So, I’m traveling for a year. As part of this whirlwind adventure, my husband and I recently spent 36 days in Croatia. Many people asked if the country “had enough” to warrant a month-long trip. I always remarked yes, despite not being certain at the time. But now that I’ve done it, I can assure you there’s plenty to see and do. The crescent-shaped country may seem small, but it’s packed with pristine beaches, centuries-old landmarks and delicious food. Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know before visiting this beautiful Balkan nation..
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1. ‘Hvala’ Means Thank You
When traveling to a new place, I think it’s essential to learn how to say a few basic words. This shows you’re making an effort, even if you don’t speak the language. I got through simple exchanges with molim (please) and hvala (thank you).
2. There Are Four Main Regions
Croatia is divided into four main regions that reflect the history and culture. Croatia proper encompasses much of inland Croatia—basically Zagreb and the surrounding territories. Located in the northwest of the country, Istria is the triangular peninsula that’s bordered by Slovenia and the Adriatic Sea. Arguably the most underrated region, Slavonia comprises the easternmost portion of Croatia. Dalmatia covers the southern part of the country and includes many holiday hot spots (e.g., Split, Hvar and Dubrovnik).
3. …AND MORE THAN A THOUSAND ISLANDS
It’s not a coincidence that island hopping is so marketable in Croatia. From isles connected to the mainland by bridges (hello, Krk) to uninhabited atolls, there are more than a thousand islands along the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea.
4. PLUS, GORGEOUS NATIONAL PARKS
UNESCO-protected Plitvice Lakes National Park offers alpine forests, rugged hiking trails and crystalline pools. Situated 15 minutes from Sibenik, waterfall-studded Krka National Park stands among the most accessible choices for nature lovers. Both are unbelievably picturesque and popular tourist attractions. It’s vital to buy tickets online well in advance. Otherwise, you’ll end up waiting in a long line and risk the chance of not being permitted to enter.
5. Expect (Mostly) Rocky Beaches
Sand tends to be a main component of any good beach, right? That may be the case in the U.S., but Croatia doesn’t follow such a limited definition. It has many pebbly coves and jagged rocks that jut into the Adriatic Sea. On that note, investing in aqua socks might not be a bad idea.
6. It’s a Bargain (Most of the Time)
Croatia is affordable. After gallivanting around Stockholm and Copenhagen, I was happy to give my wallet a rest. Beer and fresh-caught fish won’t set you back more than a few bucks at local joints, so you can definitely stay on budget. Not everything is a steal, though—particularly if you want to do private boat excursions and dine at high-end restaurants. Also, the time of year you visit definitely plays a role in the price. We ended up paying higher summer rates. For example, an Airbnb that would cost $68 during other times of the year spikes to $150 during peak season. Something to keep in mind.
7. Cash Is King
Ready for some sage wisdom? Always carry kuna. Whether you’re in a major city or a remote village, having cash will make things a heck of a lot easier.
8. You Need to Drive a Stick Shift
Croatia doesn’t have a well-connected railway system, so buses are really the only option in terms of public transport. From my experience in northern and central Croatia, renting a car is your best bet. FYI, unless you request and confirm availability of an automatic whip in advance, you’ll definitely end up with a stick shift—which is what happened to us. Luckily, my husband knows how to drive a manual and I’m an excellent passenger.
9. Ferries Are Your Best Bet in Dalmatia
Once you get into Dalmatia, a car begins to be a bit of a burden as it limits the vessels you are able to take. Remember the name Jadrolinija, because this ferry operator is going to be your best friend. Be sure to research schedules and book tickets in advance.
10. What to Eat
Culinary traditions vary depending on the region. Ruling empires and neighboring countries have left their mark too. You can definitely taste the Italian influence in Istria with all the pizza, pasta, gnocchi, truffles, cured ham and seafood. Dalmatia cuisine is very Mediterranean. Think lots of grilled fish, olive oil and vegetables. If you find yourself in Hvar, definitely try gregada, a traditional soup made with cod. On the heartier side of things, the food in Croatia proper leans more toward meat and potatoes, while paprika and pork are staples of Slavonian fare.
11. Where to Stay
Overall, we had a ton of luck with Airbnbs. My three favorites were our cute studio in Rovinj, cool duplex in Zadar and recently refurbished flat in Split. Not only is renting an apartment a good way to stick to your budget, but it feels really homey and also gives you the freedom to cook. Though we did splurge toward the end of our trip with overnights at Palace Elisabeth, a new five-star property in Hvar, and Hotel Excelsior Dubrovnik.
12. Best Things to Do
You’ll probably fly into Zagreb, as it’s the biggest airport in Croatia. Have a free day to kill? Check out the Museum of Broken Relationships and the colorfully tiled roof of St. Mark’s Church. In terms of cities, I honestly preferred Split. Besides visiting Diocletian’s Palace, it’s a great starting point for excursions to the Blue Lagoon and island hopping. On the Dalmatia leg of our journey, we did a mix of sunset cocktails in Hvar, blissing out on the beaches of Brac, exploring sea caves off the coast of Vis and wine tasting in Korčula.
13. When to Visit
Zagreb is a major city, so you can do all the urban activities any time of year. It empties out during summer. As the thermometer rises, everyone flocks to Istria and Dalmatia. Of course, going in peak season has its positives and negatives. The weather is amazing for sunning, swimming and sailing. That said, it’s prime for tourists. Ultimately, it’s a matter of what’s more important to you—boat days or sightseeing without the crowds. Would I personally do another summer getaway to Croatia? Absolutely.
14. Tourism Is on the Rise
As you’ve gathered by now, Game of Thrones didn’t just shine a light on Dubrovnik. By extension, it brought selfie-snapping mobs to the entire country. I anticipated tourists in the “Pearl of the Adriatic,” but was truly shocked by how packed it was in formerly less-frequented places like Trogir and Zadar. My advice? Go soon before Croatia reaches the stardom level of the Amalfi Coast or Greece.
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