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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.