If your Mediterranean fantasy involves balmy days on sandy beaches, beside sapphire waters, with views of medieval city walls, Croatia ticks all the boxes. The Adriatic Coast is dotted with sandy beaches, rocky headlands and famous walled cities from the height of the Venetian empire. It's the very vision of the Mediterranean, and many regions are so far unmarred by resort strips and villa developments.
As a primer, Croatia's island-speckled coastline is indisputably its main attraction. Whenset against a dazzling white pebbly beach, the waters sparkle with an almost jewel-like intensity in shades of emerald and sapphire. But shift your gazefrom the glittering waters and chances are an almighty mountain will loom into view. Croatia's limestone karst landscapes are a wonderland of craggy peaks, caverns, river canyons, waterfalls and ridiculously picturesque lakes.
Ready to start planning? Sign up for our weekly newsletter and get 20% off your next guidebook.
There's a lot to choose from, so here's a guide to the best places to visit.
Croatia’s most popular attraction, the extraordinary walled city of Dubrovnik, is a Unesco World Heritage Site for good reason. Despite being relentlessly shelled in the 1990s during Croatia’s Homeland War, its mighty walls, sturdy towers, medieval monasteries, baroque churches, graceful squares and fascinating residential quarters all look magnificent again. For an unrivaled perspective of this Adriatic pearl, take the cable car up Srđ, the city's craggy backdrop. For a more intimate glimpse, circle the city walls and peer into hidden gardens and ancient lanes strung with laundry.
2. Plitvice Lakes National Park
A turquoise ribbon of lakes linked by gushing waterfalls in the forested heart of continental Croatia, Plitvice Lakes National Park is an awe-inspiring sight. There are dozens of lakes – from 2.5-mile-long Kozjak to reed-fringed ponds – and their startling colors are a product of the underlying bedrock. Travertine expanses covered with mossy plants divide the lakes, while boardwalks allow you to easily traverse this exquisite watery world. To escape the crowds by the water, follow hiking trails through the beech, spruce, fir and pine forests.
3. Hvar Town
Come high summer, there’s no better place to dress up and get your groove on than Hvar Town. Gorgeous tanned people descend from their yachts in droves, rubbing shoulders with up-for-it backpackers at après-beach parties as the sun drops below the horizon. While the cashed-up yachtie types keep the town's top-notch restaurants and cocktail bars in business, sun-dazed young revelers do the same for the little dance bars that are the mainstay of the Hvar scene. Pack beach gear and shoes suitable for dancing on tables and you'll be set.
Cloaked in dense pine forests, marvelous Mljet is an island idyll. Legend has it that Odysseus was marooned here for seven years, and it’s easy to appreciate why he took his time leaving. The entire western section ofMljet is a national park, where you’ll find two sublime cobalt-colored lakes, an island monastery and the sleepy little port of Pomena, which is as pretty as a bouquet. Don’t neglect eastern Mljet, home to some tranquil little bays, brilliant beaches and a couple of excellent eateries.
Zagreb is made for strolling. Wander past the red roofs and cobblestones of the Upper Town, which is peppered with church spires. Afterward, do as the locals do and head to a cafe. Zagreb's cafe culture is just one facet of this city's vibrant street life, egged on by a year-round roster of events that brings music, pop-up markets and food stalls to parks and plazas. Even when there's nothing on, the centerthrums with youthful energy, so it's no surprise that Croatia's capital is now bringing in the city-break crowd.
La dolce vita reigns supreme in Istria, Croatia’s top foodie destination. The seafood, truffles, wild asparagus and boškarin (an indigenous species of ox) all stand out, as do myriad regional specialties and award-winning olive oils and wines by small local producers. Sample the best the region has to offer in upmarket restaurants by the sea, in traditional family-run taverns in medieval hilltop villages and in farmhouses all over the peninsula’s verdant interior. If you're not consuming at least one truffle dish a day, you're not doing it right.
7. Vis Island
The most remote of Croatia's main islands, Vis is also one of its most captivating. Two attractive towns add historic interest to its northern and western coasts, while hidden to the south and east are some of the nation's most idyllic little coves, some pebbly and some sandy, and all completely irresistible. Scattered around the island – in villages, on farms and at isolated beaches – are an assortment of excellent traditional taverns, making the most of the island's organic produce and thriving fishing traditions.
Bol, on the southern coast of Brač Island, is home to illustrious Zlatni Rat beach, a spit of tiny golden pebbles extending like a horn into the bay. This pretty harbor town is a favorite among windsurfers: the channel between the islands of Brač and Hvar provides ideal wind conditions, thanks to the maestral (strong, steady westerly wind) that typically blows between April and October. The wind picks up slowly in the morning, an excellent time for beginners to hit the water. By early afternoon, the winds are strong – perfect for those looking for a real adrenaline kick.
Like Dubrovnik in miniature, the sweet little seaside town of Korčula has its own set of imposing walls and towers, but it only sees a fraction of the tourists of its more famous sibling. The highlight is its extraordinary cathedral, adorned with a downright kooky set of carvings. You can walk every one of the marbled streets of its compact old town in an hour, leaving plenty of time for lazing on the beach or heading into the hinterland for a memorable meal at a village konoba (tavern).
10. Krka National Park
This fascinating national park has Roman ruins, historic watermills and two fascinating monasteries (one on an island and one built over ancient catacombs), but the star of the show is the Krka River itself, as it rushes through canyons, broadens into lakes and splashes over numerous falls and cascades. You can stroll along boardwalks and marvel at the multitude of fish darting through the emerald waters, then cap off your visit with a dip in a lake at the foot of a mighty waterfall.
Split deserves its popular acclaim. Experience life as it’s been lived for thousands of years in Diocletian’s Palace, one of the world’s most imposing Roman remains. The maze-like streets of the buzzing old town – the living heart and soul of Split – are chock-full of bars, shops and restaurants. Getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets, passageways and courtyards is one of Croatia’s most enchanting experiences – and it’s small enough for you to always find your way out again easily. Before you leave, escape the palace walls for a drink on the marble-paved, palm-fringed Riva along the water’s edge.
The postcard-perfect medieval castles of Zagorje sit waiting for time travelers. Journey back to 1334 in Trakošćan Castle, whose neo-Gothic 19th-centuryexterior hides far older internal structures. Learn about the excesses of the Croatian aristocracy in its well-presented museum and wander 215 acres of castle grounds, landscaped into a romantic English-style park with exotic trees and an artificial lake. Further west, the hilltop castle of Veliki Tabor offers a trip to the 16th century, with its pentagonal towers and turrets, atmospheric interiors, and bucolic landscapes all around.
Set on a peninsula shaped like a hitchhiker’s thumb, the old town of Zadar has history and culture in spades. Roman ruins protrude haphazardly from the city streets, while museums and churches lurk around every other corner. Artsy types, students and trend-setters rub shoulders in bars ranging from utterly classy to deliciously divey, while foodies frequent the many excellent restaurants and cafes. Backpackers are well served by some brilliant hostels, while families gravitate to the surrounding beach resorts and charming boutique hotels reel in the romantics.
Leafy, sparsely populated and never overwhelmed by tourists, the island of Cres stands out among Croatia’s Adriatic isles. Strolling through the Tramuntana region in the north you might even believe the old people’s stories about elves lurking in the ancient forests. At the other end of the island, tiny Osor is a walled town as sleepy as you’ll find on the entire coast. Scattered in between are gorgeous beaches, lost-in-time hilltop villages and the pretty pastel-hued harbor of Cres Town.
It’s the rugged beauty and end-of-the-world vibe of Cape Kamenjak that have earned cult status for this small Istrian peninsula. An undeveloped nature reserve on Istria's west coast, Cape Kamenjak showcases a carpet of heath plants, shrubs and wildflowers, crisscrossed by a maze of dirt tracks. It’s fringed by a string of pebble bays and secluded rocky beaches, surrounded by a crystalline blue-green sea. It gets busy in summer, but there’s always an empty beach to escape to, followed by a refreshing drink at a buzzy beach bar.
16.Kopački Rit Nature Park
On the flood plain of the Danube and Drava Rivers, Kopački Rit Nature Park is part of a Unesco biosphere reserve – come here for some of Europe’s best birdwatching opportunities. Join a boat trip and keep your eyes peeled for white-tailed and imperial eagles, black storks, purple herons and woodpeckers – just some of the nearly 300 species recorded here. Alternatively, you can explore a flooded forest by canoe, or hike the nature trails and try to spot red deer and wild boar.
The approach to Motovun is almost as captivating as the destination itself. This picture-perfect hilltop town rises from a forested valley that appears untouched by the 21st century. Centuries-old houses line the steep approach to the outer gate of the even-older walled town, where a final gate opens onto the town square. The views from the fortifications are virtually unchanged from when they were built, taking in a lush expanse of green and the rolling hills beyond. Go forth to hunt down truffles, fine wine and even finer olive oil.
You might also like:
How to see the best of Croatia in a week
Head to Croatia’s hinterland to discover its nature parks
How to get around in Croatia