Ranging from the shimmering Adriatic Sea to the rugged Dinaric Alps, the crashing waterfalls of Krka in the south to the rolling borderlands with Slovenia, Italy and Hungary in the north, Croatia is the backbone of the Balkan Peninsula and one of the real jewels of the Mediterranean Basin.
In this list of of the top destinations in the Republic, we flit between Roman towns and mountaintop villages, range from seaside resorts to resplendent beaches and take in everything from truffle-infused foods to Dalmatian history along the way.
Lets explore the best places to visit in Croatia:
Dressed in Roman marble and sparkling against the aquamarine hues of the Adriatic, Pula is the jewel at the end of the Istrian Peninsula. It rose to glory under the auspices of Augustus Caesar, and the mighty amphitheatre that still stands on the edge of the ancient old town (arguably the best preserved Roman relic outside of Italy) was raised while the Julio-Claudians still reigned supreme in Rome. Today the 2,000-year-old centre is interspersed with charming Venetian buildings and traces of Slavic and Byzantine rule, all coalescing around the lively beer bars and konobas (traditional Croatian eateries) of the city Forum. Then there are the rugged cliff-backed coves and sun-splashed terraces that line the Verudela headland on the edge of town; picture-perfect examples of Croatia’s glorious Mediterranean coast.
2. Korcula Island
It’s no secret that most travelers make a beeline to this sunny Adriatic island to wonder at the delights of its postcard-perfect old town, which perches over the rollers of the Med on the eastern coast, complete with a set of striking medieval towers and bulwarks and meticulously-planned breeze-kissed streets. However, head away from this marble-clad magnet of a town and you’ll discover a backcountry worth writing home about, where undulating forests of Spanish pine cascade down to secluded coves of pearly-white pebbles, where rustic fish restaurants dot the coastal paths and catamarans bob above the blue-green sea.
Dubrovnik rises between the half-baked limestone ridges of the Dalmatian Coast and the perfect blue of the Adriatic Sea; a ring of stone-built fortifications and a dash of red-tiled roofs that’s hailed by many as the most fascinating city in all of Croatia. All the action centres on the beautiful, UNESCO-attested Old Town, where the Gothic edifices of Sponza Palace tower over the bustling boutiques and cafes on the central drag of Placa Stradun. Tours around the crumbling city bulwarks are really popular, while others come to seek out the filming spots used in HBO’s Game of Thrones. There’s also Lapad Beach for a spot of sunbathing, and the much-vaunted Dubrovnik Cable Car for sweeping views over the city and the coast.
Far away from the hotspots of the Dalmatian and Istrian coasts, Croatia’s capital sits nestled at the foot of the rugged Medvednica massif in the northern inland belt. An ancient city, Zagreb really only found its feet in the 19th and 20th centuries, when a great revival in Illyrian neoclassicism and Slavic art imbued the centre with the wealth of grandiose municipal buildings and Baroque spires still seen today. More recently and the enchanting Gornji Grad district has become a favourite amongst tourists in search of interesting churches and plazas thronged with local street performers during the summer. Oh, and then there’s the students and their concomitant nightlife; bubbling up every evening in the al fresco bars of Tkalciceva Street.
Encompassed by the lapping waves of the Adriatic midway up the rugged Istrian coast, Rovinj juts its way out into the waters like a sparkling jewel chiselled and carved by the hands of Romans, Venetians, Franks and Hapsburg Austrians alike. The gorgeous old town heart is flanked by stretches of pebbly beach and ringed by a sun-splashed walkway where locals laze during the summer. Above, the needle-like spire of whitewashed St Euphemia’s Basilica provides the perfect compass point, helping visitors navigate between the hidden squares, flapping washing lines, aromatic pizzerias and narrow lanes that abound.
Hedonistic Hvar town and its fun-loving following of students, Club Med types and coffee-culture-mad locals makes plenty of noise from its seat at the end of its eponymous island on the edge of the Dalmatian Coast. Yes sir, this pretty spot is home to a sun-splashed harbourside (known locally as the Riva), where cabana bars and open-air cocktail joints rumble until the early hours next to bobbing millionaire yachts. Meanwhile, the winding marble-stone streets of the Stari Grad offer oodles of refined konobas, where mezze plates of Croatian olive oils mix with truffle pastas and the like. And when you can pull yourself away from the city, the hiking trails and beaches beckon, hitting their peak with secluded coves and pine-shrouded paths on the Pakleni Islands nearby.
7. Mljet Island
Wild, rugged and untouched, Mljet remains the Adriatic island of choice for travelers in search of the real coastal Croatia. It comes clad in a thick coat of woodland, steeped in ancient Greek legends (a cave on the south coast is supposedly where Odysseus held up for six years!) and peppered with the occasional cellar door where tanned locals cultivate their own vineyards between the pines. However, the piece de resistance of this sun-splashed isle has to be the designated Mljet National Park on the eastern tip; a picturesque swathe of coastal forests where the Veliko and Malo salt lakes carve through the landscape and a majestic Benedictine Monastery draws the eye.
8. Plitvice National Park
Chiselled and carved out of the limestone bluffs, chalk cliffs and dolomite escarpments of central Croatia, where the rugged Dinaric Alps rise to form the borderlands with Bosnia to the east, the legendary Plitvice lakes and their eponymous national park really are all they’re cracked up to be! They are set amidst verdant valleys clothed in spruce, fir, beech and hornbeam, and can be seen gushing and flowing in a series of breathtaking waterfalls from the various winding walking tracks and boardwalks now open to visitors. Plitvice is actually one of the oldest national parks on the continent, and still plays host to wild wolf packs, Croatian brown bears, curious wood grouses and elusive lynxes.
Peaking above the clouds as they descend into the rugged inland valleys of central Istria, Motovun is unquestionably one of the most elegant and alluring villages in the country. It can be found draped over a pyramid-shaped hill above the Mirna River; a symphony of terracotta roofs and stony streets that gives way to rolling fields of olive groves and truffle-packed forest (something this town is particularly famed for). Today, travellers head in to wander along the old Venetian bulwarks, weave through the wine cellars and sample some of the best pasta and pizza dishes in the country, all in the company of uber-friendly, Italian-speaking locals.
Famed as the home of the totemic UNESCO World Heritage Site of Diocletian’s Palace, Split’s near perfect balance of the old and the new makes it unquestionably one of the country’s most alluring towns. The 4th century remnants of Diocletian’s creation occupy the very heart of the city, and come interspersed with the occasional Gothic tower from a later age (or Egyptian sphinx from an earlier one!). The history spreads underground too, with vaulted subterranean rooms showing the true extent of the ancient site. However, it’s not all Roman relics in Split. No sir, not with that sun-kissed Riva promenade and Bacvice cove beckoning from the peripheries, awash with beach bars and swish cocktail joints.
The capital of the much-trodden Dalmatian region is everything you’d expect of a sun-splashed Croatian resort town on the edge of the Adriatic: at once lively and laid-back, steeped in history yet perennially modern. In fact, Zadar is known for its good mix of old and new, boasting the elegant Byzantine rises of St Donat’s Church next to the crumbling remnants of a Roman Forum and crisscrossing lanes of cafes and eateries. The so-called Sea Organ by architect-artist Nikola Basic also draws crowds with its light shows and curious science, while there’s a certain allure to the way Zadar just seems to slip into the Mediterranean, making it easy for locals and travelers alike to cool off in the sea.
12. Zagorje Region
Closer to the Slavic hinterlands of Slovenia and Hungary than the sun-kissed Croatian riviera, off-the-beaten-track Zagorje remains a true diamond in the rough on the Republic’s touristic line-up. Rarely visited but loved fervently by those who do come, this land of rolling hills and seemingly endless farm fields is at once rustic, earthy and real. Influenced heavily by Austria and Slovenia to the north, the area is peppered with the occasional Baroque fortress, or towns like Krapina, where local dialects still reign supreme. Then – of course – there’s the wine, production of which stems back to Roman times, while vineyards and cellar doors occupy the valley sides ad infinitum.
13. Krka National Park
The shimmering and crashing waterfalls and lakes of Krka are something like the southern counterpart to Plitvice. They range from the crumbling karsts and escarpments of the Dinaric Alps to the ria of Skradinski, where the river waters become brackish and join with the Adriatic Sea. Of course, the main attraction here has to be the series of cataracts that dot the park, many of which are the product of centuries of hyper algae growth between the banks of the mineral-rich Krka River, while other pulls include the enchanting sight of the Visovac Monastery, which just pokes above the trees on an island in the midst of mirror-like Visovac Lake.
A cocktail of blue-collar port life, elegant Habsburg nostalgia and the laid-back vibes of coastal Croatia, Rijeka can be found nestled on the Istrian panhandle, pulling in ship after ship across the deep waters of the Kvarner Gulf. In fact, it was Rijeka’s close connection to the sea and these vital shipping lanes that shaped it into the city it is today, with centuries spent oscillating between Habsburg and Hungarian, gathering glorious adornments like the Governor’s Palace and Rijeka Cathedral as it went. The city is also now famed as the home of Rijeka Carnival, which draws more than 100,000 people to see parades and curious ceremonies take place on bustling Korzo Street at the heart of town.
Don’t worry if you’ve not heard of Varazdin. Few have. And that’s despite its illustrious past as one of Croatia’s former capitals and a regal Hungarian stronghold besides! Still, travelers who do make their way to this far-flung city on the edge of Slovenia are in for a real treat. It’s a place where some of Europe’s most elegant and best-preserved Baroque towers and frontispieces meet to form one truly handsome Stari Grad district, where the whitewashed rises of Varazdin Castle reveal interesting historical tales of medieval power struggles, and where sun-kissed plazas lined with rococo and Gothic revival builds play host to Austrian-flavoured eateries and beer halls alike.
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