Saturday, February 5, 2011

A Croatian Top 30 - The Best Destinations in Croatia

The Croatian coastal areas of Dalmatia and Istria have become extremely popular destinations and rightly so, but there's so much more to see and experience in this oddly-shaped Slavic nation. The interior is still an unknown quantity for most visitors, while some stretches of coastline and a few islands still hold promise for those who want to get away from the mass tourist crowds. Here are my favourite spots in Croatia - the first dozen are quite well-known, but many of the others are still visited by far fewer foreign travellers than they deserve. Enjoy!

1. Dubrovnik - Everyone knows about this wonderful coastal city with its unmatchable collection of marble streets and baroque buildings. A walk along the top of the city walls while looking out over the Adriatic provides one of the most memorable views in all of Croatia, if not in the world.

2. Hvar Island - A place of endless sunshine, beaches and glamourous luxury, Hvar receives the second-highest number of tourist visitors in the country after Dubrovnik. Hvar Town is a compact settlement of classical buildings and gothic palaces with an extensive assortment of swanky restaurants and boutique hotels. The Španjol, the medieval citadel on the hill above the town, gives superlative views out over the harbour and surrounding islands.

3. Plitvice Lakes National Park - A series of turquoise-coloured lakes and waterfalls connected by a network of wooden walkways that allow visitors to get right up close and rather wet. The park contains 16 lakes, with the upper lakes being the most impressive due to the thick green forest that surrounds them. Plitvice is actually the place where the Yugoslav civil war began in March 1991, when Serb forces took control of the national park buildings. Luckily, the conflict caused no damage to the natural environment of Plitvice, which remains as lovely as ever.

4. Split - A city built around a Roman emperor's palace, Split is Croatia's second-largest city after Zagreb. Within the huge palace walls a marble street plan forms the core of the old city, with daily life unfolding in the courtyards and narrow laneways. The city is often overlooked by many who use it merely as a transportation hub, but spend an evening strolling in the old town and you'll be won over by Split's mysterious magic.

5. Rovinj - A small fishing community that has become the most popular destination in Istria, Rovinj's appeal stems from its perfect old town of cobbled streets and piazzas that surround the hilltop church of St. Euphemia. Several green islands off the coast from the Rovinj peninsula are reachable by boat and make a great day excursion.

6. Korčula Island - A place of forests, olive groves, vineyards and traditional villages, Korčula is a great place to sample Croatian music and culture. Korčula Town is a marble beauty of Gothic and Renaissance buildings with red rooftops and palm trees all around.

7. Zagreb - The capital of Croatia is a world apart from the coast, a bustling big city with an old town of Austro-Hungarian architecture at its centre. Museums, art and cultural attractions are plentiful, while the historic district is full of quirky cafes and coffee houses. It's worth taking two or three days to settle in and get to know the place.

8. Zadar - A Dalmatian coastal city of marble streets and Roman ruins with excellent nightlife. The Sea Organ and Sun Salutation are two unique sculptural features of the town's shoreline.

9. Trogir - A lovely walled town not far along the Dalmatian coast from Split. Romanesque churches and buildings remain from Venetian colonial days, an impressive enough collection to warrant giving the town UNESCO heritage status.

10. Mljet Island - An unspoiled Dalmatian island that has been mostly protected from resorts and other tourist development. The western end of the island is a National Park, where the Big and Small Lakes are the main attraction. In the middle of Big Lake there is an island with a monastery on it which can be visited.

11. Rab Town - A beautiful small town on Rab Island with four tall bell towers that rise above the stone houses which surround them on the hillside. There are several terrific beaches within easy reach of the town.

12. Poreč - A busy tourist centre in the summer months, Poreč is a much more rewarding place to visit in spring or autumn. The old town contains the Euphrasian Basilica, a 6th century structure with UNESCO status.

13. Tramuntana Region of Cres Island - A region of forests and abandoned villages with great potential for hikers. Beli is the main village in the region, while Lubenice is another hilltop village on the western side of the island which is also well worth visiting.

14. Varaždin - A pleasant town north of Zagreb featuring a Baroque old town and the impressive Stari Grad fortress. This was the capital of Croatia in the 18th century, and many buildings survive from that important period.

15. Kornati Islands National Park - A rugged, rocky series of barren islands with many caves and steep cliffs, these are some of the most beautifully scenic islands in the country. Visitors head to Kornat and Piškera island to see the bizarre stone formations.

16. Vis Island - Probably the least-touristed of the main islands, Vis was off-limits to foreigners until 1989. Now visitors from all over come to enjoy the peaceful way of life and the great seafood.

17. Pula - A city on the Istrian coast with one of the most well-preserved Roman amphitheatres in existence. Further Roman buildings, temples and arches can be seen in the old town centre.

18. Elafiti Islands - A group of small islands close to Dubrovnik that make ideal daytrips by ferry. Šipan is the largest, but my favourite is Lopud, with a quiet village of stone houses and a long stretch of sandy beach in a cove on the opposite side of the island.

19. Krka National Park - A series of lakes and waterfalls which are of similar beauty to those at Plitvice, but with far fewer foreign tourists about. It is possible to take a picturesque swim below some of the waterfalls.

20. Šibenik - A Dalmatian coastal town with the Gothic Cathedral of St. James, a UNESCO-listed monument. The old town of marble streets features 16th-century buildings clustered around several squares. The surrounding coast is clogged with hotels and resorts, but the town centre is worth a day's exploring.

21. Motovun - A small hilltop town in the Istrian interior with an intact set of surrounding walls. Gothic buildings dot the centre, and the views of the surrounding countryside encourage you to sit over a glass of wine and take it all in.

22. Veliki Tabor Castle - This five-sided fortress north of Zagreb is probably the most interesting castle in the Croatian interior. The 16th-century structure is set in hilly, forested country with many hiking trails nearby.

23. Primošten - A beautiful tiny coastal town on a peninsula south of Šibenik, with medieval houses and narrow laneways. A lone church tower stands out on the hill above the town's old stone buildings.

24. Brijuni Islands - Made famous as the private retreat of Tito, the former leader of Yugoslavia. His Bijela Vila home on Veli Brijun island was his place of residence for six months of the year and was used to host visiting heads of state.

25. Samobor - A relaxing small town just a few kilometres west of Zagreb surrounded by forested hills that are great for hiking trips.

26. Osijek - The main city of Slavonia region, Osijek was a major battlefield during the Balkan wars of the 1990's. A large citadel surrounds the old town centre, which features cobblestone streets and baroque buildings. A few shell scars on the sides of buildings remain from the time of the conflict, but the city is rapidly restoring its historic centre.

27. Pazin - The main town of the Istrian interior, Pazin is famous as the location of the deep chasm that inspired Jules Verne to write the book called Mathias Sandorf with its events taking place in Pazin. The large castle that overlooks the chasm is also the finest in Istria.

28. Opatija - a small town along the coast from Rijeka which is set on one of the most beautiful stretches of the Croatian shoreline. The town developed as a seaside resort for the rich and famous during the Austro-Hungarian empire, and today it is visited by tourists for the excellent sea food restaurants in the nearby village of Volosko.

29. Kumrovec - The hometown of Josip Broz Tito, this is a pretty little village not far from the border with Slovenia. Today it has been turned into an open-air museum as a recreation of a 19th-century Croatian village. A statue of Tito stands proudly outside the house where he was born.

30. Trakošcan Castle - Another impressive castle found north of Zagreb, surrounded by beautiful parks and gardens and a small lake. Originally Romanesque, the castle was reconstructed in a neo-Gothic style in the 19th century.


  1. Great list. I loved every place I visited in Croatia. There are plenty of places on your list I have yet to visit which sound amazing. I can't wait to go back.

  2. Thanks Andrea! I can't wait to go back to Croatia too, there are still lots of places I'd like to visit, especially in Istria.

  3. Great list, thank's for sharing it :-)

  4. Wow! a great list of top tourist attractions in Croatia. I have visited Elafiti Islands and it was a nice experience.Thank you