It sounds oxymoronic to describe a place that attracts 1 million annual visitors as a perfect place to detox and revel in nature, but that is exactly the feeling this UNESCO world heritage site in Croatia evokes. With staggering limestone cliffs, turquoise blue lakes, and hiking trails that take you through forests, heaths, and caves, Plitvice Lakes’ 73,000 acres put biodiversity and ecological conservation on display. Most tourists make the trek to this isolated destination to see its karst landscape and crystal-clear lakes, but Croatia’s largest park has even more environmental intrigue, with roots in the prehistoric era and legends of fairy queens. You could feasibly see the highlights as a day trip from Zagreb or Zadar, but once you step into this mythical, mountainside terrain where cave bear bones were once found and many endangered species currently live, you won’t want to leave.
What to See and Do
The park is divided into three main sections: the four lower lakes, the 12 upper lakes, and the hiking trails through woodlands, grasslands, and small peaks. Every lake is different, and the interconnecting wooden pathways make it easy to meander and take in their different forms of vegetation and aquatic life. Self-guided tours are best for experienced hikers and budget travelers since you have the freedom of choosing your own pace and path—of which there are many possible options—but you can also opt for a paid guided tour to get more history. If you have to prioritize specific areas, the best viewpoint is around the park’s largest waterfall, Veliki Slap, and the best place for unique fauna is Šupljara cavern, both of which are lower lakes sights. If you’re seeking an untamed and quieter environment, the upper lakes—especially Okrugljak with its long cave and Labudovac waterfall and Galovac with its chain of cascades and surplus of emerald foliage—are your best bet. The upper lakes are closed in winter, but you can go skiing and sledding in the nearby village of Mukinje.
The lakes may be the most Instagrammed attraction, but hikers, birders, botanists, geologists, and animal enthusiasts should also explore the surrounding woodlands to admire the varied ecosystems thriving within them. In addition to 1,400 plant species, including 60 types of orchids, and 800 types of fungi, the park is home to 250 types of animals, including a herd of indigenous sheep and some of the last remaining wild wolves and brown bears in Europe. If you’re lucky, you might even spot a wildcat or lynx, stumble upon a protected settlement building, or witness butterfly clouds in the treetops.
How to Get There
Croatia’s airports aren’t very close to the park, so if you aren’t driving, the cheapest and most convenient way to visit is by flying into Zagreb or Zadar and taking a bus. The bus trip from Zadar is technically shorter (two hours), but the airport isn’t as accessible, so Zagreb (an extra 20 minutes) is usually preferable. The park is the last stop on these routes, but the end of the line isn’t always obvious—the park doesn’t have a bus terminal and stops aren’t always announced—so check with the driver before disembarking.
If you’re staying in Zagreb or Zadar, the park could be a day trip via the bus or an organized tour, but you’ll run into more crowd traffic and likely only have time to see the lakes. Anything further afield—like a bus excursion from Split—will involve at least a four-hour journey and wouldn’t be worth the hassle unless you stay overnight.
Parking is very cheap and accessible if you decide to drive, but beware it’s not the easiest route to navigate if you don’t have patience, a good GPS, and tolerance of windy roads.
Where to Stay
Accommodation within the actual park is limited to three hotels—Hotel Jezero, Hotel Bellevue, and Hotel Plitvice—which are all about proximity and less about luxury or value. These options are slightly pricier than staying outside the park (an extra $30-50 a night), but they are more convenient and economical if you don’t have a car since most other places are several miles away and lack public transportation or reliable taxi service. If seeing as much park as possible is paramount, these hotels allow next-door access to the lakes and two days of park entrance for the price of one.
The only village walkable from the park is Plitvica Selo (20 minutes), but for more varied and modern accommodation options, check out Jezerce, Grabovac, or Korana.
What to Know Before Going
- The park is open daily, apart from the upper lakes in winter. Summer draws the most visitors.
- Despite the tourist appeal of this park, English isn’t always a reliable common language crutch. Having a few phrases or a translation guide on hand is helpful.
- The wooden pathways around and through the lakes are small and often without railings. Visiting right when the park opens is ideal for more leisurely walks.
- Most of the park isn’t accessibility-friendly and requires lots of walking to traverse.
- The park has limited restaurants and facilities, and what exists is clustered by the lakes. Pack a picnic, snacks, water, and emergency toilet tissue if you go for an all-day hike.
- If you do venture beyond the lakes, bring proper hiking shoes and layers of weather-resistant clothing. There are steep altitude differences depending on where you go, so temperature, precipitation, and traction can change quickly. It’s also very easy to go off-piste, and data signals aren’t consistent, so never go alone and have paper maps handy.
- Swimming anywhere in the park is forbidden.
- Walking around both the upper and lower lakes takes six to seven hours. Save time by using the park’s free boats and shuttles between the two.
- If you leave by bus, look for the wooden huts near either of the park entrances. These are the bus stops, and you can verify times at the entrance.