The month is February 2021. I’m overworked and under-caffeinated in my 1-bedroom apartment in Thai Town, Los Angeles, almost a year into the pandemic and skirting the line between officially burnt out and wildly bored, when I get an email with new articles for my Google alert, wisely created months back to alert me any time the words ‘digital nomad visa Croatia’ appear online.
I water my house plants while deciding between a soda water or a swig of tequila, and opt to put on sweatpants and walk to the coffee shop down the street instead. I mask up and sidestep a smashed pile of Heineken bottles and a woman shouting her Cash App handle to no one in particular, and get in line behind the guy with a French bulldog who looks remarkably like Bono.
I open my email to find a competition for the first ever Digital Nomads-in-Residence program in Dubrovnik, Croatia — hosted by Saltwater Nomads in collaboration with the Dubrovnik Tourist Board, City of Dubrovnik and Total Croatia News — for a month-long stay in the country’s most iconic tourist destination. Working alongside 9 other digital nomads from around the world, the purpose is to provide our collective insight and expertise for remote work as it applies to digital nomads, and present actionable efforts to shape the future of Dubrovnik as one of the world’s leading digital nomad destinations.
Visas, Remote Work & Dubrovnik Digital Nomads-in-Residence
I’m going to wind back for a moment, because context is important here. Both Peter and I have now aged out of the majority of work visa opportunities abroad. After living in both Australia and New Zealand — countries where we were legally allowed to work for local employers for the entirety of our one-year visas — the best way for us to both live abroad at this point is to a) do what I’ve spent the majority of my career doing and work remotely online, as I’ve previously done in Bali and Thailand, or b) both find employers to sponsor us for specialized work visas, which is much more complicated when there are two of you with different skills and you both only speak one language.
For me, working remotely online has not proved to be a major challenge thus far, as I can write, build websites and do digital marketing work from anywhere. For Peter, however, this typically poses an issue, as the majority of his expertise lies in skills that require him to be in person to accomplish: underwater photography, steadicam and tour guiding.
The shining, singular benefit that has come out of 2020: The Year of Trash? The realization from a growing number of employers, employees and countries that living in the same location where you work is no longer a necessity. And for a large subset of that group, no longer a desire. Since the start of the pandemic, places like Estonia, Bermuda, Barbados, Dubai, Iceland and Georgia have created entirely new categories of visas aimed at attracting a new wave of travelers in the wake of pandemic-induced financial disaster: digital nomads.
Croatia was on the forefront of this, and officially launched their own Digital Nomad Visa in January 2021 with the help of Dutch entrepreneur and Croatia Digital Nomad Association President, Jan de Jong. In the last couple of months, other countries such as Montenegro and Romania have rolled out their own digital nomad visa plans, kickstarting the likelihood of more countries to follow suit.
Though I assumed I had about a 2% chance of winning this competition, I submitted a one-minute video application, and a few days later, received an email congratulating me on becoming one of the world’s first 10 Digital Nomads-in-Residence, held in Dubrovnik from April 23 – May 23, 2021. It’s difficult to overstate exactly how much this opportunity meant to me, and probably the other 9 people (and several of their partners) I now consider close friends. After a year of being cooped up in a city I do not particularly like watching the majority of my friends move away, this opportunity was like a golden ticket for free donuts after a year of salmon smoothies. And as far as shocking life moments go, this landed somewhere between working a foot fetish party in Soho and watching a guy eat a PB&J out of his trunk on a first date.
Dubrovnik, Croatia: Past, Present & Future
Located along the Dalmatian Coast and fronting the Adriatic Sea, Dubrovnik has a complicated and fascinating history as a trading port, and its residents were largely considered masters in the art of diplomacy. Built in the 13th century and listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, Dubrovnik was heavily bombed in the early 1990s by Montenegrin and Serbian forces during the Croatian War of Independence, damaging nearly 70% of the buildings in the historic Old Town. Tourism in Dubrovnik exploded in the last decade after its stint as a filming location for Game of Thrones, in addition to its popularity as a major cruise ship port.
While both types of tourism have brought vast amounts of publicity and money to the city, the locals have seen a dramatic shift that’s not unlike other locations where repetitive, short-term tourism thrives: specialty artisan shops replaced by kitschy souvenirs, Croatian cafes replaced by pizza and burger restaurants, residents replaced by one-day visitors, and perhaps worst of all: culture replaced by greed. While this is not a new challenge for Dubrovnik — or similarly overcrowded ports like Cozumel, Venice, Mallorca and Santorini — it’s an ongoing pain point for locals, who now rely on making the majority of their income from May to September from a rotating daily roster of what’s largely considered Way Too Many Dang Tourists.
Fortunately for us, because we arrived in Dubrovnik well before full-blown tourist season had emerged from its various lockdown restrictions, we were able to witness the city and its surrounding areas as they haven’t been in years: almost entirely devoid of travelers. While it didn’t initially seem strange to me to see kids playing soccer in the limestone-paved square of the Old Town, or hear nothing but the echo of church bells and friendly chit chat of dressed-up elders on Sunday mornings, a born-and-bred Dubrovnik resident in his 30s put it nicely when he said “For the first time in my life, Dubrovnik is ours.”
Due to its location near a ton of absolutely gorgeous islands, beaches, walking trails, wineries, museums, and plentiful opportunities to get wine drunk with old gents who may or may not own a ‘speedy boat’ — say hi to Peter on Sunset Beach — there’s a lot to love about Dubrovnik in terms of both short and long term livability. With the creation of the Croatia Digital Nomad Visa, there’s a ton of potential not only for Croatia in general, but Dubrovnik, to become a hotspot for digital nomads and slow travel.
Where to Live in Dubrovnik: Beyond the Walls
While the majority of travelers choose to stay-and-play within the dreamy confines of the Old Town, Dubrovnik has much more to offer beyond the walls. If you’re looking to stay in Dubrovnik for any real length of time, apartments and long term rentals in the areas of Lapad, Gruž and Babin Kuk — highlighted on the map below — are the way to go.
Lapad, Gruž & Babin Kuk
Why We Like It: Not only are these neighborhoods more affordable than the Old Town while still being within a scenic 30-minute to 1-hour walk, but they’re near a ton of outdoor recreation, full of great people-watching cafes, grocery stores, bars, beaches and offer a more authentic ‘local’ experience that’s ideal for longer stays.
If we were to move to Dubrovnik, I would likely choose to live in Lapad — the most centrally-located of the three neighborhoods — or Babin Kuk, due to its slightly more remote, yet still convenient, location. If you’re single, don’t mind living near students, don’t require a fully-stocked kitchen, and are seeking private accommodation for a great price with amenities like a bathtub, onsite restaurant, bar, laundry room and gym, Akademis in Lapad is the spot. Gruž is also a fun and lively neighborhood surrounding the port, and would be an excellent place to live if you own a boat or want to learn to sail while in Dubrovnik.
Why We Don’t: Truthfully, I probably wouldn’t sign a 1-year lease in any of these neighborhoods, or Dubrovnik as a whole. And you know what? That’s 100% okay. Not every place we move needs to become a semi-permanent ‘home base’; on the contrary, in fact. Of all of the places we have lived, Maui and Australia were the only ones where we chose an area and stuck to it for a year or longer, and that was primarily because it was extremely expensive and difficult to find housing elsewhere. Dubrovnik is smaller and more expensive than the rest of Croatia, so my recommendation is to find accommodation by the month, explore the area for a while and reassess from there.
Live Here If: You enjoy culture as much as nature, dig the smell of jasmine, want buns-of-steel by staircase and easy access to islands and beaches, enjoy coffee and wine, don’t mind paying a bit more for rent and food, don’t mind a serene winter and bustling summer season.
As part of our recommendations for the city, we suggested long term rentals not only be listed on a centralized digital accommodation portal, but also go through an approval and accreditation process to meet standards for amenities like strong wifi, basic and necessary furnishings, and all-inclusive, competitive, year-round pricing.
Where to Work in Dubrovnik: Coworking
While I myself have never worked in a coworking space, having found them cost-prohibitive and a place I was expected to wear pants, it became clear to me how important a coworking space is to the majority of digital nomads during this trip.
Ironically once used as as a quarantine station during outbreaks of the plague and cholera in the 17th century, Lazareti — a series of interconnected buildings located just outside of the city walls — became our makeshift coworking space for the month. And let me tell you, dear reader: it ruled. Perhaps it’s because my offices in the past have consisted of a basement with a giant clown painting, the front desk of a pretentious spa with a creepy head statue, and a Beverly Hills apartment where a lady once tried to steal my iPhone6 out of my hand while a Rolls Royce rolled by, but a converted space with floor-to-ceiling windows only a four-minute walk to a world class beach was a welcome addition to my personal work roster.
Bonus: Lazareti also features a nightclub called Club Lazareti, because nothing pairs with historical significance like a good rave.
After participating in several workshops with my fellow nomads, I learned this much: not only does a coworking space function as a valuable meeting place for both travelers and residents, but it also adds legitimacy to Dubrovnik as a digital nomad hub, opens up opportunities for social and professional events, and provides partnership potential with other coworking spaces in Croatia and beyond. We presented our ideas to the City and Tourist Board — outlining several steps to appeal to and shift the city’s priorities for digital nomads — and at the closing ceremony, Dubrovnik Mayor Mato Franković announced plans to move forward with an official Dubrovnik coworking space. I’m not keeping score but that’s officially 12 cool points for the Nomads.
Top Activities in Dubrovnik
Before we dive into what there is to do in Dubrovnik, you should know that the city itself is a sexy place. I mean, sure, you’re more likely to befriend a 72-year-old with a caffeine addiction than a 27-year-old with with an abs addiction, but both serve their purpose. In vastly different ways.
I’ll also state that as winners of this competition, myself and my fellow digital nomads were treated to more guided tours, excursions, experiences and fancy meals in four weeks than we’ve probably collectively experienced in the previous four years. These absolutely ridiculous and amazing photos from a newspaper article in Slobodna Dalmacija showcase why, in fact, we were frequently recognized in public, and privately self-regarded as the biggest nerds in all the land.
Visit Cavtat & Konavle
With exceedingly turquoise waters and a friendly population of welcoming locals, the village of Cavtat is a gorgeous place to spend the day. Walk up the hill to the Račić Mausoleum for a surreal view of the natural surroundings, and visit the house of famed Croatian artist, Vlaho Bukovac, to browse some of his most famous paintings.
Just a bit further south in the municipality of Konavle, sites like Sokol Grad — a castle which translates to ‘Falcon Town’ — as well as Winery Botaro and the fancy riverfront restaurant, Konavoski Dvori, are a more-than-worthy exploits. Learn about traditional Croatian folk costumes and silkworm production at the Konavle County Museum, and work those calves during a hike down to the dramatic, secluded and cliff-lined Pasjača Beach.
Explore the Old Town: History, Culture & Adventure
Though I rarely participate in walking tours, I loved the Dubrovnik City Walls Walking Tour so much I did it twice. Circling the city on foot offers stunning views of the terracotta rooftops, Old Town architecture, forts, harbor and neighboring island of Lokrum.
Additionally, if live music is high on your list of ‘oh hell yeahs,’ a performance from the Dubrovnik Symphony Orchestra in the Rector’s Palace is a definitively memorable experience, and was also my reintroduction to live music back in the real world! If you’re in Dubrovnik in the summer, the six-week Dubrovnik Summer Festival offers multiple opportunities for live music and theater performances from world-renowned musicians, actors and performers in various spaces throughout the city.
For other small group tours in and out of town, contact Amico Tours.
Make a Friend with a Rooftop Terrace
In addition to humans with boats and vineyards, I recommend y’all start scouting for buds with a rooftop terrace. Watch the sunset with a glass of Malvasija and try having a crappy time.
Swim, Float, Kayak, Snorkel, Scuba & Crash a Hot Tub
Croatia has some of the clearest water I’ve ever seen in my life. Because the beaches are comprised of pebbles and rock instead of sand, the water clarity is incredible. Take a dip in the ultra calm waters of Lapad’s Sunset Beach and from the many outcroppings on its adjacent boardwalk (the coolest and most swimmable beach, in my opinion), or head to Copacabana and Cava Beach to sip cocktails in a slightly bougier setting.
If burning thighs are on your beach day agenda, the steep staircase down to Bellevue Beach, just near the Rixos Premium Resort, should be high on your list, though you’re better off coming here earlier in the day to catch the sun. From the Old Town, stroll past Ploče Gate to reach Banje Beach, a pristine stretch of pebbly goodness backed by a restaurant and bar, for pristine views of Lokrum Island that’s convenient to town and great for floating. Keep in mind that during our visit all of these beaches were mostly empty, so their respective douche meters landed on zero. This could — and likely does — change dramatically during the prime summer tourist months.
To see the Old Town from a totally different perspective, I highly recommend renting kayaks or taking a guided tour with the folks at X-Adventure Sea Kayaks, where you can paddle down the coastline to view local sea caves and come ashore for a well-earned adult beverage on aforementioned Banje Beach.
If you’re after a scuba or snorkel session, Blue Planet Dive Center offers equipment rentals and tours directly from Hotel Dubrovnik Palace in Lapad, and if you’re lucky, a maintenance crew who will not stop you from crashing the resort’s empty hot tub.
See the Sunset
Having never been on an open-air bus tour but witnessing them frequently around my apartment in Hollywood, you may think a sunset bus tour is a bit cheesy. And you may be correct. But Adriatic Sunsets knows this, and they know you know this, and with that in mind, it’s an absolutely lovely way to spend a couple of hours in Dubrovnik while getting some of the best views of the city with people whose company you hopefully enjoy.
Use Your Brain
Having somehow made it to 2021 without indulging in a single escape room challenge, I would highly recommend rectifying that situation, as I did, at the Dubrovnik Escape Room in Lapad. The owner, Bogdan, is a genuinely funny and passionate host, and will help you choose between the two themed room options. We came armed with Dutch Rob, an Escape Room Champion and the ultimate ‘Watermelon Sugar Guy,’ and I’m thrilled to report that we escaped with 19 minutes to spare. Lesson: Go for the escape, stay for the giggles.
Visit a Garden, Walk a Wall & Leave with a Bag of Salt
Located a thirty minute drive up the coast from Dubrovnik, I recommend renting a car or motorbike and making the journey to Trsteno Arboretum. Built in the 15th century, this is a gorgeous place to spend a sunny morning touring the lush garden grounds, Neptune’s Fountain, and pretending to know things about either flora or fauna.
Another forty minutes up the coast will land you in the historic settlement of Ston. With a population of less than 3,000, one thing you do not want to do is leave Ston without a giant bag of salt and a tour of the grounds at Solana Saltworks. On the day of our trip, an adorable old man greeted us by tossing salt in the air, and I’ll forever aspire to be at least half as joyful. Complete your experience at the Lapidarij Museum and with a walk up the Walls of Ston, and reward yourself with oysters and wine.
Eat, Drink & Repeat
What kind of travel write-up would this be without mentioning some of my favorite activities in the world: eating delicious food and consuming adult beverages!
Where to Eat: As far as my favorite restaurants in Dubrovnik, head to Trattoria Carmen in the Old Town for their truffle pasta (make a reservation), Bosančica in Lapad for sweet and savory morning carb-loading, and Panorama Restaurant & Bar for the view. Just near Lazareti, walk down the stairs toward the sea to reach a place called Komarda, which has excellent food and a killer view right on the water. When in doubt, ask for the ‘marende,’ or daily special usually offered at a lower rate during lunch hours.
Where to Drink: Within the Old Town, I highly recommend a beer on a bar swing at Beach Bar Dodo, a fine glass (see: bottle) or two of wine at the oh-so-charming D’vino Wine Bar, a late night beverage at Buzz Bar, and a beer with an unmatched location at the expensive-but-must-do Buža Bar. And then there’s the classic BYO experience on the pier of the West Harbor, if you feel so inclined.
Outside the walls, head to Lapad for cocktails at Cave Bar More on the Sunset Beach boardwalk, What’s Up Bar for a truly Croatian scenester experience, and Gastro Shop Pomalo for craft beers. Nearby in Gruž, Dubrovnik Beer Company has the goods. Our friend Ivan, a local tour guide in Dubrovnik, also made a great Dubrovnik drinking guide, which I recommend you consult for further libations.
Living in Dubrovnik: Helpful Tips & Tricks
And You May Ask Yourself, “Well… How Do I Get There?”
As far as transportation goes, the best way to travel around Dubrovnik is often by foot. There are plentiful Ubers and cabs for those times when you can’t be bothered with another hill, as well as a fairly thorough, though not predictably on-time bus system — buy tickets from the Tisak newspaper kiosks for a slightly discounted rate — and download the Moovit App to see various routes and schedules to get from A to B.
Cash Rules Everything Around D
Though the majority of places have tap-to-pay technology and accept almost all debit and credit cards, we were regularly offered discounts of 10% to 15% for paying in cash. Also keep in mind that splitting tabs when you’re dining or drinking in a large group is a painful process. If you know this is going to be necessary, tell your server to divvy up the tab before placing your orders.
Seeing as how this is now becoming the world’s longest post and it’s now absolutely time for that swig of tequila, I think I’ll wrap it up by saying that Dubrovnik rules, Croatia rocks, and so do you. If you have any questions about what to expect from actually living in Dubrovnik, holler at ya girl.
I want to say a massive thank you to our competition organizer, rooftop empress and digital nomad extraordinaire, Tanja Polegubic, as well as our experienced deck master and workshop wonder, Erin Maxwell. And then there’s the high-tolerance, lawsuit-dodging Paul Bradbury, dance queen and all-around dope gal Beba, local guide and brilliantly funny lady Vesna, and countless others.
And to all my Nomad homies, party floor professionals, Dork Forest dodos, salt-hoarding humans and all-around buds for life, may our next adventure be just as dope.
Photo Credit to Zoltan Nagy: Any photo that looks professional and edited, that’s this guy.