The images speak for themselves: impossibly clear waters fringed with pretty, pebbly beaches, centuries-old honey-coloured stone buildings topped with terracotta roofs, luminous lakes encircled by hillsides in every possible shade of green. There’s no doubt that Croatia is a photographer’s dream, and a destination that sits high on many a traveller’s bucket list. If you’ve decided you can no longer resist its lure, we’ve put together a guide to must-see places to visit in Croatia.
Croatia’s capital is located far from the sparkling waters of the Adriatic, but it’s well worth the diversion. Ramble through its narrow, cobbled streets of the thousand-year old Gornji grad (Upper Town), allowing plenty of time to soak up the atmosphere and explore its museums and art galleries. Then follow your nose into the nineteenth century Lower Town to refuel at one of the many cafés and restaurants, or rest your feet in one of the city’s parks including the beautiful Botanical Gardens.
Just north of Zagreb you’ll find the region of Zagorje, whose rolling, forested hillsides are sprinkled with tiny villages and topped with mediaeval castles. One of the loveliest is Trakoscan: set overlooking a lake and surrounded by forest. It’s now a museum so you can wander through its beautifully furnished rooms and imagine how life must have been here in the thirteenth century. The region is also renowned for its vineyards, so be sure to sample a few local wines.
Croatia’s principal seaport and third-largest city (after Zagreb and Split), Rijeka is one of the main gateways to the islands but is worth a visit in its own right. Climb up the partly-ruined fortress known as Trsat Castle for breath-taking views of city, sea and islands, wander through the Maritime and History Museum housed in the magnificent former palace of the Austro-Hungarian governor, or take in one of the many festivals for which the city is renowned.
Head north from Rijeka and you’ll soon find yourself on the Istrian Peninsula, a region that’s shared between Croatia, Slovenia and Italy, and reflects the cultures of all three. One of the prettiest towns on the peninsula is Rovinj: originally a fishing port, its stunning Old Town is squeezed onto a small peninsula, so it is almost encircled by water, all terracotta roofs and narrow, cobbled streets and small squares, with the beautiful Church of St Euphemia at its heart. If you have a head for heights, it’s well worth the steep climb up the church’s bell tower for the breath-taking views from the top.
Pula is the largest city on the Istrian Peninsula and is best known for the multitude of ancient Roman buildings including its very well-preserved amphitheatre: the Pula Arena. It’s also a great place to try some of the local specialities, many of which have a strong Italian influence: wine, oysters, mussels and pasta with freshly-grated white truffle (you can even join a truffle tour in the nearby Motovun forest).
Heading back inland, the sixteen stunning lakes of Plitvice are one of Croatia’s best-known drawcards, nestled within one of the country’s largest and oldest national parks. The lakes are connected by a series of waterfalls and set within the mountainous central Croatian region. Their great natural beauty means that they they attract more than a million visitors each year, but don’t let that put you off: time your visit for the spring or autumn months and you’ll be rewarded with fewer people and stunning foliage of either bright, lush green or shades of gold.
Further south from Plitvice and roughly one hundred kilometres from the coast, the Park is named for the river which flows through it and includes a series of seven magnificent waterfalls. The most famous of these is a cascade of 17 waterfalls known collectively as Skradinski buk, but the park is also rich in bird, animal and plant life. There’s also an old and very picturesque monastery on a tiny island in the middle of the river that dates back to the eighteenth century. One of the best ways to experience the park is by boat – it’s a relaxed way to experience the beauty of the region.
Split’s strategic location, roughly halfway along the Dalmatian coast, means the city has been in the hands of Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Hungarians and Croatians at various points throughout history, but it is the Romans who have left an indelible mark on the place, in the form of the beautiful Old Town – at its heart is Diocletian’s Palace, a stunning, third-century palace built by a former Roman Emperor. Wander the narrow streets in search of the ideal spot for your morning coffee or head down to the Riva – a waterfront promenade lined with cafés and restaurants, this is a magical spot to sample freshly-grilled octopus washed down with the good Dalmatian wine as the sun sinks into the Adriatic.
Running roughly parallel to the four hundred-odd kilometres of Dalmatian coastline, there are seventy-nine islands (and close to 500 smaller islets) sprinkled across the Adriatic Sea, ranging from the largest (Cres, population just over 3,000) to the smallest (the unpopulated Smokvica Vela). You could happily spend an entire summer island-hopping, using the excellent network of ferries, or could opt for a small ship cruise that takes you to some of the best, both large and small. From the white-pebbled beaches of Brač to the lavender fields of Hvar; from the saltwater lakes of Mljet to the car-free serenity of Kolocep – there’s an island for every sort of holiday.
With a nickname like “the Pearl of the Adriatic”, you know you can expect big things from the city of Dubrovnik, which sits at the southern end of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Its stunning, UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town is protected by two kilometres of city walls, which offer a wonderful view of the narrow streets and bustling squares which it encircles. The city’s three fortresses also provide vantage points for amazing views of the city and sea, but you may prefer to make yourself comfortable in a café on the car-free Stradun, enjoying a drink and watching the world go by. Finish your day with a ride on the Dubrovnik Cable Car to the top of Mount Srđ in time to catch the incredible sunset over the Adriatic.
Croatia is truly a destination with something to offer for everyone: your personal travel manager can help you plan an itinerary that ticks all your boxes.