Bordered by the Adriatic Sea, Croatia is a diverse land. Perhaps it’s best known for its Dalmatian coast that attracts scores of sun and beach seekers as well as boaters. More than 1,000 islands are scattered off the coast, perfect for hopping from one to the other on ferries or cruise excursions. But Croatia is also home to medieval hilltop villages, rugged mountains and precious forests dotted with gushing waterfalls, including a number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The information below will help you discover Croatia’s authentic side.
1. Visit the Ivan Mestrovic Museum in Zagreb that displays works of this noted sculptor.
2. Zagreb-based Vinoteka Bornstein, a premier wine shop set in a 19th century vaulted cellar, sells some of Croatia’s oldest wines.
3. In Zagreb, The Bacchus Jazz Bar recently reopened with a refurbished interior crammed with everything from antique gramophones to yellow rubber ducks.
4. Later this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art, with its expansive collection of international and domestic works, will finally open in new digs.
5. Zagreb has what’s referred to as the Green Horseshoe, a series of leafy spaces that almost form a perfect horseshoe shape running through the city. It includes the city’s oldest park, Zrinjevac, that’s surrounded by Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Romanesque and Neo-Classic buildings.
6. Art aficionados in Zagreb shouldn’t miss the Modern Gallery that displays contemporary art as well as the expansive Strossmayer Gallery of Old Masters with the works of European masters dating from the 14th century.
7. Tuskanac Park is an urban forest in Zagreb’s upper town that’s sliced by a network of winding trails.
8. A short drive or bus ride from the upper town leads to the impressive 19th century Mirogoj Cemetery where ivy-coated brick walls topped with cupolas surround this wooded land of arcades, ornate mausoleums and cast iron lanterns.
9. In Zagreb, the 12-acre Botanical Gardens is noted for its shaded lanes that lead to small lakes with water lilies, a rock garden and Chinese redwoods.
10. The Baroque village of Varazdin is a mere 40 minutes away from Zagreb but it feels worlds apart, especially if you arrive in late summer during the annual Spancirfest, a festival that celebrates art, music and medieval times.
11. In Varazdin, the Herzer Palace houses an Entomological Museum with a fascinating display of insects big and small from tiny ants to giant beetles and also some rare species.
12. Varazdin’s crowning glory may be the Groblje Cemetery. The sculpted hedges, shrubs and trees are as decorative as the tombs and mausoleums they snuggle.
13. Alpine-like Samobor, a mere 15 minutes from Zagreb, is a small old town sliced by a trout stream and nestled against the forested mountainous slopes. Most people stop here to sample their famous samoborska kremsnita, a vanilla custard cake in phyllo dough. Even if that’s the sole reason for a visit, don’t miss the steep, short hike to the 13th century fortress ruins
14. Plitvice Lakes National Park, once occupied by Serbs during the war in the 1990s, is a magical land of tumbling waterfalls and placid turquoise lakes. To fully appreciate this UNESCO World Heritage Site, plan on spending at least four hours strolling the boardwalks that traverse the cascading waters
15. Visitors who flock to Makarska do so for its long pebble beach backed by pines and adjacent to a wide promenade. For a more off-the-beaten-track activity, drive a few minutes from the town to the ancient village of Kotisina where you’ll find a curious and very informal botanical garden set on a steep terraced slope. The wild array of plants, native to this arid region, includes pear, rosemary and asparagus. Towering above this area is the mountainous Biokovo Nature Park that’s noted for its rigorous hiking trails.
16. In Makarska, the unique Seashell Museum with specimens from all over the world is housed inside a monastery cloister.
17. Visit the hilltop town of Groznjan, an arts & music center, in the summer — there are almost daily music concerts — and plan to spend the day strolling the car-free cobbled lanes and browsing in the many stone dwellings that are now home to a wide array of art galleries and studios displaying everything from textile work to hand-painted silk scarves.
18. Instead of making a quick visit, as most tourists do, spend the night in Motovun , a fortified hilltop hamlet and stay overnight in their only hotel: the Hotel Kastel that recently opened a wellness center using truffles for its anti-aging treatments. Their restaurant serves a wonderfully simple truffle omelet best eaten outside on the terrace overlooking the fortifications.
19. In Motovun, visit in the fall and you’ll be treated to the annual Truffle Days, a festival where you can attend a truffle auction, a feast of white truffles and sparkling wine, a truffle exhibition and agricultural fairs where, of course, truffles are sold. In the late summer, it’s the Film Festival.
20. In Rovinj, don’t miss the small Batana House Museum that’s dedicated to this 18-foot-long wooden flat-bottom boat that’s long been rowed on the open seas. And sign up for their nighttime boat trips — in the batana boat rowed by local men in traditional garb — to a traditional dinner venue in a wine cellar.
21. Rent a bike in Rovinj and pedal the network of paths in the densely forested Zlatni Rt. Park with its pebbly coves and picnic spots.
22. Ferries run back and forth from Rovinj to the offshore St. Andrew’s (aka Red) Island where you can visit an old monastery (now a restaurant) with reproductions of 15th and 16th century frescoes. At the Hotel Istra, you can sign up for spa treatments that use lavender grown on their property, rent a bike and peddle along sandy paths through pine forests or take scuba or windsurfing lessons.
23. The Brijuni National Park, Tito’s summer residence, consists of 14 lush islands, though the largest, Veli Brijuni, is the main tourist focus. It presents an unusual opportunity where you can rent a bicycle and peddle a car-free island. You’ll have the place mostly to yourself since the majority of tourists take a tourist train to the prerequisite sights. Pedal along allees of cedar, oak and cypress and then walk through the seaside ruins of a Roman villa and a Byzantine fortress.
24. Porec’s hallmark feature is the Euphrasias Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Elaborate wall mosaics, an ornate Bishop’s Palace and remnants of what may have been a secret Christian sanctuary are all on display. You can climb a 115-foot-tall bell tower with its huge bells to get panoramic views of the town.
26. In Zadar, the recently opened Hotel Bastion is a boutique property featuring the top-floor presidential suite with two hot tubs, one on the outside terrace. (The hotel is built on the ruins of a 13th century castle.) Spa offerings include a black and white pearl treatment, coffee wraps and a seashell massage
27. Zadar’s Monastery of St. Mary holds a wealth of artifacts that the Benedictine nuns originally saved from the occupying forces. A reliquary of John the Baptist, ornate lace collections and gold embroidered fabrics are just a few of the interesting pieces on view.
28. In Zadar, don’t miss the modern café bar Lovre, where in the rear you’ll find an original 11th century pre-Romanesque chapel.
29. The Arsenal, a former shipyard with a spacious interior, now is home to a café and lounge in Zadar that also holds art exhibitions and sells maraschino cherry delights — something Zadar is noted for.
30. A centuries-old building sits on an inlet beside one of Zadar’s original gates. It’s home to Restaurant Fosa, an upscale, fish-focused eatery combining old and new in its décor with ancient stone walls in the interior as well as glass lunettes letting in natural light.
31. Take a ferry to Uglijan Island that’s referred to as the “Garden of Zadar” for good reason. As you wander about, you’ll see that lush gardens producing an array of fruits and vegetables, from citrus and olive trees to tomatoes and grapes. The paved promenade is perfect for a stroll along the waterfront to swimming spots or to the Miramar Lounge where you can sit in a sofa swing by the seaside and sip kiwi martinis.
32. In Zadar, beware of vendors touting boat trips to Kornati National Park, which consists of more than 150 islands with a unique barren, almost lunar landscape. Few tour boats actually cruise into the national park, though they claim they do. If they show you a brochure saying you’ll visit a nature park and a salt-water lake, that’s not Kornati. m/b Plava Laguna is one boat that will take you to the national park.
33. Krka National Park is lush and wet with waterfalls aplenty. Water gushes and tumbles through a canyon. There are many ways to view this watery paradise, but it’s best seen by walking the trails and boardwalks through forests dense with pine, juniper and ash. It’s easy to spend the day swimming just below one of the seven major cascades, exploring the historic artifacts, including an 18th century church made unusually of dripstone, a museum displaying a typical one-room stone house, and an old laundry building that uses the rushing river waters. There are also numerous excursions to an islet that’s home to a Franciscan monastery or go farther up the canyon to additional waterfalls.
34. Opatija offers plenty of cultural and nature-oriented activities. But you’d never know it from the information dispensed by the local tourist board. During my recent visit, I was told the only things to do in the area included shopping, sunning and strolling. Instead, walk the Carmen Silva Trail that cuts through the forest-covered hills above the town with scenic vistas at points. The short shaded path that was established in 1901 is dotted with park benches and signage explaining the area’s flora, fauna and history. (It’s named for a Romanian Queen after the king became lost on horseback in the forest.)
35. In Opatija, the seven-mile, tree-shaded promenade referred to as the Lungomare sees plenty of foot traffic. But few walk in either direction to the end of the road to either Lovran to the south or the fishing village of Voloska to the north. Along the way are Belle Époque mansions and villas, pebbly beaches and rocky boulders to lay a beach towel.
36. In Volosko, you can hear the tinkling of the boat masts and the lapping of the water at the harbor. Perhaps the town’s best eatery is Tramerka, which specializes in fish and is set in a stone building with barrel ceiling.
37. In Opatija itself, the grounds of the Villa Angiolina is an urban oasis with plants from as far as China and Australia. Dating from 1844, this was the first of Opatija’s many villas that made it a famous summer resort. Now you can see exhibits of the town’s history, which transformed from a fishing village to a health resort.
38. Kastav is a hilltop town that’s so quiet, when I visited I was the only one walking the streets one afternoon. The ruins of the unfinished 18th century Jesuit Church is transformed every summer into an open air theater and concert venue. This is the venue for the annual Guitar Festival and the Kastav Summer of Culture with its theater productions. July and August is also the time to see multiple art exhibits as well as additional music performances.
39. In Kastav, Kukuriku is said to be the best restaurant in Croatia and noted for its slow food cuisine. When I visited the menu-less restaurant, I dined on sea bass carpaccio with a sauce of honey emulsion; frogfish with truffle sauce and two other equally delightful courses.
40. In Dubrovnik, Buza I and II are two “hole in the wall” bars that sit on the cliff side outside the city’s fortifications and literally have an entrance that’s a hole in the wall. You can’t get a better location, and everyone knows that — at night both are plenty active. But I stopped by for a quickie breakfast snack and found only one other couple at one of the tables. You could spend hours gazing at the turquoise waters and crashing waves far below.
41. In Dubrovnik, the Museum of Modern Art is outside the city walls and located in a Renaissance-style villa. During my visit, three series of Picasso’s graphics (Suite Vollard, La Tauromaquia and Suite 156) hung on the walls. And the only other visitors were a small school group.
42. In Dubrovnik, a stroll outside the fortification walls past the high stonewalls of villas and other properties brings you to the Beach of St. Jacob. You reach it by going behind the little chapel and taking the very steep set of steps down to the water. The sandy beach is set at the base of tall cliffs. It’s a local retreat and very low key with a café and snack bar. Definitely worth walking or driving to.
43. A short ferry ride from Dubrovnik brings you to Lokrum Island, a wooded nature reserve. Here, you’ll find a botanical garden with plants from all over the world. (Everything is labeled so if you’re into botany or gardening, this is a great venue.) A network of trails slices the lush island. One leads to ruins of a 19th century fort where you can climb to the top, and another set of trails leads to an old Benedictine monastery and cloister that’s now a café. One of the loveliest parts of the island is beside a salt-water lake that sits in a rocky quarry. A great place to swim or just hang out.
44. In Dubrovnik, early in the morning you’ll have Fort St. Lawrence all to yourself. Sitting some 120 feet high on rocky cliffs, this massive fort provides scenic views of the sea and the old town. Prowl around the watchtower and examine cannon ball artifacts.
45. Dubrovnik’s old synagogue dates from the 15th century. It’s now a museum but it’s also a functional synagogue, though services are infrequent. It’s still an unexpected venue on a side street and worth checking out. They’ve got a lot of interesting religious artifacts, including a 13th century Torah.
46. In Dubrovnik, walking atop the old fortification walls is a must. It gives you an amazing perspective of the city and its many historic features. Get there as soon as it opens up. And pick up the audio guide for all the historic and architectural details. But few people walk the entire more than one-mile length. So expect to find fewer and fewer people as you wander farther along the narrow path. (It’s interesting how the many stairs and the lean size of this walkway doesn’t dissuade people from bringing along baby carriages.)
47. On a boat and bike tour with Pedal & Sea Adventures, you’ll live aboard the Romantica, a new 110-foot-long teak and mahogany motor cruiser. We cruised up the coast from Dubrovnik to Trogir, stopping at more than half a dozen islands along the way. You have the opportunity to bike through the heart of each island, which has a distinct personality, both scenically and historically.
48. On Mljet Island, you’ll ride past fig trees and into the national park that makes up a large part of this wooded island. The isle’s signature are the two interconnected saltwater lakes encircled by pines. Sitting in the middle of the larger of the two is an islet that’s home to a 12th century monastery.
49. Getting to Vis, the farthest of the Adriatic islands, is good fortune because waves and winds often are not cooperative. There, you’ll find U. Stiniva, a beach protected in a narrow cove and one that’s said to be one of the prettiest places in Croatia. Also Vinoteka where the family has been making wine for 200 years. Their restaurant set in a centuries-old building serves sheep cheese, anchovies and prosciutto either inside or in the courtyard that’s shaded by an old mulberry tree. From the courtyard, we saw them pressing Trebiano grapes and cooking octopus in an old cast iron crock-type pot
50. On Hvar Island Prsuta 3 is a cozy wine bar laden with antiques. Nearby is Yaksa, an intimate restaurant with a vaulted ceiling and a placid courtyard.
51. In Hvar, The old town of Stari Grad sits on a horseshoe-shaped bay where no waves penetrate. Here, you can spend the afternoon wandering placid streets and checking out the summer palace of noted Croatian poet, Peter Hektorovic
52. Once the haven for Dubrovnik’s rich, unspoiled Sipan Island is covered by thick pine and cypress forests. The island’s coves and woods also hide old chapels, a pre-Romanesque church, and fortresses. One bay is where Pompey’s fleet is said to have battled with Julius Cesar’s ships.