Croatia is a dazzling Balkan hotspot, which boasts more than its fair share of gorgeous coastline and beaches — not to mention its outstanding food and wine– and its complex history. I visited Zagreb in 2003 and returned in 2006 to the Dalmatian coast on a trip with family and friends. So much had changed in those three years — and I’m sure it’s continued to change by leaps and bounds since then.
Croatia’s capital of Zagreb is a pleasant place to spend a couple days and get your bearings. It didn’t have an overwhelming feeling and wasn’t inundated with tour groups (as most tourists go to the coast), but it provides an opportunity to dig into Croatia’s culture and history.
Coming out of the train station, to the left you’ll see the botanical garden, which makes for a nice stroll after a long train ride. In this area and around the adjacent parks, there are several museums (culture, ethnography, art, history) before arriving in the old city in the center of town.
The Cathedral dominates Zagreb’s skyline and originated as a church in 1093, but was subsequently upgraded to a cathedral, destroyed by the Mongols, rebuilt in the 13th century, and fortified in the late 15th-17th centuries to defend against the Ottomans. It underwent additional renovations, most recently in the 1990s. The 13th Century St. Mark’s Church with its Croatian-inspired roof design, is also an important landmark of Zagreb.
Lotrščak Tower offers great views over the city and has periodic cannon ignitions. As far as markets go, the Mesnica Neno has plenty of food, produce, honey, flowers, and other products for sale. I also bought some delicious fresh cheese from a lady selling it out on a nearby street– it was tasty, but despite my best efforts to scale back the quantity, she gave me a massive portion!
There are a few curious spots that weren’t there when I visited but have since cropped up — perhaps worth noting: The Tunel Gric (which appears to be a recently-decorated war bunker), the Museum of Broken Relationships, the 80’s Museum, and the Zagreb 360 observational deck with a skybar.
I don’t often recommend cemeteries as travel destinations but the Mirogoj Cemetery, north of the city, is famous for its outstanding architecture and elaborately-decorated mausoleums. Apparently it is decorated with wreaths and thousands of candles on All Souls Day (November 2).
Dubrovnik is one of the most famous spots in Croatia — or anywhere on the Adriatic coast. We stayed at an all-inclusive resort on the coast just outside of town, which was a nice respite from the buzz of the Old City (and convenient if you’re renting a car). There are plenty of great boutique hotels in/around the Old City, but parking might be more difficult to come by.
My favorite activity was walking around the Old City Walls, which are easily accessible after entering through the Pile Gate. The streets of the Old City are made of white stone, which have a wet/slippery look from being trampled over the years. This small area is packed with museums, cultural and historic exhibits, and an aquarium. Particularly noteworthy sights are the Venetian-styled Church of Saint Blaise, the ornate Sponza Palace, Rector’s Palace, and the Dominican Monastery. Nearby is the Old Town Market, with produce and plenty of souvenirs, including intricate lace and other crafts.
The Lovrijenac is an old guard tower that juts out of the water on the edge of the Old City– it offers great views of the city (with its red-tiled roofs) and is a famous Dubrovnik landmark. It’s adjacent to the Dance Beach— a tucked-away public beach for those who want to take a quick dip.
At the port, we took a short boat ride to the nearby Lokrum Island, which makes for a great half-day trip! It features a 19th century fort, a 12th-century monastery, botanical gardens with peacocks and other exotic birds strutting around, coastal rock formations, and crystal-clear water for swimming. The water was so clear, I couldn’t help diving down to try to touch the bottom, even though it was probably 20-30 feet deep! (Note: there is a nudist beach on the eastern side of this island, with plenty of signage to alert the unsuspecting tourist).
Pro Tip: If you’re staying more than a day in Dubrovnik, try to visit the Old City early in the morning, before the cruise ships roll in.
Split is another must-see town on the Croatian coast. We took a bus from Zagreb, passing through Neum, the finger of Bosnia that touches the Adriatic (and makes Bosnia a non-landlocked country). Split has a similar feel to Dubrovnik and its Old City is the center of action. Perhaps Split’s most famous sight is Diocletian’s Palace — the well-preserved remains of a fortified palace that was home of the famous Roman Emperor. Diocletian created the tetrarchy governing system in 293, which split the Roman empire and paved the way for the Byzantine Empire from Constantinople. (Btw– after doing that, he retired and became a cabbage farmer). The nearby Temple of Jupiter is another noteworthy example of 3rd Century Roman architecture– and it contains a sphinx!
The Golden Gate (4th Century) is an imposing structure, which (if I remember correctly) you can climb up to get great views over the city. Otherwise, there’s also the St. Domnius Cathedral and Bell Tower. Nearby is the Gothic-styled city hall building, which is another famous Split landmark. The Stari Pazar and Fruit Square are great open-air markets, and the People’s Square is the central hub of the old city, with plenty of great restaurants and cafes. To really soak in Split’s atmosphere, especially in the evening, the waterfront is the place to be!
Naturally, I stuck to seafood when eating at restaurants. Noteworthy options for this region are: 1) squid ink risotto or pasta, 2) slipper lobster (a crustacean with sweet body meat and small flippers instead of claws), and 3) monkfish. Also, Croatia has some fabulous wines — I especially liked the whites (even though I normally tend towards reds).
Something for Next Time: There’s plenty I’d like to see in Croatia on my next trip — particularly the coastal city of Pula with its well-preserved Roman amphitheater, the small / scenic coastal town of Ston — which apparently has a famous oyster festival in the summertime– as well as some of the outlying islands.