Croatia travel guide: Everything you need to know before you go
The lure of Croatia’s shimmering Adriatic coast and its more than 1,200 islands is irresistible. Sometimes it’s hard to take in the extraordinary beauty of the Venetian towns along the Istrian and Dalmatian coast, with some elegant Habsburg resorts to add to the visual display. Countless beaches are squeezed into tiny coves and vast bays, while the Croatian hinterland is pure drama, its karst mountain ranges criss-crossed by canyons, waterfalls and glistening rivers.
Current travel restrictions and entry requirements
Croatia has dropped all of its entry requirements so there is no need to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test. It is no longer mandatory to wear a face mask in an indoor or outdoor setting, with the exception of a healthcare facility, although it is still recommended for large gatherings.
Best time to go
Croatia gets its season off to an early start with February carnivals in Rijeka and Dubrovnik, before ramping up at Easter. In spring, the weather is already pleasant – an excellent time for relaxed city breaks and hikes in national parks surrounded by spring flowers. July and August mean big festivals of dance and culture, as well as big crowds and high temperatures. September is one of the best times to visit, when the calendar of events is still packed and the summer weather persists. October is beautifully mild, with amazing leaf colors and a still warm Adriatic Sea. Come at Christmas for Zagreb’s superb Advent market.
Main regions and cities
Dubrovnik and the islands
Dubrovnik is usually at the top of everyone’s wish list, and for good reason. Its beauty is otherworldly, with medieval and Renaissance walls surrounding gleaming marble streets of creamy Dalmatian stone houses and Baroque palaces. But when high-season crowds make exploring the Old Town’s pedestrian lanes difficult, hop aboard the 10-minute shuttle boat to the tiny island of Lokrum for a picnic and a swim. Or take a boat trip to the Elaphiti islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipan, wonderfully lazy places of sleepy villages and beaches.
Split and the islands
It’s hard not to feel a sense of wonder when you sit in a cafe in Split’s Old Town and realize you’re surrounded by the ruins of the 2nd century Diocletian’s Palace, colonized by shops, cafes and apartments centuries ago. After strolling along the Riva waterfront and visiting the beaches, many visitors use Split as a starting point to the attractive islands of central Dalmatia: laid-back Šolta, beautiful Brač with its distinctive V-shaped beach Zlatni Rat, exquisite little Vis, far -flung Lastovo, irresistible Korčula and, most popular, Hvar, of which the chic town of Hvar has become the center of the party.
This heart-shaped peninsula hanging off the northern Adriatic is one of Croatia’s big hits. Istria has enough variety that you will want more even after a few weeks. You will instantly fall in love with the enchanting Venetian beauty that is Rovinj, sitting majestically on its own promontory. Head north to Lim Fjord and historic Poreč before heading south to Pula and its preserved Roman amphitheater. Stop in the fishing village of Fažana where you can catch a boat to Tito’s former lair in the Brijuni Islands. Then enter the hilltop villages of the interior – Motovun, Buzet, Grožnjan – passing through truffle forests, vineyards and olive groves that produce award-winning liquid gold.
Croatia’s capital is often overlooked in the rush to reach the coast. But this city that shows Vienna a thing or two about café culture has a wonderful medieval upper town, which, if you wish, you can reach via a small 66m funicular. Check out the bars and restaurants along Tkalčića between visits to the Zagreb City Museum and the Museum of Broken Relationships. Stroll along the Strossmayer Promenade before zigzagging to Lower Town and its shops and restaurants. Continue to the trio of landscaped parks dubbed the Green Horseshoe before cooling off in Lake Jarun south of the city.
Istria’s neighbor to the east has Croatia’s two largest islands – Krk and Cres – to go along with the European Capital of Culture 2020, the bustling port of Rijeka and its Habsburg architecture. Relax on the pebble beaches of Krk after exploring the Venetian town of Krk, then take the ferry to peaceful and relatively empty Cres. Continue to the bridge that will take you to fragrant Lošinj – a favorite Habsburg haunt – before heading to Rab and its two dozen sandy beaches. For the full Habsburg experience, Opatija offers 19th-century townhouses and a charming 12 km Lungomare.
Best under-the-radar destinations
This wonderful water world 90 minutes north of Dubrovnik is the perfect place to completely unwind. Follow the course of the Neretva River as it passes through some of Croatia’s most fertile valleys, passing produce at roadside stalls. At its delta is a vast sandy beach which has been fitted out for kitesurfing. The best way to explore is by boat, usually by kayak or on a boat safari offered by some of the waterfront restaurants that are otherwise inaccessible. From the end of July, you can get there more easily when the Pelješac Bridge finally opens and allows you to bypass the narrow stretch of Bosnian coast and its customs queues.
Croatia’s oldest city is firmly on the tourist radar, some of its islands less so. The two closest, Ugljan and Pašman, almost resemble the outskirts of Zadar: connected by a bridge, they offer relaxing days of cycling through olive groves and to pebble beaches. Further south, winding Dugi Otok is aptly named (meaning long island) and boasts the wonderful collection of bays and beaches that make up the Telašćica Nature Park. Take the ferry to Silba, a car-free town, or join a boat trip through the mesmerizing and mostly uninhabited islands of Kornati National Park.
Jutting out into the Adriatic is the long peninsula of Pelješac, already known for game of thrones fans thanks to the defensive walls of Ston which rise above the village. The nearby town of Mali Ston is also home to the delicious Ston oysters grown there. Much of the peninsula is covered in vineyards producing some of the best plavac mali and dingač red wines in Croatia. When you’re not taking a leisurely tour among the vineyards, you discover hidden beaches wedged into the jagged coastline.
The best things to do
Explore Plitvice Lakes
Croatia’s first national park is one of the most dazzling, its collection of 16 lakes and countless waterfalls and rivers creating one of nature’s greatest spectacles. Follow the raised wooden walkways past the waterfalls before taking the electric boat across the glassy Kozjak Lake.
Hiking and climbing in the Velebit mountains
Croatia’s largest mountain range overlooks the Adriatic Sea and offers exceptional and sometimes challenging hiking. Velebit also covers Paklenica National Park, one of the most exciting places in Europe to go rock climbing.
Get into the spirit of the festival
Croatian summer nights vibrate with the sound of dance music festivals all along the Dalmatian coast. The island of Pag, where sheep normally outnumber humans, hosts some of the country’s hottest dance festivals on Zrće beach in Novalja – Hideout, Selected, Sonus – as well as the massive Ultra festival in Split and SunćeBeat, Outlook Origins, Defected Croatia and Dimensions in the otherwise sleepy Tisno. .
Ride the rivers
Croatia’s rivers and canyons are perfect for exploring by kayak or, if you want a thrilling adventure, by rafting. One of the most breathtaking trips is the Cetina river canyon flowing into the Adriatic at Omiš, as is the lesser known Zrmanja canyon in northern inland Dalmatia.
Public transport – train, coach and city bus – is very affordable in Croatia. The rail network, HŽPP, has good connections between Zagreb and other major cities, but does not extend south beyond Split. The bus network is much more extensive and very cheap. The ferry service between the mainland and the islands, Jadrolinija, offers car ferries as well as fast catamarans, both at very reasonable prices. If you want to explore some of the inland regions, a rental car is your best bet. Domestic flights are frequent but not cheap.
How to get there
The fastest and cheapest way to get to Croatia is to fly to one of its seven international airports: Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik, Rijeka, Pula, Zadar and Osijek. If you are traveling via Italy, you can take an overnight Jadrolinija ferry from Ancona to Zadar, Split or Hvar. The train options are long but beautiful, with trains from London via Paris and Munich or Vienna to Zagreb, or via Ljubljana to Rijeka or Pula. Alternatively, take the Harwich ferry to the Hook of Holland and catch the train in Amsterdam to Zagreb via Munich.
Tip to save money
July and August are high season, which means high prices. May, June and September have warm weather, but prices for flights, accommodation and attractions will be considerably lower.
Automated Teller Machines (ATMs) in yellow will charge a higher commission, so try to find an ATM associated with a bank.
What weather is it?
Croatia has long, hot summers, especially along the coast, while inland regions have short, cold, and snowy winters. Summer temperatures regularly hover around 30C.
What time zone is it in?
What currency do I need?
Croatia uses the kuna, but will join the euro zone from 1 January 2023. From September both currencies will be used, but in the meantime if you pay in euros you will receive the change in kuna.
What language is spoken?
Croatians don’t expect you to speak their language, although a few subtleties will be greatly appreciated. Most tourism people speak English, and many also speak German and Italian.
Mary Novakovich’s new travel journal, My Family and Other Enemies: Life and Travels in Croatia’s Hinterland, is published by Bradt in August and is available for pre-order now.