The Student's Travel Guide to Croatia

Where to Go and What to Do in Croatia

Plitvice Lakes National Park.jpg
••• Plitvice Lakes National Park © Lauren Juliff. © Lauren Juliff

If you've always dreamed of exploring Central and Eastern Europe, Croatia is the perfect country to start from. English is widely spoken, especially in comparison to other countries in The Balkans, which makes it easy to get around and converse with the locals. The scenery is diverse, featuring Mediterranean beaches, historic Roman architecture, fascinating islands, stunning national parks and cosmopolitan cities.

The food is incredibly underrated, and the weather is wonderful for much of the year. Did I mention Croatia also has over 1,000 beaches?

If you're planning on visiting Croatia, here's what you need to know.

Capital: Zagreb
Language: Croatian
Currency: Croatian Kuna
Religion: Roman Catholic
Timezone: UTC+1

Do you need a visa? 

Croatia is not yet part of the Schengen zone, but United States citizens can still enter with ease. You'll be granted a visa on arrival when you land, which is valid for 90 days. 

Where to Go

With so many incredible destinations to choose from, narrowing where to go is one tough decision. Fortunately, I've spent many months exploring the country, and these are the spots I recommend. 

Dubrovnik: Known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic", Dubrovnik is one of the top tourist destinations in Croatia. Unfortunately, this also makes it one of the most crowded and expensive cities to visit.

Still, it's worth spending a few days in this beautiful walled city. Take the chance to walk the ancient city walls, spend a day sunbathing on rocky-but-pretty Lapad Beach, take a boat out to the island of Lokrum, and get lost while exploring the maze-like Old Town. There's a reason why Dubrovnik is so popular, so make sure to add it to your itinerary.

My recommendation: aim to go to Dubrovnik as the first destination of your trip. The crowds can be overwhelming, so by getting it out of the way first, it makes everywhere else in the country feel so much more calm. 

Zadar: Zadar is said to have some of the best sunsets in the world and after visiting, I'd have to agree. Head for the ocean each and every night and watch the spectacular display of colours as the sun sinks below the horizon. The Sun Salutation is definitely worth a look, too. As darkness falls, the ground illuminates, thanks to solar energy that is now powering an incredible light show that lasts all night. Close to the Sun Salutation is the Sea Organ, a series of pipes that play music by utilizing the energy of the ocean's waves -- again, this is definitely worth a visit. 

Be sure to check out Zadar's Old Town, where you can climb the city walls just like you can in Dubrovnik. There's dozens of churches to be explored (don't miss St. Simeon, the oldest in the city), ruins of a Roman forum to be photographed, and there's even a beach to sunbathe on!

Many visitors skip over Zagreb as it isn't as well known, but it's one of my favorite spots in the country, so be sure to add it to your itinerary.

 

Zagreb: Zagreb is the capital of Croatia and is a bustling, cosmopolitan city, full of bars, coffee shops, and world-class museums. It's one of the most underrated cities in Europe, and definitely worth taking the time to explore for several days. 

Any highlight of a trip to Zagreb would have to be the Museum of Broken Relationships. The museum is dedicated to failed relationships and showcases hundreds donated personal possessions, left over from break-ups. The exhibits are funny, heart-breaking, thoughtful and surprisingly inspiring. Put this museum right at the top of your list and aim to spend at least an hour there. 

Otherwise, spend your time in Zagreb soaking up the atmosphere of this wonderful city! Get lost down the alleyways, wander through the markets, linger over coffee and hike the nearby mountains.

 

Plitvice Lakes: If you only go to one place in Croatia, make it Plitvice Lakes. This National Park is one of the prettiest places I've ever visited and is gorgeous no matter what time of year you visit. Aim to spend at least one full day hiking the different trails that take you past rushing waterfalls and glistening turquoise lakes.

The best way to get there is via a bus that goes to/from Zagreb and Zadar. Plan to spend a night there so that you won't be rushed for time, and give yourself space on your SD card to take hundreds of photos. Plitvice rarely disappoints. 

Brac: While most people head to Hvar when island hopping in Croatia, I recommend taking the ferry to Brac instead. It’s much cheaper, not as crowded, and has far better beaches.

You'll want to spend most of your time in the beautiful beach town of Bol. There, the main attraction is the Zlatni Rat beach, which stretches for half a kilometer into the Adriatic Sea -- it's one of the best places to sunbathe on the island. A little known fact about this beach is that the White House was actually built from the white rock found on Zlatni Rat.

Pag: For somewhere a little off-the-beaten-path, head to Pag, a gorgeous island that not many tourists have heard of (or decide to visit!). It's known for having moonlike landscapes, which definitely make for an interesting contrast against the bright blue seas. It's also home to Pag cheese, one of the most expensive cheeses in the world. If you have a bit of spare cash, it's well worth investing in sampling some of this island's famous export, as it's absolutely delicious. 

When to Go

Croatia is best seen with bright blue skies, so give winter a miss when you're planning when to go there. Summer is also best avoided, as the beaches fill up to the point where you can't find a sun lounger, and the docking cruise ships bring even more tourists to land. Additionally, during the summer months, many of the locals go on holiday, closing their shops and restaurants as they leave.

The best time to visit, then, is during the shoulder season. That means April to June and September to November. Everywhere will be open, there'll be very few crowds, prices will be cheaper than during the summer months, and the weather will still be warm enough for sunbathing, but not so hot that you end up with sunstroke. 

How Long to Spend There

I recommend allocating a minimum of two weeks to explore Croatia. You'll have time to visit a city, an island, a beach town, and Plitvice Lakes if you do so. If you have a full month, you could add on some more cities that are further inland, explore the ruins of Pula, or simply spend your time island hopping up and down the rugged coastline

How Much to Budget

Croatia is the most expensive country in the Balkans, but it's not as pricey as Western Europe. Here are the typical prices you can expect to pay. 

Accommodation: Accommodation in Dubrovnik is where you'll spend most of your money. I couldn't find a dorm room for less than $35 a night there! Elsewhere, you'll be able to book a dorm for around $15 a night. In the colder months, expect to find places for half that. 

If you're a fan of Airbnb, decent apartments run for around $50 a night in Zagreb, and $70 a night in more touristy areas. You can always find shared rooms starting from $20 a night, though. 

You can expect to average around $20 a night if you're a budget traveler.

Transport: Transportation in Croatia is reasonably affordable, with buses being the main method of getting around. For buses, expect to pay around $20 to traverse between cities, paying a couple of dollars extra if you have a backpack to put in the hold. 

Food: Food is cheap in Croatia. Expect to spend $10 on a large dinner that will leave you satisfied. Most restaurants offer free bread and olive oil on the table, too.