There’s so much about Croatia that I loved that it’s tough to pick where to begin. Boasting crystal-clear emerald waters, sand-clad party-towns beside tranquil isolated islands, ancient walled towns, infinite watersporting activities to choose from, and the jaw dropping natural wonders of Plitvice National Park - Croatia is an exceptionally varied country.
I went to Croatia for 9 days in June 2017 with a friend, Cathryn.
Of the four historical areas, we spent our time focusing on Dalmatia.
Currency: Kuna (HRK)
Plug Sockets: Type C and F
Ease of travel: 5/5 with car 3/5 without
Ease of communication: 5/5
Ease of meeting others: 5/5
General costs: ££
We started in Dubrovnik and carried on through Hvar, Split, Sibenik, Zadar, Paklenica National Park, Plitvice national park, Trogir, Makarska and the Makarska riviera. Hiring a car allowed us to visit a number of spots in a short space of time.
Dubrovnik has developed a name for itself as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. For this reason (along with the help of Game of Thrones), it is an incredibly touristy city - but don’t let that put you off. When you first arrive here, you’ll likely find yourself parked outside the Pile gate, one of the main gateways into the ancient-walled city. Teeter through to become instantly engulfed by terracotta-topped houses, decadent churches, bustling main squares, shiny cobblestone streets with steep steps leading upwards to boutique restaurants, wine bars and apartments.
Things to do:
1. Walk the city walls
By far the best thing to do here - it costs 150 kuna (£18), but you’ll be rewarded with incredible views of the gorgeous Adriatic sea, church towers and old slit-windows peeking through beautiful buildings.
Beautiful view from Dubrovnik city walls
Dubrovnik definitely does not have the best beaches in Croatia, but they are nevertheless pretty! There are lots to choose from - we went to Banje Beach which was a pebble-stone beach; most of the beaches in Croatia are pebble beaches! Banje beach is nice - but it can get very busy. If you’re coming from the old town, drop down to the beach a little earlier through a restaurant and you’ll find yourself surrounded by turquoise-painted terraces carefully poised on rocks - a great alternative.
On Banje itself you can rent sun loungers for 100 kuna (£12) per day and also has a nice beach bar, who make a delicious iced coffee.
3. Day trips
There are an abundance of day trips from Dubrovnik on offer throughout the old town and the beachfront - you can take ‘3 island tours’, kayak tours, trips to Mostar and Montenegro, jet ski days; you name it! ‘Shopping around’ probably won’t get you far as the prices don’t really vary between companies.
Alleyways leading up in the old town, Dubrovnik
View from Banje Beach, Dubrovnik
Whatever you may have heard about Croatia being a cheap place to visit, you can forget about it in Dubrovnik. Restaurants and cafes in the old town are expensive. We hunted high and low for budget eats, and 120 kuna (£14) for a main was about as budget as it got.
Places to eat / drink:
This was a delicious vegetarian and vegan-friendly restaurant just off the main square - not badly priced for Dubrovnik, and delicious nutritious food!
2. Buza Bar
This is THE place to go for sunset. It’s a unique bar nestled between rocks on a cliff facing the beautiful cerulean sea. You get an incredible view for sunset, and it’s very reasonably priced.
3. Countless wine bars - we went to D’vino which was pretty nice.
If you arrive in Dubrovnik Airport, you’ll find a few different bus options for getting to the city centre. We went with ‘Croatia Buses’ - their desk was on the left hand side as you come out of arrivals, the buses ran half-hourly, cost 40 kuna and dropped us off right at the Pile Gate.
Getting from Dubrovnik to the Islands.
We were heading from Dubrovnik to Hvar and there are a few companies to choose from!
We decided to go with UTO Kapetan Luka company - and it cost 200 kuna one way, The ferries also stopped at Korkula - which is a popular destination! (https://www.krilo.hr/en/).
To get to the port, take bus number 1A or 1B from directly outside the tourist information office at Pile Gate. It drops you off at the port and costs 15 kuna.
Hvar is a delightfully charming island - arriving at the port you’ll find a bustling promenade leading to the lively main square brimmed with restaurants, bars and market stalls. What’s even better is if you walk up the steep-stepped alleyways to the residential area, and you’ll be instantly surrounded by peace and tranquility with beautiful views over the ocean that literally took my breath away (although that might have been more to do with the challengingly steep steps up to the top).
Things to do:
1. Walk around the harbour
The harbour is beautiful and full of isolated pebble beaches - some of the best we found on our trip!
Around the harbour are restaurants, bars, market stalls selling lavender (apparently this is the gift to bring back from Hvar) heaps of travel and boat excursion companies selling ‘rent a boat’ and organised island tours.
From the bustling main square you’ll find a narrow set of stairs leading high into the hills that seem unusually crowded compared to the other alleyways; this is because this is the route to the hill fortress.
It costs 40 kuna (£5) to enter and boasts postcard-perfect views of the coastline and nearby islands. It’s a great place to spend an hour or so gazing at the boats sweeping past whilst enjoying a cup of coffee from the fortress café.
3. Island tours - Blue and Green caves
When you step onto Hvar you will instantly be surrounded by little kiosks selling ‘island tours’. There are heaps of companies offering these tours - all with their own unique slant.
They pretty much all go to the Blue cave, some go to the green cave, and many others have their own individual islands / local gems that they choose to take you to. After some extensive research and a personal recommendation, we chose Ilirio’s Hvar.
The trip took us firstly to the green cave where small boats drift in and out carefully avoiding the brave swimmers (the water is not warm....!).
Next was the famous blue cave - surreal yet beautiful. Most boat tours will drop you off on the island of Bisevo directly next to the blue cave ticket desk. Next you purchase a ticket (costs 40 kuna) - a number is displayed on the ticket. When your number displays on the large screens you can queue up to get on a small boat that will take you to the cave. The cave is water-filled with a small entrance just big enough for these boats to glide through (although you will have to duck as you enter). At certain times of the day, sunlight shines in and reflects through the water, creating an aquamarine glowing light.
On the next part of the tour we spotted dolphins swimming around!
Our tour then took us to the islands of Komiza and Vis - which were absolutely stunning. We also visited Stiniva, Bisevo and Porat Bay. Bisevo even had a sandy beach!
4. Rent a scooter
The island is beautiful to walk, cycle or scoot around - and there are plenty of places to rent them - our hostel even rented them!
5. Visit the Pakleni Islands
One of the things I wanted to do, but didn’t have time for. You can rent boats to take there, join a tour or pay for a taxi boat.
Yes I’ve already mentioned them, but they really were the best beaches in Croatia, so I have to mention them again. Endless pebblestone beaches with pristine emerald waters - so clear they seem somewhat artificial.
I definitely became a fan of pebble beaches - there's no mess! I brought waterproof sandals to make the walk into the sea less painful than going barefoot, although I've since been informed by my Croatian friend, Ivona, that this is sacrilege, and that the locals were probably laughing at me.
Beautiful pebble beaches
Places to eat:
There is a myriad of restaurants and cafes - most of which are very expensive, but if you weave your way through the main square and through to the alleyways leading off, you can find some slightly cheaper gems.
We ate in ‘Fig Cafe’ - set in a beautiful cobblestoned alleyway with floral hanging baskets from green shuttered windows. The menu is versatile - more of fusion-croat food - you can get delicious stuffed flatbreads, curries, Croatian wines. It’s also vegan/vegetarian friendly.
Lunch is much easier to eat cheaply thanks to the abundance of delicious bakeries and ice-cream filled iced coffee dotted around the island.
The most perfect sunset spot!
We found two great places for sunset offering contrasting experiences - so what are you in the mood for?
1. Party sunset
If you google ‘sunset Hvar’, ‘Hula Hula’ this will probably be your first hit - this is a great spot on the beach attracting a young crowd for iced coffee, cocktails, great tunes and a fantastic sunset view.
2. Relaxing sunset
If you keep walking down past Hula Hula along the coast (as if you’re coming from the harbour) for about 5-10 minutes, you’ll find a number of secluded spots. The coastline becomes quite rugged and you’ll be surrounded by beautiful ivory rocks with emerald waters splashing over. Conveniently there are a number of luxurious sun loungers placed strategically for sun-bakers and sunset-junkies alike. The perfect spot for an intimate and peaceful sunset viewing.
It’s also a great place to come to in the day - it’s not a beach as such, but the Croatians have come up with a way of being able to float around in the waters without risking life and limb on the razor-sharp rocks; there are ladders attached to the rocks leading down into safe waters!
Ferry from Hvar to Split
This time we used a different company - Jadrolinija. Equally good - again, comfy seats, cafe on board! We paid 100 kuna and bought the tickets online in the morning.
Resting on the Dalmation coast is a town brimming with market stalls, impressive art, secretive ancient passageways and an unprecedented vibe echoing from the core. It’s a popular tourist spot, but significantly less so than Hvar or Dubrovnik - which meant one important thing- much more reasonable prices.
Market stalls in Split
Exploring the ruins in Split
Things to do:
1. Walk along the promenade
The promenade is beautiful by day or night - lined by cafes, restaurants, bars and market stalls selling art, jewellery, lavender and an array of trinkets.
2. The old town
The old town is why most visitors are drawn to Split. The ancient structures from Diocletian’s palace form the backbone of the town, with a labyrinth of side streets leading to dramatic main squares crammed with restaurants, shops, wine bars, ice cream cafes (selling delicious iced coffee) and galleries. As I was wandering around, I kept excitedly saying to my friend ‘This is exactly like Venice, it looks the same!’. After later reading about the history of Croatia, the pieces began to fit together.
3. Wander Split at night
Split comes alive at night - with an abundance of restaurants and bars bleeding a lively, vibrant atmosphere, musicians in the streets, and shops that stay open ridiculously late - it’s incredibly interesting to walk around.
By far the most popular drinking spot is around the peristyle where a musician plays seated in the middle of crowds who are dotted around the seats chatting and dancing.
Split by night
4. Buy some art
Split is brimming with budding artists and impressive galleries - so this is a great place to buy some bling for your walls. We went to a cute art gallery just off an alleyway adjacent to the old town. It was actually somewhere my friend had found years ago when she was here last - and she was very keen to find it again so we spent a bit of time hunting it down. We’d actually given up and had started heading back when we stumbled across an enticing alleyway lined with hanging floral baskets and vines. She was overjoyed when we realised this was the shop we had been looking for and it was well worth it!
Places to eat:
There are a huge number of places to choose from, but Beba and Lazy Cow were pretty good choices.
We started looking for a wine bar and stumbled across 'Paradox' - it’s actually a wine and cheese bar (even better!), very reasonable prices, knowledgeable staff - and a beautiful setting.
The next day we picked up our rental car and headed towards Zadar - via Sibenik.
Sibenik was meant to be a quick convenience stop over on our way to Zadar, but with its intriguing cobblestone alleyways dotted with quirky shops and galleries twisting skywards to the top of the hill, we ended up wandering around for hours. It was a great place to try out some photography skills with beautiful doorways covered in flowers and spiralling alleyways encircling grand churches.
Sibenik is also a haven for the health-conscious with a surplus of juice bars, vegan cafes, and organic and eco-friendly cafes.
Pretty florals in Sibenik
Biograd na Moru
We were looking for a beach between Sibenik and Zadar and were recommended this beach. It’s a good beach - has both sandy and pebble stone parts, a few cafes and bars and an inflatable world for kids. It was quite busy but we managed to find a secluded spot and tried out some snorkelling. Watch out though; the beach is sodden with sea urchins.
Staying with Zadar as our base for the next 3 nights placed us well for an extensive selection of day trips, and that’s all we had planned to use the city for. However, when we arrived we quickly realised that we needed to schedule some time to explore our immediate surroundings too!
Things to do:
1. Walk along the old town
Crumbling fortresses, city walls boasting dramatic panoramas and lively town squares - there’s plenty to keep you occupied in Zadar.
Waves crash into the beautiful promenade at an impressive height - so you’ll need to keep your eye out to avoid getting splashed!
2. The Organ Steps
Situated at the end of the promenade is this unique musical instrument that plays music driven by the crashing waves upon tubes and holes. It was pretty cool!
Paklenica National Park + Beach
We wanted to see some of the inland scenery, so decided to take a day trip to Paklenica.
The drive was supposedly pretty short - 40 minutes!
Our drives had been going pretty well so far - we had a good system going - I would drive, and Cathryn would pick the music and feed me chocolate. She also attempted the navigation, but being pretty hopeless at directions, I usually ignored her and went the way I thought was right, and we got everywhere fine.
This time, I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt. Driving along the toll round to Paklenica I could see the road sign directing us onto the slip-road, "Is this the right exit?" I asked "No, it's definitely the next one!" replied Cathryn. Getting closer to the exit "Are you sure?" "Yes, definitely sure!" "100%, last chance" "Definitely not this exit"......"Oh hang on, it was that exit after all... Why did you listen to me?!" Gah.
It turns out the exits on the toll roads are few and far between - 45 minutes apart, in fact. And so, an hour and thirty minutes later, we took the turning off to Paklenica!
Luckily the park was beautiful, and on arrival we were met with dramatic mountain landscapes with sweeping canyons, deep caves and gushing waterfalls forming enchanting green fairy pools. It was well worth the longer-than-expected drive.
We walked up and up, making detours scrambling over rocks to get better views. It was a tough climb in the sweltering heat- but we finally felt like we had burnt off our countless iced coffees.
Green fairy pools, Paklenica
Paklenica National Park
After cooling ourselves down in the cafe with (you’ve guessed it, more iced coffee) - we jumped back in the car and begun our scenic journey home; weaving around hairpin roads and glorious views of spearing mountain-tops backdropped against cerulean waters.
On our way back - right before the toll road starts, we noticed a beautiful beach. We picked a road that looked like it was heading down towards the sea, luckily it did!
The beach was pretty quiet - and stunning - with mountains studded around the waters, it looked more like a Scottish Loch than a beach - with better weather, of course!
The perfect tanning spot!
Paklenica tips -
There are two main entrances - so make sure you pick the right one.
Entrance 1 is situated next to the big canyon - this is the entrance for hiking, mountain climbing and gentle strolls.
Entrance 2 is next to the small canyon - this is for serious mountaineers only.
We actually went to the wrong entrance at first (entrance 2) - we turned up in skimpy tops and pathetic look-like-trainers-but-aren’t-actually-trainers and leather backpacks - the man at reception took one look at us and said ‘I think you might want the other entrance’.. he was correct.
Tickets are 50 kuna or 30 kuna for students, and an additional 10 kuna for the car park.
Plitvice National Park
The highlight of my trip undoubtedly was Plitvice National Park.
My friend Rebecca had shown me images of the park way back in our early university years, and ever since then it's been on my bucket list - and it’s hands down the most beautiful place I’ve visited.
It could be the number of waterfalls visible in one blink - with water hurtling down so fast that a silver froth and mist ascend from the water surface. It could be the sheer size of the place, or the luscious rolling hills. It could be seeing the fearless climbers perched on steep rock edges in the distance. For me it was the incredible colours that are forever rooted in my memory.
Bright turquoise and azure waters shimmering in the sun - no photograph could do it justice (I tried anyhow).
This park will truly blaze in your memory and if you can, you need to fit this into your itinerary.
The Plitvice Lakes
Surreal colours in Plitvice
There are two entrances - we planned to start at entrance one, walk to entrance two, and continued the end - before getting the bus back to the start. (Or you can get the bus back to the wrong entrance, pay your parking ticket, walk around for twenty minutes thinking your car has been stolen, panic, message your boyfriend to ask what to do, realise you went to the wrong entrance, wait another thirty minutes for the next bus, get to the correct entrance, find your car, realise your ticket no longer works because it’s been so long, relay this story to an unimpressed parking worker and be on your way one hour and a half later… oops).
When you get to the park you’ll be faced with a billboard displaying four different routes you can take - each taking different length of times to walk.
We selected option C - which took 4.5hours (including a fifty minute detour to see extra falls). But essentially, pick your route, and follow the signs - taking into account the detour routes to see the surrounding lakes and waterfalls.
Although we did the lakes as a trip from Zadar (1hr45), some people do this from Split (3hrs) or Sibenik (2hrs20). Many hostels advertise organised excursions, or can help you take a bus there if you don’t have a car.
Sadly it was now nearing the end of our trip and time to head back to Dubrovnik.
We drove over two days, staying overnight in Makarska via some beaches and Trogir.
Trogir is a pretty small walled-town next to Ciovo island.
We spent a few hours wandering around the alleyways, shopping in the numerous souvenir shops and market stalls.
It’s pricey though and heavily-packed with tourists!
Makarska is a picturesque sleepy town set on cliff edges with a mountainous backdrop. If you’re staying up on the main road, expect a steep walk down to the old town.
Things to do:
Walk around the old town
Like most cities in Croatia, Makarska also has an old town - and I think it was probably the most beautiful of all. Pretty shiny cobbled sheets and a cobweb of alleyways leading to a main central square with restaurants, wine bars, cafes, shops and art galleries all around.
2. Walk along the harbour
If you keep walking down from the old town, you’ll pass gelaterias and eventually find yourself at the harbour.
More sunset spots!
Makarska Old Town
Beaches along the Makarska Riviera are flawless.
We were aiming for Punta Rada - in Brela, which is generally regarded to have exceptional beaches. It was too busy however, and there were no parking spots left. We turned back around and headed back along the way we had come from. After a few sharp bends seemingly in the middle of nowhere we spotted an area with a number of parked cars along the cliffside - with nothing else around we assumed there must be a nice beach! So we parked up, clambered down the cliff - and lo and behold, there was a beautiful pebble stone beach! There was a sign saying ‘Beach Tuna’, but without mobile signal, we had no real idea where we were.
Places to eat / drink
For a fantastic sunset view, try ‘Deep Makarska’. Website: https://www.facebook.com/deepmakarska
It’s a bar set inside a cave on the beachfront - with an incredible view of the sun set. It’s got a good selection of cocktails, decent music, and turns into a nightclub at 11pm.
Wine Bar Grabovac
A great wine bar on the mains square - great menu, cheery staff and some great snacks to nibble on too! (especially the dried fig cake!)
We’d heard this place was the best restaurant by far, so we were eager to try it out. We’d also realised that it was our last night in Croatia and we were yet to try Dalmatian food! Luckily this warm and friendly traditional Dalmatian restaurant did not let us down.
Dimly lit with a cosy, friendly atmosphere - this pub-come-restaurant has an extensive drinks list and a menu that changes every day! We had a delicious plate of smoked fish, tiger prawns, chard and swordfish. Mouthwatering! We shared a cherry liqueur with the waiter for dessert and headed on our way.
It's highly recommended but tables go fast - if you want to ensure you'll be eating here - you'll need to make a reservation.
Our last sunset was definitely one of the best!
This sadly marked the end of our incredible Croatian road trip and we headed on our way to Dubrovnik airport the next morning.
The drive was pretty straightforward, easy route, lovely scenery, as always! The route involves crossing into Bosnia - we weren’t sure if this would add on excess time but luckily it only took about five minutes in total, giving us extra time the other end to stop at a roadside beach and soak up a final few minutes of sun.
The trip was incredible, and I can't wait to go back and explore some of the other areas; Istria, Slavonia and Central Croatia.
Most of the beaches in Croatia are pebble-stone beaches. This means walking into the sea is torturous! I'm going to ignore Ivona here and say - bring some sensible shoes (not flip flops!) so that you can get into the water without tearing your skin off on sharp rocks! My shoes were pretty ugly, but my feet remained intact!
The ferries are incredibly high-quality - comfortable, table and row seats with a cafe on-board! Spacious, air-conditioned and an outer area for looking at the view. You can book through the tourist information offices, or online.
Watch out for the toll roads!
Don’t expect Croatia to be as cheap as it’s Eastern European neighbours - prices have surged in recent years, especially in Dubrovnik, Hvar and Trogir.
Do not underestimate how nice a pebble-stone beach is if you are hiring a car; no mess!
Try Croatian wine! I liked the dingac red wine and posip white.
Eat as much seafood as you can - it's delicious!