Medieval walled towns, impressive mountains, sun-kissed beaches and over a thousand islands – Croatia has it all (Photo: Getty Images)

Medieval walled towns, impressive mountains, sun-kissed beaches and over a thousand islands – Croatia has it all. It's hard to resist the charms of stylish capital Zagreb, beyond which lies the seductive peninsula of Istria and the glorious Dalmatian coast. The two great ancient cities of Zadar and Split are highlights of this long seafront stretch, the latter the departure point for ferries to some of Croatia’s most captivating islands: Brač, Hvar, Korčula and Vis. Back on the mainland, deep in the country's south, awaits the incomparable walled city of Dubrovnik.

The best places to visit in Croatia

Zagreb

With its abundance of green space, fantastic museums and architecture, Zagreb is a true delight (Photo: Getty Images)

Boasting acres of green space, fantastic museums and architecture, a strong kavana (café) culture and effortlessly cool bohemian heritage, Zagreb is a delight. Begin your explorations in the handsome main square, Trg Bana Jelačića, before taking the short walk up to Gradec (the Upper Town), a leafy enclave of tiny streets and Baroque palaces. Close by is Kaptol, a quarter whose ecclesiastical character is sumptuously represented by the filigree spires of the city Cathedral – best appreciated while sipping a drink at one of the many nearby outdoor cafés. Donji Grad (the Lower Town), meanwhile, is an appealing mix of Austro-Hungarian art nouveau and socialist-era architecture.

For a slice of alternative Zagreb, head to the legendary Močvara bar, complete with comic-strip décor, or sip a coffee and enjoy mellower music at the excellent Eliscaffe.

Look no further than the glass-fronted Sheraton Zagreb Hotel for a comfortable night’s sleep. Alternatively, The Westin Zagreb, complete with pool and spa, overlooks the neo-Renaissance Mimara Museum, in homage to local sculptor Ante Topić-Mimara. 

Istria

Istria

Istria's largest urban centre, Pula, features one of the finest amphitheatres outside the Colosseum in Rome (Photo: Getty Images)

A large, wedge-shaped peninsula extending south from the Slovenian border, Istria is a seductive mix of forested hills, Tuscan-like villages and appealing coastal resorts, with three particular highlights. 

Pula is the region’s largest urban centre – and the one you really must make time for – if only for its awesome amphitheatre, which is one of the finest outside the Colosseum in Rome. Poreč, on Istria's western seaboard, boasts a wealth of medieval architectural treasures, among them the thirteenth-century Romanesque House (the oldest in Poreč), complete with a beautifully preserved wooden balcony, and some superb beaches. Fans of Byzantine art should make time for Poreč's extraordinary Basilica of Euphrasius, one of the most complete early Christian complexes anywhere in Europe. Completing this trio of picture-perfect Istrian destinations is Rovinj, with its red-stone houses and pretty, yacht-filled harbour.

Plitvice Lakes and Zadar 

The stunning natural display of Croatia's Plitvice Lakes has to be seen to be believed

The stunning natural display of Croatia's Plitvice Lakes has to be seen to be believed (Photo: Getty Images)

The Plitvice Lakes region is a magical masterpiece of nature, comprising an 8km-long chain of sixteen lakes connected by a series of crashing waterfalls and cataracts. Well laid-out paths enable different routes of different lengths to be walked, but it's worth making use of the buses and boats that shuttle visitors to the most interesting parts of the park.

An hour and a half's drive to the southwest of the lakes region lies the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia – Zadar. Its tangerine-roofed Old Town is a hub of atmospheric antiquity. Its riches include ninth-century churches, a Roman Forum and Arsenal. The last of these is a former Venetian military warehouse that is now the city’s premier cultural venue, hosting exhibitions and concerts of all kinds.

Split and the southern islands 

Vis offers an array of secluded little beaches that you'll quite possibly have all to yourself

Vis offers an array of secluded little beaches that you'll quite possibly have all to yourself (Photo: Getty Images)

The ancient centre of Split is moulded around Diocletian’s Palace, erstwhile retirement home of the eponymous emperor, but these days the city is full to bursting with atmospheric restaurants and bars.

Split is the launchpad for Croatia’s most enticing group of offshore islands. Closest to the mainland is Brač, singularly famous for its magnificent, V-shaped beach, Zlatni Rat (Golden Cape), followed by Hvar, contender for Croatia’s hippest destination thanks to its lively nightlife; Carpe Diem Beach is currently the hottest spot in Hvar Town. From here, board another ferry to Korčula, whose walled, fishbone-shaped old town is simply magic. Even more remote, and enchanting, is Vis, a former military base for the Yugoslav army and whose once secret tunnels and caves it’s now possible to explore; otherwise, kick back on one of its many secluded pebbly beaches.

If you’re staying the night in Split, Le Méridien Lav Split offers airy, beautifully appointed rooms with beautiful waterfront views. 

Dubrovnik

Magical Dubrovnik is all polished marble streets and charming white stone houses (Photo: Getty Images)

Lying a three-hour drive south of Split, Dubrovnik is a magical place, especially in spring or early autumn, when visitor numbers are lower. Stroll around the city’s substantial medieval walls then explore the Old Town’s polished marbled streets, which are filled with green-shuttered white stone houses and patrician residences, like the Rector’s Palace, a fifteenth-century Gothic-Renaissance masterpiece. Book a room at the stylish Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel, from where you can walk directly onto the beach. 

What to eat and drink in Croatia

Croatian dish peka is an unmissable delicacy slow-cooked under a terracotta or iron lid over burning embers

Croatian dish peka is an unmissable delicacy slow-cooked under a terracotta or iron lid over burning embers (Photo: Getty Images)

Popular throughout the country is peka, a meat or seafood dish cooked under a terracotta or iron lid over burning embers, and then served with potatoes. A favourite along the coast is buzara (meaning "stew"), a simple dish of mussels in a wine broth with garlic and breadcrumbs.

In Zagreb, one of the top tables is NAV, a high-end restaurant that marries Croatian and Asian cuisine to sublime effect. Opt for the dazzling tasting menu, which features the likes of smoked cherry tart and mousse trout.

Wherever you go in Istria, meanwhile, try a drop of the excellent local wine, typically white Malvazija or red Teran, together with some freshly picked olives or white truffles harvested from the interior. 

Split's coastal situation promises good fish and seafood. The city's Fantažija restaurant does some of the most spectacular seafood anywhere – try the octopus carpaccio and crni rižot (black risotto with fresh squid or cuttlefish). 

Top things to do in Croatia

The grizzled peaks and vast canyons of Paklenica National Park draw hikers from far and wide (Photo: Getty Images)

When in Zagreb, one of the best things to do is to take a ride to the top of Zagreb 360 (aka the Zagreb Eye), a 16th floor observation deck at the top of a 1950s-era skyscraper on Trg Bana Jelačića. The city’s most central green space is Art Park Zagreb, essentially an open-air art gallery that also stages an exciting programme of free events in summer. An easy, cooling escape from urban Zagreb is Medvenica (Bear Mountain), whose highest peak, Sjleme, is reached via cable car; from the top, there are ravishing views of Zagreb and the surrounding countryside. 

During your time in Istria, a visit to Pula’s amphitheatre is worthwhile simply for its superb architecture, but a really interesting thing to do is to catch a film or concert there.

South of Istria, the stunning drive down the Dalmatian coast is as memorable a road trip as any in Europe, the twisting road sandwiched between the sparkling, turquoise Adriatic on one side and gnarly limestone peaks on the other. 

If you’re a fan of alpine landscapes – and the activities they offer – head to the Velebit Mountains, the largest range in Croatia, which tops out at 1757m. There’s more great hiking – for walkers of all abilities – a little further south among the grizzled peaks and vast canyons of Paklenica National Park.

Star of Croatia's south, Dubrovnik is a fantastic destination in itself – one of the country’s main highlights – but it’s also a great base for day-trips. For some fun on the water, putter out to the delightful, verdant island of Lokrum (taking one of the half-hourly ferries from Porporela, Dubrovnik’s old port) where you can swim and picnic – you may well have the place to yourself – or paddle out in a kayak to the Elaphite islands.

Just 17km south of Dubrovnik, within a pebble’s throw of the Montenegrin border, meanwhile, Cavtat is a calm and colourful harbour town. Summer events in Cavtat are fabulous, particularly the Summer Festival in July and the many klapa (traditional acapella singing) groups that sporadically gather in the main square.

Hidden gems in Croatia

Pearl of Kvarner Bay, Krk island enjoys easy access to the mainland (Photo: Getty Images)

One of the most unique things to do in Croatia is to visit the blissfully tranquil islands of Cres and Krk. Lying just a few miles off the Istrian coast, they are blessed with broad, sandy bays and charming little fishing villages. Cres is reached via catamaran from Brestova on the mainland while Krk is connected to the mainland via a toll bridge.

Head to the lesser-visited Kornati Archipelago for another alternative thing to do. Pazman, Iz and Dugi Otok are among the archipelago's many islands and they promise seclusion you’ll seldom find elsewhere along the coast. The largest of these Zadarian Islands, Dugi Otok (“Long Island”), offers Telašćica Nature Park as its principal attraction. 

Go deeper

Croatia has three languages. Croatian is the country's official language, followed by Serbian – with which Croatian shares many similarities – and Bosnian. A few simple phrases to get you going include 'dobar dan' (good day), 'molim' (please) and 'hvala' (thank you).

Published: February 01, 2023

Article Tags:  Croatia , Dubrovnik , Split , Zagreb

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