Croatia offers both fascinating history and extraordinary natural beauty. Periods of Roman, Venetian, Italian and Austro-Hungarian rule have bequeathed a rich cultural legacy, meaning you can take in splendid palazzi, Roman columns and Slavic churches as well as several excellent museums. When it comes to scenery, pristine forests, hill-top hamlets and roaring waterfalls vie for your attention, but it’s the magnificent coastline, whose myriad pine-clad islands, coves and beaches are lapped by a sapphire-sparkling sea, that is the real star of the show. Spend sunny days and balmy evenings exploring tiny fishing villages, picturesque harbour towns and handsome cities that move to a fun-loving, coastal beat: Zadar is colourful and friendly; while Dubrovnik, despite sobering reminders of more recent upheaval, remains the world’s most perfectly preserved medieval city and the undisputed jewel of the Adriatic.
Read on to discover more of what Croatia has to offer...
Istria's Hill-Top Towns
Beautiful rolling countryside, ancient hill-top towns and swathes of wildflowers – not what you might expect from Croatia, perhaps? But on the Istrian peninsula, just across the Adriatic from Italy, that’s exactly what you will get. Perfectly preserved Motovun, for example, has a beautiful path leading around medieval battlements offering splendid views across terracotta roofs to the vineyard-covered slopes of the Mirna Valley. It’s a popular artists’ hang-out, and it’s easy to see why.
Let the Music Play
In southern Dalmatia, keep an ear out for an unusual three-stringed fiddle known as the lirica, the accompaniment to ancient courtship dances. Up in Istria, meanwhile, you’re more likely to come across the sopila, a large oboe always played in pairs, and the mijeh, a bagpipe made from the bladder of a young goat. While the latter is also sometimes played to accompany the Moreška sword dance on the island of Korčula, this elaborate, blade-wielding ritual is more frequently performed with the backing of a rather incongruous brass band!
The Kvarner Gulf
The deep, cobalt-blue waters of the vast Kvarner Bay offer fabulous seascapes and a string of alluring islands that are some of the country’s best-kept secrets. Two of these, Cres and Losinj, are practically joined at the hip and are a delight to explore: Griffon Vultures nest on the cliffs of the former while a Marine Park off Losinj plays host to pods of bottle-nosed dolphins. Rab, meanwhile, is both green and golden, its long stretches of sand being quite a rarity for Croatia; and there are fascinating walled towns everywhere, replete with inviting restaurants and shady corners.
For those in the know, Zadar holds an almost magnetic appeal. Join them in wandering the Old Town’s atmospheric marble streets, worn to a sheen over centuries and revealing an inviting network of bars, restaurants and boutiques. Then, as another glorious day draws to a close, anticipate another sublime sunset (“the most beautiful in the world”, according to Alfred Hitchcock) by strolling along the tree-lined waterfront where the extraordinary, multi-coloured panels of the Salute to the Sun art installation come to life, accompanied by chimes from the weird and wonderful ‘sea organ’ close by.
Trogir & Krka National Park
Trogir is a UNESCO-listed cultural gem: Romanesque and Renaissance architectural treasures are contained within a maze of streets by a wide, waterfront promenade, making this a delightful place to while away a day or two. It also makes a terrific jumping off point for the nearby Krka National Park, a near fantasy-land of natural wonders featuring a deep-cut limestone gorge, pristine lakes, stunning waterfalls and a profusion of birds and wildlife.
Korčula is known for its beautiful interior of dense woodland, rolling vineyards and extensive olive groves, as well as for being the (hotly disputed) birthplace of Marco Polo, one of the world’s greatest explorers. Its coastline is dotted with tranquil coves and inviting beaches, and we’re particularly fond of the authentic and unassuming harbour town of Vela Luka in the far west. In the east, jutting out into the Adriatic, is exquisite, perfectly formed Korčula Town, its intricate, leaf-shaped formation of close-knit streets and alleyways mirroring the fronds of the palm trees that rustle alongside its encircling, 15th-century walls.
Arriving on Mljet is enchanting: the majority of the island is covered in forest and one third is a protected national park, meaning that the 850 human inhabitants are far outnumbered by birds, butterflies and deer, and the many other species occupying this harmonious natural realm. The impossibly pretty harbour of Pomena is a magical place to be: tiny waves lap the boardwalk; ripples of conversation and laughter erupt from contented diners; and pine-carpeted paths lead to lakeside picnic spots and a lush interior that can be explored on foot – or by bike, boat or kayak.
From Sea to Plate
With 1,700 kilometres of coastline and more islands than you can shake a fishing rod at, the abundance of seafood offered up by Croatia’s watery depths is impressive, to say the least. Inntravel’s Steve Jack recalls a simple-yet-sensational lunch at a harbourside café on Mljet: “Sensing indecision, my waiter vanished for a moment, only to skip back to my table, broadly grinning and holding up a large clump of mussels, glistening in the sunshine like an oversized bunch of grapes. “Straight from the sea!” he proclaimed, and promptly disappeared back into the kitchen to conjure up a pan of the juiciest, freshest seafood risotto I am ever likely to taste.”
Dubrovnik is popular for good reason, and, whether you’re a first-time visitor or one of its growing band of devotees, the sense of awe you experience on glimpsing the immaculate Old Town is hard to beat. Walk the city walls as you admire marble palaces and monuments, a sea of terracotta rooftops and the glittering blue sea beyond. Then ascend Mount Srđ by cable car to take in a quite breathtaking panorama of this resilient and resurgent masterpiece, whose beauty – despite a devastating 17th-century earthquake and the horrific bombardment of the 1990s – will never fade.