A perfect week in Croatia
With 1,777km of coastline and over a thousand islands, Croatia's turquoise waters and breathtaking walled towns are a sight to behold. A vacation in Croatia is the quintessential European holiday dream: picture yourself waking up to the sound of a nearby church bell, enjoying a coffee by a cute town square while watching locals stroll by; Visiting ancient sites dating from Roman times in the morning, and relaxing by sun-drenched beaches with a cocktail in hand in the afternoon...
With such an exciting offering, it is no surprise that Croatia tops the charts for Europe's trendiest destinations. The country certainly topped our list of European places to visit this year....and to be honest, this was the best holiday we have had so far! Let me tell you about our trip's highlights.
The first word that came to mind when I saw the walled city emerge from the cliff-side on our bus ride from the airport was just "wow!". Looking outside the window at the brilliant sea, I was marvelling at the different shades of blue when suddenly we turned a bend on the road and the city's bright red roofs appeared, encircled by stark white medieval walls. What a sight!
With over 1 million arrivals in 2022, Dubrovnik is considered as one of the most visited cities in Croatia. Since the filming of Game of Thrones, the city's reach has widely expanded, and fans of the series are very-well looked after with many themed walking tours and souvenir shops. Television aside, the city has a lot more to offer.
Our favourite activity was walking the walls. If you go to Dubrovnik, do not skip it! The views over the Adriatic Sea on one side, and over the Old Town on the other are worth the walk. To make the experience even more enjoyable, there are many little bar stops along the way, if one fancies a local drink with uninterrupted sea views.
I highly recommend purchasing the Dubrovnik card which includes access to Dubrovnik's top attractions, including the city walls, many museums and public transport. The pass can be purchased for one, three or seven days, and is totally worth it! Just make sure to check the different attraction closure days as they differ from one to the other (all the information is available on the linked website).
My top pick of activities comprise:
Visiting the Franciscan Monastery Pharmacy, one of the oldest pharmacies in Europe, founded in the 14th century by Monks
Gaining some insight into ancient aristocratic life at the Rector's Palace
Enjoying another perspective of the city by going up the funicular to Mount Srd
Another worthwhile visit is the War Photo Ltd: an exhibit of photographs depicting armed conflicts around the world, whose mission is to educate on the horrors of war. It was a very sobering and poignant experience, but it helped me understand a little more about the region's tumultuous history and what its people have been going through. This is shown through images from famous photojournalists in the permanent exhibition, which showcases the many conflicts which arose after the break-up of former Yugoslavia with a focus on Croatia (war of independence 1991-1995), Bosnia & Herzegovina (ethnic conflict 1992-1995) and Kosovo (ethnic conflict 1998-1999).
The temporary exhibition showed graphic and heartbreaking images of the war in Ukraine, and the limited edition print room showed photographs of the many past and ongoing conflicts around the world including in Asia, Africa and the Americas.
I recommend visiting because the exhibit is very well done. Visitors are given a booklet explaining the context/story behind each photograph, and offering some insight into each conflict. It is an educational visit, and a unique experience.
Wandering around the town is also really enjoyable. It is very pleasing to the eye with the white limestone buildings and smooth white pavers. The small windy streets and alleyways are filled with cute shops and restaurants. A unique detail in Dubrovnik is that businesses use wall lamps as sign posts!
In Dubrovnik, don't miss the opportunity to eat some fresh seafood. There are plenty of oyster bars and restaurants offering the catch of the day. We ate a delicious black ink risotto and grilled calamari at Restaurant Kamenice, a nice and affordable option, on the square where the historic steps are located.
All in all, I would recommend spending about 2-3 nights in Dubrovnik to enjoy all the main sights at a leisurely pace. The town is walkable from one end to the other in about 20 minutes, so very easy to get around.
A word of caution though as we found Dubrovnik to be very expensive, especially for food & drink. We travelled during the "pre-season" in late April, and we were told that during high season prices easily soar by up to 50%.
But don't let this deter you from going. Dubrovnik was worth every penny!
Biokovo Nature Park & Makarska
Our itinerary took us on a drive along the coastline between the cities of Dubrovnik and Split. This was another highlight of our trip. The windy road offers gorgeous views over the sea which twinkles under the sun. If you’ve ever dreamt of a scenic spring or summer road-trip with your windows down singing along your favourite tunes, this is the spot!
The drive took us through the picturesque Biokovo Nature Park. The craggy Biokovo mountain range is very popular amongst hikers, who can enjoy a walk with spectacular views over the sea and islands nearby. There are plenty of trails that go through native pine forests and olive groves, as well as caves, pits and stone pools. Although it can get very hot and dry on the trails, the peak, Sveti Jure, standing at 1,762m has an average temperature of 4 degrees Celsius and can get a lot of rain and snow. So it is very important to do appropriate research before embarking on a mountain adventure!
The area is also great for rock climbing, cycling or even zip-lining! Plenty of local operators offer fun-filled day trips. For incredible views, the skywalk is not to be missed. Standing at 1,228m above sea level, the horseshoe shaped glass structure offers panoramic views over the town of Makarska below, the sea and nearby islands. One could even see all the way to Italy on a clear day!
Makarska is also worth a stop. A lovely seaside town at the foot of Biokovo Nature Park, Makarska has some beautiful beaches and a nice strip of restaurants, bars and cafes along them.
We only stopped there for a few hours on our drive north to Split, but we loved walking by the beach. Some daring locals were swimming in the crystal clear waters even though we were in April and the water is a little cool.
The views are beautiful with the mountainous backdrop, and made for a very scenic spot to have lunch and a cool drink.
Split & the neighbourhing islands
If we had had more time, this is the area where we would have spent another night or two. Not because we did not see everything we wanted to see, but because we loved the laid-back atmosphere of the city, and the ease with which the nearby gorgeous islands can be reached.
Split is a vibrant port city. The old town centre is a maze of narrow cobbled streets which spill out onto glorious vestiges of the past. Here, one can see the cross-roads this city has been with ancient relics, symbols and even monuments which can be spotted all over. Founded as a Greek colony, Split has also been a part of the Roman Empire, become a Byzantine city, been associated with the Republic of Venice, become a part of the Habsburg lands, the French Empire, and the Austrian Empire, before becoming a part of former Yugoslavia and now of Croatia as we know it. With such a rich legacy, the city is a sort of mecca for History and Art lovers. I would certainly recommend going on a walking tour with a local guide to learn about this fascinating history.
The Diocletian Palace is the most famous sight here. An incredibly well-preserved heritage site, it was built in 305 AD and was intended as a retirement home for the Roman Emperor: Diocletian. The Palace has merged with the Old City, so while walking around, one can effectively see the site. There are many interesting parts of the Palace worth stopping at and visiting. You can find more information on the official website.
To escape the hustle and bustle of the city centre, we went on a hike up Marjan Hill. After a set of steep stairs, there is a lookout over the city, which is really nice and perfect to snap a few pictures. From here, there are a couple of trail options but the most popular is the one that borders the hill, running along the coast, where we enjoyed the sea views and the fresh smell of pines. It’s a great spot for a picnic, or a sundowner. Actually, this is a local favourite for sunset views, so make sure to add this to your list if you love chasing sunsets!
Another side of Split we enjoyed was more local. On the advice of our host, we walked along the water from the Riva promenade all the way to Firule Beach. There is a very nice path that goes through some of the local beaches, two of which are sand beaches: Bacvice and Ovčice. On the way, there are plenty of small bars with nice views. We loved having a drink at the bar called TENIS at sunset.
Our absolute favourite day on this holiday is the one we spent island hopping and I could not recommend this more. We opted for a tour that took us to 5 islands in one day which is perfect for those who want to hit a maximum of sights in a limited amount of time. We boarded our boat at the port, which we reached by walking along the Riva promenade (this was really peaceful at 7.30am!).
Our first stop was to the island of Biševo to visit the blue cave. The area is protected and is only accessible with a ticket, which can be purchased at the island. The caves are accessed by small boats, which are steered by locals. The entrance looks really low and narrow, and we had to duck our heads to make sure we did not hit the cave walls! The interior of the cave was a glowing fluorescent blue, its vibrant colour coming from the sunlight reflected by the sea floor onto the cave walls.
We then headed out to the very picturesque island village of Komiža. In my opinion, the best views were on arrival from the boat, when we could see the harbour. The small fishing boats floating on the water with the backdrop of rows of narrow stone buildings offered a stunning view.
According to our local guide, this village is where some scenes of Mamma Mia 2 were filmed, as the costs were lower than filming in Greece. I suppose since this island was built by the ancient Greeks, filming there still is reasonable!
Another fun fact is that there are more boats on the harbour than there are people living in the island. This actually shows an unfortunate reality of our modern life, as many people have had to leave the island to seek more profitable work in the cities. However, there is still much life on the island. We found many lovely restaurants and cafes which made this island a nice coffee stop!
Our next stop was the very pretty pebble beach which was voted Europe’s most beautiful beach a few years ago. Stivina Beach is believed to once have been inside a cave that collapsed.
My favourite part of the day was when we stopped at the Blue Lagoon for a swim! Even though we were in April and the water was (very) refreshing, we took a dip and it was heaven! The water here was of many shades of blue, with a few small islets around us. The island is privately owned and there isn’t very much here apart from a restaurant which is only open in Summer, but there is a resident donkey!
Our last stop of the day with Hvar Island. According to our guide, this is one of the most popular places to visit in all Croatia, second after Dubrovnik. Not hard to see why. This island is stunning! Its streets and overall architecture reminded me a little of Dubrovnik. We loved walking along the seaside promenade, and lazing on a secluded tiny portion of beach by ourselves. Hvar has got a few places of interest including the fortress which lies on top of the city and offers very scenic views, as well as a monastery and a cathedral.
We spent three nights in Split, but for those who have a little more time, I would probably recommend spending a night or two in Hvar for a relaxing break. It does get very busy in Summer so booking in advance is strongly suggested.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
If you have Googled Croatia before, chances are you have seen pictures of the jaw dropping waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes National Park. Let me tell you that no photo can do this park justice. We spent a whole day hiking around the park, and were in awe of the surrounding nature the whole time.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is formed of 16 lakes and many waterfalls. Interestingly though, water only forms about 1% of the park!
The National Park is a UNESCO heritage site, and an important conservation area. It is home to many diverse flora and fauna; some of the most impressive being the Brown Bear, Grey Wolf, Eurasian Lynx and Eurasian Otter.
Since it is a protected area, the number of visitors is capped, so it is essential to plan your visit ahead and book your tickets, which can be done online here. We were really glad to find this was controlled, because even though we were not there in high season, there were still bus loads of tourists crowding the boardwalk (although we easily shook them off once we started walking the loop).
We found that hiking here was one of the best and easiest hiking experiences we have had. One can pick between eight different routes to walk around the park. The entry ticket also includes access to the river ferry and the return ride aboard a train. The boardwalk is very well-maintained and fun to walk on, taking us very close to many of the waterfalls, which were spraying water all over us! Bringing a rain jacket is definitely a must here if you don’t want to end up soaking wet!
We stayed overnight near the park to maximise our time here, and are very glad we did. There are many options here from fancy hotels to cute B&B’s. We thought one day was enough to explore the park. If you have more time, horse riding is available at Ranch Terra and has some amazing reviews. Winter visitors may also be interested in seeing the frozen waterfalls and skiing at Mukinje Ski Resort, a very small area of 400m of ski trails with a capacity of 400 skiers per hour.
We had a taste of the Croatian capital at the end of our trip by spending a full day here. We easily walked around the city centre, and saw many of the city’s monuments by wandering the lower and upper town areas.
Zagreb had a very different feel to any of the other cities we had visited on this trip. Of course, this was to be expected, being the capital city and inland, compared to Split or Dubrovnik which are on the coast.
Even though the city is quite big, we found that the older parts were easy to walk around and quite accessible. We really enjoyed wandering around and taking in the city’s vibe.
If I were to come back to Zagreb, I would probably organise a walking tour of the city to view the main sights and understand their historical and social significance at a deeper level. We stumbled across a few bronze statues and sculptures such as the Well of Life and the Saint George Statue which have interesting stories. The architecture is also of note, with many buildings dating for the Habsburg era, mixed in with starker buildings from the former Yugoslavia times.
The cathedral, one of the most popular landmarks, is also worthwhile. Unfortunately it was closed for renovations while we were there, but I would definitely enjoy the opportunity to see it!
There are also plenty of Art and History museums in Zagreb, as well as the famous Museum of Broken Relationships, an interesting premise which proves to attract many visitors every day!
We had an amazing time road-tripping around Croatia. Our itinerary was perfect for our first-time visiting the country, as we hit some of the most popular and beautiful areas of the country.
The coast is an absolute must! And even though many of the places mentioned here tend to become very crowded in the high season, they are certainly worthwhile.
Of course, there is plenty more to see and do in Croatia aside from the places we visited. You can find some fantastic hidden gems suggested on the official website of the Croatian National Tourist Board (here).
We loved visiting in April, which is widely known locally as “pre-season”, as there are less tourists around and prices are less inflated. However, April does come with temperamental weather. We saw some rainy days, but it did not dampen our moods or impact our enjoyment of the places we visited. The benefits of smaller crowds and cheaper prices far outweighed the risk for us. But certainly, for those who want more reliably warm and sunny weather, then summer is the time to go.