Compact and criss-crossed by easy-to-use tram, Croatia’s capital has so much to see. Among the many reasons to visit Zagreb are its stately and contemporary museums, its new-found gastronomic scene and its celebrated market near the main square. Zagreb’s nightlife is the busiest in Croatia and its cultural institutions are of international standard. Still showing its elegant Habsburg heritage while embracing the 21st century, Zagreb now offers a range of modern boutique hotels.
The nearest Croatia gets to Italy geographically, historically and culturally speaking, Istria is a triangular-shaped peninsula dotted with wine-growing hilltop villages and fringed with lively coastal resorts. Within a half-hour drive, you can be relaxing at the beach then having dinner at a top-quality rustic restaurant – Istria is also Croatia’s culinary mecca. Treasures of antiquity await in Pula and Poreč, a thriving gallery scene in Rovinj and a cluster of truffle restaurants in and around Motovun.
The most underrated of Dalmatia’s big cities, Zadar has come on leaps and bounds since it was put on the map by a groundbreaking lounge bar and its offshoot festivals. Now well connected by air, Zadar retains its Roman and ecclesiastical heritage while embracing charming eccentricities, such as the wacky outdoor art installations by Nikola Bašić. Its lesser-known attractions also include a museum dedicated to glass, a mysterious sphinx and a silver casket fit for a saint.
The showcase National Parks of Plitvice and Krka count among Croatia’s most beautiful attractions and each merit a day-long visit in their own right. The shimmering lakes and gushing waterfalls of Plitvice have drawn visitors since the Habsburg days. An easy drive away, Krka attracts nearly 1 million annual tourists with its dramatic cascades and unique wildlife. Here you can take an excursion boat and plunge into the photogenic lagoon of Skradinski buk.
Dalmatia’s de facto capital, Split is centre pieced by the major historical sight of Diocletian’s Palace, a ruined Roman villa and garrison. Dotted with shops, bars and restaurants, and the occasional landmark statue by former local resident Ivan Meštrović, the Palace is filled with enough must-visit attractions to keep you busy for two days. The setting-off point for Dalmatia’s main islands, Split is also bags of fun. Here you’ll find Croatia’s best bar crawl, a busy city beach and, for the many budget travellers who head here, cheap eats aplenty.
From Split, many take the boat to Dalmatia’s most popular islands: Vis and Hvar. Off-limits to foreigners for many years, the former army base of Vis has opened up to tourism but retains its cachet of being untamed and relatively undiscovered. Known for its famed lobster restaurants and crystal-clear diving sites, Vis is the nearest departure point for the off-shore island of Biševo and its Blue Cave grotto. The upscale party island of Hvar is where princes, oligarchs and actors hang out. With its own top-notch dining scene, Hvar also contains Croatia’s best beach bars.
Way down at Dalmatia’s southern tip, Dubrovnik is the crown jewel of Croatia’s coastal resorts. Its City Walls are the stand-out example of two dozen must-visit attractions in Dubrovnik, which has embraced modern-day tourism by installing a Cablecar and welcoming a plethora of contemporary five-star hotels. The city’s famed seafood restaurants enjoy settings befitting a mid-dinner marriage proposal while the main beach is a short stroll from the central market, handy for Dubrovnik’s budget traveller.