When it comes to Croatia, believe the hype about the glittering blue bays, postcard perfect Adriatic architecture and friendly, bustling night-life. Stretching along 1,104 miles of stunning coastline, the mysterious fusion of East-meets-West is shaded by a turbulent political past that has instilled a worthy sense of environmental and cultural stewardship amongst the Croatian people. The country also an ever-expanding range of hotels and accommodation, inexpensive wineries, and top dining, putting it high on the list of value luxury.
The magnificently diverse landscape is best explored by coach – the main mode of public transport in the country – with an average three-hour journey costing around 15-20 euros. Coach journeys can be booked on the day of travel as they are usually quite frequent between major towns and cities, though one thing to watch out for is the cost of putting your luggage underneath the coach (about $2.50 each).
You can begin your trip from the North and travel southwards, or come up from the Montenegrin border towards Italy. The following route through the best places to visit in Croatia took two weeks and gave a near-complete and beautiful picture of this great country.
One of the country’s most famous cities, the magnificent walled city of Dubrovnik is poetically known as the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’. The gleaming baroque buildings and winding marble streets will charm the Renaissance pants off of any visitor, with a number of fascinating historical monuments dotted in and around the centre. Beyond the walls, the rising forested hills provide a stunning backdrop for the sparkling clear-blue waters and white beaches. Being practically perfect, the city bursts at its ancient seams with tourists in the summer – accommodation prices shoot up but many residents on the hills outside of the city walls open up their spare rooms to travellers for a fee and can give you a local’s perspective on the best places to eat/drink.
Centred around the ancient Diocletian’s Palace, an awe-inspiringly well-preserved Roman retirement home, Split is the largest city on the Dalmatian coast and also one of the oldest at 1,700 years. The city combines its stunning Roman artistic heritage with an exclusive, cosmopolitan feel along the coastal promenades. The many highlights include the underground caverns which house exhibition and craft stands and the magnificent St. Domnius Cathedral with great views from the top of the 13th century campanile. Look out for the giant Grugr Ninski Statue outside the Northern walls of the palace – it’s custom to rub his enormous bronze toe for luck before entering the Bronze Gate into the Palace which is now a buzzing collection of bars, cafes and value luxury apartments.
A gorgeous and quaint historic harbor 10 miles from Split, Trogir was founded by Greek colonists in 3rd century BC and has experienced a chaotic history, razed to the ground by the Saracens before being occupied by the Austrians, French and Italians and finally Croatians. The best-preserved Romanesque complex in all of central Europe, the tiny town is also packed full of Baroque palaces, churches, and towers as well as a small island fortress dating from the 13th century. Trogir provides a great day trip from the busy Split and is easily reached by local bus.
The first vacation resort in Croatia opened in Opatija in the 19th century, which turned into one of Europe’s hottest health resorts. Today, Croatia’s thousands of islands are now home to cruising boats, mountain resorts, farm stays, and wonderful spas. You can even rent a lighthouse!
Any trip to Croatia has to include a ferry across to one of the many islands, islets and reefs sprinkled across the Adriatic Sea. Hvar is the most populated of the Dalmatian islands, with a rich artistic heritage and cultural history, providing an escapist’s paradise of lavender fields, olive trees and secluded bays. The town of Hvar has a pretty marble plaza surrounded by bars and cafes serving local produce and provides a comprehensive bus service to other areas of interest inland, as well as a frequent connecting ferry service to Split.
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Between Rijeka and Split, Zadar is often overlooked as a stop-off destination in Croatia for no justifiable reason. The city has a beautifully preserved network of Roman streets that wind around the Roman forum built by Emperor Augustus in the 1st century and a number of important cathedrals from the 12th century. Like a classic Croatian city without the crowds, one of Zadar’s most surprising features is the world’s only sea organ, a series of pipes cut into the promenade that emanate organ-like sounds created by the movement of the ocean.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
The oldest and arguably most eye-wateringly beautiful national park in Southeast Europe, Plitvice Lakes lies inland, in the mountainous karst area of central Croatia on the border with Bosnia Herzegovina. Every year, over 1 million visitors come to gaze open-mouthed at the prehistoric caverns and waterfalls, separated by natural dams which create a kind of giant staircase of azure, green and blue lakes. The park is home to species of flora and fauna that existed before humans – it does feel as though you’ve stepped onto the set of Jurassic Park 4 – and the area’s rich biodiversity is key to our understanding of the history of the planet. You can buy tickets for one or two days exploration but beware peak season as you’ll inevitably get caught in a slow queue of tourists following the established routes through the park.
On the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula, Rovinj is a popular tourist destination for neighbouring residents of Italy with its charming and elegant fishing port and heady air of Mediterranean romance. Pastel-coloured houses are clustered together along steep winding streets, topped by the famous Venetian bell-tower, while the harbour is picture-perfect with pine-covered bays on either side. The town has an open-air market selling truffles and local seafood; you can buy a picnic here before tackling the nearby rock-climbing area just outside of the city centre.
While these are some of the best places to visit in Croatia, other highlights include the capital, Zagreb, the port Pula and cosmopolitan Rijeka as well as the numerous islands reachable from the coastal town. Take a map, get planning and explore.
Flickr Photo CC Credit: paullew, lena_li, tm_boris, meaduva, jan_k, m-gem, pocius