The secret is out and it has set sail to Croatia. No longer the playground of knowledgeable Italian and German cultural tourists, it is now widely acknowledged that Croatia is the country to visit on the Mediterranean. It has it all: 1,243 miles of shoreline, gloriously fresh seafood, sun-drenched beaches, Roman ruins, a thousand islands, quaint fishing villages, medieval churches, steep rocky mountains and secluded coves. You may think that as the new kid on the block, Croatia would struggle to boast the same level of amenities, variety of hotels and restaurants and tourist locations as, say, Italy but you would be wrong. It hasn’t been battered by the tourist industry and maintains a deep respect for its beautiful towns, archaeological sites and natural parks. So it has been able to maintain a balance of respecting the old and accepting the new.
It is cliché to remark on Croatia’s resurgence as a tourist destination considering its not-too-distant troubled past; however, its story has struck a chord with thousands of holidaymakers precisely because its delights and intricacies could have been so nearly lost in that tragic war. Croatia has risen like a phoenix and offers a plethora of fantastic places that can boggle the mind of even the most seasoned tourist. So, BUCKiTDREAM have saved you that effort by evaluating all the most-respected travel books and online review sites to bring you the Top 5 Must-See Places in Croatia. We don’t doubt that these locations reflect the diverse beauty that Croatia has to offer from historic towns, swanky islands, stunning archipelagos and up-and-coming hip cities. Don’t forget to save your favorite tips from this guide in your BUCKiTDREAM planner!
Land Like A King At King’s Landing, Dubrovnik
All books and guides agree that Dubrovnik is the place to begin your Croatian adventure. Its popularity has grown since its use as King’s Landing in the epic fantasy TV show, Game of Thrones. Once you set foot in this historic old town, you realize how very little CGI was used in the scenes set in the fictional capital.
It is no surprise at all that Dubrovnik is a Unesco World Heritage Site.
Like its fictional twin city, Dubrovnik is a survivor. Recovering from the disastrous earthquake of 1667 and repeated shelling between 1991-1995, Dubrovnik’s historic centre has been rebuilt and has remained timeless ever since. Now the majestic city welcomes thousands of tourists each year who are eager to explore its ancient walls, medieval churches, imposing monasteries, graceful squares and beautiful residential quarters. Most guides advise you to start at the Pile Gate, where city buses from the ferry and bus terminals arrive. If you’re a Game of Thrones fan you’ll recognize it immediately. You will get your bearings on a tour of the still largely intact city walls which are 25 steps high, carry on for a little over a mile and act as a perimeter for the Old Town. You’ll be rewarded with patchwork views of stunning towers, sculpted domes, bastions and historic squares. To list all of the architecturally and archaeologically significant buildings on the 2 km walk would take us to the end of this article; suffice to say you can gawp at the eye-catching 15th-century-designed Minčeta Fortress, St John’s Fortress and Bokar Fortress. Saunter past the Sponza Palace and Onofrio della Cava designed Rector’s Palace, eventually ending up at the town’s cultural heartbeat – Luža Square, with its cafes, ice-cream parlors and laid-back attitude.
Luža Square is the perfect launchpad to explore the town outside its old walls. Public gardens are abound with fig, lemon and orange trees. Significant places to explore are the Lapad district with its leafy pedestrianized streets and rich variety of shops, restaurants and hotels. Ploče is home to the city’s main public beach Banje and houses some of the more opulent hotels in the town. You’ll never tire of walking marbled streets and admiring the baroque masterpieces on either sides of the street.
Stay Villa Dubrovnik often gets quoted as the ‘best hotel in Croatia’ for all of its laid-back swankiness; alternatively we’d recommend Airbnb or a cheap and cheerful family-run joint like Hotel Ivka.
Top Tip To gain more appreciation of the city’s beauty why not take the cable car up to Mount Srđ. Only from the summit will you do the awe-inspiring views justice. If the crowds at Banje beach are getting you down, take a short taxi-boat to the islet of Lokrum which is a more secluded location for sunbathing and swimming.
Folk Flock From Near and Hvar
If the goal of your Croatian trip is to balance peaceful, sun-soaked lounging with all energy and swanky nightlife, then Hvar is the place for you. During the day you can unwind next to crystal-clear waters on a pristine beach and afterwards observe and participate in the island’s after dark party reputation. It’s as if someone combined New York’s chic bar culture with homely Tuscan wine bars. No wonder all manner of celebrities, models, rock stars and the Hollywood elite are seen chatting with each other next to their moored yachts.
A regular feature on best beach lists, Hvar attracts many from the mainland to its bustling main town/port, Hvar Town. Whilst there are a number of beautiful architectural relics and churches, our advice is to head to Trg Sveti Stjepan (St. Stephen’s Square) where you can observe a well-dressed, party-happy crowd blending with rugged tourists as they soak in the sun and await the evening’s festivities. It’s not hard to uncover why the island has such an intoxicating effect on its visitors. It receives the most hours of sun than any other Croatian island (2,700 hours a year), its aromatic air carries the scent of the island’s lavender across its landmass and the island itself has many idyllic inlets and quiet interior villages.
If the bewitching chaos of Hvar Town is too much to handle, all sites suggest that tourists visit the interior for a more tranquil experience. Quieter towns such as Stari Grad, Jesla, Sućuraj and Vrboska offer good beaches and rustic charm. Further underlined suggestions are to head from the main town to the Pakleni Islands (Pakleni Otoci), which got their name, ‘Hell’s Islands’ in Croatian, from Paklina, the resin that once coated local ships. They are a chain of 21 islands that offer perfect bathing waters, secluded beaches and isolated inlets.
Top Tip If nightlife is more your thing then with après-beach soirees, swanky bars offering a range of designer cocktails and full-moon beach parties, Hvar Town is the place to dance the night away.
Eat, Drink & Stay
If you get peckish during all this then it is an absolute must to try the local delicacy of fish cooked in white wine, known locally as gregada. The legendary dish is best represented by the family-run Luviji which prides itself on using freshly-caught fish, local produce, local wine from their own vineyard, all served with charm and genuine love.
All Roads Lead To Pula
Pula is a bustling city on the southern tip of the region of Istria. Istria is an example Croatia’s tourism industry at its finest, with luxury hotels dotting its coastline and unspoiled hilltop towns begging for exploration. Pula is also the place to go to sample the best of the region’s food; heavily influenced by its neighbor Italy, there is particular focus on its rich olive oil and local wines. Its proximity to Croatia means great pasta and sumptuous pizza.
But for all the different reasons that tourists flock to the town of 65,000, one reason remains king – its stunning Roman amphitheater. Like a proud dad at the beach, the 1st-century amphitheater is an imposing sight and is probably the best example of grandiose Roman architecture outside of Italy. Its outer shell is completely intact, and being similar to the coliseum in Rome, the amphitheater was designed to host gladiatorial contests with 20,000 onlookers baying for blood. It is now a much calmer affair and a must-see place to all those visiting Istria. Take a trip to explore its underground chambers, previously waiting rooms for wild animals and gladiators waiting to face the roar of the crowd. Curators maintain an ever-changing exhibit of Istrian history in the chambers, the current one being ‘Olive and Winegrowing of Istria in Antiquity’ which is reviewed well.
Top Tip There are a dizzying array of other fortresses, monasteries and Roman forums to explore further in Pula, but our top tip is to take a 13 km outside the city to the spectacular Cape Kamenjak, which has stunning beaches and coves within a protected nature park. The park is a sensory overload of plush hills, fruit trees and precious bathing spots and can be easily explored via its well-maintained paths. It is Istria’s southernmost point, with views to the island of Cres and the peaks of Velebit. We would say more but the pictures here should be enough of an incentive!
Embrace Cafe Society in Zadar
Croatia’s most elegant and fascinating city, Zadar is the up-and-coming location to visit on Croatia’s extensive coastline. Three-thousand years old, heavily indebted to its Roman forebearers, the city is packed with the artistic and cultural elite which make the city such a vibrant place to visit. You can visit beautiful Roman attractions without the hordes you may find stifle your experience in Split or Zagreb. Recently returned tourists on travel review sites wax lyrical about the joys of meandering through Roman ruins, sitting down in funky modern cafes, mixing with a cosmopolitan crowd and soaking up the cultural nightlife. The city boasts history and culture in spades; be sure to see if you can time your visit with the acclaimed summer festival, the Garden Festival. Usually hosted just south of the city, The Garden Festival hosts the world’s leading electronic musicians in majestic surroundings.
Closer to the Old Town, two mind-bending art installations form a key ingredient in Zadar’s growing popularity. Nikola Bašić has managed to merge the slow geological and natural forces that have shaped the Mediterranean with modern music and technology to create the captivating Sea Organ and Sun Salutation. The Sea Organ is set within stone stairs that lead into a sea and which unfathomably produces musical chords when the sea pushes air through its system of pipes. Perhaps even more amazing is the Sun Salutation, which is a circle cut into the promenade’s sidewalk, filled with 300 layered glass plates that collects the Sea Organ’s sound alongside the sun’s energy and which simulates a mind-melting lightshow in the evening in addition to powering the entire harbor’s lighting!
Stay For a quirky, design-focused abode, check out Art Hotel Kalenga; it won’t break the bank and little bijou elements such as its own bakery will make your stay a memorable one.
Top Tip What makes Zadar such an idyllic spot is that it acts as the perfect jumping-off point for exploring the Adriatic islands, Dalmatia and the vast archipelagos to its immediate South. Why not catch a ferry to Silba, Ugljan, Pašman, and Dugi Otok, all of which are off-the-beaten-track, largely devoid of tourists and begging to be explored? Paklenica National Park is a short drive away but perhaps most impressive of all is the opportunity to use Zadar as a base to explore Croatia’s most stunning national park, the Kornati National Park.
It’s Not A Dream, It’s The Kornati National Park
Some say it boasts the most pristine swimming waters in all of Europe and it would be hard to disagree. The Kornati National Park forms part of Europe’s largest archipelago and consists of 140 islands that were mountain-tops around 20,000 years ago. The sparse, uninhabited islands, rocky on one side, sheer drops to the ocean on the other, may not look that much in isolation, however, when combined with the pristine blue waters form a wondrous sight. The islands are a diver’s paradise to explore and the whole area is awash with rare butterflies, birds, flora and fauna. Every island showcases a unique formation with hundreds of species of fish and marine life.
The area is also a yachting haven with a two fully equipped yachting marina on the island of Piškera, on the western side of the archipelago, and another at Žut. Kornat Island is the largest island in the park and has a few Byzantine relics to entice you on land but the lure of the Kornati Islands is its dreamy bays and waters existing a world away from busy coastal towns. It is important to remember both the land and sea are within the protection of the national park, fishing is strictly limited but licenses for fishing certain species can be purchased for a modest 150 Croatian Kuna (kn) from Kornati’s main tourism office. Indeed, it is recommended to research your visit to Kornati before you set off and it really is a benefit to join a guided tour or scuba group whose experts will know where the best diving spots are, which islands have the best waters and which restaurants in the town of Murter have the most delicious food. All the information you may need can be found on the archipelago’s official page here.
Now that we’ve shown you the best Croatia has to offer, there really is no excuse not add Croatia to your BUCKiTDREAM planner and start planning the journey of a lifetime.