If there’s one thing that can be said for almost any country in the world (with the exception of the truly small ones!) is that to truly experience it, you need to travel to at least 3 or 4 different places within it. Time and money constraints, unfortunately do not allow for such itineraries. However, if you have 10 days to spare and a desire to do a whole country, north to south, then think no more and head to Croatia!
With a healthy mix of natural beauty, eclectic art and culture, a thriving urban scene, best beers (Karlovačko and Ožujsko) and some of the hottest music festivals in Europe, Croatia is a small package that has something to offer for every traveler. The fact that they use the local currency i.e. Croatian Kuna instead of the Euro makes it easy on the pocket too. So without further ado, let’s get started on the trip which we completed in less than 900 Euros!
Pro-tip 1: Before you book your tickets, check the season you plan to travel in. Tourist season begins in March, hits its peak in June-July and completely fizzles out by August. If you’re looking to engage in a few activities, but want to avoid the tourist rush, March-April is perfect for you. The warmer period of June- July is great for those who don’t mind the crowds, who are interested in the music festivals and who are looking to bumming around on the beach as well.
Pro-tip 2: Always look out for last minute announcements especially in the European airports. We got so lucky at the Frankfurt airport where we received 300 Euros just for agreeing to take a delayed Lufthansa flight through Munich instead of flying to Zagreb directly. Yes, it does not happen every day but it’s worth looking out for such wild last minute deals. They sell your seat from the direct flight to a last minute business / first class passenger.
Zagreb – Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, and located as it is in the north, makes for the perfect starting point. With plenty of budget-friendly hostels, stay isn’t a problem; however try to find one that is as close to the city center as possible, because that’s where everything worth seeing is. We recommend the Old Town Hostel, a cozy and conveniently located hostel that is affordable and quite comfortable!
While Zagreb offers a lot in terms of things to do, it isn’t really a visually spectacular city. However, a quick walk around city’s central square, Trg bana Jelačića does it endear to one. Flanked by a cathedral on one side and a network of apartments on the other, the centre is also is also a popular site of protest! Beyond the city centre, there isn’t much to see, although I do recommend a stop at Mirogoj-a cemetery, for a peaceful walk. The best way to enjoy Zagreb is on foot. Spend your morning strolling through the streets, exploring museums (The Museum of Broken Relationships and the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art deserve a special mention) and popping into jam-packed cafes for a cuppa! What Zagreb lacks in aesthetics, it makes up for in a range of events and activities. We recommend you to do a quick search on this Zagreb Information link for what is on when you visit and trying to make the most of it. It offers information on everything from theater shows to gigs, exhibitions, local cultural events, and the nightlife and, for those of you traveling with kids, even events specifically for children!
Plitvice Lake National Park (Nacionalni park plitvička jezera)
From Zagreb, head south to Plitvice Lakes National Park. Zagreb offers economical and convenient Bus Transport options to Plitvice and within 2 hours, you will be at the country’s biggest natural attraction. Spread over 8 kilometers, with 16 lakes all enclosed by a periphery of densely forested hills, Plitvice showcases natural beauty like few places can.
Being a hilly region with lakes at every level, you get to see spectacular azure waterfalls crashing through the foliage! Spend a night at the Park (there are some stay options), rent bicycles to roam through, and try bungee jumping or kayaking! With neatly mapped out walking routes, the Park is well designed for those that enjoy trekking, although none of it is particularly intense. The best part about these walking routes is that the wooden pathways are built directly onto the water!
Pro-tip 3: Plan ahead and carry packed snacks to last at least a whole day. While there are a couple of cafes with very average food at the entrance, there is nothing inside the Park. Ensure that you have a map of the Park, and stick to the route on it. While most of the park is relatively safe; the wooded region is the habitat of bears, wolves and wild boar. Also, it is better to get done with exploring the park during the day time, since in the deeper parts of the Park, you will only have the moon’s light to guide you! If you go during the non-touristy season, the entire Park is not accessible and you won’t be able to spend a night here. It is best to decide your next destination beforehand and explore your transport options. The information centre at the entrance isn’t always open and you might end up waiting for a couple of hours before getting any sort of transport to head out of Plitvice.
Heading further south we reach the small town of Zadar, but don’t be fooled by its initial appearance! This sleepy town boasts of an impressive landmark, effectively transforming it’s seafront into a contemporary art installation. Yes, we are talking about the famous Sea Organ (Morske Orgulje),that really needs to be experienced! Photographs and words do not do justice! Check out this video to get a sense of this phenomenal light and sound spectacle.
The Sea Organ consists of several metres of broad steps that extend along the coast, concealing under them over 30 pipes of varying lengths, diameters and tilts. The pipes are built vertically to the coast and are laced with special whistles. The sound passes through a series of perforations on the stone stairs, made by air pushed by the natural rhythm of the sea! It’s beautiful at any time in the day, and we recommend stopping by in the morning as well as at night, when the lights come alive.
In between visits to the Sea Organ, you can explore the teeming ancient Roman ruins, medieval churches and its trendy café-bars (where you literally just get coffee or beer) or restaurants. Its proximity to Italy guarantees one delicious meals!
This link is your one stop destination for everything you need to plan your trip to Zadar, covering information regarding accommodation, transportation and even local museums and events.
Skradin and Krka National Park (Nacionalni park Krka)
If you thought Plitvice Lakes National Park was stunning, wait till you reach Krka National Park! A short distance from Zadar, located close to Skradin, fans out a landscape consisting of steep gorges, lakes and waterfalls that mark the journey of the river Krka towards the sea. This park is not only home to spellbinding natural beauty but also boasts of two historic monasteries –both reachable by national park-operated excursion boats.
While Skradin is the most popular entrance point for the Park, there are 4 others namely Lozovac, Roški Slap, Krka Monastery and Burnum. It’s a good idea to check out the riverside Skradin while you make your way to the park. Lined with colorfully painted and bare stone houses, the streets of Skradin are overlooked by the ruins of a looming fortress.
Another advantage to starting from Skradin is that your park admission ticket includes a boat ride through the canyon to Skradinski Buk. Be prepared for long queues in the summer though.
Split and Trogir
If you want a change of scene and pace, head to the glamorous Split! In sharp contrast with the previous small towns and national parks, Split is famed as the as the party central of Croatia and boasts of an exciting nightlife! A striking feature of the city is the seamless inclusion of the Roman ruins into the present day structure of the city. Split essentially grew out of the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s palace, and as such it’s old, cobbled alleyways sit comfortably next to sparkling seafront cafes!
As with most of Croatia, all of Split’s must-sees are centered around the rather compact old town, located just behind the waterfront. A walk through this collage of the remnants of the palace and ‘newer’ medieval additions throws up unexpectedly charming surprises in its little nooks and crannies. Bustling with shops and cafes, you can also find places to stay here although being the heart of the city, prices are definitely steep (for cheaper stay options, look beyond the city centre. You’ll find plenty of affordable yet conveniently located hostels). The cathedral of Saint Domnius is amongst the oldest in Europe and is a wonderfully preserved structure.
A steep climb up the bell tower of the Cathedral affords one beautiful aerial views of the city.
You can even spot the Marjan, better known as the ‘Lungs of Split’ from up here! Follow this up with a stroll through the ruins of the erstwhile Diocletian Palace and a delicious Italian seafood lunch at the Riva.
If like us, you have some time to spare, take the short boat ride across to Trogir, a UNESCO World Heritage site. This tiny town is breath-taking with its tight cluster of palaces and belfries, all linked by ancient cobbled alleys. While all of Croatia is a delight in terms of spectacular ancient structures, the cathedral at Trogir is easily one of the most stunning! Another plus point is that Trogir is small enough for its main centre to be covered in a day!
Upon finishing most of mainland regions, we headed out by ferry the next day to the island of Hvar. Click on the hyperlink for information on visits to nearby islands that you can make short trips to.
Pro-tip 4: Avoid making spontaneous decisions to take the ferry. They are infrequent and randomly timed, although the frequency is much better in the summer. Try to find out the timings beforehand and then make your choice. Also, if you miss a boat, you lose the money, your ticket isn’t transferable and you may have to wait for several hours for the next one.
You’re rewarded with a fabulous view of Hvar as your ferry approaches the island. Hvar looks like a drawing with its hazy white and brown cluster of buildings lining the periphery of the bay, with generous bursts of green, in the form of swaying palms, exploding out of random little corners! It’s a tiny island, and it being March, we couldn’t enter the water.
Being off season, Hvar was quiet and devoid of tourists but I think that is what really held us back here. Walking along the seafront, it felt like we were the only inhabitants on this beautiful island!
Perhaps a week of non-stop travel had taken its toll on us too but at Hvar we were perfectly content, ambling along its haphazard alleys hemmed in by ancient stone houses, stopping to admire beautiful views and eating delicious seafood at the only restaurant open at the time in the city centre, while seated next to an ancient well! The seafront was pristine although in the summer is known to be a vision in color due the series of yachts anchored along the coast! The streets are devoid of traffic and are paved with stone. When juxtaposed against its 13th-century walls that enclose gothic palaces, walking through this island can make one lose a sense of the present! Hvar has a small hill, which held an ancient fortress and the island still retains most of its Roman ruins. It makes for a pleasant trek and an excellent vantage point for the island. Known to be a loud, boisterous island during the summer, it seemed hard to believe in March.
In terms of prices, Hvar is definitely steep. Since it mostly attracts tourists with higher spending powers, Hvar at first glance can seem too expensive to stay, but a little bit of searching throws up some affordable hostels (tucked away from the bay) and a fairly decent number of cheap food and bar options. We stayed at the Orange Hostel.
Hvar was to be the first island we stopped at, and our original plan was to spend a single day here before moving on to Dubrovnik and Korcula but Hvar cast a spell over us and we spent three glorious days here!! It was with a heavy heart that we bid adieu to Hvar and took our boat back to Split.
If you plan to head on over to Dubrovnik, you can either fly or travel by road. If you plan to fly, make sure you book your flight ahead of time since they can be really expensive. Traveling by road is certainly cheaper; however, since you will be passing through Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is important that you have the requisite visa. Again, this needs some advance planning but I’d say getting a visa before you start your journey is more convenient. When you aren’t constricted by pre-booked flights, you have more wiggle room to play around with your itineraries and make spontaneous decisions. I wish we had done this ourselves, but we learned it that hard way! Hopefully, we can visit Dubrovnik in the summer!