Once a proud independent republic (1358-1808), Dubrovnik’s wealth was based on shipping and its freedom on diplomacy. Enclosed within sturdy medieval walls, the pedestrian-only old town (now a Unesco World Heritage site), is a huddle of paved alleys, Baroque churches, cloistered courtyards and noble palazzi, many hosting cafes and restaurants at ground level.
Beyond its walls lie the lands that once supplied the prosperous city-state with olive oil and wine. While here for a weekend, you might visit the two nearest wine regions, Konavle (home to the white Malvasija Dubrovačka – not to be confused with Malvazija Istarska) and Pelješac (renowned for producing some of Croatia’s best reds, from the indigenous Plavac Mali grape).
The flight from the UK to Dubrovnik takes around 3 hours, depending where you fly from. Upon arrival, head directly for the stylish Hotel Excelsior (double B&B from €279). Built into the hillside above the coast, it is a grand villa dating from 1913, with sublime views over the water to Dubrovnik’s medieval fortifications. Renovated in 2017, it offers contemporary interiors with plenty of extras – a lush spa with an indoor pool, a bathing area with steps down to the sea, three restaurants and two bars. And unlike most Dubrovnik hotels, it stays open all year.
From the Excelsior, it’s just a 5-minute walk to Ploče Gate, one of two monumental entrances to the old town. Stroll down the marble-paved Stradun street, to Proto, founded in 1886 and still widely regarded as Dubrovnik’s best fish restaurant (Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson ate here in 1936). Opt for the six-course degustation menu (750kn/ €100), with wine-pairing (265kn/€35) – you’ll be treated to refined classics made from the freshest Adriatic seafood, such as fish tartare, fettuccine pasta with scampi and truffles and grilled fish fillet. During the meal, the sommelier will introduce you to fresh and fruity white Malvasija Dubrovačka (with fragrances of orange blossom), robust red Plavac Mali (with hints of pine and carob) and Prošek (a sweet dessert wine, made from grapes that have been left to dry before being pressed).
Close the evening with fizz and maybe some live jazz at Fratellos Prosecco Bar, on a raised terrace above the sea, just outside the old town. Although Croatia is not known for sparkling wine, the Plešivica region (southwest of Zagreb) has started making some rather successful spumantes. So take the opportunity to skip the Italian Prosecco, and try instead a Croatian sparkling wine from the award-winning Jagunić winery.
Begin the day with breakfast on the Excelsior’s sunny waterside terrace – fresh fruit, Eggs Benedict and oven-warm croissants. Then set out to explore Dubrovnik. For first-time visitors, the must-do experience has to be walking a full circuit of the city walls – high up in the ramparts, you have magnificent views over the terracotta rooftops of the old town and out to sea. Although the walls date from the 13th century, they were later reinforced with robust towers and bastions, and armed with cannons.
Afterwards, take a look in the 15th-century Rector’s Palace, home to the Cultural History Museum, to see how local nobility once lived amid period antiques, gilt-framed family portraits and even sedan chairs. Historic documents in the city archive show that they were enjoying Malvasija Dubrovačka as early as 1383 – a wine ‘to be appreciated rather than devoured’. It was also considered medicinal.
This afternoon there are two options, depending on how active you feel. If you want a few hours relaxing, have lunch at Trattoria Carmen in a peaceful side alley in the old town. The menu changes daily, depending on what the owner-chef finds at the morning market, but look out for their octopus specialities – irresistible octopus rissoles, or octopus salad (a Dalmatian summer classic) – and ask your waiter for advice on wine pairing. Then spend the afternoon back at the Excelsior either swimming and sunbathing by the sea or indulging in massage and beauty treatments at the spa.
Alternatively, you might drive down to Konavle, a fertile green valley, planted with vineyards and olive groves, and studded with elegant cypresses. This is the homeland of Malvasija Dubrovačka, a grape variety that was saved from extinction by local winemakers in the 1990s when there were less than half-a-dozen vines remaining. Now, thanks to careful nurturing, this local variety has been revived to some 92,000 vines.
Have lunch at Kameni Dvori, an old stone farmhouse where everything they serve is homemade. Choose a platter of pršut (cured ham, similar to Italian prosciutto), cheeses, smoked meats and olives, or something more substantial, and be sure to taste their Malvasija Dubrovačka. They also offer cooking classes, should you wish to try your hand in the old-fashioned kitchen.
Then head to the Crvik winery in nearby Komaji. In a modern tasting room overlooking vineyards, you can sample Crvik’s Tezoro (meaning ‘treasure’) made from Malvasija Dubrovačka, and their Blasius (named after Dubrovnik’s patron saint), an orange wine, made from the same grape, using the centuries-old maceration method. And don’t miss Crvik’s most esteemed wine, the red Vilin Ples (meaning ‘fairy dance’), a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Plavac – the 2017 vintage won a Decanter World Wine Awards Gold Medal in 2021. Although Vilin Ples 2017 is sold out, you might purchase a bottle of Vilin Ples 2018 (150kn/€20).
If you opted for a relaxed afternoon, the time has come to dress for the evening and hop on the shuttle boat from Dubrovnik’s old port to Cavtat (journey time 45 min). Sailing down the coast, you’ll pass rocky cliffs and sheltered pebble coves. Upon arrival, walk around Cavtat’s harbour to Hotel Supetar (a heritage hotel, renovated in 2022) for wine tasting at the Wine Bar (17:00-23:00). Their Discover South Dalmatian Wines flight introduces white Malvasija Dubrovačka, white Pošip from Korčula, and robust red Dingač from Pelješac. Follow this with dinner at their restaurant (12:00-15:00 and 18:00-23:00) where the Konavle Highlights menu (750kn/€100) complete with wine pairing (300kn/€40) includes a delicious risotto with clams, samphire and sea urchin; pasta with wild hare; and stuffed quail. Return to Dubrovnik by boat, or taxi.
If you spent the afternoon out in Konavle, you might prefer to dine back in Dubrovnik. For something rather different, head for Azur in the old town. The owner-cook Darko Perojević (who is from Dubrovnik but spent several years in China) combines local ingredients with oriental aromas to create his own CroAsian fusion dishes, such as spicy salmon donburi and monkfish with black curry sauce. But what to drink with zesty seafood? ‘Azur’s house wine is a young white Graševina by Galić from Kutjevo in North Croatia’, said Darko, ‘I chose this because it’s very light and goes well with most of our dishes on a hot summer day’.
After breakfast at the hotel, drive northwest up the coast to Ston (journey time 1hr). With its twin settlements, Ston and Mali Ston, connected by 14th-century walls, this is literally the gateway to Pelješac peninsular.
Head for the Miloš winery (website under construction) in Ponikve, near Ston. With organic vineyards on steep terraced slopes above the turquoise waters of Prapratno bay, the Miloš family specialises in the indigenous Plavac Mali grape.
‘We make a selection of natural wines from the Plavac Mali variety, and we age our reds in Slavonian oak barrels,’ said Ivan Miloš. ‘Our premium wine, Stagnum, is released for sale only after ten years of ageing.’ Be sure to sample their dry full-bodied Miloš Rosé, their standard red Miloš Plavac and their premium red Stagnum. If you’d like to buy a bottle to bring home, the Miloš Plavac 2018 is 90kn/€12, while the Stagnum 2012 is 460kn/€61.
Proceed to Mali Ston, where the Šare family offers boat tours of their oyster beds, and demonstrates how these prized molluscs are cultivated. Conditions in Mali Ston bay are optimal, as seawater and freshwater (from the nearby River Neretva) combine here. You’ll get to taste fresh oysters, pulled straight from the sea, served raw with a squeeze of lemon and a glass of Pošip white wine. Afterwards, have lunch at the Bota Šare – try another Dalmatian classic, black risotto, made from cuttlefish ink. The flavours are pungent enough to pair with a local red Plavac Mali.
Returning to Dubrovnik, you might like to nip into KAWA, a hip concept store near the Excelsior, to buy gifts to bring home. Besides quirky kitchenware and accessories by Croatian designers, they stock a selection of rare wines, including several names you’ll recognise. And if you can’t fit everything in your suitcase, never mind – you’re bound to be returning to Dubrovnik sometime soon.
Most wineries that are open for tours and tasting prefer you to contact them first to agree on an exact time for your visit. Having a car is recommended – the Hotel Exceslior can help arrange this, either with or without a driver.