30 years ago, Croatia was a war-stricken country with collapsed economy, a refugee problem and an awfully damaged infrastructure. In three short decades, it has managed to rise from the ashes of the Yugoslav Wars and today Croatia is the European Union’s newest member. The economy is booming and tourism constitutes 20% of the GDP. There are a lot of amazing things to do in Croatia, so…
…what brings people to Croatia? In short, the combination of stunningly beautiful nature, the rich historical heritage, and colorful cultural scene. Here are a few things you should absolutely not miss during a trip to Croatia.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN CROATIA
No travel guide of Croatia is complete without the world-famous town of Dubrovnik. The Adriatic town is a cultural and historical gem with wonderfully-preserved century-old buildings. Renaissance palaces, Gothic houses, and monasteries, Baroque churches, Romanesque fountains… Dubrovnik has it all.
And let’s not forget that HBO filmed Game of Thrones here – you will instantly recognize the King’s Landing city walls, also known as the Walls of Dubrovnik, one of the biggest attractions in the city.
Here are the top things to see, taste, and experience in Dubrovnik…
Walk the City Walls
When in Dubrovnik, you have to see the walls. They run around the entire town and date back from the 13th Century (and were often in use, including during a siege in 1991/92). Speaking of the Yugoslav army siege, the walls actually proved to be better at protecting the town than the modern weaponry used. Still, Dubrovnik was bombarded with seven buildings completely destroyed and many more were damaged. During your walk, you will notice the two-toned roofs of the rebuilt ones, one of the few things that give away that this was a city under siege not 30 years ago.
For some practical tips – bring water and refreshments (kiosks in the area are ridiculously expensive) and be prepared for a steep walk. This one is almost a hike, but the views are absolutely worth it. The best time to visit is the late afternoon/around sunset, which also the golden hour for taking photos.
If the weather forecast says it will be a very hot day, opt for the early morning instead. You will avoid the crowds and you won’t have to experience first-hand the fact that the stones turn into an oven under the August sun.
Also, if you have the time, definitely do the full circle around the town, but even half round will do.
Visit the museums
Dubrovnik is often described as a town of museums (and a town that is a living, breathing museum in itself). Start off with the Maritime Museum where you can see how merchant shipping transformed Dubrovnik into one of the wealthiest towns of the 16th century.
Then head to the Cultural History Museum in the old town center. It is located in a stunning Renaissance-Baroque building that used to be the residence of the chief citizen (the Rector or the governor if you will) of the Republic of Ragusa, as well as the Senate.
What was the Republic of Ragusa? Basically, the state to which we owe Dubrovnik as we know it. It existed through 14th to the 19th century, with 15th and 16th century being it’s peak period. It was a state similar to Venice and a port with key importance in the spice trade, which made the town of Dubrovnik incredibly wealthy. During the centuries of the republic, some of the most stunning buildings of Dubrovnik were erected and arts flourished.
The Cultural History Museum offers a peek into that time with period clothing and furniture, a ginormous numismatic collection and a gallery with some of the most striking examples of the particular Gothic-Renaissance style developed by Dubrovnik painters.
TOP THINGS TO DO IN CROATIA—OUTSIDE OF DUBROVNIK
Here is a way to see the city from a completely different angle. Unless you are an expert kayaker, your best bet would be sea kayaking tours where guides lead you to the best scenic spots and they also teach you how to kayak, so you won’t have to worry about your lack of coordination and experience.
You could also rent a kayak for a few hours, which is the more frugal option, but be aware that it is quite physically demanding and orientation will be tougher for a non-local like you.
Or you know—you could rent a submarine like in the photo above. Now that is one of the top things to do in Croatia that all your friends will envy.
Grab a bite at a fish restaurant
Not that you can’t have a good old steak, but since you are at the seaside you might as well take advantage of the ginormous amount of fresh seafood options.
Some lovely eateries to try out are…
- Lokanda Peskerija (simple, yet delectable Adriatic food with mussels being the highlight of the menu; go early if you want a better table – this one is often crowded)
- Proto (possibly the best fish restaurant in town, but also one of the priciest)
- Barba (the street food superstar of Dubrovnik)
- Kamenica (a guidebook favourite that is still surprisingly popular with locals; a simple menu of fresh seafood and tables that overlook a lively market).
After this short, yet very sweet list of Dubrovnik must do’s, let’s head outside the tourist crowds to the…
Plitvice Lakes National Park
World-famous for the terraced lakes, this national park is not exactly a hidden gem, but it’s still the crown jewel of Croatia’s gorgeous nature. While over a million people visit the park each year, you never get the feeling of ‘crowd’, since the area is heavily forested and pretty huge.
It feels more like finding a beautiful spot during a hike in the woods, even though plenty of other visitors are around you. With plenty of paths to walk down, spectacular scenery, tall waterfalls, and crystal clear sapphire-colored lakes – this is the place for a day trip.
Take your time (and also take comfortable shoes, snacks, water and a bug repellent) and soak in the beauty while enjoying breathing views of one of the top things to do in Croatia.
Zadar (or the town of sunsets)
As Alfred Hitchcock once wrote ‘Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world, more beautiful than the one in Key West, Florida, applauded at every evening’. Unlike Dubrovnik, the tiny Dalmatian town of Zadar feels intimate, as though created for your personal pleasure.
Walk down the sea promenade or get lost in the old town (about as ancient as Dubrovnik, actually, with Romans being Zadar’s first inhabitants), or listen to the sea organ that turns the motion of the waves into music, or check out the eerily beautiful Sun Salutation installation that collects sun energy during the day and transforms into a mesmerizing symphony of color and light.
Visit a Roman palace in Split
Split is a UNESCO World Heritage site for Diocletian’s Palace. Located in the heart of the historical part of Split, this palace was built over 17 centuries ago by the Roman Emperor Diocletian who wanted a residence to retire in but basically built a fortress. The result was a vast complex that kept growing through the years.
It is now a labyrinth of squares, halls, and courtyards where you can easily spend a day without actually going to all the spots. That’s why it’s highly recommended to get a guided tour or at least a map.
And, fun fact: this is yet another filming location for Game of Thrones. Plenty of Daenery’s scenes in Mereen where shot here with the Diocletian’s Palace being the location of choice for the producers.
Take the ferry to Lasovo
Served by a single ferry that leaves from Split once a day, this isolated archipelago is the perfect place to experience the untouched beauty of Croatia’s nature. It consists of over 40 islands with Lastovo and Prežba being the main ones (and also the only two connected by a bridge). Other than scenic views, the villages in Lasovo have some unique architecture dating back to the 15th and 16th century, so it’s worth taking a stroll down the narrow cobble streets.
Croatia’s capital perfectly wraps the country’s essence. It is weird and beautiful, and wonderful in a very eerie way. Every day at noon instead of a bell, you hear a cannon blast and that impresses nobody other than tourists. Locals believe it was a cannon shot that alerted the city about the Ottoman Turks approaching and thus prevented them from invading, and to this day a cannon is fired from the Lotrščak Tower in the old town.
Another fun fact: neckties are the souvenir of choice, as yet another legend has it that it was Croatian soldiers that wore them first. There are many other quirky little details that deserve to be explored about Zagreb and much like Dubrovnik it deserves an entire guidebook to itself. For a few must-see, must-do things: the Zagreb cathedral, the Dolac Market, the art galleries, and the Maksimir park.
Zagreb is also home of the (once touring) Museum of Broken Relationships. It is an exhibition of mementos of relationships past and a one that keeps growing. Located in a beautiful Baroque palace, the museum finally settled in Zagreb and is now one of the most innovative and fun things to see in the city.
Croatia has to be savored and adored, a place where wars were fought and grand tragedies have happened and yet a country that has always seemed to rise above the hardships. More than a state of stunning nature and gorgeous architecture, Croatia deserves to be admired for the resilience of it’s people.