Last updated: 17 September 2022
Thinking of visiting Croatia? It is easy to see how it has become one of the top European tourist destinations. Like much of Europe, Croatia is brimming with historic medieval castles and Roman ruins - they can be found in just about every city. But what makes it exceptional is its wealth of stunning natural landscapes such as the Plitvice Lakes National Park and the majestic Dinaric Alps. Not to mention the turquoise Adriatic Sea with spectacular islands scattered along the coastline.
With its scenic medieval Old Town and accessible island excursions, Dubrovnik has become the most visited city in Croatia. Following the coastline northwest, Split is another famous destination where in 305 AD the Roman emperor Diocletian commissioned a palace that he could "sail his ship into and disembark". It's easy to spend a few days in each of these cities exploring the many museums, fortresses, and Roman ruins easily accessible from the city centers.
Further inland, you'll find the crowned jewels of Croatian natural beauty, the Plitvice Lakes and Krka National Parks. Gentle cascades of turquoise water tumble over the landscapes and year-round activities attract visitors to enjoy all of the beauty that Croatia has to offer. Use this travel blog to plan your dream vacation in Croatia!
Must-See Castles and Fortresses
Dubrovnik Old Town
Dubrovnik is a lively, colorful city with so much to see and experience. It has a long and rich history that can be felt as you walk along its white stone streets. All within walking distance from the center of Old Town, you can visit 3 medieval strongholds, a palace, cathedral, church and monastery, as well as the West Harbor and the Old Harbor. After exploring the many historic buildings and museums within Old Town, go for a walk along the outer wall. Tickets are sold just inside Pile Gate and you can walk around the entire perimeter of the city and take in the amazing views.
Just outside the old town walls are conveniently located hotels and apartments offering easy access to the Old Town. From the harbors, visitors can book excursions around Dubrovnik including snorkeling at the Blue Cave, sailing, and kayaking. Tour boats wait to carry tourists to some of the small islands surrounding the city. A ferry leaves every hour for Lokrum Island, home to a national wildlife preserve where peacocks and rabbits roam free. There are no human inhabitants here, so visitors can wander freely and enjoy the secluded beaches, swimming hole, and picturesque natural landscapes.
Take a break from the bustle of Old Town Dubrovnik and head up to the top of Mount Srð where you can explore some nature trails and enjoy some incredible views from the Panorama Cafe. To drive from Dubrovnik it takes about 20 minutes to get up to the top, or you can take the cable car from the city. Don't forget to visit Fort Imperial and learn about the Homeland War (1991-95). It is an excellent exhibit for only 30 Kuna ($4) and the views are amazing, especially at sunset. To the east are the Dinaric Alps and to the west is Dubrovnik and the Adriatic Sea.
Good things to know before you visit Dubrovnik -
There is NO public parking within Old Town walls - parking is generally limited around Dubrovnik. It is recommended that you leave your car at your hotel and take public transport. There is a bus stop directly outside of Pile Gate (west side of Old Town).
Credit cards are not widely accepted within the city and the only form of cash that is accepted is the Croatian Kuna - no Euros. However, there are ATMs everywhere.
Where to stay in Dubrovnik -
Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik on Marijana Blazica. This location is perfect for a few practical reasons: it is right next to Pile Gate (Old Town's main entrance), it has a bus stop right outside the entrance, and it has a private parking garage. Also just outside the main entrance are souvenir shops, markets, and restaurants. The hotel's style is beautiful and it fits in perfectly with the charm of Old Town. Views of Old Town from the hotel balconies are unmatched.
Split Old Town and Diocletian Palace
The city of Split is a coastal town located about 2 hours north of Dubrovnik. The Old Town of Split is also worth a visit. Diocletian's Palace has several museums and historic buildings such as Jupiter's Temple, the Crypt of St. Lucia, the Roman Mausoleum, St. Domnius Cathedral with bell tower, and the vestibule. The Museum of Ethnography is a great place to learn about Croatian culture and heritage, specifically in the salt-making industry. The museum also has the only access to the top of the vestibule included in the ticket price.
Good things to know before you visit Split -
There is NO public parking within Old Town walls - parking is generally limited around Split. It is recommended that you leave your car at your hotel and take public transport.
Credit cards are not widely accepted within Old Town and the only form of cash that is accepted is the Croatian Kuna - no Euros. However, there are ATMs everywhere.
Where to stay in Split -
Staying within the Diocletian Palace is highly recommended. There are hundreds of boutique hotels and apartments that make exploring the palace super easy. I used Booking.com to find an apartment during my stay in Split. Public parking is available all around Obala Lazareta, the port boulevard, just outside the palace walls.
Fortress of Klis
Dominating the skyline north of Split, the Fortress of Klis has a long history spanning more than 2000 years, beginning with the foundation by the Illyrians in the 2nd century BC. Used to control the valley leading to Split, the fortress towers over the landscape at 385 meters (1260 feet) at its highest point.
It is an easy 30-minute drive from Split and less than $10 for an adult admission ticket - it is a must-see if you're in the area. The fortress is also very easy to explore for a couple of reasons: visitors are free to wander around the grounds unencumbered by ropes and locked doors - just watch your step, it is a long drop to the bottom of the cliffs below. There are virtually no lines since the fortress is still not a big attraction compared to Split, so you won't be fighting any crowds here.
Kamerlengo Castle & Trogir Old Town
Situated in the small island town of Trogir, Kamerlengo Castle is a must-see when visiting Croatia. Trogir Old Town is full of life and rich history. It was settled by the Greeks in the 6th century B.C. and then taken by the Romans in the 1st century A.C. before it was developed as an independent Croatian town after the fall of the Roman Empire in the 6th century. Like many other strategic and defensive locations during medieval times, Trogir suffered damage and was reconstructed over the centuries. Built by the Venetians beginning in the 13th century, the Fortress of Kamerlengo still stands today where it is used as a multimedia center and an open-air cinema for various cultural events. The St. Lawrence Cathedral took 4 centuries to build beginning in the 12th century. It is one of the most important monuments in Croatian history and it is the tallest and most distinct building in Trogir. Visitors can explore these monuments daily including the bell tower and the vestibule.
It's easy to spend a full day here exploring the castle, basilica, cathedral, port, and the many museums, shops, and restaurants. Trogir is also a UNESCO World Heritage site, so you can check that off your list! It's an easy 45-minute drive west of Split and there's plenty of public parking off the island with a quick, 3-minute walk over the bridge to get inside the city. Enjoy the lovely gardens outside the Old Town walls or relax at one of the cafes on the port-side of the island and watch the yachts go by. Don't forget to try some locally-made gelato from one of the vendors inside Trogir, or pick up a refreshing cocktail to go! Like many other tourist destinations in Croatia, it is best to carry cash and there is no shortage of ATMs within Trogir for your convenience.
The Ozalj Castle is perched on a cliff above the Kupa River in the old town of Ozalj. The first mention of this stronghold was in 1244 when it was owned by the noble families of Frakopan and Zrinski. Like many other castles of its kind, Ozalj has been reconstructed several times over the centuries and its foundation walls have been dated back to Anciant Roman times before the 6th century. For 7 centuries, Ozalj Castle was owned and inhabited by influential Croatian families, but for the last century, it has been in the care of the Brothers of the Croatian Dragon - a society that preserves and restores Croatian cultural and historical heritage.
This stronghold is a hidden gem. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but it is bursting with cultural heritage and an interesting history. There is an art museum inside one of the wings as well as a chapel, magazine, and museum with artifacts spanning a millennia. If you're planning to visit the capital city of Zagreb during your trip to Croatia, this is a great stop to make since it's only an hour southwest of the city.
Varaždin Castle & Old Town
Varaždin is another great place to spend a day exploring and learning about Croatian culture and hertiage. The well-preserved grid of streets and squares are lined with gardens and noble baroque palaces. It's easy to lose track of time here - there's so much to see. The Old Town features a panorama of medieval, renaissance, and baroque era architecture from the fortified castle itself to the parish church of St. Nicholas and the steeples of St. Florian and St. Vid. Many of the Old Town building facades were reconstructed during the 17th and 18th centuries, but the harmony between various styles has not diminished the exceptional preservation of medieval history. The historical and cultural evolution of Varaždin is reflected in the well-preserved assembly of structures that form the present town.
The castle has survived since the 12th century, transformed during the 16th century, to become the outstanding example of European defensive systems. Today, it is a beautiful museum filled with artifacts of important Croatian families spanning 9 centuries. After exploring the castle, take a walk around the earthworks that surround it. There you will have a nice perspective of the Old Town skyline with its red roofs and church steeples. Enjoy a meal at one of the many Old Town cafes and peek into a few of the churches to appreciate the beautiful frescoes and stained-glass windows.
If you want to tour a fairy tale style castle during your visit to Croatia, this is it. Perched high on a hill, Trakošćan Castle is brimming with almost 8 centuries of culture, legends, and untouched nature. This romantic white castle is of monumental significance to the nation with its own preserved holdings as a small-scale observation point for monitoring the route between the Ptuj and Bednja vallies. Today, it holds a museum with a treasured collection of artwork and artifacts from the aristocratic Trakošćan and Drašković families.
Adding to the beauty of the castle, the landscaped surroundings feature an artificial lake, lush meadows, and colorful foliage - especially in fall. Take a leisurely walk around the grounds through the forest park and surrounding areas following the 5-km educational trail. This route consists of 20 educational points including rest areas intended for visitors to take a break and learn about the indigenous forest species. Enjoy some traditional Croatian cuisine in the cafe at the base of the hill and pop into the gift shop to pick up some locally-made honey and chocolate.
Veliki Tabor Castle
Another castle-museum that should make it onto your itinerary is the Veliki Tabor Castle. Situated in a quiet vineyard village, it is one of the best-preserved fortresses in Croatia. Explore the 3 floors and 5 towers of the stronghold from the wine cellar and dungeon to the ramparts and beautifully furnished rooms. The museum features periodic exhibitions so there is always something new to be seen. The year of construction is still a mystery for Veliki Tabor, but the first literary mention occurred in 1502 by Ivaniš Korvin when he gave the castle to Pavao Rattkay for his efforts in battles against the invading Turks. Since then, several influential families have owned the castle, but in World War I, it was used as a prison. After the war, it was purchased by a Croatian artist to preserve and protect it, but he could not afford the upkeep for more than a couple decades. It was then turned into an orphanage and then later used for agricultural activities. In 1993, it was taken over by the Museums of Hrvatsko zagorje for archaeological research and conservation work.
Located about an hour northwest of Zagreb, Veliki Tabor Castle is an easy day trip and there are some beautiful vineyards surrounding the castle, some of which welcome tourists with cafes and shops with locally-made goods. If you plan to cross the border into Slovenia, it's a great stop to make along the way since it's so close to the border. If you want to try to squeeze in a couple castles in one day, Veliki Tabor and Trakošćan are easy. From Zagreb, both castles make up about 3.5 hours total driving time, both located north of the capital.
Must-See National Parks
No trip to Croatia is complete without a visit to one of the beautiful national parks. Less visited than Croatia's coastal attractions, the national parks offer spectacular mountain views, turquoise waterfalls, and unforgettable scenery specked with colorful flowers.
Plitvice National Park
If you can only visit one national park on your trip to Croatia, make it Plitvice. The oldest and largest national park in Croatia, its exceptional natural beauty attracts nature lovers from all over the world. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, a fitting inscription given its remarkable universal value. Here, visitors can camp, hike, swim, kayak, cycle, ski, sled, stay, dine, and even get married.
Accessing Plitvice -
There are 2 main entrances to the park with individual paid parking areas. The park locations and parking areas are well-marked from the main highways and it's super easy to navigate the park once you're there.
It costs 300 Kuna for a single adult entrance ticket for one day ($40). This does not include parking. Better rates are available for visitors staying at the park hotels, or visitors who are camping and staying for more than 1 day.
There is a bus system that shuttles visitors between the two entrances and a few of the main spots within the park. This is included in the entrance fee. Bus stops are clearly marked and buses run regularly throughout the park.
At the main entrances, and a few information points within the park, are clean bathrooms, cafes, souvenir shops, and ATMs for your convenience.
Krka National Park
Named for the Krka River that encompasses the park, the Krka National Park holds a wet and wild landscape where more than 850 different species of pants flourish. The highlight of the park is the Skradinski Buk, an expansive pool of turquoise water where swans and ducks grace the surface around the walking bridge. The span of waterfalls flowing into the pool draws visitors to the park year-round, but there are several other small waterfalls to be discovered through the network of nature trails. By far the best way to experience Krka is with a boat excursion from the small town of Skradin, about 1 hour northwest of Split. The boat carries visitors to the waterfalls, dropping off and picking up. So, not only will you be able to see the waterfalls up close, but you can take your time exploring the trails along the water since a boat comes and goes every half hour. The town of Skradin is packed with cafes and souvenir shops as well as a fortress and a cathedral to explore if you have time.
Accessing Krka -
Paid parking is available just outside the town of Skradin and it is a 10 minute walk to the marina.
Krka Waterfalls Tour service is located at the south slip of the marina and anyone working along the docks can point you in the direction of the ticket office.
Ticket prices vary depending on season and time of day.
The boat takes about 20 minutes to reach the waterfalls and another 20 minutes to return to Skradin. Be sure to ask when the last boat leaves the waterfalls before you go, as this changes with the seasons.
Drinks are served on the boat and there are snack stands within the park.
More noteworthy destinations in Croatia...
The Trsteno Arboretum is brimming with exotic natural beauty. This 15th-century renaissance summer home holds diverse plants and trees from all over the world. On site there is also a 16th century chapel and some outbuildings where residents produced olive oil. Some of the original equipment is still within the outbuildings and very well preserved. At the end of the 70-meter long aqueduct is an elaborate fountain built in 1736 with the likeness of Neptune and nymphs. Situated just 25 minutes northwest of Dubrovnik, the arboretum is definitely worth a visit if you're in the area.
The small town of Novirad is about 1.5 hours northwest of Split and is definitely worth a visit. It is a unique town full of history where you can tour the medieval Novigrad Fortress, explore the Modrić cave, and play on the Karinsko Sea.
The Novigrad Fortress was built by the Liburnians and then later occupied by the Romans. During the dynasty wars of the 14th century, 2 royal women Mary, the wife of Croatian-Hungarian King Sigismund Luxemberg, and her mother Elizabeth, were murdered here. During the Homeland War (1991-95) the Serbs held the town for 2 years. The fortress has been abandoned, thus, no admission is charged. From the top, the view of Novigrad, Paklenica National Park, and the Karinsko Sea is breathtaking.
Across the Karinsko Sea from Novigrad is a small park with a boat launch where a chapel sits on the water. It is a peaceful place to have a picnic or take a dip in the water.
Roman Ruins of Salona
Just 20 minutes outside of Split is the town of Solin where you can find one of the largest Roman settlements in the region. Salona was the provincial capital of Dalmatia in the time of Diocletian. It is believed that 60,000 citizens lived within the episcopal center which contained an amphitheater, church, baptistry, bishop's palace, and of course, bath houses. The Avar and Slav tribal conflicts of the 6th and 7th centuries resulted in Salonan citizens fleeing to nearby Split, taking up what was the Diocletian's retirement palace. They left behind chunks of columns and gravestones that still litter the grounds today.
General Information About Traveling in Croatia -
The currency in Croatia is the Kuna - 1 Kuna = 0.14 USD = 0.13 Euro
Hrvatski Telekom (T-Mobile) is the market leader for cellular service in Croatia. Tourist SIM cards can be purchased just about anywhere from the airport to gas stations. +385 is the country code.
Shops and restaurants typically prefer if you pay with cash versus credit card. A lot of restaurants are not equipped to include tips with CC payments.
Most restaurants are seat-yourself. If a host must seat you at a table, it will be posted. It is not common for restaurants to have bars where patrons can sit and order, especially food. All ordering is done from your table.
When renting a car, expect it to have a manual transmission. If you prefer automatic, it must be stipulated at the time of reservation, and usually costs more.
The highways in Croatia are toll roads. When you enter a highway, you will go through a kiosk center and take a ticket. When you exit, you will pay the amount for which you traveled on the highway, usually a few Euros. Toll booths accept Kuna, Euros, and credit cards.
Much of the historical landmarks, especially castles and old towns, can only be explored by climbing stairs and sometimes walking on lose pavers or cobblestones. Wear comfortable shoes and watch where you step. Small trip hazards are prevalent and are not commonly marked.
Tourism in Croatia is highest in July and August. If you want to avoid the crowds, plan your trip for May-June or middle of September. Winter months have pleasant weather, but there isn't much open for tourists as far as restaurants and hotels.
"Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."
- Mark Twain