Croatia isn’t the typical location I would visit on account of its huge popularity with European and Australian travelers. However, when I called my US bank to allow transactions and had to spell out ‘C-R-O-A-T-I-A’, I knew I made a good decision. After completing the trip, I can definitely say that everyone needs to travel Croatia. I had two weeks, a car and a basic idea of where I wanted to visit. I never organize for trips until the day before I go – so this map was created after my trip. Turns out I make pretty good choices.
There are many ways to ‘do Croatia’, but this is my list of recommendations.
1. Fly into Zagreb, Not Dubrovnik
I chose to fly into Zagreb for a couple of reasons, but in all reality, it was because the flight was $300 cheaper than a flight into Dubrovnik. Most of the people I met flew into Dubrovnik and made their way north (if they even went north). If you have the time, I highly recommend starting in Zagreb for one very important reason: the further south you get the more touristy it gets. It was great to start and end my trip in a city where every bar I went to was a local bar. Beers are only $2 a pop and everyone is so much nicer (generally speaking). My favorite drink was a beer called Staropramen. I realize this is a Czech beer and not Croatian, but it was my drink of choice because I liked it and it was dirt cheap.
Zagreb is a beautiful and colorful city filled with plenty to do. If you have the time, then definitely check out everything it has to offer.
2. Rent a Car
Unlike the states, the Croatian public transportation system is very good and quite extensive. You can get to just about every city, despite its size. If you are being a financially conscientious, stick with the bus system. However, if you want to splurge a little (if you can consider $220 car rental for TWO WEEKS a splurge) stick with a car. The freedom it provides greatly outweighs the cost. I stopped when I wanted, went where I wanted, and I can now drive a manual! It’s not as scary as you think.
My trip was ridden with about three days of rain and having a car allowed me to be extremely flexible. Instead of checking out Plitvice National Park on day 3, I moved it to the end of the trip and took a detour to the NW coast of Croatia. Because of this, I was able to drive the entire coast of Croatia. If you’ve had the opportunity to experience the Pacific Coast Highway, the ‘Croatian Coast Highway’ is infinitely better. It’s like driving through 8 hours of Big Sur.
3. Drive Down the Coast
Renting a car brings you freedom. A lot of freedom. The drive from Split to Dubrovnik is one of the most spectacular road trips I have ever taken. The road is a windy spectacle that takes you up and down the mountain coast line. Around every bend is a new little coastal town that forces you to stop and take a picture. The drive takes forever because people drive slow to enjoy the scenery. Really slow. It’s awesome though and well worth it. Even if it wasn’t worth it, you’d be stuck on a bus in the same traffic.
It’s hard to experience such moments in a bus. Not that bus travel through Croatia isn’t great, but there is nothing like rolling down your windows Californication style and letting the wind blow through your hair as you slalom back and forth in your Fiat.
5. Krka National Park > Plitvice National Park
I first learned about Croatia from my girlfriend in college. One year she went on spring break to Croatia and came back with pictures of Plitvice National Park. It was at that point I fell in love with Croatia and knew I was going to visit one day. Before even doing serious research on what else Croatia had to offer, I had my flights booked. I rolled up to Plitvice as excited as a kid in a candy shop. I made my way down to the wooden platforms laden across the lakes and got lost in their endless maze. After hours of trudging through crowded platforms, I was exhausted and a bit disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, Plitvice is beautiful, but it was nothing like the pictures I had seen. I felt cheated. The problem is, the pictures you see on Google of Plitvice are mostly aerial shots taken by drones. You don’t get the same perspective when you are actually at the park.
Plitvice is massive, Krka is ‘large’
Plitvice is MASSIVE. It takes hours to walk around and see everything. This causes you to lose grasp of the size of Plitvice. It’s so big that you can only see a very small portion at once. The only way to see the whole thing is to fly a drone above it. There is a pretty decent spot to grasp the size of the national park, but compare this picture to those on Google.
Krka is much smaller, you can walk around it in less than an hour. I feel the pictures are more picturesque. You be the judge, though.
You can swim in Krka, but you cannot at Plitvice
Yep, you can get your model on.
It’s almost impossible to get a picture without a person in it at Plitvice
You can wait up to five minutes on the wooden platforms waiting for people to move out of the way so you can pass. JUST TO MOVE.
The waterfalls are bigger at Krka
To me, tall waterfalls aren’t as impressive as wide waterfalls – that’s why Niagara and Iguassu falls are so impressive. A crap ton of water flows over them at an impressive rate. Krka is a small version of these waterfalls, while Plitvice has tall waterfalls. The water flow at Plitvice was so puny I literally thought ‘is that is?’. I saw more powerful waterfalls on random islands in Thailand.
6. Stay in Slunj
Slunj is a small town located 30 minutes north of Plitvice National Park. It can be described in a single word: abso-freaking-lutely magical. That was more than one, but I digress. Nothing that I write will ever do the town justice. The only way you will understand is if you visit it yourself. If you plan on making the trip to Plitvice National Park and stay in the area overnight, STAY IN SLUNJ. If you don’t, well then your an idiot.
The town is situation on top of several small rivers. You read that right. The town is built on top, between, and around several small rivers and waterfalls that flow toward Plitvice National Park. The air is fresh when you wake in the morning, the sounds of chirping birds melts together with the running water and it makes you never want to leave. I liked this town more than Plitvice National Park, that is how much I liked it.
7. Head to Bosnia for a Day
Bosnia was an impromptu trip once I got sick of walking through the old city of Dubrovnik. It was a short two and a half hour drive to Stari Most, an old 16th century bridge located in Mostar. The entire day was spectacular because it included driving through dirt roads (thanks Google Maps), snapping awesome pictures of the Bridge, swimming in yet another waterfall (also better than Plitvice), and getting a little taste of Istanbul influence. In other words, it was a one day culture shock from Croatia.
Since it was once part of Yugoslavia and Croatia’s neighbor, I assumed there would be a certain level of similarity. There was not. The landscape, culture, language and money were all completely different (although most places do accept kuna, dollar, and euro). Even Mostar, being a major Bosnian city, doesn’t seem to have recovered from the civil war in the 90’s. There is graffiti and war-torn buildings scattered throughout the city, only blocks from ‘touristy’ sections.
I did take a quick trip to Kravice Falls on the way back to Dubrovnik (like it more than Plitvice!)
8. Avoid Dubrovnik and Split During Peak Months
Dubrovnik and Split are the two most traveled cities in Croatia, and for good reason. Dubrovnik has some of the most beautiful castle walls in the world, and is the home of numerous Game of Thrones scenes. Split is a gorgeous coastal city situated within ferry distance to many of the most popular islands like Hvar and Vis. They are must see’s for anyone visiting Croatia. Just don’t visit during peak times (June – August).
I’ve visited places during peak season and I can tell you that these cities are much worse than what you might expect. Both cities are right on the water. This means one thing: cruise ships. They come, everyone unboards, runs through old town for half a day then hops back on the boat. I saw a steady flow of cruise liners three days straight. It’s endless. To top it off, there is a major international airport right outside the city.
Go in April, May or September.
9. Check Out One of the Islands
When in Croatia one must visit as many islands as the country has to offer. One of the most popular islands is Hvar, and it happens to be the island I visited. The only way to get to any of the islands is by boat. You can either take a ferry, or you can buy a tour from one of the many tourist stalls by the ocean. I decided to get a tour because it’s a whole day excursion that took me to the Green Cave, Blue Cave and two beaches on Vis before dropping me off in Hvar. Once your on the island, you can just get a 1-way ferry back to split.
The tour of the islands was really the only opportunity I had to enjoy the water. After, I wish I had more time to swim because it was magnificent. The water is a magical color and very warm even in September.
Hvar is surprisingly quite large. It’s impossible to get from one end to the other on a single tank of gas on a moped. There is plenty to do from scuba diving to exploring to gorging on delicious food.