Croatia: A Completely Honest Travel Guide
With piercing turquoise seas and fairytale architecture, there is no denying Croatia is breathtakingly beautiful.
Spanning most of the Adriatic Sea, you’re never too far away from the coast when traveling in Croatia. And even if it’s not pretty beaches you seek, stone castles and magnificent waterfalls await travelers of all kinds.
Whether you are backpacking through Croatia or are wanting to splurge on yacht week, these travel tips will help you plan your next adventure to the Land of a Thousand Islands.
What we really thought about Croatia
We’re going to be honest, so brace yourself because it’s an unpopular opinion. What we’re about to say may come as a surprise, but it has to be said:
We didn’t love Croatia.
That doesn't mean we didn't like Croatia. We just didn't fall in love like we do so often with places we visit.
There's no denying Croatia’s beauty. The aquamarine waters and craggy beaches are what dreams are made of.
And Plitvice National Park is out-of-this-world gorgeous!
But frankly, it takes more than beautiful landscape to make us fall in love. Just like with people: a pretty face is nice, but we crave more.
The thing is, we made some big mistakes when traveling to Croatia. So make sure to read until the end of this article so you don’t make the same mistakes we did. If you follow our advice we think you will enjoy your time in Croatia much more than we did.
Ancient seaside town that’s as beautiful as it is popular!
One of the most famous cities in all of Croatia, Dubrovnik is popular for many reasons. First, it is a UNSECO World Heritage Site, and deservingly so. And secondly, the reason it has gained popularity recently is because it was the filming site for King's Landing in the Game of Thrones.
You can even take a Game of Thrones walking tour. Guides dressed in costume will bring you to various filming locations and play the scene on an iPad for a group of about 20 people to see. In our opinion, it looked like a terrible tour. But if you're a diehard G.O.T. fan, it might be right up your alley.
The medieval stone buildings and churches are fascinating; but now some of them are turned into bars, restaurants, and pirate-theme candy stores.
You can still have a good time getting lost among the city's narrow alleyways.
Best views in Dubrovnik
1. The most popular view: Walk along the Dubrovnik City Wall for 2 km and get a unique view of the city (Entrance: 150 kuna / $24.25 USD).
2. An interesting alternative: An alternative to the city wall walk is to stroll along inside the city to the western side where you'll find the restaurant Buza Bar. We read about Buza Bar in Lonely Planet, and were intrigued by their description of a "hidden gem bar" where you had to walk beneath a hidden archway to enter.
We were disappointed to find it was packed with people and no longer "secret" at all. That said, the view of the Adriatic Sea is spectacular, and if you climb down the steps you can find a perfect spot for cliff jumping.
3. Our favorite view: Walk uphill through neighborhoods until you get a good view of the city. We packed a picnic (and a bottle of wine!) and enjoyed the view from a small patch of grass as the sun set over Old City. This was our favorite view and we had it all to ourselves!
Day trip from Dubrovnik: Hop across the border to Bosnia. Mostar is a stunning town with an interesting history just a 2.5-hour bus ride away, and some people visit as a day trip. If you have time, we would highly recommend spending more time exploring Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Wanna know how we really felt about Dubrovnik? Here are our full thoughts on this city.
Hotels in Dubrovnik
Luxury Hotel: Hotel Bellevue Dubrovnik - 5-star hotel with sea views in every room. The hotel is steps away from a pepple beach with a seaside restaurant serving the freshest seafood cuisine. Spa and fitness center on-site along with the best amenities found in all rooms. Old town is only 1.2 km away.
Couple Stay/Mid-range: Apartments Franka Old Town - Located in Old Town Dubrovnik, these beautifully decorated full apartments each have a small kitchen and are only a 2 minute walk away from the beach.
Budget Friendly/Social Atmosphere: Hostel Free Bird - About 2 km away from the Old Town Dubrovnik, but has excellent reviews. The closer you get to the Old Town, the more expensive and worse the hostels become. Free Bird has spacious dorm rooms with free wifi and is only a 50-meter walk from a bus stop that goes straight to the Old Town.
Charming island without the crowds!
Getting off mainland Croatia and visiting some of the country’s most beautiful islands like Hvar, Vis, Brač and Mljet, is one way to avoid the huge crowds of Dubrovnik and Split.
If you're looking for a laid-back island in Croatia that is bursting with old time charm, Korčula may just be the Croatian island for you!
Honestly, we liked Korčula a lot better than Dubrovnik. The walled cities look strikingly similar, but Korčula was lacking the crowds that made our visit in Dubrovnik a bit of a disappointment. We saw a good chunk of this island via bicycle, and think it is a perfect way to explore this Croatian gem.
Things to do in Korčula
1. Rent a bike in town for around 100 kuna ($16 USD) for the day, pack a picnic lunch, a map and head on your way! We discovered hidden beaches and small villages along the way, making this one of our favorite memories in Croatia. Stop along the way in Lumbarda, a small village on the eastern side of Korčula island where the hills are filled with vineyards and the beaches have crystal clear water.
2. Visit a winery and try the famous white wines. This article lists some of the wineries on the island of Korčula. Just be sure to check the hours they are open to the public, as some of the wineries have certain hours when they are only open for tour groups.
3. Have a beach day. The beaches in Croatia are world renowned for their turquoise Mediterranean waters, but don't expect powdery sand that you can bury your toes and drift to sleep. Instead, most Croatian beaches are pretty rugged, and powdery sand is replaced with small stones. But that still didn't deter us taking a refreshing dip in the water.
4. Rent a scooter. If we had more time in Korčula, we would have loved to explore the western part of the island.
5. Explore the Old City which is surrounded on all sides by water. The old churches are gorgeous and the restaurants on the water look delicious. Walk up and down the alleyways and get lost.
6. Get a view of the Old City. Take a short hike up the hill opposite the city and find the look out point to get a great view of the city.
Want to go island hopping in Croatia?
Korčula was one of our favorite spots in Croatia and we wish we would have had time to see more islands. This article is a good guide to island hopping in Croatia so you can choose the island(s) that best suit your travel style!
Hotels in Korčula
Couple Stay/Mid-range: Apartments Galerija - Adorable hotel/apartment right next to the old town and a 4 minute walk to the beach. Each unit has a kitchenette and private bathroom with a bathtub.
Budget Friendly/Social Atmosphere: Apartments & Room Nina - Located in the centre of the medieval Old Town of Korčula, this guest house has plenty of restaurant and bars within a short walking distance to meet other travelers.
Modern city with nightlife and beaches
The nightlife, beautiful beaches, historic center and proximity to some of the country's most famous islands makes Split a popular stop on most Croatia itineraries. It's location on Adriatic Coast makes it a popular stop for cruise ships to stop for a day or two.
Things to Do in Split
1. Party the night away! Split is known for having a great party scene for twenty-somethings; but the pub crawls can be on the pricey side.
2. See ancient ruins. In the old town, there are many city squares that have restaurants squeeze tight right next to each other. Take a stroll to the Diocletian's Palace, a huge palace ruins which served as the home for the Roman Emperor.
3. Get a spectacular sunset view. To escape the city, head west and enter the Park Šuma Marjan. It's a bit of a climb up hundreds of steps but if you go later in the afternoon, you will be rewarded with great sunset views of the old town and the sea.
4. Experience Croatian cuisine in the countryside. If you want to get even further out of the city, take a tour with Secret Dalmatia and get off the beaten path.
5. Take an adventurous day tour. There are many day-trip adventures near Split that are great additions to your time in Croatia! Choose from waterfalls, caves and islands -- or do it all!
Hotels in Split
Couple Stay/Mid-range: Villa Domina - only a 5 minute walk to the Old Town Split and a 10 minute walk to the beach, this hotel has an exposed-brick yet modern style. Perfect stay for a couple.
Budget Friendly/Social Atmosphere: Apartments Ivica Split - One of the cheapest options in Split Old Town, this apartment hotel has free WiFi throughout the property and close to grocery stores.
Are you going from Split to Plitvice Lakes? Try riding on FlixBus. We rode with FlixBus throughout Eastern Europe and loved how comfortable and cheap they are.
Plitvice Lakes National Parks
Park with spectacular waterfalls and turquoise lakes!
We couldn't make a list of highlights of Croatia without including this otherworldly beauty: It literally looks like you are walking in a fairytale land.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is a stunner, and it's popular for good reason. So popular, in fact, that if you're visiting during peak season, you'll likely be walking behind lines of other tourists in parts of this national park.
Tip for avoiding crowds in Plitvice
Getting there early will help you avoid the crowds. Visit the most popular spots early in the day or in the later afternoon when the lighting is better and the crowds have thinned. In the meantime, venture off the well-trodden path a bit for a better chance of (semi) solitude.
Suggested Route for Plitvice Lakes
There are 7 popluar hiking route around Plitvice Lakes, all with varying degree of difficulty and time. To avoid the crowds in Plitvice and see all the major sights, this is the route that we would recommend:
Do the H hiking route in reverse. Starting at Enterance 1, go down to the Lower Falls, see the Great Waterfall, (which is spectacular) but then follow the reverse of the H hiking route (similar to K route). This way you won't feel like cattle moving on walkways with the rest of the crowds. You can either walk around the big lake or take the ferry across.
The Upper Falls were our favorite part, because there were less people and the way the water flows off all the rocks is unlike anything we have ever seen. Continue to follow the H hiking route in reverse, twisting through the upper falls, until you reach Station 3.
Then, take the free shuttle to Station 1 so you don't have to walk the entire way back.
Insider tips for Plitvice National Park
Pack a picnic lunch because a) it's a beautiful spot for picnics, and b) the choices inside the park are limited and expensive.
Stay in a hotel near Plitvice instead of doing a day trip from Split or Zadar (if your timing allows!). You'll get there bright and early and will be able to stay after the last buses leave. This is how we would do it next time. (Find some recommended hotel options below!)
If you're traveling to Plitvice as a day trip, read this first!
We departed from Split and were going to Zagreb that night, so we had all our stuff. There is a free storage room at Plitvice Lakes in which you can leave your belongings. Do know that the storage room is locked, but it's not secure.
People will be going in all day long to drop off and pick up their belongings, so lock up your valuables. A trick we often use is locking our bags together with these wire locks. Nobody will steal your bag when it's locked to another bag. It's just too awkward!
Admission Cost for Plitvice Lakes National Park
High Season: July 1 - Aug 31: Adults: 180 Kuna ($28 USD) Students: 110 Kuna ($17 USD)
Shoulder Seasons: April 1 - June 30 & Sept 1 to Oct 31 Adults: 110 Kuna ($17 USD) Students 80 Kuna ($12.50 USD)
Low Season: Nov 1 - March 31: Adults: 55 Kuna ($8.50 USD) Students: 45 Kuna ($7 USD)
More information on Plitvice Lakes website.
Hotels near Plitvice Lakes
Couple Stay/Mid-range: Apartmani Burić - Full size apartments available with fully equipped kitchens and flat-screen TVs. Located only 5.7 km from Plitvice Lakes National Park, you can be the first ones in line when it opens.
Budget Friendly/Social Atmosphere: House Nina - Cute, cozy house with a beautifully decorated garden outside. Rooms are simple but the reviews are great and is only 2 km from the big waterfall.
Are you going from Plitvice to Zagreb? Try riding on FlixBus. We rode with FlixBus throughout Eastern Europe and loved how comfortable and cheap they are.
A totally different side of Croatia…
While we've already told you why we weren't blown away with the rest of Croatia, the city of Zagreb actually really surprised us. It feels worlds different than the coastal towns, and actually has a very welcoming and accessible vibe.
Things to do in Zagreb
1. Wander Tkalčićeva Street: This pedestrian walking street is back with restaurants and bars serving good happy hour deals.
2. Pop into one of the many cute coffee shops. There are hundreds throughout this city so find one in a busy square, relax and people watch.
3. Visit St. Mark's Church. This church built in the 13th century, has colorful roof tiles showing the Croatian, Dalmatian and Slavonian coats-of-arms.
4. Visit Dolac Market: Be sure to walk through the massive Dolac Market to pick up fresh fruit.
5. Gaze at street art: Get lost in alleyways in search of the city's street art. During our free walking tour, our guide brought us to some pretty cool art.
6. Visit the Museum of Broken Relationships. This quirky museum is a collection of personal items people received from former lovers, and is complete with stories.
7. Free walking tour in Zagreb: Always a good way to see the city and its major sites while getting a little history lesson too.
Hotels in Zagreb
Luxury Hotel: Esplanade Zagreb Hotel - Luxury to the max on a lower budget. 5-star hotel with fitness room and sauna, terrace restaurant and bar, and marble counters in every bathroom.
Couple Stay/Mid-range: Rooms Zagreb 17 - Located in the heart of the city center, this hotel has spacious rooms, flat-screen TVs and decorated rooms. Literally steps away from bars and restaurants, we would totally stay here when we visit Zagreb again.
Budget Friendly/Social Atmosphere: Main Square Hostel - Best location possible in the city, this modern hostel offer privates and dorm rooms. Free WiFi and a common area to meet other travelers.
Don't make these Mistakes when traveling to Croatia
We're not writing this to discourage anyone from visiting this Mediterranean beauty. We tend to shy away from sharing when we don't like a place. But I think we've pinpointed what it was that turned us off to Croatia.
I think by sharing our disappointment, it may help others come with more realistic expectations and avoid the mistakes that we made while traveling in Croatia.
There are a few things that affected our feelings about Croatia, and we made some big mistakes when we traveled there. Once you understand the mistakes we made, you will enjoy Croatia so much more!
1. Our expectations were high
For one thing, we had super high expectations. Back in 2009, Ben and I studied abroad in Italy. That was the first time I remember hearing about Croatia. A friend of mine went there and raved about the beaches, the lack of other tourists compared to neighboring Italy. She said it was cheap, “off the beaten path”, beautiful. I’ve been dreaming about visiting Croatia ever since. You can probably guess where I’m going with this...
Have you ever visited a place that was so hyped up that even though you had a good time, you left feeling underwhelmed? That’s how we felt about Croatia. We had allotted 2 and a half weeks to visit Croatia, but ended up leaving early – something we rarely do when traveling (in fact, it’s almost always the opposite!).
2. It was PEAK tourist season
When we visited Croatia in July, it was packed with tourists everywhere you looked. Places that were described online as "hidden gems" had lines around the block.
The famed Plitvice Lakes that grace your Instagram feed are magical, yes, but some of that magic is diminished when you have to walk the wooden boardwalks behind long lines of people carrying selfie sticks.
And in Dubrovnik, you couldn't walk a few minutes in the Old City without seeing one of the many corny "Game of Thrones" tours (complete with a guide dressed in chainmail and holding an iPad that was playing a scene from the show). Historic buildings had been turned into overpriced pirate-themed candy shops. It felt a bit like Disney World. And not in a good way.
I think a few years ago, these crowds didn't exist to the extent that we experienced.
But with photos of Croatia being an Instagram staple (I'm guilty of posting these too!) and with the exploding popularity of "Game of Thrones" (King's Landing was famously filmed in Dubrovnik), people are flocking to this Mediterranean country in hordes. Especially during the summer months. Yet, I wonder what will happen to tourism after the show's final season in coming years...
3. We didn't budget correctly
Prices were much higher than any of the neighboring countries we visited (and with all the tourists there, I totally understand why). This is more on us than anything else, but we just didn't have the right budget expectations to fully appreciate Croatia. If we raised our budget, we probably would have been able to enjoy ourselves a little more.
4. The people weren't as friendly as the neighbors
On top of that, we'd just come from Bosnia where the people were incredibly friendly, funny and excited to talk with us. Many of the people we met in Croatia were lacking in this department.
This isn't to say we didn't meet friendly Croatians -- just the opposite. We had a few lovely guesthouse owners that were very kind, but the overall vibe just wasn't as friendly as many of the countries we visited during our round-the-world trip -- especially the neighboring countries.
5. Our feelings are relative
Think of it this way: You go to a dinner party and speak with 3 people. The first (Bosnia) and the last (Slovenia) are humble and surprisingly interesting. You laugh, you cry. You listen to their stories and they listen to yours.
That person you speak with in between is perfectly nice. A little cocky, maybe. They are beautiful, but they know they are. Everyone in the party wants to talk to them, so you kind of just feel like you scratch the surface of really getting to know who they are.
And when it comes time to leave the party, you reflect on the two fantastic conversations you just had. The one in the middle kind of fades away. Maybe if you hadn't spoken with the other two party-goers, you would have really appreciated that middle convo a bit more.
For better or worse, our opinions of people or places are heavily impacted by where we've just come from or where we're going (literally and metaphorically). We just weren't in a place to fully and wholeheartedly appreciate what Croatia had to offer.
6. We may have gone to the wrong places
This is a lesson we learn over and over again.
The most popular destinations almost always leave us a bit disappointed. I'm sure anyone who has ever gone to the Leaning Tower of Pisa can relate. Cool tower, but that's about it for Pisa.
Maybe it was our route: Dubrovnik - Korčula - Split - Plitvice Lakes - Zagreb. We started off with a city that we really didn't enjoy, and that sour taste lasted in our mouths for the rest of the country.
We probably should have done some more research and found more off-the-beaten-path areas, but we were traveling so fast that we just defaulted to the easiest route.
Would we go back to Croatia?
Yes, without a doubt. We would return in a heartbeat. We already have a few places in mind that we’d like to visit the second time around.
We won't deny that Croatia is absolutely breathtaking. Dubrovnik is as touristy as it is beautiful and Plitvice Lakes are a natural treasure.
Our advice to others visiting Croatia:
Avoid peak tourist season. Period. Go somewhere else.
Budget quite a bit more money than you would for the rest of Eastern Europe. We knew Croatia would be one of the more expensive countries on our trip. But we didn’t think it would be the same prices as Western Europe. Don’t make the mistake we did. You'll enjoy yourself more if your budget has some wiggle room.
Have realistic expectations about crowds. Unless you visit during a totally off-peak time, Plitvice Lakes will be crowded. Dubrovnik may feel a bit like Disney World. If you go in knowing that there will be long lines and selfie sticks, you won't be as disappointed as we were.
A Personal Note from Katie and Ben: I'm sure there will be a few people who read this and think we're crazy because they had a fantastic time in Croatia. And I know we rave about places that others may not like. Travel is personal.
We try not to highly publicize when we don't like a place because we truly believe that there are so many factors that can affect how much you like a particular city or country. But we also believe in honesty, and think that it's okay not to fall in love with every place we visit.
Our intention is not to discourage anyone from visiting Croatia, but instead to help set expectations and give you advice so you avoid some of our mistakes. We would definitely go back to Croatia; and knowing what we know now, we would most likely enjoy it much more.
Traveling around Croatia? Try riding on FlixBus. We rode with FlixBus throughout Eastern Europe and loved how comfortable and cheap they are.
Before you book your trip, think about this:
We never travel without travel insurance. It’s never fun to think about losing your stuff or the possibility of a delayed flight, missing a connection, or heaven forbid you get injured while traveling. It’s best to know that you’ll be covered if anything goes wrong.
We have a whole article dedicated to figuring out the best travel insurance for you, but one company we really like is World Nomads. Get a quote in a couple minutes by filling out your information below:
European Train Travel
How are you traveling around Eastern Europe? One way to travel around Europe is by train and the best way to save money on trains is to buy Eurail Pass.
Now to be honest, we didn’t take any trains in Croatia because the buses and ride-sharing were cheaper. However, if you are traveling to multiple countries fairly quickly or traveling to Western Europe, purchasing a train pass might be your cheapest bet. Check out the Eurail Pass prices here.
European Air Travel
Another great thing about traveling in Europe is airfare is so much cheaper than in North America. One of our favorite sites to book flight is Skyscanner.
It’s so easy to use and we found some our cheapest flights using their “Show Whole Month” feature, where you can select your route and it tells you the cheapest days of the month to fly.
Want more information about Eastern Europe?
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