1 November 2021
Introduction to Croatia
In the northwestern reaches of the Balkan Peninsula sits Croatia, nestled between Hungary, Bosnia, Herzegovina and the Adriatic Sea. This crescent-shaped country is one of the smallest in the world, measuring just 56,594 km² in total! But what Croatia lacks in size, it makes up for with unmatched geographical diversity, an incredible history and an unbeatable ambience.
This tiny country - home to just over 4 million souls - is famous for its seemingly endless coastline. Stretching on for over 5,835km, it is along Croatia’s coast that you’ll find some of the most dreamy beaches that Europe has to offer - and what better place to enjoy those beaches than in a country with over 2,700 hours of sun a year? But look beyond the turquoise waters and dazzlingly white shoreline, and you’ll find that Croatia has so much more to offer…
This is a country built on a rich legacy, whose storied past is evident in every brick of every monument. It is home to a wealth of natural beauty - and not just beaches... Croatia has everything, from lakes and woodlands, right down to deserts! This is just a snapshot of what we love about Croatia, but there is so much more to this country than words can describe; you just have to see it!
What makes Croatia, Croatia?
1. The most atmospheric cities
Croatia's island-speckled coastline is, without a doubt, its main appeal. Set against brilliant white pebbly beaches, the waters sparkle with an almost gem-like intensity in shades of emerald and sapphire... But shift your gaze from the glittering waters and chances are you’ll be even more captivated by Croatia’s cities: the ultimate Mediterranean fantasy. From coastal cities that border sapphire waters to medieval city walls erected at the height of the Venetian empire, this country has it all. This is a country with an unmatched ambience; one that truly encapsulates the Mediterranean spirit.
In Split, the ancient aesthetics of Diocletian’s Palace combine with the buzzing atmosphere of bars and restaurants that line its streets to create a setting that is as beautiful as it is fun. By day, explore ancient columns, temples, walls and even the underground cellars that once made up the Roman emperor’s retirement home. By night, watch this ancient city come to life as young locals and tourists alike filter out onto the cobbled streets in search of pub crawls, underground bars and live music venues.
Game of Thrones fans won’t be able to avoid the feeling of déjà vu as they wander the streets of Dubrovnik - a city so atmospheric that it makes up the set for much of the blockbuster show. With a base as impressive as the Old Town of Dubrovnik. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, no special measures or effects were needed to integrate this ancient city into the setting of the show. Filming grandly exploits the large outer walls, fortifications built over time by human hands, as well as the narrow streets of the old town where several scenes happen during the course of the episodes.
Fun fact: Dubrovnik was the first 'country' (being a Republic at the time), to banish slavery in 1416. It also had the first orphanage in the world, which opened its doors to take in children in 1432.
2. Parks on parks on parks
Croatia is renowned for its gorgeous coastline and ancient cities, but if there’s one thing this country does better than any other, it’s national parks. Far beyond the reach of man lies an altogether different country, one where eagles patrol the skies, wild wolves and bears roam the forests and bottlenose dolphins frolic in the cleanest waters in the Adriatic. It is a stunning wildscape, and one that has been spectacularly preserved in the country’s rich seam of eight national parks.
Krka National Park
Stretching along the Krka River, the Krka National Park runs from the Adriatic near Šibenik inland to the mountains of the Croatian interior. Cascading waterfalls and immense gorges come together to form a place of such unparalleled natural beauty, it almost feels magical. On Visovac Island - a small isle that stands in the middle of the trout-filled waters of Visovačko lake - is the only sign of human life within the park’s borders: the Visovac Monastery. Protected by a circle of cypresses, the monastery’s austere walls and soaring bell tower stand as an homage to the harmonious coupling of Croatia’s natural and historical heritage. Sandwiched between two of the park’s most impressive waterfalls and surrounded by towering karstic cliffs, Visovac really is one of the most stunningly situated monasteries you can find.
Fun fact: In total, 860 species and subspecies of plants have been found within the Krka National Park, including 18 species of fish, and 222 different kinds of birds.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 1979, the beauty of Plitvice Lakes National Park lies in its sixteen lakes, interconnected by a series of waterfalls. The park’s vibrant blue pools and cascading waterfalls look like something straight out of a fairytale - its no wonder they’ve captured the hearts of so many travellers. But the story behind the formation of these endless falls is actually pretty interesting...
These waterfalls are formed by something called “Travertine formation”, wherein calcium-rich waters gather and harden over time, creating the chain-like barriers you see all around the edges of the park’s lakes. These are made from a soft limestone called “travertine”. The rock is so soft that as water flows underneath the barriers, it breaks down the older layers of limestone and creates the numerous waterfalls we see today. Meanwhile, the natural hardening process still occurs on top, replacing the broken structures at a rate of 1cm per year. It’s pretty amazing to think that the lake you see one year won’t be the same in the future. In fact, its ever changing nature is one of Plitvice Lake’s most distinctive features!
To see the park in all its glory, we’d recommend starting early and working your way down from the top of the park to avoid the tour bus crowds who’ll be dropped off at the lower reaches of the park from 9am. If you’re a fan of hikes and insane views, Plitvice is perfect. It’s home to a tonne of easy walking trails, boardwalks suspended over stunning turquoise waters, captivating viewpoints and of course, the main attraction: absolutely beautiful waterfalls.
Forest-shrouded Mljet, an island just off the coast of Dubrovnik, is among the most alluring of all the Adriatic islands, thanks to the establishment of its national park in 1960. According to legend, Odysseus was once shipwrecked on this island, being so charmed by it and the nymph Calypso that resided there, that he stayed trapped on its shores for seven years before the gods released him from its spell.
It doesn’t take much exploring of Mljet to discover what so captivated the demigod. Covering 5,300 hectares of the island, Mljet National Park is bordered by two saltwater lakes - Veliko and Malo Jezero. These two lakes are deep sea bays formed by rising sea levels. Once karst sinkholes filled with freshwater, today they are filled with seawater. The park’s most beautiful landmarks include submerged bays, beaches, sea caves, native species and incredible archaeological finds. Thanks to its lush vegetation, Mljet is the greenest Croatian island, which is why its nickname is Zeleni otok (the “green island”).
If you’re visiting the national park, make sure to take the return boat trip included with your ticket to Sveta Marija. Sveta Marija is a smaller island that sits within the Great Lake. On this island, there is a Benedictine monastery where you will find the Church of Saint Mary built in the 12th century. The boat rides every hour from Mali most and Pristanište. It is also possible to rent a canoe or a kayak.
3. Hikes for dayyyyyyyyyys
If there’s one thing you should do in Croatia, it’s hike. Hiking in Croatia will take you across karst mountains, dry grasslands and rocky terrain, through lush forests and beside clean mountain rivers, waterfalls and creeks. It’s the best way to see all this stunning country has to offer - from ocean views to woodlands and even caves.
If you’re looking for a challenge, check out the Biokovo mountain range. The largest and longest mountain of Dalmatia, Biokovo is a mountain with its roots in the sea and its head in the clouds. Home to Croatia’s second-highest peak, Sveti Jure, which reaches 1,762m, this is Croatia’s harshest hike with all paths being labeled as medium to hard treks. Be warned, this mountain range is not for the faint of heart! But Biokovo has a special beauty that makes the trek all worth it; insane vistas across the sea, narrow coastal paths, caves and impressive cliff faces make this a trek you don’t want to miss...
If you’re staying in Split, Marjan Hill is a hike you have to do! It’s a fairly easy hike but offers some spectacular views of the sea and city below. Covering the peninsula to the west of Split’s Old Town, this oasis is often called the Lungs of Split, owing to its lush greenery, scenic viewpoints and easy hiking paths. Take in splendid views of Split and its surrounding towns and villages, and when you’re done, head down to the bottom of the hill to find a gallery and workshop from the famous artist Ivan Mestrovic.
Take a day trip from Split to enjoy the Milna Coastal Walk - a relaxing hike along Hvar Island’s shoreline. Start at the harbour in Hvar Town and follow the paved coastal walkway for about 30 minutes to Mustado Bay, where you’ll find a cafe and beach to relax a little before continuing on. When you’re ready, follow the rugged path that weaves into Hvar’s woodlands. Enjoy sea views to your right for the next 20 minutes. You’ll come across a quaint little bay where you can stop for a swim before continuing on for another 5 minutes to Robinson.
This small beach is a real hidden gem; stop for a swim or a quick bite to eat at its charming restaurant before continuing on up the steep hill through the sparse woods ahead. There is less woodland to give protection from the sun on this stretch and some sections are a little tricky underfoot. If you feel like stopping any more along the way, there are several bays and beaches, but before long you’ll spot Milna in the distance.
This picture-perfect Dalmatian village is the perfect place to catch an idyllic evening sunset. Its welcoming bays have long been a favourite port to sailors passing through the Middle Adriatic, and is renowned as the most beautiful and safest harbour of the island of Brač. It’s a welcome reprieve from the hustle and bustle of neighbouring islands, brimming with authentic Croatian experiences and friendly locals that take the Pomalo (slow) way of life very seriously! Quaint stone houses line the coastline of Milna; small masterpieces of plebeian architecture. The village is also home to a beautiful Baroque church with a typical Dalmatian bell tower. The interior of the church hides impressive works of Venetian masters.
For years, Milna was known for its shipbuilding and the renowned Dalmatian boat “bracera” was first made here. Today, Milna is a popular tourist centre and a favourite nautical port. Besides historical sights, its scenic beauty and irresistible charm of a typically Dalmatian “small town”, Milna will enchant you with its healthy Mediterranean cuisine abundant in fresh fish, quality olive oil and home-made wines. If you like maritime sports, you can enjoy scuba-diving, sailing or fishing. Curious explorers will be fascinated by nearby coves of Lučice, Osibova, or the Bobovišća harbour, the village of Ložišća and especially the small island of Mrdulja located at the entrance to the harbour.
Good to know: If you’re hiking in the summer months, respect the Croatian sun; it gets HOT! Many hiking paths are not shaded, so make sure that you bring enough water for the hike, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.
4. An incredible history
Croatia’s history - and the incredibly rich culture that stems from it - is truly unique to its location.
As a nation, Croatia endured many difficulties in asserting its identity as independent from surrounding countries and cultures; it wasn’t until the 1991 Croatian War of Independence that they succeeded. This is a country that has long been fought over, and evidence of Croatia’s many wars remains to this day in its rich and diverse architecture.
In Dubrovnik, the famous medieval city walls stand strong. Running uninterrupted for 1,940 meters (6,365 feet) and reaching a maximum height of about 25 meters (83 feet), the walls encircle most of the city and are the main reason why Dubrovnik is lovingly dubbed the Pearl of the Adriatic. Today, these imposing walls are one of the city’s biggest attractions, but having been erected to defend against foreign attacks over the Dubrovnik Republic, they stand as a reminder of the city’s more troubled past.
Fun fact: It’s said that architects didn’t have enough stone blocks to build Dubrovnik’s city walls, so the city authorities ordered that anyone wanting to enter the city must bring at least one stone block with them.
Up the coast in Split is one of the best preserved monuments of Roman architecture in the world, the awe-inspiring Diocletian’s Palace. Ancient columns rise high, pointing dramatically at the heavens above; narrow cobbled streets open into wide courtyards reminiscent of Roman military camps, and grand archways stand proudly, a reminder of the palace’s original purpose... Built around 300 AD, this was where Emperor Diocletian lived after ceding the throne in 305 AD. The site’s appearance belies its grand history, and though today it is a buzzing hub of bars and restaurants, it remains an impressive homage to Split’s storied past. Perhaps that is why, in 1979, the palace was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Further north, in Pula stands the Pula Arena. This impressive amphitheatre was built in the 1st century AD, around the same time as the world-famous Roman Colosseum. This was once a place of immense bloodshed. In its prime, the arena could host up to 20,000 spectators who would flock to see gladiator fights and tournaments between knights. Today, however, the theatre provides more harmonious entertainment. With a capacity of up to 5,000 people, Pula Arena is where locals and visitors alike gather to watch concerts, opera and ballet. It is also where the Pula film festival - the most popular film event in Croatia - is held every year.
Good to know
Croatia is a conservative country when it comes to homosexuality. Though homosexuality is legal in Croatia, same-sex relationships are merely tolerated. Most members of the local LGBTQ community prefer to keep a low profile, and as sad as it is to say, it’s best to avoid public displays of affection.
Eating in Croatia can be a challenge for vegetarians and vegans, whose cuisine is largely meat and fish based. However, vegetarian pasta dishes and pizza are not hard to find, and a few mainstays of Croatian cuisine can be found on menus as side dishes (known as “priloge”). They include “povrće na žaru” (grilled vegetables) and “blitva” (Swiss chard).
All beaches in Croatia are public by law, so if a hotel boasts of a “private beach,” it probably means the hotel is directly on the seafront, but it can’t restrict its access to guests only.
Beaches are pebbly and sea urchins are common in many areas — so make sure to bring your water shoes if you want to avoid sore feet!
Croatia is also famous for its many nudist beaches - a nightmare for the more prudish, but exciting news for those who prefer to swim in their birthday suit!
Avoid discussing the conflict between Croatia and Serbia or making comparisons between nationalities of the former Yugoslavian states. This is a sensitive topic for many Croatians, especially for the older generation. If you do wish to discuss the war, make sure you are well-informed about the history of the countries involved and the conflicts.
Make Croatia a must-do
I loved Croatia when I visited; I spent days admiring Diocletian’s Palace. The place is a contradiction in the best way. I couldn’t get over how somewhere that looked so ancient and so pleasing to the eye could become such a buzzing hub of social activity by night. It’s both a vibrant, youthful country and the site of deep, complex history. Make sure you do Croatia.