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Istria or Dalmatia?

If you’re trying to decide whether you should visit Dalmatia or Istria, that’s a tough call to make. Istria is often compared to Italy’s Tuscany region, but less developed and more budget-friendly. It offers lush nature and a wide range of historical sites, with some spectacular walled hilltop towns like Motovun, Hum, and Groznjan. Dalmatia tends to be more rugged with landscapes similar to Southern California without all the development, although there are very green islands like Mljet that edge some of the clearest, bluest water you’ve ever seen. It’s also home to world-famous cities like Dubrovnik and Split. Ideally, you’ll be able to explore both regions, but if you can’t, this guide will help determine the best for your Croatia vacation. 

Best Time to Visit

Korcula Old Town
Beram

Best Time to Visit Dalmatia

The best time to visit Dalmatia depends on the specific areas you plan to travel to. With most exploring the coast and islands, those who want to enjoy the warmest weather with ideal sea conditions should visit between June and September. If you’ll be taking a small ship cruise, the season runs from late April through mid-October with summer the peak. To avoid the biggest crowds and enjoy pleasant, mild weather, consider May or late September/early October. The sea will be warmer in early fall as compared to late spring having warmed up all summer, something to consider if swimming is a priority. If you plan a summer trip be sure to book your flights and accommodation well in advance.

Best Time to Visit Istria

The Istrian Peninsula is enjoyable anytime but the summer season is the most popular time to visit. Just like in Dalmatia, if you come during this period, it’s a must to book airfare and hotel reservations well in advance and expect to pay higher prices. If you don’t mind chillier temperatures with the possibility of wind and rain, November through March is the off-season and will be the cheapest and least crowded time to visit. However, some restaurants and accommodations will be closed. Enjoy the best of both worlds with mildly warm temperatures typically in the 70s Fahrenheit, fewer crowds, and less inexpensive flights and hotel rooms by visiting in late April through early June or mid-September through mid-October.

Cities

Aerial view of Dubrovnik Old Town
View of Rovinj

Cities in Dalmatia

One of the reasons why you should visit Dalmatia is it’s home to two top Croatian cities: Split and Dubrovnik. Split is renowned for Diocletian’s Palace, dating back to the 3rd century with some of the most well-preserved Roman architecture in the world. It also hosts a lovely waterfront promenade and served as a filming site for multiple “Game of Thrones” scenes. Dubrovnik’s medieval Old City is surrounded by massive defensive walls that enclose magnificent Baroque and Renaissance buildings. There are other cities worth visiting here too like Sibenik, an important Renaissance hub during the 15th and 16th centuries, and Zadar, an over 3,000-year-old city with an enticing mix of historic and modern, including its unique pair of waterfront art installations.

Cities in Istria

Istria is home to spectacular cities like Pula at its southern tip. The 1st century AD Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheater, is one of Croatia’s most famous attractions. It also hosts the 1st century BC Hercules Gate and Roman Forum. Romantic seaside Rovinj is renowned for its beautifully preserved Old Town with atmospheric streets lined with colorful Venetian architecture. Take in a panoramic view from the bell tower at the Church of Saint Euphemia, and browse the central market with everything from local olive oil and honey to fresh produce, paintings, and souvenirs. The ancient Roman town of Porec is also worth visiting with a history dating back nearly 2,000 years, beautiful beaches, and a wide range of water sports.

Historic Sites

Split
Pula Amphitheatre

Historic Sites in Dalmatia

Dalmatia boasts many historic sites – it would probably take more than a year to see them all but some of the top include the Renaissance and Baroque buildings in the walled Old City of Dubrovnik and the multiple fortresses. The island of Hvar is home to Croatia’s oldest town, Stari Grad, which dates back to 384 BC. On the island of Korcula, the Old Town boasts Venetian architecture surrounded by imposing gates, towers, and walls. On the island of Vis, you can visit a fort and a fascinating archaeological museum. Of course, Split is home to one of the country’s most famous historical sites, the over 1,700-year-old Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace with impeccably preserved Roman architecture.

Historic Sites in Istria

Some of the most significant sites in Istria can be found in its largest city of Pula, home to the Pula Arena, the Roman amphitheater that was built in the 1st century AD during the reign of Emperor Vespasian. While it once hosted gladiator battles, today, concerts, the Pula Film Festival, and other events are held here. The city is also home to the Roman Forum, the Temple of Augusta, the Gate of Hercules, ancient walls, and more. The historic stone town of Bale has a rich history, originating from the 15th-century medieval Bembo castle, while Porec’s Old Town features historical sites like Zuccatto Palace and the Euphrasian Basilica, one of the most significant early Christian complexes in the world.

National Parks

Krka Waterfalls
Open zoo in Brijuni National Park

National Parks in Dalmatia

Dalmatia, renowned for its stunning coastline along the Adriatic Sea, also boasts several mesmerizing national parks that showcase the region’s natural splendor. Among these, Paklenica National Park stands out, with its rugged limestone cliffs, deep canyons, and diverse flora and fauna offering a haven for hikers and climbers. Further south, Krka National Park entices visitors with its cascading waterfalls and emerald pools, inviting exploration by boat or on foot. Not to be missed is the enchanting Kornati National Park, an archipelago of over 100 islands adorned with barren yet striking landscapes and crystalline waters, perfect for sailing and diving enthusiasts.

National Parks in Istria

Istria is home to two national parks. Brijuni National Park is made up of a string of 14 jewel-like islands just off the coast north of Pula. Veli Brijuni is the only one open to visitors and offers striking natural beauty, abundant flora and fauna that includes over 150 different bird species, and interesting history with everything from perfectly preserved dinosaur footprints to Roman ruins. Risnjak is Istria’s other national park, located in the most heavily forested and mountainous region of Croatia, approximately 10 miles inland from the sea. It’s home to the beautiful source of the river Kupa, the central part of the Snjeznik and Risnjak massif. The rare and very elusive ris, or lynx, resides in this area.

Cuisine

Seafood in Croatia
Man holding a white truffle in Istria

Cuisine in Dalmatia

Dalmatian cuisine varies depending on the area you visit. Along the Dalmatian coast, menus commonly feature fresh seafood and fish along with common household staples, olive oil, and wine. Side dishes often include ingredients from a family’s own garden. On the Peljesac Peninsula, you’ll find some of the world’s best mussels and oysters, freshly harvested of course. Further inland in the Dalmatian hinterland which spans from east of Sibenik to the Bosnia and Herzegovina border, you’ll find more meat dishes such as sarma, minced meat rolled inside sour cabbage leaves and slow-cooked on the stove. The gastronomy here is primarily influenced by the Ottoman Empire, with lots of stews, grilled lamb and goat seasoned with native herbs and prepared on a spit.

Cuisine in Istria

One of the reasons why you should visit Istria is its cuisine. You’ll notice a lot of Italian influence here, including the food. The country’s largest peninsula enjoys the bounty of the sea, abundant fertile fields, and plentiful sunshine. Not only will you find lots of seafood on the menu but dishes using some of the highest quality olive oils, and often, truffles. The Istria region is best known for the white truffle which can only be found in certain areas of Croatia and Italy. In fact, the largest white truffle ever uncovered was found here, a Guinness World Record holder at almost three pounds. Truffle risotto and truffle pasta are two favorites. Appetizers often feature fresh cheese and Istrian prosciutto.

Beaches

Zlatni Rat
Istria Beach

Beaches in Dalmatia

There are many idyllic beaches in Dalmatia, including what’s often been ranked among the most beautiful and most photographed in Europe, Zlatni Rat, also known as the Golden Horn. It’s made up of white pebbles that glisten in the sun and has a unique shape that changes with the tides. Located on Brac Island, it juts out about a third of a mile, surrounded by translucent turquoise water on three sides, perfect for sunbathing and swimming. The unspoiled island of Vis is home to Stiniva Beach, a secluded paradise hidden among towering cliffs. Sakarun Beach on the island of Dugi Otok boasts powdery white sand and shallow water with a turquoise shade so brilliant you might think you’ve landed in the Caribbean.

Beaches in Istria

Istria also boasts picturesque beaches, each with its own unique appeal, from lively stretches with lots of activities to secluded coves with calm water and a tranquil atmosphere. Rovinj is a gem with beaches that have gently sloping shores ideal for families with children who can safely splash around. Many have playgrounds and sports facilities too. Pula, Istria’s largest city has pebbly beaches with crystal-clear water, beachside cafes, and watersports centers. Kamejak Nature Park offers some of Istria’s most beautiful beaches, including Njive with pine trees, magnificent rock formations, and turquoise water. No matter which beach you head to, kayaking and paddleboarding are popular with rentals available at numerous venues. Cape Kamenjak is particularly ideal for snorkeling with remarkable water clarity.

Transport Links

Croatia road
Ferry in Istria

Transport Links from Dalmatia

The Dalmatian Coast is home to several international airports, including Split, Dubrovnik, and Zadar with connecting flights from Zagreb. Split, Croatia’s second-largest city and the capital of the Dalmatia region is a convenient transportation hub for the entire area, making it a great starting point for island-hopping itineraries. It’s home to the country’s main passenger port with numerous ferries running to and from the islands and the mainland. The ferry terminal is just minutes from the city center while the main train and bus stations are right across the street. That makes it very well-connected to other Croatian and European cities. Private transfers, rental cars, taxis, and other transport options are available at all the major airports, including Split, Zadar, and Dubrovnik.

Transport Links from Istria

Istria offers stunning beauty with many unspoiled areas, perhaps because transport links are a bit limited here. The only international airport in the region is Pula, with seasonal flights typically running between April and October to and from various destinations around Europe. There are daily flights from Zadar and Zagreb to Pula year-round, however. Domestic flights to Mali Losinj, Osijek, and Split are limited. It is possible to take a ferry between Istria and Venice, Italy, which are in operation from April to October. Limited train service is available linking Pula and Buzet, with a few stops in smaller towns along the way. Buses are available from multiple Istrian towns, including Pula, Rovinj, and Porec to Trieste and Venice in Italy.

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