Travel writer Emily McAuliffe lists the best reasons to visit Croatia, one of Europe’s underestimated gems.
1. Wondrous water
When it comes to Croatia, Photoshop be damned. The water is so crystalline blue-green, saturation sliders are unnecessary. And with almost 1,800km of coastline and endless lakes and rivers to explore, you’re never far from a supply of pristine water.
Of course there’s plenty of #nofilter seascapes to explore offshore too, with numerous boat operators available to zip you across to any number of Croatia’s 700 islands. The vessel “Joan” from hvarboatexcursion.com drops anchor amid the Pakleni Islands so you can fling yourself into the turquoise sea after a lunch of freshly caught fish.
Croatia’s islands also house a series of hidden caves, with the electric Blue Cave one of the most remarkable, accessible via an exhilarating speedboat ride from Split. Operators like Splitlicious can get you there.
2. Epic parties
After a day spent drifting on the clear blue seas, put on your dancing shoes, because Croatia knows how to party.
Islands like Hvar and Pag and the coastal towns Pula and Tisno mix cocktails long into the night, and are magnets for some of the world’s hottest DJs. There’s also a slew of summer music festivals like Outlook, Love International and Soundwave.
For a more chilled scene, the capital of Zagreb has plenty of funky cafés and bars downtown, which spill out onto the streets in summer (or shelter you from snow in winter). It’s also worth a hike to the leafy Strossmartre promenade to grab a beer and admire the view. If you’re there at midday, expect to hear the boom of a cannon fired from the neighbouring Tower of Lotrščak.
If you consider good food and drink critical to your travel experience, Croatia won’t let you down. Simple delights include burek, a flaky rolled pastry stuffed with cheese, meat or vegetables, and ćevapi — juicy sausages often served in a bread pocket and with a pivo (beer).
For a heartier meal try peka, meat or seafood cooked under a bell-shaped dome and buried in hot coals, or pašticada, a slow cooked beef stew with gnocchi, typical to the Dalmatian region. Along with gnocchi, you’ll find other Italian-inspired dishes such as pizza, pasta and risotto widely available, a legacy of 700 years of Venetian rule.
Inland in Zagreb, don’t leave before tasting the rich baked Zagorski štrukli — just make sure you go for a run afterwards. These cannelloni-type rolls are traditionally stuffed with soft cheese, but modern alternatives can have honey and walnuts or roasted capsicums.
Croatia is also known for its potent brandy-like spirit rakija (claimed to be medicinal) and Zadar’s sour cherry maraschino liqueur, as well as a diverse range of wines. Wine can be paired with a platter of the internationally acclaimed Pag cheese Paški sir, made from the milk of sheep grazing on Pag Island’s salt-dusted vegetation. Delicious.
If you want to rack up Insta likes, Croatia has you covered with eight gobsmackingly beautiful national parks. Perhaps the most famous of them all is the UNESCO World Heritage listed Plitvice Lakes area. Here, water flows through the mountainous landscape before somersaulting off limestone bluffs into glassy pools. With countless waterfalls and 16 lakes to explore, you’ll need a good six or seven hours at the park, which is most easily reached from Zadar or Zagreb.
For a slightly scaled down option, Krka National Park, inland from Split, has its own series of waterfalls that flow into the vivid green Krka River. A 45-minute walk will take you through the forest to multiple viewing points, and even through an ethno village. In the village you can learn how the falls historically generated power for the region’s industry in addition to the still operational hydroelectric power plant, which was one of the first in the world.
Croatia’s national parks extend beyond the mainland, with 89 of the 140 Kornati Islands declared national parks in 1980. A number of operators offer day tours from Zadar, however only some enter the national park area so check before you book. Kornat Excursions exclusively travels in the park area and includes a stop on the ruggedly picturesque Mana Island, where you can find the stone remnants of an old film set and leap off a cliff into the deep blue Adriatic.
If you look beyond Croatia’s fun-loving facade you’ll find tales of a tumultuous history. Run-ins with the Romans, French, Austro-Hungarians, Venetians, Ottomans and even fellow citizens have all left their mark on the country, which has been an independent nation for just 25 years.
In Zadar you can get a comprehensive overview of the region’s history with a visit to the archaeological museum, or you can wander the streets and note the Roman ruins interwoven into the cityscape amid buildings nursing battle scars from the civil war in the 90s. If you’d like an insider scoop, local guides from Art & Nature Travel run walking tours of the secret facets of the city’s history.
Down the coast in Dubrovnik, the city’s intact fortifications remind of a time when the port city was under constant threat of invasion. Nowadays the city walls serve as an elevated footpath, perfect for admiring the view across the old town’s terracotta roof tops and out to sea; that blue, blue sea.