My Guide to Croatia

Janie Swingle

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Of all the countries I’ve visited, Croatia surprised me most by becoming an instant favorite. Its peaceful coastline, dramatic mountains, lush valleys, and rocky islands make it a varied, naturally gorgeous place to visit. Like Ireland, Croatia requires a rental car to properly explore the best of the country, so this guide is tailored to a multi-week visit by car. I recommend working your way either south to north (from Dubrovnik to Zagreb) or the other way around. This guide works south to north, because that’s how I traveled, but it would just as easily work in reverse order. At the end of this guide you’ll find general tips for your trip that Sam (my friend pictured in many of these photos) and I think will be helpful. We both quickly agreed that this region is one of our favorites ever.

Best time to visit: April-May or September-October

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View from Dubrovnik

DAYS 1, 2, & 3: DUBROVNIK

Croatia’s southern coast is anchored by Dubrovnik, a walled city perched atop the rocky sea edge. The Old Town, still intact inside medieval walls, draws a million tourists per year, so the ideal time to visit is decidedly not summer.

Where to stay

As always, I recommend searching Airbnb first, as you’ll likely find better value and nicer quality than hotels. Stay inside the Old Town walls.

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Dubrovnik
Recommended things to do

Walk the Old Town walls — For twenty euro (yes, a bit hefty), you can walk the entire circumference of the city walls. This experience offers the best views of the city and its environs, and the whole stroll takes about two hours. Little cafés pop up along the way for refreshments and bathrooms, so you can take your time.

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The best views from Dubrovnik’s walls
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Dubrovnik’s Old Town walls
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Atop Dubrovnik’s walls

Fort Lovrijenac — Admission to the city walls also includes entrance to Lovrijenac, a 16th century fortress that served as a principal filming location for HBO’s über-popular Game of Thrones. Even if you know nothing about the TV show (I’m with you), a visit is worth the ascent for gorgeous sea views.

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Looking up at Fort Lovrijenac
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Vies from Lovrijenac

Dubrovnik West Harbor — Nestled between the Old Town and Fort Lovrijenac, Dubrovnik’s little West Harbor is less operational-harbor and more hang-out-spot. Grab a loaf of bread, jar of olives, bottle of local olive oil, and packet of dried figs and head here for a quintessential Croatian picnic.

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Dubrovnik West Harbor
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Near Dubrovnik West Harbor

Buza Beach — Don’t let a cliché sandy beach image set your expectations of this seaside spot, accessible through a doorway at the very back (south) side of the old walls. It’s actually a cliffy outcrop of rocks with ample room to climb, sunbathe, or jump into the water. A little bar sets up shop in summer months. All around cool vibes.

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Buza Beach

Alleys, churches, & shops of the Old Town — Dubrovnik is an easily explorable place—small enough to see in a day or two and made up of pedestrian-only streets, meaning no car traffic to ruin the charm.

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Dubrovnik’s alleys

Day trip to Kotor, Montenegro — Spend your third day taking a day trip to Kotor, a popularly visited city in the tiny country of Montenegro. Its main attraction is the walled Old City, which, much like Dubrovnik, caters to tourists. Definitely hike up the path to Kotor Fortress, where you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of mountain-lined Kotor Bay. The drive from Dubrovnik to Kotor takes about two hours as long as there aren’t long lines at the border-crossing station; I passed right through, but I hear hour-long lines can form in the summer months.

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Looking down at Kotor
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Kotor, Montenegro
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Kotor’s social scene

DAY 4: SPLIT

On day 4, drive three hours northwest from Dubrovnik to Split, the country’s second-largest city, seated right along the sea but cuddled by the regions best-known islands. To reach Split from Dubrovnik, you’ll have to drive through a tiny strip of Bosnia & Herzegovina, but don’t fret; border-crossing is easy as long as you bring your passport.

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Where to stay

Anywhere south of Stari Plac and west of Prirodoslovni Muzej Zoološki (Natural History Museum) is well-suited for exploring the best of central Split.

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Recommended things to do

Old Town — Wander the narrow pedestrian alleys that make up the oldest part of the Split just north of the waterfront. While you’re in the neighborhood, don’t miss the Cathedral of St. Domnius, Diocletian’s Palace, and delicious food at Uje Oil Bar.

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Uje Oil Bar

Harbor walk — Split’s main waterfront promenade is lined with café terraces, palm trees, and pedestrians strolling with ice cream. If you start at the east end (look up “Harbor Master’s Office Split” on an online map), you can walk all the way to Ježinac Bay and further on to the grand Park Suma Marjan.

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Park Suma Marjan — Taking up far more space than the historic city center, this sprawling, forested park could fill your entire day. It has hiking trails, beaches, gardens, and beautiful viewpoints.

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DAYS 5 & 6: VIS

On day five, take the ferry from Split to the secluded island of Vis, about two hours by ferry (or one by catamaran) from Split’s main harbor. Vis is the farthest of the popular Dalmatian islands from the Croatian coast, and it’s also the most mysterious to tourists and locals. A local guide in Zagreb explained that Vis was controlled by the United Kingdom for decades and was then used as a base by the Yugoslav military from the 1950s until 1989. It has only been open to tourists since ’89, which leaves it far less influenced by mass tourism than neighboring Hvar or Korčula. It’s also where Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again was filmed. Plus, Vis is just downright gorgeous. Do not miss this.

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Stončica beach, Vis
Where to stay

Two main towns occupy this little island: Vis (town) and Komiža, and you can drive from one to the other in about twenty minutes. Search the whole island on Airbnb, and most results will pop up in one of these main towns. The island is small enough that you’ll be able to explore everywhere no matter where you stay.

Recommended things to do

Stiniva — Named the best beach in Europe, this thoroughly secluded cove is the best precisely because it’s so secluded. The only way to reach it is on foot (unless you have a rowboat small enough to approach the cove from the sea), and the hike down the cliffs from the road is short (15-20 minutes) but slippery and strenuous, so leave your flip flops at home and opt for sneakers.

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Stiniva
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Stiniva
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Stiniva

Stončica — Much more easily accessible but less dramatic than Stiniva, Stončica beach is another beautiful bay to soak up the sun. You can park and walk ten minutes down a gentle decline to reach the water, which is perfect for swimming, picnicking, and water sports.

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Stončica
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Stončica

Srebrna — The third recommendation in my tour of Vis beaches is Srebrna, made up of beautiful rock formations and lots of smooth, cream stones. This area offers wider water access and is less cliffy than Stiniva.

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Srebrna
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Srebrna

Vis town and Komiža town — An hour or two wandering around each town will give you a feel for the local lifestyle, and you can enjoy a drink at one of the harborside cafés along the sea while you work on your tan. In Vis, be sure to drive up to Fort George, a 19th-century fortress constructed by the British Navy and named after King George III. In the summer, the renovated fort hosts dinners, parties, and private events.

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A rare photo of me in Vis
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Komiža

Vis is also stunning just to cruise around and see. Roll down the windows. Crank the music. Enjoy.

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Komiža

DAYS 7 & 8: PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK (PLITVIČKA JEZERA)

On day seven, head back to Split on the ferry and journey north to one of Croatia’s main tourist attractions: Plitvice Lakes National Park, a 300-square-kilometer park whose forests look magically flooded, as if someone had left the water running last week and caused a series of tiered teal lakes and falls to form in the woods.

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Where to stay

Local apartment and home rentals abound, and I used Airbnb to find one within short walking distance of the main trailhead. Alternatively, you can camp at one of the official campsites in the area. Whatever you choose to do, stay in this proximity (map below) to be within 20 minutes drive to the lakes. Within the red circle, you’re 10-20 minutes walking distance to the main entrances.

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Recommended things to do

Hike the park! — Surprise surprise. The park’s trailed area is far smaller than it looks on some maps, so one full day or two half-days would give you plenty of time to see all there is to see. The paths are exceptionally well-constructed and popular, so you will feel less like you’re hiking and more like you’re taking a nature walk with dozens of other people. Many viewpoints are even accessible for all bodies. For a map of trails and suggested routes, visit this site.

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DAYS 9, 10, 11, & 12: ZAGREB AREA

Croatia’s capital city is nothing like the rocky seaside of Dubrovnik or the rural towns of Plitviče. It’s a modern European city with essences of Vienna, Prague, and Stockholm. You’ll find a collection of small parks, plenty of museums, and a variety of restaurants. But I title this section “Zagreb Area,” because the city serves as a perfect base for day trips to unmissable surrounding places.

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Where to stay

As it’s the urban capital of the country, you have your choice of lodging here. This Airbnb was fantastic on all fronts. Just be sure to stay north of the Botanical Garden, west of Palmotićeva Ulica, east of the Muzej Mimara, and south of Park Opatovina (all searchable on Google Maps) and you’re golden.

 

Recommended things to do

Museum of Broken Relationships — Valuable for its novelty, this small museum, dedicated to sharing mementos and stories of broken relationships, will certainly stick out in your memory. You’re unlikely to come across anything similar elsewhere.

Botanical Garden, Ledeni Park, Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera, and Park Zrinjevac — A handful of Zagreb’s green spaces are closely connected, creating a nice spot for a stroll on a sunny day.

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Upper Zagreb’s St. Marco Church and Park Bele IV — St. Marco Church is situated among government buildings, and the views from the nearby park are a lovely (and free) way to glimpse the city from above.

Ban Josip Jelačic — The city’s central square, lined with stores and cafés, is also a primary tram stop and market location where you can find local products like honey, lavender, pastries, meat, and their signature roasted pumpkin seed oil.

Zrno Bio Bistro — This café, run by the oldest and largest organic farm in Croatia, receives shipments of produce fresh from the farm each morning and serves delicious plant-based dishes for lunch and dinner in an airy courtyard space.

Day trip to the wineries of Plešivica — Croatian wine isn’t widely known outside of Croatia because its wine regions are, as our local guide put it, “boutique.” The winemakers are families passionate about wine but not producing on a scale large enough for export. Thus, you really have to visit Croatia to taste its wine. Book a tour with Zagrebites to visit some wineries and restaurants in the Plešivica region, a bluer version of Tuscany’s rolling, golden hills. You can’t really DIY the wine country here, though, because the wineries are so small and locally focused that you need an experienced guide to set up tastings and know where to go. You’ll learn a lot about the region, its people, and its history even if you don’t consider yourself a wine connoisseur.

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Plešivica
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Plešivica
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Plešivica winemakers are some of the only in the world who make award-winning sparkling red wine

Day trip to Ljubljana, Slovenia — Slovenia’s capital city is highly underrated as European cities go. An independent guide to Ljubljana is coming soon, so check back for specific suggestions, but the hour and fifty minute drive from Zagreb is well worth it for a day of exploring in this immensely pleasant city.

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Ljubljana
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Ljubljana
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Ljubljana

General tips for traveling in this region

  • Croatia uses kuna. Bosnia, Montenegro, and Slovenia use euro.
  • Mass tourism has become an unpleasant problem in some areas—namely Dubrovnik, Plitivice, and the more popular islands like Hvar. Keep this in mind and avoid visiting during June, July, and August.
  • If you follow this guide, count on quite a bit of walking and climbing. When I visited, our phones estimated that we averaged the equivalent of about 40 flights of stairs per day.
  • Be sure to try the local products: figs, lavender, olive oil, and pumpkin seed oil are unforgettable.
  • We honestly loved all the places we visited, but our favorites were Dubrovnik, Vis, and Ljubljana.

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Can you tell I loved Croatia?

I think maybe I should go back next year.

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