Coastal Relaxation in Adriatic Croatia

We spent late July and early August traveling along the Adriatic coast, slowly working our way south through Croatia’s many beautiful beaches, lovely islands, and well-preserved Medieval towns. Croatia is long past its post-independence lull in tourism (visits are up 300% since the mid-1990s), but it certainly hasn’t lost its charm as one of the most beautiful coastal destinations we’ve ever visited.

Coastal-Relaxation-Adriatic-Croatia

The Croatian coast isn’t packed with tons of museums or attractions, so we instead spent most of our time lounging on rocky beaches, eating seafood, and enjoying the sunshine. I must admit, it’s not a bad way to spend a few weeks’ holiday.

Though the majority of short-term visitors stick to the famous coastal towns of the Dalmatia region in the south, we began in Istria, in the northwest corner of the country. After making stops in the towns of Rovinj and Pula, we traveled south to Zadar and Split, two of Croatia’s larger cities; took ferries to the islands of Hvar and Korčula; and finally ended our Croatian journey in the famous walled city of Dubrovnik.

Adriatic-Croatia-map

Istria, the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea, was ruled from Venice from the 13th to 18th centuries, then again by Italy between the two World Wars. The Italian influence is apparent in everything from the buildings to the cuisine to the local tongue. The town of Rovinj is officially bilingual, and we encountered plenty of locals speaking Italian in guest houses and restaurants.

Narrow walking streets in Rovinj's old town

Narrow walking streets in Rovinj’s old town

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Rovinj waterfront

Traces of the region's communist past are less apparent than in other areas — though you can't argue with the durability of the Yugoslav cookware

Traces of the region’s communist past are less apparent than in other areas — though you can’t argue with the durability of the Yugoslav cookware

After three relaxing nights in Rovinj, we took a short bus ride south to Pula, the region’s largest city. Though Pula was much less charming than Rovinj (one night’s stay was plenty), we really enjoyed the city’s remarkably well-preserved Roman architecture.

The Pula Arena, constructed between 27 BCE and 68 CE, is the only remaining Roman amphitheater to have all four side towers and all three architectural orders entirely preserved. The arena was nearly dismantled and relocated to Venice in the late 16th century, but the Venetian Senate thankfully voted to keep it in place. It’s still used as a concert venue today.

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Pula Arena, the best-preserved ancient monument in Croatia

Temple of Augustus, built between 2 BCE and 14 CE

Temple of Augustus, built between 2 BCE and 14 CE

Arch of the Sergii, ca. 29-27 BCE

Arch of the Sergii, ca. 29-27 BCE

A seven-hour bus ride from Pula took us to the walled port city of Zadar, on the northern end of Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast. Zadar isn’t quite on the mainstream tourist trail (it doesn’t appear at all in Rick Steves’ three-week itinerary for the region, for example), but it was still lively with visitors in early August.

The city’s architecture is a testament to its complex history. In just a few minutes of exploring the narrow pedestrian-only streets, you’ll see everything from a Roman forum and Byzantine church to a Venetian gate and 20th century Communist reliefs. The excellent collection of relics at the Zadar Archaeological Museum added a lot of color to our visit.

The 9th century Church of St. Donatus was built with stones from the neighboring Roman Forum

The 9th century Church of St. Donatus was built with stones from the neighboring Roman Forum

Venetian Land Gate, built in 1543

Venetian Land Gate, built in 1543

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Zadar’s waterfront promenade is packed with families and tourists every night of the week

A few hours south of Zadar is Split, Croatia’s second largest city. With a population close to 180,000, Split is active and modern, sprawling well beyond its historic center. Like most cities along the coast, though, the ancient old town is its most impressive attraction. Originally built as a fortress for the retirement of Roman Emperor Diocletian in the fourth century CE, the palace makes up about half of the old town — providing a fascinating glimpse of Roman architecture and the city’s rich heritage.

We spent evenings in Split sitting on the Riva, the city’s long waterfront walkway, eating grocery store snacks and drinking Ožujsko, Croatia’s mediocre but cheap flagship lager. We took a short ferry ride one afternoon to the neighboring town of Trogir, with its impressive collection of 13th century buildings and churches.

The Riva, Split's active waterfront promenade

The Riva, Split’s active waterfront promenade

Split's old town and waterfront

Split’s old town and waterfront

Trogir, population 11,000, 27 kilometers west of Split

Trogir, population 11,000, 27 kilometers west of Split

A two-hour Jadrolinija ferry ride from Split took us to the island of Hvar. The island is probably best known for nightclubs and stag parties in its largest town (also called Hvar), but we also spent one night in Stari Grad, a smaller seaside town full of families and low-key tourists.

The short bus ride from Stari Grad to Hvar gave us our most amusing glimpse of peak-season tourist insanity. What should have been a calm 30-minute journey turned into a 90-minute comedy of errors. Daniel and I were lucky enough to grab the last two seats on the bus, shortly before the driver proceeded to load another two dozen tourists into the aisle of the coach. The bus then stopped at the ferry terminal to wait for even more passengers, for whom there was clearly no room. Passengers griped and moaned. A shouting match broke out over who was entitled to the fold-down seat at the front of the vehicle. We just laughed, joked with our Bosnian seatmate, and waited it out.

Quiet, charming Stari Grad, on the island of Hvar

Quiet, charming Stari Grad, on the island of Hvar

Hey, we found a boat we can afford!

Hey, we found a boat we can afford!

Overlooking Hvar town

Overlooking Hvar town

Our most relaxing stop in Croatia was the island of Korčula, where we spent two nights. Like other spots on the coast, Korčula’s main attraction is its Medieval old town. We didn’t spend our days in museums or shops — just slept in late, sipped espresso in cafes, and took afternoon dips in the Adriatic.

One of our swimming spots on the shore of Korčula's old town

One of our swimming spots on the shore of Korčula’s old town

Korčula

Korčula

View of the old town from Park Foretić

View of the old town from Park Foretić

Finally, we wrapped up our Croatian coastal adventures in Dubrovnik, the country’s most popular tourist destination. After a week of exploring quiet islands, Dubrovnik’s tourist-jammed streets were a bit of a rude awakening; the city gate was so packed with cruise ship passengers when we arrived that we couldn’t even get into the city. We also experienced some major sticker shock, paying Western European prices for lodging and meals.

Though I was hesitant at first, we quickly appreciated why Dubrovnik is so popular: the architecture, scenery, and history are awe-inspiring. Dubrovnik’s top attraction is its series of defensive stone walls. Among the greatest fortifications of the Middle Ages, the walls still stand today, providing a two-kilometer walking path around the old town with unmatched views of the city and the sea.

Placa, the old town's main thoroughfare

Placa, the old town’s main thoroughfare

One of Dubrovnik's tourist-packed museums

One of Dubrovnik’s tourist-packed museums

Adriatic views from the city wall

Adriatic views from the city wall

Easily one of the highlights of our trip

Easily one of the highlights of our trip

We loved Croatia’s fascinating history, beautiful coastal scenery, and leisurely pace. If the country isn’t on your travel list yet, it certainly deserves a spot.

6 Comments

  1. Nice use of your time! I, too, had reservations about Dubrovnik due to the city size but it became one of my favorite cities while isiting with my ex husbands family. While there, his mom took us to see one of her friends. They had become friends prior to the war (mom and Bosnian and the woman a Serb) and continued their friendship throughout. The woman stayed in her apartment on the main street through the war and insisted in staying despite requests from officials and the gunfire and cannonballs richoceting all around her. In fact, In all the years after the war, she had yet to fix a hole causes by a cannonball in the roof of her 3rd floor walk up. I visited there 6 years ago and on our last night in Sarajevo my camera was stolen. The only pictures I miss from that trip are those of her apartment and the artifacts she had collected during the war and her travels after. Thanks for brining back those memories! 🙂

  2. Croatia was our favorite Europe vacation and one of the very few places I could see us living for a while. We even smuggled a stray cat who was pregnant back to Germany!

    • Ha! The Croatian border controls didn’t seem particularly strict, so I’m not surprised you got away with your illegal animal crossing 🙂

  3. The area was never high on my holiday list. Looks Like I need to review that.

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