Best things to do in Croatia
Find out more about those top places in Croatia
It is hard to imagine a more spectacular city than Dubrovnik. Nestled beneath barren limestone crags, the city’s old town walls remain as spectacularly imposing today as they would have been to Ottoman invaders in the Middle Ages. The city’s maze of medieval streets and cobbled alleyways conceal bejeweled Renaissance villas, which were once home to the city’s immensely wealthy patricians. Much like Venice, Dubrovnik’s star attraction is the gothic Doge’s Palace, which crowns the city’s main square. While the success of Game of Thrones has catapulted Dubrovnik to international stardom, it has not always been such smooth sailing for this bewitching seaside city. After falling to the status of provincial backwater for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, it was only Dubrovnik’s shelling during the Yugoslav Wars that alerted the world to this remarkable hidden gem of a city.
Catapulted to worldwide fame through their starring role in Game of Thrones, Dubrovnik’s awe-inspiring city walls, complete with 15 imposing forts, are now one of Europe’s most sought after destinations. No trip to the city would be complete without admiring the old town from the medieval bastions and for the best experience local guides can take you on a tour that will reveal the city’s rich history of repelling Ottoman invasion.
Comparable only to the Doge’s Palace in Venice, a trip to Dubrovnik’s 15th century Rector’s Palace is one of the best ways to experience first hand the riches of medieval Ragusa. Today the palace is the Cultural History Museum, which contains a treasure trove of Ragusan artifacts spread across the palace’s vast Gothic halls.
For a lofty view, take the cable car up to the top of Srd, a 400 meters high limestone crag that towers over the city. While the view may be one of the Adriatic’s most breathtaking, Srd has a dark history, as it was a key battleground in the Yugoslav Wars. To commemorate this bloody historical moment, a museum commemorating the conflict is located at the summit.
Barely a 10 minutes ferry ride off the coast of Dubrovnik lies the oak-clad islet of Lokrum. The centerpiece of this tranquil island is the vast Benedictine monastery, which has a well-maintained gothic cloister and a lush botanical garden with plants from as far afield as Brazil. For Game of Thrones enthusiasts, the island will be a highlight of Dubrovnik as you can pose next to a full-size replica of the iconic Iron Throne.
Showcasing the moving photographs taken by the New Zealand photojournalist Wade Goddard during the wars of the 1990s, War Photo Limited is Dubrovnik’s most moving attraction. Detailing the vicious shelling of the city, alongside the other conflicts that raged across the Balkans, the gallery provides a fascinating insight into the region’s harrowing history.
Allegedly funded by England’s King Richard I, better known as Lionheart, the Cathedral of the Assumption was largely constructed in the 12th century. Renowned for its dazzling marble pieces and medieval art, the cathedral is undoubtedly Dubrovnik’s most impressive places of worship.
Crafted by the famed sculptor Ivan Meštrovic, the statue of Dubrovnik’s most famous playwright Marin Držic adorns the Stradun. Držic, referred to locally as Croatia’s Shakespeare, was one of the Renaissance’s finest playwrights and tour guides can reveal locations in the city that relate to his most famous works. For those who want to know more about this great artist head to the insightful Marin Držic Museum.
Sponza Palace, one of Dubrovnik’s most ornate Renaissance buildings, was built in the mid-16th century and thankfully survived the destruction wrought by the 1667 earthquake. Today, the interior of this dazzling building houses the Memorial to the Defenders of Dubrovnik, which preserves black and white photographs of the young men and women who gave their lives defending their hometown between 1991 and 1995.
Overshadowed by its southern neighbor Dubrovnik, Split is Croatia’s true hidden gem. Hemmed in between the imposing peaks of the Dinaric Alps and the dazzling waters of the Adriatic Sea, Croatia’s second city is one of the Mediterranean’s most beguiling cities with its effortless blend of the Slavic, Italian and Turkish cultures. Split’s main attraction is undoubtedly the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s Palace, whose grand banqueting halls, throne rooms and marble corridors now form the streets and market squares of the city’s bustling center. The eastern suburbs also hide the ruins of Salona, once one of the largest cities in the Roman Empire. However, the sum of Split is more than just its Roman heritage. Its seafront promenade is one of Europe’s most chic while the Ottoman hilltop fortress of KIis provides panoramic views of the Dalmatian Coast and was a key filming location for the blockbuster series Game of Thrones.
You cannot visit Split and not see Diocletian’s Palace as it is literally everywhere: the streets that form the atmospheric old town, the walls that line the romantic seafront promenade and the huge chunks of marble that have been incorporated into buildings all come from what was once one of the Roman Empire’s grandest buildings. To get to grips with the vast 4th century AD complex, local tour guides will take you to its star attractions, including its four monumental gates, the eerie cellars and the iconic peristyle.
For history enthusiasts, a tour of the vast ruined city of Salona is a highlight of any trip to Split. By the 3rd century AD Salona had developed into one of the Roman Empire’s most sophisticated cities with its amphitheater, forum, temple complexes and lavish villas but little more than 300 hundred years later it was sacked by the invading Avars and Slavs. Since then, the formerly grandiose city has been an enigmatic collection of ruins with a palpable sense of history.
Rising to fame in the first half of the 20th century, Ivan Meštrovic is undoubtedly Croatia’s most famous artist. The most complete collection of his powerful sculptures can be found in Split’s Meštrovic Gallery, which is housed in his former seaside villa. Tours of the spectacular gallery, which boasts breathtaking views of the nearby Adriatic islands, include entry to the nearby medieval Kaštilac, which houses his iconic Life of Christ wood reliefs.
The Cathedral of Saint Domnius is one of the best-preserved Roman buildings in existence. Located in what was once the core of Diocletian’s Palace, the cathedral is built around the former Roman emperor’s grandiose mausoleum. For those not afraid of heights, make sure to take a trip to the top of the bell tower for spectacular views of the old town.
Guarding the entrance to Split is the imposing Klis Fortress. Dominating the landscape for miles around, the fortress, which at various times was controlled by the Romans, the medieval Croatian Kingdom, the Ottoman Turks and the Venetians, is one of Croatia’s most historic locations. Today, the fortress is probably best known as the filming location for the blockbuster TV series Game of Thrones.
Just a short ferry across the bay, Trogir is one of Croatia’s best-preserved Venetian towns. Set on a tiny island linked to the mainland via medieval bridges, the town is a real hidden gem with a clutch of historic attractions, including the marble-clad Saint Lawrence Cathedral and the imposing Kamerlengo Castle. For the best experience, take a guided tour of the town to make sure you do not miss any of its standout attractions.
Just south of Split lies the charming medieval town of Omiš. Once a stronghold of pirates, the town is today best known for its labyrinthine cobbled streets, fantastic seafood and breathtaking gorge. For an unforgettable experience, take a boat tour up the sheer gorge, which is formed by the Cetina River, to see some of Croatia’s most jaw-dropping scenery.
Rising to the west of Split’s old town, the forest-clad Marjan Hill is where locals go to escape the summer heat. With plenty of shaded spots, the hill is perfect for hiking or exploring its numerous historical attractions, including an atmospheric Jewish cemetery consecrated in the 16th century and chapels once inhabited by Christian hermits.
A tour of Zagreb is one of Europe’s hidden gems. Spreading up the forested slopes of Mount Medvednica on the north bank of the River Sava, Croatia’s capital is a rare fusion of the world-famous laid back Mediterranean culture and Central Europe’s love for everything related to beer, sausages and art-noveau architecture. While Zagreb certainly is not as picturesque as Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, the vertiginous old town is dotted with examples of Croatia’s medieval heritage, including the dazzling Saint Mark’s Church. Spreading out around Ban Jelačić Square, the city’s new town is a master class in Habsburg town planning with neo-baroque, secessionist and art-noveau buildings lining grand boulevards that would not be out of place in Vienna. Since becoming capital of an independent Croatia in 1991, Zagreb has come out of its shell with a burgeoning art and design scene and youthful energy making now the perfect time to visit.
Located in the heart of Zagreb’s Upper Town, the dazzling 13th century Saint Mark’s Church is one of Croatia’s most instantly recognizable landmarks. Undoubtedly the highlight of a tour of this spectacular church is the multicolored rooftop with tiles forming the coat of arms of Croatia, Dalmatia and Slavonia while the interior houses sculptures by Croatia’s most famous artist, Ivan Meštrovic.
Towering over the Upper Town is Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, the most monumental Catholic place of worship in all the Balkans. With origins in the 12th century, the cathedral is also one of Croatia’s most historic locations with the interior containing a clutch of world-class medieval frescoes. The cathedral is undoubtedly a highlight of any tour of Zagreb’s old quarter.
Just a short hop on one of Zagreb’s iconic powder blue Yugoslav-era tramcars from the city center takes you to the grandiose cemetery of Mirogoj. While the exterior of the cemetery looks fortress-like, the interior is one of the Croatian capital’s most tranquil spots where you can explore the resting places of the country’s great and good that are peppered amongst the lush vegetation.
Located south of the River Sava in Novi Zagreb, the Museum of Contemporary Art is one of the city’s most thrilling museums. With a permanent collection showcasing Croatia’s burgeoning art scene and a packed schedule of temporary exhibitions, the museum has something to please all visitors. To get the best experience, guided tours and audio-guides are available.
Marking the border between the medieval Upper Town and the fin-de-siècle Lower Town, Dolac Market is Zagreb’s beating heart. With a plethora of stalls selling some of Croatia’s freshest produce, it is a joy to explore with fresh herbs, pickled vegetables, roasted meats and salty cheeses amongst the goods available to sample.
Undoubtedly one of Europe’s quirkiest museums, the Museum of Broken Relationships showcases various mementos left over from failed relationships. Equal parts heart wrenching and heart-warming, the museum is a surprisingly profound exploration of what it means to be human.
For those wanting to escape the buzz of Croatia’s capital, head for the forested slopes of nearby Mount Medvednica where you can explore a medieval fortress, go mountain biking and, in the crisp winter months, rent skis and snowboards.
The most popular day tour from Zagreb is to the picture-perfect mountain village of Samobor. Famed for its hilltop ruined castle, which was originally built by the Bohemians in the 13th century, and mouth-watering custard pies, known as kremšnite, the village is one of Croatia’s most enchanting locations.
Nestled in the interior mountains of the Balkan Peninsula, the eight kilometer string of azure blue lakes and lush waterfalls that comprise Plitvice Lakes are rightly one of Croatia’s star attractions. The unique landscape of Plitvice Lakes was formed by cascading mineral rich waters depositing limestone tufa in an array of weird and wonderful shapes, which over the course of several thousand years have formed a series of aquatic terraces. Today the lakes are home to a treasure trove of wildlife, including watersnakes, bears and wolves, and can be explored via natural trails, vintage cruise boats and on boardwalks over the turquoise waters. In a country as arid as Croatia, the subtropical wonderland of Plitvice Lakes makes a startling and refreshing change from the lunar landscape of the Dalmatian Coast.
To get the most of your visit to Plitvice Lakes, make sure to embark on a guided tour of the park’s iconic circular route. Encompassing the area’s most diverse and spectacular landscapes, including the lake’s main waterfalls and breathtakingly clear lakes, the circular route takes visitors through this natural wonderland via walking, panoramic train and electric boats across Kozjak Lake. All in all, a tour of the circular route is one of Croatia’s most unforgettable experiences.
North of the main lakes in Plitvice lies the restaurant-cum-cultural center of Licka Kuca where visitors to the park can experience traditional Northern Dalmatian hospitality. With a mouth-watering selection of regional dishes, including roasted lamb, poached fish and cured meats, the rustic mountain lodge lets you immerse yourself in Croatian culture.
A popular day tour from the lodges of Plitvice is the picture-perfect village of Rastoke, which has scarcely changed in hundreds of years. Known for its historic watermills, most of which were built in the 17th and 18th centuries, the village is one of Croatia’s most well-preserved.
Despite having some of the most impressive Roman ruins outside of Rome itself, Pula largely avoids the tourists that flock to the southern Dalmatian cities of Split, Zadar and Dubrovnik. Situated on the romantic Istrian Peninsula, it is one of Croatia’s busiest ports with a constant stream of ferries carrying passengers to and from Italy. As a working port, Pula has an energetic and vibrant character that keeps the city refreshingly gritty in comparison to nearby glitzy seaside resorts. Pula’s main draw in undoubtedly its Roman heritage, which includes the sixth largest surviving Roman amphitheater in the world and the awe-inspiring Temple of Augustus. However, the city is also an ideal gateway to the nearby Brijuni Islands National Park, which are covered in lush forests and surrounded by the sparkling waters of the Adriatic Sea.
Every visit to Pula begins with a tour of the city’s jaw-dropping Roman amphitheater. Built in the 1st century AD, the amphitheater is one of the best preserved in the world and would have once seated upwards of 20000 spectators bloody gladiator battles. For the best experience, guided tours can reveal some unexpected features of the arena, including the exotic animals that would once have lived in the cells beneath the arena.
Situated in the heart of downtown Pula, the Temple of Augustus has had a traumatic history. Built in the last century BC, the temple was subsequently converted into Pula’s first Christian church but was completely destroyed during World War Two. Thankfully, careful restoration work has restored this fine example of Roman architecture to its former glory.
Lying just off the Istrian coast is one of Croatia’s most enthralling landscapes, the Brijuni archipelago. Thanks to their diverse flora and fauna and important archaeological sites, the islands were designated as a national park in 1983 and today boat tours of these Adriatic gems depart regularly from Pula. For the best experience, take a snorkel so you can get a glimpse of Brijuni’s bio-diverse sea life.
The resplendent Arch of Sergii was once the grandiose entrance to the Roman town of Pula. Fascinatingly, the arch was erected in 27BC to commemorate the Sergius family who bravely fought at the Battle of Actium where Emperor Augustus defeated the forces of the famed Marc Anthony and Cleopatra.
Perched on the shores of the sparkling Adriatic Sea, Pula Cathedral is a vision in blindingly white marble. The site where the present medieval cathedral stands has been a place of worship for millennia and local tour guides will inform you of the area’s rich religious history and the cathedral’s relics.
Unlike any other aquarium in the world, Pula’s is housed in what was once an Austro-Hungarian fortress built to defend the empire’s most important port. With a vast array of species ranging from sharks (which are housed in an old artillery unit) to Indian sea pythons and gigantic starfish, the aquarium has displays to please any visitor.