I have just started to discover Croatia, but, from what I’ve seen so far, I like it and want to explore more. Like me, many people get their first glimpse of Croatia from a stop on a cruise ship — usually Dubrovnik — but here we have only scratched the surface of this land of many islands and thousands of miles of coastline and coastal communities.
1. Discovering More Of Dubrovnik
This classic walled city is full of history and sits majestically, and strategically in southern Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. One of the beauties of discovering Croatia and its lesser-known destinations is that many of them are islands. Croatia is made up of 1,246 islands along its almost 2000 kilometers of mainland coastline with an additional 2,422 miles of indented coastline along its islands and inlets. You can’t go far in Croatia without hitting the Adriatic.
In Dubrovnik, walk the walls around the Old Town and gaze out to the sea imagining the warriors of long ago. The well-preserved buildings hail from many eras from the Baroque to the Renaissance, which is why the ultra-popular television series Game of Thrones shot so many memorable scenes in and around Dubrovnik. In fact, one of the most popular activities in the city is a tour of filming locations.
Pro Tip: But, what you won’t expect in Dubrovnik is that shops make some amazing ice cream here along with fantastic seafood and other local and international cuisines. You may just remember the ice cream, though because it is that good!
2. Getting Outside Of Dubrovnik City
Walking the pedestrian street called the Stradun, lined with shops, restaurants, tour operators and bars featuring the local wines is a perfect way to visit Dubrovnik, but get out and see the countryside if you can.
Start with taking the cable car up the mountain for an incredible view of the city. The stunning site will simply take your breath away and encourage you to get out and see even more. The best thing is to either rent a car or take an organized wine tasting tour and get out to try the Croatian wines and meet the local people.
If driving yourself, there are several wineries within 30 minutes that welcome visitors. Here you get to try native varieties like Plavac Mali, the grandfather of American Zinfandel, as well as international offerings like merlot and fortified wines which come in handy during the long Croatian winters.
Most of the wineries are family-owned and operated so you are not only experiencing the local wines but also local traditions and possibly cuisine. One winery served dried dates and preserved oranges and we bought these as souvenirs as well. Another winemaker’s wife sold her beautiful crocheted ornaments, lavender pillows, and other crocheted art which made perfect takeaways to remind us of both the wines and the Croatian people behind them.
3. Day Trips From Dubrovnik
Because Dubrovnik sits in the southern part of Croatia on the Dalmatian Coast, it is quite easy to visit both neighboring countries and scenic medieval towns along the way. Although these destinations easily deserve visits of 2 or more days, simple day trips can introduce the traveler to even more facets of what is the former Republic of Yugoslavia.
Kotor, Montenegro as a day destination takes you to both another country and a world of medieval villages and stunning Montenegrin coast. The Bay of Kotor, Perast, and the historic city of Kotor are the highlights of this guided tour.
Another option is heading to Bosnia-Herzegovina, yet another country that can be visited in a day. The village of Mostar seems to have dropped out of a fairytale and its Kravica Waterfalls and romantic bridge is easily worth a quick day trip if not longer. Driving is easy around Croatia and its neighboring countries so a rental car may be the best option for those who prefer flexibility.
4. Cosmopolitan Zadar And Its Roman Ruins
One of the most tourist-friendly aspects of Croatia is that everyone speaks English and speaks it pretty well. It is easy to find English translations on most attractions and historic areas as well as menus, retail stores, groceries, and more.
Aside from its culture and coastline, the other thing that sets Croatia apart from Western European countries is that they are not a part of the European Union and, therefore, do not use the standard currency of the euro as tender. Instead, Croatian money is the Krona, which, at this writing, is worth about U.S. $0.15 or about 7 Krona to the U.S. Dollar.
Zadar was a surprise for me the same way it always surprised me when driving through San Antonio and the Alamo is just sitting there in the middle of the city, like any other building. Walking around Zadar, you stumble on the ruins of a Roman forum which is just one of the earlier civilizations and which includes Roman toilets, kitchens, and burial areas. There are quite a few churches from different periods of history in Zadar and right next to the Forum is St. Mary’s 11th-century convent with art dating from the 8th century. Venetian gates provide entrance to the town’s pedestrian areas and encourage visitors to stroll by open-air cafes, high-end retail stores, wine bars, and local restaurants.
Along the waterfront in Zadar is the unique and enchanting Organ of the Sea, which employs polyurethane tubes embedded in concrete steps to capture the incoming tide and spew it out as musical notes. This is one monument you hear before you see it. Designed by Croatian architect Nikola Basic, who also designed the nearby Greeting to the Sun which also celebrates man’s bond with nature.
The solar system with circles of LED lights representing the planets comes alive with color and light at night. The two monuments sit right at the seaside and underscore Zadar’s relationship to the sea. A bit outside of town, the saltwater has created one of the oldest continuing salt flats where tidal forces and sun work together to capture the salt from the water and dry it into the fine fleur de sel sought after by gourmets. A visit to the actual salt flats, museum and retail store of Solana Nin is a worthwhile stop and the small touristic and fishing island of Nin is nearby and oozing with charm.
5. Include Split On Your Tour
Actually pronounced just like it’s written, Split is yet another coastal town that offers not only a real, walkable city but also great beaches and history. The Old Town of Split is a registered Unesco Heritage Site and is simply magical in its history yet sophisticated feel. Eat seafood here, drink local wines, and spend a day in a cafe. There are so many layers of history in this old town that it ranks among the best overall historical urban experiences for many tourists.
Check out Marmont Street, Pjaca Square made of marble tiles, and the Fruit Square which, as it sounds, is where the open-air markets thrive. Nearby is Diocletian’s Palace, built in the 4th century, which contained a military camp and the villa to which Roman Emperor Diocletian retired. Also within walking distance is the not-to-be-missed Cathedral of Saint Dominus and its Bell Tower dating from the 7th century. This is actually the best-preserved temple in Europe and also offers a baptistry and crypt on the tour as well. Climbing up the Bell Tower affords the best view of Split and the entire area but, with the bell ringing every hour on the hour, time your climb to preserve your hearing.
Although I visited Split in the fall and had to contend with rain more than sunburn, Split has amazing beaches and a harborfront called Riva which is perfect for an evening stroll or a coffee, beer, or glass of local wine. Bacvice Beach is walking distance away and, while not fancy, very serviceable with great beach bars and plenty of sand next to clear, blue waters. Kayaking and sunset sails are also great ways to take advantage of the Adriatic Sea.
6. Split Off To Hvar For A Day Or Week
The islands around Split are too numerous to mention in this piece and will have to wait for my return trip this spring. But, Hvar is a popular day trip or longer from Split, either by public ferry or organized tour. Less than an hour from Split Harbor, Hvar is a great way to experience Croatian island-hopping on the country’s well-established and efficient island ferry system.
In Hvar, find spectacular beaches as well as a coastline with surging tides and majestic beauty. Quieter, yet sophisticated with plenty of restaurants, bistros, and beach bars, resorts are plentiful and seem to attract celebrities as much as vacationing Croatians and European travelers.
This has only begun to scratch the surface of Croatia’s many sides and islands clustered around sparkling seas. When visiting Croatia, the people will make up the most memorable part of your journey.
Pro Tip: I went on an organized visit to a local farm, which was really more like a cluster of old stone houses where we ate local specialties, drank local liqueurs, and got an education in how, historically, Croatians lived, laughed, and sang. That is what I take away most from Croatia as I sip the bottle of Plavac Mali I carefully brought home in my suitcase next to the dried figs, sugared oranges, and cured meats that bring back fond memories.
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