'Croatia: Full of Life' is the latest slogan from Croatia's National Tourism Board, but with its obsessive marketing of the country's coastline, 'Croatia: Full of Beaches' is perhaps a more honest way of selling itself.
This is a shame, because Croatia's cities are packed full of wonders - a scintillating mix of heritage and modernity, with quality restaurants, great nightlife and world-facing cultural institutions. Basically, everything you could want from a city break, and then some.
While enduring favourites like Dubrovnik and Split continue to throng with the bulk of city-trippers, there's a whole tranche of shamefully overlooked destinations. Here's our guide to making the most of Croatia's cities.
RECOMMENDED: more great Croatian destinations.
Plan your city break
The attractive, Habsburg-era capital is a grand place to go for a city break. It combines a Mediterranean lifestyle – think al fresco cafes and street markets – with a healthy dollop of Balkan attitude and hedonism at night. Cutting-edge modern art, wonderful boutique shopping and sightseeing opportunities aplenty complete the winning mix.
Dubrovnik is a one-town tourist industry on its own. As stunning as the clear blue sea around it, the former centre of the independent Republic of Ragusa invites superlatives and attracts the lion’s share of year-round visitors. When a foreigner thinks of Croatia, he thinks of Dubrovnik’s proud, pristine fortifications set on an azure background.
The days when Split was nothing more than a departure point to nearby Brač, Vis and Hvar are gone. Boasting antiquities aplenty, cool café-bars, highly individual restaurants and a rash of new, quality hotels, Croatia’s main ferry port is also the country’s most promising all-round city-break destination.
Despite this progress and property price hikes, Split has not sold its soul to tourism in the way that Dubrovnik has been perceived to have done. Café terraces on the main promenade, the Riva, fill on on sunny days with locals happy to chat all day. Coffee is Split’s source of energy and social glue. Contemporary decor and lighting still grate with some but at least Split’s café society is sacrosanct.
Equally, the city’s prime tourist sight, the former Roman palace behind the Riva, awaits tourists who need pay no admission charge: the grand shell of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace, a 30,000-sq-m maze, the atmospheric ruin where you will be spending most of your time.
There seems to be no stopping Zadar, the main city of northern Dalmatia. This once-Italianate seaside town has in the last few years attracted some of Croatia’s most visionary initiatives: the Garden club and its various festival offshoots; landmark public installations such as the Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun; and the Arsenal, an arts centre in a beautifully restored Venetian armoury.
Pula is as urban as Istria gets. It is indisputably the region’s commercial centre, and is home to almost half its population. The city’s growing status as a happening focus of the arts has been enhanced thanks to two recently opened exhibition spaces: the spectacularly renovated former church of Sveta Srca; and the ramshackle but promising Museum of Contemporary Art of Istria. The city has been catapulted into the music festival premier league with the recent appearance of two major four-day events: Outlook (big names in dubstep and reggae) and Dimensions (the same but with some more cutting-edge DJs). What the town lacks in terms of attractive waterfront it more than makes up for in terms of antiquities. The original Roman Forum remains the major meeting point with cafés offering outdoor tables. Pula’s impressive Roman amphitheatre, or Arena, hosts events all summer.
Croatia’s third-largest city with a population of 150,000, Rijeka has a busy port that handles ten million tonnes of cargo and a quarter of a million passengers, many heading to nearby resorts. It’s a nice place for a week’s city break, during which you can enjoy Rijeka’s fascinating history, great restaurants and kicking year-round nightlife. This is not a tourist-oriented city, which is part of its charm: in Rijeka you will be dining, drinking and dancing with locals.
Rovinj is Istria’s showpiece, its answer to Dalmatia’s Dubrovnik, with far fewer crowds and a more realistic view of itself. It maintains a meticulously cared-for old quarter and extensive tourist amenities without feeling fake or overdone. The natural setting is stunning: a harbour nicknamed ‘the cradle of the sea’ by ancient mariners because the archipelago of islands, stretching from here to Vrsar, ensured calm, untroubled waters. The man-made structures in the Old Town are also attractive: tightly clustered houses, painted in cheery Venetian reds and Habsburg pastels, connected by cobbled streets barely wider than a footpath.
After a long period of playing second fiddle to more glamorous neighbours Split and Zadar, Šibenik is swiftly turning into Dalmatia’s surprise package. Like Zadar, Šibenik suffered a hammering in the 1991-95 war and is still recovering but change is evident. The industrial suburbs, a reminder of its past and significance as a port, camouflage a delightful Old Town. Alleyways and stone steps threaten to lead nowhere but are full of surprises; historic churches and atmospheric squares are tucked around almost every corner, and the golden globe atop the unmissable Cathedral of St James pops up in the distance when least expected.