A few years ago, my now husband and I were planning to meet up in Europe and were looking for interesting places to visit in Europe that weren't part of the Schengen Zone. All non-European Union citizens know that the key to extending a vacation within Europe means taking some breaks in and out of the Schengen. We chose to spend a month road tripping through Croatia.
Croatia officially joined the Schengen Zone January 2023 meaning now the 90 days every 180 days allotted in this country combines with other countries in the Schengen Zone. A general rule of thumb is that the countries in the EU are the countries in the Schengen but there are some exceptions and additions to this rule.
Stay even longer in Croatia by exploring your options for long-term residency permits.
Now that we're back in the region now, exploring the Balkans, it's made me reminisce on our time spent in Croatia and the best places to visit in the country and where we want to want to see again (and a few places we missed the first go around that are on our list for next time).
Croatia is a popular European destination which attracts visitors for its stunning beaches, historic cities, and beautiful landscapes. Although many people assume the country's capital and largest city, Zagreb, is the best place to visit, some of the best places in Croatia are dotted along the Dalmatian coast, from the popular fort city of Dubrovnik to lesser known destinations such as Mljet and the Istrian Peninsula.
Unsurprisingly, since it is on the Adriatic Sea, Croatia has some of the best beaches in Europe, including the famous Zlatni Rat, which is consistently voted as the best in Croatia, so by adding Croatia to your bucket list, you can enjoy sparkling blue waters and white sand beaches combined with history, culture, and nature in one trip.
Keep in mind when planning your visit to Croatia that the country does experience 4 seasons. While the seasons are more mild than maybe what you're used to in North America or Northern Europe, it's all sunny skies and perfect beach days year round. Although, if you do plan your visit in the summer, expect it to be it as it's busiest, as well.
With that, let's dive right into the best places to visit in Croatia.
Dubrovnik is the beating heart of Croatia. Its walled old city is a UNESCO world heritage site and visitors flock here year after year to see the ancient fortress where Game of Thrones was filmed, wander the cobbled streets, and take photos of the terracotta rooftops. It's by far one of the most popular destinations in Croatia, if not the #1 slot.
The old town is small but packed with sights, from churches and monasteries to backstreet cafes and restaurants. Take a day to get lost in the narrow streets and walk the city walls, from where you can spot King's Landing and other famous filming sites, as well as taking in panoramic views over the town and sea.
The top things to do in Dubrovnik include:
- A visit to Dubrovnik Cathedral, Lovrijenac Fort and St. Blaise's Church, which are all iconic and historical landmarks.
- Just before sunset, take the cable car to the top of nearby Mount Srd, where you'll have views across the Old Town, Lokrum, the Elafiti Islands and across the Adriatic sea.
- See Dubrovnik by water on a boat tour with Rewind Dubrovnik. With a few private tours to choose from, you can check off more of the locations mentioned farther down on this list in one go!
Dubrovnik Old Town can often be expensive to stay in, particularly since they've capped visitor numbers, however the nearby neighborhood of Lapad has both affordable accommodation and eateries, as well as great beaches.
We visited Old Town in August and tourism was in full swing. Although, I will say, that even with the crowds of people, we really loved Dubrovnik and could understand why it was such a popular destination.
A quiet yet pretty island floating off Croatia's northern coast, the island of Rab has diverse landscapes, including forests and sandy beaches. The island is recognised by its skyline, which includes its most famous churches, the Church of the Assumption, Rab Cathedral, St. John the Evangelist, and St. Andrew the Apostle.
Tourists make a beeline for Rab in the summer to visit Rajska Plaža, which was named as one of the best hundred beaches on earth, however, there is far more to discover. Take a short hike through Dundo Reserve, Rab's protected oak forest, climb up to Kamenjak, the island's highest viewpoint for a sweeping vista across the Adriatic sea, or head to the far quieter but equally stunning Pudarica beach in the south.
The Elafiti Islands
There are three Elafiti islands just off the coast of Dubrovnik - Kolocep, Lopud, and Sipan. The islands can easily be discovered on a day trip by taking a boat tour and each one offers its own unique beauty and landscapes.
The best things to do on each island include:
- Kolocep is the smallest island and covered in lush forest, it's perfect for hiking, swimming in the famous Blue Cave, and visiting its two churches, St. Sergius and St. Nicholas.
- Lopud is slightly bigger, but big enough to rent a bicycle to explore the length of the island in a few hours, seeing the Franciscan Monastery and Sunj Bay on the way.
- Sipan is the largest of the three, and has two quaint villages which you can stroll around, although Sipan is most popular for its crystal clear water, where you can swim, kayak or just enjoy from many of the waterfront restaurants. Hiring a car or even better, a scooter, is the best way to see the most of Sipan in a short time.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
A trip to Croatia isn't really complete without spending some time in it's national parks. Although you have a few to choose from and maybe not time to experience them all, there are two I really recommend. The first is Plitvice Lakes National Park.
A national park famed for its spectacular waterfalls, lakes, and forests, Plitvice Lakes is another UNESCO site and one of the best places to visit in Croatia. The park is around two hours from Dubrovnik so it can be visited on a day trip if you've based yourself in southern city. In total there are 16 lakes and 92 waterfalls which are all interconnected.
They say the best way to see the park is via guided tour but you can follow one of the many hiking trails in the area. That's what we did when we visited, and although we might have gotten more information about the area from a guide, we enjoyed spacing ourselves between groups and having the park seemingly to ourselves.
From the entrance, you'll soon spot the Lower Lakes cascading down the cliffside, and among the walking trails there are lots of scenic spots and panoramic viewpoints. Although you can't swim in the lakes within the park, the Korana river which runs into them is just as breathtakingly blue and is a popular swimming spot.
Krka National Park
The second national park that I recommend you taking some time to check out while in Croatia is Krka. No doubt you'll have seen photos of the stunning waterfalls and lagoons in Krka National Park, one of the most popular and photographed places in Croatia - some argue it is even better than Plitvice. The most popular attraction in Krka National Park is Skradinski buk Falls, a series of seventeen waterfalls with a sparkling blue pool at the bottom which you can swim in.
There are also countless hiking trails which wind through the forest and past smaller waterfalls, such as Manojlovacki slap, and you can also visit the historic Krka Monastery with a guide.
Before leaving, don't miss Visovac Island, a tiny patch of land floating in the middle of the Krka river. Before going here, head to the statue of King Petar Svačić for amazing views of the island before taking a short boat trip across to visit Visovac.
Hvar has so much to offer, from the historic old town, to some of Croatia's best beaches. Located off the coast of Split, a popular place for expats in Croatia to live, Hvar is an easy ferry ride away.
When visiting Hvar, spend a day exploring ancient buildings, such as St. Stephen's Cathedral and the Spanish Fortress. You'll also find winding streets filled with cute cafes and a lovely waterfront lined with restaurants for when you need a bite to eat.
A few of the best things to do in Hvar outside of the old town include:
- If you're in the mood for relaxation, Pokonji Dol is both a beautiful beach and a great place to find accommodation on the island.
- For a dose of history, visit the Franciscan Monastery just outside Hvar Town, or the Grapčeva Cave, which is one of the oldest sites in the Adriatic.
- If you have a few days, open water kayaking and mountain biking are available and are a great way to see as much of the island as possible.
- You can also join a sailing trip to some of the even smaller, more secluded Pakleni Islands, all of which have stunning beaches and are usually deserted.
An added getaway also off the coast of Split and nearby Hvar is Vis Island. Vis is much smaller than Hvar but no less incredible to visit. If you'd prefer something smaller and more laid back, I'd opt for Vis. You can take a ferry here from Split or from Hvar.
Mljet Island is arguably one of the most beautiful places to visit in Croatia, which can easily be reach by ferry from Dubrovnik. The most popular thing to do on this Croatian island is visit Mljet National Park which has rich forests, lakes, and coves where you can hike and swim.
A few of the best things to do on Mljet Island include:
- Big Lake, which is crystal clear and even has a coral reef where you can snorkel.
- Make time to hike to Odysseus' Cave.
- Visit the ancient Roman ruins in Polače village.
- Hike up one of the island's many hills for spectacular 360 degree views.
- You can finish the day by heading to Saplunara beach and relaxing on the soft sand.
- You can also go scuba diving and kayaking and enjoy a meal by the water in one of the island's villages.
Ferries run four times a day from Dubrovnik and other coastal towns so this makes the perfect day trip if you're staying on the mainland.
Pula is one of Croatia's most historic cities, with ancient Roman ruins, temples and churches to explore. Located in the north of the county, near the border with Slovenia, this is a place commonly overlooked by more popular places to visit in Croatia. Although, I recommend you reconsider. This was actually where we started our road trip in Croatia.
The city is most famous for its iconic Roman amphitheatre, which you can walk around and see its underground gladiator tunnels. Other important Roman sites to visit include the Arch of the Sergii, Temple of Augustus and St. Francis' Monastery, but there are many more castles, forts and buildings to discover.
For nature lovers, Pula is located just a short distance from Kamenjak National Park, which winds along the coastline and is covered in forest and beaches. You can explore by bike or on foot.
Pula is not to be missed for foodies, located near the Istrian Peninsula, restaurants here serve many dishes infused with the regions famous black and white truffles. If you want an adventure, head to the forests just north of Pula to go truffle hunting with a trained dog to forage for your own tasty meal.
Korčula is often known as Little Dubrovnik due to its colourful red roofs and medieval fortifications and it is one of the best places to visit in Croatia. In the old city, take a few hours to explore the eight medieval towers which still stand here, St. Mark's Cathedral and get lost down the criss-crossing narrow streets. The best way to see it is via walking tour, where you may also get to stop at Marco Polo's house, where the explorer was born.
Beaches here are popular with both locals and tourists, and some of the best are in Borak, such as Banje beach which has impossibly blue waters and white sand where you can spend a day relaxing. For a spot with no tourists, check out Pupnatska Luka Cove which has a huge secluded stretch of blue water and a long, quiet beach.
Brac is the largest island on the Dalmatian coast, but can still be explored in just a couple of days. It also happens to be home to the most beautiful beach in Croatia. Tourists flock here to see Zlatni Rat beach, voted one of the most stunning in Europe and used in many Croatian tourist advertisements. Zlatni Rat's nearby town of Bol also has a lovely promenade to stroll down, lots of cafes and restaurants and plenty of accommodation if you plan to stay overnight.
However, before spending time relaxing, get familiar with the island by taking a jeep tour which will take you to the most popular places. Also, climb up to Vidova Gora viewpoint, the highest in the Adriatic, from where you'll have panoramic views of the island.
Brac is another of the best places to visit in Croatia for foodies, being home to its own olive oil museum, winery, and lots of local restaurants, so is ideal for getting a real taste of authentic Croatian produce.
Get Ready for a Trip to Remember
If you're looking for a country that can offer you picturesque beaches, great nature, delicious food, and charming old towns, you'll love Croatia. Throw in their Roman and Venetian architecture and their tumultuous history as part of the former Yugoslavia and you really have a country that's ideal for any type of traveler.
All those years ago, our trip to Croatia cemented our relationship and led to us now being married. It was the country we chose to meet back up in, after previously having met and fallen into a fling in Panama. While I can't give Croatia all the credit to our happy relationship, I can say it was a country that offered us so much to see, do, and experience together that it was hard not to have an incredible trip.
I can't guarantee you'll fall in love with your future spouse while exploring the Dalmatian Coast but, if you visit at least a few of these incredible places in Croatia, I'm pretty confident you'll fall in love with the country itself.
Hero photo curtesy of Luciann Photography from Pexels.