Places to visit in Croatia
From diving into ancient history in Roman amphitheatres and atmospheric walled cities to river-rafting in canyons, island-hopping and classic beach days, Croatia has its very own brand of magic that makes it perfect for families looking for those elusive destinations that really do have it all.
The coast gets all the attention, with its gorgeous coastal towns, azure waters and heavenly islands against a backdrop of karst mountains, and most Croatia family holidays focus on the coast and the islands. But there are reasons to venture inland too – chief among them the thrilling outdoor playground of the Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Lord Byron’s ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ sometimes gets a bad rap for being too popular, but its acclaim is well-deserved, and it really is one of those places that shouldn’t be missed.
First up are its vast medieval walls, circling the city for 2km and enormous fun to walk – especially the seaside walls that were seen in many scenes of Game of Thrones, starring as King’s Landing. And much of the joy of discovering Dubrovnik is simply ambling round, uncovering medieval splendours at very turn, spotting gargoyles protruding from stone walls.
But there is more to it than all of this history, compelling as it is – Dubrovnik is a city where you can swim off the rocks upon which the city is built, as well as from beaches within easy reach of the Old Town, so you can get your seaside fix too.
And for an escape from the city fray, Dubrovnik’s ‘Golden Valley’, Konavle just half an hour to the south, is a wonderful area for cycling, with stone villages and farms, a monastery, vineyards, olive groves, orchards and vineyards – plus distant glimpses of the sparkling Adriatic as you pedal.
Lopud and the Elaphitis
Most families we take to Croatia spend time on this little island within easy reach of Dubrovnik (40 minutes by boat) and famed for its sandy beaches – Šunj among them. It also has exhilarating hiking up to Sutvrac fortress, which once protected the island from the Ottoman Turks and pirates of the eastern Adriatic.
But most exciting of all is sea kayaking from Lopud to neighbouring Sipan, where fabulous snorkelling awaits. Sipan is also another great place for cycling or mountain-biking through its lush interior of olive groves and vineyards, with plenty of spots to stop and taste the local tipple (grappa as well as wine) and sample other island products including olive oil and dried figs.
Croatia’s second-largest city is, like Dubrovnik, awash in medieval charm as well as being a lively modern metropolis full of Dalmatians going about their daily business.
What makes it so very special is that it was built both on and through the ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, the Roman emperor’s vast retirement home, which in its harbourfront position remains one of the most impressive ancient Roman structures in the world – one in the very heart of the city, enmeshed in its labyrinthine streets lined with tempting restaurants, cafés, bars and boutiques. Make sure to extend your good fortune at being here by rubbing the toe of the statue of prelate Grgur Ninskiclog.
Poking out from Split into the bay, the Marjan Peninsula is perfect for cycling and swimming. There are also boat trips to nearby islands. Or in the other direction, just inland of Split lies Klis Fortress – arrayed along a limestone bluff, with sublime views, fortifications that kids (and you!) can clamber all-over, and a small museum.
South of Split meanwhile (about 40 minutes by road), the Cetina Gorge is ideal for adrenaline seekers, with whitewater rafting, cliff-jumping and exploring caves – a combo making for a brilliant day out from the city.
Islands of the Dalmatian Coast
The glorious 500km Dalmatian coast of Croatia is dotted with islands that just beg to be explored, with historic towns and villages, hidden beaches and rolling vineyards. Regular ferries between Dubrovnik and Split in high season stop at the main islands and make discovering this area a breeze and a joy; there are also smaller boats from both cities out to the main islands.
Croatia’s sixth largest island, Korcula is reachable by boat from Dubrovnik and even has its own ‘Little Dubrovnik’, its main town, so nicknamed because it too is blessed with 14th-century walls and well-preserved gates and towers. There’s also great swimming and kayaking at the central Lumbarda beach, cycling amidst vineyards offering tastings, and the archaeological site of Vela Spila cave, inhabited by humans since the Stone Age.
Split has boats to Hvar, the best-known and most-visited of the Dalmatian Islands, with lively nightlife, glamorous yacht-filled marinas and some of Croatia’s loveliest beaches, but also four UNESCO World Heritage sights and fragrant fields of lavender and wild herbs. You can also jump in a taxi boat for the short hop to the hidden beaches and lagoons of the Pakleni Islands, the Blue Cave, Vis and the Blue Lagoon.
And Brac right next to Split (so very accessible) offers more stunning architecture and beaches – including one of the most iconic in the entire Adriatic, Zlatni Rat (‘Golden Horn’), which changes shape according to the tides. Other ‘musts’ include the Dragon’s Cave near Murvica, with dragon reliefs believed to have been created by a 15th-century monk, the Stonemason’s School, and Bols’ Dominican monastery and museum.
This city is known for its Old Town, a peninsula packed with Roman and Venetian ruins including several Venetian gates in the city walls. But striking modern additions have brought their own unique charms, including the extraordinary Sea Organ (with 35 pipes that catch the sounds of the waves entering) and the funky, interactive Greeting to the Sun monument. And there’s a great city beach, Kolovare, with diving boards into the sea.
Zadar is also a gateway to the divine Telašćica and Kornati islands, some of which are within a National Park. With no permanent inhabitants, the Kornatis are an otherworldly paradise of beautiful bays, superb snorkelling and hiking trails.
The region’s other standout is the Zrmanja River around an hour inland of Zadar, with the glories of waterfall swimming, kayaking and canyoning all awaiting you in breathtaking natural surroundings.
In central Croatia, up towards the capital Zagreb, Croatia’s oldest and largest national park is a forest reserve with a series of 16 terraced lakes lined by waterfalls, extending into a limestone canyon. If walking or hiking is your thing, there are lots of trails around the lakes and even boardwalks across the water in some places. You can also ride an electric boat between the lakes.
Highlights of the park include Veliki Slap, its most breathtaking waterfall and Croatia’s highest (at 78m), and the Barac Caves and their Centre Of Subterranean Heritage, Speleon.
If you’re arriving at the lakes from Zagreb or heading on to it, this large cosmopolitan city has some great museums and public parks and a pretty Upper Town, Gronji Grad, to potter around.
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Croatia in pictures
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