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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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!
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!
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!
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!
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?
Have you ever taken a European road trip?
Which cities in Croatia would you most like to visit?