Croatia is a current travel hotspot, and with good reason. With scenic landscapes, beautiful beaches, picturesque historic cities and low prices, Croatia has attracted increasing numbers of visitors over the past several years. I was charmed by the photos I’d seen and by the recommendations of other travelers, so I decided to make Croatia my last stop in Europe before my mid-January flight to Thailand.
Admittedly, winter is not Croatia’s peak season. Many of the typical attractions were closed and I definitely didn’t consider visiting the beaches, but I still found plenty to see and do during my visit to Croatia’s most-visited cities: Zagreb, Dubrovnik and Split. I saved money on accommodation by visiting off-season and had the opportunity to see how the locals live when the streets aren’t full of tourists.
To help you plan your visit to Croatia, I’ve listed my three favorite activities in each of the three cities as well as an overview of my day at Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Zagreb is Croatia’s capital city and typically the cheapest entry point by air. Because it’s located in the north end of the country and far inland, the climate is cooler than the other main tourist destinations and the beaches are miles away. However, Zagreb has beautiful architecture, tons of coffee shops (yippee!) and some unique museums. It’s also within easy driving distance of Plitvice Lakes National Park, the largest park in Croatia.
Here are my top three favorites in Zagreb.
The Museum of Broken Relationships
On my first full day in Zagreb, the snow was falling fast in giant flakes. It was both beautiful and cold. I stopped into the tourist information center adjacent to Ban Jelačić Square and asked what indoor attractions they could recommend in Zagreb. The employees at the front desk were friendly and anxious to help. One girl pulled a map from behind the desk and pointed out a museum a few blocks away….The Museum of Broken Relationships.
I’ve been to more museums than I can count during the past several months, but this was definitely something new. I zipped up my coat, pulled my scarf a little tighter around my neck and set out to find this place.
The Museum of Broken Relationships consists of several small, categorized rooms featuring mementoes from relationships that ended along with brief stories about each item. Most of the items on display relate to romantic relationships, but one room is dedicated to broken family relationships. Throughout the museum, some of the stories are sweet and nostalgic, some are a little disturbing and others are just downright depressing.
I was nearly in tears reading some of the stories — and I left thinking that I never want to be in another romantic relationship ever, ever again — but still, the museum was fascinating from start to finish. If you’re an adult and you’re visiting Zagreb, don’t miss this unique museum. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about the emotional trauma.
The admission fee is 30 kuna (about $4.25) and takes about 2.5 hours to finish if you read every story.
Coffee and Toast at Velvet
You don’t have to know me well to know that I love a good coffee shop. And Velvet may be my favorite of all the places I’ve had coffee in Europe. The lattes are yummy and cheap (less than $2). But what really got me was the decor. When you walk through the door, you may feel as if you’ve been welcomed into your artsy best friend’s super-cozy living room. The place is filled with books, cool art, muted lighting, velvet curtains…I could go on. Oh, and they won’t mind if you sit on your laptop in the corner for hours on end. If you like a little style along with your espresso, be sure to try this spot.
I found a small table in the back and ordered a latte and toast. At Velvet and at other restaurants I visited in Croatia, “toast” is not just bread and butter but a thin version of the American grilled ham and cheese sandwich. I enjoyed my latte and toast in this beautiful setting while chatting with two locals for a couple of hours, and I spent less than $3.50.
You’ll find coffee shops all over Zagreb (many of them good, I’m told), but Velvet is hidden from the main street and mostly frequented by locals.
Zagreb’s main square, Ban Jelačić, has existed since the 17th Century and is the main hub of activity in the city’s downtown. Pick up a map at the tourist information center located next to the square and take some time to explore the surrounding streets and admire the historic architecture as the aged city trams rumble by.
Though it was too cold and snowy for me to spend much time wandering, I enjoyed walking past the shops and cafes housed in old buildings, seeing the city’s outdoor market and taking in the views from the old town, otherwise known as the “upper town.”
I took a cheap flight from Zagreb to the picturesque city of Dubrovnik, where I stayed at a guesthouse located in the old city. I recommend staying inside the city walls if you decide to visit Dubrovnik, as that’s where most of the attractions are located. The area has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.
Of the three cities I visited in Croatia, Dubrovnik, though beautiful, was the sleepiest in January. The weather was much warmer than in Zagreb, but many of the shops, restaurants and museums were closed and I saw very few people in the streets. However, the main attraction in the city is walking atop the city walls, and that is open year-round.
I enjoyed my stay in Dubrovnik enough that I would really like to go back. October would be a better time to visit if you’re interested in seeing fewer people but still indulging in all the city has to offer. If you do decide to visit in wintertime, as I did, one to two days in Dubrovnik will be enough. Here are my top three favorites in Dubrovnik.
Walking the City Walls
If you do nothing else in Dubrovnik, you must walk atop the walls of the old city. The expansive views of those iconic tile rooftops, the mountains in the distance and the Adriatic Sea are truly stunning. If you’re moving fast, you can complete the circuit around the city in 30-40 minutes. But really, why rush? I spent more than two hours taking photos and just enjoying the views.
Unlike some other cities I’ve visited in Europe, Dubrovnik charges a fee to explore the city walls. The cost for that activity alone is currently 120 kuna (about $17), which is pricey but still worthwhile.
A potentially better option, though, is to purchase a Dubrovnik Card from the tourist information office located just outside of the old city at the Pile Gate. The 24-hour card is 150 kuna (less if you purchase it online) and includes the city walls, five museums and a 24-hour public transportation pass. I bought the Dubrovnik Card and visited three of the five museums. Unfortunately, the Rector’s Palace, which is included with the card, was closed for renovation.
The public transportation pass is separate from the Dubrovnik Card and the two can be activated on different days. I used the Dubrovnik Card during my first 24 hours in the city and used the transport pass a couple of days later to get from the old city to the main bus station (about 1.5 miles away) for my trip to Split.
Wandering through the Old City
In addition to seeing Dubrovnik from above, be sure to take some time to wander within the old city. Dubrovnik is known as the “Pearl of the Adriatic.” That’s a fitting title in part because the entire old city is constructed of shiny white stone.
The old city is basically organized in a grid. The Stradun, also known as the “Placa,” is the main street running through the center of the old city. It is bordered by shops and restaurants, and numerous narrow streets form perpendicular branches from this main thoroughfare. More shops and restaurants, plus museums, guesthouses, monasteries and churches are hidden among these stone alleyways, just awaiting your discovery.
The cathedral and most of the old stone churches were locked when I visited Dubrovnik, but I was lucky enough to explore the beautiful Church of St. Ignatius, located on the south side of the city at the top of a striking set of Baroque steps. Be sure to take a few minutes to step inside and admire the church’s unique interior.
Relaxing at the oceanside bar
As I left the Church of St. Ignatius, I noticed a wooden sign hanging at the far end of the church’s front courtyard. It said “Best Ocean View, Cold Drinks” with an arrow. So obviously… I followed it.
The arrow pointed up a set of stone steps, and another sign led me through a narrow doorway that was cut into the stone wall on my left. I stepped through the doorway and onto a set of wood and metal stairs. The little sign had not lied. This was, indeed, Dubrovnik’s best ocean view.
As far as I know, the narrow makeshift cafe hugging the side of the cliff does not have a name. But it did have a cooler full of cold drinks. Cash only.
I chose a little bottle of papaya juice and settled in at a little round table right next to the railing. A beautiful orange tabby cat hopped into the seat next to me and carefully admired its shadow as the sun began to set over the water. When the air became too chilly, I paid for my juice, gazed out at the beautiful scene one more time, slipped through the stone doorway and headed back toward the center of town to find dinner.
From Dubrovnik, I took a bus to the beautiful seaside town of Split. Even in January, Split had a lot going on. Many of the museums were closed, but the atmosphere was vibrant, the weather was beautiful, people filled the streets and sidewalk cafes, and most of the restaurants were open.
I made several visits to a tiny but great coffee shop and bar in the center of town called To Je To, which is owned by expats from the U.S. and South America. The lattes are fabulous (and cheap), they serve lots of local beers at night, and everyone who works there is so helpful and friendly. Sit at the bar and make friends with the bartender when you go!
I also stayed at a great place in Split called Tchaikovsky Hostel, which I recommend checking out if you’re traveling on a budget. It’s a small hostel but very clean, stylish and modern with a friendly staff and a great location.
As far as activities are concerned, these were my top three favorites in Split:
Marjan Forest Park
I visited this park — both with a friend at night and by myself during the day — each day during my stay in Split. Climbing the stairs to the first level viewing area is a great workout, and the sights of the city from above are truly breathtaking. A cafe that serves drinks is located next to the viewing area, so you can grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the view!
If you continue up the ramp behind the viewing platform, you’ll be able to explore much more of the park, including another area with seating at the very top of the mountain. The views at that point are mostly obscured by trees, but it’s rewarding to make it to the top nonetheless. Each day, the park was filled with families and individuals walking their dogs, jogging and biking along the paths.
The park is free and it’s a great way to escape the bustling city below.
Diocletian’s Palace is Split’s top tourist destination. The palace was built by the Roman emperor Diocletian at the turn of the fourth century A.D. and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The original palace grounds house Split’s old city and are home to numerous restaurants, museums and other attractions. I had fun exploring the area, enjoying the architecture and stumbling upon restaurants tiny (and delicious) enough to make me feel as though I’d wandered into someone’s home kitchen.
Because Diocletian’s Palace has essentially merged with the city, there isn’t an admission fee (or a sign), but you will find the boundaries noted on your tourist map. However, if you’re interested in exploring the basement (or “substructures”) of the palace, there is a fee of around $5 for that privilege. A friend I met at the hostel told me there really wasn’t much to see in the basement, so I was content to explore the portion of the palace that sits above-ground for free.
Sunset at the Harbor
Split’s palm tree-lined harbor area, with its wide promenade, sidewalk cafes and busy docks, is a centerpiece of the city and a perpetual hub of activity. On my last evening in Split, I joined several others on a long stone seating area built on a jetty extending from the harbor’s western shore. It’s a beautiful place to see the sun go down and to watch as nearby buildings are bathed in the fading golden light.
A group of people sitting near me had brought blankets and cold beers along to watch the sun’s evening show. Very smart!
Next time, I’ll be better prepared.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
After spending a few days in Split, I took a bus back to Zagreb in preparation for my flight to Bangkok. I had a full day before my departure and had heard so much about Plitvice Lakes National Park that I knew it was a place I couldn’t miss.
In the summertime, tour companies offer daily round-trip transportation to the park in air-conditioned vans for around $28. During the winter months, the vans are more expensive and run less frequently, so it’s best to take a regular public bus. I took a tram from the hostel to the bus station, bought a ticket to Plitvice Lakes and arrived at the park around noon, a little more than two hours later. (Click here for the public bus info from Zagreb.)
The park entry fee is around $8. I asked whether there was a printed park guide or map available when I purchased my ticket, and the employee shook her head. “Just follow the signs for trail ‘B’ at every intersection,” she said, quickly closing the little sliding window. Hmm…okay.
A few large-scale maps scattered throughout the park detail the four or five trails of varying lengths for visitors to follow. At the map just inside the entrance, I saw that trail B had an estimated completion time of 3-4 hours, which would allow me to see the park and be back at the front gate in time to catch the 4:45 p.m. bus back to Zagreb. The route includes a short ferry ride across the lake, which is a nice little addition to the park experience.
I saw a few other groups of people during my visit, but the park was not crowded by any means. I had a nice hike and enjoyed seeing all the gorgeous natural waterfalls along the trail.
Once the sun began to go down around 4 p.m., the weather became windy and quite chilly. I found my way to the exit and saw that the park’s bare-bones cafe, serving expensive instant coffee and hot chocolate, was open nearby. I just couldn’t bear to waste my money, so I waited for the bus on a bench outside. Brrr...
My heart leapt when the bus finally pulled up for the journey back to Zagreb!
In spite of the sometimes chilly weather and quiet surroundings, I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Croatia. The country is very affordable, the people are friendly and the sights are often breathtaking. Croatia, even in January, is definitely worth the trip. I will be back, and I hope you’ll go too!