By David Barclay | November 1, 2023
Croatia has become a popular destination for vacationers and deserves to be on any world traveler’s short list of countries to visit next. I’ve planned trips for multiple clients to Croatia and recently returned from my own trip this past September. Rather than recount the details of my trip or provide a sample of one of my client’s trips, today’s blog post will focus more holistically on where you should visit and what you can see as you travel through Croatia.
Probably the most iconic city in Croatia, its massive city walls are instantly recognized by travelers, even those who have yet to visit southern Croatia. Dubrovnik has become even more famous in the past few years due to the popularity of The Game of Thrones TV series (guides even offer Game of Throne walking tours to the various filming locations throughout the city). Walking around and exploring the city (on your own or with a guide) is a wonderful activity and you can spend hours exploring the various streets, lanes, and shops. Another popular activity is to climb and walk the city walls, which are almost 2 km in length. Those who love aquatic activities can join a group of sea kayakers and explore the shoreline up and down the coast from the city center.
Dubrovnik, like most of the Dalmatian Coast, is known for seafood and many wonderful restaurants have beautiful views of the shoreline & Adriatic Sea. Those looking for a unique experience and wonderful sunsets can check out Buza and Buza II (which literally translate as ‘hole’ and ‘hole II’), Dubrovnik’s famous cliff bars. But be warned, getting a seat for a sunset can be challenging in peak tourist season. For a great meal away from the tourist traps at the main square, hike up the hill towards the northwest end of the city and visit Lady Pi-Pi (but expect a wait if you don’t arrive right at opening time for dinner).
Many great accommodations exist around Dubrovnik. Two of my favorites are the 5-star Villa Dubrovnik, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, and the 5-star Bellevue Hotel. Both hotels provide guests with direct access to the sea for a refreshing swim and both hotels are only a short walk from the old city center.
About an hour north of Dubrovnik, travelers can visit a working oyster farm and try some of the freshest oysters they will ever enjoy. This can be part of a day trip out of Dubrovnik, or a stop along the way for travelers heading south to Dubrovnik from Split or Hvar. Visitors can also opt to stop at a local winery near Orebic for a private wine tasting. Foodies may enjoy heading out to the countryside for a cooking class with a local family.
Hvar is the name of both the town (known as Hvar town) and one of the islands along the coast of Croatia. It is a popular destination for travelers, offering relaxing downtime and time spent enjoying the Adriatic. Visitors may enjoy a private tour of Hvar which concludes with a traditional lunch. The tour begins in Hvar town with a stroll through the winding streets before heading up to the Hvar fortress on the hilltop. From there, drive to the other side of the island (through a recently constructed two lane tunnel which cuts the drive time in half) to Stari Grad, the old capital of Hvar. On the return to Hvar town, stop at an abandoned village where an entrepreneuring chef has opened a restaurant serving traditional Croatian fare. Or guests can try their hand at cooking their own meal with a local family.
Visitors to the island can also check out the multiple beaches (some public, some private beach clubs with a daily fee) or take a private sea kayaking adventure around the Pakleni Islands.
There are several options for getting to/from Hvar. There are multiple passenger ferries to/from Split and Dubrovnik. But a more enjoyable option is a private motorboat cruise, which provides an island-hopping tour around the beautiful Dalmatian islands. Guests meet their boat with captain & steward and take a leisurely path, stopping in sheltered coves for a swim and at a small town for lunch. A trip between Split & Hvar is about 8hrs and between Hvar and Orebic is about 6hrs (travelers can then continue by car to Dubrovnik).
The grand hotel in Hvar town is the 5-star Palace Elizabeth hotel. Sitting prominently overlooking the harbor and with the fortress perched on the hill above, this is definitely a standout option for staying on the island. I also like the 4-star Adriana, Hvar Spa Hotel. Off to one side of the harbor but still with great views, it has a wonderful restaurant on the first floor and a lovely rooftop bar with stunning panoramic views of the harbor and Hvar town.
While Dubrovnik and Hvar have their charms, Split is by far my favorite city in Croatia. It has a great blend of fascinating history, unique architecture, winding streets, and yet a vibrant modern city feel with a great food scene as well.
A visit to Split requires a walking tour of the old town. Initially built as a palace for the Roman emperor Diocletian, it was repurposed many times over the years, becoming both a fortified city and later becoming the old city center for Split. The clean lines and symmetry of Roman construction gave way over time to randomized construction of common people’s homes. Split suffered some damage in WWII, which opened up part of the old town to create a few parks and open spaces. Today the old town offers many shops and restaurants that cater to visitors’ needs. The old palace cellars, which were used as a refuse dump in the Middle Ages, have been carefully restored and provide both a perspective on Roman life as well as many valuable medieval artifacts discarded in the refuse.
Split also offers several great options for half- and full-day trips outside of the city. History lovers, as well as Game of Throne fans, will enjoy a trip out to the charming town of Trogir. With its medieval walls and well-preserved buildings, it’s clear why the town earned UNESCO World Heritage status. Guests can also visit the tiny village of Kastel Gomilica. Your guide for the day can point out the many locations used to film Game of Throne scenes. Foodies and enophiles will enjoy a trip out of the city to the slopes of Mt Kozjak for an exquisite food & wine pairing. Travel into a vineyard to your private lunch venue, where you will meet the wine maker and a celebrated Croatian chef for an incredible multi-course meal.
While I love 5-star hotels when staying in a more remote location and want to spend a meaningful amount of time on property, for a vibrant city like Split you need to be out and about exploring. Therefore, I think a 4-star hotel is perfectly sufficient. Two great hotels in Split are the Fermai Heritage Hotel and Santa Lucia Heritage Hotel, both conveniently located within easy walking distance of the old town and harbor areas.
Plitvice Lakes National Park & Istria (Pula, Rovinj, Buje, and wine country)
As you head north from Split, along the coast, you leave the city behind and enter a region of small hill towns and natural beauty. The area has a very Italian feel to it, both because the northwestern part of Croatia is only an hour or two drive from northern Italy, and because the area was under venetian control for many centuries. Many of the towns and villages in this area have the winged lion of Venice carved into the stone above the city gates and on the central bell/clock towers. Locals in the area are also more likely to speak Italian as a second (or even first) language.
One of the must-visit locations is the Plitvice Lakes National Park. Ranked among the best waterfalls in the world, the park is a collection of tiered lakes, with waterfalls and rapid streams of multiple heights and widths carrying the water through the park. While in the past visitors were allowed to swim in the lakes and access wasn’t restricted, to protect this natural wonder the government has limited where visitors can walk (no swimming allowed) and limited the number of visitors entering every hour.
Further north is the region of Istria, a large peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic in the north of Croatia. Within Istria is one of the most popular wine regions in Croatia. As I drove through this region, I continuously felt as if I was in Tuscany, with the rolling hills, hillside vineyards, and hilltop walled villages. Visitors can spend time visiting the local wineries or exploring some of the nearby towns and villages. The largest and most famous are Pula & Rovinj (Roninj pictured above) and a great stop for those who love being on the coast. Inland, guests can visit Buje, or as we did on our trip, the small town of Motovun perched high on a hilltop overlooking the valleys below.
Similar to Tuscany, there are several great hotels located in the countryside which were previously estates or small villages and have been given new life as luxury resorts. The San Canzian Village & Hotel located outside of Buje, is a wonderful example, with just 28 rooms including a 3-bedroom villa with private pool and kitchen (where we stayed on our recent trip). The Meneghetti Wine Hotel, a Relais & Chateaux property, is another wonderful hotel.
While many travelers will find it easier to fly into or out of Venice, bypassing the capital of Croatia, and others may fly into and quickly depart Zagreb for experiences further south, a one or two night stop in this vibrant city will reward the adventurous traveler. Start with a private walking tour of Zagreb. Croatia’s elegant capital is an eclectic mix of Central European architecture and unbeatable Mediterranean charm. Walk its bustling streets and squares, enjoy the greenery of Zrinjevac Park, the haste in Ban Jelacic Square and a history lesson in mediaeval settlements of the Upper Town. Admire landmarks such as St Mark’s church with multi-colored roof and impressive 19th century Croatian National Theatre.
Visitors can also explore the countryside outside of Zagreb. Ride through the picturesque landscape of green slopes speckled with mediaeval castles and tiny villages. Discover Trakoscan Castle, a 13th century stronghold with rich heritage. Stop for lunch in a local tavern and taste the typical dishes while sipping traditional “rakija”. Then venture far into the past at Krapina Neanderthal Museum. Situated near the prehistoric site of Husnjakovo Hill, where 900 human fossil bones were found in 1899, it evokes the Stone Age era and offers an insight into the significance of Neanderthals in the evolution of mankind.
Croatia also has many other activities to offer visitors. Some of my favorites include:
- Private truffle hunt & lunch with local farmers
- Educational dig with an archaeologist at an active archaeological excavation
- Private tour of the Skocjan caves
- Private panoramic boat tour of Boka Bay with lunch
- And many outdoor adventures including bike tours, horseback riding, canyoning, rafting, and snorkeling.
Owner, Barclay & Company Travel
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