Croatia may be a small country, but it packs a pretty big punch. With several distinct regions, over 1,000 islands, and more than 2,500 miles of coastline, there’s a lot to see and do and eat. And with so much diversity in history, cultural influence, geography, and cuisine, you may be wondering how to start and where to go in Croatia. Luckily, the country’s size is small enough to fit all the good stuff in one trip.
Regions of Croatia
There are four central regions of Croatia: Croatia Proper and Slavonia make up most of the eastern inland areas, and Istria and Dalmatia cover the majority of the coastline and islands. Each region is unique in its own way and has lots to experience.
Where to Go in Croatia: Croatia Proper
If you look on a map, you’ll probably notice that Croatia has a unique shape. It appears that about half of the country curves down the coastline, dotted with islands, while the other half juts out to the east. (The giant space in between makes up the bulk of Bosnia and Herzegovina.) Croatia Proper covers a significant amount of territory. It includes the capital city of Zagreb and stretches west to the Adriatic Sea coastline. It also covers the port city of Rijeka, the islands of Krk, Cres, and Lošinj, and the famous Plitvice National Park.
Within this region, Zagreb is your obvious starting point. Not as many tourists opt to visit Zagreb and often make their way straight to the coast. This is a mistake! Zagreb is a quaint and vibrant European capital with a distinct personality. Plus, locals will expose a little secret to you: sometimes, the best seafood is found in Zagreb rather than the coast. Why? Because the demand is higher there, and the good stuff ships out first.
Zagreb has two main districts for tourism: the city center and the Upper Town. The city center is where you’ll find the bulk of museums, parks, and restaurants. In a normal summer season, you’ll find festival after festival in the area around the ‘Green Horseshoe’ (the parks that stretch from the train station to the city center).
As for the Upper Town, this is where you’ll find the oldest part of the city and some of Zagreb’s most famous sites, such as St. Mark’s Church and the Zagreb Cathedral. Stroll along Strossmayer Promenade at sunset for some serious city views, or climb the steps of Lotrščak Tower for an even better vantage point. This is also where the city hosts a few of its annual Advent markets, which are continuously voted as European favorites.
Day Trips From Zagreb
If you’re trying to determine how many days to spend in Zagreb, remember that it’s a relatively small capital city and one you can easily walk. There is no metro here and, honestly, no need for one if you stick to the main tourist areas. You’ll be fine with just two days in Zagreb, three at the most. But if you want to include a day trip, you can add a bit more time and explore some of the surrounding areas. A few options include a visit to the quaint hillside town of Samobor (where you can eat the city’s famous cream cake), a hike in the Žumberak and Samobor Mountains, or a tour of the castles and vineyards near Varaždin.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
I know the temptation of avoiding the over-popular tourist traps in a country. But, sometimes, a place is popular for a reason. That’s absolutely the case with Plitvice Lakes National Park, a true sanctuary of emerald lakes strewn together by a series of waterfalls and boardwalks. If you’re hesitant to visit because of the usual crowds, then spend the night nearby and go early in the morning, or hike through the park during the off-season (after October and before May) to score discounted tickets.
Krk, Cres, and Lošinj
Some of Croatia’s most northern islands include these three, which sit between the mainland and the Istrian Peninsula. Most tourists flock to the southern islands like Hvar and Korčula, but you’d be amiss to skip these three gems.
Krk is the largest of the three and the easiest to reach because it’s connected to the Croatian mainland by a bridge. Once you cross over, you’ll notice the difference in terrain straight away. In fact, some describe the geography here as otherworldly! The rocky, round hills offer some unique views and excellent hiking. Plus, you can take water taxis to discover quiet, hidden beaches.
Cres & Lošinj
The other two islands are west of Krk, smaller, and require a short ferry. Cres is more quaint and rural, while Lošinj is a bit posher. While in the main town of Mali Lošinj, you may feel like you’re in Burano in Venice with its colorful pastel buildings. The two islands are connected via a bridge and offer calm, forested scenery and pebble beaches.
Where to Go in Croatia: Istria
Istria is the small peninsula in the most northwestern portion of Croatia. The entire peninsula still includes parts of Slovenia and Italy, and was under Italian rule for a significant amount of history. That’s why many of its port cities and hilltop villages give off some serious Italian Riviera and Tuscany vibes. You’ll also find a great culinary scene here, with tons of pasta dishes, seafood, olive oil, and all the truffle you could ever want.
Rovinj, Poreč, and Pula
Because Istria is a peninsula, there are plenty of coastal towns and villages to enjoy. When asking where to go in Croatia, local Istrians will recommend these three cities. Pula is the largest city in Istria and home to a beautifully preserved Roman amphitheater. Aside from that and the nearby Brijuni Islands, Pula is just kind of a city.
If you want more quaint Italian vibes, then head north to Rovinj and Poreč. Both have walkable old towns that jut out into the sea and feature those quintessential twisting cobblestone streets, colorful building facades, and air-drying laundry strewn from windows. The voices of friendly neighbors echo through the streets, and you’ll hear the clinking of dishes at local bistros and cafes. Try to plan a stop on a weekend so you can visit the local farmer’s markets.
In the north-central area of Istria lies a string of ancient hilltop villages. Most sit dramatically atop leafy mounds, looking down at the surrounding valleys, which typically host an assortment of vineyards and olive groves. Here is where you’ll find the region’s coveted truffle industry and can even enjoy a truffle walk of your own. The most popular villages are Motovun, Grožnjan, Draguć, and Beram, although there are other less crowded ones to explore.
Other Worthy Places
Istria is Croatia’s smallest region, but there is still so much to see! Aside from the above, there are other worthy towns and sites. Small villages like Bale, Fažana, and Vodjan are all worth a quick stop. Because the area is known for its gastronomy, there are also plenty of Michelin-star and agrotourism restaurants to check out. If you’re a hiker, you’ll find plenty of trails and viewpoints in Učka Nature Park, and you can enjoy a posh afternoon in the coastal town of Opatija, a bygone resort town favored by the elite during the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Where to Go in Croatia: Dalmatia
Dalmatia is probably the most popular region in Croatia. This area hosts two of the country’s most visited and historic cities, Split and Dubrovnik, plus all of its famous islands, like Hvar, Korčula, Vis, and Brač. You’ll also find hiking trails, some of the country’s best beaches, plenty of vineyards, all the seafood, and the region’s famed Dalmatian prosciutto.
Because the region is so large, let’s look at the area around Split as its own entity. Split is an absolute must-visit because of its historical Diocletian’s Palace that takes up much of the Old Town. This palace dates back to Roman times and may look familiar within many scenes from Game of Thrones. Split also has a large green space called Park Šuma Marjan, a lively promenade, and some of the country’s best eateries.
Near Split are plenty of worthy sites and day trips. To start, you’ll find the Klis Fortress just up the hill from the city. North and slightly west of Split is the historic town of Trogir, and a little further away, you’ll find Primošten, which is praised for its quaint circular Old Town and pristine beaches. A bit more north is Šibenik, a coastal favorite and near to Krka National Park, another waterfall-infused oasis. For some of the countries best mainland beaches, visit Brela and the Makarska Riviera.
You’re probably here for Dubrovnik. If yes, you’re certainly not alone — this city is Croatia’s most popular tourist destination. Once you arrive, you’ll see why. It’s essentially one giant walkable outdoor museum with plenty of narrow alleyways and secret corners, cafes, and swimming holes to discover. It’s surrounded by old walls that you can walk from above — or get a higher view by hiking (or riding the gondola) up Mt. Srd for sunset.
Dubrovnik is about as south as you can get in Croatia and well connected to some of the country’s most popular islands. (We’ll explore those below.) But another great nearby day trip is the large peninsula called Ston. Ston is worth a little exploring, particularly by bicycle or kayak, and a great spot for oyster and wine lovers.
Now for the islands! Dalmatia has some of the best islands in the entire country, including popular ones like Hvar, Korčula, Vis, and Brač. There’s a reason why these are such popular areas, so visiting one of these favorites isn’t a total tourist sellout. If you want to avoid the crowds, travel either off-season or stay outside of the islands’ main cities. Most port cities offer car or scooter rental.
Hvar and Korčula are the most visited by far, but you can certainly find some quiet coves if you search hard enough. Vis is small and can feel a little crowded, but the long ferry ride deters many tourists. Brač is the closest island to Split’s port, but it’s also one of the largest, so you can steal away and leave the bustle behind.
Mljet is a not-so-popular island close to Ston and Dubrovnik. It has a national park protecting its northern end, so it’s a great option for quiet exploration. Likewise, the islands near Zadar aren’t as busy as the Split and Dubrovnik scene, although the closest island (Pag) becomes a bit of a party zone at the height of summer.
Where to Go in Croatia: Slavonia
The last region of Croatia is its least popular one, Slavonia. This area encompasses the country’s most north-eastern portions and borders Hungary, Serbia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Historically, this region was significant thanks to its rich environment along the Danube, Sava, and Drava Rivers banks. But today, it remains fairly quiet, local, and rural.
Slavonia’s often ignored, as it’s not nearly as scenic as Croatia’s other coastal and mountainous regions. But that means it’s quiet, and you’ll mostly see regional tourists rather than a slew of western travelers. It has a great wine region, delicious food, and fun activities along the river, including boat cruises and some of the region’s best birdwatching.
Osijek & Baranja
Osijek sits on the Drava River and acts as the capital of Slavonia. It’s also known as the ‘Baroque city’ thanks to its time under the Hapsburg Empire and as a ‘Free Royal City,’ putting it on the map as it grew just as big and boisterous as nearby Vienna and Budapest (just Buda at the time). It was known for its theaters, printing houses, museums, and all-around upper-class society. Of course, more recent history diminished its heightened reputation, but much of the architecture still lingers.
Eastern Croatia doesn’t have beaches or rocky peaks or swimming or kayaking… but it does have some of the country’s best wine. Near Osijek is Baranja, which is known for its rolling vineyards and rural agrotourism. You can sleep or eat at vineyards and farms and truly savor the region’s agrarian heritage. Many of the towns and eateries maintain Hungarian influences, with some residents still speaking the Hungarian language.
Kopački Rit Nature Park
Just outside of Osijek is the Kopački Rit Nature Park, a forested wetland near the confluence of the Danube and Drava Rivers and where you’ll find all that good bird watching! While you try to count how many birds, fish, and plants you saw, you can explore all nearly 70 miles via wooden boardwalks and ferries — it’s the largest wetland area in Europe.
For history buffs, Vukovar is a must. During the conflicts in the 90s, much of western Croatia was spared. The east, however, experienced the bulk of violence and hardship. The city of Vukovar was bombed and nearly destroyed during the war, the most damaged European city since World War II. To learn more about Yugoslavia’s breakup and the Croatian War of Independence, you can visit several sites that pay homage to that time, including the infamous watchtower, hospital, and graveyard, plus the city’s history museum.
Now that you’re very excited about your future trip and know exactly where to go in Croatia, let’s look at some essential information.
When to Go to Croatia
Coastal Croatia has decent weather year-long, but obviously, the optimal time to visit is during the warmer months, usually May – October. Sometimes, May and October can be colder and rainier, so if you’re hoping for that quintessential Mediterranean sunshine and swimming, then June – September is your best bet. October is still a great month if you plan to go hiking, particularly in Istria and Croatia Proper. The leaves start to change colors, and the weather patterns give you some beautiful sun and cloud shows.
Winter is a toss-up. It’s cold for the northern and eastern regions, and some of the hills and mountains see snow. It’s far too cold to swim if you opt for a coastal trip through Dalmatia, but you’ll still enjoy dry and sunny days. Because Croatia is so dependent on tourism, many cafes, restaurants, and sites are closed during the off-season.
What to Pack for Croatia
Packing for a Croatian vacation certainly depends on the season. Summer is hot and mostly dry, although there is a chance for some severe afternoon thunderstorms. When storms do hit the coast, there are risks of flooding. Even in the middle of July, it’s best to pack a rain jacket and durable shoes. Otherwise, the summer in Croatia is rather easy to maneuver. Bring a sunhat, sunglasses, and something to protect your skin if it’s too hot.
If you plan to hike in the higher mountains, it’s also a good idea to bring a jacket to protect from wind and rain and durable shoes. Many tourists see the mountains and think they are just rocky hills, but the terrain is very tricky, and you’ll be sorry if you don’t have proper hiking boots and good socks!
For other seasons, warm layers are a must. The temperature can fluctuate from morning to night, and winter months can be frigid. You’ll need jackets, mittens, hats, scarves… the whole winter bit. Again, winter is milder in the southern region, but you’ll appreciate a heavier jacket during cold snaps.
What to Do in Croatia
As you just read, all the regions offer different activities, so what to do depends on where you go.
For those visiting coastal areas, there are plenty of water activities to enjoy, like boating, cruises (sometimes dinner or sunset cruises), kayaking, and swimming. Many beaches set up floating slides and climbing walls to enjoy, which is especially fun for families. Some outfitters offer multi-day kayaking and camping trips, while others offer overnight sailing adventures. Because the sea is so important to Croatia, there are plenty of ways to enjoy it!
Hiking in Croatia is unique and very scenic. Most peaks offer sprawling views of the countryside and coastline. The best hiking areas tend to be in the Velebit region or Makarska area, although there are some higher hills in Istria and around Zagreb. Many of the islands also offer hiking and walking experiences. Croatia has eight national parks, so hiking, walking, and enjoying nature are significant activities that locals love to enjoy.
Gastronomy and Wine
Croatia has a huge culinary scene, and you can enjoy eating at very nice restaurants across the country. Because the country has so many cultural influences, you’ll find typical cuisine from Italy, the Balkans, Hungary, Austria, Turkey, and more. You can enjoy the area’s famous truffles and olive oil in Istria, while much of Dalmatia features seafood, pasta dishes, and prosciutto. Central European and Balkan classics (meats, grilled vegetables, stuffed cabbage, sausages, etc.) make up most of inland Croatia.
Wine regions cover nearly all of Croatia, so you know this is a great place to enjoy a few vineyards. The most popular varieties are white wines and include Malvazija (which you can find in many countries, but Malvazija Istarska is indigenous to Croatia) and Grasevina (prevalent throughout Central Europe). The most popular red varieties include Teran (full-bodied) and Plavac Mali (bold and full of berries).
The four main wine regions of Croatia are in Istria and Kvarner (north Adriatic region), Croatian Uplands (Zagreb and Varaždin), Slavonia and Danube, and Dalmatia.
- Istria and Kvarner — If you’re traveling in this region, go for Malvazija Istarska, Teran, Muscat, and the indigenous variety, Žlahtina.
- Croatian Uplands — Go for some white wine here and try riesling or sauvignon blanc. Indigenous varieties include Škrlet and Pušipel.
- Slavonia and Danube — This is Croatia’s largest-producing wine region. You can try almost every variety here, but the most famous one is the Welschriesling.
- Dalmatia — This is where Croatia mostly gets its red wine, so go for varieties like the national staple, Plavac Mali, or zinfandel. Pošip and Grk are the two famous white varieties from the region.
As mentioned above, you can also enjoy many museums, castles, fortresses, and old towns throughout the country. Slavonia has great birdwatching and most of the country’s war history. Zadar has a unique sea organ that plays music as the water surges, and Zagreb is a hub for theater and art. The islands are all about relaxation, so don’t forget to slow down and enjoy the little things.
How to Get to Croatia
Flights: There are several airports in Croatia that offer flights to European hubs. Zagreb hosts the country’s largest international airport, but many airlines fly within Europe to Rijeka, Split, and Dubrovnik. There aren’t any direct flights to North America, so those traveling from the U.S. and Canada must transfer within Europe (usually Frankfurt, Munich, Paris, London, or Amsterdam).
Trains: Train travel is also possible from larger cities like Prague, Vienna, Ljubljana, and Budapest.
Cars & Buses: Buses connect all of Europe to Croatia, and driving is fairly easy, although because Croatia isn’t in the Schengen Zone, you’ll have to stop at the border.
Will You Go to Croatia?
Now that you know where to go in Croatia, what to do, and how to get there, what do you think? Is Croatia on your travel list?