During my two-week trip to Europe, I spent quite a bit of time in the small, but beautiful, country of Croatia.
before that trip, the only thing I knew about the country was that several places had been used in the making of popular HBO series Game of Thrones. I quickly learned though, that this country was full of unique experiences and unforgettable attractions.
Besides enjoying the sights and sounds of this Adriatic country, my twin sister and I also took in our fill of yummy food, delicious beer and good company across several different cities that I suggest everyone find time to visit at some point in their lives.
Our first stop in Croatia was their capital and largest city of Zagreb. After looking up pictures of Croatia online during our many layovers, I was surprised by what we found.
For one, this city is at an interesting crossroads between Eastern and Central Europe, with food and architecture that’s a unique mix of influences from Vienna, Prague, and even Budapest.
If you ever find yourself in this charming city, here are some great ways to spend your trip:
1. Explore Kaptol
Zagreb’s Old Town is quite the curiosity, given that it’s built on two hilltops and made up of two different settlements that didn’t integrate for several hundreds years. Kaptol is where the clergy were based and where the diocese was established in 1094. It’s also where you can find the famous Zagreb Cathedral and admire its centuries old fortifications that were built during the Ottoman wars.
2. Wind Your way through Gradec
As Kaptol was the religious section of Zagreb’s Old Town, Gradec is was home to artisans, tradesmen and other types of laborers who made up the secular portion of the population. If you have time to linger, take some time to meander down the cobblestone streets, admire the St. Mark’s Church, and gawk at the gothic architecture.
3. enjoy night life on Tkalčićeva Street
If you’re looking for live music and good food, Tkalčićeva Street is where you need to go. Locals are drawn to this place for romantic occasions, or just sitting on one of the many balconies and enjoying a drink as the evening unfolds around them.
4. go shopping at the Dolac Market
The Dolac Market is open each morning and stocked with delicious vegetables, dairy products and meat that are all locally grown. If you’re doing your own cooking while you’re staying in Zagreb, be sure to make a stop here each day; you can even take your pick of the fresh seafood that’s brought in from the coast.
5. visit the Mimara Museum
The Mimara museum can be found in Lower Town, and is named for the 20th-century art collector named Ante Topić Mimara. While the permanent exhibits were donated by Miramar, she has since become associated with art theft during World War II, as well as forgery. If nothing else, it’s an interesting way to spend an afternoon.
6. plan a visit to the Archeology Museum
In case you forget that Zagreb is an interesting union of Eastern and Western cultures, their archeological museum is a great reminder. You can spend hours exploring the various remnants and artifacts that come from all different eras and cultures.
7. Wander around Lenuci Horseshoe
Give yourself plenty of time to visit the horseshoe shaped attraction, full of squares, fountains and buildings that are reminiscent of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Plan on enjoying the day at the Botanical Garden, and the Croatian National Theatre if you’re a fan of ballet, drama or opera.
8. spend a day at Jarun Lake
If you visit Zagreb during the summer, you can cool off in Jarun Lake where there’s plenty of activities like kayaking, sun bathing and swimming. There’s also competitive rowing, skateboarding and cycling if you want to get in a workout. Jarun Lake also hosts a series of bars and night clubs that all line the lakeshore, so be ready to hit the town!
9. tour Karlovac
The small town of Karlovac is an ideal visit for any history buff or military connoisseur. The 16th century complex was built as a military stronghold against the Ottoman empire, and if you explore the Old Town, you can see the Citadel, defensive system, trenches and moats. It’s also ideal for a stroll since the pasture, forest and gardens that sit outside the city walls were never developed.
10. take a day trip to Samobor
Try and schedule time for a day trip to Samobor, the medieval town that sits between Zagreb and the Slovenian border, which has been attracting visitors for nearly 200 years. Most of the architecture is dated to the Baroque era, but you can also visit the Samobor Castle ruins, and even explore the remnants of the moat, walls and gatehouse.
The second stop we made on the great Croatian trek was the coastal city of Zadar.
One of the main reasons I love Zadar is that their Old Town retains some truly beautiful architecture and is a very relaxing place to stay in. Compared to other tourist hot spots like Split, Zadar is an ideal city to add to your itinerary if you want to unwind and take it easy.
So if you’ve got a few days to stop and slow things down, here are my top 10 things to do in Zadar.
1. Jump into the Adriatic
At the risk of stating the obvious, hear me out. The first thing I did after making a stop at the Tequila Bar Hostel was find one of the many piers along the cobblestone path along the coast and enjoy a nice swim in the Adriatic. The simple spot was a great place to meet some locals, cool off from the hustle and bustle of traveling, and enjoy a gorgeous sunset. Plus, heading over to the coastal walk put me in prime position to find a nice café, where I enjoyed a delicious Croatian beer or two.
2. Listen to the Sea Organ
Yes, you heard me right. As one of the most popular attractions in Zadar, the Sea Organ isn’t like anything you’ve experienced before. Croatian architect Nikola Basicis designed and built the sea organ right where Old Town meets the water. The marble steps were cut to create music whenever the waves hit the cliff and water rushed into the pipes below. Get there early, grab a seat, and enjoy the eerie music as you watch the sunset with a glass of wine (or beer if that’s your preference).
3. Visit the Greeting to the Sun
Another creation by Nikola Basicis, the Greeting to the Sun is a crowd favorite! People come from all over to bust a move on the dance floor that lights up when you step on the solar panels. These panels are designed to come to life as soon as the sun sets over the Adriatic, providing you with a killer light show, a fun place to dance, and an ideal location to make some new friends.
4. Explore the Church of St. Donatus
The Church of St. Donatus is famous for its circular shape and architecture that dates back to the Byzantine empire. Built in the 19th century, the attraction is one of the few surviving pieces of history that wasn’t destroyed from the various wars that have struck Zadar. Although the structure isn’t entirely original, most of the materials that were used to rebuild the stonework it were taken from the Roman Forum.
5. Enjoy a Day at Kolovare Beach
This beautiful beach is an ideal place to visit if you want to soak up some rays along the Adriatic. Not only is it a mere 20 minutes walking distance form Old Town, it has entertainment, changing rooms, food, showers and more!
6. Take a Stroll through the Roman Forum
Much like the Church of St. Donatus, the Roman Forum is one of the most visited attractions in Zadar. The square was built between the 1st century BCE until the 3rd century CE. To get the most out of your visit, be sure to find a local guide who can walk you through all parts of the site and explain the different sections and buildings to you in detail.
7. Visit the Zadar Cathedral
Often called the Cathedral of Saint Anastasia, the Zadar Cathedral is a unique mix of architectural styles. Although it was initially built during the 9th century, it was later rebuilt during the 12th and 13th centuries, which accounts for why the top half of the cathedral exhibits a gothic style while the lower half is Romanesque. The inside of the cathedral contains beautiful stained-glass windows, stone altars, a wood carved choir, and an incredible view of the surrounding city once you’ve climbed to the top of the bell tower.
8. Plan a Day Trip to Kornati National Park
If you need a nature fix, then you definitely need to add the Kornati National Park to your itinerary. The collection of islands and reefs is ideal for a day of swimming, sailing and exploring. You can also visit the Telascica Nature Park, which is famous for its snorkeling and cliff jumping. There’s even a donkey reserve that also has some incredible views of the surrounding archipelago.
9. Visit Plitvice Lakes National Park
If you’re wanting to visit the famous Plitvice Lakes National Park, Zadar is one of the best cities to plan your day trip from. Situated between the Mala Kapela and the Lička Plješivica mountain ranges, the park contains sixteen terraced lakes that are all joined together by a series of waterfalls. As the first ever proclaimed national park in Croatia, this exceptionally beautiful location has been attracting nature lovers for over 50 years.
10. Do some Shopping at the Zadar Pijaca
The Zadar Pijaca (market) is a must if you want to take in the local food, smells and ingredients that are staple to Dalmatian dishes. The Zadar market has existed since the Middle Ages, and is considered one of the largest markets in the country. If you want to try your hand at cooking your own Dalmatian dishes, or even learn how to make them from locals, be sure to add this stop to your itinerary!
The last stop we made in Croatia was the city of Split and we definitely stayed here much longer than we initially intended to, if that tells you anything. Split was the perfect place to set up shop for a few days because it had all of the activities we were looking for in a city.
There were plenty of museums and architectural hot spots to tour, a robust traveler’s community where we could make some friends, nearby national parks where we could get a nature fix, beautiful beaches and delicious food.
1. Explore Old Town
If you’re looking to aimlessly explore cobble stone streets and crooked alleyways, it doesn’t get much better than Split’s sprawling Old Town. The verifiable maze of shops, small cafes and charming restaurants can easily take up an afternoon of exploring. Plus, once you walk out the Old Gate, you’ll find yourself surrounded by a series of walking paths that are all framed by beautiful foliage.
2. Diocletian’s Palace
The first place we toured in Split was Diocletian’s Palace. We had heard a lot about this site from our own trip research and fellow travelers. The incredibly preserved structure was originally built in the 4th century, and contains a sanctuary, baptistery, an entire room of reliquaries and other liturgical relics. We also paid a little bit extra to climb the bell tower, which offered up one of the best views of Split that we could find. Bonus: Diocletian’s Palace was also used as a film location for Game of Thrones Season Four!
3. Marjan Hill
If you’re like me and find yourself needing a workout after indulging in all the delicious food and drink, get yourself over to the Marjan Hill. This spot offers a great view of Old Town and the Adriatic. Find your way to the weathered stairs that lead up to the vantage point, and you’ll be met with beautiful pines and views of the sea, not to mention a cafe that’s strategically perched at the top to give you the best view. If you can time your day, try and hit this hike right as the sun is setting while you enjoy a glass of wine or cup of coffee.
4. Krka National Park
Just a short bus ride away, the Krka National Park is an absolute must for nature lovers who have time for a day trip during their stay in Split. The park contains a lengthy trail that goes around the entire series of lakes and pools that are all connected beautiful waterfalls and flowing streams. Once you’ve finished your hike, you can either jump in the water for a swim at the base of the falls or enjoy a beer at one of the cafes near the park’s entry.
5. Blue Caves
Another wildly popular destination is the famous Blue Caves near Split. Make use of one of the many tourist agencies that line the city and book your day trip out to explore this natural phenomenon. You’ll be able to climb into a boat and experience these unnaturally bright, blue waters up close and personal. And with this destination being so close to Split, even visitors who only have a few days in the city will have time to see it.
6. Hvar Island
One of the most popular adventures is taking a ferry out to the nearby island of Hvar. From here you can enjoy the island, or take another boat out to one of the neighboring islands. These smaller islands often host parties that don’t exactly have an end; they just keep going day after day! Meet new people, sunbathe, swim and dance the day away. Some people opt to visit for a few hours, some stay out there for several days. Whatever your party mood is, it’s extremely easy to come and go as you please. The ferry takes about 90 minutes to get back to the mainland, and goes back and forth several times a day.
7. Take a Stroll along the Seaside Promenade
Situated right on the Adriatic, Split’s Seaside Promenade, also known as the Riva, is an idyllic place to visit in Split. The promenade is an endless row of cafes, bars, pastry shops and small restaurants. Start on the east side, where you can find a green market, and make your way to the west side, where you can peruse the Republic Square, church of St. Francis and picturesque fountain.
8. Go Rock Climbing
Marjan Hill isn’t just a good place to enjoy a leisurely hike or relaxing glass of wine. You can stop by the Marjan crag, too, and enjoy various levels of sport climbing, as well as deep water soloing. This is a good option if you enjoy a more difficult climb, didn’t bring all the necessary gear for sport climbing, and want to take a refreshing dip in the Adriatic.
9. Explore the Roman Ruins of Solin
Located just 6 kilometers away from Split, Solin is a small town that served as an administrative center of the Roman province of Dalmatia. Originally called Salona, this area is a great place for history and architecture lovers. Plan a day trip and enjoy the basilica, amphitheater, pillars, and even the occasional sarcophagus.
10. Soak up the Sun at Bačvice Beach
If you’re looking to enjoy a lazy afternoon, head on over to Bačvice Beach, considered one of the best in Split. Not only is it perfect for taking a swim or doing some relatively easy cliff jumping, there are several restaurants and cafes that you can stop at (I recommend one that offers pizza!). Plus it’s a short walk from Old Town, the ferry terminal and main bus station.
Making the Most of Your Trip to Croatia
Of all the countries I’ve been to in Europe, Croatia is definitely my favorite. In addition to having a great combination of delicious food, historical sites, and national parks, everything was really accessible and affordable, which is perfect for travelers who are on a budget.
That being said, if you find yourself short on time and have to pick between a few cities, allow me to offer up a sort of litmus test.
If you’re looking to enjoy the beach at all, go to Zadar or Split. I love Zagreb, but the warm climate and beautiful Adriatic would have been impossible to pass up.
And if you’re on even more of a time crunch and need to pick between Zadar and Split, here’s my advice. Go to Zadar if you’re looking for a quieter, more relaxing venue. Split is beautiful and lots of fun, but it also draws more tourists and offers a rowdier scene (which I love as a 25-year old, but may not so much when I’m older and want to come back).
I definitely plan on visiting Croatia again at some point in my life, so if anyone has any recommendations that I didn’t mention, please comment them or email them to me!