Hvar is the chic capital of a paradisiacal island in Croatia’s Dalmatian region. In the town are white-stoned Venetian renaissance buildings full of precious artworks, and you can potter around Hvar’s galleries, boutiques and cafes or stare open-mouthed at the gleaming super-yachts moored in the harbour.
Use Hvar as your HQ for trips through landscapes painted lilac by lavender fields or draped with a patchwork of vineyards and orchards. Rent a boat or book an excursion from Hvar to embark on island-hopping exploits that will land you at beaches and coves that are close to perfection.
Here are the best things to do in Hvar:
1. St. Stephen’s Cathedral
This cathedral’s square renaissance bell tower is an unforgettable sight in the evenings, when its white stone illuminated by the last light of the day and you can see right through the structure’s narrow arches.
If you head into the church you’ll be confronted by a treasure trove of renaissance art.
There are works by Palma Junior, Stefano Celesti and a lesser-known Spanish painter Juan Boschettus. But the absolute must-see is Madonna and Child, a Venetian work from the 1220s by an unknown artist.
2. St. Stephen’s Square
Running from St. Stephen’s Cathedral down to the harbour, Hvar Town’s “pjaca” (central plaza) is the largest in Dalmatia, at 4,500 square metres.
Long and with an irregular shape, the square is the centre of Hvar’s social world, with cafes and restaurants that spill out onto the polished flagstones in summer.
The square was once part of the bay, but some clever engineering helped to level out the land during the 18th century when it was also fully paved. If you visit outside the holiday season it’s a tranquil place to sip a cup of coffee with the locals and admire the 16th-century fountain here.
3. Franciscan Monastery
Magnificent both inside and out, this walled renaissance monastery occupies a small headland near the harbour, with a bell-tower visible throughout the town. Head into the monastery to see exquisite works of high renaissance art by the Venetian painters Palma Junior and Francesco Santacroce.
The highlight though is the depiction of the Last Supper measuring two metres by eight, although nobody is sure whether Palma Junior or another Venetian artist, Matteo Ingoli, painted this one.
In the gardens see if you can find the historic cypress tree that has been here since the early-1700s.
4. Venetian Loggia and Clock Tower
An opulent piece of renaissance architecture, Hvar’s Loggia was once part of the Venetian governor’s palace.
Its current design is from the high renaissance, but there had been a palace on this spot going back to at least the 1300s.
The palace was originally much larger, but took severe damage during an attack by the Ottomans in the late-1500s.
The clock tower is a later addition, dating to the 1800s, replacing one that had been destroyed by the Turks several hundred years before.
5. Spanjola Fortress
Head up from Hvar Town’s main square, passing through the Porta di Datallo, you can ascend the steep stairway to this Venetian fortress from the 1500s. It’s in very good shape considering its age, with walls, towers and tunnels to check out.
On the battlements you can look through the canon embrasures for an unbroken view of Hvar Town and the framed by the Adriatic and Pakleni islands. Inside the castle there are displays of historic artefacts, among which are ancient amphorae from an earlier Bronze Age stronghold on this spot.
It’s easy to see why visitors call this the best beach on the island. On the south coast, an easy car or scooter ride away, Dubovica is a tranquil little cove with those classic glassy blue Adriatic waters.
The sea is so clear that from a distance it will look like swimmers and boats are suspended in the air.
The cove cuts a long way inland and its beach is a gentle curve of small pebbles.
On the west side of the bay is a little hamlet of stone houses and behind them rise dusty hills with Aleppo pines.
7. Pakleni Islands
You could get a water taxi to this peaceful and uninhabited archipelago off Hvar’s southwest coast, but if you’d like a bit more freedom it might be worth renting a motorboat for the day.
Every few minutes you’ll want to stop and take in the views or dive into those inviting and serene waters.
Some of the beaches like Palmizana have beach bars, so you’ll have the chance to stop off to stock up on food and drink.
The rest of the time you can spend discovering unfrequented coves or going ashore for a stroll in perfect seclusion.
8. Sveta Nedjelja
The best reason to visit this tiny village halfway along Hvar’s southern coast is to marvel at its precarious setting.
Sveta Nedjelja is sandwiched atop sheer bluffs that tumble to the sea below St. Nicholas, Hvar’s highest mountain.
Just above the village is a cave that was inhabited in Neolithic times, and on the steep, sunny slopes of the mountain are vineyards.
Here they grow red Plavac Mali grapes, which thrive in Hvar’s dolomite and limestone soils. Local restaurants will serve bottles Dingac and Postup made with this grape variety.
9. Jerolim Island
Exactly opposite Hvar Town is this small uninhabited island, with pine trees and brush encircled by a narrow strip of white rocks and shingle beaches.
The water taxis will take around 15 minutes to get there and after that you’re free to go where your sense of adventure leads you.
For a long time Jerolim’s Kordovan beach, where you can find the only bar on the island, was mainly for nudists, but there’s a mixture of making the most of this blissful setting now.
For a patch of your own by the sea you need only walk a little way around the shore.
10. Brac Island
Hvar’s neighbour, Brac, is separated by the Hvar Channel and is the third largest in the Central Dalmatian archipelago.
You could catch a water taxi to one of the coastal towns or take the ferry to spend the day seeing what you can find on this peaceful island.
Brac is known for its historical quarries, the source of the immaculate white limestone used for some of Croatia’s emblematic landmarks, including Sibenik Cathedral.
To this day Brac is a centre for stonemasonry, with two schools located on the southern side of the island.
11. Stari Grad
This is the Hvar’s main ferry port, and after disembarking you could easily spend a few hours delving into some vital pieces of Croatian heritage.
Petar Hektorovic was a 16th-century writer who, during the Ottoman invasion, took it upon himself to fortify his own summer residence and protect some of Stari Grad’s citizens.
Tvrdalj Castle is still much as it was then and has a number of surprising little flourishes.
Check out the fish pool, which is fed by sea water and surrounded on all four sides by arcaded stone terraces.
A handy way to see more of Hvar Island’s rural interior is to make the 20-minute drive east to the resort of Jelsa, about half-way along the upper coast.
Jelsa is the island’s favourite family beach resort, but also has a paved old town full of sights worthy of a walking tour.
At the heart of the city is the angular Croatian Renaissance Square (Pjaca), enclosed by the tables and awnings of restaurants.
Also lovely is St. Ivan’s Square, a compact little plaza around the walls of a little octagonal church with a medley of gothic, renaissance and baroque styles.
13. Boat trip to the Blue and Green Caves
To see the exquisite nature in the local waters you can hop from island to island on a guided motorboat tour.
The first stop will be Ravnik Island, home to the Green Cave. Here the sunlight creates an ethereal emerald green glow, and the skipper will stop to give half an hour to swim in the sea.
The Blue Cave is on Bisevo Island’s shoreline, as you approach you can check out the coast’s wild cliffs.
Nothing can prepare you for the dreamlike beauty of the Blue Cave, and the almost neon light caused by a narrow shaft of sunlight reflected by the sand on cave’s floor.
14. Pick up a lavender souvenir
The lavender grown on Hvar’s hillsides is organically produced and sown and picked by hand.
For a fragrant reminder of your visit to Hvar you could buy a small hessian sack filled with lavender flowers to bring the fresh aroma of rural Hvar to your home.
Lavender essential oils are also sold in Hvar, and can be added to baths or oil burners, or used as a massage oil. You’ll find these items in souvenir shops, at markets or even the island’s pharmacies.
15. Water sports
Kayaking in the sea around Hvar can be a family activity as the currents are mostly very tame.
If you wear a hat and sunscreen in summer it’s one of best ways of navigating the indented coastline of this island and its smaller neighbours.
If you’d like to see what’s going on beneath the surface of these serene waters there are two PADI-accredited dive companies operating out of Hvar Town.
You can go all out to get yourself certified or join an excursion to Vis where there are plentiful wrecks to see, including a B-17 Flying Fortress that went down in 1944.