Telascica
Ivo PervanTelascica

Undiscovered Croatia

From attractive riverside towns teeming with Habsburg splendour to mountain-top stone villages, explore 25 lesser-known destinations in Croatia

Written by
Marc Rowlands
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A country with a thousand islands, you can imagine Croatia bristling with undiscovered nooks and hidden beaches. Truth is, the Croatian coast and its myriad islands are popular tourist destinations and little of it remains unexplored. Yet, such places do exist in Croatia. Beyond the tourist trails, the adventurous traveller is rewarded with remote villages, forgotten beaches and bizarrely-undervisited towns ripe for fresh discovery.


RECOMMENDED: The 43 best things to do in Croatia.

Undiscovered Croatia

Osijek
© Espino Family

Osijek

Located in the Pannonian basin in the east of the country, bordering Hungary and Serbia, Osijek is one of Croatia's biggest cities. Largely untroubled by tourism, its position next to the river Drava has made the city grow in an elongated manner, a long, flat expanse with several centres to explore (bicycle is a great way to do so). Its riverside promenade is not only the biggest in Croatia but arguably the best, taking in the town's spectacular footbridge and old city walls, the latter existing as part of Tvrđa, a beautifully preserved ensemble of Baroque buildings which is the largest collection in the country. Full of things to do, Osijek is also the capital city of Slavonia and Baranja county, Croatia's true gastronomic centre.

Imotski
© Tourist Board of Imotski

Imotski

Just 30 minutes drive from the Makarska Riviera, Imotski has none of the queues, tourist traps or dubious beachwear you find on the coast, but does have plenty to shout about. Imotski offers wild swimming in a calm, deep blue, freshwater lake. The city's scenic position on a hillside facing the Biokovo mountain range makes it a wondrous place to wake up and there is no shortage of things to do in this enchanting and frequently discounted hinterland destination.

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Buje
© Sl-Ziga

Buje

Like several of the hilltop towns in Istria, Buje holds spectacular panoramic views of the Mediterranean flora and the incredibly pretty lines of the vineyards and olive groves lying below the old town. You can visit many of the winemakers and olive oil farmers in the surrounding areas, earning insight not only into their wonderful flavours but also the time-honoured techniques used to produce them. More of a beer drinker? The town is also home to San Servolo, Istria's first independent craft brewery. In the narrow streets of Buje itself, you can trace the remains of the Medieval settlement, with the town's more ostentatious Venetian Renaissance architecture providing a delightful contrast. 

Silba
Jure Gašparić

Silba

You're never far from the beach on Silba. Unsurprising really, as the north Dalmatian island has only 15 km2. That makes Silba the perfect place to explore on foot, which is just as well as there are no cars or roads on the island. If you're hoping to escape society on an island getaway, this is the place to do it. So serious are the islanders about preserving this peaceful pace that efforts are made even to curb the number of bicycles brought to the island. Their efforts are justified; an unhurried stroll across Silba reveals idyllic sand and pebble beaches, with crystal-clear, shallow, warm waters and beautiful picture postcard coves. Visiting them feels like being let in on a wonderful secret.

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Sinj
© Sinjska Alka

Sinj

A 40 minute drive from famous seaside city Split (passing the delightful Game Of Thrones location of Klis on the way), Sinj is known as the site of the televised, annual Sinjska alka event, which sees traditionally dressed riders competing on horseback, commemorating the victory over the Turkish army who held the town for over 150 years. But there are more reasons to visit Sinj than that. The town has a crop of nice restaurants and is especially well-known for traditional dishes. There are several noteworthy museums and galleries as well fantastic sculptures, fountains and statues around the town, the ruins of the old fortress, Kamičak fort and Church of the Miraculous Madonna of Sinj, which dominates the Sinj's main square. The town was once known to have the highest number of café-bars per capita in the whole of Croatia, and there's still no shortage of places to rest and relax once you're done exploring.

Velebit

Velebit

Croatia's largest mountain range, Velebit looks over the sea and the islands of Rab and Pag, between the cities of Zadar and Rijeka. It is the perfect place to escape the summer throngs, particularly if you enjoy walking, hiking and admiring the view. There are two National Parks within the mountain range, Paklenica and Northern Velebit, traversing lush green valleys from which grey and brown rocky peaks erupt. For more adventurous climbers, the area also holds Croatia's deepest caves, which can be explored on specialist guided trips.

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Bjelovar
© Turistička zajednica Bilogora - Bjelovar

Bjelovar

The capital of Bjelovar-Bilogora County lies off an old road that runs from Osijek to Zagreb. Jaded locals may scoff at its supposed appeal for visitors, but Bjelovar is well-worth the trip. The city contains fantastic Austro-Hungarian architecture, interspersed with manicured lawns and a lovely centrally located park. The town is dotted with the occasional sculpture, such as the whale's fountain, which reminds us that the flatland the city now inhabits used to exist completely under water.

Neretva Delta

Neretva Delta

If the bustling, peak season crowds in Dubrovnik get too much for you, there's a little-known bolthole of beauty within driving distance whose scenery and serenity couldn't be of starker contrast. The Neretva Delta is a vast area of wetlands, streams and rivers running from the Neretva river. Large parts of this verdant area are a protected wildlife reserve, particularly important to birds. Lush, green vegetation lines the water route, perfect for exploring by kayak or canoe. As well as the freshwater, flora and fauna, the area offers a distinct menu to that found on the coast, with locally caught eels, snails and frogs a speciality of some villages.

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Bjelolasica

Bjelolasica

Bjelolasica is the highest mountain in the Gorski Kotar region and holds incredible views of forest, meadows and the neighbouring mountains of Velebit, Lička Plješivica and the islands Krk, Cres and Lošinj. It's a rare sight to be able to look over each of Croatia's different regions - the coastal, continental and mountainous - from one vantage point, even more so from one whose views are undiminished by the season. Bjelolasica exists within one of the justly most popular areas for hiking in summer (there's great access for cyclists too), yet in winter it's maybe even more alive because of its reputation as a ski resort. Not for nothing do the Croatian national team practice here.

Samobor
© Miroslav Vajdić

Samobor

A short 30-minute drive west of Zagreb, Samobor is a small, picturesque city surrounded by valleys and foothills. With spectacular views of rolling countryside, it's a great place for hiking or cycling, but it also appeals to fishing enthusiasts thanks to its abundant supply of river trout. The town features a clutch of charming restaurants and café-bars and has a few gastronomic specialities of its own, in particular, the Samobor kremšnita, a layered custard-cream cake. The city's outdoor swimming pool puts anything in Zagreb's to shame - swimming there on a hot summer's day, with a backdrop of the hills, is a wonderful experience.

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Lonjsko Polje
© Croatian national Tourist Board

Lonjsko Polje

The flatland of Lonjsko Polje is not the easiest to reach unless you're in a car, despite it being only 50 km south-east of Zagreb, but it's worth the effort. Much of the area is contained within the Lonjsko Polje Nature Park, the largest protected wetland area in the whole Danube basin and an oasis for migrating birds. It has 238 species of bird, ten types of reptiles, 16 amphibians, 41 types of fish, 550 species of plants and 38 varieties of dragonflies. A nature lovers paradise best explored by boat, rented bicycle or on foot, the region also contains delightfully traditional wooden houses, raised from ground level in anticipation of the wetlands regular flooding.

Oprtalj
© Maesi64

Oprtalj

One of the most picturesque towns of inland Istria, Oprtalj is often eclipsed by the brighter dazzle of nearby Motovun, the hilltop town known for its cult film festival. A former fortress settlement, Oprtalj's narrow streets offer a charming walk, studded with art-filled churches and a patchwork of buildings spanning several hundred years. Lovely tree-lined promenades surround the outside of the town with a cluster of restaurants specialising in locally-sourced ingredients including truffles. The town is also well known as a place to experience well-preserved folkloric traditions. Nearby, the health resort 'Istrian Spa' provides revitalising spring waters.

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Cetina river

Cetina river

Omiš is regarded as one of the prettiest towns in Dalmatia, but what makes this area so distinct is the river Cetina which meets the ocean at the town. Forget the beach for the day and venture inland, following this 100-kilometre long river for as far as you like. There are a plethora of water-based activities to help you do so, from large boats that drop you at traditional eateries for lunch, to canoeing, kayaking and white water rafting. The river also holds one of the best zip lines in Croatia, which thrillingly passes over the waters and their steep canyon walls.

Mljet
National Park Mljet

Mljet

As one of Croatia's largest islands, Mljet is hardly undiscovered - the north part of the island has held National Park status since 1960. But the fact is that Mljet is so stunningly beautiful, it simply should be better known. Remarkable inland scenery is mirrored by the beauty of the seashore, which holds quiet coves, settlements and beaches perfect for exploring by kayak.

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Dvigrad
© Mario Fajt

Dvigrad

The site of impressive ancient ruins, Dvigrad, meaning two towns, is a favourite with budding antiquarians. The sprawling ruins of a medieval settlement uninhabited for over 300 years, Dvigrad feels like a virgin discovery, untarnished by plastic explanatory signposts (or many other tourists). You're peaceably left to your own imagination as you wander around this deserted, crumbling town.

Daruvar
© Croatian Tourist Board

Daruvar

The Slavonian town of Daruvar, which lies to the east of Zagreb, is one of the most unique and overlooked of all Croatia's destinations. A fascinating place with a history of winemaking that is over 2000 years old, these days, it is perhaps more famous for its beer. The town is inhabited by descendants of Czech people who populated the area from the 19th century: the town is bilingual and you'll regularly hear Czech being spoken. They brought their beer know-how with them and Daruvar has the oldest brewery remaining at its original site in the country. They brew Staročeško, arguably one of Croatia's oldest craft beers, plus its newer cousins, the 5th Element range. These are certainly among Croatia's finest beers. Daruvar is also an old spa town and its thermal waters and treatments are available to this day, with the pretty Daruvarske Toplice Park worth its own visit.

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Mrežnica
© Modzzak

Mrežnica

Mrežnica is a 63-kilometre long river stretching through Karlovac county, south-west of capital Zagreb. Water flowing through the region, either from the river or its tributaries, borders untouched wilderness and trees which offer perfect shade on hot summer days. It's where many clued-up Zagreb residents spend their days off in the heat of summer, cooling in the refreshingly brisk river and under a plethora of short waterfalls.

 

Brtonigla

Brtonigla

A handsome hilltop town located just ten minutes from the seashore, Brtonigla offers a classically Istrian experience. Its food is a delicious mix of inland specialities and caught-that-day seafood. With spindly olive groves and sun-drenched vineyards, Brtonigla is blessed with a pastoral beauty. Take the steps down to the Mramornica Cave, venturing into its colourful chamber filled with huge stalagmites. Above ground, you can explore the 'Istrian canyon' of Nature Park Škarline. The family-friendly Aquapark Istralandia is also nearby.

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Stubičke Toplice
© Croatian National Tourist Board

Stubičke Toplice

40 kilometres north of Zagreb, on the other side of Medvednica, Stubičke Toplice is famous as a spa health resort. Beautifully imagined pools exist alongside grandly designed buildings with manicured lawns and gardens. Famed for its healthy waters since Roman times, its first bathing house is over 250 years old.

Roč
© Croatian National Tourist Board

Roč

An Istrian treasure, Roč brims with history, and within this remarkably well-preserved medieval town you can trace all of its former inhabitants, from the Romans who left their stonework, to the Venetians who originally owned the canon which is on prominent display. The defensive settlement still has a working watchtower and several churches of architectural interest. Just outside the town, a seven-kilometre-long trail of outdoor monuments begins, a memorial to the ancient Slavic alphabet, Glagolitic script, which was once used here.

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Klek
© Croatian National Tourist Board

Klek

Surrounded by forests and flower-filled green hills, the steep, rocky peak of Klek mountain in south Gorski Kotor is as attractive on approach as it is when observing the view from the top. In local legend, it was formerly a meeting point for witches, but these days is better known as a site for mountaineering. The area is protected, holding several species of rare flower and, as with much of Gorski Kotor, it is possible to see brown bears, wolves, deer, bats, butterflies and birds of prey encircling the mountain.

Grožnjan
© Fabrice Florin

Grožnjan

Known locally by its Italian name of Grisignana, Grožnjan may be low on permanent residents but certainly doesn't lack culture. A beautiful town of narrow streets, preserved old walls, a fort, churches and monuments, it was once ruled by Romans, Venice, Austro-Hungary, then Italy. In the second half of July, the town's numbers swell considerably when it hosts the very well regarded Jazz Is Back music festival. From the mid-1950s, Grožnjan's empty properties were revived by bohemian types. You can still see the strong evidence of the town's artistic community today as Grožnjan holds several galleries displaying their work.

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Telašćica
Ivo Pervan

Telašćica

Ten kilometres long, the inlet and bays of Telašćica is a designated nature park, teeming with wildlife and sea creatures, bordered by pine, olive and fig trees on the southern side, its waters harbouring boats from the wind. There are all sorts of activities to pursue in the area, such as fishing and hiking, but so remarkable is this boundary-blurring fusion of ocean and land that its key appeal is to see it at least once in a lifetime.

Čakovec
© MaxPixel's contributors

Čakovec

Čakovec is worth a day trip for those visiting the capital Zagreb. The town is centrepieced by Zrinski Park, studded with several impressive statues including members of the Zrinski noble family. There are impressive old city walls to investigate and a multitude of parks. But Čakovec offers more than antiquities. Chef Marko Palfi is helping to broaden the town's gastronomic appeal, heading up two well known Zagreb-franchises now situated there. If you're looking to escape the summer heat, the local leisure centre offers four state-of-the-art swimming pools which are better than anything to be found in Zagreb.

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Zrmanja
© Zadar region Tourist Board

Zrmanja

Over the course of many centuries, the Zrmanja river near Zadar has held a long-fought battle with the surrounding rock as it forged a path to the sea. Sometimes the rock has won, forcing the river's path to bend and almost double back on itself, creating a beautiful pathway. At other points, you could call it an even match, as stubborn rock gives way to glorious waterfalls. But overall, you could claim this beautiful scenery as a victory for the river, as it has carved out the most beautiful canyon in the whole of Croatia. The meeting of the fresh water and sea water provides a rich habitat for a multitude of plants and creatures, which you can look out for from guided boat rides, or rafting at your own pace from a kayak or canoe.

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