Croatia: Eastern European Paradise

Croatia is a romantic destination, but also great for backpackers and lovers of craft beer and wine. A trip to this Eastern European gem makes for an inexpensive island vacation.

I’d recently met a girl from London and we spent roughly two weeks traveling around Croatia, from the capital of Zagreb through rural Slavonia and down the Dalmatian coast to Dubrovnik before parting ways.

Zagreb

Coming from Slovenia, we started our trip in Northern Croatia. Zagreb is often overlooked in favor of Croatia’s southern beaches, but this Austro-Hungarian-influenced capital is worth a couple of days of exploring at least.

Zagreb is incredibly inexpensive; we dined in some of the nicest traditional restaurants for $10-20 each. Normally my budget is pretty minimal, but it was hard to pass up fine dining for such a price — drinks included.

Croatian food varies from region, with meatier and starchier dishes inland, and more Mediterranean-style options along the Adriatic. The cuisine has been influenced by Ottoman and Italian styles which is a delicious mix. Being a vegetarian, I particularly enjoyed handmade Croatian pasta, wild mushrooms, and fresh produce.

The first day, we shopped at the Dolac, a huge open-air market, and sampled local beers on Vukovara st. I had 7 pretty generous pours for less than $5, some of the best and least expensive beer I have ever tasted. I found free samples of pumpkin seed oil and blueberry wine to be really different and delicious.

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Beer sampler at Fakin Brewery

Zagreb has an interesting underground tunnel network, an alternative crowd, and local party scene. Lake Jarun is about 30 minutes away from the old town, and full of bars and clubs. Modern art and experimental installations can be found around town and in the tunnels.

Unlike other Croatian cities, most people in Zagreb are locals, students or from neighboring countries rather than Western European/Commonwealth or Chinese and Korean tourists.

The city also boasts many fashion boutiques, which house local designer fashion. Croatian brands are hard to find abroad, so this is the best place to buy.  The shops in the lower town are pretty trendy and won’t break the bank.

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Old Zagreb’s shopping area

Plitvice 

We spent a day exploring the gorgeous clearwater lakes of Plitvice, where every corner boasts another lush waterfall. Definitely get there in the morning and walk to the outer edges of the park– the middle-section became extremely crowded as tour groups began to arrive. The best views are from the hilltops overlooking the waterfalls- it’s a little bit more of a hike than simply walking along the lower boardwalks, but its worth it.

 

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Small ferry boats connect different hiking trails, crossing the placid lakes. Walk carefully on the boardwalks, because it gets crowded and we saw a couple people fall in!

(And, by the way, it’s illegal to enter the water — you can be fined even for falling in accidentally as this damages the ecosystem.)

Accidental Adventure 

After the lakes, we were picked up by Dragon Hostel employees in a white van, who drove us 45 minutes away to the small town of Vrhovine. Honestly, I thought we were being kidnapped. It’s a town of seemingly a dozen people, an ex-Yugoslav logging and farming town in the middle of nowhere. There were more cows than people! Everything was crumbling and broken, which was pretty spooky.

There wasn’t a single restaurant, but thankfully there was a small corner store where we were able to buy cheese, potatoes, and bread. We were worried we’d be stuck here, there were apparently train issues and they didn’t run through this town frequently. After waiting all day the next day, the train finally came, and we kissed Vrhovine goodbye.

Getting from Plitvice to Split lost us an entire day, so I’d definitely recommend renting a car. It was an adventure though, and we kept our spirits up.

Split

I have mixed feelings about Split.

We had a good time there, wandering around the old town, which has some really incredible ruins and lively markets. But, all in all, it was really overrun with tour groups, trinket shops, beggars, and Roma selling fake merchandise.

It was a lot more expensive than other places in Croatia and not as fun but was a necessary stop on our way to the islands. The nightlife seemed very superficial, with people tried to sell us overpriced tickets, it was all very over-hyped.

The fruit markets were great though; we bought a kilo of cherries for $1.50, and a half kilo of dried figs and ginger for $3. So in the evenings before dinner, or during siesta (because it was so hot in June), we sat on our balcony overlooking the town and market, eating cherries and sipping wine. Life is good!

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Split, between the mountains and the sea. Get it?

The old town is really what is impressive; the old homes are beautiful with their red roofs, and there are gorgeous views from the surrounding hilltops. The Diocletian Palace is the most notable landmark in Split and a fine example of well-preserved Roman architecture.

The best part of visiting Split though was getting out of Split. We rented a moped and spent the day driving up the coast through some charming towns: Trogir, Primosten, and Sibenik. These ancient towns were incredible.

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View of Trogir from Saint Lawrence (Sv. Lovre) cathedral

The coast is gorgeous, with ivory-colored sandy beaches in Primosten, white stone houses and breathtaking views. Small markets sold local spirits for much lower prices than Split, so we stocked up on medica, a distilled honey liquor we’d fallen in love with in Slovenia.

Sibenik is a very quiet town, roughly an hour from Split, with gorgeous white-stone churches absolutely free of tourists. Local people were really friendly and wondered what I was doing there!

To make a long story short, I accidentally put diesel in our moped and it caused some problems — so make sure you know what you’re doing! I highly recommend renting one though, it was maybe $40 for the day and was one of my favorite activities.

Hvar

We took a ferry from Split to Hvar, which is one of Croatia’s more luxurious islands. Hvar is famous for its lavender products and wine. The wine, however, actually comes mainly from the island of Brac, so if you’re really into wine, I’d suggest going there too.

The Dalmatian region is known for its a capella singing, which we were lucky enough to stumble upon one evening at a small church.

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View from the Hvar fortress of Spanjola

Hvar’s waterfront bars and restaurants are upscale and gorgeous but not as expensive as we thought they might be. This part of Croatia though is definitely the most expensive part of the Balkans.

Hvar has a medieval fortress as well, which offers great views. We took a boat to smaller islands to get some peace and quiet– most of the beaches are rocky though, so bring water-shoes!

Here, the laws were stricter and they wouldn’t let us rent anything motorized– so we biked some 20 miles all of the islands from Hvar Town to Stari Grad. It was a really tough hilly ride but a lot of fun. Stari Grad was almost silent and reminiscent of Croatian island life before the tourism industry took ahold of it. Here, we ate at small mom-and-pop restaurants, picked wild lavender on the hillsides, and even had fresh lavender ice cream.

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One of the beautiful bike rides of my life. Why buy lavender when you can pick it for free?

Korcula

Legend has it that Korcula was where Marco Polo was really from- the island has a whole museum dedicated to his life and voyages. Regardless, this tiny island is a perfect escape for a night or two. We enjoyed incredibly inexpensive but excellent tapas-style meals and wine-tastings.

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Korcula: The Birthplace of Marco Polo?

Korcula has a lot of quaint nautical-themed shops, definitely a peaceful and pleasant place to be. I found it to be one of the prettiest places we visited, and the sunset over the neighboring islands was amazing. Korcula is the place to get really high-quality handmade souvenirs if you’re into that.

Dubrovnik

I would strongly suggest going to Dubrovnik in the Spring or Fall — summer was an absolute madhouse. The ancient walled city was so packed that we couldn’t get out when the cruise-ships landed- it was THAT full of people, the entrances were completely blocked.

Live music and church bells fill the air, resonating through the medieval streets. If you’re trying to get good pictures without hordes of people in them, get up at the crack of dawn. Dubrovnik is vibrant and well-lit, so walking around in the evening is really pleasant.

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Dusk in Dubrovnik

Still, it was a great time. Dubrovnik is the most beautiful Croatian city, it’s similar to Trogir or Korcula in its style but massive. We spent two days just walking around the old city, before venturing on top of and outside its walls. Dubrovnik has a good nightlife but a pricey one– $30 entry for many of its ‘famous’ clubs.

Despite being insanely touristy, Dubrovnik retains a lot of its traditional Croatian culture. Here, we watched traditional Dalmatian dancing at a small theatre and had some of the best food of the trip.

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Golden Hour from the city walls

I’d recommend Croatia to anyone looking for a getaway or segue into Eastern Europe. For more on Southeastern Europe check out Best of the Balkans.

After visiting the main sites in Croatia, I’d definitely love to go back and visit the smaller cities of Pula and Zadar, as well as Brac and the other islands. One could spend anywhere from 5 days in Dalmatia to easily a month exploring the entire country.

 

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