Croatia is one of those Mediterranean destinations so rich in culture, history, and luminescent vistas that it’s hard to believe it’s a real place. Well, friends, you’re not dreaming. There really are white pebbled beaches and Roman ruins, dramatic limestone peaks and clear azure waters dotted with over 1,200 islands. Get to know more about this Adriatic fairyland with this Insider’s Guide to Croatia.
Ruled by various empires over millennia, Croatia did not declare its independence until 1991. It shares borders with Slovenia to the north, Hungary to the northeast, Serbia to the east, and Bosnia & Herzegovina to the southeast. The Adriatic Sea laps at the western coast.
Croatia’s geographic position at the crossroads of central and southeast Europe make it a cultural melting pot. Along the coast, expect a Mediterranean, almost Italian feel. Further inland, you’ll discover more central European vibes, with Slavic, Hungarian, and Austrian-influence traditions and cuisine.
Weather and When to Visit
Coastal Croatia has a much different climate than its interior. Temperatures along the Adriatic can reach 90°F during July and August. In winter, temperatures are relatively mild. Further inland, summer temperatures can also top 90°F, but the winters are much colder with a good deal of snow. During the winter, you may also experience the bura—a strong, northeasterly wind that blows toward the coast. It’s most prominent around the Velebit Mountains, but it can occur anywhere along the coast and during any season.
Croatia swarms with crowds (and prices soar) during July and August. The shoulder months of May–June and September–October generally offer better rates and fewer people. If you’re interested in snow sports in the Dinaric Alps, plan a wintertime trip.
Just like the climate, Croatian cuisine on the coast is much different than in the interior. Along the Adriatic, expect seafood dishes like brodet (a stew made with fish and eel and served over polenta) or Italian-style dishes like pasticada (a beef stew served with gnocchi). Inland, you’ll dine on eastern European dishes like stews, goulashes, soups, and meats. Truffles are popular in Istria, and the island of Pag is known for its sheep’s cheese and prsut, or prosciutto.
Money and Tipping
The official currency is the Kuna, not the Euro. Abbreviated as Kn, the word Kuna actually means “marten,” a rodent-like animal whose fur was used as currency by Croatians centuries ago. Credit cards are accepted at larger hotels, restaurants and tourist sites. Small, private establishments may operate on a cash-only basis, so it’s always a good idea to have cash on hand. You won’t have much trouble finding ATMs, and you can withdraw cash in Kuna or look for a Bureaux de Change where you can exchange money.
Tipping is not common practice in Croatia. If you’d like, you can tip up to 10% for good service in restaurants and round up to the nearest figure in cafes and bars. Don’t put gratuities on your credit card. Rather, leave your tip in cash.
Language and Culture
Croatian is the country’s official language. Linguistically, it’s almost identical to Serbian, but Croatian uses the Roman alphabet instead of the Cyrillic. Many Croatians are bilingual, with many speaking English, German, or Italian. Travelers probably won’t have issues communicating in tourist areas, however it’s always useful to know a few phrases in Croatian. Locals typically greet visitors with a handshake; some may offer to a kiss on each cheek.
Most of the country’s 4.3 million people are Croats, the majority of whom are Roman Catholics. Villages usually have a patron saint for whom annual feast days are held. Croatians are also quite devoted to the Virgin Mary, called “Gospa.” Look for little shrines built in her honor in the countryside.
Adventure and Exploration
Most visitors stick to coastal Croatia, but the country’s small size (roughly the area of West Virginia) make it easy to get around. Here are some popular (and hidden) destinations to inspire your next Croatian adventure:
Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, sits in the country’s interior. The city comprises three main parts: thousand-year old Gornji grad (Upper Town), 19th-century Donji grad (Lower Town), and Novi Zagreb. In Upper Town, spend some time exploring the parliament building, presidential palace, 13th-century St. Mark’s Church, museums, and galleries. From there, take the uspinjaca (funicular railroad) down to Lower Town. Here you’ll find an array of restaurants, shops, theaters, and parks. Head to Novi Zagreb for breathtaking views of the city from the Zagreb Eye.
Hilltop towns overlook this beautiful region in the northwest, which was a part of Italy until the early 20th century. Umag and Porec are very popular resort towns on the coast. Visit the well-preserved Roman amphitheater in Pula, the region’s principal town at the tip of Cape Kamenjak. There’s a nature park nearby with miles of coastline, including caves and coves to explore. Be sure to plan a stop in the Brijuni Islands, home to the Ulysses Theatre which stages productions each summer.
Often overlooked by tourists who venture further south, North Dalmatia offers beautiful coastal scenery and pristine nature parks. Head to the Slavic town of Sibenik to see the Cathedral of St. James, or venture to Zadar for Roman ruins in its pedestrian-friendly old town. Go hiking or rock climbing in Paklenica National Park or see a collection of stunning waterfalls at Krka National Park.
The jewel of Southern Dalmatia is Dubrovnik. Walk atop the ancient city walls or stroll through Old Town on the Stradun. See the Onofrio Fountain, built in 1438, or one of Europe’s oldest pharmacies housed at the Dubrovnik’s Franciscan Monastery. Venture further for excellent wine on the Peljesac Peninsula, salt mines in Ston, sandy beaches in Orebic, and the exceedingly picturesque town of Cavtat.
In the midst of the Dinaric Alps, about halfway between Zagreb and Zadar, is Croatia’s most popular attraction. A series of 16 lakes, each connected by waterfall, make up the Plitvice Lakes National Park. The deeply forested area also harbors bears, wolves, boars, rare birds, and other animals. The park encompasses 115 square miles, but the lakes join over a distance of five miles.
Croatia’s islands are arguably its biggest draw. Krk is the largest in the Adriatric and quite popular among tourists since you can reach the mainland via bridge. Dugi Otok is a quiet location where relaxing is the primary activity. Lively Brac offers Zlatni Rat, or Golden Horn Beach—one of the most striking in Europe. Hvar is sunny, chic and quite popular among yachters. The Elafiti Islands near Dubrovnik are untouched by commercial development. Find the perfect island for you with our blog post on 5 Croatian Islands You Can’t Miss.
Ready to go? Start planning your Croatian vacation today!