Croatia map & highlights

It’s a little confusing when people talk about Croatia as a Mediterranean country, when map lovers know it to be on the Adriatic. So to clarify: the Adriatic separates the long finger of the Croatian coast from the long leg of the Italian coast, but it is also, technically, the northernmost arm of the Mediterranean. In other words, there is a lot of water here. And beaches.

And it is greedy on the island front too, with over 1,000 of them. The other question is Istria or Dalmatia? Quite simply Istria is the mini Italy of the North and Dalmatia refers to the coastline heading south.

But where there is no confusion is inland: a plethora of national parks protecting mountains, rivers, waterfalls and lakes, all still relatively unknown. As is its capital, Zagreb, just an hour from the mountains for skiing and hiking. Who knew?

1. Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik lives up to the hype. A medieval walled city is usually enough, but one that overlooks a coastline that would usurp every shade of blue and green of any artistís palette, makes it memorable in the extreme. Painstakingly restored since the war ended, this city has earned its UNESCO World Heritage status. Makes Barcelona look boring and Paris a bit pedestrian. Escape the cruise crowds at Pile Bay.

2. Hvar

The island of Hvar is known for its celebrity status, oligarchs and yachties. But go beyond the main town and the nightclubs and you will find places where beauty means so much more than designer clothes. Old fishing towns like Stari Grad, Jelsa and Vrboska are bursting with old stone houses and paths that lead to secret coves. And who needs a yacht when you have a bike? This is cycling heaven.
Istrian Peninsula

3. Istrian Peninsula

Istria avoided much of the wartime devastation and also got ahead of the game when it comes to tourism. There is a big boutique and baroque vibe, which isnít for everyone, but donít let that put you off. Inland are peaceful, verdant hilltops. Explore the hill towns and coastal villages by bike Ė you'll have endless excuses to rest as they are all so beautiful. There is a huge Italian influence here historically. Combine with a trip to Slovenian Istria.

4. Korcula

Korcula has a Gothic-Renaissance Cathedral in the main square. As you do. On an island. Korcula town has a fortified center, cobbled alleys and stone houses, giving it the nickname "mini Dubrovnik". Supposed birth place of Marco Polo, it begs the question, why would anyone want to leave such a paradise? It does get cruise ship visitors but most stick to shoreline cafes. This is one for cycling or walking, exploring pine forests, vineyards and, of course, wines.
Lim Fjord

5. Lim Fjord

The Lim Fjord or Channel cuts into the Istrian Peninsula like a thinly sliced piece of the pie. It is a flooded canyon that stretches for 10km, flanked by forested hillsides hiding biodiverse beauties but also archaeological ones like Romualdís Cave, which you can visit. If bats and bones are your thing. If not, stick to the hiking and biking routes, of which there are many.

6. Lopud

Lopud island is a day trip special, but this is really worth an overnighter. Itís that combination of arriving into a pretty port, rambling through lush woodland to find a perfect sandy beach (Sunj is the one to seek) on the other side and having a car-free ambience to boot. Itís a knickerbocker glory of an island; each layer is as delicious as the last. You wonít want to get the last ferry back, so look into local family owned hotels and check in for life.

7. Mljet

Mljet, a national park, is unique in this archipelago in that it has two saltwater lakes on it. Ideal for cycling, you can head round the lakes, hike into the surrounding pine wooded hills or kayak off its secluded sandy beaches. There is an islet in the middle of one of the lakes. This islet of Melita has a former Benedictine monastery on it, now a restaurant. So, itís like a paradise within a paradise really.
Plitvice National Park

8. Plitvice National Park

Plitvice is, fundamentally, fresh. After all that coastline, this is a land of 16 freshwater lakes and 90 waterfalls. A landscape you can literally plunge into, its beauty is almost Narnia-esque. UNESCO thought so too when it gave it World Heritage status. Post a pic of you zipwiring across lakes or chilling at a guest house perched on a remote riverbank and your mates will think you are in Costa Rica, not Croatia.
Risnjak National Park

9. Risnjak National Park

Risnjak National Park in the north is for mountain lovers. Just two hoursí drive from Zagreb and an hour from the coast, this region, otherwise known as Gorski Kotar, is a super cool escape in summer. Literally. It is like a micro climate and almost like a micro country, with its rich forests, river canyons all just waiting to be rafted down, cycled through and hiked up.

10. Rovinj

Rovinj is an egg-shaped peninsula that is so packed with delights it is as if a golden egg has been laid on this already glowing Istrian idyll. This is still a real fishing town, overlooked by the high tower of the Church of St Euphemia, the epicenter of an explosion of terracotta and stone gorgeousness. With pine trees and parks thrown in for good luck. There are boat trips galore out to the islands, and mega yacht watching to be done here too.

11. Sipan

Sipan island is the largest of the Elaphiti Islands, accessible from Dubrovnik. Go for a few days as there is plenty to do. Kayak along its coves or head out to the islands of Ruda and Lopud on a guided paddle with much beach frolicking. Swap paddle for pedal to explore the romantic towns, vineyard and olive grove covered hills, and drool over the villas of 14th-century Dubrovnik vacationmakers.
Velebit Nature Park

12. Velebit Nature Park

Velebit Nature Park is so important ecologically that it has two national parks within it: Paklenica National Park and Northern Velebit National Park. Go horseriding in mountainous wilderness, cycle a 1,100m climb to the Zavizan mountain hut or run a raft down the white waters of the Zrmanja and Krupa Rivers.

13. Vis

Vis is bliss. If the tourism board hasnít used that strapline yet, they are missing a trick. As well as having the picture postcard aquamarine coves, kayaking and hiking, it has a passionate slow food movement. In fact, slow is the key on Vis. Go with the local pace, active by day, siesta by midday and fiesta til midnight. And with its own local red wine, Plavac, on tap, you canít fail to imbibe the blissful vibe.

14. Zagreb

Zagreb is a capital city that is shy when it comes to shouting about its qualities. Its medieval Gornji Grad district is pure cobbled cuteness and its Austro-Hungarian architecture hides secret cinemas and boho bars. It boasts museums such as the Museum of Broken Relationships and the Museum of Croatian NaÔve Art and hosts an unpretentious indie arts scene. It has a plethora of parks and, in winter, itís only an hour to the pistes. Whatís not to love?
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Croatia or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Croatia itineraries

8 day small ship cruise in Southern Croatia
Split > Makarska > Mljet National Park > Korcula Island > Dubrovnik > Sipan > Trstenik > Hvar Island > Brac Island > Zlatni Rat beach

8 day inland National Parks highlights
Zagreb > Risnjak National Park > Plitvice Lakes National Park > Velabit Nature Park> Paklenica National Park > Krka River National Park > Split

8 day self guided cycling tour of the Istrian peninsula
Porec > Visnjan > Mirna River > Umag > Savudrija > Groznjan > Sterna > Oprtalj > Buzet > Draguc > Rabac > Rasa > Barban > Pula > Bale region > Via Flava > Svetvincenat > Rovinj > Dvigrad

Croatia travel times

The following times give you a rough idea of the travel times between the main attractions in Croatia.
Dubrovnik to Split Ė 3.5 hours by car Velebit Nature Park to Plitvice Lakes National Park Ė 2 hours by car Split to island of Vis by ferry Ė 2.5 hours or 1 hour 20 mins on fast ferry Travel around Korcula Island by bike Ė 48km, so take a day, with a long island lunch Zagreb to Pula Ė 4.5 hours by bus
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Anrie Papp] [Dubrovnik: Mario Fajt] [Hvar: Jeremy Vandel] [Istrian Peninsula: zolakoma] [Korcula: Britrob] [Lim Fjord: Andrey] [Lopud: August Dominus] [Mljet: Jaganjac] [Risnjak National Park: rom@nski photo] [Rovinj: Mario Fajt] [Sipan: snailo86] [Velebit Nature Park: Darij Zadnikar] [Vis: Mario Fajt] [Zagreb: Mario Fajt] [Travel times - cycling: Andy Powell]