Your post-quarantine checklist for the Dalmatian coast and beyond.
Have you been wanderlusting about where to go after this period of uncertainty and isolation is finally over? Do your dreams involve a breathtaking coastline, azure seas, hundreds of islands, historic architecture, and mouthwatering food and drink?
Maybe it is a Croatia trip you have been dreaming about and if so, here are 10 reasons to keep it top-of-mind for your next European vacation.
1. Croatia has 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites – 8 Cultural and 2 Natural.
Among these, the most visited (which in high season means overcrowded) are Dubrovnik’s Old Town, Split’s historic center with the Diocletian Palace, and the Plitvice Lakes National Park. These were also the first sites to be inscribed to the list all the way back in 1979.
Split and Dubrovnik are both on the southern Dalmatian coast – the part of the country which is on most people’s checklists and thus sees the highest number of visitors. The driving distance between them is roughly 150 miles or you can do some island hopping using local ferries and catamarans.
Plitvice Lakes is another 150 miles north of Split, so best visit there if your Croatia trip also includes the capital Zagreb (which I strongly recommend). The national park can be done as a comfortable albeit long daytrip from Zagreb or, best of all, I suggest spending a night near Plitvice en route between Zagreb and Split.
2. Croatia is a true foodie haven.
Don’t believe me? Watch the late Anthony Bourdain’s show ‘No Reservations’ on Croatia (Season 8, Episode 3)! Centuries of foreign influences, including Greek, Italian, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian, have left their mark on Croatian cooking which is traditionally based on local ingredients with regional and seasonal variations.
Fresh seafood is ubiquitous along the Adriatic coast (including some of the best oysters I have ever tasted); the Istrian Peninsula is known for its truffles; Pag Island for its cheese; not to mention the world-class olive oil, prosciutto, and other delicacies.
Away from the coast, a more continental cuisine offers a wide variety of peasant-style and meat-based dishes like kebabs, skewers, and stews. An excellent array of fresh seasonal fruits and veggies also come from these traditionally agricultural regions.
Did you know that the Michelin Croatia Guide has 7 one-star restaurants and 10 Bib Gourmand restaurants? Most of these are in Zagreb and Dubrovnik (3 in each), but also include several eateries in Istria and on the rest of the Dalmatian coast. Best place to sample traditional Croatian cuisine – one of the myriad local ‘konoba’ taverns. From simple and local to high-end and modern, you will have plenty of dining options on your Croatia trip.
3. Game of Thrones was filmed in Croatia.
The epic fantasy TV drama used some of the country’s most historic and scenic sites and for many that’s reason enough to plan a Croatia trip. If you are a GOT fan and want to dive straight into the world of Starks and Lannisters, here are some filming locations not to miss:
The Diocletian palace in Split is where Daenerys raises her three dragons and locks them up after their fierce rampage.
In Dubrovnik’s Old Town, the Rector’s Palace serves as the residence of the Spice King in Qarth; Ploce Gate (the East entrance into the walled town) is used as the Red Keep Gate; the Minceta Tower stood in as the House of the Undying in Qarth, and the infamous ‘Walk of Shame’ scene took place on the Jesuit Staircase.
On a rocky outcrop just outside Dubrovnik’s city walls, the majestic Fort Lovrijenac can be seen in the battle of the Blackwater.
The historic Trsteno Arboretum just a short drive outside Dubrovnik is used as the Red Keep palace gardens where many schemes and intrigues get plotted.
4. The Zinfandel grape originated in Croatia?
DNA analyses reveal that the one of the great red grape varieties of the world, known as Zinfandel in California and Primitivo in Italy, originally comes from the Croatian Dalmatian coast where it is known as Crljenak Kastelanski, Pribidrag, or Tribidrag (good luck pronouncing those).
Croatian wine making goes back to the ancient Greek settlers who arrived on the Dalmatian coast in the 5th century BC. Today, it has 4 wine regions, 12 sub-regions, and over 130 indigenous grapes. Many of the country’s small boutique wineries are not known internationally, so this is certainly a great destination to discover and explore the local wine culture.
5. Croatia’s capital is brimming with trendy coffee houses and outdoor cafes.
It all goes back to the 19th century when Croatian artists and writers brought to Zagreb the bohemian cafe lifestyle after spending time in places like Vienna and Paris. Nowadays, the two main coffee areas are along Tkalcićeva and Bogovićeva streets and in the adjacent squares which turn into outdoor living rooms where locals congregate to chat and people watch. Saturday morning is peak time with ‘špica’ – the ritual pastime of dressing up and getting out to see the world and be seen over a leisurely cup of coffee.
6. Croatia has more than 1,200 islands, only 50 or so of which are permanently inhabited.
Some of the largest and most popular are Hvar (known for celebrity spotting, luxury yacht browsing, and nightlife), Brac (pine-fringed beaches, secluded bays, and fishing villages), and Korcula (historic walled town claiming to be the birthplace of Marco Polo). The uninhabited islands usually have at least some basic infrastructure and are only accessible by boat – perfect if, as part of your Croatia trip, you have been dreaming about taking a swim on a secluded beach surrounded by untouched nature.
7. The walls of Ston are among the longest medieval fortification systems in the world.
The impressive walls were built in 14th century when Ston became part of the Republic of Ragusa (now Dubrovnik). Originally over 4 miles long, they were primarily used to protect the precious salt pans that contributed to Dubrovnik’s wealth and are still being used today.
Insider Tip: Each spring (usually in the second half of March), the town of Mali Ston hosts on its waterfront an Oyster Festival organized by the local tourist authority and winemakers and seafood farmers from the area. Planning your Croatia trip for this time of year will also help avoid the summer crowds.
8. Lord Byron called Dubrovnik ‘The Pearl of the Adriatic’ – a name it still proudly holds today.
The famous English poet travelled extensively across Europe and even took part in the Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Empire. Bernard Shaw also sang Dubrovnik’s praises saying ‘those who seek paradise on earth should come to Dubrovnik and find it’. The murder mystery writer Agatha Christie visited Dubrovnik and Split on a honeymoon with her second husband who was an archaeologist.
9. The Zlatni Rat (Golden Horn) beach changes its shape with the direction and strength of the wind and currents.
One of Croatia’s most-recognized symbols, the iconic beach on Brac Island is made of fine pebbles covering an underwater reef and creating a promontory extending roughly a third of a mile into the sea. It usually points directly south, but under certain weather conditions the farthest end can shift to the west or east.
10. Croatia has wonderful boutique hotels able to turn your vacation into a really memorable experience.
Relais & Chateaux and Small Luxury Hotels of the World are both represented in Croatia, in addition to a multitude of independent heritage properties with tons of local charm and history. Whether you are looking to stay in Dubrovnik’s walled Old Town, in Split’s Diocletian Palace, in a former mansion on one of Croatia’s islands, or amidst the vineyards of an Istrian estate, there are options to satisfy every taste.
Croatia is a destination I can’t wait to revisit when it’s safe to travel again. It has a gorgeous coast with hundreds of islands, historical sites for every interest, picturesque port towns and fishing villages, scenic national parks and, last but not least – delicious food and wine.
Who’s with me?
Need more tips on planning your Croatia trip? Read on!