite the peninsula where the old population of Roman descent still resided. The famed Byzantine emperor and polymath Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus tells us that the settlement of Ragusa, situated on a peninsula that was then separated from the mainland by a shallow bay, endured a fifteen-month siege by the Arabs in the ninth century. To achieve that implies the presence of reasonable fortifications, but it's been suggested that the shock of the long-lasting siege inspired the locals to fortify the town in a more serious manner.
The fortunate strategic location enabled both settlements to grow fast, leading the inhabitants to fill the shallow bay with soil until the two settlements finally merged during the eleventh century. After this union, the inhabitants of Ragusa decided to construct a firm defensive barrier that could protect them from any peril, seaborne or from the hinterland. The High Middle Ages (c. AD 1000-1250) were indeed difficult times for Dubrovnik and the city was continually fighting for its position, both in trade and politics. The walls were the most convenient response to the constant menace of attack.
Hard times and massive walls
The next building phases are closely tied to important historical events. A major political change unfolded when the Venetians lost their series of battles against the Hungarian-Croatian king Louis I and finally had to sign a peace treaty in 1358, consequently losing the right to territories in Dalmatia. The downfall of Venetian power in the coastal Adriatic enabled the Ragusans to put in immense work on their city fortifications. The whole city was surrounded by a mighty curtain wall with fifteen rectangular towers. Two formidable bastions were added in the port, their primary function being to hold a heavy iron chain that was used for closing the entrance to the crucial trading harbour. As awareness of the new and highly destructive force of gunpowder reached Dubrovnik in the middle of the fourteenth century, the citizenry realised that an improvement of the fortification system was urgently needed. In the meantime, the Ragusans decided to tear down all the private towers and churches on the outskirts of the town, to prevent the possibility of enemies taking advantage of such structures.
Once begun, the vast effort of construction lasted throughout the so-called Golden Age of Dubrovnik (1453-1667). The news of the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 alarmed the Ragusans and fears for security were again at the forefront of the citizens' minds, producing a prodigious effort in response. Our written sources tell us that it took them just two years to construct a huge wall 22 metres in height and four thick from the main city gates to the magnificent tower of Minčeta on the north-western side. No doubt, fear has always been a good motivator…
The main construction phase had begun in the fifteenth century and work, including all kinds of minor or major reconstructions and embellishments, lasted until the late sixteenth. The extent of the fortifications as completed in fear and concern then has been maintained through the centuries so that it can visited today. The walls have become an admired highlight of the city and impress now as they did half a millennium ago. Already in the fifteenth century, when they were newly built, some pilgrims visiting the town concluded that Dubrovnik was one of the most beautiful cities they had ever seen and approvingly noted the grandeur of its fortifications. At the same time, the Ragusan Senate carefully decreed that the walls should be built non tanto per la belleza, quanto la fortezza - not so much for beauty, but for formidability. Taking a look, though, you can see the architects and builders still managed to pay plenty of attention to detail and elegance.
A disastrous earthquake shook Dubrovnik on the 6th of April 1667, demolishing most of the Old Town. The city walls were mostly spared due to their massiveness. One of the surviving witnesses to that tragic event left an intriguing note about seeing walls leaning sideways due to the strength of the strike. Together with all the other buildings, the walls had to be repaired and some reconstruction continued throughout the century. Unlike most of the medieval fortifications in other Dalmatian towns (such as Korčula or Split) that were razed to improve the health of the enclosed cities - a notion that led to the destruction of medieval city walls all over Europe - the city walls of Dubrovnik were not torn down during the modern period. Such a project would have endangered most of the architecture in the Old Town, and was perhaps thought too difficult to achieve: whatever the reasons, this is actually a piece of pure luck! From our perspective, it is safe to conclude that the surviving medieval barrier is a fabulous monument in itself and at the same time the best witness to the glory days of the Ragusan Republic.
The City Walls today - a quick walk-through
To reach the city walls you first have to enter the Old Town. For those wanting to do a wall-walk, there are three entrances. During the shoulder season (before and after the summer's high season), the best option is certainly to choose the way through the main entrance, called the Pile Gates. The pan-Mediterranean spirit of Dubrovnik can be recognised in the name of these gates, which derives from the Greek word pylai meaning the doors or gates. Think of Thermopylai (literally the Hot Gates), known for the glorious battle in 480 BC during the Greco-Persian wars, or of the Dipylon Gate of the Athenian city walls in the Kerameikos.
The way towards the Historic Centre leads across a lovely stone bridge that ends with a wooden drawbridge, located just before the gates and once used to prevent unwanted guests from sneaking into the Old Town during the night. Above the doors, an elegant sculpture depicts Saint Blaise, a bishop from Armenia and the patron of the city, venerated in Dubrovnik for more than ten centuries. Through the outer gate, one enters into a true medieval experience - a stone courtyard with stunning architectural details. Finally, you have to pass through the second, inner, gate to reach Stradun - the main street of Dubrovnik Old Town.
The main entrance to the city walls is now on the left-hand side as you enter the town. Ascending the stairs, it takes a couple of minutes to climb up the city walls and enjoy the magnificent view across the architectural riches of the historic centre. Among the charming bell towers and church domes, the first thing that grabs your attention is the variety in the colours of the roof tiles. This is, unfortunately, the outcome of a bitter event - the bombardment of the city in the early 1990s, when the Old Town was severely shelled from land and sea by the Yugoslav army.
If you decide to take a walking tour around the city walls, you'll see a myriad of highly interesting things; I'll confine myself to some of the highlights that should not be missed, but there's much more waiting to be discovered...
After the entrance to the walls, following the main counter-clockwise route, you'll approach the Bokar bastion, a part of the south-western fortification system completed in the sixteenth century. Its elegant cylindrical shape is impressive to observe either from the Pile gates or from the city walls themselves. Some of the old cannons remind us that the stone walls were not enough to defend the city. More than 120 massive guns were once employed to protect the citizens and their wealth, mostly obtained through maritime trade.
From Bokar fort, there is a wonderful view of the Lovrijenac fortress, separate from the city walls. This stronghold was built on a dominant 37-metre high rock as a detached part of the defensive system. Its role was to control the major sea-route and approach to Dubrovnik from the west. It is assumed that the first fortress on this position was constructed in the eleventh century, following the Venetian plan to base troops here, able to attack the city. The architecture of the fortress that can be seen today belongs mostly to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Although the walls facing the sea were constructed to be 12 metres (about 40 feet) thick, the ones exposed to the main city walls are just a little bit more than half a metre (2 feet) in width. It is undoubtedly a pure example of a precaution either against the possibility of enemies conquering the fortress or against a potential rebellion by the guards themselves. There was no way that the thin wall could have ever stood against the fire-power of cannons placed in the Bokar tower just opposite of the detached fort. These days, Lovrijenac is one of the favourite sites for filming and theatre in the city. The mediaeval ambiance provides an excellent backdrop, either for classics like Shakespeare’s Hamlet or such recent blockbusters as Game of Thrones.
While walking towards the eastern part of the city walls, you can enjoy the view of the natural rock of the former Laus Peninsula, combined with the mastery of the architects who paid attention to every detail, not leaving even the steepest cliffs unfortified. This experience, coupled with sunrise or sunset is absolutely stunning! At the same time, a brief look the other way gives you a taste of the daily life of Dubrovnik. Since there are lots of houses close to the wall, it is not unusual to notice kitchen tools hanging by the window, children’s toys, clothes drying on a line, even hear the hubbub of conversation. This bizarre, somewhat chaotic and very real theatre of completely unique scenes exemplifies a very simple meaning that is the background of a wall-walk - the Historic Centre of Dubrovnik is still breathing, still lived-in, and it hasn’t lost its Mediterranean charm.
The most prominent fort in the southeastern part of the fortifications is the one dedicated to Saint John. This is a massive semi-circular tower that now houses the Maritime Museum and the Aquarium. The small but interesting exhibition tells the story of the development of Dubrovnik’s navy, the fierce rivalry with Venice, and maritime trade all over the Mediterranean and beyond. Ancient maps, ship models and nautical instruments are just some of the things on display there. From Saint John's fortress there is a wonderful view of Dubrovnik’s Old Port where small private boats, locally owned, are still moored or anchored. Once crowded with merchants and sailors, today with tourist day boats, the port has always been the city’s most crucial hub. A walk along the walls offers you a more relaxed and different perspective of the busy everyday life and the tourist groups carrying on down there.
As you pass the Port, there is a nice view of Revelin Fortress. A counterpart to Lovijenac on the far side of the city, this is the other detached fortress outside the city walls proper. Its construction started in the fifteenth century, due to the Ottoman threat. Its name derives from the Italian word rivellino that can be compared with the term barbican, describing the outer defence of a walled city (and gives us the English word ravelin). When it was finally completed in 1549, Revelin became the strongest fortress of Dubrovnik. Today, the inside of the fortress serves as a night club, one of the most popular party places in Dubrovnik. On the first floor (in the European sense, second floor for Americans), there is an archaeological exhibit, dedicated to the early history of Dubrovnik. The Revelin fort stands in front of the City Gate known as the Ploče Gate and it can easily be explored by anyone choosing to enter or exit the city on its eastern side.
As you walk further along, now ascending the northern walls, sloping uphill as the terrain demands, they show the grandeur of the late medieval building technique at its peak. A row of fascinating towers, overlooking a massive bulwark built against them and the moat below, ends with the huge Minčeta tower in the northwestern corner of the walls and at the highest point of the Old Town. It is named for the Menčetić family, who donated the land for its construction. This is the largest and highest of all the towers in the defence system, overlooking all of the walls and the entire Old City. The story behind its construction in the fifteenth century is a long one, involving immense expense, prompted by the fall of Bosnia to the Ottomans in 1463. It involved a number of prominent architects, including Michelozzo (di Bartolomeo Michelozzi) from Florence and the master known as Giorgio da Sebenico (or Juraj Dalmatinac - George the Dalmatian) who was responsible for the stunning transitional Gothic/Renaissance cathedral at Šibenik.
The Minčeta Tower's most distinctive feature is a Gothic crown around the top circular tower. During his travels across the Balkans in the seventeenth century, the Ottoman scholar and explorer Evliya Çelebi saw the Minčeta tower and compared its splendour with the notorious Tower of Babel. This is just another indicator of how the architecture of the Dubrovnik city walls has been a valuable motif and inspiration ever since it was constructed. The view from the tower allows you to focus on all of the architectural peculiarities of the Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque architecture of Ragusa-Dubrovnik, the full extent of the walls and on the surrounding landscapes and seascapes. This is a perfect spot for observing the city’s overall shape, and a suitable place for deciding what should be explored next. There is much more to see down in the Old Town…
From the Minčeta tower, it is a short and downhill walk to the starting point near the Pile Gate.
Late spring and summer – ideal time for a visit
The walking tour around the walls offers you a fantastic look into the history and every-day life of the Dubrovnik Old Town. From bastions, cannons and towers to archaeological remains and cafés with relaxing music and charming views, walking along the walls is a unique experience indeed.
There are many ways to see Dubrovnik and to explore the wonders of its city walls and the city itself that they once protected. To understand it all, think about one of our expert-led gulet cruises in Croatia from Dubrovnik to Split or from Split to Dubrovnik. The amazing architectural details under the Mediterranean sun, coupled with thrilling stories about the rise and fall of the Dubrovnik-Ragusa Republic are the perfect way to engage with the complex history of a fascinating region. After this superb experience taking in the view of the city in all its historical depth, a superb dinner with a glass of traditional Dalmatian wine is waiting for you on one of our gulets!
Our cruises in Croatia include many other highlights: the amazing Roman palace at Split, the wonderful town of Korčula, the ancient Greek fields on Hvar and the treasures of Zadar. Join us in Croatia to see these treasures and to explore Dubrovnik in all its beauty...
(P.S. If your passion is for Game of Thrones, come a day earlier or leave a day later to experience both the real history of the place that gave place to its use in filming the series, highlighted in detail by our experts.)