Choosing between Zagreb or Dubrovnik for a few nights is not that hard for most people. Zagreb, the capital of Croatia (700K population), has a nice and relaxed, authentically local historical center with old buildings and pleasant cafés, restaurants, and museums. Dubrovnik is a very small town (30K residents) but has renowned coastal beauty and impressive historical landmarks. Zagreb is inland, but Dubrovnik is constantly flooded with tourists during the warm months, which can potentially ruin your experience.
This post helps you choose between staying in Zagreb or Dubrovnik.
Zagreb or Dubrovnik: what travelers say
- Travelers are generally impressed by Dubrovnik, while Zagreb has mixed reviews – some love it while others find it not so exciting compared to other Central Europe capitals like Prague, Vienna, or Budapest (see this other comparison post)
- Zagreb has an elegant Austro-Hungarian feel and is a nice city to visit. However, it isn’t the stunningly beautiful Croatia travelers come to see – they’ll find that in Dubrovnik and region.
- Travelers suggest visiting Zagreb e.g. if arriving in Croatia from the North by train. If flying in from another country, however, it may be better to skip it and fly directly to Dubrovnik as the bus ride from Zagreb to Dubrovnik is over 10 hours.
- The old town of Zagreb is pleasant and can generally be fully visited within a full day. While some travelers enjoyed touring Zagreb with a local guide, others feel it’s not worth giving up a day in Dubrovnik.
- Dubrovnik is small but has a lot of sights including the old city and walls. For many travelers, though it can be seen in 1 day, 2 full days is ideal for exploring it in more depth.
- Game of Thrones fans are particularly attracted to Dubrovnik which was the main shooting location for the King’s Landing fictional city of the TV series.
- From Dubrovnik, you can do kayaking or other outdoor tours such as trekking up the mountain behind the town for fantastic vistas. There are also beautiful trips to take from Dubrovnik including the scenic drive up to the city of Split.
- Dubrovnik is very touristy and expensive compared to the rest of Croatia, particularly in the summer, with prices up to 2 or times normal prices for food, beverages, lodging etc.
- In the summer, many cruise ships stop in Dubrovnik, bringing heavy crowds to the sights during the day. Travelers recommend visiting sights early in the morning or late afternoon.
- Some travelers highly recommend Zagreb which they feel is overlooked and underrated as most people prefer spending time in Dubrovnik. Zagreb is some travelers’ favorite capital, easy to get around, affordable, great to stroll for a few days, e.g. 3 days.
- Zagreb has a huge great city park and a botanic garden, interesting neighborhoods, a few decent museums including the Museum of Broken Relationships, and some very good restaurants. The city has a nice bar culture and great pubs offering craft beer.
- From Zagreb, you can have a very stunning day trip to the Plitvice Lakes national park and its waterfalls.
Zagreb or Dubrovnik: access & transportation
Zagreb is easily accessed from other Central European countries by flight, train, or bus. There are also direct flights to Zagreb from North America. Most visitors to Dubrovnik get there by air or stop there during a cruise.
Transfers to and from the Zagreb airport are simple and easy as there’s a bus stopping right on the tram line – buses and trams work together efficiently.
If flying into Zagreb, you can then take a bus to Dubrovnik, a 9-10 hour ride. You can optionally stop in Plitvice Lakes (national park) and Split. In the off-season, advanced reservation is not necessary for buses.
You can also drive from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, a 6.5-hour trip. You can optionally stop to visit Plitvice Lakes, Zadar, Split, and some of the islands like Brac, Hvar, Korcula, and Mljet on your way to Dubrovnik. The toll roads in Croatia are excellent and the main roads are overall very good, while local village roads are often quite narrow.
In summer months, a nice alternative for getting back to Zagreb is to take a catamaran from Dubrovnik to the islands (Korcula, Hvar), then to Split, then a bus to Plitvice Lakes and on to Zagreb. If you’re driving, some of the island ferries also take cars.
Flying back from Dubrovnik to Zagreb is another, affordable option.
In Dubrovnik, the city buses are easy to use and bus drivers very helpful to tourists.
Zagreb or Dubrovnik: vibe & people
In the summer, Zagreb is generally very quiet as travelers and locals alike flock to the coast for holidays or seasonal work in beach resorts.
The old center of Zagreb is very attractive. In addition to the old historical buildings, many facades decorated with beautiful graffiti.
The city is not very touristy and offers a great authentic feel of local life. It also has a great bar scene – visitors love the decorated walls of the Buza Bar. Many places in Zagreb also offer very good Croatian continental cuisine, very different from the coast. Visitors particularly like the “hidden” street behind the clock tower, which has a large choice of restaurants.
Some travelers really enjoy Zagreb and choose to spend time there, while others are done visiting after half a day. The Museum of Broken Relationships is often mentioned as a cool and interesting sight.
Travelers agree the city is beautiful and the roads around it spectacular, comparable in a way to the Pacific Coast Highway near Big Sur.
Dubrovnik, however, gets very crowded particularly from June to September. the very high number of tourists, namely from cruise ships, can somewhat ruin your experience. Some travelers choose to visit in March or November.
Day trips to places like Cavtat can be a way to get away from the crowds – there’s a bus leaving from the start of the cable car. Hvar, though a bit far from Dubrovnik, is another good escape from busy and expensive Dubrovnik.
Zagreb or Dubrovnik: sights & culture
Zagreb’s historic center is very picturesque. The “jewel part” is set on two different hill levels, an “upper town” (Gornji grad) and a “lower town” (Donji grad). Wandering around the area is a pleasant experience namely due to the active café culture – sitting for coffee and watching the locals go by is highly pleasant.
The Upper city has many historical and cultural landmarks, and old churches, namely the renowned St Mark’s Cathedral with its stunning tiled roof and bell tower.
The city has several museums, the smaller ones, such as the Naive Art Museum and the Museum of Broken Relationships, are located in the historic town, while the larger ones sit outside the old district closer to the train station.
The Klovićevi Dvori art gallery, the Art Pavillion (Lower Town), the Mestrovic’s atelier (near St Mark’s Church), and the Strossmayer Gallery are worth a visit, as well as the Mimara art museum.
Visitors particularly enjoy walking around the lively streets near the main Ban Jelačić square and the Zrinjevac square, to the indoor Farmer’s market, all the way to the train station. Jarun lake, Bundek lake, Maksimir park are great parks to stroll through.
Another popular tour is to walk from the lower town to the upper town, then take the funicular back down.
The Dubrovnik center is very compact and walkable inside the fortifications, you don’t need to drive anywhere unless you want to go on a day trip in the area. Travelers often suggest 2 days for visiting the town.
The main sight in Dubrovnik for most visitors is walking the walls and wandering around the alleys of the well-preserved old town. The museums are also worth visiting including the War Photo Limited museum and the Croatian War of Independence museum housed in the old Napoleonic Fort Imperial.
Travelers also recommend riding the gondola up the hill and hiking back down for fantastic views, walking to Banje Beach and getting a kayaking tour around Lokrum or a short cruise to an island, taking the cable car to the fort over the city, swimming outside the walls.
During the warm months, travelers recommend visiting the walls early in the morning or late in the evening, and starting at the south end to avoid the heavy cruise ship crowds.
Travelers also enjoy having dinner on a historic ship, hanging out at the Buza Bar, and listening to Croatian street musicians. The Game of Throne walking tour (see here) is also often recommended.
Zagreb or Dubrovnik: food & nightlife
The Zagreb old town is great for an evening out as you can pleasantly walk to all types of restaurants, cafés, bars etc within minutes, namely in the upper town (Gornji grad). There are even a few world-class restaurants. Prices, meanwhile, are much lower compared to Dubrovnik and other European capitals like Barcelona.
Examples of great restaurants in the old center include Agav, Prasac, and Trilogija. Zinfandel’s is also a fine but pricier option. The Westin offers great views though the food and service are not the best.
The Vinodol is also highly recommended by visitors and locals. Restaurant Purger (German vibe) is well-rated and has great Croatian specialties. Pod Grickim Topom is another smaller place located in the Upper Town, with a great view over the Lower Town, and serves good traditional Croatian food. Quahwa is an often-recommended coffee bar.
In the high season, Dubrovnik is known for its vibrant nightlife with many bars and beach clubs. Small bars off the main streets offer cheap wine and good coffee e.g. the Buzz Bar, a popular hangout.
The city also has many cultural events such as its orchestra and the July-August Summer Festival open-air music, theater, and dance performances.
When going out in Dubrovnik, fresh fish is quite expensive, while local wine and beer (e.g. Toceno Pivo) is cheap – soft drinks are much pricier. Pizza, pasta, and risotto are good and affordable (commonly shared dishes). In the evening, travelers suggest exploring outside the city walls to stumble upon some very nice restaurants.
Zagreb or Dubrovnik: lodging
In Zagreb, travelers generally recommend staying north of the Glavni Kolodvor train station, a very nice and central area with many restaurants and parks. Hotels in that area are within walking distance of Upper Town (Gornji Grad) where most of the historic buildings and sights are.
The following are some frequently-recommended hotels:
- Hotel Dubrovnic: right on Jelacic Square. Quite expensive.
- Hotel Astoria: basic, clean, comfortable chain hotel, a bit pricey but still acceptable. Very close to the railroad station.
- Palace Hotel: 4-star hotel with a great central location a 5-minute walk from Ban Jelacic Square overlooking charming parts.
- Jagerhorn Hotel: nice location right in the central pedestrian zone
- Esplanade Hotel: next to train station
- Central Hotel: next to train station
- Allegra Arcotel
- Best Western Astoria
Most travelers recommend the Ploce area, which offers many nice apartments with balconies and great views over the old town walls (though climbing a fair amount of steps is often required to get there).
Visitors unwilling (or unable) to do the daily climb to and from the Ploce typically look for places in a side street in the old town – generally quieter than the main streets. A location in the old town allows you to enjoy the city during less crowded early morning and late evening hours.
Another often-suggested option is to stay in the calmer Lapad area.
Some recommended hotels in Dubrovnik:
- Villa Dubrovnik Hotel: 12-minute walk into old town, courtesy shuttle bus. Very nice rooms with balconies and stunning views.
- Hotel Ivka: midrange hotel about 10 minutes by bus from the old town. Easy getting to many other places about Dubrovnik.
- Hotel Palace: bus stop right outside the hotel.
- Neptune hotel: balcony sea view, bus stop, location near the old town. Decent prices.
- Excelsior and Argentina hotels in the Ploce area
- Simply Angelic Apartments: in the Ploce, overlooking the harbor. A gentle climb uphill (about 200 stairs). Beautiful garden and views, clean apartments, very well-rated.
- Karmen apartments: located in the old town. Only one apartment with a view over the port (no balcony).
- Princess Laura Apartments: in the Ploce, modern with good facilities, great old city and harbor views.
Zagreb or Dubrovnik: day trips
As mentioned, Zagreb is a 2-hour drive from Plitvice Lakes beautiful national park, a must-see. Closer to Zagreb are day excursions such as Castle Trakoscan, the Kumrovec Eko village, or the city of Varazdin.
From Dubrovnik, you can visit the islands of Hvar (beautiful beaches, 13th-century sights) and Korcula (one of the most romantic places in Croatia). You can also take a day trip to Mostar for some recent history sights from the Balkans war.
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