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Dubrovnik, the capital of Croatia, is one of the most scenic cities in Europe with it’s gorgeous fortified walls that just happen to be used in a set from Game Of Thrones. King’s Landing, anyone? Along the gorgeous Adriatic coastline, Dubrovnik is one of the world’s most perfectly preserved medieval cities. Are you thirsting for more information about this medieval city with its stories to tell? Dive on into the history of Dubrovnik with us! Get ready for 200 pages of in-depth historical background. Not interested? How about 25 wickedly interesting facts instead? Deal.
Table of Contents
Starting out as an independent merchant republic for 700 years, Dubrovnik had some epic trade partners. It traded with Turkey, India, and Africa. Talk about a triple threat trade center! Apparently, in the Middle Ages, Dubrovnik even had diplomatic relations with the English court. Highly impressive, indeed.
Dubrovnik was part of the Byzantine empire from the 9th century until the 12th century when Venice took the city over. Dubrovnik was under Venice’s rule from 1205 to 1358. Venice saw Dubrovnik as a threat to Venice because of it’s impressive port and trade partnerships.
The old town was finished being built in the 13th century. And guess what? It remains almost completely unchanged today! Nobody touches Dubrovnik. Nobody even thinks about it.
In 1358 the Treaty Of Zadar marked Dubrovnik’s independence from Venice, it became Croat-Hungarian instead. And in the 14th century trade in the local region boomed. Dubrovnik was very prosperous and ahead of it’s time, opening a pharmacy in 1317 and an orphanage in 1432.
The walls that enclose the Old Town were constructed in the 14th and 15th centuries. The defensive stone walls are 25m high and made out of limestone. The walls are 4 to 6 meters thick on the land-facing sides, but thinner on the sea-facing sides. These bad boys have never breached by a hostile army! Keep up the good work, walls.
The walls were continually fortified and extended all the way until the 17th century. Sometimes, work is never done! The walls were reinforced by 16 towers, 6 bastions, 2 forts and 2 citadels, not to mention the huge St. John’s Fortress!
The walls run without interruption for 1,940 meters in length, which encloses almost the entire old city. Around the city used to run a moat that was armed with 120 cannons. Dubrovnik sure meant business when it came to defense (clap clap) defense!
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The Croatian War of Independence was fought between Croat forces who declared independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and local Serb forces. Croats wanted Croatia to become independent, while many Serbs living in Croatia, naturally supported Serbia.
The JNA tried to keep Croatia within Yugoslavia by occupying all of Croatia. However, they couldn’t occupy all of Croatia successfully. Therefore, Serb forces created the Republic of Serbian Krajina (RSK) within Croatia, and expelled Croats from the area. Unfortunately, they were successful in that ethnic cleansing and expulsion.
The Siege of Dubrovnik was fought between the JNA and Croatian forces to defend the city of Dubrovnik. The JNA had captured almost all the land between the peninsulas on the coast, but couldn’t get to the city itself. They bombarded and bombed Dubrovnik’s Old Town on December 6, 1991, which provoked international anger and extreme disapproval. In part, it was this bombardment that led to the international recognition of Croatia’s independence.
Under the Geneva Accord, the Yugoslav army withdrew from Croatia in January 1992. But it took a few more years before the Croatian forces could regain full control over the Republic of Serbian Krajina-held territory. The Croatian War of Independence officially ended on November 12, 1995. It ended with Croatian victory and Yugoslav troops withdrawing. It took 4 years and 7 months in its entirety.
After Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492, many settled in Dubrovnik where there was already a small Jewish Community established. In 1546, Dubrovnik officially allocated a Jewish settlement within the city walls.
The Old Synagogue of Dubrovnik, located in the Old Town, is the oldest Sephardic Synagogue still in use today in the world. It also just happens to be the second oldest synagogue in all of Europe. It was established in 1352 but legally recognized in the city in 1408.
Unfortunately, Jews were persecuted in Dubrovnik, especially when the economy plummeted in the middle of the 18th century and Jews were forbidden from engaging in any type of commerce. They were also confined to the ghetto. Jews didn’t obtain legal equality until 1808, but it was withdrawn in 1814. They were then finally, and permanently, granted legal equality under Croatian law in the 19th century.
In WWII there were 250 Jews living in Dubrovnik, but since Croatia came under the rule of the fascists, the Jews were transferred to concentration camps. After the war, the majority of surviving Dubrovnik Jews decided to settle in Israel.
In the present day, there are only about 30 Jews who live in Dubrovnik. During the Siege of Dubrovnik, the synagogue was badly damaged by shells and grenades. Due to the small number of the current Jewish community, the synagogue doesn’t have its own rabbi. On holy days, a visiting rabbi conducts services.
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The Old Port of Dubrovnik is positioned on the Eastern part of the city. It is surrounded by two breakwaters Porporela and Kaše, which sound like the name of potential new Disney characters. At the end of the Porporela breakwater stands a white stone engraved with the words: “Znanje, Vjera, Srčanost” that translates to Knowledge, Faith, Prowess.
The key architect in the design and development of the Old Port was Paskoje Miličević—who is less likely to have a Disney character named after him—who built a bastion on the entrance of the port. He also built the breakwater Kaše in the 15th century. He also arranged the Ponta gate in the port. The port was finally finalized at the start of the 16th century.
The shipbuilders of Dubrovnik were known far and wide for their strong, durable ships that also were of a quite uncomplicated design. Sometimes simple really is better. In the 16th century, Dubrovnik had 180 large ships, and they passed a law on naval insurance as early as 1568. They had the ships and they wanted them protected!
In the Old Port, there is an old Arsenal building where ships used to be built. The vaults would be sealed shut by bricks when ships were in the process of being built to shield the eyes of foreign spies! Those shipbuilding secrets were on lock! After a ship was finished, the brick wall would be knocked down and the ship would set sail on the seas. Talk about a dramatic entrance!
The Arsenal today is no longer used to build ships, instead, it is used as a restaurant set to the theme of an ancient shipyard. Everything is made out of carved wood, there are ropes and pulleys, and several tables are enclosed in ship skeletons. They probably don’t need brick walls built around the kitchen when they’re inventing new recipes, but who knows!
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In 1667 the eruption of a catastrophic earthquake damaged a huge amount of the Renaissance art and architecture in Dubrovnik. The Sponza and the Rector’s Palace were two of the only buildings that miraculously survived the natural disaster. After the earthquake. The city was rebuilt in the baroque style that has survived all the way until, well, today!
The most beloved church in Dubrovnik is the St. Blaise’s church that was built in the 18th century in the Baroque style. Inside, it has a treasury of the relics of St. Blaise, the patron saint of the city. On the main altar, there is a statute in gilt silver of Saint Blaise that was made in the 15th century by an unknown local master. Poor guy never got the credit!
The Rector’s Palace was the seat of the patriarch (sadly, no matriarchs) of the Republic of Dubrovnik all the way back to the 15th century! It was built in Venetian style and has lovely stone floral motifs. Now, it is the Dubrovnik Cultural and Historical Museum that holds a large display of the European old master’s artworks. This museum even offers visitors tours through prison cells and the state bedrooms.
The gorgeous Gothic-Renaissance Sponza Palace was built in the early 1500s. It was built to be Dubrovnik’s customs house and mint. It was a very lively and active commercial center. In the 17th century it became the meeting place for the Academy of the Learned. Are they still around? Can we join? Today, the Sponza Palace houses the Dubrovnik Archives.
The dazzling ancient city on Croatia’s southern Adriatic coast is now for its turquoise waters and it’s nearly perfectly preserved medieval city vibes that has earned the UNESCO world heritage designation. This fortified old town is filled with history and is frequently described as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic.’
As George Bernard Shaw, who was just as enamoured with Dubrovnik as we are, once said, “Those who seek paradise on Earth should come to Dubrovnik.” Unchanged for centuries, Dubrovnik still is, and always has been, absolutely enchanting.
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Emma Johnson lives to travel! Born in Washington D.C., Emma is a hotel connoisseur and a staff writer at Hotel Jules. An army brat, Emma got the travel bug early and has never been able to stop. Now, she has proudly visited 70+ countries and plans to visit every country in the world! Passionate about her ukelele (obviously) and her family, Emma eventually wants to retire in Thailand and write a book about all of her travel experiences.