Croatia has been on my bucket list for a while now. The stunning scenery posted all over the internet gave me serious wanderlust. So a few weeks ago, at the peak of the high season (August), I spent 11 days travelling from Zagreb down to Dubrovnik. Here’s a detailed account of what I did, what I’d recommend to eat and what to see.
Upper Lakes of Plitvice National Park – sit down and enjoy!
Zagreb is the forgotten capital with most tourists heading to the Adriatic Coast but, as people seem to have caught on, it actually is a charming little city with an abundance of beautiful buildings, all painted yellow!
Try to arrive as early as possible to Zagreb so that you have a good amount of time in the city, if like us you only have a day to spend here. You can definitely spend longer visiting all the quirkier attractions, such as the Museum of Broken Relationships. We, however, started exploring around 2.30pm, which was about enough time to have a nice stroll around the whole city and get a glimpse of most of its attractions.
Art Pavilion in Zagreb
Once you arrive at the airport take the Croatia Airlines shuttle bus, for 30 Kuna, to the city’s bus terminal. This takes about 25 minutes. From there you can take tram 2 to the south of the city centre or walk 20 minutes or so to reach the edge of the city.
The city’s south side has a plethora of manicured open spaces to stroll around; such as the free Botanic Gardens (be sure to check out the giant lily pads) and the parks in front of the Art Pavilion and Strossmayer Gallery. Other attractions within the old town include the Cathedral (unfortunately partly under refurbishment when we visited), the French street artist Étien’s murals, the Croatian National Theatre building and the number of narrow streets west of the Cathedral.
View of one of Etien’s mural with the Cathedral
The best view of the city has to include the cathedral. So whilst the view above the funicular sees further we suggest walking East to Etien’s murals to get the most iconic view of Zagreb.
Mundoaka Street Food, just off the main square, does a moreish meal of ribs but can be quite heavy for the summer months. The potatoes were also beautifully crisp with a slight gaminess. If you have another meal in Zagreb I’d suggest looking for a more traditional restaurant to savour some of Inland Croatia’s delicacies, which are hard to come by along the coast. Konoba Didov San and Stari Fijaker 900 roll off most locals tongue.
For a sweet break, Vincek is Zagreb’s most popular ice cream and desserts place with more choice than you will ever need.
Ribs at Mundoaka
On the 2nd day, we set out early from Zagreb to Plitvice National Parks, for 2 days worth of trekking, which in my opinion is the highlight of any trip to Croatia. The bus takes around 2.5 hours from Zagreb. I’d recommend getting to the park by 2 or 3 pm to give you a good 5 hours to explore part of it. Make sure to stay until the park closes because having the lakes all to yourself, near the end of the day, is an unmatched experience. Depending on where you’re staying in the area I’d recommend doing either the Upper or Lower lakes for the first day. The Upper Lakes has more winding paths on top of the lakes so the atmosphere is a lot more serene whilst the Lower Lakes has more viewpoints and landmark sights.
Having the Upper Lakes all to yourself!
Whilst staying near the park entrances has its obvious benefits we stayed in Jezerce, which shares a bus stop with Mukinje. This town is just about walkable to Entrance 2, taking about 20-30 minutes through a woodland path (walk through the minivan park to avoid an unnecessary climb and steps). Though this is dependant on how active you are as after spending a whole day in the parks climbing uphill back to your accommodation might be the last thing you want to do. One issue, with staying away from Entrance 1 or 2, might be getting a seat on the bus at Mukinje, if heading towards Split. We were very lucky to bag the last two seats on the bus as everyone had already got on at Entrance 1 or 2.
Food options are also scarce, so staying with a B&B who provides good food is an added benefit after all the walking. Below is the dinner platter served at Plitvice Miric Inn.
Our meat and fish platter at Plitvice Miric Inn
On the 3rd day get up bright and early to explore the rest of the lakes right when they open. From 7 – 8 am you should be one of the only people in the park. Whilst, after 9 am the park, starts to get busy. But if you plan cleverly the crowds shouldn’t be a problem, at least it rarely was for us. Be strategic. Get all the lakeside walking done in the early morning and leave trekking up the hills till after as most visitors don’t make the extra effort to walk up.
Irresistably Blue – the Lower Lakes from above
Having done this, an ideal itinerary would be to get to the parks on the evening before. The parks are at their most beautiful and photogenic in the morning (since the sun shines on the waterfalls rather than behind it) and their most serene just before closing so spending two mornings exploring the Upper and Lower lakes, having a break during the peak hours of 11 am – 4 pm and then finding the quietest parts in the evening will give you the best experience.
I insist you visit all the most out of the way scenic points. Normally they require a little bit of climbing. One of the more obscure points is at the very edge of the park, above the cliffs of the Lower Lakes. It is quite quiet here and you’ll possibly get the whole view to yourself. It’s not well marked but with a map and some orienteering skills, it shouldn’t be too challenging. If you trek up the hill at the main waterfalls, Veliki Slap, you’ll find a road, turn right. You’ll need to walk across a bridge and follow what looks like a path on your right-hand side and you’ll be well on your way.
One of the parks many beautiful boardwalks
Having spent two days covering the whole of the park we took a bus to Zadar in the afternoon. Sadly we only had the evening to explore Zadar but I think it warrants a full day. We were surprised that Zadar was one of the busiest places we visited in the whole of Croatia, though quite possibly because we got there during the Full Moon Festival. This sadly took away from the charm of Zadar’s two major attractions; the Sea Organ and the Greeting to the Sun so I’d recommend seeing them during the quieter times and then revisiting them for sunset for a different experience. Zadar really comes to life after dark. Strolling around the alleys of the Varos quarter will really give you the local atmosphere.
Sunset in Zadar
However, the Full Moon Festival is a real treat for the senses so if your trip does coincide with this make sure to give yourself plenty of time to explore the stalls, food and music on offer. One of my biggest regrets was not being able to try Peka in Croatia, a meaty dish Croatians cook under a metal dome covered in coals because you normally have to reserve it a day in advance. Here at the festival, there was a stall selling it freshly made under hot coals.
The Greeting to the Sun at night
I highly recommend Proto Food & More. The food is delicious, serving a number of Croatian specialities and the service is very friendly. We had the beef cheeks and crab risotto special. Both were beautifully cooked and some of the best dishes we had in Croatia.
Plump risotto at Proto Food & More
After a few hectic days, we went to Split for a little longer but in honesty, Split was the least favourite out of the places we visited. Though saying that walking around the Diocletian’s Palace and climbing up the Bell Tower of St. Domnius is a must for any visit to Croatia.
The Bell Tower in Split
We were frustratingly delayed at Zadar bus station as our bus was over an hour and a half late. My experience with buses in Croatia is a mixed bag. Don’t worry too much if the bus isn’t here at the departure time, it’s more likely that it is running late than you having missed it because it came early. But make sure to arrive in good time so that you manage to get a seat or you might have to sit on the steps or stand. Seat reservations are not adhered to so even if your ticket has a number don’t bother with it.
Konoba Fetivi serves beautifully grilled fish at a reasonable price, booking is recommended. A pro tip would be to go on a weekday, this should apply to any seafood restaurant, where they’ll have more fish on offer. Whilst if you are looking for a more intimate, hole in the wall, experience Villa Spiza serves traditional dishes in a cosy little restaurant near the top of the old town. Be sure to arrive before 7, ideally 6, or the wait might be over an hour or they might run out of food! There are a lot of beautiful restaurants in Split, one place I would have loved to try was Bokeria.
If you’re in Split for the summer and are craving something sweet then Luka Ice Cream & Cakes are a must, actually, I’d go even in the winter. Their prices are a little higher than the norm, which we found to be about 9 Kuna per scoop, but it is well worth it.
Side note: Be sure to try some PiPi! A popular local drink, their version of Fanta.
Fish Platter at Konoba Fetivi
For Day 5 we booked a day-trip to Krka National Park and Sibenik with Splitlicious. We think this is worth it over going yourself as the price isn’t much difference, you might get a group discount for the National Park entrance fee and there’s enough time for you to walk around.
Go straight to the swimming area and enjoy swimming next to the beautiful waterfall. It’s best to give yourself at least one hour to walk the boardwalks afterwards as there are some beautiful spots for photos.
Sibenik is a dazzlingly white town marked by the beautiful Cathedral of St. James. A couple of hours here should be enough to get a glimpse of the town. If you’re looking for ice cream, head to the waterfront and look for B059.
The main waterfall at Krka
Getting the best photos in Krka will definitely require climbing over a few railings and rocks but remember to stay safe and not go far overboard and annoy all the other visitors who are within safe boundaries.
Make sure to check out Part 2, where I take you to Hvar, Bisevo, Brac and Dubrovnik!