For a country a tad smaller than West Virginia, Croatia packs a mighty punch of gorgeous scenery, rich history and flavorful cuisine. Whether you’re exploring one or more of Croatia’s 1,000 islands, learning how to cook a traditional local meal or discovering some of the country’s quirkiest attractions and events, you’re bound to be surprised by the diversity here.
Give truffle hunting a try, listen to the sea create music and explore the depths below two airports. Let our slideshow of unique experiences inspire you, and then check out our picks for the best places to stay and learn more about how to get around.
Enjoy an Island View
Like Greece, Croatia has a coastline dotted with more than 1,000 idyllic islands. To get a bird’s-eye view of them, you’ll need a lot of elevation. Cue the Velebit — the largest mountain range in the country. Crisscrossed with hiking trails, the Velebit is divided into two national parks: Paklenica and Sjeverni Velebit (known in English as the Northern Velebit National Park). Both feature scenic, forested trails and, if you get high enough, views of the Croatian islands far below.
From nearby Zadar, visitors can head to Paklencia and either hit the trails independently or join a guided hike. Adventure Dalmatia offers three- to eight-hour customized hikes in the park for a minimum of two people. Other options are the six-hour trek from Raftrek or the eight-hour Crazy Horse hike from Paklenica Avanturist; you’ll need to make your own way to the town of Starigrad Paklenica for both of those guided hikes.
Bask in a Sunlit Glow
Nature is at its finest when it leaves us in awe, and Croatia’s Blue Cave (or Blue Grotto) does just that in late morning, when the sun’s light reflects off the white cave floor up through the water, bathing the cavern in an eerie blue glow.
If you’re staying on the island of Vis, local tour operators offer half-day tours to the cave; you can also find tours from Hvar. (Atlas Hvar is one option.) For those based on the mainland, full-day tours to the cave depart from Split and Trogir and include visits to several attractions. Blue Cave and Hvar tours are available from Viator, Split-Excursions.com and Sugaman Tours; all get participants to the cave between 11 a.m. and noon, the best time of day to see the cave’s ethereal glow, before moving on to stops at several other islands, including the Green Cave, where the sun’s rays cast green shadows.
Dig for Truffles
Called by one French gourmand the “diamond of the kitchen,” truffles are prized for their taste and rarity. Truffle lovers visiting Croatia must stop in Buzet, a hilltop town in the Croatian region of Istria that sells itself as the “Capital of Truffles.” Truffles here are still hunted in the traditional way — using an animal’s keen sense of smell to dig them out in the wild. Time your visit for the second weekend of September, and you’ll be able to partake in the festival of Subotina and a 2,000-egg omelet made with 22 pounds of truffles. If you’re in town in early November, watch out for the annual truffle festival.
Want to give the hunt a try yourself? You’ll need to plan your trip between September 15 and November 15, as searching for white truffles is prohibited the rest of the year. We recommend a stop at Karlic Tartufi in the village of Paladini. At this family-owned store/restaurant you’ll learn about truffles, go on a hunt with trained dogs and taste a variety of truffle products. ToursByLocals.com also offers a six-hour white truffle hunt experience in the Motovun forest.
Channel Your Inner Targaryen
Chances are you won’t see dragons, but a day tour of Split and its environs will take you to some of the set locations and background scenery used in the most recent seasons of the blockbuster HBO hit “Game of Thrones.” Visit Klis Fortress, an ancient fort perched on top of a rocky outcrop and the filming location for an attack on Meereen. Walk the halls of Diocletian’s Palace, an imposing relic of the Roman Empire and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where multiple scenes from the show have been filmed.
Viator offers a half-day “Game of Thrones” outing to Diocletian’s Palace and Klis Fortress, while a half-day tour from visits Klis Fortress as well as two other locations used in the filming: Zrnovnica Quarry and the Split town center. At you can book a full-day tour that includes Diocletian’s Palace, Zrnovnica Quarry and Klis Fortress, as well as a five-day tour that stops in Dubrovnik, the Dalmatian town of Ston, the islands of Hvar and Vis, Krka National Park and Split, among other sites. If five days of in-depth “Game of Thrones” sightseeing isn’t enough, Zicasso offers a seven-day tour.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Touring Beautiful Croatia, Slovenia and Montenegro by Bob W.
“The next day, we drove to Split via a winding, twisting coastal road carved into steep mountainsides and offering a succession of dramatic mountain, Adriatic and inland lake views. The active port of Split is home to the palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian, built in 305 A.D. … The palace is considered to be one of the greatest Roman ruins in Europe.” Read more!
Listen to the Sea Make Music
Anyone who has spent time near the ocean knows the song of the sea — the crashing of waves during a storm, the quiet lapping as water meets beach. But in Zadar, the sea takes music creation to another level with the help of the Sea Organ. Producing a sound somewhere between an orchestra tuning up and a symphony of train whistles, the 230-foot long Sea Organ is an experimental instrument played by the interaction of the sea’s waves with tubes located beneath a set of waterside marble steps. The tubes connect to 35 organ pipes, each tuned to a different musical chord.
The Sea Organ is a stop on virtually all Zadar bus and walking tours, and is easily visited independently. To get the full sea experience, join a kayak tour from KayakTours-Croatia.com; as you paddle past the Sea Organ, you’ll be helping to create the sounds you hear.
Get a Taste of Dalmatia
Croatian cuisine traces the small country’s history. Mainland dishes, which feature black pepper, paprika and garlic, date back to the country’s Slavic origins, as well as its interactions with neighboring cultures. Coastal and island gastronomy still bear the influence of the Greeks and Romans, with lots of olive oil and herbs such as rosemary, sage, clove and nutmeg.
A prime example of the latter can be found in the Dalmatia region, where a favorite dish is peka, a blend of meat and vegetables cooked in olive oil and sprinkled with rosemary. Learn to cook peka while discovering some of the famous red wines of the Peljesac Peninsula during Culinary Croatia’s full-day Tastes of Peljesac class (the tour leaves from Dubrovnik, but all the action takes place on the Peninsula). Similarly, GetYourGuide.com and DubrovnikHolidayVillas.com offer day-long traditional Dalmatian cooking classes in Peljesac that depart from Dubrovnik.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Amazing Croatia by Anne berry-smith
“Back on the road the next day we commented often how beautiful this drive was, often even more stunning than the coastal drives in Italy and France. Known as the Dalmatian Coast we drove sometimes close to the sea and other times quite high in the mountains which afforded us superb views.” Read more!
Cheer on Your Favorite Donkey
Sure, they’ve got bulls in Pamplona, but Sali (on Dugi Otok, the seventh largest island in the Adriatic Sea) has donkeys! Racing donkeys! Part of the tiny town’s three-day Saljske Uzance festival in August, the trke tovarov (or racing of the donkeys) takes place on the last day and features a series of races. Prizes are awarded for the fastest donkey, as well as the laziest.
Sali is a 75-minute ferry ride from Zadar. If you want to see what else the summer festival has to offer, spend the Saturday night before the donkey races in town. In addition to a variety of sporting events (potato bag races, rope pulling competitions, stilt races), there are always local music and traditional foods to enjoy. Once the festival is over, spend a day exploring the nearby islands with Adamo Travel.
Sip Wine Under the Airport
What better way to toast your arrival in or departure from Croatia than with a fine glass of vino at the airport? Skip the terminal bar and head under Dubrovnik’s international airfields for a distinctive experience. Durovic Cave is a 100,000-square-foot cavern filled with stalactites and stalagmites, as well as traces of Bronze and Iron Age history. Perhaps most importantly, it’s also home to Skycellar, a wine bar with a selection of vintages from Croatia’s Konavle region.
To reach Skycellar, look for signs to the 130-foot tunnel near the entrance to the airport’s main office. Tastings and audio tours of the cave are on offer every day of the week.
Advice from a Traveler Who’s Been There
Croatia & Herzegovina by Patricia F.
“Dubrovnik on a weekend night is lively with music outdoors, restaurants serving Dalmatian seafood, Italian pastas, risottos, pizza and Central European meat, potatoes and vegetables. A morning walk along the famous high wall is spectacular and you will meet travelers from all over Europe and the English speaking world.” Read more!
Meet the Locals
Historical sites and museums can tell you much about a country’s past, but there’s no better way to learn about the here and now than to meet and talk with the locals. Find out about daily life, hear different points of views on political and cultural debates, and laugh while sharing jokes. For the more extroverted out there, meeting locals might be easy at coffee shops, bars and nightclubs, but the simplest way to meet locals is through a tour designed to bring visitors and native Croats together.
ToursByLocals.com offers a full-day “Meet the Locals” tour that takes visitors out of the city into smaller towns for visits with two families, one of whom will serve a traditional Northern Croatian meal. For those who want to get a closer look at the trendy side of the capital, Zagreb With Me offers two- to three-hour guided tours by locals involved with Zagreb’s social and cultural life (artists, students, musicians) that incorporate some history, but focus more on the best places to go out, where to eat and shop, and which sights are most worth your time. Another option for locally guided walking tours is Best of Zagreb.
Get Your Weird On
Explore Zagreb’s more fantastical side with three experiences that offer visitors a taste of history and culture yet defy classification. Start your day with one of Secret Zagreb Walks’ distinctive tours. We recommend the Zagrebarium, a steampunk-inspired walking tour that takes visitors back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and follows in the footsteps of physicist/inventor/futurist Nikola Tesla. From your costume-clad guide, you’ll learn about the connections between 20th-century rock stars and Croatian scientists and see how the conflux of superstition and science birthed world-changing inventions.
Then venture deep under Pljesevica Mountain on Destination Urban’s Underground City Break & Plitivice Lakes tour and explore the abandoned, decaying Zeljava Airbase, once one of the largest underground airports and military bases in Europe, designed to withstand a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb. End your day at the Museum of Broken Relationships, a bemusing gallery of objects donated by real people as a way of representing their loss, loneliness or relief after a breakup. Each piece of the collection is accompanied by the story of the person who donated it.
Best Time to Go to Croatia
The summer months, particularly July and August, are the busiest, hottest and most expensive time to visit the coast of Croatia. Wait until September or come in late spring, and you’ll enjoy a combination of temperate weather and smaller crowds. Though winter can be frigid in the inland part of the country, coastal cities are generally mild, making this a nice time of year for sightseeing if you want to escape the crowds completely. Note, however, that some restaurants and attractions may close up shop in the off-season.
Croatia on a Budget
Croatia is very affordable in comparison with countries in Western Europe, though it might cost you a little more for the airfare to get there. Consider traveling outside the peak tourist months of July and August to save on flights and accommodations. Especially if you’re traveling as a family or group of friends, renting an apartment or villa can save you money over staying in a hotel. Also keep an eye out for inexpensive guesthouses.
–written by Dori Saltzman