Croatia Travel Guide
Croatia is today, one of the most popular countries to visit in Europe. Its no wonder why when you consider its stunning Adriatic coastline, the national parks and forests, the history, the food and wine and that magical Mediterranean climate. I have visited most of Croatia including its capital Zagreb and Central Croatia and Slavonia in the East. Then there are the Istria and Kvarner Rivieras and further south the ever-popular Dalmatian region including the signature cities of Split and Dubrovnik. Then there are over 1,000 islands dotted along the coastline. Croatia has it all!
My earliest recollections actually started long before the word Croatia came onto our radar as it was during 1970’s Summer Holidays that my Mum, Dad and brother, like hundreds of thousands of other Brits, with a caravan in tow, drove from the UK down into Istria and Kvarner Bay in the north of the former Yugoslavia for our annual two week summer holiday.
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From those days this region and this country will always hold a special place in my heart. Strange then that in the late 90’s I worked for a tour operator who was among the first, after the dreadful Balkan war, to provide holidays back to this re-emerging country of Croatia.
Back then I formed a great friendship with a true gentleman called Josep Lozic, who was then the head of the UK Croatia Tourist Board. I can hear him now at travel industry events proclaiming in his fantastic Croatian/English accent that Croatia is “the Mediterranean as it once was” or when he was feeling mischievous “the only non-hamburgerised nation in Europe” referring in the late 90’s to the lack of well known American food chains!
Memories Of Croatia
Back in 1999 I recall spending 24 hours in Dubrovnik. We chartered an aircraft with 130 curious UK travel agents on board from Birmingham in the UK to Dubrovnik. We spent the day in the old town mooching around the slightly damaged walled city and then enjoyed an incredible seafood lunch at the famous Gradska Kavana restaurant overlooking the bay on one side and the famous Stradun (main street) on the other. After lunch and yet more mooching we visited the jaw droppingly beautiful village of Cavtat before our flight back to the UK. All in a day but what a day!
It was on another trip on this same Stradun street in Dubrovnik where I remember leading a group through Ploce gate (there are two in Dubrovnik Ploce and Pile). A couple of elderly ladies selling lace, honey, and figs heard our English voices. As they did, they called out to me, declaring that the English were back. They had missed us or perhaps more specifically our business. It was a small but significant moment in my travel career as it suddenly made me feel a real sense of achievement and worth that I and the company I represented was making a difference to a country that was emerging from the ashes of war.
Croatia on Film
In 2002, I escorted Craig Doyle and his film crew from the BBC Holiday program to Dubrovnik.
Here unfolded perhaps the scariest moment in my travel career to date. We were filming up on top of Mount Srd looking down on beautiful Dubrovnik and Craig was doing a piece to camera and was told to step a little further back by the director. At that moment a lady screamed out “mines”. Back then sadly mines from the war still existed on the mountain side especially as the slope got steeper and where mine sweepers could not go. Here is that program preserved on YouTube including at the beginning that piece of footage of Craig on the mountainside – think of me having heart failure behind the camera.
Those troubled times are long gone and now Croatia has a vibrant, fresh tourist office providing superb footage of their own to entice visitors to the country. A holiday, city break, a tour, an adventure, or just for fun, Croatia has it all.
There is something so chilled about Croatian life and the combination of stunning scenery, a rich history, unbelievable cuisine, warm and friendly locals with a great sense of humour plus a fantastic climate make this country one of the must-visit destinations for anyone ticking off their European country bucket list.
The problem with Croatia is you can’t do it all in one visit so rest assured you will be back again and again!
Top Things To See & Do
Dubrovnik & Dalmatia
The pearl of the Adriatic is Dubrovnik in the region known as Dalmatia. You cannot really ever say you have been to Croatia unless you have visited this famous old walled town.
One of Croatia’s signature cities a visit here would undoubtedly involve a tour of the Diocletians Palace and a stroll down the Riva promenade so as to pose with the glitterati.
These days Hvar is for the exclusive however beneath the glitz, the yachts and the expense is one of the most beautiful islands of Dalmatia that will leave you breathless.
The capital of Croatia is Zagreb and although small there is plenty of history, sightseeing, parks and incredible cuisine to keep you occupied on a long weekend.
When you first get a glimpse of the crystal clear waters your first thought will be to dive in. The second will be to get out on the water and discover the islands and unique and beautiful Adriatic coast.
Pula & Istria
The major city in the region of Istria and Kvarner Bay with the iconic amphitheater in the heart of what is a cosmopolitan and invigorating city to explore.
Drive The Adriatic Highway
If, like me, you love a road trip then there are few better in Europe than the Adriatic highway that runs from Zagreb to Montenegro. The coastal scenery and island vistas are out of this world. You can make the journey in 6 hours or why not take your time over a few days.
A personal favourite of mine is the little UNESCO protected town of Trogir with its tiny cobbled streets and harbourside promenade a place to relax either after arrival or before departure from Split.
The National Parks
Croatia has an abundance of national parks with the stand-out locations being Plitvice, Krka, and the magnificent Kornati Islands.
The location of Croatia’s most famous beach is on the island of Brac. The Golden Horn or as it is known in Croatia the Zlatni Rat beach changes shape with the wind and is an enormously popular beach in the height of summer for holidaymakers and water sports enthusiasts.
Getting Around Croatia
Croatia Airlines is the country’s national carrier and I have always found them to be clean, reasonable value and offer a good service. British Airways and a host of low-cost airlines including Jet 2, Easyjet and Ryanair all have various services from the UK to Dubrovnik, Split, Zadar, Pula, Rijeka and Zagreb. All of Croatia’s main airports are modern, welcoming, air-conditioned, and clean as you would expect.
I would highly recommend car hire but only if you are a confident driver as some of the highways hugging the mountainous coast can be intimidating. If you are OK with that then the experience is one to savour. Car hire is excellent value and can be organised in advance or through your hotel or in town. If you are considering travelling into one of the neighbouring countries as I have done to Bosnia, Slovenia and Montenegro then please ensure you get the necessary permits at the time of collection.
Taxis are generally very high quality and reasonable value for money especially if they are pre-ordered. Picking one up from an airport to your resort on the fly however can be expensive so with a little planning and forward booking you can save some money here.
Given the numerous islands located off the Adriatic Coast, it’s very likely that you’ll be utilising the network of ferries. The main ferry company in Croatia is Jadrolinija and if you are touring then I would expect you will use their services. Boats and ferries sail the Adriatic connecting major ports with almost all the key inhabited islands all year round. However, always check the schedules as regularity is seasonal.
Places To Stay in Croatia
Across Croatia, there is a wide choice of different accommodation options. These range from shepherds’ huts on the Islands Of Dalmatia to 5* deluxe villas in Dubrovnik – there really is something for everyone!
Over the years hotels have tended, particularly in Dubrovnik, to have evolved into expensive 5* properties offering service and location but at a price. There are still some 3-4* jewels to be enjoyed but in peak season to get what you want you will need to book ahead.
Self-catering apartments are a popular choice for families and these are often ideal as the chance to take the family shopping each morning for fresh fruit and vegetables in the many markets is a joy and an education.
Private Villas again are popular with a real difference in standards available from the simple budget accommodation to those that cater to the super-rich.
With over 1,000 islands you can also always hire a live-aboard yacht or take an old-time motorsailor cruise along the Adriatic coast.
Travel On Land
Why even consider internal flights when you have a country as beautiful as Croatia. Reduce your carbon footprint and travel by land. For some years now the large cruise companies particularly those that stop in Dubrovnik create huge numbers of tourists. Whilst this has its obvious advantages it also causes problems with huge crowds descending into the old town during the late morning and early afternoon often overwhelming shops and restaurants. Avoiding these periods is highly recommended.
Consider The Low Season
During the summer months in Croatia, the country particularly on the coast is packed. As mentioned above you also have cruise ship tourism. Some of my favourite visits to Croatia have been in what is called the low season – in other words, September through to March. Often the weather is excellent and a wide range of Autumn and Winter festivals, as well as Christmas markets, are a pleasure.
Support Local Businesses
Small independent businesses are the lifeblood of economies. Souvenirs in the main city centres are often a little tacky. Save your money for smaller local retailers away from the main tourist hubs. Visit the local markets too for fresh produce and local handmade crafts at a fraction of the price.
Book Local Accommodation
In recent years Croatia’s hotel industry has exploded with many small independent hotels being bought by large hotel chains. Some are these are all-inclusive. If you want to benefit the local people consider booking local smaller family-run accommodation. If you do end up going all inclusive then remember to spend outside the hotel complex in order to benefit the local economy and not just those worldwide hotel chains – as lovely as they are!
Leave No Trace
There is a reason Croatia is so pristine, clean and litter free. Croatians care about their country. Sadly however some tourists are prone to leaving litter in national parks or having BBQ’s on beaches so please think Croatian and dispose of your litter and leave no trace that you ever visited.
Spend.... But Spend Wisely
When booking excursions be sure that it is not dangerous, that its not exploitative and it is ethical. If there are animals involved do they look well and if not then is it time to question why?
Respect Local Cultures
Read up on local customs and be sensitive of history. The country of Croatia endured a lot of pain in those days of the Balkan war and for many they do not wish to recall these memories.