Croatia is by far the most popular country for tourists on the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea, with its long coastline, gorgeous beaches, ancient towns and great weather. In this article, you’ll find out how to get the most out of a trip to Croatia, with budgets, tips and city profiles to help you plan your itinerary.
Budgeting: the basics
Local currency: Croatian Kuna; 1 € = 7.50 kn
0.5 l of local beer: €2.70
Lunch: 8 €
Dinner in a mid-range restaurant: €16
24-hour public transport ticket: €4
Hostel for one night: 30 €
3-star hotel for one night: €70 with breakfast
DAILY BUDGET: €50 — €90
An obvious first: watch out for tourist traps. Croatia has been a popular destination for years, but with its increasing use as a film and TV location, many filming locations are seeing a surge in visitors. You’ll usually pay more when local businesses raise their prices to make the most of this newfound popularity.
Almost everyone who visits the country goes to the coast (and for good reason: it’s beautiful), but don’t forget the places further out in the country either. We’ll talk about Zagreb in a moment, but there are other places — the Baroque splendor of Varaždin; Karlovač, “the city of parks” located at the meeting of four rivers; the bustling town of Osijek, near the Serbian border, which shows another side of Croatia.
Also consider ways to share costs. Hostels can organize trips if enough people are interested, so team up and see what you can see. Your author met a group of people in a hostel in Zagreb, and participating together, the hostel arranged a minibus and driver to take us on a day trip encompassing the historic wooden village of Rastoke, the Plitvice Lakes and a detour on the way back to a place bathing place at the edge of a pleasant river. There’s no way I would have organized and paid for (or even known!) all of this if it was just me.
So with all of that in mind, let’s explore.
It seems obvious to start in the capital, although that’s not what most visitors do. As mentioned above, many people just head to the coast, completely ignoring Zagreb. This is a mistake, as the city is friendly, bustling, easy to navigate and uncrowded, even in the summer.
It is divided into distinct parts. If you arrive at the main train station, you will walk along a wide, flat boulevard lined with 19th century buildings and gardens. Eventually you will come to Trg bana Josipa Jelačića, the square that divides the Lower Town to the south with the hills, alleys and cobblestones of the Old Town and Kaptol.
In the old town you will find the main sights of the city. Churches, walls and gates dating back to medieval times, a watchtower on a hill (a great place to relax with a beer and a view of the city, just pay attention to the hours of cannon fire – you know when it happens), a selection of galleries and museums (including the superb Museum of Broken Relationships), and a couple of parallel streets of bars, restaurants and pubs serving great food and local craft beers.
Alright, let’s head to the coast. Split is quite typical of many Croatian seaside towns in that it is a) very old, b) very pretty, and c) very lively. But that shouldn’t stop you from having a good time; in fact, we have an in-depth guide to exploring Split on a student budget here.
Let’s just take a quick overview though. It is the second largest city in the country and it is built around a beautiful blue bay. The main promenade, the Riva, is on the seafront and this is where you will probably find yourself first while getting your bearings. Behind the Riva is the main historical center of the city, with Roman buildings in crumbling side streets and huge squares surrounded by Venetian-style alleys and colonnades.
It’s tempting to laze around downtown drinking cocktails and eating local seafood – and that’s fine! – but the real value can be found in excursions to the surrounding castles, walking along the hills for some greenery and shade, or heading out of town and down the coast for less crowded beaches. Read the longer guide above, then join me here, okay?
We now move from the picturesque to the awe-inspiring as we travel up the coast to Rijeka. It is the birthplace of Croatia’s shipbuilding industry, which means Venetian bustle is replaced by Habsburg-era solidity. It is also known as the “Gateway to the Islands”, as it is from here that you can catch local ferries to the surrounding islands of Kvarner Bay, as well as twice-weekly ferries along the coast to Split and Dubrovnik.
This is how most people see Rijeka, as a place to pass through on their way to somewhere else. But it wasn’t named European Capital of Culture in 2020 for nothing. The relative lack of tourists has meant that rental prices have remained low and locals have replaced the declining shipbuilding industry with art, food and culture. Once shabby 19th century buildings are being renovated into cafes and restaurants. Old warehouses and factories become cultural venues. In the most extreme example, the city museum is housed in a former sugar refinery.
With states and empires claiming and recovering the port due to its strategic location, Rijeka’s history is long and complicated, punctuated by a devastating earthquake in 1750 which destroyed the city walls and much of the center. Nevertheless, what is now the main street (Korzo) was built on the former site of the walls, showing then, as now, that the people of Rijeka take what they have and make the most of it.
About halfway between Rijeka and Split you will find Zadar. The oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia, it’s known for the spit of land on which its Roman Forum was built thousands of years ago by… well, by the Romans. Again, like Rijeka, it has a history of fighting and domination by different groups for varying lengths of time (the Byzantines, Franks, Hungary, Venice, France, Austria, etc.), and this rich heritage culture is what attracts visitors today.
From the year 2000, Zadar really started to flourish as a tourist destination, with an explosion of bars and clubs taking advantage of the expansion of the city’s airport. One feeding the other, it is today one of the main gateways to the Adriatic. That doesn’t mean it feels hectic though; there are lots of fun and friendly little quirks you can discover.
The sea organ is a good example. Opened in 2005 and designed by architect Nikola Bašić, this series of organ pipes are “played” by the waves, creating random and melodious sounds. One of Bašić’s other projects, Greeting to the Sun, is also in Zadar, and he intends to do the same with light. During the day, panels capture solar energy on a giant disc which, as night falls, transforms into a series of random, almost hypnotic lights. Indeed, the best things in Zadar are free.
Finally, it’s time to give one of the previously mentioned inner cities some love. I was considering staying on the coast (Šibenik, Pula, even the very touristy Dubrovnik), but no. Let’s take a closer look at the less spotty Croatia.
Varaždin isn’t a big city, with less than 50,000 inhabitants, but it’s a great place to experience what a historic, well-kept and friendly Croatian town looks like. Elegant 19th-century buildings in dignified squares, an old town that’s essentially a fortress within a fortress, and excellent restaurants serving Croatian specialties, local wines, and homemade ice cream.
Another attraction, curiously, is the cemetery. More a park than a final resting place, the architect Hermann Haller wanted to create a “living cemetery”, where the inhabitants could stroll in nature as well as among the dead. He added trees, trimmed hedges, flower beds and lawns, so that it looks more like a stately park than a necropolis.
The other nice thing about Varaždin is that it’s only a few hours from Zagreb, so if you fancy a day trip, it’s a nice and easy option. As mentioned at the beginning of the article, ask around and see what you can get. After all, Croatia is a country rich in stories and history, and people are normally more than willing to show you what’s in this complex and cultured country.
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