I have asked SJ, an Australian living in Croatia the author of the awesome blog called Chasing the donkey about the beauties (and there are so many of those there) of her new home. A lover of food & wine, she’ll show you how to spend your holidays in Croatia in the best way:
I get asked all of the time: “What should we do while on holidays in Croatia”? The truth is, there is a wide variety of things to see and do. What you should do depends on your interests. These vary from sailing to hiking in national parks, through to discovering UNESCO sites, and enjoying ice cream in 2,000 year old towns you never even knew existed.
As someone who lives in Croatia, here are some key tips that I always tell people to consider and work into their trip itinerary.
1. Sail the high seas
When a country has over 1,000 islands and one of the richest archipelagos in the world, don’t miss your chance to sail along the coast. Spending any time at sea is a must on your Croatian vacation, even if it’s just a few days. You can combine the best of sea and land, by spending your time sailing the Adriatic coast, making stops along your route to explore the mainland. For help choosing a sailing route, we compiled the Guide to Sailing Croatia.
While sailing, we recommend you try Konoba Opat, which still rates as Mr. Chasing the Donkey’s best food experiences to date.
2. Explore the National Parks
Full of natural beauty, make sure you see at least one for yourself while on holidays in Croatia. Choose from any one of the eight National Parks. By far the most stunning is the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Plitvice, is a two hour bus ride from Zagreb and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, you can meander along the wooden plank trails & admire the stunning waterfalls.
Not far from the Dalmatian port city of Split, you can take a day trip to the Krka National Park. Krka is complete with medieval fortresses, waterfalls and boat excursions. The other six national parks also make great stops. They are Paklenica, Risnjak, Mljet, Kornati, Brijuni and Sjeverni Velebit.
3. Tick off the UNESCO Sites
For a small country of just over 56 thousand square kilometres, you may be surprised to know that there are seven, yes that’s right seven, Croatian UNESCO World Heritage sites.
- Plitvice Lakes National Park
- Episcopal Complex of the Euphrasian Basilica in the Historic Centre of Poreč
- Historic City of Trogir
- Historical Complex of Split with the Palace of Diocletian
- Old City of Dubrovnik
- Stari Grad Plain, Hvar
- The Cathedral of St James in Šibenik
If you’d rather not brave the masses in peak season, you could also visit some of the less known Croatian sites that have been submitted to the tentative UNESCO list. These include:
- The Episcopal complex in Zadar, which is just a two hour bus ride north of Split.
- The fortified walls and salt pans in the towns of Ston and Mali Ston, which can be reached via highway, less than an hour from Dubrovnik.
- The Istrian hilltop town of Motovun, and
- The historical nucleus of Varazdin, north of Zagreb, which the New York Times named in it’s list of 52 Places to Go in 2014.
4. Find a Konoba
While on holiday in Croatia, no matter where you are, you’ll find something to suit your taste buds. Don’t let the abundance of pizza ovens seduce you. Although the pizza in Croatia is great, you need to also be on the look out for small local restaurants called konobas which are often family run.
When in Dalmatia, make sure you order any fresh fish that you see on offer. Your Dalmatian chef knows how to grill the fish to perfection.
A unique Croatian dish you’ll want to try is a black risotto made from cuttlefish called crni rižot. If you are not a lover of seafood, be sure to order Pašticada, a traditional beef dish, which is marinated for 24 hours in garlic, wine and herbs. Pašticada has a rich dark sauce and is served with homemade gnocchi. It is best enjoyed with a glass of the Dalmatian Plavac Mali red wine.
5. Discover Zadar
One of the best things to do in Croatia is to visit the historic old towns. One such place, that I always recommend, is the seaside town of Zadar. By day you can drink coffee in the 2,000-year-old Roman forum, or wander the narrow streets eating ice cream. Then as night falls, you can enjoy the sounds of the musical nights festival. A classical music festival which runs from July to August each year, bringing the 9th Century Saint Donatus Church and Roman Forum to life.
More music and lights can be found along Zadar’s promenade, thanks to architect Nikola Basic who added a modern dimension to Zadar with his design of the Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun. Relax by the sea organ, by day or night and enjoy the sound of the waves creating music, as they push air through 35 underwater pipes.
After enjoying all that Zadar has to offer, you can stay a few extra nights and make use of the convenient location to take day trips to the national parks and to sail along the Adriatic coast.
6. Explore Istria
When you think of Croatia, you’ll be forgiven if you only think of the beaches along those one thousand out of this world islands. Yet there is a part of Croatia to the north that you should visit while you’re in the land of the red, white and blue. It’s known as Istria.
In Istria you’ll find medieval hilltop towns, which some describe as being like the ‘new Tuscany’, an array of food festivals and some of the regions best olive oil, wine and the famous white truffle.
When in Istria you’ll find yourself wondering if you are actually in Italy.
Something else you might want to consider while on holidays in Croatia is cycling. Istria has some of the most scenic routes geared for cyclists. Amateurs, through to professionals, will each find a trail lined with breathtaking views and plenty of places to stop and enjoy a coffee.
7. Don’t skip Zagreb
I often hear from travelers to Croatia, that they land in Zagreb, collect their bags and race off to the Dalmatian Coast – for which I can not blame them. But my advice is not to rush off so quickly.
Zagreb’s highlights are many, including a very unique exhibit at the Museum of Broken Relationships. Along with museums and galleries, Zagreb also has a wonderful boutique fashion scene, that you won’t find anywhere else in Croatia. Best of all, you can zig zag across Zagreb without fuss, as the city is a walkers paradise and has a great tram network.
While in Zagreb, we stayed at the Hotel Esplanade and it was worth every penny for this luxury hotel. If you want to take our lead and rest your head in this 5 star hotel, our tip to you is to be sure to ask for a park facing view!
Zagreb has a thriving food scene, with a mix of upscale restaurants including fusion, international fare, and those serving truly authentic meals. Tkalciceva Street is the place to eat and drink: take a wander up the 800 metre paved street and take your pick at where to enjoy coffee or a cocktail. My pick is at number 18 Tkalciceva street, where you can drink with the locals and try many flavours of the Croatian liquor known as rajika.
Allow time to wander about the city admiring the architecture, which dates back to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Some of the buildings have a raw beauty while others are very well maintained, like in the main square of Ban Jelacic.
Zagreb is a place for all seasons, especially December.
Here you can escape the crowds from bigger European Christmas Markets, and plan your stay around the Advent in Zagreb festival, where you can drink mulled wine, eat street food and buy trinkets at the open air markets.
Over all there are just so many places to visit in Croatia. My guess is that you’ll need 2 trips (at least) to fully appreciate all that is on offer.