Croatia has it all: millennia-old seaside cities used as filming locations for Game of Thrones, more than 20 protected natural areas covering almost 10 percent of the country’s land, and some of Europe’s best-preserved ancient ruins. If you’re heading to Croatia, read our guide to its star attractions, including an organ played by sea winds and the renowned Museum of Broken Relationships.
Explore Diocletian’s Palace
Not so much a palace as a walled village, this vast structure was built for the Roman emperor Diocletian when he abdicated in 305CE, after 19 years in power. The southern section contained Diocletian’s generously proportioned retirement quarters, and the northern half housed his servants, soldiers and storage cellars. Still standing today, in the centre of Split’s Old Town, are sections of the outer walls, the grand peristyle (central courtyard) and two of the many granite sphinxes that were used to decorate the palace.
Marvel at Zadar’s Sea Organ
Sceptical that the sea can play a musical instrument? Head to the northern tip of Zadar’s seafront promenade, where you’ll find an installation by Croatian architect Nikola Basic. Unveiled in 2005, it consists of 35 polyethylene pipes embedded in the stone stairs, which play melancholy chords as the sea breeze blows through them. Right next to the Sea Organ is the Greeting to the Sun, another ingenious Basic installation in which 300 glass plates create light shows with the sun’s rays.
Take a boat inside the Blue Grotto
One of Croatia’s most haunting natural phenomena can be observed on the islet of Bisevo, which is accessible by ferry from the larger islands of Vis or Hvar, or from Split on the mainland. After sneaking into the cavern through a 1.5m-high hole blasted in 1884, you’ll witness the glowing effects created by sunlight passing through an underwater opening. The best time to visit is on a summer day between about 11am and 1pm, when the sun is at its strongest.
Walk along Dubrovnik’s city walls
Stroll Dubrovnik’s city walls, and you’ll see why the city was impregnable during the Middle Ages. The present fortifications date from the 12th to 17th centuries and run for 2km (1mi), almost completely encircling the red-roofed houses of the Old Town. They are bolstered by a series of towers and forts, the largest of which (St Ivan/St John’s Fortress) now houses an aquarium. Allow an hour to walk the entire length of the walls.
Go back in time at the Pula Arena
The Pula Arena is the best-preserved ancient monument in Croatia and one of the six largest remaining Roman amphitheatres in the world. Built between 27BCE and 68CE, it could hold 23,000 spectators, who sat in socially determined tiers to watch gladiators combat wild animals. After such spectacles were banned in the 5th century, it served successively as a quarry, a venue for medieval jousting tournaments and a grazing ground. Nowadays, it’s a 5,000-seater theatre used for concerts, plays, sports events and the Pula Film Festival.
Spot wildlife in the Plitvice Lakes National Park
The 300sqkm (116sqmi) Plitvice Lakes National Park is situated about halfway between Zadar and the Croatian capital of Zagreb. It was awarded Unesco World Heritage status in 1979. Distinguishing natural features include an 8km (5mi) chain of 16 lakes, which are connected by waterfalls of up to 70m (230ft) in height. Its thick forests of beech, spruce and fir trees are inhabited by rare species such as the European brown bear, the grey wolf, the European wildcat and the Eurasian lynx.
Peek inside the Euphrasian Basilica
Porec’s Euphrasian Basilica was built in the mid 6th century, on the site of an earlier church dating from the late 4th century. Part of a complex that also includes remains of the Bishop’s Palace and a 16th-century bell tower, the building features an apse that is richly decorated with Byzantine mosaics, including the only surviving depiction of Mary in a Western early-Christian basilica. Climb to the top of the bell tower for panoramic views of Porec.
Visit the Museum of Broken Relationships
Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, is home to one of the oddest, funniest and most moving museums you’re ever likely to visit. Its permanent collection consists of items submitted by anonymous contributors from all over the world, accompanied by written explanations of how they represent a past relationship. There is no theme other than lost love, so the exhibition ranges from espresso machines and dildos to dreadlocks and 27-year-old scabs. Write your own relationship anecdote in the giant logbook at the end.
Ponder sculptures at the Meštrović Gallery
Split’s Meštrović Gallery was one of four buildings bequeathed to the Croatian people in 1952 by Ivan Meštrović (1883-1962), the country’s leading modern sculptor. It was built on the artist’s own designs in the 1930s and intended as a summer residence, studio and exhibition space, although Meštrović left Croatia for good at the beginning of World War II. Spread throughout the property are some of the artist’s most important marble and wooden sculptures, as well as his paintings, drawings, family correspondence and furniture.
Discover the Rector’s Palace
The Rector’s Palace was built in Dubrovnik in the 1430s, replacing a defensive structure destroyed in a fire. It was home to the governor who ruled the Republic of Ragusa, so it gives you a sense of what the city was like between the 14th century and 1808. It’s an intriguing mix of gothic, renaissance and baroque styles, decked out with interesting artefacts – from coats of arms to ancient coins. Look out for the bust of Miho Pracat – a shipping magnate who left his enormous wealth to the Republic of Ragusa and the only commoner to be commemorated with a statue.
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