Two Weeks in Croatia: The Highlights

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I’ve just returned from a two week road trip across Croatia and am still reeling from the country’s staggering scenery, lovely old architecture, and friendly culture. My adventure began in Dubrovnik, where I rented a car and drove north to Rovinj on the Istrian Penninsula. All told, I explored eight towns and cities, two national parks, and six UNESCO World Heritage sites. I plan to write about each destination in depth, but this overview may give you some ideas for where to go in Croatia – because you should definitely go!

Dubrovnik juts out into the impossibly blue Adriatic like a diamond engagement ring, full of promise and beauty. After reading reports of cruise ship tourists choking the old city’s streets, I was worried I wouldn’t enjoy my time there. Thankfully Dubrovnik wasn’t nearly as crowded as I expected; I’m sure visiting during the low season helped. I spent three blissful days exploring the steep, narrow alleyways within the medieval walls, walking the length of said walls, and taking in the view from on high at the mountaintop Panorama restaurant. Some of my happiest moments were spent at a cafe by the harbor, sipping coffees (and beers) and watching the never-ending stream of boats.

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I loved Dubrovnik so much that I only took one day trip: a boat excursion to Cavtat, a small town near the border with Montenegro. Although short on sights, I was all too content to while away a lazy afternoon by Cavtat’s peaceful harbor with a cheese plate and a half bottle of wine. A word to the wise: if you plan to visit Cavtat from Dubrovnik, go with the Adriana boat company – their boats seemed the most frequent and reliable. My tour company’s boat never showed up for the return trip, but I was able to bum a ride back thanks to a kindly Adriana captain!

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I found Dubrovnik’s missing cruise ship passengers in Split, which felt more crowded and chaotic due to the compact size of the historic district. Split has more attractions than Dubrovnik, but two days was enough time to explore. Split’s old city grew up within the walls of a ruined palace belonging to a retired Roman emperor, Diocletian. It is a labyrinth of alleyways with cafes and restaurants crammed into every available nook and cranny! For the best view of the jumbled rooftops, head to the observation deck of the cathedral bell tower.

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Trogir is an island and ancient trading port surrounded by stone walls and water so beautiful it doesn’t look real. The view from the crumbling old fortress tower provides a nice overview, but the water is best appreciated from the bridge to neighboring Ciovo Island. I took the local bus from Split to Trogir (one hour) and spent a pleasant afternoon wandering Trogir’s narrow cobbled lanes and eating pizza by the sea.

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Zadar was a last minute addition to my Croatia itinerary and ended up being one of my favorite destinations of the trip! The northern Dalmatian city spices up its wealth of Roman ruins with a vibrant cafe scene, interesting museums, and unique public art displays. Of the cities I visited, Zadar had the most lived-in feel, probably thanks to its large university population. I spent four days there – two exploring the city and two day-tripping to surrounding attractions.

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I can’t write about the highlights of my time in Croatia without mentioning stuffed squid. I enjoyed this dish twice, and the version from Zadar was so mouthwatering that it’s now on my list of top-ever tasties! Don’t worry, I’ll be dedicating a separate post to my favorite meals in Croatia – the new-to-me cuisine was a revelation.

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Krka National Park is a special place. The impossibly clear Krka river has carved a path from mountains to the sea, creating a series of waterfalls and shallow swimming pools. I spent about two hours ambling along the wooden boardwalk surrounding Skradinski Buk, the park’s loveliest waterfall, and regretted not wearing my swimsuit for a refreshing dip at the end. Food options at the park are limited; I packed a sandwich for lunch and made it back to Zadar in time for dinner. It was an easy one-hour drive from Krka’s free car park (at the Lozovac entrance).

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Another great day trip from Zadar is Sibenik, a well-preserved medieval town that couldn’t be more charming if it tried. I spent a fabulous day winding through the tangle of tiny streets that climb the hill at the town’s center. The hill is topped with a restored fortress that affords sweeping sea views. A pretty monastery garden and UNESCO-listed cathedral round out Sibenik’s list of attractions, though I was surprised to see so few tourists enjoying them. It made a nice change for an afternoon!

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Plitvice Lakes National Park boasts one of the most extraordinary landscapes I’ve ever seen. With its shimmering turquoise pools surrounded by steep white cliffs and thick foliage, Plitvice looks like an enchanted forest come to life. I fully expected to see fairies and elves dance across the boardwalk in front of me! I followed the “H” trail through the upper and lower falls and took between five and six hours to complete. If you have the time, I highly recommend it!

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Rovinj is a colorful gem of a town on the Istrian peninsula and was the last stopover point of my Croatia trip. I spent three days exploring this pretty fishing village, poking down quiet lanes that lead to the sea. I was surprised by Rovinj’s wealth of unique art and specialty stores and its many fetching cafes and restaurants. A string of bars along the waterfront facing the old town make a perfect spot for a sun-downer cocktail. I wish I could click my heels and be back there, glass in hand and warm breeze on my face. It was heaven!

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From Rovinj I drove to Padua, Italy and swung by tiny-but-historic Porec, Croatia along the way. Porec’s piece de resistance is the Euphrasian Basilica, a 6th century treasure containing some of the world’s finest Byzantine mosaics. This UNESCO site is not to be missed!

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Driving in Croatia proved to be relatively painless. Thanks to my American inability to operate a vehicle with manual transmission, the rental company gave me a free upgrade to a Mercedes with built in GPS – the only automatic they had on the lot! Aside from one harrowing drive through the mountains (from Plitvice to Rovinj), I mostly stuck to the spiffy new A1 highway to save time. Tolls were a bit pricey, though the booths were easy to use. I drove the jaw-dropping coastal road from Dubrovnik to Split via Bosnia. Apologies to the drivers behind me for my slow speed, but I didn’t want to miss a thing! Can you blame me?

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24 thoughts on “Two Weeks in Croatia: The Highlights

  1. What a fantastic two week trip! Crammed with interesting cities, national parks and UNESCO sites – superb, my type of itinerary.
    I went last year and had three bases, each for four nights. Šibenik, Trogir and Zadar – all three of which you enjoyed 🙂 (Zadar is my fave place EVER)
    I look forward to reading the in-depth trip reports when you have time to compile them.
    Am following on twitter so I don’t miss any 😉

    • Thanks so much, Jon! I have to say, for as many destinations as I crammed into this trip, it never once felt rushed. (Though I would have loved more time in Sibenik!) I’ve been busy editing photos and hope to have some new posts up soon. Cheers!

  2. Love this recap! It was so great meeting you in Rovinj. We are in Zadar now – and despite the rain – loving it! We had a beautiful day to visit Krka and were blown away by the natural beauty. Looking forward to reading more about your time in Croatia 😉
    Sarah (Jetsetting Fools) recently posted…Daily life in fairytale RovinjMy Profile

    • Thanks, Sarah! We really enjoyed meeting you both! I’m so jealous that you are still enjoying Croatia – I’d do anything to go back! But for now I’ll just have to live vicariously through you while editing my photos 🙂

  3. Croatia has been on my “must see” list for a long time, and this reinforces that. Sounds and looks like you had an absolutely marvelous time! The national parks alone make me want to jump on the next flight over the
    Atlantic!
    Daina recently posted…15th Annual National Book FestivalMy Profile

    • The whole trip was wonderful from start to finish and I wouldn’t change a thing! (Well, except for staying longer in each place!) I edited all my photos for Plitvice today so you’ll have more fuel for your wanderlust shortly 🙂

    • Thanks, Andrea! You really must visit Zadar and Krka. There is just something so special about those places. We’ll see if I can put it into words in my upcoming posts 🙂

  4. So envious. I have seen a few shows on Croatia on the Travel Channel. It looks to be so very beautiful and your pictures have confirmed that impression. So glad you had a wonderful time. Thanks for the great commentary.

    • Thanks, Rebecca! I adored Zadar. It had such a laid-back vibe and some of the best food of the entire trip. I could have spent a month there!

  5. Amazing photos, I loved your Facebook updates when you were there. I am dying to visit Croatia and your photos truly show why everyone must go 😀

  6. These photos look amazing Heather. And so does Croatia. I haven’t yet been to the Balkans but we might do this next Easter as we did the Baltics this year!

    I have taken a road trip across Europe. In the 90’s we did Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. A few years later I did Spain, Italy, France and Monacco. This year, we did Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland (more a cruise, but still!).

    I look forward to reading your next piece. 🙂
    Victoria@ The British Berliner recently posted…The secret of eating & drinking in Warsaw – How to make pierorgi and eat it!My Profile

    • Thanks so much, Victoria! Croatia was so stunning that my photos hardly do it justice! That being said, I editing all my shots from Plitvice Lakes today and hope to have a new post out soon.

      I bet that 90’s road trip through Eastern Europe was super cool! Having now spent a significant amount of time in this part of the world, I wish I could travel back in time to see how much it’s changed in such a (relatively) short time.

      Where to next?

  7. Oh how did I miss Krka National Park while I was there?!? That looks stunning, and the perfect way to spend a sunny day–along with a picnic filled with pita!;-) Going to bookmark all of your Croatia posts–we’re planning to go for another visit this summer, and I want to be sure to hit up all these great spots! Thanks Heather!!
    Jess @UsedYorkCity recently posted…Intermission: SylviaMy Profile

  8. I have visited Croatia four times from Australia in the last 10 yrs and can happily say I’ve nearly covered every corner of this stunning country which I fell in love with on my first visit. I too love Sibenik, and will let u in on some nearby gems of Vodice, Island Murter & KORNATI islands. Be sure to Google these and visit next time round. Two more gems in the north of country are Rastoke and Varazdin, worth visiting when heading to Zagreb or Plitvice lakes. I note this trip was a road trip so u didn’t get to the islands which are a must and best enjoyed in the warm peak season of July to Aug when they truly come alive. Visiting town of Bol and Pucisca on island of Brac is a must as is the well publicised Hvar island. My hidden Jewell however is island Vis with a trip to stiniva cove and the blue cave. Be sure to visit these on yr next visit …. U will thank me 😉

    • Thanks for these great tips, Dani! I definitely want to explore the islands the next time I’m in Croatia. I thought about trying to work in an island on this trip, but having the car complicated things. (Though it was perfect for exploring the mainland!) I’m also sad I didn’t make it up to Zagreb, but hope to make that into a Croatia/Slovenia/Austria holiday. There’s just so many places to see!

      • You did really well in two weeks. Yr right Croatia has so many sights for a small country. You need a month to experience it all

        • Would love recommendations on what to do with 4 days after a week cruise from Split to Dubrovnik. I will be travelling on my own.

          Thanks so much.

          • Hi Lori, assuming your cruise stops at some of the islands along the way, I’d recommend checking out some of the little towns along the coast. I’ve heard great things about Ston although I haven’t been. Other options would be to travel to Kotor or Mostar, which are both fairly close to Dubrovnik. Happy planning!

  9. I’ve been to the start and finish points of your road trip and loved them both. We had one of the best holiday meals ever in Rovinj – just simple grilled sea bass, chips and local wine. Then we had a drink on the rocks looking out to sea at Valentinos as the sun set.
    Richard recently posted…Living the high life in Dubai: The OberoiMy Profile

    • That sounds like a perfect holiday evening! The sun was setting a little earlier in late September, so we started with sunset cocktails and then moved on to dinner. Now I’d like to go back during the summer and try it in reverse!

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