If you’ve opted for a vacation in Croatia, you’ll want this guide to help make your first time to Croatia easy-as! Written by Trevor, from grabbinglifebytheballs.com and Chasing the Donkey team.
We visited Croatia for the first time in the autumn of 2016, so we want to pass on a few tips and tricks for other first-time visitors to Croatia. We’re going to assume that “tips” like “visit Dubrovnik,” “see Plitvice Lakes National Park,” or “check out the islands” are apparent and don’t need to be repeated.
If you’re planning a trip to Croatia, Dubrovnik is likely the first place you’ve heard about. Instead, here are some suggestions that will, hopefully, make your journey a bit smoother, take you a bit off the beaten path, and even save you a little money.
These tips will make your first-time break in Croatia extra fun and extra exciting.
Travel Tip #1: Travel in The Shoulder Season
If possible, avoid the prime tourist season months of July and August. Temperatures are high, tourist crowds are insane, and hotel prices are at their peak. You’ll also pay more for ferries, national park entry fees, and other attractions. Do you need any more reasons to avoid the prime months of the year?
We visited Croatia for three weeks in September, starting north of the country and working south. The weather was still warm and comfortable, the sea temps were still suitable for swimming, it was easy to find excellent accommodation, and the worst of the tourist hordes were gone. Now don’t get us wrong, places like Dubrovnik and Split were still crowded…but imagine how much worse it could have been!
Although one quick heads-up: If you’re traveling to the islands by ferry, the number of scheduled boats reduces dramatically outside of June through to September. Keep that in mind if traveling outside those peak times.
Travel Tip #2: Hop From Island to Island
Rather than making day trips from Split or Dubrovnik to the islands of Hvar, Vis, Korcula, etc., plan your itinerary to jump from one island to the next. Each has a distinctly different character, and there are ferries and shared water taxis that will take you from one to the next without having to backtrack to the main port. A bit of planning will save you time and money and is an excellent way to work your way from Split to Dubrovnik or vice versa.
We visited both Hvar (as a day trip) and Korcula (over several days) and vastly preferred Korcula. While Hvar is beautiful and definitely has its charm, its higher-end type of travel seems to attract more of the “monied” party crowd. Since we left our yacht at home, it wasn’t our scene. It depends on what you’re looking for, but Korcula was our favorite.
In contrast, Korcula is quiet, laid back, beautiful, and relaxing. If you go, rent bicycles to tour the island and explore beautiful beaches and fun beach bars. If you’re into wine, you should also pop into local wineries and try some of their Grk wine, found only in Korcula.
Travel Tip #3: Check The Cruise Ship Schedules
But you’re not going on a cruise, we hear you say! Maybe not, but you will want to be aware of them regardless. Dubrovnik can have 10,000 cruise ship passengers on high-traffic days, resulting in shoulder-to-shoulder congestion in the Old Town combined with all the other coach bus tour groups and independent travelers.
Split and Dubrovnik are famous for their Old Towns. Medieval towns tend to have narrow streets and cover a finite, typically small, area. Cruise passengers often explore these towns in large tour groups. Do you see what we’re getting at?
If you can visit either of these cities on a day where there are only 1 or 2 cruise ships in port, rather than 7 or 8 (or even when the ports are hosting smaller vessels rather than the behemoths), the Old Town that you want to enjoy will be noticeably less crowded. This worked out well for us in Dubrovnik! Explore another part of the city on high-traffic cruise ship days or take a day trip to an island or another town.
Travel Tip #4: Venture Outside of The Main Cities
Less than an hour’s drive from Split, Trogir is a fantastic town right on the water with a small but atmospheric old town and beautiful beaches. Trogir can be visited as a day trip from Split, or better yet, make it your base with Split being the day trip.
Near Dubrovnik, a great day trip option is Cavtat. Reachable by bus, or even better by water taxi, Cavtat is a small town that feels worlds away from busy and crowded Dubrovnik in about an hour. You can do walks around the island and plenty of accommodations and waterside restaurants, so bring your comfy shoes.
There is so much more to Croatia than Dubrovnik, Split, and the islands in between them.
Travel Tip #5: Explore The Istrian Peninsula
Istria, the northern part of Croatia bordering Slovenia, was one of our favorite parts of the country. We based ourselves in Rovinj and explored the coast and inland from there.
Istria should be on the itinerary of any foodie out there. The region is home to some of Croatia’s best wines, truffles, and olive oil. Since the Italians once ruled the area, it has a distinctly Italian feel that you don’t experience in the rest of Croatia. Unfortunately, that often manifests itself in low-quality pizza and pasta in tourist restaurants.
Do yourself a favor, and stick to ordering dishes with local ingredients. Renting a car to explore the small hilltop towns, such as Groznjan and Motovun, makes for a great road trip!
Rovinj itself is an interesting town to explore on foot. With some great weather, you can work on your farmer’s tan, exploring the shops, restaurants, and churches during the morning. Then show off that tan on the beaches, walking distance south past the harbor and along the coast. Just be warned – the further you walk, the fewer clothes people wear.
The southern end of the beaches is not for the shy. Let it all hang out, as they say!
Travel Tip #6: Use Zadar as a Base To See Natural Beauty
Zadar is a fascinating city to explore in its own right, but it can also be used as a base to explore several of Croatia’s incredible national parks. This includes the famous Plitvice and Krka National Parks waterfalls and hiking in the nearby mountains at the less touristy Paklenica National Park.
Rent a car to give yourself the most flexibility if you feel comfortable driving – or get a private transfer for a luxury touch. Our top off-the-beaten-path tip for visiting Zadar is to check out Pag Island, which brings us to…
Travel Tip #7: Spend Some Time On Pag Island Pag has an entirely different landscape than much of the rest of Croatia; in some parts, it almost seems like you’re driving on the moon. A handy bridge from the mainland to Pag island makes it an easy one-hour drive from Zadar. The island is probably best known for its cheese. While they make many different types of cheese, the most famous is made from sheep’s milk. Salt from the surrounding ocean gets deposited on the vegetation of Pag Island, particularly a hardy type of local sage, which the sheep then eat. This provides a distinctive flavor to the Pag cheese.
Pag Island also has some great beaches. Zrce beach is the “Ibiza of Croatia during the summer months.” Get your rave on at Hideout Festival or laze about one of the enormous beach clubs. If dancing with drunk 20-something strangers isn’t your thing, the beach is deserted by September, but the water is still warm and swimmable. We practically had the place to ourselves!
When you’re sitting in your hotel room (or rental apartment) balcony in Rovinj or Zadar, eating some incredible truffle cheese from Pag Island and washing it down with a nice bottle of Istrian wine, you can thank us later. ;) You’re welcome!
Travel Tip #8: Check Out a Local Sporting Event
We are big tennis fans. When we were in Zadar, we saw a sign advertising the Davis Cup tennis tournament, where Croatia played in the semi-finals against France. It just happened to be occurring on the very weekend we were in town. We snapped up some pretty inexpensive tickets and had a great day. The matches were rowdy, with most of the crowd chanting and wearing Croatia’s national colors. It was a very memorable moment when Croatia won!
Travel Tip #9: Take a Daytrip (Or More) To Mostar
The city of Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina is an easy (although somewhat long) day trip from either Split or Dubrovnik. Plenty of travel companies offer tours. Public, long-distance buses are also comfortable and easy to arrange yourself.
Mostar is one of our favorite places in the Balkans. The culture is vastly different from Croatia, from the history, religious diversity, and fantastic food. If you can spare the time, spend a night here to see the sights and enjoy the food thoroughly.
Thrill-seekers can even sign up for a course to jump off the famous bridge. For wimps like us, keep your eye out for tour groups. There are plenty of “fake” divers on the bridge who can only attract a crowd and then solicit tips. The actual dives seem to happen as soon as the next tour group shows up on the water’s edge.
Travel Tip #10: Rental Apartments Can Be a Great Option
We found rental apartments were easy to sell through major booking websites and were often of great value. Rather than staying in a standard hotel room or hostel for a similar (and often lower) price, we could have a basic kitchen and living area as well.
If you’re traveling on a budget, rental apartments make it easy to self-cater. While Croatia is known for its fresh seafood, it is often the most expensive item on the menu. Budget options were often pizza and pasta and were usually disappointing.
However, fresh food markets are in every town so picking up some ingredients is never a problem. Exploring local food markets can be a cultural experience in and of itself!
That’s it, our top 10 tips for first-timers visiting Croatia. We loved our time there and can’t wait to go back.