Perched above the waters of the Adriatic, the ancient stone walls encompass a medieval city that was for half a millennium an independent city-state, accountable to no one and awash in riches, and that age endowed it with history, art, and cultural treasures. The walls, a coronet of fortifications up to 25m high and 6m thick in places, played an important part in the city's defences in the middle Ages when Dubrovnik's maritime trade brought power and wealth that rivalled Venice. But they were no match for modern warfare when in 1991-2 the Serbian army shelled Dubrovnik from the hills above while residents cowered in the city's 700-year-old fortress. Since then, Dubrovnik has been restored to its former glory and its architecture and skyline make it again a magnet for numerous visitors.
Dubrovnik's Old Town is a small, car-free, fortified area. Its main thoroughfare, Stradun (Placa), a polished, cobbled promenade, bisects the Old Town from Pile Gate in the west to Ploce Gate in the east, where the old harbour, guarded by forts, shelters fishing boats and local ferries. Narrow cobbled streets and alleys run off Stradun leading to two parallel roads: Prijeko to the north and Od Puca to the south.
The Pile Gate entrance brings you to a square with one of the best-known monuments in the city - the grand Onofrio's Fountain built in 1483 and festooned with spitting faces. High on the entrance tower you can see a statue of St. Blaise, Dubrovnik's patron saint, often depicted holding the walled Dubrovnik in his hands. To the left of the fountain is the 14th-century Franciscan monastery and to the right is the Convent of St. Claire. Relics in the monastery include the tiny, silver encrusted skull of St. Ursula, and, allegedly, a splinter of Christ's cross. The Pharmacy, adjoined to the monastery, was opened in 1317 and is said to be Europe's oldest functioning pharmacy.
Strolling down Stradun to the far end of the street brings you to the Luza Square with Orlando's Column in the centre. It was built in 1418 as a monument to freedom. The square is flanked by St. Blaise's Church, a 15th-century bell tower and the sumptuous gothic façade of Sponza Palace which houses archives from the 12th-century onwards in the upper floor and a memorial museum on the ground floor. North of the Palace is the Dominican monastery and museum, which houses a must-see collection of religious art and literature, including an 11th-century Bible and a 14th-century copy of a book by Thomas Aquinas.
To the south of the Luza square are the Gundulic Square (a daily morning market), the Rector's Palace, now the Museum of Dubrovnik, and the Cathedral Treasury. The cathedral contains more than 180 relics, including a leg and an arm of St. Blaise, and his skull encased in a fetching Byzantine crown decorated with gold and enamel filigree. Titian's polyptych "Asumption" is behind the main altar.
The city's people have always celebrated life through poetry, music, plays and festivals. The Luza square is the traditional site of the opening of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival, a six-week event that attracts theatre and dance groups, choirs, orchestras and musicians from all over the world. Shakespeare's "Hamlet" is traditionally performed at the Fort of St. Lawrence that once deterred Venetians and became the city's symbol of freedom.