Croatia’s Dubrovnik gives other rivieras a run for the money

CNN  — 

For those who can afford them, the French and Italian rivieras have always been unbeatable destinations for anyone in search of sun, sea, sand and style. Or have they?

Croatia’s Dubrovnik Riviera may just be better than both.

With 260 days of sunshine and one of the most eye-catching coastlines in the Med, this chic stretch of Adriatic shoreline is justifiably pulling in ever-greater visitor numbers each year.

The 20-kilometer riviera is a silhouette of dramatic emerald mountains that tumble down to inviting bays overlooking royal blue seas.

Coupled with Dubrovnik Old Town, one of the world’s most photographed medieval walled cities, the region offers an alluring beach and city combo.

Here are 12 reasons to go:

1. Medieval Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik basks in more than 250 days of sunshine and an average temperature of 17C.

The largest and best preserved in Europe, Dubrovnik’s 14th-century city walls are nearly two kilometers long and 22 meters high.

A circumnavigation of the chunky walls offers photogenic views across the terracotta tops of the Old Town.

Jutting out on a fortified island, suspended at sea, the historic Dubrovnik Old Town is one of the most recognizable sights in Croatia.

Within it, baroque churches rub shoulders with centuries-old monasteries and palazzo.

A sea of red roofs shrouds whitewashed buildings, fringed by the azure Adriatic.

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2. Mount Srd cable car

Restaurant Panorama, atop Mount Srd, provides an unobstructed view of Dubrovnik.

Arguably the best view on the Dubrovnik Riviera.

A short revolving cable car ride to Mount Srd reaches an elevation of 412 meters over Dubrovnik, which can be seen below, laid out like a map.

On a clear day, the hills of neighboring Montenegro and silhouettes of surrounding islands are visible.

The clifftop Napoleonic Imperial Fort museum showcases footage of the siege of the city during the Balkans conflict of the 1990s. The views are never better than at sunset.

3. Dubrovnik Carnival and Summer Festival

Each July and August, outdoor piazzas become open-air platforms for the Dubrovnik Summer Festival.

The oldest cultural festival in Croatia is a mix of theater, ballet, classical music, opera and dancing in the streets.

In February, Dubrovnik mirrors Venice with a five-week medieval carnival that transforms marble streets into a parade of masked balls.

There’s also a wine and jazz festival during the more tranquil month of September.

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4. Scenic coastline

One of Europe’s most attractive drives is the 20-kilometer Dubrovnik to Cavtat coastal route.

The mountaintop route wends through vineyards and quaint waterfront villages. Antique churches, forested headlands, beach boats and cafes are all part of the scenery.

There are coastal resorts at Cavtat, Mlini and Srebreno, away from the bustle of Dubrovnik.

Mlini offers isolated beaches and dense greenery.

Cavtat is charmingly Croatian and sometimes sprinkled with famous faces said to include Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich.

5. ‘Game of Thrones’ tour

The famous Nautika Restaurant (on the left) has a front-row seat to the setting of King's Landing in "Game of Thrones."

Dubrovnik’s walled city is riddled with filming locations used in “Game of Thrones.”

It served as the setting of King’s Landing, capital of the Seven Kingdoms.

A three-hour walking tour takes in highlights such as the scene of battles such as Stannis Baratheon’s Battle of the Blackwater.

For those unfamiliar with the show, it’s still a fun alternative tour that mixes fact with fiction.

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6. Killer villas

Boutique villas are to Dubrovnik what riads are to Marrakech.

Often converted private residences, the luxury whitewashed villas blend into the landscape

Among them is Villa Dubrovnik, a spa with suites equipped with hot tubs overlooking the Adriatic.

Recently upgraded, the Leading Hotels of the World property has sensational views of the Old Town from its rooftop Prosciutto & Wine bar.

It also has a stylish vaporetto speedboat for transfers to the Old Town.

7. Croatian wines

Rural Croatia is dotted by about 1,000 wineries.

Croatia may not be a name synonymous with wine, but it should be.

With wine-producing history dating back to around 2200 B.C., the industry flourished under the Greeks but was disrupted by the Ottoman invasion.

Things picked up again in 2010 with the creation of the Association of Croatian Wineries.

There are some 64 indigenous grape varieties producing Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon from the 1,000 or so wineries that scatter rural Croatia.

“Posip is the famous white wine from Korcula Island,” says Tonci Nola, a manager at Villa Dubrovnik.

“A heavier option is the strong and bold-flavored Kuca Glavic from this Dubrovnik Riviera. Red-wine lovers should opt for Tribidrag, from the far north, for its powerful, full-bodied finish.”

Fall is when the vineyards come alive and can be visited.

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8. Food with a view

There’s no shortage of restaurants with stellar views along the riviera, but only a few have food to match.

Among the best are Nautika’s outlets – a distinctly Croatian group of waterfront and clifftop eateries.

Panorama is an intimate casual affair atop Mount Srd, reachable by the cable car, where local cheesecakes and sauteed fish can be enjoyed alongside views of the Old Town.

Flagship Nautika, regularly named among the world’s most romantic restaurants, sits on a waterfront cliff edging the Dubrovnik’s ancient fortifications.

Here, chef Mario Bunda serves Mediterranean flavors including lobster from the Dalmatian island of Vis and shrimp from the Adriatic.

Further along the Riviera, in Cavtat, there’s a lineup of harbor front restaurants serving typically Croatian lamb chops and baked octopus.

9. Island hopping

Korcula is the sixth-largest island in the Adriatic Sea.

With more than a thousand Croatian islands, the question is where?

And how – travelers can cross the Adriatic waters aboard anything from kayaks to sailboats.

Lokrum Island is easily accessed from Dubrovnik and is known for its Dead Sea-style salty lake, 12th-century Benedictine monastery and resident peacocks.

There are spotless beaches and picturesque harbors bordered by rolling hills and hidden coves on Korcula.

Mljet, accessible by boat from Dubrovnik harbor, promises adventure.

The Mljet National Park spans 3,100 hectares, with lakes and indigenous forests filled with hiking trails. Offshore are wreck sites for divers.

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10. Betina Cave Beach

Betina Cave Beach is only accessible by swimming from a boat, kayak, or from land.

In the heat of summer, this beautiful spot provides a cool shelter, with pebble sands lapped by turquoise Mediterranean waters.

11. Cliff bars

Clinging to a cliff and suspended over the sea, Buza Bar is a legendary location on the Dubrovnik Riviera.

It’s a great spot to mingle with locals while watching magnificent sunsets. There are no signs, so finding the spot is half the fun.

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12. Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina

The fjords and mountains of Montenegro are a stone’s throw from Dubrovnik Riviera. A coastal road leads straight to the Bay of Kotor UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Dotted with tiny stone fishing villages and ornate homes, churches and islands, this is an unforgettable day trip.

The border of Bosnia and Herzegovina lies inland, but can also be explored in a day’s outing.

Popular day trips include Mostar, for the iconic Stari Most, a 14th-century bridge.

There’s a cobbled bazaar, ornate wooden balconies and towering mosque minarets that offer 360-degree city views.

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Anisha Shah is a journalist and photographer, specializing in emerging destinations travel, from Mozambique to Myanmar. After six years as a BBC radio and TV journalist, she is now freelance and has been published across media outlets including CNN, Africa Geographic and Huffington Post. Tweet her @anishahbbc