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2021 Guide To Where To Go In Croatia: 20 Places That Seldom Make The “Lists”
Are you trying to decide where to go in Croatia? We know it is hard to choose what to visit in Croatia. Luckily, traveling around Croatia guarantees you a unique and memorable holiday experience. While everyone has now heard of Dubrovnik, Split, and Zadar and a stack of our beautiful islands, how many of these underrated destinations have you heard about – or visited?
Visiting other cities and even visiting during the off-season brings great delight to any traveler searching for a unique holiday experience. Here are several of our favorite places to go in Croatia, a selection of Croatian cities, towns, and islands that you may never have heard of.
Why You Should Go: In 2019, Zlarin became the first Croatian plastic-free island!
Despite Zlarin’s small size (population of just 300), it is undoubtedly an island with dazzling beauty. It is known locally as the ‘Golden Island’ because it’s really that eye-watering gorgeous! This small island is just off the mainland, separated by the Šibenik Channel, and is mostly famous for its coral harvesting history. There is even a Coral Museum where you can learn more about it.
And, in 2019, Zlarin became the first Croatian plastic-free island. Yay! Zlarin’s goals are to eliminate all single-use plastic items such as all of the plastic plates, cutlery, straws, cups, and all of the 15,000 plastic bags that end up on the island each year.
Aside from coral and the plastic-free initiatives, there is a lot of history in Zlarin, dating back to the 13th century. If, however, you’re more about beaches and beauty, then Zlarin also has that covered, and then some!
The long sandy beach is ideal for families who want to run free and explore, and the green background gives you that ‘castaway’ feel. You won’t find big chain hotels on the island, but you will find private accommodation, which helps you get that home-away-from-home vibe to your break.
Or, if you don’t want to spend the night but still want to explore one of the best holiday destinations in Croatia, consider including Zlarin on your sailing itinerary!
Why You Should Go: For the spectacular truffle hunting in the off-peak season!
Motovun is located in Istria, a lush peninsula in northern Croatia, and perched on top of a steep hill that dominates the Mirma River. If you are looking to take an out-of-season vacation in one of the most picturesque and best places to visit in Croatia, skip the summer touristic hotspots and leave behind the big city, Motovun is for you!
As you tour the town, you will walk over 1,050 steps to get to the town. Many tourists love coming here for its unique experience and its medieval atmosphere with a panoramic view of the surrounding vineyards and Motovun forest. If you’re trying to decide where to go in Croatia in June, for example, adding Motovun to your itinerary is always a good idea.
The Motovun forest is nearby, so make sure you try your hand at truffle hunting, the subterranean smelly, super-expensive fungus, which is found locally. If that’s too much, you can buy them from many stores in the area or do what I do and just have them in a restaurant.
Truffle hunting rates as one of the best weekends in Croatia I have ever had! The thrill of the hunt was absolutely exhilarating and the brunch cooked up by Mirjana after the quest is (dare I say) even better!
Why You Should Go: There are days when you will not see another soul and get to take cool-ass photos without the crowds.
About a 15-minute drive from Motovun, you will find Oprtalj, another Istrian hilltop town that is worth a stop. This small town also features fortified town walls, a bell tower, and winding alleyways. It’s a fantastic place to immerse yourself in the rich history and fascinating folklore of Istria.
Oprtalj’s churches are adorned with works of art. Simultaneously, the restaurant that overlooks the valley below serves traditional dishes—don’t forget to try the local truffles if you have not already!
Try to plan your visit to Oprtalj around the town’s famous chestnut festival – known as a kestenijada! We spent a glorious day at the festival with the two kids. Between the huge kid’s park, music, beer, wine, food, and of course chestnuts, there is plenty to keep you (and the kids) happy for many hours.
Why You Should Go: To stand on top of the fortress where Royalty once stood!
Known more formally as the Royal City of Knin, this is one of those many majestic places to see in Croatia, in more ways than one!
Knin is known for its royal history and is home to the second-largest fortress in Europe. Here you can learn about its former inhabitants and royal legacies while enjoying plentiful outdoor activities in the fresh Dalmatian hinterland.
I took the boys here earlier this year, and it’s a fabulous place for kids – loads of space to run free and be unencumbered.
I’ll just warn you that in the museum (which has free entry), there are some very graphic photos from the 90’s war that was eye-opening, to say the least.
Why You Should Go: History lovers will revel in the Zrinski-Frankopan conspiracies!
Another place many people have never heard about, Ozalj, is a tiny community of no more than 1,200 residents in the heart of Croatia. Situated near Jastrebarsko and Karlovac, and near the border with Slovenia, its nearest major destination is Zagreb.
Built upon a cliff on the bank of the Kupa River, its first historical mention dating from the mid-13th century, Ozalj might be a rather unassuming place. However, this small town does have a surprising claim to fame. It grew around the Ozalj Castle, an ancient stronghold, one of the best-preserved fortresses of its kind in all of Croatia.
The castle’s importance lies in the fact that it was the setting of the unfortunate Zrinski-Frankopan Conspiracy, a hugely significant event in Croatia’s history. You can visit the castle’s museum, and there’s a library as well.
Papuk Nature Park
Why You Should Go: Go to one of Croatia’s least visited nature parks and enjoy the serenity!
As a nature lover, you won’t have any trouble finding great places to go hiking, camping, biking, or boating in Croatia. We’ve covered many interesting areas to explore on this blog, like Plitvice Lakes National Park (arguably the most famous park in Croatia), several stunning natural treasures like Croatia’s idyllic islands, family-friendly nature spots, and even where to go camping. But, after I traveled to Slavonia in the eastern part of Croatia a few years ago, I was blown away by this region’s natural and cultural diversity.
Slavonia is a much less visited part of Croatia, but it’s here that you’ll find Papuk Nature Park, which may just be the most underrated Croatian park. Moreover, since 2015 it also happens to be Croatia’s first UNESCO Geopark.
The nature park lies in a low-lying area in Slavonia known as Pannonia, which is also home to the Slavonia Highlands, one of Croatia’s most beautiful natural places to visit. The mountains that dominate this landscape are by no means high—up to 1,000 meters—but because the valleys are so low, they are very prominent and visible. Thick forests cover the entire landscape virtually, from the valley to the mountain, and set this particular region apart from the rest of Slavonia.
Papuk Nature Park is 336 km2. You can’t access every square inch, of course, so if you’re planning on going to Papuk—and you should—make sure not to miss Jankovac Forest Park, Skakavac Waterfall, Rupnica, and Sekulinačke Mountains, just to name a few of the park’s key attractions.
While here, make sure you step into a local restaurant or two, as Slavonia is known for some out-of-this-world cuisine!
Why You Should Go: Mostly for the oysters…but also the impressive wall
Mali Ston, its name meaning literally “Little Ston,” and its bigger neighbor Ston make up one of the most underrated places on the Dalmatian coast. These twin towns, villages, to be more precise, lie on the isthmus that connects the Peljesac Peninsula to mainland Croatia, about 50 kilometers to the northwest of Dubrovnik. When going from Split to Dubrovnik, you can take a detour to pass through Mali Ston.
In Mali Ston, you won’t find any extravagant hotels or luxury travel facilities. Instead, there is impressive natural scenery, oysters, mouthwatering Croatian food, and—last but not least—one of the longest stone fortifications in all of Europe.
Ston used to be part of the Republic of Dubrovnik, also known as Ragusa, its strategic location on an isthmus and its importance as a salt producer leading to the construction of a 5.5-kilometer-long wall.
These walls link Mali Ston, a teeny tiny village built as part of this defensive system, to Ston and are an impressive collection of towers and tall walls. There are no fewer than five fortresses and 40 towers. Notable features are the Fortress of Koruna, Pozvizd Fortress, and the Veliki Kastio.
Why You Should Go: The Black Madonna & her fascinating story!
I’ve never heard anyone outside of Croatia tell me that they plan to go to Marija Bistrica. Never has anyone asked me about how to get there or what to do there. Yet, this town holds a unique charm and sense of divine healing that I’ve not yet felt anywhere else across Croatia.
It’s the home of The Black Madonna, which is housed in The Basilica of Our Lady. Officially crowned Queen of Croatia by the Archbishop of Zagreb in 1935. She is not actually black, but rather a wooden relic created by an artist who remains unknown and was once inside a small chapel located on Vinski Hill.
When the Ottomans invaded the town in 1545, a local priest placed her inside a church wall underneath a stained-glass window for protection. Shortly after that, he died, taking her secret hiding location to his grave.
In 1588, it was reported that a bright light began shining from a particular place within the church wall, and once that location was excavated, the black Madonna was found once again. The town is charming and a place you should think about making a Pilgrimage to.
Why You Should Go: Argh me hearty, the history of pirates!
The town of Omiš is in Central Dalmatia, located approximately 25 kilometers southeast of Split. Omiš makes a great base (we recommend Villa Dvor) to explore Split and the surrounding areas instead of paying big bucks to be accommodated in Split.
Once a famous pirate town in the middle ages, Omiš town’s economic prosperity was born from piracy. Omiš had excellent seamen who navigated the Adriatic sea, keeping the town wealthy. This wealth saw the erection of fortified walls in the late 12th century to protect it from invaders.
The pirates of Omiš were fierce and were known to have fast ships, protecting the city for over 400 years. The Pirates’ alliance was defeated in 1444 by the Turkish invasion, bringing an end to the pirate rule forever.
Major attractions in Omiš include its beautiful beaches, perfect pebble bays, steep cliffs, and crystal clear seas. Other great attractions not to be missed are Radmanove Mlinice and Gubavica waterfalls on the crystal clear Cetina River.
Oh, and if you like adventure, head to the Cetina River for a day of rafting or swing like a monkey on the super-fast Zipline. Plenty of variety and a world-class location make this one of the best Croatia vacation spots.
Why You Should Go: the imposing Đakovo Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter!
The town of Đakovo (or you may see it spelled Djakovo) is known as a “Bishop’s Town.” It has been a center for bishops since 1239.
The town is home to many things (that I need to go back and explore in much greater detail), but I did manage to see a few sites. There is one thing you can’t miss if you are in the area, both for its sheer size and position on the landscape and also for how magnificent it is. That attraction is the Đakovo Cathedral, which single-handedly makes the town one of Croatia’s best destinations.
The imposing Đakovo Cathedral’s full name is the Cathedral Basilica of St. Peter and is one of the most important religious landmarks in Slavonia.
Constructed from the mid-to the late-19th century under the watch of Slavonian-born bishop and politician Josip Juraj Strossmayer, the cathedral’s interior boasts several beautiful fresco paintings of the New and Old Testaments. The cathedral took over four years to build and further 12 years to decorate and, in the process, used seven million bricks.
Interestingly the 15 steps leading to the church are not a random number. The first three are dedicated to the Father, Son & Holy Spirit, while the remaining 12 are anointed to the apostles.
Pope John XXIII described it as the ‘most beautiful cathedral between Venice and Istanbul.’ The Cathedral is enormous, and I would suggest that if you love architecture, you allow at least an hour here to see just what the Pope meant. The Cathedral is not the kind of place you just open the door, peek in, and walk away.
I would strongly recommend you get a local guide when you visit the Cathedral – each section has an engaging story – and a knowledgeable guide can help you navigate the nuances of the intricate and detailed paintings that adorn the walls and ceilings.
A guide will tell you the story of Strossmayer, who was an all-around do-gooder. He helped establish numerous public institutions across Croatia, supporting poor regions and advocating both religious and political unification. He was a strong proponent of introducing the Croatian language into schools and public affairs during his political career.
If you do not get a guide, be sure to sit in the back row of this three-nave cathedral. The distance between you and the alter will be 74 meters, and from here, you can appreciate the beauty from all angles.
Why You Should Go: Secluded beaches and its proximity to Trogir!
Those visiting the popular town of Trogir should head to nearby Vinisce. If you’re after the best place to go in Croatia for beaches that are secluded, clear, and downright beautiful, then you won’t be disappointed here!
You can enjoy sailing and jet-skiing during the summer months, as well as swimming in the safe waters. There are also many historical sites to check out around Vinisce, including the Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Church of St Antun of Padua, and St John’s Church.
The combination of beautiful and quiet beaches, along with history and Croatian culture, makes Vinisce a real hidden gem, and let’s not forget the traditional cuisine to be tasted around here, too.
Why You Should Go: to rub the toe for good luck!
Nin is a small town in the Zadar Region with only 1,500 people. This ancient town has a small island at its center that is connected to the mainland via two bridges (though these are under construction from the flooding in 2017). You may never have heard of this city, but it is truly worth exploring.
We love Nin so much that we chose it as our spot to have our family photos taken there. We think it’s one of the best places to travel in Croatia, for sure. The town has a rich history, which is evident as you meander through Nin.
Be sure to visit The Church of the Holy Cross, which the town claims to be the smallest cathedral in the world. Other notable pit stops while you visit Nin are St. Jacob’s Church, Duke Branimir’s statue, the lower town gates, and best of all, the remains of a Roman temple.
Nin has also been producing salt since ancient times and can be purchased at the local salt museum. Nin’s major drawcard is the sandy Queens beach, which is quite popular in the summer months.
Local tip: Visit the tiny St. Nikola church, which is perched on a mound just outside the center of town, for an amazing photo.
For accommodation, try one of these Croatian unique hotels, one is just 20 minutes from Nin.
Why You Should Go: For the castle, of course!
Traipsing around grand old castles is a great way to take a step back in time to the days of kings, queens, nobility and to a time long ago when conquest was the order of the day. We spent time a few years ago wandering the grand rooms of this castle and just fell in love, inside and out!
Set atop a steep hill in Hrvatsko Zagorje, Trakošćan Castle is perhaps the most famous castle in Croatia; it overlooks a man-made lake and bountiful gardens. Trakošćan is located less than an hour’s drive from the capital Zagreb, the Pilgrimage town of Maria Bistrica, and within minutes to the baroque city of Varaždin. Because it is so close to Zagreb, we always say you have to make a day trip here…!
Built in the 13th Century, the original owner is still unknown, but the castle is believed to have been constructed as an observation fortress. Trakošćan has been owned by many people in the last nine centuries. Now belonging to the Croatian Government, the castle is one of the best-preserved castles in Croatia. It’s currently a museum with a permanent collection of paintings, furniture, and other display items.
As you walk through the museum, you are taken back in time. You’ll gaze into the eyes of 10 generations of owners, spanning three centuries, whose faces are now portraited paintings. This living museum has fully set dining tables, study areas, and bedrooms complete with antique linens. Daydream as you meander along the circular staircase, which winds down and around the castle from the hunting room at the top all the way to the basement kitchen.
The highlight for me was reaching the bottom of the spiral staircase, where we found the museum’s star attraction: the Knights’ room.’ This enormous room houses a collection of swords and firearms dating from the 15th century.
Why You Should Go: To break up the road trip!
A small municipality in east-central Istria, Gračišće, looks like the typical medieval Istrian town. Set on a hilltop, it’s home to numerous historical landmarks. Among the most noteworthy attractions are the St. Euphemia Church, the Chapel of St. Anthony, the Church of the Mother of God, the remains of a defensive tower, and beautiful stone-paved squares.
Although it’s a small town, Gračišće makes for a great stopping point in Istria road trips. In addition to its wonderful architecture, the surrounding landscape features woodlands and wineries. If you’re driven through the Istria countryside, we definitely recommend stopping at Stare Staže in Kršan, just to the southeast of Gračišće, a restaurant serving truly awesome traditional food.
The town of Paklenica is small, but the mighty Velebit Mountain that overlooks the town is enormous. The town is the starting point of Paklenica National Park, one of Croatia’s absolute best places for climbers and hikers.
Paklenica National Park was established in 1949 and is Croatia’s second oldest national park behind Plitvice Lakes National Park (a must-see!) and is located in Northern Dalmatia. Croatia is home to 8 stunning national parks, all offering something different.
Paklenica National Park is 95 km2 and consists of two dolomite limestone canyons called Velika (big) Paklenica & Mala (Small) Paklenica in the Velebit mountain is Croatia’s largest mountain range. The Velebit Mountains are a part of the Dinaric Alps, which also run through Slovenia, Montenegro, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania, Macedonia. They reach their highest point in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Many beaches are suitable for those with children, while many tourists head here for the well-known hiking and climbing. Apart from hiking, climbing, and recreational sports, you can take a photo jeep safari, kayaking, caving, canoeing, and rafting on the River Zrmanja.
Why You Should Go: The famous Sinjska Alka riders!
Set in the heart of inland Dalmatia, Sinj lies only a short drive from Split yet is a world away from the bustling Dalmatian coast. This small town lies in the fertile Cetina River Valley, surrounded by four mountains, which offer great hiking opportunities.
Sinj’s main attractions, however, are cultural and historical. The town developed around an ancient fortress that was occupied by the Ottomans in the 17th century and a Franciscan monastery. The latter is home to the Our Lady of Sinj Church, which is a major pilgrimage destination in Croatia. Another highlight is the Alka Halls, originally Venetian cavalry barracks, but now housing the Museum of Sinj Alka.
The Alka Knight Tournament in Sinj is what makes this little town so fascinating. This annual 3-day festival takes place on the first weekend of August. The main event is the Tilters Tournament, which involves so-called tilters who ride on horseback and try to put a lance into a small ring hanging from a wire. It’s one of Croatia’s most fun folkloric festivals, a great activity if you’re in Dalmatia at the beginning of August.
Oh, and while there, try the local Sinjski Arambasi – you won’t regret it.
Why You Should Go: Cause you won’t believe how small it is!
Despite the fact that reading (and hearing) over and over that Hum is listed as the Guinness Book of Records holder for being the smallest town, I can not find proof. Nor can I find any other town in the world so small, though. Vatican City is smaller, but it’s also a country, so you decide.
Either way. I introduce to you the teeny tiny town of Hum, a superb idea for alternative Croatia holiday destinations.
Located in central Istria, the walls which run around the outside of Hum are still intact and display the former defenses which once protected the town. There are now 27 people (as of 2017) who call Hum home – including four little ones. All 27 live on one of Hum’s two streets.
Why You Should Go: Cause it’s the only island on the list!
“Where is the best place to visit in Croatia?” we hear you ask. Well, if you want to enjoy traditional Croatian customs while still enjoying the beach and the fantastic weather during the summer months, how about visiting the hidden gem of Susak Island?
Located on the northern Adriatic coastline, visitors to this quiet and chilled out island will be able to kick back and relax without the noise and the hustle and bustle of large tourist resorts.
The name comes from the Greek for ‘oregano,’ which you will find growing literally everywhere on this island! The scent is also very fragrant and adds to the island’s charm. Susak Island is also famous for the beaches, which are sandy and idyllic.
Why You Should Go: The Baroque architecture!
Located on the banks of the Drava River, this city is 25 kilometers upstream from the Danube. Osijek is the largest city in the area known as Slavonia; located in the eastern part of Croatia, this city is one of the best places to stay in Croatia to explore the country’s least-known region.
The main tourist attractions here include open spaces that are well preserved, Baroque architecture, and well-preserved regional traditions. Enjoy coffee in the city’s main square or take a stroll along the promenade lining the Drava River.
Osijek has lovely parks and zoological gardens along the Drava River, which you will enjoy as you travel Croatia. If you visit during summer, you can enjoy numerous summer festivals, with the most awaited one being the Croatian Tambura festival held each May.
Why You Should Go: The Venetian-style architecture!
Another wonderful small town in the heart of Istria, Svetvinčenat, is blessed with gorgeous centuries-old architecture and rich cultural heritage. Major highlights are the Renaissance square and the Morosini-Grimani castle, one of Istria’s best-preserved Venetian buildings.
The town also hosts various cultural events throughout the year, both in its historical landmarks and in the beautiful surrounding countryside. Foodies will find typical Istrian specialties here, while active travelers might want to go mountain biking in the nearby wooded hills.
Tell us, which of these places will you add to your 2021 Croatia travel itinerary?Share