Best things to do in Croatia
While savvy travelers knew about the delights of Croatia long before, once the world got a look of it on-screen as a filming location for the hit series “Game of Thrones,” it quickly became a bucket-list tourist destination. From soaking up the beauty on one of its most photographed beaches and viewing waterfalls to wine tasting and visiting places that will take you back to another time, you’ll find something for everyone here.
As you’re making your plans for an unforgettable trip, you’ll want to put at least a few of these things to do on your must-experience list.
Just a little over a mile from Bol on Brac Island, Zlatni Rat is one of the most photographed beaches in Croatia and one of the most beautiful in all of Europe. Also referred to as the Golden Horn for its unique shape that changes with the wind and the waves, it’s a stunning strip made up of fine, white pebbles jutting out a third of a mile into water that ranges in a variety of shades from deep blue to aquamarine. While it’s ideal for sunbathing and swimming, bordered by pine trees, you’ll find shade for relaxing under too.
When it comes to gastronomy, Croatia doesn’t disappoint. With its many diverse regions and influences from multiple cultures throughout the centuries, including Greeks, Romans, Venetians, Ottomans, and more, it spans everything from hearty meat dishes and stews to fresh seafood and fish specialties. In the northern Istria region, you’ll find lots of Italian-influenced dishes, including pastas, along with Austrian schnitzels. Everywhere you go meals are typically made using local ingredients for true farm-to-table experiences. It’s even possible to head into the kitchen of a local’s home, learning how to cook time-honored recipes before joining the family at the table.
Images of Plitvice Lakes National Park with its many waterfalls and 16 lakes in hues ranging from turquoise to emerald have often gone viral. It’s no surprise, as combined with mysterious caves and lush forests home to many rare bird species, bears, and wolves, the area’s striking beauty led it to becoming a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The waters have been flowing over the limestone for thousands of years, depositing travertine barriers to create natural dams that have resulted in this fantasy-like place. Visitors can explore the Lower Lakes, Upper Lakes, or both by hiking the paths and wooden bridges that wind throughout.
Located along the Krka River outside historic Sibenik, Krka National Park can give Plitvice a run for its money. It’s also famous for its waterfalls like Skradinski Buk, a series of cascades that stretch for over 2,600 feet, spilling into the emerald-hued water below. There are many trails to hike that will bring you to experience the park’s jaw-dropping beauty, with meandering pathways, wooden bridges, and viewpoints. The 1.2-mile-long Skradinski Buk trail is a loop trail that weaves in and out of the trees, with short side trails providing various perspectives of the waterfalls.
With over 1,200 islands and a spectacular 3,626-mile-long coastline, the best way to explore Croatia is an island-hopping small-ship cruise. You’ll get an incredible perspective of the country’s alluring beauty, with opportunities to anchor in secluded bays and or near hidden beaches so that you can leap into the crystal-clear turquoise sea for a swim. With an elegant, sleek-sized vessel, it’s possible to reach smaller ports, narrow waterways, and uninhabited islands away from the biggest tourist crowds. You’ll have more time to explore each destination, from archaeological sites and historic landmarks in medieval cities to wineries in remote vineyard-covered regions.
Croatia is becoming increasingly popular for its wine, although the complicated names of the wines produced by many different indigenous grape varieties aren’t well known as they can be hard to pronounce. Still, word-of-mouth has led many wine enthusiasts to come to taste and tour while enjoying the sights. At the smaller, family-run wineries, one often has the chance to get to know the winemaker and chat about the winemaking process before sampling the results. That might include Babić, a red indigenous grape variety producing dark, dense, tasty wines, or Posip, a white wine grape primarily grown on the island of Korcula.
The Blue Cave is a must-visit attraction on the island of Bisevo near Vis. One of the top spots of natural beauty in the Adriatic, this geomorphological natural wonder can be visited on a small boat tour. Slowly cruising into the narrow entrance, you’ll witness the hypnotizing brilliant blue glow that illuminates the interior. While you might think it’s the work of a magician, this comes thanks to Mother Nature. When conditions are right, the rays of the sun beam through a crack in the roof of the grotto and reflect on the white limestone seabed to create a surreal scene.
The Istrian Peninsula in northern Croatia is famous for its wine and food, often compared to Tuscany with its medieval hilltop villages. It’s particularly renowned for its truffles, a luxury cousin to the mushroom. The delicacy is featured on many menus in the area, often combined in pastas and other creative dishes, but searching for them with an expert makes for an especially memorable experience. You’ll head out with a truffle hunter and trained truffle-hunting dogs into the dense forest while learning about how the animals are trained and the truffles are found. Of course, it includes a tasting.
One of the most famous medieval walled cities in the world, often featured in “Game of Thrones,” Dubrovnik’s historic center is encircled by centuries-old stone walls that stretch for 1.2 miles. They’re an iconic symbol of the city and visitors can even walk atop them for a bird’s-eye view to see the sparkling Adriatic Sea and the island of Lokrum on one side, with the red-tiled rooftops, narrow streets, and squares on the other. Along the way, there are many viewpoints and several cafes for water, coffee, snacks, or ice cream that make for a perfect break while enjoying the scenery.
Built over the late 3rd– and early 4th centuries as the retirement residence for Roman Emperor Diocletian, Diocletian’s Palace is the most well-preserved and largest example of Roman palatial architecture. It’s the main part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Split’s historic center and still retains many of the original features. The maze-like complex with its twisting alleyways and narrow streets is lined with ancient buildings that now serve as boutiques, galleries, wine bars, restaurants, and cafes. It includes the world’s oldest cathedral, the Cathedral of St. Domnius, and an over 190-foot bell tower that can be climbed for a panoramic view.
The settlement of Ston, located south of the isthmus of the Pelješac peninsula, is famous for its town walls and its oysters. It’s the best place to try them fresh, and many feel their taste is the best in the world thanks to the high concentration of minerals and salt in the water. A tasting experience typically includes a visit to an oyster farm with a talk about the process of cultivating oysters, and how to gather and open them before the grand finale. You’ll sample the oysters fresh out of the sea on a floating dock surrounded by oyster beds.
Mljet National Park covers a significant portion of lush Mljet Island. One of the most important protected areas in southern Dalmatia, it features dense forest and two stunning saltwater lakes in shades ranging from brilliant blue to emerald. Great Lake is home to an island topped with ruins of a 12th-century monastery. There are multiple ways to explore it, including on two wheels with bicycle rentals available. Pedal along the peaceful lanes that wind through the woods and around the edge of the lakes, perhaps stopping at the beach for a swim. The full circle around Great Lake covers about 5.6 miles.
Located on the west coast of the Istrian Peninsula, Rovinj has an enchanting Old Town with cobblestone streets and impressive gates that are overlooked by the steeple of the hilltop church of St Euphemia. This seaside village is romantic and postcard-perfect, complete with beautiful beaches framed by the sparkling waters of the Adriatic. It also happens to offer some of the best sunsets in the region. The pier is one of the most popular spots to watch this grand finale of the day, extending directly south from Old Town with many western-facing areas to witness the glorious colors splashed across the sea.
The sunny island of Hvar draws many international jet setters with its world-class restaurants, beach bars, and buzzing nightlife, but history enthusiasts will find plenty to discover here too. Hvar’s Venetian fort, Spanjola as the locals refer to it, is a highlight of any visit here. It’s perched atop a 328-foot-high hill, but the climb to reach it is gentle and the views from the top are well worth the reward. It towers over the harbor and also brings a panoramic view of the island-dotted sea. You’ll also see traces of its former grandeur, complete with a tower, walls with battlements, and circular bastions.
There are many reasons Hvar is a favorite island for many. Not only does it offer fascinating history and modern delights, but its landscapes are spectacular. Unusual for this region is that it not only has idyllic sandy beaches, hillsides covered in pine forests, olive groves, fruit orchards, vineyards, and freshwater springs, but lavender fields. They’re iconic here, with images of an endless sea of purple first catching the world’s attention, causing many travelers to add Hvar to their bucket lists. If you’re here in June or July, you’ll get to marvel at the remarkable scene, with guided tours available.
The largest green market in Zagreb, Dolac Market lies behind the main square in Gornji Grad, featuring an enticing labyrinth of open-air and indoor markets that showcase Croatia’s best aromas and flavors. The vibrant atmosphere makes it fun just for browsing, with four distinct areas included. The main indoor market building is at street level featuring everything from bakers and butchers to cheese sellers, and on the first floor, it’s a feast of colors with fresh fruits, vegetables, dried fruits, nuts, eggs, and honey, all of which are locally produced. A covered fish market is on the upper level featuring fish and seafood straight from the sea and lying adjacent to the main market square is Splavnica, the flower market.
Take in unrivaled views by riding the world’s shortest funicular in Zagreb. A symbol of the city, this over 120-year-old witness of modern development is like a living museum exhibit. It was originally steam operated but is now powered by electricity, bringing riders a little more than 216 feet to Zagreb’s upper town. You’ll find the lower terminus near the main square and after hopping on it will take just over a minute to reach the serene cobbled streets. While the journey may be short, the change of atmosphere and scenery is dramatic. Upon arrival, you’ll be at Strossmayerovo setaliste, the most picturesque promenade in town. And, if you can time it at noon, you can experience the Gric Cannon blast.
One of the best things to do in Croatia is to visit St. James Cathedral in Sibenik. The UNESCO-listed Renaissance-Gothic cathedral is widely regarded as the finest building on the Dalmatian coast. Built between 1431 and 1535, the exterior alone is worth the trip with its remarkable decorative elements. That includes a frieze with more than 70 sculptured faces of men, women, and children. It was built entirely from stone, using unique construction techniques for the dome and the vaulting, while illustrating an impressive fusion of Renaissance and Gothic art. Bearing witness to the significant exchanges of monumental arts between Dalmatia, Tuscany, and Northern Italy, three architectures are credited: Francesco di Giacomo, Georgius Mathei Dalmaticus, and Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino.
While you’ll find an excellent selection of beers, wines, and spirits in Croatia, there’s one drink that’s a must-try, Rakija. The national drink, while it’s shared with other Balkan countries like Serbia, it has a unique twist here. The country’s own take on the classic fruit brandy is an herbal version – in Istria, it might be made with mistletoe or honey, and in Dubrovnik, it includes anise. On Hvar Island, the local specialty includes myrtle while inland destinations may be made with pears, plums, quince, or sour cherries. There’s a saying among Croatians: “If you haven’t tried homemade rakija, you haven’t tried rakija at all.” When made properly, it’s a testament to the efforts of prior generations dating back to the beginning of time.
Olives are cultivated throughout Croatia, with both indigenous and imported varieties grown here. One of the most popular products in the country, it seems like nearly every family makes their own or at least has a relative who does, though few produce enough to bottle and sell. The tradition of olive oil production here dates back to the Roman and Greek times when it was used for everything from lighting and bathing to cooking and medicinal purposes. While Istria may not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of olive oil, the Istrian peninsula is home to some of the world’s best olive oil producers and you’ll find many opportunities for tastings.
Opatija is a crown jewel on the Istrian peninsula coast, with timeless elegance as a former 19th-century resort town. It’s home to the Lungomare, one of the country’s prettiest promenades, a 7.4-mile stretch following the coast, providing views of the shoreline, the sea, and grand historic villas. It’s worth walking the entire length not only for the stunning natural beauty, but to watch windsurfers in the Bay of Preluk and marvel at the over 150 plant species from around the world in Angiolina Park, including sequoias, black bamboo, lemon trees, Japanese bananas, and bougainvillea. The Girl with the Seagull statue is also on the route, an iconic landmark popular for selfies. You’ll also find numerous idyllic beaches that invite one to relax or swim.
Located in the hinterland of Istria, Hum is the world’s smallest town with a population of only around 30. It’s a symbol of architecture and medieval culture, with legend saying that it was made from stone left over from towns that giants built in the Mirna River valley. It includes a town wall, gate, cemetery, and a handful of buildings. Visitors can stroll through the historic stone alleys, passing ancient homes and churches that make one feel as if they’ve traveled back in time. In the deli shops, you can sample truffle specialties, local wines, and regional brandies and liqueurs. Don’t miss the town’s only restaurant, Humska Konoba, which has a menu that features exceptional Istrian cuisine, including truffle dishes.
The heart-shaped Istrian peninsula is home to many beautiful hilltop towns with jaw-dropping views of a Tuscan-like landscape, including lush hills, vineyards, and olive groves. They’re more like small villages than towns, including picturesque walled Motovun in the Mirna Valley that looks like something out of a dream. It’s famous for its truffles, with many specialty shops that sell truffle products and menus featuring the rare delicacy in various creative dishes from pastas to desserts. Groznjan is another favorite, with similarly incredible vistas and cobbled streets lined with stone homes and buildings. An artsy town, there are many galleries here and it also hosts a popular summer jazz festival. Charming Oprtalj features homes with brightly colored facades and a Venetia loggia with stunning views.
Often ranked among the best countries in Europe for those who like to swim, the crystal-clear blue waters of the Adriatic are incredibly enticing. The sea averages in the upper 70s Fahrenheit during the summer, providing a refreshing dip from the hot sun while being free of pollutants in the vast majority of the areas here. The water quality has been tested to be outstanding and there are many places to leap in for a swim, whether from a boat or one of the beautiful beaches. You might even see dolphins swimming through the surf next to you. Zlatni Rat is one of the most famous beaches for a swim, with brilliant pale turquoise water surrounding it on three sides.
Finally, one of the best things to do in Croatia for outdoor adventure lovers is a whitewater rafting trip on the Cetina River. Within easy reach of Split, you can escape the city and enjoy a tour along the grade 3 rapids while exploring hidden caves and even stopping to swim beneath pristine waterfalls. Trips follow a short section of the river near its mouth just a couple of miles inland from the coast, bringing the opportunity to view incredible canyons and dense forests from the crystal-clear emerald water. Rafting the river is one of the best ways to see hidden parts of the country you normally wouldn’t. There’s no experience necessary and you’ll find many outfitters to choose from.
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