I found this out at Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia’s largest park and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. But Croatia wasn’t done dazzling me – in fact, it had only just begun. Still ahead were coastal towns whose white marble towers gleamed above seas of startling azure blue, medieval hill towns that seemed straight out of Tuscany, and solar-powered light shows that rival any disco. From Plitvice to Dubrovnik to Istria, the sights kept knocking my socks off until I finally just gave up and wore sandals.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
This park is famous for its 16 jewel-toned lakes, linked by an astonishing variety of waterfalls and surrounded by forest so green it seems to vibrate. To protect the fragile landscape, a series of planked walkways have been built, which weave around and between the lakes. Visitors can follow one of several well-marked itineraries through the park, ranging from short strolls to long hikes – shuttle buses and boats transport you to and from the various trailheads. Plitvice is gorgeous any time of year – the falls are at their peak in spring, the autumn foliage is spectacular, and in the winter, many of the falls freeze, creating cascades of icicles.
Though it’s as picturesque as any Dalmatian Coast town, with its polished marble streets and Venetian-inspired buildings, Zadar’s unique charms really become apparent after a bit of exploration. At the end of the promenade are two cool installations – the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation – both of which harness the power of nature. The Sea Organ is a series of pipes that produce a mournful music as the waves come in and out, while the Sun Salutation, a 72-foot-wide disc of solar panels laid in the sidewalk, creates an awesome Saturday Night Fever-esque effect at night. Wander into the town center, and you’ll come upon a maze of streets lined with cafes, making it feel like one big outdoor party.
Most hotels are outside the old town – a good choice is Villa Hrešć, a charming pink building with harbor views about a 30-minute walk from the center.
While you’re in the area, head about an hour north to dramatically barren Pag Island, and seek out one of its secluded beaches.
You’ll find ancient Roman sights throughout Croatia, but Split is the only place where you’ll find people working, living and going about their normal day within the ruins. The center of the old town is a former Roman palace, built by the emperor Diocletian around 300 AD. Other eras also made their mark, so you’ll also find Gothic arches and Romanesque bell towers amid the Corinthian columns. Bars, restaurants, shops and boutique hotels now fill in the spaces of the former palace, and half the fun of the place is just wandering around and seeing what you’ll discover. The seafront promenade is lined with outdoor cafes – within the palace, try Zlatna Vrata, for pizza, and Teak Caffe, for drinks. Just outside the center is Šperun, a charmingly rustic restaurant serving classic Dalmatian dishes.
OK, so it’s been a while since Dubrovnik was an “undiscovered gem.” But that doesn’t mean it’s not a jewel – the tourists are here for a reason. With its famed medieval walls rising 80 feet above the Adriatic, its streets filled with charming cafes, and its jumble of red-tiled roofs against a blazing blue sky, it is enchanting. Be sure to take the 1 ¼-mile walk atop the iconic walls – allow an hour or more, and try to go early or late in the day, when the sun is less intense.
After your walk, fortify yourself with dinner at Lokanda Peskarija, right on the harbor. Or head to the leafy suburb of Lapad for a meal at Levanat, overlooking the sea. (Try the “fish under a bell” – I still dream about it.) If you feel like a splurge, stay at the Hotel Bellevue, a luxurious modern hotel just outside the old town (but away from the crowds).
Istria is a region, not a town, but the entire peninsula is worth a visit. The Italian influence is stronger here than any other part of Croatia – signs are in both Italian and Croatian, and as you wander the medieval towns of the interior, surrounded by hills covered in vineyards, you could be forgiven for thinking you’re in Chianti. The place to begin is the coastal town of Rovinj. Built on an egg-shaped peninsula, with Venetian-style pastel buildings lining the harbor, cobblestoned piazzas, and steep, narrow streets, it’s arguably one of the most charming towns on the Adriatic. It’s touristy, but has managed to maintain its traditional fishing-village flavor. Grab a seat cushion and a drink at La Puntuleina, right on the harbor’s rocky shore, and go for a seafood dinner at the irresistible Ristorante Balbi, not far from the famous Balbi Gate, the entrance to the old town.
Then, head for the interior, known for wine and gastronomy. The fortified hill towns of Motovun and Grosnjan and the tiny hamlet of Hum are well worth a visit. Taste truffle products of all varieties at the Natura Tartufi gourmet shop in Motovun, sample some of the local wines at the impressive Kabola winery near Momjan, and learn about the region’s history at Pazin Kastel, Istria’s best-preserved medieval structure. Be sure to try the local specialties such as Istrian prsut (prosciutto), and the local brandy, rakija, in flavors like mistletoe and hazelnut. Sleep off your big meals at Agroturizam San Mauro in Momjan, a friendly farm hotel that produces their own wine, jams and honey.
Ellen is a Bay Area-based freelance writer. Currently, she writes for MyLittleSwans.com, a website and travel club focusing on luxury travel. She loves wildlife and nature, art, food and wine, and light (very light) adventure.