With more than 1,200 islands and islets, Croatia is known as having some of the prettiest beaches in Europe, perfect for boat trips via secluded coves. But head inland to find national parks with tumbling waterfalls and lush forests, not to mention towns packed with history and things to do.
most beautiful places in Croatia
Known as the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, Dubrovnik is undoubtedly one of the best places to visit in Croatia. This small coastal city of around 50,000 people is nestled at the Southern tip of the country between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.
Dubrovnik is a seafront city with a big personality, with stunning old town architecture, red-roofs and a fascinating history. Instantly recognisable thanks to its King’s Landing Game of Thrones fame, it’s become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region.
The Old Town of Dubrovnik is a must-see. This fortified area holds plenty of historical sites within its boundaries, including the Pile Gate, Rector’s Palace and St. Ignatius Church. Peruse the streets, enjoy a gelato and people watch to your heart’s content. Then head up to the fortress walls for a bird’s eye view of the Old Town. Be sure to wake up early in order to beat the crowds.
Afternoons are best for relaxing at Banji Beach, a beautiful white pebbled strip a 5-minute taxi ride east of Old Town. For sunset, take the cable car to the summit of Mount Srd for panoramic views of the city and beautiful coastline.
A breath of fresh air after the crowds on the Dalmatian Coast, northern Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula is a treasure trove of charming towns and villages. The port city of Rovinj is one of the larger cities and most popular destinations in Istria, luring tourists with its gorgeous cobbled streets, colourful buildings and lively fishing harbour.
Like many settlements along this stretch of the Adriatic, Rovinj was first established by the Venetians and Ilyrians then captured by Rome. Originally an island, it was only connected to the mainland in 1763.
The old part of the city – the rounded peninsula that was an island until the channel was filled in – is the prettiest part of Rovinj, with curved streets, Roman gates, piazzas, a surplus of Italian-style cafes, and the elegant Church of St. Euphemia right in the centre. Swim at Plaza Balota or find a captain in the harbour to take you out for a day of island-hopping between the 19 islets just off the coast.
Summer is peak season in Rovinj, so it’s nice to visit in shoulder season when the streets are quiet and the leathersmith and bootmaker workshops are the only stores open. Because of its position, Rovinj is an ideal base for exploring the rest of the Istrian coast.
Another gem on the northern Adriatic, the Istrian city of Pula is known for one thing: The Pula Arena, one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheatres in Europe.
Built on a low hill, the arena comprises 72 limestone arches that tower 100 feet high. When it was completed around 27 BC, the theatre could accommodate up to 23,000 spectators. Today, there is a small museum inside the grounds – but you don’t even need to step inside to be floored by the structure’s immense scale and exquisite engineering. All you need to do is take a walk around the perimeter. It’s especially nice at sunset, when beams of light peek through the stone arches.
The arena is still used today to host music performances and a film festival so if you’re lucky enough to be in town when there’s a show playing, make sure you snap up tickets.
For a bird’s eye view of the arena, head to the top of Fortress Kastel. Other points of interest in Pula are a second, smaller arena and the city’s Roman ruins: The Gate of Hercules, Arch of the Sergii, and the Temple of Augustus. These structures can all be found in the centre of the city, walking distance from the harbour.
Zadar lies on the Dalmatian coast, on the way from Zagreb to Dubrovnik, a little under 300km from the capital. It’s lesser known than the other two Croatian cities, yet it’s a surprisingly nice place to visit.
First and foremost, Zadar has a gorgeous old town with Roman ruins, pretty squares, picturesque stone fountains and smooth cobblestone streets that sparkle in the sunlight just like an ice rink. Secondly, there’s a tower one can climb to see all this from above.
Other attractions to look out for in the city centre are the Roman Forum, Kalelarga, the largest street in the old town, People Square, the Square of the Five Fountains, the City Walls, and Queen Jelena Madije Park, the oldest public greenspace in Croatia.
But the heart of Zadar is in fact its seafront. Every evening, locals and tourists alike flock to the water’s edge to walk and chat. Besides the Mediterranean atmosphere, two works of public art draw everyone’s attention. One of them is a massive musical instrument powered by the sea waves, the ‘Sea Organ’. The second one is a huge panel powered by the light of the sun, called ‘Greeting to the Sun’.
There is no beach in the old town, but visitors can take a short 10-minute bus ride to Borik just outside the touristic area.
Also on the Dalmatian Coast, Split is a charming Mediterranean city just 4 hours’ drive from Dubrovnik. Split Airport is well connected to the rest of the world, while train, bus, and ferry services are available from other Croatian cities.
Split is historically significant; a place where the Romans left their mark with ancient walls, columns and medieval streets. Like Dubrovnik, filming for Game of Thrones took place here.
Split is safe and perfect for anyone who’s looking for a solo travel destination in Europe. Although Split is a small city, it has plenty of things to offer. Start your day by visiting the Diocletian’s Palace, which was built in 305 AD as a retirement home for the Roman Emperor Diocletian. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most-visited places in the area.
Old Town of Split is a great place to enjoy a stroll through the narrow streets and cobblestoned lanes. People’s Square is located at the heart of the Old Town and filled with little cafes and restaurants. To get the best view of the city, you must climb the Bell Tower of St. Domnius Cathedral, which is considered the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world.
If you’re arriving in Croatia at Split Airport, instead of heading east towards the city, make a detour west to the town of Trogir. The small island that holds Trogir Old Town – a sea of orange-topped houses that melt into the Adriatic beyond – is everything you imagine a beautiful Croatian town to look like, and then some.
On street level, Ciovo island blends Renaissance, Romanesque and Baroque architecture. UNESCO recognised the significance of Trogir’s Venetian buildings in 1997 when it named the entire historic centre a World Heritage Site.
Make a beeline to the Renaissance Chapel of St. John and climb the bell tower for a sweeping view before tracing your way along the preserved portions of the city wall. At sunset, head to the Tower Kamerlengo Trogir on the western end of the island for more spectacular views. In between, visit some of the 10 churches on the island and wander the streets at will to discover what makes Trogir the best-preserved Romanesque-Gothic complex in all of Central Europe.
Popular for its wine scene and exquisite beaches, Korcula (Korčula) is a great choice for anyone seeking a peaceful break. The best way to spend your time in Korcula is to cycle around the vineyards, tasting local wines as you go.
Exploring historical Korcula town is another must. Don’t miss the Gothic-style St. Mark’s Cathedral or the Korcula Town Museum. If you’re visiting during the peak summer season, make time to see the Moreska sword dance, a traditional performance that conveys the story of two kings engaged in a sword fight.
As well as wine, Korcula has a couple of small breweries and plenty of pubs that serve amazing local beers. The seafood is a must-try, with Korcula serving up some of the freshest fish on the coast.
PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK
Plitvice Lakes National Park (Plitvička jezera) needs no introduction. One of Croatia’s most-visited tourist spots and popular natural attractions, this gem in the north is home to some of the country’s most postcard-perfect waterfalls and waterways.
Whitewater cascades spill over limestone and chalk rock formations into turquoise pools, offset by lush green foliage. Use the series of short hiking trails and longer tracks that snake through the park to explore the landscape, walking over elevated boardwalks that skim the top of the pools.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site celebrated for its outstanding natural beauty, Plitvice can be visited as a day trip from Zagreb – but it’s recommended to spend a few nights in the area, staying in nearby Poljanak, in order to appreciate the full scale of the park, its many caves, trails, fantastic views and outstanding biodiversity.