I barely planned my first trip to Croatia. My decision to go came a few weeks before my departure date in late September. My father had died the month before and I felt sad and stuck. However, my cousin was getting married in Prague that autumn and I wanted to go, so I rushed an agenda: one week in Croatia before the wedding, followed by five days in the Czech Republic. Maybe this trip would help me to heal, I reasoned.
Full disclosure: Nothing helps you to heal quickly from losing a parent. In the past, solo traveling was a sort of “magic bullet” for me. When I took my first solo trip to Sardinia in 2014, I went hoping the change of scenery would help me to recover from a divorce. It worked and that trip set me on an empowered path leading to more travels and taking control of my life. My trip to Croatia would not have the same effect. This grief is different. It’s permanent and there is no running from it. And I do not want to forget my father the way I wanted to move on from my marriage.
The lack of planning worked out in the end as I had to rely on advice from a local on where to go and what to do. My trip began in Dubrovnik in the south of Croatia. This city perched above the Adriatic Sea is known for its elegant Old Town and limestone fortress walls built during the Middle Ages, when the area was a maritime stronghold known as Ragusa. The walls ring most of the Old Town, spanning 6,360 feet in length and up to 82 feet high. Even if you have yet to visit Dubrovnik, you may have already seen its ramparts on television. Game of Thrones is filmed here. Tourism is booming thanks to the show’s many fans.
Exploring Dubrovnik in September after the peak tourist season is ideal. There are still many people, but the crowds are less than in summer. I arrived in the last week of the month and it was just warm enough for sailing and swimming (the sea remains warmer in the south for a longer time than on the coast of northern Croatia.)
My lodging was a room in the apartment of a woman named Ina. This accommodation was one of a few open on Airbnb when I was booking my trip. If there had been more options, I may have chosen a different one—the room was advertised as small and spare and the bathroom was shared. Yet staying here would be the single best decision of my last-minute trip. Every morning, Ina made me a cup of Turkish coffee and we sat together and talked. I asked about restaurants, island excursions, and neighborhoods. She recommended things to do. Some were already in my Lonely Planet guidebook but part of a long list. Dubrovnik is small and the potential for island hopping is vast. One of her tips was to see Lokrum island.
Going to places like Lokrum gave me moments of immense beauty. I was also the recipient of random acts of kindness in Dubrovnik. People were friendly. I felt safe and at ease. One day I returned to my room after sightseeing and found a plate of Ina’s homemade palačinke awaiting me. These thin pancakes are filled with sugar or jam and rolled into cigars. This surprise was as sweet as seeing a sunset over the city.
As for traveling through grief, I don’t recommend it. Losing a parent causes a soul-crushing anguish that cuts through your very existence. Fleeing this sadness can backfire. Emotional grief turns to physical pain and coping with it while traveling is tough. Instead, give yourself time and space. Wait until you feel well enough to enjoy yourself again. When you are ready, my guide to Dubrovnik is here for you.
Travelerose Guide: Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik’s Old Town is the center of action in the city. It’s compact and free of cars. In other words, it’s made for walking. Ina’s Airbnb property is in the Bellevue suburb, a 10-minute bus ride or 20-minute walk from the Old Town. This is a good home base for exploring the sights listed below. It is also more quiet and cheaper than staying at a hotel in the center, plus you can cross the street and be at the beach in a few minutes.
Touristy Must-Do: Walk the City Walls
Walking the city walls may be the No. 1 thing all tourists do in Dubrovnik. The views from above the city are too gorgeous to bypass. In late September there were lots of people walking the walls on the same evening as me. Crowds aside, I was still able to take some of the best photos of my trip.
Pro tip: Go early in the morning or later in the evening. Even in September, you can broil in the midday sun in Dubrovnik. View times and ticket prices.
Island Jaunt: Lokrum
You can sail to many islands from Dubrovnik. What if you only have time for one day trip? Make it Lokrum. The island is a 10-minute ferry ride from the city and an ideal place for hiking in forests of holm oak, black ash, pine, and olive trees. The boat leaves from the Old Town, not the busy port, making for a more tranquil departure point. I was able to find some peace here. You can walk this small island in a few hours. Walk long enough and you’ll see bunnies hopping between trees and peacocks strutting on trails.
Pro tip: Avoid the island’s café—it’s a tourist trap. Bring a picnic lunch instead.
History Primer: War Gallery
Knowing the history of the places I visit helps me to appreciate them more. At War Photo Limited founded by photojournalist Wade Goddard, you’ll learn about the wars in the former Yugoslavia during the ‘90s as well as more recent conflicts through collections of photos. The beauty and serenity of Dubrovnik today is all the more astounding when you know the city was under siege in the autumn of 1991. The Old Town, a world heritage site designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, was bombed, and residents evacuated the city. Most of the terracotta roofs atop buildings look so new because they are—they were replaced in the years after the war.
Lapad: A Charming Beach Escape in the City
One of Ina’s recommendations was to see Lapad. This upscale area is a fairly new part of Dubrovnik located on a peninsula outside of the Old Town (from Bellevue, it was a 30-minute walk.) Here you can swim in the gentle Bay of Lapad and lounge on recliners on a pebbly beach. Adjacent to the beach is a pedestrian-only promenade lined by cafes, bars, and shops. Walk north to the end of the promenade toward Babin Kuk and you’ll find a paved coastline path cut into the rocks above the sea. There are also hotels with outdoor seating perched above the rocks.
Pro tip: I found hotels to be lax about enforcing their guest policies for outdoor seating, probably because the end of September is the off-season and there are fewer crowds. No one bothered me in Lapad when I claimed a lounger on the bay beach or on a hotel’s private terrace. Bottom line: Make yourself comfortable.
Favorite Restaurant: Vegetarian and Italian
Croatian cuisine hinges on meat and seafood and I ate much of the latter on my trip, but one of my favorite meals was at the vegetarian restaurant Nishta that riffs on Indian flavors. I had a curry platter served with dahl, three curries, wholegrain rice, naan, chutney, and pickles. Dishes change with the days of the week. Another memorable meal was the risotto with mussels at Pantarul, a cozy restaurant in Lapad just outside the promenade hub.
Pro tip: Go for an early dinner at Nishta to easily get a seat at this small spot. The restaurant is near War Photo Limited. After dinner, head to the gallery.
Outdoor Adventure: Swimming in the Sea
I love to swim while on vacation, yet swimming off the coast of Dubrovnik can be treacherous. With the exception of Lapad’s bay, I found the “beaches” to be mostly a jumble of boulders reached by narrow steps cut into stone walls. Find the flattest boulder and spread out a towel. If you’re lucky, a metal ladder is attached to one of the rocks and you can use it to climb down to the sea.
Pro tip: Watch out for sea urchins, the spiky creatures drawn to wet rocks. I bought water shoes before my trip and wore them when swimming and walking on these rocky ledges.