Croatia is definitely one of the most stunning and underrated destinations that I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. The crystal clear Adriatic Sea, terrific Mediterranean cuisines, and the large-footprint of Roman ruins were only some of the highlights. Most importantly, the genuine and funny Croatians were icing on the cake of this trip.
Croatia has certainly risen in popularity in recent years, especially with it being the setting of the popular Game of Thrones TV series – many scenes were shot in Dubrovnik. However, Croatia is still quite a hidden gem and not that many non-Europeans travelers visit there… yet.
When to go: I went with a group of friends in early May, the tail end of the low season, and I wouldn’t do it any other way! There were a lot less tourists which gave us a more authentic experience and the temperature was also very pleasant. If you would like to sunbathe and go to concerts on Croatia’s gorgeous beaches, June to September is the time to go. However, it is also the high season which means t’s more expensive and a lot more crowded. The low season is from October to April. While it does get cold in Croatia, prices also hit rock bottom. Stay away from the beaches and treat yourself to a spa or luxury skiing trip instead.
Transportation: The capital Zagreb is probably the cheapest and easiest to fly in, although other major cities such as Split and Zadar provide easy connections through other parts of Europe. I highly recommend renting a car and drive through the country as Croatia’s scenery look straight out of a calendar shoot wherever you go. There really wasn’t a bad drive the entire time we were there. Tip: make sure you know how to drive a stick as automatic cars are more rare and expensive. We were still lucky enough to get an automatic at a decent price. Did I mention it’s also a BMW? However, this turned out to be less than ideal since Croatia has a ton of small alleys you need to drive through… I don’t know how we didn’t scratch it on a brick wall!
Day 1 – Zagreb
The gang met up in the capital city, Zagreb, which is often overlooked considering it’s not by the coast. Zagreb is full of energy and there are countless cultural centers to explore, allowing for a real Croatian experience. Head down to the lively Tkalciceva, a street full of adorable cafes, restaurants and art galleries.
The historic area of Upper Town is certainly not to be missed. You can see ruins of the city wall, one of the oldest churches in town, old defensive tower with a gun that marks noon and midnight every day with a single shot.
Once you branch out a little from the city center, you would get a taste of local living. My favorites are the many outdoor markets with street vendors where you can pick up some fresh produce while enjoying morning coffee and breakfast.
Day 2 – Plitvice Lakes National Park and Zadar
Croatia is a fantastic place for waterfalls, thanks to mountains flush with water and the jagged coastline. The waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes National Park is probably one of the most iconic scenes in all of Croatia, and it is truly breathtaking. You start from top of the hill and make your way down to see the waterfalls. The trail is easy and fairly short, which is a plus. It’s also worth checking out the cool cave on the side as it is such a time capsule.
We spent the rest of the day as well as next morning at one of the many old Roman cities in Croatia – Zadar. Like many Roman cities, you can find intricate Roman columns and stonework, ancient road networks and of course, a forum for public gathering. The cool thing about Zadar is that many of the ruins are out in the open rather than fenced in, giving you a more intimate and close-up experience.
Day 3 – Krka National Park
I have never seen a waterfall like Krka! There are many tiers and layers that make up the waterfalls at Krka, rather than the tall and steep at Plitvice. In front of the waterfalls, there is a huge, open and nature pool that you can swim in. Even though the water was quite cold in early May, we still braved up and took a dive. It was hard to breathe from the cold but it was worth it!
Day 4-5 – Split
Split is by far my favorite of all Croatia! In fact, we loved it so much that we decided to stay one extra night during our short trip. Home to Diocletian’s Palace, the Roman emperor in 305 AD, the city has so much charm and it is also well-preserved. Much of the city is build into the ruins, and it is simply amazing to see how the people used the stonework to create houses, shops, and living spaces!
There are many small alleys tucked away with cute restaurants and bars. I definitely had some of my best meals in Split: squid risotto, fish soup, and grilled snappers to name a few.
I highly recommend staying at an Airbnb as you get a taste of what it is like to live in a Roman emperor’s palace. Make sure to check out the view on Marjan hill, it’s definitely one of the highlights of the city.
Pro tip– climb the bell tower – you won’t regret it and it’s worth the small cost!
Day 6-7 – Dubrovnik
An UNESCO World Heritage Site, the medieval walled-city of Dubrovnik certainly lives up to its expectation. The first thing you’d notice is the jaw-dropping city walls that wrapped around the old town, parts of which date from the 11th century, is surprisingly intact.
Dubrovik’s old town is gigantic compared with Split and Zadar’s old town. An 800-year-old Gothic church and Europe’s oldest pharmacy are some of the highlights. Spend an afternoon getting lost in the cobblestone streets inside the 16th century walls would certainly feel like traveling back in time.
Dubrovnik is the most popular destination in Croatia, and I imagine it could certainly get a little overwhelming when there are thousands of other tourists there the same time. Restaurants tend to be more expensive and touristy, and you may be solicited more than you’d like. Thus I would recommend avoiding the peak season when visiting Dubrovnik (low season for the win!).
Bonus Itinerary (Day 8-10)
After Dubrovnik, we drove back to Zagreb as half of the crew flew home. Since the rest of us had another 2 days to spare, we decided to check out the western side of Croatia while making a stop in Italy!
Trieste is only less than a 3-hour drive from Zagreb via Slovenia, and the coolest part about going there? Well, it’s Italy! The beauty of Europe is that you can experience drastic different cultures within such short distance. Trieste a cool change of pace from our Croatia trip.
Trieste is located in the very northeastern tip of Italy. Even though it’s a smaller city, you still get to enjoy all of the best Italy has to offer. Check out some smaller Roman ruins and enjoy a relaxing time in the city center with a nice cup of Italian coffee.
This part of Italy is known for their clam pasta, and my personal favorite is with the white wine sauce. The white-tablecloth Caffe Tommaseo is where we went, and it definitely will not disappoint.
Pula was the perfect ending for our Croatia trip. A short 1.5-hour drive from Trieste, Pula’s amphitheater is one of the largest and the only remaining Roman amphitheater to have four side towers. The well-preserved Temple of Augustus is also not to be missed.
In addition to the great Roman ruins, we came upon a local choir singing on the public square. The best part about traveling in a less busy season at a less touristy place such as Pula is that you get a better glimpse of the local Croatian lives as well as their hospitality.
In addition to the beautiful landscapes and Roman ruins, what I was most impressed by were the Croatian people. They are truly some of the funniest and friendliest people I have ever met. When we were lost outside of the old city in Dubrovnik looking for our Airbnb, this older gentleman was very eager to help. When he didn’t know where it exactly the Airbnb was, he started calling his friends and a group of men guided us through a maze of alleys until we reached our destination!
I also remember the funniest conversation with my Airbnb host in Senj. Apparently after the host had accepted our request my account was hacked and would auto-respond “Do you have a garden and do you farm naked?” Jokingly the host replied, “Yes I have a garden and love to farm, but you probably don’t want to see me naked.” I was so embarrassed and yet the host assumed my account had a bug and greeted us with some of his home-made fruit wines.
Once we were at a coffee shop few blocks away outside the old city in Dubrovnik, the owner thought our car was a random tourist’s car blocking his parking spot. When he found out that it was us and recognized us from the day prior, he felt bad and brought us a round of drinks on the house.
For me, interacting with the locals is the best way to learn about a country. I highly encourage you to walk even just a few blocks away from touristy areas and you may be greeted with local hospitality, which will enrich your experience in ways you never though possible.