Choosing where to go in Croatia can be tricky, given its endless list of attractions. But draw up a quick list of your priorities and you'll soon be able to pick your destination: if you want to see the country's famous islands for yourself, you can head to the Kornati national park to hop your way around an archipelago; if you're a determined hedonist, you should head straight to The Garden in Tisno; or if you're after a quieter time, you can plot your holiday around excellent birdwatching spot Kopacki Rit. Here's where you should go in Croatia, whether you're a club-bunny, a food-lover - or someone that thinks they've seen it all.
RECOMMENDED: more great things to do in Croatia.
Swim from island to island
A unique way of exploring Croatia and getting exercise is to swim from island to island. Swimmers, expected to cover about 4km per day, are accommodated at two quality hotels in the Maestral group, one at Prvič Luka on Prvić, the setting-off point and last stop for one particular week-long tour. Find more information here.
If there’s one concept that stands out in Croatia, it’s the opportunity to order your food over an aperitif, strip off, dive into crystal clear waters, swim, climb out, towel down, and have a plate of top-notch seafood and fresh salad waiting for you as you sling on your T-shirt and shorts. Some venues are gastronomic temples in themselves – Gverovič-Orsan, in Zaton Mali, north-west of Dubrovnik, is one such spot. This converted boating house has its own beach and shower – although it’s best known for its classic black risotto Orsan. Find more information here.
For secluded swimming and dining, Robinson is a 45-minute trek from Hvar town toward Milna on a sea path. Without electricity or water – hence the name – this unique venue sits on its own bay prized by sailboats. If you would prefer not to walk, call owner-chef Domagoj and he will set you up with a boat. After you place your order, take a swim in water even bluer than usual because the beach stones are bleached white. Bathers should throw on a T-shirt when Domagoj calls for lunch. Find more information here or on 091 38 35 160
The Blue Cave of Bisevo
Set on the east coast of Vis, the Blue Cave (Modra špilja) is accessible by sea from Komiža. Boats leave Komiža harbour at 9am, as the time to arrive is from about 11am. With the sun gaining height, it shines through the waters of a submerged side entrance and the cave is bathed in a fabulous blue light. At this point, many dive in, although the high volume can make this tricky in July or August. Agencies in Komiža arrange day tours, at around 90kn per head, including lunch and an afternoon at a beach near Biševo.
The walls of Dubrovnik
A walk around Dubrovnik Old Town walls is an essential introduction to this most talked-about of Croatian tourist destinations. It allows the first-time visitor to get their bearings and provides them with an appreciation of the scale of this intricate jewel, the skill of those who designed and constructed it – and some breathing space from the high-season masses below. The main entrance and ticket office is by the Pile Gate; most choose to walk round sea-facing side first.
The Lost Roman Cities Tour
St James’ Cathedral
Looming over the rooftops as you turn every street corner in the much-overlooked Dalmatian town of Šibenik is St James’ Cathedral. A fusion of Gothic and Renaissance styles, this monumental basilica was consecrated in 1555 – and magnificently restored in the 1990s.
The Diocletian Palace
On the island of Vis is this much-loved hangout, a quiet spot that is sought out by foodies every time they come within striking distance of the island. Sit out in the gorgeous garden and you’ll be treated to superb grilled seafood and meats, plus wonderful risottos.
Croatian oysters have a more intense taste than their Atlantic counterpart. The most renowned varieties come from Ston on Pelješac, Dalmatia, and the Limski kanal in Istria: unmissable.
Istria is all about truffles: look out for restaurants with the ‘tartufo vero’ sign, which means they’ve met Istria’s high standards for handling and serving the delicacy. In Livade, weekends in October see the judging of the best truffle, cookery classes and truffle auctions: it is also home to Istria’s most famous chain truffle restaurant, Zigante.
Grab a copy of the Olive Oil Routes of Istria map, and jump in your car – the map will lead you to tiny villages and hamlets, many set in spectacular landscapes, where you’ll taste some of the world’s best olive oil. If you just want to buy a bottle, feel free to turn up but if you’d like to sample a few first, it’s best to phone ahead. Find more information here.
Slavonian fish soup is a mix of freshwater fish, onion, garlic, hot peppers, tomato paste and red paprika. To try it at its very best, head to eastern Slavonia, and Danube Csarda on the sandy-beached fisherman’s paradise of Zeleni Otok in the river Danube near Batina, which does a stupendous fiš.
Located just near the town of Lumbarda on the Island of Korčula, this is a long stretch of golden beach set in a looping bay, with a small café nearby for drinks and nibbles. There’s also a nudist beach (although beware, it’s a rocky one) just a short way further up the coast.
Rajska Plaža means ‘Paradise Beach’ and this 2,000 metre stretch of Adriatic coastline lives up to its name. You’ll find it on the island of Rab at the village of Lopar, fringed with pine trees and idyllic views with a couple of bars on hand for slaking your post-tanning thirst. The water is shallow and the beach has a Blue Flag for the cleanliness of its water.
Out in Kvarner Bay, off the north-east coast of the country, you’ll find the small but pretty island of Susak, whose entire coastline is made up of wonderful sandy beaches. Because it’s a fair way off the beaten track, you’ll find accommodation is relatively basic – but that also means there’s tons of room on the sand for everyone. Just wander round the 11 kilometres of beach until you find your perfect private spot..
The Brijuni Islands
A rarity among tourist attractions, the Brijuni islands are ideal for kids and adults alike. Grown-ups can enjoy the 5,000 years of history and bizarre aspect of Brijuni being Tito’s retreat, an island getaway where he feted many a post-war celebrity and non-aligned world leader. Kids will enjoy the tourist train, the exotic animals and the dinosaur footprints. It’s all an easy hop over from Pula via Fažana.
Kornati National Park
Kornati is simply unique. An archipelago of 140 islands and islets in an area only 35km wide and 14km long, it has an other-worldly quality like no other place in Croatia. There are restaurants here only accessible by boat, for example and with no ferry or public transport, getting around is far from straightforward. There are dozens of safe bays to drop anchor within a stretch of water naturally protected from the open sea, or you can arrange to go on on one of many tours from the nearby town of Murter.
Cycling the Parenzana
The Parenzana in Istria follows the route of the railway that once connected Poreč and Trieste. It runs for 61km over bridges and through old stone tunnels, linking Motovun, Oprtalj and Grožnjan, all worthwhile stops in the Istrian Interior. In the north, you can reach as far as the Slovene border, up to Buje and Savudrija. Nearly all the trail is tarmac. Today known as the ‘Route of Health & Friendship’, it can be biked – or, indeed, hiked – by families, with easy stop-off points en route. Find more details here.
Thanks to the winds that blow around Croatia, two particular spots down the coast lend themselves to the windsurfing: the southern tip of Istria around Premantura; and Viganj on the Pelješac peninsula. In Istria, a cluster of ten windsurfing centres within 20km of each other around Premantura offer activity breaks. For beginners, the Bjeca bay has shallow water and a sandy bottom. Meanwhile Viganj is a serious windsurfing scene, within easy reach by boat from Korcula.
Skiing at Sljeme
Sljeme, the highest peak of Medvednica Nature Park near Zagreb, provides training slopes for amateurs, night skiing, sledging and snowboarding for enthusiasts of all ages and abilities. There is snow cover on Medvednica for around 100 days a year and the slopes are given a coating of artificial snow when necessary, prolonging the season to four months.
The Archaeological Museum
This gem on Zrinjevac in Zagreb houses nearly 80,000 artefacts over three floors – there are some 600 pieces in the permanent Egyptian Collection alone. The 4,000-year old ceramic vessel, the Vučedol Dove, found near Vukovar, holds particular significance and is the highlight of the collection for many Croatians.
Every summer Pula’s 2,000-year-old amphiteatre, the sixth largest in the Roman Empire, is brought to life by a season-long series of open-air cultural events. Primarily there’s the Pula Film Festival but also a number of big-name if generally mainstream concerts, some of which form the Histria Festival.
The Mimara Museum
Located on Zagreb’s Rooseveltov trg, this museum houses one of the most impressive art collections in the city. Under one roof, 42 rooms showcase 1,700 paintings, statues and archaeological finds, set up chronologically and thematically. Highlights include medieval icons, Roman items and paintings by Renoir, Degas and Rubens.
Contemporary culture vultures
Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art, Rijeka
With its own substantial art collection and a strong commitment to innovative exhibition programming, the Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art in Rijeka is a force to be reckoned with. It has at its disposal the energy of Rijeka’s lively art scene, with local art spaces such as OK Galerija enjoying a cult status for its semi-underground programme of shows and performances. www.mmsu.hr
The regular exhibitions, talks, performances, discussions, book launches and miscellaneous happenings at Galerija Nova on Slovenska 5/1 rivals the programme of any major art institution in Zagreb. The small size of the gallery space is made up for by the scale of artistic ambition of the four ‘WHW’ girls who have built its reputation since 2003, and successfully used it as a launch pad for their international careers.
A lovely gallery in the west of Zagreb (Baruna Filipovića 23a (01 630 2115), Lauba House is a repository of the best of Croatian art for the last half century, as collected by a local businessman. It mixes figurative creations with more conceptual pieces: look out for the paintings of Lovro Artuković in particular.
The largest museum ever built in Croatia and the first to be built in Zagreb for 125 years, the Museum of Contemporary Art opened its doors in December 2009. It comprises 5,000sq m of exhibition space, a library, a multi-media room, a boutique and a children’s workshop.
Croatia’s most heavyweight music event is Zagreb’s INmusic fest, stagedr next to Lake Jarun. Up to 40 acts tend to make the line-up, spanning electronica to punk, and roots to rock: highlights include Franz Ferdinand, the Cranberries, PJ Harvey and Florence + the Machine.
Dubrovnik Summer Festival
For almost 50 days and nights, the streets, churches, squares, moonlit city walls and famous buildings of the Old Town of Dubrovnik host the biggest names in classical music, theatre, opera and dance. Shows bring Dubrovnik’s historic jewels to life: some 70 venues are used – even Lokrum island, a taxi boat away – to accommodate nearly 2,000 performers from all over the world.
Known by locals as the fifth season after spring, summer, autumn and winter, Rijeka’s own version of Mardi Gras is bigger than ever. Each year in January and February the town’s streets are inundated with hundreds of locals in weird costumes – and 100,000 visitors from all over Croatia and Europe. Find more information here.
Sirup in Zagreb feels like an underground club – you’d walk straight by it if you didn’t know it was there. Inside, the bar is all glittery stone inlaid with lights, and those seeking to hit the dancefloor – encouraged by a quality programme of spinners, Croatian and international – must do so via an undulating passageway framed by padded silver walls. Sirup is the brainchild of nightlife supremo Sergej Lugović.
For almost 30 years, Club Hacienda has been filling its two dancefloors and gigantic open-air space each summer. Located just a short drive from Šibenik, right by Vodice, it’s the perfect place to listen to a set by a big name club DJ before chilling out with a drink outside, where sea breezes cool the summer air.
A Dalmatian speciality dish of long-stewed beef which is marinaded with rosemary, vinegar and lemon before being cooked with ham, cloves, nutmeg and lots of red wine. This is real celebration food – and when done well, it’s spectacular.
Inhabited by more sheep than humans, the island of Pag produces lamb deeply flavoured with the aromatic herbs sheep consume, as is the trademark Pag cheese. Accompanied by local Sutica dry white wine and a digestif of travarica herb brandy, the Pag culinary experience is complete.
Slavonian kulen is made by hand from special cuts of top-quality pork sourced from mature pigs, and takes nine months to cure naturally. It’s dry, spicy and when sliced has the same saturated colour and distinctive texture throughout – the only additives are salt, garlic and red paprika. At summer’s kulen festivals, kulenijada, notably at Požega and Vinkovci, the previous year’s batch reaches perfection.
Ispod peke (translation: ‘under the bell’) is a classic feature on all self-respecting Dalmatian menus. It’s not a dish, it’s a method of cooking involving slow-cooking under a dome-shaped lid. The distinctive succulent meat, delicious potatoes and all-round juicy flavours are unique, but no two peka produce the same result and it is the custom for diners to order it at least one day in advance. Try it at Konavoski Komin in Velji dol near Cavtat (020 479 607) and Konoba Roki’s in Vis (021 714 004).
To try real Croatian prosciutto ham in its home setting, head to Konavle in Dalmatia and the traditional pršut-producing village of Duba, where the deserted karst hills and the dry winter Bura wind create the perfect conditions for production. The finest hams come from small family estates and cost between 100kn and 140kn a kilo. Only certain restaurants serve them, such as the recommended Konavoski Komin in Velji dol near Cavtat (020 479 607), where portions run to 100kn.
Ramblers and hikers
Mljet National Park
If you’re looking for complete peace free of traffic and (mainly) tourists, Mljet is for you. A verdant island an easy boat hop from Dubrovnik, Mljet is one-third national park and two-thirds practically untouched nature, a 37-km long idyll decked in pine forest with one solitary road running down it.
Krka National Park
Walkers’ haven Krka features the 800-metre-long waterfall of Skradinski buk, a 17-step series of cascades. But there’s much more to see than that: Krka is awash with natural beauty.
A stunning mountain range with plenty of walking opportunities.
The wines of Frano Miloš
Frano Miloš, just outside Ston on Pelješac, is one of the few Croatian winemakers to have gained an international reputation. Try his delicious ‘Stagnum’ range of wines over a laidback afternoon in his sunlit tasting room built into a rocky mountain side. Find more information here or on +385 98 196 5254
If you’re in the mood for a powerful and intriguing Croatian liqueur, order yourself a nice glass or two of Pelinkovac after dinner. It’s made from a blend of herbs, including ‘pelin’, or wormwood, a herb which gives it a punchy, slightly bitter flavour, not dissimilar to Jägermeister.
The ultimate bar crawl
In need of a big night out with your mates? Nothing beats a bar crawl around the gutted Roman palace of Emperor Diocletian in the heart of Split. History, anthropology and architecture come into play as you scoot around the Diocletian’s dark, unmapped passages, discovering wonderfully random bars as you go.
A clear grappa-like fruit brandy, rakija comes in a baffling range of styles and is sold from the shelf or, in the case of the home-made variety, under the counter, in restaurants across Croatia. Quality rakija is usually 40 per-cent proof, and its more rustic version can be anything up to 80 per cent. The most typical base ingredients are plums and grapes, although you’ll come across grappas made from apples, peaches, pears, cherries and figs too.
Take the apple of your eye to this natural wonder just off the main highway between Zagreb and Split, within easy distance of Zadar. It is home to more than 1,000 species of plants, 140 types of birds and 40 mammals: lynx, wild cats, deer and brown bears among them. Most of all, though, people flock here for the series of 16 continually changing, cascading, crystal-clear lakes. Boardwalks follow the contours of and criss-cross over the beautiful turquoise water. Stunning.
A wonderful place to spend a romantic evening, Blu in Rovinj, Istria, offers quality fish- and seafood-based fare, ranging from a simple seafood spaghetti through to scallops with truffles and polenta, or sea bass with caviar and saffron. Prices are lower than you’d imagine, considering the quality and view over the sea to Rovinj’s Old Town.
Throughout the year at Motovun Ranch in Istria you can head out on romantic horserides in the countryside. You can do the same at Barba Tone in Barban, Istria where you and your loved one can enjoy a magical guided tour on horseback. The most intriguing option is to take a ride to the sea – once riders reach Blaz bay, and aided by their guides, they swim with their horses.
Pula Film Festival
Once upon a time - 1953 to be precise - the Pula Film Festival was initiated by the then Yugoslav authorities as a way of showcasing the national movie industry. Sure enough, a decade later, celebrities would show up from the UK and the States to be wined and dined by famed Yugoslav leader Tito, giving Pula that touch of glamour it had always lacked. The Pula Film Festival still exists, in the wonderful summer setting of the city’s Roman amphitheatre, although its star has somewhat faded since the shrinking of state funding.
Motovun Film Festival
Despite Motovun’s laudable aim to promote independent film, the atmosphere and hilltop setting lend themselves to partying over film perusal, and the whole event is more Glastonbury than Sundance. Yes, 50 documentaries are shown, prizes (principally the Propeller of Motovun) given out and heavyweight figures, Ken Loach to name but one, make appearances – but try and procure English translations of many movies and you may be out of luck. Find more information here.
Near the confluence of the Drava and Danube rivers, Kopački rit nature reserve is one of the biggest areas of wetland in Europe. Visitors arriving by panoramic boat, horse or shank’s pony can see nearly 300 varieties of nesting birds, including white-tailed eagles, black storks and green woodpeckers.
Falco Tours, based in Split, offer kayak and canoe trips where bird-watching is the focus. Val Tours in Biograd have put together a one-week package of bird-watching with a professional guide, airport transfers, meals and accommodation in a three-star hotel. Visits can be tailored for beginners and up. Kopački rit in northern Croatia is another popular destination for birdwatchers. Falco Tours (021 548 646); Val Tours (023 386 479).
You can’t count yourself as a serious old hand at Croatia until you’ve visited Vis. This remote island, which has more sandy beaches than most islands in the country, was kept strictly off-limits to all foreigners for decades (it used to be an army base) before opening for business, meaning it has managed to sidestep tourism and retain its traditional charms.
Out in the Adriatic halfway to Italy, Lastovo is served by a single daily ferry from Split. It’s a holdover outpost of the Mediterranean as it used to be: sparse, barren and decidedly untouristy. Its unforgiving isolation, which protected Lastovo from raids by pirates, offers modern visitors the same respite from the mad march of tourist development sweeping Croatia’s coast. Declared a nature park in 2006, it welcomes tourists with open arms and a glass of travarica spirit – think Robinson Crusoe only with fine wine, seafood risotto and maybe a rented moped. Lastovo Tourist Office (020 801 018)
Looking after Vultures
Done everything there is to be done in Croatia? We bet you’ve not done this… Caput Insulae Eco Centre at Beli on Cres is a nature reserve and volunteer centre that protects and monitors a colony of 70 pairs of rare griffon vultures who make their homes on the nearby cliffs. From its foundation, the centre has been running a volunteer programme, which runs every year between March 31 and October 31, for a minimum individual period of one week. Those coming to work here maintain two feeding grounds, help with sick and injured birds, restore dry-stone walls and help to manage the forest trails and eco-trails. Find more information here.