We’ve always loved Croatia. But it was only last year that we truly realized how diverse and beautiful it is – and that it’s one of our favorite countries in Europe! Big words, I know. But that one month we spent in the country on our latest trip last September gave us plenty of “wow!” moments, in spite of the fact that we thought we knew what to expect.
Many people expect Mediterranean vibe and fabulous beaches – and Croatia delivers them, no mistake there! Its beaches are among the clearest, most pristine beaches in the world, and some of its historical old towns on the coast are also world-famous for a good reason (Dubrovnik, Split, looking at you – and no, the reason is not exactly the Game of Thrones, though it made these two cities even more popular as its shooting locations). Then there’s Plitvice Lakes, a chain of 16 perfectly clear green lakes joined by countless bigger and smaller waterfalls.
But we won’t tell you about any of these places in this post. (You can check the links above, we’ve already written about them elsewhere.) Now it’s time to get to know Croatia beyond its beaches, Dubrovnik and Plitvice! Let’s see some of those things you don’t expect.
Walk on the cobbled streets of Rovinj, Istria
Visiting the Istrian Peninsula could be a tip on its own, but one of the highlights we found there was the old town of Rovinj. While Dubrovnik gets all the hype, Rovinj is just as beautiful! They say it feels a bit like Venice, but here’s the thing, we’ve never been to Venice. However, enjoying sunset views with the silhouette of Roving, and wandering around on all those narrow, cobbled streets with pastel colored houses, we’re sure Venice wouldn’t have any chance, anyway.
Snorkel, swim and hike at Cape Kamenjak Nature Park
In case you’re looking for stunning beaches in Istria (yeah, it looks like we can’t miss beaches… but we’ll bring you some that you don’t know yet), head to Cape Kamenjak Nature Park. With its unspoilt coastline, 20+ beaches and countless hiking and biking trails, it’s nature lover’s little heaven.
Some of its beaches are family-friendly, some offer high cliffs for adrenaline junkies, and some coves are great for snorkeling. We’ve already written a detailed guide to Cape Kamenjak, read it here!
Hunt for lesser-known ruins
Croatia is home to fairy tale old towns. But other than the medieval walls of Dubrovnik, the Pula Arena or Diocletian’s Palace in Split, there are less famous ruins that are not always as straightforward to find. It’s fun to search for them, though!
Like the fortress ruins we found in the forest on Stinjan peninsula above Pula. Oh, trees and bush growing out of old stone walls have a special charm, don’t they? Then there’s the fortress ruins we encountered on the Pisak-Kulina beaches near Zadar, and they made us think back of all those castle ruins we found on the Irish Coast – with one huge difference: we could have a pleasant swim in the water in Croatia.
We also hiked to the Starigrad Fortress of Omiš for amazing panoramic views, and walked around Split’s Marjan Hill to find the hermitage caves and chapels in the park. And we’re sure we could have found much more gems if we’d have stayed for longer.
Visit some easily accessible, amazing islands by car
No visit to Croatia is complete without visiting one of the islands of the Adriatic Sea. They are all little paradises of their own, with cute harbors and pristine beaches – and did you know that some of them is accessible by car?
That’s how we visited Krk, Pag and Vir islands that are connected to mainland Croatia by bridge. On each one we can name a beach that’s among our favorite Croatian beaches, and they offer scenic coastal hikes on otherworldly landscapes.
Get a view of Croatia’s only fjord
This is a fun day trip from Rovinj: Lim Fjord. It’s a 10 kilometers long estuary that’s called the Lim Channel or Lim Fjord – even though technically it’s not a fjord, because fjords are products of glaciation by definition. Lim Fjord was instead carved by Pazinčica River on its way to the Adriatic Sea.
You can take boat trips to see Lim Fjord, but you can also drive there and stop at the viewpoint. Somewhat to our disappointment, the fjord can only be seen from that one viewpoint, and we couldn’t see anything of it while driving. We weren’t able to find a beach or cove at Lim Fjord either, so we ended up in lovely Vrsar for the rest of the day then.
Climb through the Paklenica Canyons
Giant rock walls and astonishing views! This one is for adventurous and experienced hikers, at least the full loop of Velika and Mala Paklenica Canyons. If you don’t think you’d suffice, choose to do only Velika Paklenica that offers a well-established, relatively easy and mostly paved path with lots of stairs.
Otherwise, get prepared for a long, tiring, stunning day, and start to climb up in Mala Paklenica. The trail in Mala Paklenica Canyon is much steeper than in Velika Paklenica, you often rather climb than hike, so it’s better on your way up. As you can assume, the route in Mala Paklenica is not a family-friendly one, skip it with kids (or if you carry a kid). Otherwise, take care and enjoy, it’ll be a memorable loop hike.
Hike to the source of River Kupa
Now here’s a pretty and easy trail from a barely known national park: the source of River Kupa in Risnjak National Park. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the spring from the small village of Razloge, and then you can decide how long you hike along the river. But the most beautiful part of this hike for us was the crystal clear spring itself, especially as light fog appeared on its surface when the cool breeze of the evening came.
Explore wild and majestic Northern Velebit National Park
Majestic Velebit is a 145 kilometres long mountain range and it’s the border between continental and Mediterranean Croatia. Its white, bare rocks tower above the Adriatic Coast, however, it’s much greener on the other side that doesn’t face the sea.
A narrow, winding road led us up to the Oltari entrance of Northern Velebit National Park, from where we hiked to Veliki Zavižan peak – just to lose all the views in the dense fog at the last section towards the peak. That’s how it is in Velebit: unpredictable and harsh all year, even when it’s beach weather on the coast. But it’s a stunning, untouched wilderness with an incredible variety of karst forms.
Drive the winding road of Biokovo Nature Park
Towering above the Makarska Riviera Biokovo is another mighty mountain. The Biokovo Nature Park is accessible on a paved road which takes you all the way up to Sveti Jure’s 1166 meters high summit. It’s an extremely narrow road with countless hairpin curves and astonishing views!
The nature park offers a variety of easy, scenic hiking trails, too, and Biokovo Skywalk is the cool, newest attraction.
Visit the twin crater lakes of Croatia
Did you even know Croatia has crater lakes? We kept postponing our visit to the lakes of Imotski, and we finally ended up getting there in pouring rain before we left Croatia. We might add that only one of the lakes truly impressed us: Crveno Jezero or Red Lake. The other one, Modro Jezero (or Blue Lake) was dried up as it usually is during and after the summer when it functions as a soccer field for the local team. There’s a trail that takes you down to the bottom of Blue Lake – or to the soccer field in our case -, but we chose not to hike down in the rain. We enjoyed several of the viewpoints around Red Lake though.
Find Baroque beauty in barely known Varaždin
Not all the beauties of Croatia are located on the Adriatic Coast. (Though we’re in love with any sea or ocean, and we completely understand the desire not to leave them, like ever). But since we had to finally leave, we decided to make a stop in Varaždin which was on our way home.
We just wanted to stretch our legs during the long drive by walking around in the old town a bit – and also let our little boy run around so that he doesn’t scream and cry while sitting in the car for the rest of our drive. But this Northern Croatian town has exceeded our expectations! We were amazed by its pretty Baroque old town and the medieval Varaždin Castle.
Hunt for lesser known beaches of famous Makarska Riviera
Makarska Riviera is one of our favorite regions in Croatia – and we never visit it in high season (which means any time during the summer) when it’s unenjoyable due to the crowds. But it’s popular for a good reason, and it offers so many fabulous beaches!
However, don’t stick with the most famous ones only, it’s worth visiting some that are barely known, still offers a peaceful harmony of green pines and turquoise bays (and mighty Biokovo mountain as a backdrop). We liked Velika Duba near the small coastal town of Živogošće, and Ramova and Nugal Beaches which are both in Makarska, but further from the central beach, and you need to walk to reach them. These walks are lovely coastal walks though, and our experience is that the most beautiful and unspoilt beaches are the ones that require a bit of walking, anyway.
Conquer the highest peak of Omiška Dinara for stunning coastal views
This moderate half-day long coastal hike starts past the small village of Borak near Omiš, and it’s pure joy if you like coastal views (and who doesn’t?!). It took us about 2 hours to reach 863 meters high Kula peak, and we enjoyed the views all the way – to be rewarded with the best of them at the peak: a 360 degrees panorama of Omiška Dinara, the Adriatic Sea and its islands below, and even Biokovo mountain in the distance.
The last section of the trail is a bit steep, and we had to climb some larger rocks, but if you have some hiking experience and use your common sense (like you always do :P), it’ll be a great adventure. Pro tip: wait for the sunset on your way back so that you can have magical sunset views of Omiš from above.
Stroll the old towns of Zadar, Šibenik & Trogir
Croatia is rich in historical coastal towns, and we fell for any that we had time to visit. The Zadar-Šibenik-Trogir triplet is a great choice, because they’re so close to each other – and they’re all very picturesque, of course.
Zadar’s old town is on a small peninsula, and the Roman Forum and the pre-Romanesque Church of St. Donatus are among its oldest ruins. Šibenik’s St. James’ Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and we enjoyed exploring the cobbled streets surrounding it. They also offer countless boat trips to the nearby islands or day trips to Krka and Paklenica National Parks.
Marvel at the waterfalls of Krka National Park
This national park features a unique natural karst phenomenon of seven travertine waterfalls on Krka River. There are easy trails, partly on boardwalks, around the waterfalls. The longest of them is called Skradinski buk, and it’s a series of 17 waterfalls with a vertical drop of 50 meters.
Roški slap is a less busy area of Krka National Park that can be accessed from a different entrance. Roški slap waterfall is made up of a 22.5 meters high main waterfall and countless backwaters, cascades and travertine islands.
Get on a boat (or a ferry) and visit some islands
We said it, but we’re saying it again: you haven’t seen Croatia, if you haven’t seen any of its islands. It has thousands of them, and the exact number can’t even be agreed on because of different definitions of what an island is. But each has its own charm, lovely towns, coastal trails and hidden bays.
Kornati archipelago itself contains about 140 islands, most of them uninhabited and part of Kornati National Park. Mljet is our favorite green paradise, with two salt lakes inside the island. Korčula’s walled old town looks like a miniature Dubrovnik. Vis is furthest afloat from the Croatian mainland, and it’s high on our list for our next visit, along with popular Hvar and Brač, home to Croatia’s most famous sandy beach, the Golden Horn.
Now, what would you add to your Croatia bucket list?
So from coastal towns to national parks, ancient ruins and scenic hikes, boat trips and fascinating islands, Croatia offers something for everyone. Not to mention seafood and Mediterranean wines. I’ve been there with my parents, with Csaba, and last year also with our baby boy, and I can tell you it’s just as amazing as a romantic destination as a family vacation destination. You can try to create the perfect mixture of beach time, sightseeing and hiking. There’s choice, plenty of choice – and it doesn’t make things easy. 🙂
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