What do see on a 6 day road trip around Croatia
In May 2017 I spent 6 nights exploring Croatia by car. This page covers the full write-up from this trip along with my itinerary and, of course, loads of photos!
Two days in Dubrovnik
We arrived in Dubrovnik where we spent two nights, then on to Split, Zadar, Plitvice Lakes and finally finishing up in Zagreb. The next few posts cover my reflections on the trip as well as some practical information for those planning a trip to Croatia.
We arrived in Dubrovnik slightly delirious after a very early flight from Gatwick. The shuttle bus heads to town for a very reasonable 90kn each, taking around 30mins to Pile Gate. We opted for a taxi as we had already been delayed around an hour and were told the bus was waiting another 30-40 mins for another flight to arrive.
The taxi was 300 kn (we were told 270 in the airport)…rather pricey but we were keen not to lose any more time. The views out along the coast from the car were amazing, a beautiful first taste of Croatia. Although the roads wrapped this way and that around the mountains they seemed quiet and unhurried, a good sign given we had 800km to drive throughout the rest of the week.
We arrived in Dubrovnik dragging our cases through the Ploče gate. Huge cream walls towered on both sides as we wound our way down into the town. The central street, Stradun, runs like an artery through the Old Town. The sun shines blinding off the reflective stone paving, polished to a mirror shine from centuries of feet passing by.
After collecting our keys from the tiniest little restaurant we were led to our equally tiny lodgings for the next 2 nights. The room was completely central in town but rather shabbily furnished with a small window out onto bustling Stradun. ‘Don’t worry, it’s not noisy, double glass” said our host, Milo (he wasn’t entirely truthful).
We ate lunch in Taj Mahal, a Bosnian restaurant recommended by both TripAdvisor and rough guide. One of my favourite moments on any holiday is that first holiday beer, a moment of pure relaxation. We sat in the tiny alley under umbrellas that filled the whole Street with our first cold beer enjoying the moment and planning what we’d see over the next two days.
The restaurant was a tad pricier than hoped and tasty rather than spectacular. I left wondering if I’d ordered the right thing having seen the glowing TripAdvisor reviews, but if ordered the house speciality (veal and beef wrapped in dough with a small cheese covered baked potato on the side), so many it just wasn’t that good!
After lunch we finally hit the walls. It was a beautiful clear and sunny day which gave us beautifully picturesque views across the city. The terracotta roofs were bright orange under the blue sky and the creamy stone buildings made a striking contrast with the rich blue sea.
Dubrovnik Old Town is astoundingly beautiful and every vista from the walls seemed more beautiful than the last. We took endless photos on the 2km anticlockwise loop around the walls. It wasn’t too busy, although apparently it can be rammed in high season although and on days when cruises arrive in town (which we appear to have missed).
I highly recommend this as a first activity in Dubrovnik as it’s a great way to get a sense of the scale of the city and to orient yourself. From the walls, we could see out to Lokrum island across the sea, up to the hill behind where the cable car runs tourists up and down, the fortress perched on the hill opposite the walls and across all the towers and spires of churches in the old town.
The best views are from the final fortress before you descend the walls (Minčeta) which is much higher up than the others, commanding a broader panorama of the town and sea. It’s a bit of a gruelling climb up to the very top especially in the direct heat of the sun 140kn (about £16) gets you entrance to the walls, one of the more expensive attractions but not one you could miss.
On the way back to our room to freshen up for dinner we stopped to admire Onofrio’s Large Fountain and the tiny St. Saviour’s church at the foot of the entrance to the walls. We also headed into the Franciscan Monastery, site of Europe’s oldest pharmacy. The beautiful cloister is surrounded by dainty Romanesque columns topped with a variety of beasts and figures.
Dinner was beer and pizza to try to save some money. We sat in the same alley in which we had eaten lunch, in a little pizza place called Mirakul. I had the capricciosa which was adequate but not really like Italian pizza.
As we were halfway through dinner we started to see the odd flash of lightening and hear the odd thunder clap. Gradually the rain started, heavy and persistent at first followed by completely tropical. The staff obviously knew the drill and wound the awnings out to full stretch so they more or less covered the entire width of the tiny street. As the water started to overwhelm the awning, pouring from the gutters and down the walls, punters dropped like flies, seeking shelter inside the tiny restaurant.
Still fairly dry, we hung on at our table finishing our beers. We soon realised a small river was rushing past our feet under the tables- with nothing but shiny stone and the odd drain, the water built up quickly into a torrent around our ankles and we had to keep our feet up, chairs like small islands amidst the rising current.
We wondered if we would ever get out, but the rain gradually eased and we waded, shoes in hand, across to the restaurant to use the card machine. It was still fairly heavy as we picked our way gingerly down the narrow streets from awning to awning looking for shelter back to our room. The water was icy underfoot having been accompanied at some points by hail. Quite a first night adventure!
We were up at 7am to find some breakfast before our 9:30 kayak tour along the town walls and out past Lokrum. We stopped at a small restaurant in a side street off of Stradun, I’m not sure I ever saw the name. We had eggs, ham, bread and bacon. My eggs were runny despite asking that they be cooked through…a constant annoyance when I travel. I hate runny eggs! Croatian bacon, however, is delicious. It looks so thin and unassuming, but it packs some serious taste.
After breakfast we headed out of the Pile Gate dressed in our swimming gear and headed to a small pier below the fortress where we congregated for our kayak tour with Adventure Dalmatia.
We packed our belongings into a dry bag and a tiny watertight barrel on the two-man kayak and climbed in from the little jetty. We had a rough start, neither of us having kayaked before. We quickly fell behind the group, zig zagging all over the place and struggling to keep up. The guide had to keep coming back to encourage us. We were very glad to group up for a short rest and a little story about Dubrovnik.
The sun on the water was so beautiful and being out on the sea gave us beautiful views of Dubrovnik’s Walls and the mountains behind. We circled Lokrum Island, where we planned to head for the afternoon after the kayak tour. We pulled in at a beautiful cave where the water was a brilliant turquoise. We bobbed there for a 10 minute break and then headed out carefully navigating the jagged rocks where the waves crashed around us and tried to pull us off course.
Finally getting the hang of things once we realised we could get extra leverage from planting our feet more securely in the kayak, we moved to the front of the pack and glided ahead. Our next and final stop was a cave near the city’s harbour for a quick prosciutto sandwich and some snorkelling. We also passed Dubrovnik’s medieval quarantine, credited with Dubrovnik having never suffered a plague.
It was hard getting out of the kayak and back into the water to swim due to the sharp shingle (wear waterproof shoes if you have them!). The sea was freezing cold but it was nice to have a break from paddling to explore a bit. Just 20 mins of paddling and a slightly scary crossing of the harbour’s mouth bad is back on the jetty and headed back to our room in the centre of town still in our soaking wet clothes.
Having been tantalisingly close to Lokrum, we decided the best use of our afternoon would be to head back to the island to explore. We headed to the harbour to catch the boat (on the hour and half past – 140 kn which includes your entrance fee). It’s about a 15 minute crossing to Lokrum giving you beautiful views back to Dubrovnik.
Lokrum is a nature reserve meaning no one can stay on the island overnight so it’s a tranquil paradise even with all the visitors. The smell of pine and the other shrubs hits you as you disembark. It’s a welcome green space after the beautiful but entirely paved Old Town. We headed across the small island to see the ‘dead sea’, a salty pool which is in fact fed by an underground chamber from the sea (apparently a skilled diver can make it between the two) although it looks like a tiny land locked sea.
We also wandered around the partially ruined monastic complex where we stumbled across out first rabbit.
I knew Lokrum was famous for its peacocks and rabbits but I had been expecting the little grey rabbits you see on verges in the UK, but these are huge, luxuriously fluffy rabbits like you’d keep as a pet. They know that people feed them so will happily come scampering over to investigate you, especially if you have a bag which might contain food, although they’re quick to run off again when they realise there are no treats in store.
The monastery complex contains a small cafe / bar area in a beautiful garden that looks out to the sea. A peacock with a huge tail was wandering between the tables trying his luck for a snack. He had the biggest tail I’ve ever seen and I stalked him through the garden photographing his plumage until he picked up some speed and disappeared through an opening in the walled garden.
Our last visit of the day was to the Napoleonic fortress on the island’s highest ground, started during French occupation of the island in 1806 and finished under Austrian administration in 1835 . It is up an incredibly steep, rocky path, which just seems to keep going as the end of the path is obscured by the trees each side.
The views from the top more than make up for the effort expended in climbing to the fortress. You see a complete panorama around the island with other islands and the coast off in the distance and Dubrovnik’s walls to the other side. It really gave me a sense of how far we’d kayaked that morning!
Lokrum has plenty of other interesting sites including a botanic garden and church. You could easily spend a whole day here (or even visit more than once if you were in Dubrovnik for a while)- take a picnic and your swimming stuff, there are even volley ball courts.
We headed back to the harbour, stopping briefly to watch more rabbits and peacocks in Lokrum’s olive grove. The boat heads back to Dubrovnik at 15 and 45 past the hour, with the last two boats leaving at 17:15 and 18:00. If you get caught on the island after 6pm the fire department come to rescue you…at your own expense.
For dinner we had a reservation at 360 Restaurant, one of Dubrovnik’s upscale restaurants perched on the city walls near the Ploče Gate entrance to the Old Town. The sunset views across the harbour were a lovely way to say goodbye to Durbrovnik. The meal was about £65 a head for two courses and an alcoholic drink we each – we saved our money and had an ice cream on the way back to the room for dessert.
The wine list, however, is excellent if you have a few thousand to spare, plenty of Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Latour and Margaux on offer! We started with a great amuse bouche, but the food was disappointing as the meal went on, beautifully presented but not quite ticking the boxes in the flavour department.
A stopover in Split
After breakfast from the bakery of a meat-filled burek (delicious, but heavy for breakfast) we picked up the car from the Hertz rental in downtown (walking distance from the Old Town) and set off for Split.
After a few wrong turns we were on the coast road and heading away from Dubrovnik. I was very sad to leave Dubrovnik and will definitely be back- it’s just so beautiful and relaxed. The coast road is stunning, with constant sweeping views of the sea and the red roofed towns below.
We stopped briefly in Bosnia to fill up with petrol (and to say that we also went to Bosnia!)- we had no clue what currency we were paying in or how much it cost. After miles of beautiful coastal scenery we were onto the freeway. There are tolls for the freeways, but we never paid much more than about 80 kn for a leg of our journey.
All together it took about 4 hours with a stop for lunch (more burek…feeling queasy now) and the small detour at the start. We arrived just after lunch and found that we could park near the ferry terminals at the train station for 10 kn an hour. Luckily our accommodation had a cheaper alternative, but in a bind it’s a good central spot.
We spent the afternoon and evening wandering Split’s narrow streets and seeing the main attractions. We started with a beer (of course!) say in the peristyle of Diocletian’s Palace, a beautifully proportioned square ringed with porphyry Corinthian columns and overseen by the looming cathedral bell tower.
You can buy two different tickets to see various attractions in Split, a red or a blue ticket, depending on what you want to see. We went for the blue ticket which was 25 kn and lets you into the Cathedral, crypt, baptistery and bell tower. The red ticket is 35 kn and also lets you into the treasury (and I think one other). Just make sure you look out for the signs or ask about the tickets, as we did the bell tower first and it wasn’t clear there that a combined ticket was an option.
Climbing the bell tower is a must do experience, giving you great views across the town and harbour below, rivalling views from Dubrovnik’s walls. The walk up is a rather scary, a slightly bouncy, spindly metal path nailed to the bare walls inside the tower. It spirals all the way up and you can see right out of the tower and through and down the walkway itself to the tower below. You feel a bit exposed, like you’re floating above Split, although I rather enjoyed the feeling and it also gives you plenty of opportunities to look out.
The other big ticket item with a separate entrance fee is the basement halls of Diocletian’s Palace, which extends below the peristyle, both sides of part of the halls now used as a small souvenir market. It replicates the palace that would have stood above, Diocletian’s retirement home built in the late 3rd century. It’s a huge underground warren of dark, dripping chambers, some huge and cavernous and others smaller, square chambers.
The brickwork and mortar is fascinating on its own, an interesting example of Roman domestic building, hard to come across outside of the Versuvian sites, and those are some 300 years older than this.
In Split we finally had a great meal in the tiny Vila Spiza. Both rough guide and TripAdvisor highly recommended it. It’s a tiny little place with a constant queue outside where the hand-written menu changes daily depending on what’s fresh. We were extremely lucky to turn up around 8pm when a table was leaving and got a table for 4 which we shared with 2 other travellers. We tried both the tuna steak (albacore) and the house pasta, a unique combination of pasta, minced pork, cream, and black truffle (truffle is omnipresent in Croatian cooking due to the abundance of truffle in the Istria region, which we sadly didn’t visit.
If you’re a foodie, then it’s possibly to join truffle hunting tours in the region. The portions were enormous, the pasta was easily enough for two and the meal, including our beers and wine, was exceptionally good value. It was our favourite meal in Croatia by far…and the cheapest. If you can manage to get a table (they don’t take bookings) then you should definitely eat there. I’d even condone waiting outside for half an hour…I never queue for food.
While poking around looking for then restaurant we came across the closed St. Martin’s Church which we made a note to visit the following morning before the drive to Zadar.
Fascinating St. Martin’s Church is up a small flight of stairs in a passage just to the right after you enter Split’s Golden Gate. It’s 5 kn entry and 2 kn for an information pamphlet- probably the best quid I spent in Croatia. It was turned into a Christian church at the beginning of the 9th century and has a beautiful 11th central choir screen in a space no bigger than a corridor (in fact it is a corridor inside the walls and just 1.64m by 10m).
Fabulously rare to see, I was so glad we came back before leaving split. The carvings on the screen were simple yet beautiful and the whole place had a magical feel about it despite the small size and relative lack of adornment.
A day trip to Krka National Park
On the way to Zadar we made a detour to Krka National Park. We were told to take the coast road rather than the freeway as it was more attractive…having started out following the his advice we soon discovered this was a massive detour adding over an hour to our journey and we had to cut back in to take a detour across country to save time. The drive takes you through wine country and we passed acre after acre of vineyard.
Unfortunately, it took us a while to find the Lozovac entrance to Krka due to road works which blocked the existing road. After a few go’s back and forth we realised a signed must be saying diversion in Croatian and we headed down a tiny winding road to the parking lot. Entry was 110 kn but parking is free – the price goes up to 180 kn for July and August and drops to just 30 kn in the winter (full price list here).
Lozovac is the closest entrance for walking to Skradinski Buk to swim in the waterfall and much quicker than taking the boat across the lake from Skradin. You can either take the shuttle bus down to the start of the walkways or walk the 875m down the path. We opted to walk rather than take the bus and it was a pleasant stroll, although it’s advisable to have sturdy shoes due to the loose stones under foot.
The boardwalks around Krka form a much smaller tour around than those in Plitvice, with the whole loop at just 2km. The major advantage of Krka is the ability to swim in the pool at the foot of the biggest waterfall, which ends a series of falls through the heart of the park.
The water is the same beautiful emerald as in Plitvice which you can walk over on the boardwalks while watching the fish lingering in the crystal clear waters and hear hordes of frogs croaking.
It was a stunning and relaxing experience in spite of the crowds and tour groups of school trips. Once wed walked the majority of the loop we arrive at the beautiful Skradinski Buk, where people were gingerly creeping down the rocks into the pool. We stopped at the cafe at the bottom to have something to eat…extremely average Ćevapčići (skinless Balkan sausages) and chips but you’re not exactly spoilt for choice in the park! There’s also a toilet but you have to pay…there’s a free one about 10 minutes further on).
After lunch it was time to swim (not the conventional way around but we love a bit of danger!). There’s nowhere obvious to leave your things so bags are scattered about lodged in tree roots and on small mud bank islands as you wade out to the lake. We stripped to our swimming stuff (apart from the pay toilets there’s no where to change so it pays to arrive ready), slathered in the sun scream and waded out bags out to a small island with a tree where we could leave our bags in sight and close wading distance of the pool.
It can be alternately rough and slippy underfoot and since it’s a natural pool it’s sometimes deep and sometimes full of huge rocks, so it pays to wear some kind of waterproof shoes and to be extremely careful where you tread. The water is freezing but the view is so stunning you won’t care. Truly an amazing experience, so much so it’s hard to take it all in.
The walk back to the bus stop (it was quite hot so we opted to take the bus back rather than walk) has some great viewing points for the falls as well as some souvenir shops and some old water Mills. We stopped for photos but didn’t linger much as we wanted to get on the road to Zadar in time for sunset.
The drive was easy and uneventful with little in the way of dramatic scenery (we’d been spoilt so far!). We finally arrived in Zadar around 5pm where there’s free parking right on the harbour of the old town between the red and white and green and white lighthouses. We headed to our accommodation which was cheap, clean and spacious. Our hosts were endlessly helpful pointing out the main sights and helping to carry our bags.
After finally showering the lake water off, we headed out to start ticking off Zadar’s churches. I had 10 on my list (here’s the Google map I’ve since constructed [pending!]) and we didn’t have too much time the next day, needing to get on the road to Plitvice.
One day walking tour of Zadar
I was expecting Zadar to be like Split and Dubrovnik, a tiny, perfectly formed and intimate little city. Zadar is in fact a real mix, even in the very centre, where ugly 60s concrete structures sit next to the earliest and rarest of Byzantine churches.
It was an odd move in town planning (assuming, of course, that it was planned). But I didn’t really mind, I was there for the churches and could happily turn a blind eye to the occasional eyesore.
The very centre of the town sits on a peninsula jutting out into the sea, which feels like a town within a town. Outside of this, Zadar is quite large with a population of 75,000.
Zadar was the ancient capital of Dalmatia so is rammed with antique treasures, including the remnants of a Roman forum and, most notably, its plethora of Romanesque churches. I planned a walking route on the free map we got from our rented apartment to see all the churches and other sites I was interested in for the day we were in Zadar- I’ve recreated most of this in the Google map below. Unfortunately I couldn’t get all of it to embed, so here is the full link https://goo.gl/maps/QhSGcCYLcAB2.
We had seen the cathedral the evening we arrived since it opened late (except the bell tower) but went back for a second look. It has subtly coloured marble columns and the facade is punctuated with rose windows and carvings in the arches of the Romanesque doors.
Statues of the apostles and angels still line the door frames in remarkably good condition given the building is 12th and 13th centuries. The frieze around the cathedral is particularly interesting, with a length of twisting acanthus spotted with various different animals, including some interesting scenes such as a dog and bird fighting over some grapes.
Behind the cathedral is the 56m high bell tower with commanding views across Zadar and the sea. It’s a tough climb but totally worth the views, although you have to pay 10 kuna for the privilege.
There are numerous other churches in Zadar and a number of museums and other sights. Unfortunately not all churches are open for viewing, such as the 12th century St Chrysogonus, named after the patron saint of the city. It is the only remaining part of a large medieval Benedictine abbey. Sadly it is rarely open.
Another fascinating example is St Andrew and St Peter the Elder with parts dating from the 5th and 6th century, but with very plain and unassuming 17th century facade.
The church is now used as an art gallery selling local crafts and paintings which means its open to the public. To the rear of the very plain, central nave, remnants of 12th century frescoes survive in the apse.
We also checked out the museum of ancient glass which is near the Port Gate – it’s only a small collection but includes ad hoc glass blowing demonstrations and a fascinating collection of Roman glass, much of it discovered in the local area. This includes some really big glass vessels used for the burial of remains after cremation. They were usually buried inside pottery urns which must account for the survival of so many delicate glass objects. I had never comes across these before so found it particularly fascinating.
It’s not a massive collection so an hour is more than enough to have a look around before continuing a walking tour around the peninsula. Keep your eyes peeled in Zadar to spot some of the Venetian style architecture remaining from Venetian rule during the 16th to 18th centuries.
There are a number of Venetian style windows to spot down the alleyways, as well as the Land Gate.
Near the Land Gate you can also check out Five Wells Square, build in 1574. The square contains, you guessed it, five wells. It’s right next to a park which gives you a shady place to hang out, complete with cafes and bars and a view over Zadar’s ramparts.
The night we arrived in Zadar we had time to sit with a drink and take in the sunset. Due to Zadar’s position and a generous viewing area where the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation are, you get uninhibited views of the sun as it dips behind the sea in the distance. For me this is an absolute must-do Zadar experience
The Sea Organ was completed in 2005, designed by a local architect. Waves push air through the underwater pipes and through the gaps cut into the steps to create musical sounds. It’s a lovely calming experience to sit watching the sunset and listening to the organ – it really does work! Just don’t get too brave- we saw the unexpected wave of a passing boat cause not only a rather shrill crescendo from the organ but also a few slightly damp tourists who had to spring up the steps out the way.
Make sure you swing by the Sun Salutation again at night to see the ever changing light displays.
A day trip to the Plitvice National Park
Where to stay
We arrived in the Plitvice area early the day before visiting the lakes so we could relax and have a break from driving. We stayed in an amazing B&B with beautiful views over the mounts which you could enjoy from a hot tub no less. We also had a little sheltered balcony which we sat on that evening to watch a dramatic thunder storm over the hills.
I wholeheartedly recommend Guest House Plitvice Hills if you want to stay in the Plitvice area (which is wise, it gives you a jump start on the tour buses in the morning)- it’s about a 30 minute drive from entrances to the park, beautifully tidy and clean with great hosts and a hot tub outside!
When is it open and how much does it cost?
Prices change throughout the year, so it’s best to check the website which also contains information on parking charges and the hours of operation for the boats and trains that ferry tourists around certain stretches of the route: http://www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/plan-your-visit/explore-the-park/visiting-programmes/
We went at the beginning of June and paid 110 kuna for a one day ticket. The park also offers guided tours, but I’m not sure what that would add to the experience.
Which route to take around Plitvice
I was very excited about visiting Plitvice, having seen how stunning Krka was. Plitvice is far larger than Krka and contains a series of 16 lakes spread across the upper and lower lakes interspersed with waterfalls of all sizes. There are a number of different walking routes which you’ll see on boards when you enter the park.
Generally speaking there are signs at each junction showing you where each route goes, although there was the odd place where we got confused as they don’t like to tell you where on the map you are at any point! I also found it difficult to find the right information ahead of time to help us make a decision about the route, but I have dug out this information for you here: http://www.np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/plan-your-visit/explore-the-park/visiting-programmes/
We entered through Entrance 1, which gives you the option of doing routes A, B or C. We chose route C which takes you through both the upper and lower lakes. Route C is a 4 – 6 hour route, although we comfortably did it in 4 hours even with stopping every 5 minutes to take photos. I recommend it if you want to see the most of the park in a reasonable amount of time- I think it’s a shame to go and restrict yourself to either the upper or lower lakes, which some of the routes do.
Route C involves a long crossing of the large lake, Kozjak and a smaller crossing. The boats go every 10 or 15 minutes or so, so you never need to wait long.
Plitvice has some unbelievable scenery, not least the amazing emerald covered water which is almost too spectacular to believe and is not done justice by any means in my photos.
The water is also beautifully clear, letting you see fish and even huge, submerged objects as though you were looking straight through glass.
After you’ve walked across kilometre after kilometre of boardwalks past lakes and waterfalls you finally come to the ‘train’ (more of a bus with trailers) which takes you back to the two entrances.
Plitvice is certainly not something to miss in Croatia and can easily be done as a day trip from Zagreb or Zadar, even if your itinerary won’t allow you a night there.
18 hours in Zagreb
After a pretty tiring week of walking and driving, it was time to take it a bit easy. We only had 18 hours in Zagreb, arriving at 5pm after our trip around Plitvice lakes and having to leave shortly before 11am the next day for our flight home.
Rather than try to cram in loads of sights and museums (my usual MO!) we opted for a leisurely walk around in the evening with a long dinner and early night, followed by a bit more wandering around the next morning.
If you’ve got more time there then it seems to be a great place for shopping, sightseeing and dining and drinking.
We limited our adventures to parts of the medieval town, including the Cathedral, Stone Gate, and St Mark’s Church. I had a lovely truffle pasta dish (truffles are everywhere in Croatia) in Agava on Ul. Ivana Tkalčića, which appeared to be the main dining street in Zagreb.
It was a shame not to do more in Zagreb, but I don’t at all regret the itinerary I followed which allowed to me to see so much of the country in one week.