The 20 best things to do in Karlovac

Karlovac is Continental Croatia's surprise package, a green escape less than an hour away from Zagreb

Written by
Time Out contributors
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Built as a Habsburg-era six-pointed fortress, Karlovac is a verdant town set at the confluence of four rivers. Many historic landmarks remain, along with restaurants, family-run farms, galleries, and excellent museums like the City museum and the Museum of the Homeland war Karlovac-Turanj, all of which are great to visit, as is the town centre residence of the Franciscan monks which has a very special exhibition area.  

The 20 best things to do in Karlovac

  • Attractions
  • Beaches
  • Karlovac

Croatia’s first designated river beach is right here in Karlovac – on the banks of the Korana, to be precise. As it’s right in the centre of town, it’s long been a popular spot for locals. Sepia photographs taken a century ago show men, women and children bathing in the rushing rapids. Though free to enter, these days Foginovo is overseen by lifeguards, and there are shallow areas for little ones. Along with diving tower set at ten metres and boards five and three metres high, you’ll find ball games, an outdoor gym, deckchairs and a café. 

  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Karlovac

The original fortress of Karlovac constructed in 1579 may now only consist of a few remnants but you can still follow the line of the defensive moats created by the Habsburgs to keep out the Ottomans. Today these are lovely promenades of chestnut and linden trees, with extensive parkland stretching beyond. Within the borders are clustered many historic attractions and landmarks, centrepieced by the Catholic Holy Trinity Church and Orthodox St Nicholas, around the main square of Trg bana Josipa Jelačića. Perhaps the most prominent spots to observe the 440-year-old fortifications is right outside the Karlovac City Museum, in the north-west corner of the historic hub.

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  • Attractions
  • Ships and boats
  • Karlovac

Down the Kupa from Karlovac, Brođani typifies the riverside villages that relied on small boats for their livelihoods. Now visitors can go on a 90-minute sailing trip in a replica of one of these vessels, the Zora. Every weekend morning at 11am, instead of grain, this sturdy wooden craft takes tourists past unspoiled nature to observe wild ducks, cormorants, otters and beavers, and man-made landmarks such as the Pauline monastery and the Church of St Mary of the Snows in Kamensko.  

  • Attractions
  • Religious buildings and sites
  • Karlovac

In the heart of Karlovac stands Holy Trinity Church, its Baroque belfry visible for miles around. This is part of the monastery complex where Franciscan monks lived and worked behind a walled courtyard and garden. Today their spiritual, cultural and educational endeavours are illustrated by the rare books, artworks and religious artefacts that form the permanent collection of the monastery museum here. Visitors may also sample the monastic beer still brewed on site.

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  • Museums
  • Military and maritime
  • Karlovac

Turanj is located where bridges over two rivers meet, at the gateway to Karlovac a short distance north. Its strategic importance meant that it bore the brunt of the local fighting during the Croatian War of Independence from 1991 onwards. Also referred to as the Homeland War, it led to the break-up of Yugoslavia and the creation of Croatia. Here, in fields where the conflict would have raged, visitors can now observe the military planes, equipment and weaponry used at the time.

Dine in a medieval castle
© Bearcro

Dine in a medieval castle

One of the best-preserved medieval castles in Croatia, Dubovac owes its appearance to a 15th-century Renaissance rebuild. Little is known of the previous construction, although the square tower remains. Home to notable aristocratic dynasties, as well as the Irish military commander Laval Nugent von Westmeath, who died near here in 1862, Dubovac underwent several changes during the 20th century but now serves as a museum and an atmospheric restaurant, the Bistro Kastel. It stands on the western outskirts of Karlovac, close to the Kupa river it was built to defend.

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  • Attractions
  • Religious buildings and sites
  • Karlovac

Its shining white façade reflected in the bucolic Kupa river that flows alongside it, the Pauline Monastery looks as pristine now as it did when it was built in 1404. Together with the equally stark white Our Lady of the Snows Church alongside, constructed at the same time, these ecclesiastical landmarks are set at Kamensko, just outside Karlovac. Rebuilt after war-time damage, the monastery contains impressive frescoes and sculptures and still holds services, particularly on Assumption Day and Ascension Day.

  • Attractions
  • Parks and gardens
  • Karlovac

In a town known for its parks and gardens, Vrbanić is particularly revered in Karlovac. There’s its name for a start, the founder of this recreational zone south-east of the town’s historic centre being Josip Vrbanić who was both mayor and an eminent pharmacist. As several types of park were popular around Croatia at the time, Vrbanić decided on an English style to one side, a French style in the centre and to have the other side given over to evergreens. Unveiled in 1896, the Vrbanić Gardens also contained statuary but this was removed for fear of damage during World War I. Close to the Kupa river, it remains a favourite place for family picnics.

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  • Things to do
  • Markets and fairs
  • Karlovac

Karlovac has had a market almost since the city’s foundation in the late 1500s, although for the best part of four centuries, it was set up on the main square, Trg bana Josipa Jelačića. In 1971, a new market building was opened south-west of the city centre, on Trg Hrvatskih Branitelja. With open and roofed areas, this expansive space remains in place, with solar panels a more recent addition. Produce tends to originate locally – there are usually six types of apple, for example, among fruit in season, all kinds of greens and other vegetables. Look out for the fresh, unprocessed milk and the snacks of čvarci, pork crackling.

  • Attractions
  • Sightseeing
  • Karlovac

Starting close to the Kupa river at the Katzler Pavilion, the winding street of Radićeva is the main thoroughfare in Karlovac, and a stroll down it brings you close to a couple of major landmarks. For the most part pedestrianised and certainly picturesque, Radićeva makes for a pleasurable saunter whether you’re sightseeing or not – though it may be worth setting aside an hour or so for the City Museum, one of the first attractions you’ll come to, just a block away. Next are the main square, Trg bana Josipa Jelačića, and the Holy Trinity Church. Past a number of important local institutions and governmental offices, you then come to a stretch dotted with terrace bars and cafés – Gradska Straža is generally a busy meeting place – before you hit parkland and Radićeva becomes Rakovac ulica. Here, you’re close to Foginovo Beach and the swift Korana river, having traversed the city centre.

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  • Attractions
  • Religious buildings and sites
  • Karlovac

Built by the local Serbian community in the late 1700s, the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas and its Baroque belfry forms part of the skyline of historic Karlovac, set alongside the main square, Trg bana Josipa Jelačića. Devastated and destroyed during the two major conflicts of the 20th century here, World War II and the Croatian War of Independence, the church was completely rebuilt and reopened in 2007. Within, the wall of 74 carved wooden icons has been magnificently restored and merits a leisurely visit.

  • Museums
  • Specialist interest
  • Karlovac

A volunteer force formed in 1871, the Firefighters of Karlovac are treated with significant reverence. Only 15 years after the city was founded in 1579, much of the town burned down. The streets of the historic centre were then laid out in such a way that fire could not cause so much damage again. But fires did break out, which is why mayor Dr Ivan Simunić established and equipped this vital local unit. Bright red vintage  engines, strange-looking pumping machines and incongruously folksy uniforms line this expansive exhibition space, which backs onto an actual fire station.

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  • Attractions
  • Historic buildings and sites
  • Karlovac

A somewhat sorry sight today, the Edison stands in urban parkland behind the city’s main theatre. Built from 1918 to 1920, this was the first purpose-built cinema in the whole of Croatia, its size and comfort indicative of the importance of Karlovac as a whole. Showing talkies in the 1930s, films in Cinemascope from 1957, the Edison once contained five screening rooms but its popularity waned with the introduction home videos and focus on other priorities during the 1990s. Today it’s an empty shell, crying out for renovation and transformation of some kind – an expensive venture that no-one has yet seen fit to take on.

  • Museums
  • History
  • Karlovac

The most unusual section of the Karlovac City Museum that fills the oldest preserved Baroque residential mansion in the historic centre, dating back to the 1600s, displays the exotic remnants relating to the travels of the Seljan brothers, Mirko and Stjepan. Born and educated in Karlovac, these intrepid explorers charted little-known areas of East Africa for the Emperor of Ethiopia before mapping great swathes of the Amazon rainforest. Mirko was last seen paddling up the Huayabamba river and is thought to have been eaten by cannibals. During their adventures, these pioneers collated plentiful artefacts, maps, photographs and drawings, and kept detailed diaries, some of which can be found here. 

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  • Attractions
  • Rivers, lakes and ponds
  • Karlovac

Starting with the Korana, where Foginovo Beach has been a designated bathing spot for generations, a visitor keen on active sports may spend the day in the waters of the four rivers that meet at Karlovac. The Mrežnica is often tackled by teams of kayakers, the Dobra powers old mills further south and the Kupa has its source in the Risnjak National Park before flowing past the centre of Karlovac. Ask a trusty local, and he will tell you at which point you can swim in all four of these rivers by only diving in twice.

Sample Karlovačko beer in situ
© Karlovačko

Sample Karlovačko beer in situ

Long before prominent nobleman Baron Nikola Vranyczany founded his major brewery at Dubovac in 1854, the clean, fast-flowing waters around Karlovac attracted enterprising locals to set up modest manufacturing spots close to the riverbanks. Using German and Austrian know-how, however, Baron Vranyczany established a brand that would become well known across the country. Today Karlovačko is one of Croatia’s most widely consumed products, and the focus for August’s ten-day beer festival that attracts some 100,000 thirsty visitors to the town. Once a month, the brewery also throws open its doors to provide ale aficionados with a tour, and an insight into brewing techniques. If you’re sampling a beer afterwards, try the Karlovačko Royal 1854, inspired by the original recipe than Baron Vranyczany would have approved.

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  • Attractions
  • Zoos and aquariums
  • Karlovac

Croatia's only aquarium dedicated wholly to freshwater fish, Aquatika is one of Karlovac's very best attractions and a must-see for anyone passing through the city. Croatia has more indigenous freshwater fish species than any other country in the continent of Europe, with over 150 species living in its many freshwater rivers. Aquatika tells you the story of them all, the exhibitions, huge tanks and (sometimes) huge fish layered over three floors. The upper floors correspond to the cold waters of river sources and the fish that dwell there. As you descend, you follow the paths of the rivers until eventually, you arrive at the species who live at the river mouths, where the freshwater meets the sea. Tours, texts and info is presented in various languages, welcoming all and the aquarium has won awards for its disabled access and for its architecture, which sees the ultra-modern building lie beneath a grass-covered roof. There is a gift shop with lots of cute, locally-sourced souvenirs, a cafe, a central square which holds events and a beautifully constructed trail through the nearby nature, including a riverside beach which is one of the city's best spots for swimming.

Measure destinations from Karlovac – in old Germanic miles
© Suradnik13

Measure destinations from Karlovac – in old Germanic miles

One of the more bizarre sights you’ll see around town, close to the city’s main theatre, is the Miljokaz. A measuring stone, it lists a number of destinations with their distance, in miles, from this spot in the very heart of Karlovac. Zagreb, for example, is 7.5. The only problem is that these are old Germanic miles, Meile, and even these measures differed slightly across the main states that would later form Germany and Austria. The Prussian mile was shorter than a Saxon one, and so on. Here the Austrian mile is used, also prevalent across southern Germany. The stone is thought to date back to the late 1700s.

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Experience village life in one house
© Visit Karlovac

Experience village life in one house

Part of the multi-site complex that is Karlovac City Museum, Vučjak is a traditional house in the village of the same name, where folk customs have been preserved from several generations ago. In similar vein, this bucolic wooden chalet is filled with furniture, tools and artefacts a peasant family would have been familiar with at the time. Beds, chests, clothes and textiles are all authentic remnants of a way of life no longer with us. While quaint and picturesque, it also depicts a home life that was free of most comfort and convenience.

Pay your respects to a place of pilgrimage
© Visit Karlovac

Pay your respects to a place of pilgrimage

Once an old wooden church at the foot of Dubovac Castle hill, St Joseph’s is now both a temple created in contemporary fashion between 1968 and 1974, and a national shrine. Protector and patron saint of Karlovac, St Joseph is celebrated on several days of the year here. These include the June anniversary of St Joseph being chosen by Parliament as protector of the Croatian people in 1687, and the first Sunday after September 15, when St Joseph’s Church was first dedicated.

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