The 1246 islands and islets dotting the Croatia's Adriatic coastline come in all shapes, sizes and topographies, and each has a unique vibe. Some have been firmly stationed on the tourist circuit for decades, while others are less-visited and offer a quieter scene. With rising tourist numbers, many are increasingly catering to luxury travelers and offering “boutique” experiences, while others are still delightfully low-key, with few swanky resorts and high-end hotels, and a more authentic vibe.
There's certainly plenty to entice visitors: tidy pebble and sand beaches lapped by transparent turquoise waters, fascinating historical towns and rustic villages, some of the world's best sailing, miles of walking and cycling trails, and excellent local cuisine, wine and olive oil. The difficult journey is part of the draw: since most Croatian islands can only be reached by boat or ferry, there's that Robinson Crusoe feeling of embarking on a great adventure. Not sure which island is for you? Here are the 10 top islands to visit in Croatia.
Boasting an average of 2718 hours of sunshine a year, Hvar is the sunniest of the islands of the Dalmatian coast. It's also the swankiest and a magnet for Hollywood stars: Clint Eastwood, Michael Douglas, Kevin Spacey, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jodie Foster, George Clooney and Jack Nicholson have all vacationed here. Hvar Town has also become a party destination, attracting many international revelers thanks to its plethora of trendy bars and clubs located in the harbor area. For a quieter scene, head to the scenic port towns of Jelsa and Stari Grad.
Brač is best known for its magnificent Zlatni Rat (Golden Horn) beach that looks like a long protruding finger extending into the sea. Don't expect sand — you'll find fine pebbles instead and it's hard to resist diving into the see-straight-to-bottom aquamarine waters. Along with beach lovers, this is a popular destination with wind surfers, and the island's proximity to the mainland makes it popular with day-trippers. At 2552 feet, Vidova Gora is highest peak of all the Adriatic islands. A climb to the top is rewarded with unparalleled views over the entire island and nearby Hvar.
Charming Korčula Town is a big draw with visitors. Exceptionally well-preserved 15th century ramparts encircle the compact old town made up of narrow lanes arranged in a fish bone pattern and lined with medieval stone buildings. The interior of the island hides quiet, scenic villages surrounded by olive groves, vineyards and wineries run by local producers where the island's Grk, Pošip and Rukatac varieties of white wine can be sampled. For beach lovers, there are plenty of pebble beaches as well as sandy ones: Vela Pržina, Bilin Zal and Tatinja on the island's eastern tip have beaches of fine sand.
Arid and rocky Pag is one of the few Croatian islands to be connected to the mainland via a bridge, but there are ferry services to nearby Rab island and to Rijeka further north on the mainland. Most of Pag's inhabitants are of the sheep variety who feed on the island's wild herbs and provide the distinctively sharp cheese Pag is known for. Also produced here is sea salt and a dry Žutica white wine. Meanwhile Zrce beach and its open air nightclubs and summer music festivals are a huge draw for the party crowd.
This remote island is one of the furthest from the Croatian mainland and was completely closed to visitors when it served as a military base up to 1983. Today, it's one of the less explored and less developed islands in terms of tourist infrastructure — which makes it particularly visit-worthy. Nature lovers will be awed by the stunning natural landscapes: the cliffs encircling Stiniva cove and beach create a surreal setting, and a popular attraction is the Blue Cave on the nearby islet of Biševo. Every day just before noon the sun's rays enter the cave and reflect off its limestone walls, creating an eerie, glowing blue light. Vis Town has a pleasant waterfront promenade and is the island's first settlement, while picturesque Komiža is a fishing village of stone houses set on a secluded bay.
Lush and unspoiled Mljet doesn't get the crowds of some of the better-known Dalmatian islands. The isle has only 19 settlements, most of which are small but scenic fishing villages. 15th century Okuklje is set in a horseshoe-shaped bay and is the oldest coastal settlement in Croatia. Taking up the western section of the island is Mljet National Park, covering an area of 20 square miles and mostly covered with forests of holm oaks and Aleppo pines. Most notable are two brilliant blue seawater lakes Malo Jezero (Small Lake) and Veliko Jezero (Great Lake) connected via a narrow channel. The 12th century Benedictine monastery and St. Mary's Church located on Veliko Jezero are the park's most visited attractions.
“On the last day of Creation God desired to crown His work, and thus created the Kornati islands out of tears, stars and breath.” This is what George Bernard Shaw had to say about this group of islands after a visit in 1929. Covering an area of 124 square miles, this is a dense archipelago of 140 mostly barren islands and islets, 89 of which make up Kornati National Park. The only way to explore this spectacular maze of islands and reefs is of course on a sail boat, which can easily be rented along with a captain. The park office also organizes daily tours during the tourist season that include lunch and a guide. For sailing, diving and snorkeling enthusiasts it's as close as you can get to paradise.
Located in the north Adriatic, Rab is a relatively small island covering only 36 square miles but is big on appeal for outdoor enthusiasts. Its northern ridge is marked by hiking trails leading to viewpoints with panoramic vistas over neighboring islands and the Velebit mountain chain on the mainland. The forested Dundo peninsula offers a series of marked paths for cyclists while the beaches of golden sand of the Lopar peninsula on the island's north-eastern tip are a big draw for sun seekers. The aptly-named Paradise beach is especially popular with families, but there are plenty of secluded coves, some of which are clothing optional. Atmospheric Rab Town and its pedestrian-only lanes are a delight to explore: climb the 85-foot-high bell tower of St. Mary's Church for jaw-dropping 360-degree views over its terracotta rooftops.
You won't find any boutique retreats or luxury resorts on Cres, but you will encounter diverse and untouched landscapes of rocky mountains and forests of oak and pine, as well as delightful port and hilltop towns. With few inhabitants, medieval Beli and Lubenice are ghost towns of a time past: the spectacular sea views from here have definitely not changed, while their stone facades and cobblestone lanes have been preserved for years to come. In contrast, the cheerful port towns of Valun and Cres Town are painted with colorful facades and their sea-facing promenades lined with cafes, while quaint Osor is full of neat rose gardens, hidden courtyards, and stone cottages. Be sure to try the island's excellent olive oil which has EU protected status.
The local tourist office's motto is the 'island of vitality' and there's no shortage of hotels here featuring spas and treatments as part of their wellness packages. The many holiday resorts dating back to Communist times are getting face lifts and upgrades, as the island rebrands itself as a luxury wellness destination. The best way to explore the island is on foot or by bicycle: there are over 150 miles of marked trails to choose from. A highlight is the 1929-foot climb to the top of Osoršćica mountain from where there are panoramic views over neighboring islands, and even as far away as the Slovenian Alps. The colorful port towns of Veli Lošinj and Mali Lošinj are must-visits for their laid back vibe and many waterside cafes.