Croatians joke that Americans always say they want to visit Croatia — but then confess they don’t know where it is. Formerly a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and later Yugoslavia, Croatia emerged as a modern, independent nation in 1991, enduring a bitter civil war between the Croats and Serbs that lasted until 1995. While many Americans didn’t consider vacationing in Yugoslavia or in the war-torn country that first emerged from it, modern Croatia soon became a cheap alternative to nearby Italy. Now, three decades into its independence, Croatia is a destination all its own with many reasons for you to visit while in Europe.
Since it’s nestled along the Adriatic Coast across from Italy, a side trip to Croatia while on an Italian holiday is pretty easy. If traveling by car, it’s just 3 hours from Venice to Rijeka in northwest Croatia. From there, a trip along the Adriatic to the walled city of Dubrovnik in southernmost Croatia is another 6 hours or so.
The popular Flixbus runs service from all parts of Italy to many regions in Croatia. The trips can run on the long side, but they’re cheap and comfortable. Ferries are another option, with one line running from Venice to Istria — an Italian-influenced county in northwest Croatia — taking about 3 and a half hours. If you’re a more dedicated sailor, a route from Ancona, east of Florence, to Split in southern Croatia takes a little less than 12 hours.
For those who prefer the speed of flying, it’s just 90 minutes from Rome to the Croatian capital Zagreb, with flights often under $100 round-trip. Similar, short, and cheap flights run from Rome to coastal destinations like Split.
Knowing how easy it is to get to Croatia, the next step is figuring out what to do there. The coast is the main attraction for most visitors, but there is a lot more to see and do away from Croatia’s famous beaches. Visitors have no problem finding sights and experiences to make a short (or long) side trip worth the effort.
1. Plan A Trip To The Islands
While Italy has its own collection of must-visit islands like Capri and Ponza, Croatia boasts a line of islands down its entire Adriatic Coast. Hvar is probably the best known to international travelers. Summertime visitors flock there for its hot, sunny beaches and bright, turquoise water. But the island offers plenty to see on dry land, including historic settlements and scenic paths for biking and hiking.
Less well known is wooded Korčula, south of Split and north of Dubrovnik. Throughout history, the island changed hands from various empires, each leaving its mark on the villages and culture of the island. Korčula Old Town, on the eastern end of the island, is a walled city in the style of Dubrovnik — but without the pressing crowds. The town is quite small, which makes it possible to take in all of its history, food, and shopping in just a day. With all the battles over this territory, there’s a decidedly martial feeling to the place, including an annual sword dance festival in June. Like most Croatian islands, the hiking and biking are superb, with the island’s forests adding to the beauty here.
Another island gem is Lošinj in the northern Adriatic off the coast of Rijeka. Locals call it “the island of vitality” and have doubled down on promoting the many health spas and local wellness centers there. Most hotels and resorts here offer spa and other wellness services. Those who want to experience the island vitality on their own can put together a list of activities to take advantage of the island’s clean air and water, using a comprehensive scientific guide to the natural remedies found there. When you’re done healing and want some more typical tourist activities, the island boasts some of the best dolphin watching in the region, with numerous boat tours to view the sea mammals.
Pro Tip: One of the biggest challenges for island travel in Croatia is getting there. Most use ferry service from the main coastal cities. Be sure to check on ferry schedules for the time of year you plan to visit and factor the ferry costs into your travel budget.
2. Visit The Best Roman Ruins Outside Italy
If history is your thing, Croatia offers a lot of options. Its location in one of the heavily-traveled crossroads in the Mediterranean leaves it with many relics of the past.
Among the best attractions are the Roman ruins in Istria, the part of the country nearest to Italy. Top of the list to see here is the ancient Roman colosseum in Pula, near the tip of the Istrian Peninsula. Known as Pula Arena, it is the only remaining such structure in the world with all the outside tower walls intact, meaning it’s in better condition than the famous colosseum in Rome. Not only can you visit the site and tour the grounds, but it’s still in use as a concert and theater venue. You could see your favorite band play this 2,000-year-old stage.
Up the coast a bit in Poreč, you can find the remains of two Roman temples, while east of Pula, near Valtura, the remains of Nesactium date back to before the Romans, who later took the city as their own. Hop over to the Brijuni Islands to experience the Roman ruins that litter this national park, covering 14 islands in all. The park has two Roman villas, the Byzantine castrum, and the Roman villa in Verige Bay. And if that’s not old enough for you, you can check out the Bronze Age fort and even some dinosaur footprints.
Pro Tip: While everyone should see the Roman forum and colosseum at some point in life, the crowds at these famous sites can become overwhelming. Croatia’s Roman heritage offers a much less-crowded way to see these antiquities.
3. Tour A Castle — Or Spend The Night There
We tend to think of northern Europe when we think of castles, but Croatia has dozens of them spread across its regions — including some where you can rent a room to spend the night. Known as a dvorac in Croatian, these structures often contain excellent museums and are easy to reach by car.
One castle many find to be the most beautiful in Croatia is Dvor Trakošćan, just an hour’s drive north of Zagreb along the Slovenian border. The castle is furnished in the style of a Croatian aristocrat from the 15th century, with side exhibits of hunting gear, tableware, and more from that period to the present.
Also in the north is nearby Veliki Tabor Castle, whose name means “grand camp” in Croatian, thanks to its history as a military fort. Its museum focuses on that military heritage. Be advised that the castle is undergoing serious restoration and some areas may be covered or closed during your visit.
Spending the night in a castle can run from modern luxury to something just south of rustic. If you prefer your castle stay to come with all the amenities, consider Valamar Isabella Castle in Poreč. This 19-century home of the Marquis Polesini has all the comforts of a modern hotel housed in a historic shell. But if you want something a little more authentic, turn to Airbnb to rent someplace like the Ruina di Molino a Vento
in the center of Hvar city on the island of the same name. This standalone turret dates to the 18th century when it was originally built as a windmill. The stone walls still give you the feeling of staying in a castle, but the modern conveniences are there to make your stay comfortable.
Pro Tip: Many castles here list themselves as “the most beautiful castle in Croatia.” Some live up to that label, but others can be a disappointment. As they often are miles from other tourist cities, research them thoroughly before making a long drive to see a place that might not live up to expectations.
4. See The Birthplace Of The Father Of Modern Electricity
When we hear the name “Tesla,” most of us think of the electric car company. The man whose name is on all of those electric cars is Nikola Tesla, inventor of alternating current power and winner of the current wars with Thomas Edison to electrify America and the world.
Tesla was born in what is present-day Croatia (though he is of Serb descent) and the town of his birth has a museum and memorial center. The center is divided into two parts — one highlights Tesla’s country upbringing as the son of an Eastern Orthodox priest and the other features his professional accomplishments.
Visitors can tour the house in which Tesla was born, participate in hands-on experiments, and watch a documentary about Tesla. The center is in Smiljan, which lies just off the main Zagreb to Split highway, about 2 hours from the capital. Admission prices run less than $10 to see all the exhibits.
Pro Tip: If you don’t have time to make the trip to Smiljan and sill want to see a little bit of Croatia’s love for Tesla, an impressive statue just off the main square in Zagreb pays tribute to the country’s favorite son. Located at the end of the street that bears his name — ulica Nikole Telse — the statue shows a seated Tesla with his chin resting on his fist in a thoughtful pose.
5. Relive Croatia’s Recent War History
Strolling the streets of the capital or dipping your toes in the Adriatic, it’s easy to forget Croatia was the site of a bloody civil war just a generation ago. While scars of war-like bullet holes and shrapnel are visible in many parts of Zagreb and points east, you can also choose from a number of formal war tours that put the conflict into perspective.
In Zagreb, a 2-hour tour in English takes visitors back to World War II and then moves forward through the Yugoslavia years and the fight for independence in the ‘90s. The tour includes the underground tunnels and air-raid shelters used in the conflict. Tickets run around $30.
In Karlovac, about 45 minutes southwest of Zagreb, a whole museum dedicated to the war welcomes visitors year-round. Located on the site of an old barracks and fort, the museum’s main feature is a detailed telling of the key role the city of Karlovac played in the war, told through the artifacts left behind, multimedia exhibits, and hands-on displays. For those traveling the coast, a similar museum in Dubrovnik highlights the war in the south.
Pro Tip: For another tragic piece of recent history, look around Zagreb for damage left behind by the major earthquake that shook the city in March 2020. Repairs are still underway to major structures like the city’s Roman Catholic cathedral, and cracks and other damage are visible in most of the city center’s older buildings.
6. Pour A Glass Of Croatian Wine
A side trip from Italy and all its fantastic wine wouldn’t be complete without sampling the diverse and tasty offerings from Croatian winemakers. The country has four major wine regions: from Istria in the northwest, with its rich reds; Slavonia in the east, with its wide array of whites; Zagorje in the north, with its Germanic tastes; and Dalmatia in the southwest, with its heavy use of native grapes.
Wineries across the regions have grown popular for wine tourists and come prepared to deliver a tasting experience that rivals what you would find in any busy wine country. Among the most popular wineries is Skaramuča Family Vineyard, located on the Pelješac Peninsula in Dalmatia. The winery boasts spectacular views of the Adriatic and the grape-laden slopes around the vineyard. It specializes in wines produced from local grapes grown only in that region.
For a taste of several vineyards, travel the Štrigova Wine Road in the far north. Families here tend the grapes first planted by the Romans. Here, you’ll find nearly two dozen wineries and tasting houses, all featuring the region’s best wines.
Even if you can’t make it to a winery, Croatian wine will be on any menu when dining out. A few suggestions to sample are Plavac mali, a Dalmatian red with a strong, slightly bitter flavor; or Traminer wine, an Alpine white grown in Zagorje with its light, fruity flavors. Try Istrian Malvasia, a white with strong acid and fruity flavor; or Žlahtina, an island-grown white that carries the minerality of its origin.
Pro Tip: To go with your wine, Croatian food represents a delicious mix of Mediterranean, Turkish, Italian, and local flavors. Don’t miss the excellent street food found in Zagreb where meat is king, or the coastal offerings with its wide variety of seafood.
If Italy is your main destination and Croatia is your side trip, your Italian itinerary may set the schedule for your visit. Still, keep in mind that coastal Croatia is best visited in the warmer months to take advantage of beach time and other outdoor activities. Zagreb and central Croatia can be a destination any time of year, keeping in mind summer temperatures often reach the 90s there, while winter temperatures can drop below freezing and bring snow or ice.
For more bucket-list Croatian experiences, check out these articles: