From glorious untouched nature and crystal clear seas to colourful urban culture and stunning Game of Thrones locations, Croatia, and its eclectic attractions, are waiting to be discovered. In the last 10 years, this fascinating country has been the fastest-rising vacation destination in Europe. And, while it can get crowded in Dubrovnik and Split, particularly in August and July, in the main, Croatia still isn’t overrun with tourists. From the best destinations in Croatia including national parks and numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites to Croatian cuisine, people, culture and weather, check out this guide to one of Europe’s most beautiful countries.
Where are the best destinations in Croatia?
Dubrovnik, a medieval masterpiece and home to Game of Thrones
Dubrovnik is one of the best-preserved medieval walled cities in Europe. Here you can enjoy spectacular views over orange-tiled rooftops to the Adriatic sea, get lost in its narrow streets and cobbled walkways and blend in with Dubrovnik’s way of life. While Dubrovnik’s main walkway Stradun can get overrun by tourists in high-season, especially during the annual open-air summer festival of theatre and classical and folk music and dance, this Renaissance-Baroque city is not to be missed. Game of Thrones fans will recognize many familiar and well-loved scenes.
Fun all day and all night on Hvar Island
Looking for the ultimate party island? Hvar’s got all you need! But there’s more to Hvar than vibrant bars and restaurants, and luxurious yachts in the harbour. The island also offers a chance to explore secluded coves and beautiful, pristine beaches, lapped by translucent waters. With a landscape of picturesque lavender fields, olive groves and vineyards, dotted with Stonehouse villages and local cafes serving traditional Dalmatian cuisine.
Relive gladiator battles in Pula
The Pula Arena is one of only six remaining Roman amphitheatres in the world and, with its outer wall still complete, it is the best-preserved of Croatia’s historical sites. It was built in the first century AD and had space for 22,000 spectators, who came to watch gory gladiator contests. Today, people come for the annual Pula film festival and summer concerts, or to just appreciate the grand architecture and to explore the underground corridors.
The charms of Rovinj
Rovinj, a coastal town not far away from Pula, is an Istrian wonderland oozing with bags of Italian charm.
Walk the steep narrow streets, enjoy a coffee at one of its piazzas and climb the bell tower of St. Euphemia’s Church to see spectacular views of the sea and nearby vineyards.
The Elaphite Islands
Three inhabited islands: Koločep, Šipan and Lopud can easily be visited on a one-day tour from Dubrovnik. Boasting wonderful beaches, these islands offer breathtaking scenery, full of vineyards and olive groves interlaced with a network of superb hiking and bike trails.
Relax on Rab Island
Sandy beaches, pine forests, medieval monuments and one of the most visited festivals in Croatia – that’s Rab Island. Book your place in July to enjoy the ‘Rabska Fjera’ and travel back 600 years in time with the locals.
Heaven on Vis
Have you seen ‘Mama Mia! Here We Go Again’ the movie? Vis island was the filming location, and thankfully, despite the films huge popularity, the island has remained relatively untouched, thanks to its remote location – it’s the farthest inhabited island from mainland Croatia. Beautiful tranquil beaches and bays with sparkling waters and palm trees are yours to enjoy.
Discover bustling Split
Split is Croatia’s second-largest city and a fast-growing tourist destination, with a vibrant nightlife and a large choice of beautiful beaches. In the heart of the city, the Diocletian’s palace, contains cafes, shops and apartments, is a must. Electronic music lovers should check out the Ultra Europe music festival is held here every year.
Vis, Hvar, Brač and other large Dalmatian islands, are easy to visit from Split.
National Parks in Croatia
The country’s most popular natural attraction, Plitvice National Park contains sixteen sapphire lakes and gushing waterfalls, which you can see by walking its winding wooden walkways. In the park’s surroundings, there are densely wooded hills, home to bears, wolves, deer and wild boars. Plitvice is immensely popular, so the best time to visit is early June or mid-September if you want to avoid the crowds.
The Brijuni Islands, made up of fourteen islets, are an archipelago off the coast of Istria. Only two of them are open to visitors, Mali Brijun and Veliki Brijun. They can be reached by a ferry from the town of Fažana. A guided train tour will take you around Veliki’s safari park with zebras, elephants and llamas. You can also look for dinosaur footprints and roman remains and swim from one of the many paradisical beaches.
Hikers will love the unforgettable landscape of Velika Paklenica. Rocky peaks and forests are on the one and a half hour route to the Manita peć cave, while the heights of Vaganski Vrh can be reached via five different, much longer trails, only suitable for experienced hikers. The breathtaking views are a fitting reward.
Krka National Park, full of spectacular waterfalls and lakes is the backdrop for Game of Thrones’ Seven Kingdoms. Millions of visitors every year make a beeline for the immensely impressive Skradinski Buk, the largest of the park’s terraced waterfalls. The clear waters are just perfect for swimming.
Not far off from the coast and the island of Rab, Northern Velebit National Park offers you a chance to hike in rocky terrain or lush forests. The main peak of Zavižan is Croatia’s popular weather station – 1676 metres high. From up there, absorb the beautiful views of Kvarner Gulf.
The island of Mljet is just 32 kilometres long and at only 3 kilometres wide – but it’s a forest paradise with Mljet National Park being a third of the entire island. Two salt lakes are there for you to walk or bicycle around, and don’t miss the chance to take a dip in the clear water. Find accommodation in the peaceful villages of Pomena and Polače.
Hidden in the northern part of Gorski Kotar, Risnjak National Park is a cyclist’s paradise. Along its trail, you’ll find hikers and climbers exploring the mountain scenery. Home to various species such as wolves and lynx, you can access Risnjak by a short drive from either Rijeka or Zagreb.
This chain of islands in northern Dalmatia is very popular for boat trips. It has a beautiful coastline full of cliffs and very unusual rock formations. Enjoy the exquisite seafood in restaurants all along the shoreline.
UNESCO World Heritage sites in Croatia
Croatia boasts ten UNESCO World Heritage sites, each one a joy to discover.
National Park Plitvice Lakes
As we’ve mentioned earlier, the largest, oldest and most popular national park in Croatia has a rich flora and fauna, over a million tourists every year who come to see the magical lakes and waterfalls. You might take a penny more out of your pocket to see it – but it’s worth it.
Diocletian’s Palace, Split
Settled in the heart of Split, the Diocletian’s Palace is a real time-machine that takes you back in the Roman age. When you’re inside it, it doesn’t feel that you’re in a palace. Explore the Peristyle Square and the popular basements built in the third century.
Old Town, Dubrovnik
The historical city core of Dubrovnik is a fortification containing the two-kilometre long city walls that built to protect the city from invaders. Walking around Stradun you’ll see the Statue of Orlando, Sponza Palace and Rector’s Palace which also featured in Game of Thrones and have become popular meeting places for locals and visitors alike.
The Cathedral of St. James, Šibenik
Named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000, the Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik is the most important monument of the Renaissance age in Croatia. Šibenik was another magnificent setting in Game of Thrones, known for being the city of Braavos, in Season 5 and the cathedral was the setting for the Iron Bank.
Stari Grad Plain, Island of Hvar
In contrast to these other UNESCO sites, Stari Grad Plain is an ancient agricultural landscape that was built by Greeks colonizing the area in the fourth century BC. Remarkably, it has remained in its original form over 24 centuries. The landscape features ancient stone walls and trims, (small stone shelters), and demonstrates the ancient geometrical system of land division used by the ancient Greeks.
The Episcopal Complex of the Euphrasian Basilica, Poreč
The Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1997, includes a sacristy, baptistery and the bell tower which is one of just a few representations of Byzantine architecture in Croatia.
Medieval Tombstones Graveyards
The medieval tombstones, that are scattered across Bosnia and Herzegovina and some parts of Serbia, Croatia and Montenegro are called ‘stećci’. They appeared in the 12th century and were used until the end of the 15th century. Common among Catholic and Orthodox followers, there are two such necropolises (cemeteries) in Croatia – in Čista Velika and Konavle, with tombstones written in Glagolitic script.
Historic City of Trogir
Only about 30 kilometres from Split, the whole town of Trogir was listed as a World Heritage in 1997. The Cathedral of St. Lawrence, famous for its Romanesque portal carved by Master Radovan and the 15th century Kamerlengo Fortress are the best-known features of the city.
The defensive system of Zadar and St. Nicholas Fortress in Sibenik
Both UNESCO sites belong to a group of six defensive walls built by the Republic of Venice between 15th and 17th century along the Adriatic coast. The Defensive system of Zadar includes the monumental Land Gate that served as a connection between the old port and the town. On the other side, St. Nicholas Fortress is isolated on islet Ljuljevac near Šibenik. It was used for a defensive purpose, but legends say that no one ever dared to attack it because it looked powerful and impossible to conquer.
Primaeval Beech Forests of the Carpathians
Stretching beyond the borders of Croatia to 13 different countries, this magnificent primaeval beech rainforest encompasses the Croatian national parks of Paklenica and Northern Velebit and includes the rugged rocky peaks of the reserve of Rožanski and Hajdučki Kukovi.
Croatian people and culture
Croatians are very easy-going, especially south from Zadar and throughout Dalmatia. We love our long coffees or ‘fjaka’ – the art of doing nothing – with a coffee in the hot summer sun. And we’re proud of our sporting heroes, our sea and our cuisine.
One of the few tips we’d give you is getting to know at least one Croatian before you travel to the country. We revel in sharing inside information and brag how we know every corner of the country, or have a friend you could stay with when you visit such-and-such a place and so on.
Croatians love small talk, hanging out at cafes during the day. The same one every day! So, if you’re staying for a longer period, pick a cafe, a bakery, a shop – and visit as regularly as you can. You’ll soon see how people there begin to recognize your face and start talking to you about everyday stuff.
We also love being paid a compliment, whether it’s about our food, the climate, beautiful sights, or the sea…Croatians are well aware that our sea is the best.
Don’t compare us. Especially not to Italy. For example, olive oil. We know ours is the most exquisite, so don’t even start!
Of course, we might say a few bad words, such as how our country doesn’t have this or that…but you can’t say it. We have the right to complain, but foreigners don’t. Just nod your head and ask questions like: “Why is that?“, or “Really?”.
We’re the current World Cup runners-up in football, we got Wimbledon and US Open tennis winners, basketball Olympic medalists – champions in handball, water polo, rowing, gymnastics…we’re proud of that. You’ll be a big hit with the locals if you show that you know about some famous Croatians!
You know, “Luka Modrić!“, and so on.
We hang out in cafes, but we don’t drink just coffee. Sometimes, many times, coffee means – beer.
Due to its location, Croatian cuisine encompasses a wide range of influences when it comes to food and drink with central and western Europe traditions mixing with the flavours of the Mediterranean.
All along the coast, you’ll discover exquisite seafood with the northern coast, around Kvarner Bay, being particularly well known for its prawns. The Istrian Peninsula is famous for its oysters, cured ham „pršut“ and deer dishes with gnocchi ‘njoki’. And all the Croatian Islands are renowned for their fresh seafood, including octopus salad and exquisite lobster.
The most famous artisan cheese in Croatia is a hard sheep’s cheese from the island of Pag.
Moving inland, be ready for some heavier dishes, spiced with pepper and loaded with more calories, such as the succulent meat and fish stews in Osijek. Slavonia is proud of its ‘kulen’ sausage while in the northern part of Dalmatia don’t miss their slow-cooked roast meat, lamb and pork.
Something you’ll find everywhere, however, is pizza. We love pizza! So find a pizzeria and choose seafood toppings of all kinds.
What’s the weather like in Croatia?
Coastal Croatia has a typical Mediterranean climate with hot, dry, and sunny weather during summer. The winters are mild and sometimes wet. Average temperatures in the summer are mid to high twenty degrees celsius, although temperatures well into the thirties are not uncommon.
The balmy summer weather can stretch out into autumn with temperatures in the high teens or even low twenties. You can regularly swim in the sea, warmed by the summer sun, well into September.
Inland, Croatia winters can be pretty cold, but late spring and summer are great times to visit some of the national parks or the capital of Zagreb.
Accommodation and travelling in Croatia
Croatia’s coastline is littered with luxury hotels, but there are plenty of accommodation options to suit every budget. From camping to village apartments to private villas with pools, the best options get booked early so be sure to book a few months in advance, especially in July and August.
When it comes to travelling, Croatia has high-quality motorways, so driving from Zagreb to Rijeka or Split, or Pula, for example, won’t consume much of your time. You don’t need a ‘vignette’, just get a ticket for the motorway at the toll station. For example, from Zagreb to Split the cost is 200 kunas or around 26 euros for a one-way trip. If you’re going from Zagreb to Dubrovnik in summer, however, be sure to book a flight to avoid the dense traffic on the roads at the height of the season.
When it comes to the thousand-plus islands of Croatia, they’re easily accessible via the frequent ferry services and catamarans which operate all year round.
When to visit Croatia
Like the rest of southern Europe, the best time to visit Croatia is in May and June or September and October when the weather is pleasant and sunny. It’s warm enough for swimming and sunbathing but is less crowded than the summer months of July and August – the busy high season, which can be very hot, especially in the afternoon.
When the world opens up again, Croatia with its charming historic towns and cities and magical landscapes will be waiting to welcome you. In the meantime, stay home, stay safe.
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