King's Landing
Credit: Jeremy Woodhouse / Getty Images

George R.R. Martin himself couldn't have dreamt up a better stand-in for King's Landing, the seat of power in Game of Thrones, than Dubrovnik. For nearly 500 years, the city of 42,000 was an Adriatic city-state that guarded its liberty fiercely against the near-constant threat of marauding Venetians and Ottomans; its motto was "Liberty cannot be sold for any amount of gold." The Lannisters may have challenged that notion, but the point is well taken.

The walls Dubrovniks built against invaders still ring the city, but now the gleaming white stone parapets are open to any comer willing to take a tour for the bargain price of 50 kuna (around $9). And the crowds do come, especially now that HBO's hit show films here. A nascent tourism industry has sprung up to show you the exact spots where Tyrion Lannister defended the Blackwater and Joffrey Baratheon celebrated his name day with a tournament. Still, it's more satisfying to happen upon the sets than sign up for a tour.

It's a cliché to call a city "gemlike," but the word really does apply here: Dubrovnik is a perfectly round, polished cluster of red-tiled roofs set above an impossibly blue sea. Although the heavily-touristed main streets can be exhausting to navigate, Old Town's tiny side alleys, many of them zagging up steep hills, are an urban explorer's dream, lined with tiny cafes serving the region’s Italian-inflected food; cascades of hanging laundry and plants; and shrines to the Virgin and St. Blaise, the patron saint of the city (and of people who have objects stuck in their throat, a reference to his grisly death).

Although the city's sights are grand enough to rival those in any European capital, many are practically unmarked: You might wander into the oldest working pharmacy in the world, which has been selling ointments and balms inside a Franciscan monastery since the 14th century or a 600-year-old palace, without even realizing it. At Buza Bar, which seems to be carved directly into the rocky outcroppings on the city’s edge, Croatian teens in tight bathing shorts practice diving into the sea from death-defying heights. Even better, there’s a view of the emerald-green island of Lokrum, the TV show’s stand-in for the slavers’ city of Qarth. In real life, it's a nature preserve where peacocks roam free. Tyrion would feel right at home.

More information: Stay at the Villa Dubrovnik when you're in town or book a spot on one of Classic Journeys memorable tours of the beautiful coast further east.