Croatia, also known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic", draws phenomenal crowds during the summer season. Beautiful terracotta roofed houses hug the Adriatic coast and the azure ocean always beckons you for a swim. Further inland there are beautiful towns, gushing waterfalls, and Lonely Planet’s Top European Destination for 2017 – Zagreb. Whether you're after a Central European city feel, walled Roman cities, or relaxing on a yacht, I can guarantee you'll find it in Croatia.
However, with all of its popularity come the effects of mass tourism. I was in Croatia for a total of one month around May and early June. There was a huge difference in the crowds as it entered June. As the Croatia sailing experiences ramp up, Ultra Music Festival happens, and more people enter holiday phase, the tourist population skyrockets. It can become a bit unpleasant to be around the coast (Hvar, Dubrovnik, Split, etc.) at this time. I would recommend visiting in May before all of this really takes off but you still have nice weather.
To get a full Croatian experience you need to get off the beaten path. But never fear -- this is not hard to do (especially as Croatia boasts 1,100 islands). Croatia is one of my all-time favourite places to visit in Europe and this country made for some of the best travel memories. So here is my Croatia Travel Guide containing all the tips and tricks to make your adventure memorable, stress-free, and stunning.
A bit of history and culture
Croatia has a long and complicated history which began being recorded before the Roman era. Changing hands between Greeks, Illyrians, and Romans, means that there is a whole lot of interesting architecture still remaining. Eventually the Romans took control of the Dalmatian Coast and shaped a lot of the architecture, cities, roads, and infrastructure, and this remained the case for many centuries.
Many tribes came together at the collapse of the Roman Empire and by 900AD there was and independent Croatia. This did not last long and soon enough Croatia was ruled over again (by Hungary, Venice, Napoleon, and then Austria).
Between WWI and WWII the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was formed; but after WWII Croatia became a part of Yugoslavia. Croatia was run under Tito's Yugoslavia. It remained a part of Yugoslavia until 1991 when it declared independence and the war ensued. By 2013 Croatia was a part of the European Union. All of these events in Croatian history have shaped the country you will see today when you explore the region.
The official language is Croatian/Hrvatski but impeccable English is usually found in touristed areas. The majority of the population is Roman Catholic. I found the Croatian people to be incredibly open, hospitable, and friendly. The culture has deep roots and Croatia's position in the Adriatic blends many cultural spheres.
Before you leave
If you are Australian you do not require a visa to be organised before visiting Croatia. Upon arrival your passport will be stamped and you can stay for up to 90 days; and you can leave and re-enter Croatia. Croatia is not Schengen so staying here will not contribute to your cumulative Schengen time (hooray!).
READ MORE: How To Legally Spend More Time In Europe
The currency in Croatia is the kuna. There are frequent ATMs around the country and money can be obtained at the airports and ferry terminals. As with most places, changing cash at the airport exchange terminals will get you the worst rate. I would recommend getting money out of ATMs as you need, but maybe having €50 (just in case) to change at the airport if you need to arrange an airport transfer. A lot of things still require payment in
Downloading map apps
It can be easy to get disoriented in Croatia's old towns so downloading an offline map is helpful.
If you are planning to visit Croatia in summer then it is advisable to book your accommodation in advance for the hotspots. At bus stations and ferry terminals there will be lovely ladies running guesthouses advertising their rooms which are generally really nice and a good backup. But if you want a guaranteed place to sleep and closer to the epicentre then book in advance.
Get travel insurance
Despite Croatia feeling like paradise, things do still go wrong and it is recommended to get travel insurance.
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Getting to Croatia
Croatia is well-connected to the rest of Europe and is a great place to base yourself if you are planning on exploring more of the balkans. With several airports and plenty of ferry terminals, you can end up in Croatia with ease. The frequency of flights, buses, and ferries, increases over summer and the shoulder seasons.
Flying to Croatia is a good option, relatively inexpensive, and definitely the quickest method. Many European destinations fly directly to Croatia but a lot of places require one change. There are some places which you think would be easy to get to (like Greece) that actually don't have very good connections.
The main airports are Zagreb, Dubrovnik, Split, and Zadar. And there are plenty of other smaller ones dotted throughout the country to enable access.
Being mostly coastal means that Croatia is fully equipped when it comes to ferry transport. With many ferries leaving Croatia and then connecting in Italy, you are within reach of most seaside destinations.
Ferry transport has gone out of fashion recently so it can be a cheap (and quite relaxing) way to travel. If you're on a budget then the price is very affordable as it counts for a night of accommodation plus it's transport.
There is a good bus network around Eastern Europe and the Balkans. This is a cheap way to travel and they are very efficient. Popular routes involve Montenegro, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, and Slovenia.
You can also enter Croatia overland by car.
Train networks are not well-established in Croatia. Most of the networks are in central Croatia rather than the coast, with Zagreb serving as the major hub. So you can get to Zagreb from other European destinations by train. Within Croatia there are connections to Split and Rijeka from Zagreb which could also be useful. The bus network covers far more area.
Getting around Croatia
To get around Croatia itself you have several options. As a budget-conscious student, the best way is bus. The network is very extensive and it is affordable. The buses are generally faster than the trains as well (with the main train routes being Zagreb-Rijeka and Zagreb-Split).
Hiring a car is also a good option as it gives flexibility (particularly when it comes to getting to places like Plitvice) but costs more. Always make sure to check your insurance for driving.
To get around the islands you can either do so with privates boats or with ferry companies such as Jadrolinija.
Map of the country
Where to visit
There are so many places to see in Croatia each with a unique identity and atmosphere. It is up to you to decide what kind of vibe you are after: historical, beach-side, nightlife, nature, or a little bit of everything. My personal style is "a little bit of everything" so I was itching to get out and see as much as humanly possible.
My personal favourite city in Croatia is Split. As Croatia's second largest city, Split has the perfect balance of history and modernity. Nestled against the radiant Adriatic Sea and beneath dramatic mountains, this city well-balances tourism and real life. Once you leave the touristic old town it is easy to get a sense of the real Split -- something that I love this city for, and a way in which is differs from Dubrovnik.
The old area of Split is actually the Diocletian's Palace (a former Roman palace) which is not home to shops, boutique apartments, restaurants, and bars. This provides a unique atmosphere of life continuing within the walls of history. You can explore some of the preserved areas of the Palace by heading underground which I highly recommend.
When you have finished exploring the historical monuments such as the Cathedral of St Domnius, the Diocletian's Palace, Klis Fortress and the Temple of Jupitur, you can enjoy beaches and beverages. There are plenty of beaches nearby such as Bacvice, Bene and Znjan to relax.
One thing you can't forget to enjoy in Split is the nightlife. A highlight of my entire time in Croatia was To Je To Caffe and Bar. The friendly staff and amazing experience made every day in Split absolutely incredible. With good quality coffee, an amazing crowd of regulars, and the best staff imaginable means that To Je To is one of the best things to do in this city. More information on accommodation, food and nightlife can be found in my Quick Guide To Split.
READ MORE: Quick Guide To Exploring Split
Trogir is a gorgeous town located an easy bus-ride north of Split. The walled medieval town is built upon a small island bridged to the mainland. It is a relaxing destination and has substantially smaller crowds than Split itself. Restaurants, cafés and bars spill out onto the cobblestoned streets as you watch yachts go by.
Dubrovnik is the most iconic part of Croatia. The terracotta roofs, the ancient city walls, and a famed appearance in Game of Thrones. It is easy to spend a couple of days here exploring all there is to see. The main attraction is the walled city and many of the best things to do revolve around getting a good view of it:. Walking the old walls is an enchanting and iconic thing to do in Dubrovnik. You can also get a Cable Car up Mount Srd which gives spectacular views over the city, however I opted for the walk up which is more rewarding and saves you cash.
The Old Town itself is stunningly beautiful with small alleyways, palaces, and churches at every corner. Although not large, you could easily spend a day wandering through the Old Town. The use of marble in the buildings and the streets gives the city a shimmer not unlike that which you see on the Adriatic itself.
Nearby to the Old Town there are plenty of nestled beaches for snorkelling and sunbathing. You can also climb up to Fort Lovrijenac which is included in the ticket price for the wall walk. This has incredible views and gives a good understanding on how the city had been protected in the past.
From Dubrovnik you should visit Lokrum Island which is a lush island just a 10-15min boat ride from the city. With the remains of a monastery and plenty of peacocks, this is a nice break from busy Dubrovnik.
In the evening can enjoy a beer in one of the cliff bars and watch brave souls cliff jumping into the ocean. Dubrovnik also plays host to a great nightlife with several clubs throughout the city. Despite the levels of tourism that this city has reached, it still remains to be incredibly enjoyable and an unmissable part of a Balkan adventure.
READ MORE: Quick Guide To Exploring Dubrovnik
Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and was named as the top destination to visit in 2017 in Europe by Lonely Planet. So, if that doesn't entice you then I am not sure what will!
A juxtaposition of beautiful Austro-Hungarian and brutalist Communist architecture gives Zagreb a unique feel. There are plenty of cafés to sit back, enjoy a Balkan coffee, and people watch. Being the capital city means that Zagreb has a lot of museums to visit (including the Zagreb City Museum, and the Archeological Museum). If for some reason you're not vibing with Zagreb then maybe you could check out the 'Museum of Broken Relationships' which actually exists here.
As with most Croatian destinations, there is a thriving bar and pub scene in Zagreb too -- so make the most of it!
Zadar is another popular destination in Croatia and has incredible nightlife. As well as the medieval architecture, churches, and cafés you've known to expect in Croatian towns, there is also the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation which can be seen here.
This city is vibrant and has more of a local feel, so it can be a refreshing change from some other areas of Croatia.
Hvar is perhaps the most popular of the Croatian Islands to visit and is intensely glamourous. Hvar Town is where all the action is situation and up to 20000 people visit every day in peak season! Again, Hvar Town is a marbled city full of palaces and churches.
Hvar is known as Croatia's number one party island. Clubs such as Carpe Diem and Hula Hula ensure the drinks are flowing and memories are being made.
But don't be fooled, the island of Hvar is much more than Hvar Town and if you have the time there is plenty to explore!
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice Lakes National Park draws up to a million visitors each year - and it is easy to see why! The 16 lakes are arranged in a cascading fashion which is visually stunning. Natural damns separate the lakes in a luscious green. The boardwalk allows you to get close to the action. It costs up to €24 to visit and is one of Croatia's most beautiful sites. I love the Blond Wayfarer's photo essay from Plitvice if you want to see some more.
Krka is smaller than Plitvice but still stunning, and it is only about 10km from Sibenik. The Falls are the drawcard but there is plenty more to see at Krka National Park including the small island of Visovac. The Visit Croatia Page on Krka National Park has some great information.
Mljet is one of the most special islands on the Adriatic and my time here will forever be a fond memory. It is still forested (the most forested island in the Adriatic, in fact) and embraces its natural beauty. National Park makes up most of Mljet and there are many ways to enjoy it: canoeing, riding, hiking, and swimming. There are two salt water lakes which are warm to swim in, and the Island of St Mary can also be seen.
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