Cavtat: One of Croatia’s Best-Kept Secrets
By Noreen Kompanik
I wasn’t the least bit surprised when Cavtat, Croatia was nominated as one of the top European destinations for 2021 in several national and international publications.
It was only a matter of time before the secret got out that this charming town (pronounced tsav-tat) is one of Croatia’s hidden treasures. It’s often been lovingly referred to as Croatia’s Tuscany.
Located just a half-hour south of the beautiful and bustling Dubrovnik, Cavtat feels like a world away. Yet it’s very easy to get to— by bus, water taxi, or guided tour. And once in town, everything is within easy walking distance.
This quiet little hamlet with a picturesque horseshoe-shaped harbor has a magical serene feel. Though we love Dubrovnik, summertime there can feel a bit crowded and manic. But in nearby Cavtat, life moves at a much slower pace, a tranquil quality that makes it such a highly desirable European destination.
This is not a place for those seeking the club scene or nights of partying. Rather, it’s a place to relax and recharge while taking in the region’s gorgeous nature, scenery, food, and wine.
In short, we decided to schedule a day visit to Cavtat, Croatia’s southernmost village resort after a friend raved about how taken he’d been with the town. And we are so glad we decided to check it out for ourselves.
Hemmed in by mountains and lush swathes of pine and cypress forest, Cavtat is breathtaking from every angle.
Its seafront promenade is lined with fishing boats, artisan shops, pebble beaches, and quiet coves.
The natural beauty and mild Mediterranean weather complement its rich cultural and historical heritage making this seaside destination one of the most attractive on the Adriatic.
Steep slopes drop precipitously to meet the waterfront. Shuttered houses jostle for space on the hillsides.
Their light-colored stones and red terracotta roofs contrast vividly against the azure backdrop of the sparkling Adriatic. The small peninsula is embraced by two harbors, and its idyllic promenade is peppered with restaurants, fascinating boutiques, and an assortment of artsy attractions. Kuna is the official currency of the area, though many businesses take American money as well.
It didn’t take long to understand why our friends and other travelers love it here. “This is what Dubrovnik was like years ago” said our local tour guide, “especially before they filmed Game of Thrones there, and the tourists came in droves. Cavtat is our secret” he added with a toothy grin.
Learning about the History of Cavtat
Appreciating all that Cavtat offers begins with exploring its fascinating background. Perfect for my husband and I, both lovers of history.
Like so many Dalmatian communities, Cavtat began as a Greek settlement called Epidaurum, founded around the 4th century BC. In 228 BC, it fell under Roman rule and was renamed Epidaurus. Archeological remains reveal a highly developed city with theaters, rustic villas, epigraphic monuments, and lavish tombs. Underwater ruins were discovered in the bay, and vestiges of a Roman road were uncovered within the present town.
Due to the invasion of the Slavs in the 7th century, refugees from the town formed another nearby settlement called Dubrovnik. In the Middle Ages, Cavtat remained part of Dubrovnik until 1302. The prospering city reabsorbed Cavtat in 1426 and from that point on it remained part of Dubrovnik‘s history.
The incredible seaside town of Cavtat continued to flourish. Many legends proclaim it as the darling of the gods, nature, and people alike. History oozes from its pores, and we enjoyed our voyage of discovery, drinking in all its historic magnificence.
Cavtat’s Old Town
Cavtat is made for wandering. Its compact old town is a maze of cobbled, stepped streets with ornate wooden doors ever piquing our curiosity as to what lay on the other side.
Bunches of pink bougainvillea are found everywhere and huge flowering magnolias grow amongst the mass of stonework.
Overlooking the picturesque waterfront, the beautiful baroque Orthodox Church of Saint Nicholas houses valuable works from many European artists.
Its exterior walls still bear the scars from the Bosnian War. But today, peace reigns and church bell chimes echoing throughout the village are melodious and welcoming.
The church attached to Our Lady of the Snow Monastery is well worth a visit for viewing early Renaissance paintings.
An impressive Vlaho Bukovac canvas depicts the Madonna and Child gazing over Cavtat at dusk. This Franciscan monastery was founded in 1484, and per our guide, concerts are held regularly within the cloister. I can’t imagine a better setting and wished we had been able to attend one during our visit.
The House of Vlaho Bukovac once home to this Croatian painter, is now a museum dedicated to his stunning works including frescos once painted by the brilliant teenage artist. We found the curators here friendly and well-informed, and Bukovac’s works are quite impressive.
Well-traveled in his early years, he began his artistic career in Paris, training at the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts before exhibiting his works in the city. He returned to Zagreb in 1893 and quickly became an important figure in the Croatian art scene. In 1903, he left Croatia to become a Professor of The Academy of Fine Arts in Prague where he died in 1922.
Cavtat Cemetery sits on a hilltop overlooking the bay and the town below. We found the climb to the highest point in the city from the marina worthwhile because of its spectacular 360-degree views. This is precisely why the cemetery was chosen as the final resting place for numerous important Croatians including Bukovac. It’s that beautiful and serene.
Probably the most famous attraction in Cavtat is the impressive Mausoleum of the Račić family (well-known Croatian shipbuilders) located on the cemetery grounds. Its stunning architecture with distinctive stonework carved from Brac limestone mined since Ancient Greek and Roman times is simply magnificent.
Exploring Hotel Croatia
Sprawling across its own rocky, pine-studded peninsula, with quiet walking trails meandering through the property, this vast hotel offers guests the chance to find their own place in the sun or shade, seemingly miles away from the rest of the world.
A mere 10-minute walk west of the city center, Hotel Croatia, one of the largest and most luxurious hotels in the Mediterranean sports modern, well-appointed rooms, five restaurants, two seawater pools, and some of Cavtat’s best swimming spots (including a nudist beach).
We loved exploring the property with its unmatched views overlooking the Adriatic. My hubby and I looked at each other and practically the same moment said “Next time we’re in this area, we’re definitely staying here.” It’s that impressive.
Exploring the Waterfront
Mediterranean palm trees lining the harbor front promenade provide shade and make this perfect for strolling.
We were super envious at some of the sleek massive yachts moored in the marina, wondering who owns these boats and what they do for a living.
Summertime on the waterfront draws more of the crowd in the evening due to its music and cultural events.
But the town still retains its bucolic charm.
The pink Rectors Palace on the waterfront is a Renaissance mansion hosting the private collection of Balthazar Bogisic, a Cavtat-born 19th-century lawyer. An array of period costumes, weapons, coins, and other historical artifacts make up this impressive 35,000-piece museum.
The palace library alone houses over 20,000 books. The entrance fee is 25 Kuna, and it’s so worth it.
Sampling the Local Cuisine
Our travel mantra is that to really know a place and its culture, you have to experience its cuisine. Croatian food is amazing and there are plenty of dining choices in Cavtat.
We followed the recommendation of a Croatian friend and tried a local favorite, Hobotnica ispod peke (octopus under the bell).
Peka is a cooking method where a bell-shaped steel lid (peka) is heated by burning wood below it, with embers on top, so the food cooks in its own juices. It was delightfully delicious—accompanied by a Croatian white wine.
Outdoor terraces and Balconies
Adding to the charm, restaurants situated around the harbor offer stunning postcard-perfect views from its outdoor terraces and balconies. The outstanding cuisine and spectacular setting created an unforgettable romantic ambiance for their diners.
A really popular place and we know why after experiencing it, Kuca Slaloleda (The House of Ice Cream) features a rainbow of colors and flavors with generous helpings. It’s one of the best ice creams we’ve ever tasted!
Discovering the Beaches
The shores of Cavtat are mostly small bays with pebbly or rustic rocky beaches, but they are all well-maintained, picturesque, and idyllic.
One of the most popular is Sustjepan Beach, situated on a peninsula of the same name with fantastic views of the picturesque port. The water here is beautifully crystal clear making it a popular place for snorkeling.
Though we didn’t get to spend time on Beach Pasjaca, we were able to admire this magnificent stretch of sand from above. The beach can be accessed from a path running along a steep rock face, and then passing through a small tunnel. Seeing it from above is breathtaking as the red vertical bluffs above the beach stand in stunning contrast to the picturesque multi-hued blue sea colors below.
Kayaking the Adriatic
Because the waters of the Adriatic Sea are so crystalline, the allure to be on its waters is impossible to resist. We love kayaking and when the opportunity for an afternoon paddle presented itself, we couldn’t have been more excited.
Our guided kayak trip from Sea Kayaking Cavtat set off to explore the Old Port in Cavtat’s picturesque harbor.
We paddled along the shoreline beneath the towering Hotel Croatia. Our local guide was born and raised in Cavtat, and his impressive knowledge of the landscape and the stories he told made the trip even more enjoyable.
Next, we paddled around the nature reserve islands of Mrkan, Bobara and Supetar. A short swimming break provided the perfect way to cool down. The waters were clear, warm, and refreshing. Islands here are a true paradise and it was amazing seeing a side of Croatia we’d never seen before, so magically from the water.
As we returned to Cavtat’s Old Port, the sun began to sink beyond the horizon flaming the sky in vivid colors. On our way back to Dubrovnik, we both said our only regret was that we hadn’t spent more time in Cavtat. It was such a delightful visit and we can’t wait to do it again.