No longer off the beaten path, Croatia is becoming one of the hottest destinations in Europe. Medieval walled cities. Fine food. Turquoise waters. This country is blessed with having a wide variety of things to offer all travelers.
Some twenty years ago, Croatia was a war zone. Many people still remember with horror how the walled city of Dubrovnik was shelled during the depths of the Balkan Wars. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced and there was no tourism industry to speak of. How things have changed! Today, Croatia is the rising star of the peninsula, having gained EU membership this year and attracting the attention of many pleasure seekers from around the world. More than eleven million people each year now visit this country of a population of less than 5 million! I visited earlier this year and was totally bowled over at how this small country punches way above its weight in terms of things to see and do. Here, I give you reasons why you should visit Croatia!
Majestic Cities and Towns
In true European style, many of Croatia’s cities and towns have something to offer the traveler. A good way to see the country, and the contrast between north and south, is to start in the northeast and slowly wind your way down to the coastal areas up to the southern border with Montenegro. Here are some of the interesting cities and towns you’ll find along the way.
Zagreb – The capital of Croatia with its interesting Upper Town or Gornji Grad, strong cafe culture and continental vibe
Dubrovnik – Needs no introduction. This is the most popular destination in Croatia and rightly so. Just a view of the old town from the highway is enough to leave any hardened traveler smitten.
Rovinj – It’s a taste of Venice (there’s even a direct ferry between the two cities) sans the overwhelming crowds that one often finds in Venice itself.
Split – busy port city with strong ferry connections to many of Croatia’s famed islands, plus Roman ruins. And yes, they come complete with soldiers dressed in shiny metal armor.
Trogir – well-preserved coastal medieval town, all within a tiny bit of land just an hour away from Split
Croatia – A Country of Contrasts!
Croatia’s history and geographic location has basically led to two interesting sides. It’s a sharp contrast for a country the size of West Virginia and with fewer people than the city state of Singapore. In the north where the capital Zagreb lies, it’s a lot busier. There’s more hustle and bustle. Perspectives are more similar with northern neighbors in Slovenia and Austria. Even the cityscape looks quite Austrian due to years of Habsburg influence, with pastel colored buildings, cobblestone streets and the odd castle.
The coastal areas in contrast, have a more laidback vibe. The towns and villages feature buildings made of stone with similar colors (brownish with red roofs). There’s no shortage of sunshine in these areas. And during summer, the water over these parts turn into a translucent blue.
credits to Republika Fest or the photo
Croatia’s rise as a hot tourist destination has also led to more varied nightlife options. Beach parties, music festivals, concerts, and of course clubs with international DJs, many spots throughout the country are now starting to become party destinations. Islands like Hvar turn totally different at night during summer, giving more established party islands like Ibiza a run for their money.
waterfalls in plitvice. Copyright Andreas Wonisch for this photo
For a small country, the land and seascapes in Croatia are extremely varied. When talking about Croatia’s natural wonders, this place definitely deserves a mention – Plitvice Lakes National Park. Situated in the central part of the country near the border with Bosnia & Herzegovina, the place is a true feast for the eyes. The national park has a lot of walking trails to offer but the most famous are the series of cascading turquoise lakes and waterfalls which are surrounded by karst formations.
superb cascading lakes of plitvice! Copyright Andreas Wonisch for this photo
seafood platter in croatia – credits to Intiaz Rahim for the photo
Croatia is a seafood lover’s paradise. Freshly caught mackerel, scampi, squid, octopus and crab are served in the seaside restaurants in any way you want them to be cooked! During the one and only time I splurged during my trip to Croatia, I made sure to savor some of these. Giaxa, a restaurant in Hvar, is a great place to try some creatively prepared seafood.
For carnivores out there, the local cuisine also features a wide array of meat specialties. Raznijci, or the local version of the kebab, is a mainstay especially in the continental areas. Lamb and veal also feature prominently and can be done as steaks.
There is also a wide array of fruits in Croatia which I found surprisingly cheap. I was in Croatia in June which meant there was an abundance of peaches, strawberries and cherries at the famous Dolac Market in the Upper Town of Zagreb.
Location, Location, LOCATION!
the serene town of perast in montenegro, reachable by bus from croatia and do-able as a day trip!
Croatia’s location, right smack between the frontiers of the European Union and the rest of the Balkan States, means that countries such as Italy, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia are just a hop and a skip away.
Using Dubrovnik as a sample, here are some interesting places in neighboring countries that you can venture out to within a few hours’ bus ride:
Kotor, Montenegro – UNESCO World Heritage town and the most impressive fjord in Southern Europe
Mostar, Bosnia & Herzegovina – famous old town with the medieval bridge, crossroads between the east and west
Italy is a ferry ride away.
I hail from a country that is well-renowned for islands and beaches but I must say I was truly impressed seeing the sunkissed islands of Croatia. While the beaches here are not the powdery white sand type, the waters are unbelievably turquoise in color, even by the coast of the larger towns. And of course, there are plenty of other things to do in these islands than just go for a swim. Some of these islands, like Hvar, have interesting old towns, great dining and nightlife and feature some great land activities as well. Others can be very historical. An example is Korcula, which is said to be Marco Polo’s birthplace. Whether that claim is true or not, these places definitely make for worthwhile short trips from the Croatian mainland.
When to go?
I wish I could advise you to come during the low season, which is basically winter from November to February, but unfortunately the weather can get a bit too dreary during these months. I would instead recommend coming during the shoulder season which is from April to early June and again from late September to October. There are less crowds and most days are still sunny and pleasant. The peak season, which starts from late June up until early September, guarantees warm, sunny days but the crowds can be a bit overwhelming.
Have you been to Croatia? What was your experience of the place?