Tucked somewhere between eastern and western Europe, Croatia has something to offer every type of traveler. Its 3900-mile-long Adriatic coastline dotted with over 1200 islands and islets delights beach and sun lovers; its eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites amaze lovers of history; its eight national parks attract nature enthusiasts; and its many picturesque towns and cities full of Roman and Byzantine ruins, vestiges of Venetian times, and Austro-Hungarian buildings charm fans of art and architecture.
This is a small, but geographically diverse, country with so much to see that it can be a challenge to decide where to go and what to explore first. Here are the top destinations for first-timers to Croatia.
The medieval walled city of Dubrovnik has been one of Croatia's best-known tourist destinations for decades. But the fact that its city walls, gates, and towers were used as backdrops in Game of Thrones has propelled it to the top of many a bucket list. It has also become a requisite stop on many cruise ship routes across the Mediterranean and is Croatia's most-visited city with over one million visitors in 2016.
Dubrovnik's biggest attraction is its massive stone walls dating back to the 10th century which encircle the atmospheric old town and is topped with a wide 1.2-mile-long walkway. From here there are breathtaking views over the terracotta roofs, cobblestone lanes, and church towers of the UNESCO-listed old town, with the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea as a backdrop. Other must-sees include sights like the 16th century Church of St Blaise, the Franciscan Monastery, Onofrio Fountain, and the Rector's Palace – but the best way to experience Dubrovnik is to wander its narrow pedestrian-only lanes and discover its many hidden treasures: a romantic patio cafe, a tiny chapel, a centuries-old fountain, a flower-filled courtyard.
Romantic seaside Rovinj is the most visited town in Istria, Croatia's western-most region. Dating back to the time of the Romans, Rovinj's compact old town occupies a circular peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic Sea and is made up of colorful buildings and former Venetian-style palaces.
Dominating the skyline is the 197-foot-high bell tower of St. Euphemia's Church. A climb up the narrow 200 steps of the tower is rewarded with breathtaking views over the rooftops and narrow lanes of the old town, and a few small neighboring islands dotting the shoreline. Descending from the church is the cobbled Grisia lined with galleries and shops peddling handmade souvenirs, jewelry, and artworks by local artists. The seaside promenade extends southwards past the fishing port – where fisherman can be seen repairing their nets, to a long row of waterside cafes and restaurants, while further along are the rocky beaches popular with sun seekers.
The Croatian capital used to be largely overlooked by tourists who would make a beeline for the beaches and seaside towns of the Adriatic coast. But Zagreb is attracting an increasing number of visitors thanks to its eclectic mix of Austro-Hungarian architecture, socialist-era buildings, vibrant street art, a plethora of museums and galleries, and quiet parks and hidden courtyards. Ban Jelačić Square at the heart of the city is bustling at any time of day: this where the city's trams converge, and the many cafes here are popular meeting places.
Just a few steps north is Dolac, the colorful open-air fruit and vegetable market, and extending westwards and northwards from here are the ascending cobblestone lanes and 19th-century palaces and buildings of the charming upper town. Highlights include the medieval Stone Gate, the tree-lined Strossmayer Promenade, and museums like the Zagreb City Museum, and the ever-popular Museum of Broken Relationships. Other must-dos include window-shopping in the many design stores in the city's up-and-coming design district, sampling a craft beer at one of the many trendy bars, browsing through the Sunday flea market at Britanski trg, and a stroll through the atmospheric botanical gardens.
Croatia's second city is also one of its top destinations, thanks to its seaside location on the edge of the Dalmatian coast and its well-preserved 4th-century Diocletian's Palace that dominates the old town. Accessed via four gates, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a walled complex and a small city in itself, with a maze of narrow streets covering an area of 400,000-square-feet.
There are over 200 centuries-old buildings within this historic area, including churches and chapels, museums, and cafes and trinket shops. The imposing cathedral of St Domnius is at its heart, and a climb up its bell tower reveals panoramic views over the entire complex, as well as Split harbor, and the mountains to the north. The southern gate, called the bronze gate, opens onto the city's Riva, the seaside promenade. Lined with cafes and restaurants, it's busy at any time of day, and is the place to see and be seen. Split is also the launching pad to the nearby islands of Brač, Hvar, Korčula, and Vis, with regular ferry services linking them to the mainland. Game of Thrones fans will be happy to know that only nine miles from Split is the clifftop Klis fortress that also featured in the TV series as the city of Meereen.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice Lakes National Park is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the largest and most visited of Croatia's eight national parks. The park covers an area of 114 square miles, with 16 freshwater lakes painted in hues of blue and green which are connected by cascades and waterfalls. Eleven miles of marked hiking trails wind through the park passing through forests of pine, fir, spruce and beech trees along the way. Wooden walkways fringe the lakes, with footbridges crossing brooks and streams.
The park is a delight to explore in any season and each features a palette of different seasonal colors. The summer months, however, are the busiest, with up to 15,000 daily visitors, and for this reason, spring and fall are the ideal times of the year to explore the park. Visitors who decide to stay in one of three hotels located inside the park and can get a head start before the buses of tourists arrive, and have their entry tickets extended for a second day.