Doable in a day from Zagreb, the unspoiled treasures of Kopački rit make the effort to reach the locale worthwhile. A nature park close to Osijek, Kopački rit attracts flocks of migrating birds to its expansive wetlands – and flocks of visitors to observe them. This can be done by boat or via a series of boardwalks, allowing you to spot beech martens, catfish and dice snakes, plus rare plant life such as Siberian cattails and pale yellow irises.
Samobor is a natural day trip from Zagreb, historic and pretty as a picture postcard. The haunt of writers and composers in the Habsburg days – Franz Liszt once visited – Samobor welcomes many from the capital at weekends. Some come here to hike around the nearby hills, others to sample the seasonal game served in the many decent restaurants, but few will leave without enjoying the famous local cream cake, samoborska kremšnita.
In truth, there is little reason to visit Vinkovci. A modest town in Slavonia, it offers the same as most modest towns in Slavonia: spicy fish soup, a city museum and a bar or two. But Vinkovci has something unique. It was here that Agatha Christie set her most famous crime story, ‘Murder on the Orient Express’. Recently made into yet another film version, this legendary tale ensures that the equally modest station at Vinkovci unwittingly welcomes railway enthusiasts to mill around and snap photos in the vain hope of finding any sign acknowledging the Christie connection.
Croatia’s most popular national park, Plitvice is two-and-a-half hours from Zagreb. Excluding the coast and islands, the 16 cascading lakes and greenish-blueish waters of Plitvice are Croatia’s most picturesque and iconic natural attraction. There are also hiking trails leading through verdant surroundings where wild cats, lynx and brown bears lurk.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia, +385 53 751 015
Sljeme is the green getaway on Zagreb’s doorstep, the upper slopes of the hilly national park of Medvednica. In winter, Sljeme is white rather than green, the top-class ski centre open for both international competition and for locals of all ages and levels to use. Year-round, Sljeme is frequented by families who picnic amid nature or patronise the many chalets converted into cosy local restaurants.
Attractive Varaždin, capital of Croatia only 250 years ago, still has a sense of grandeur even though modern-day geopolitics have given it a somewhat isolated location where the Croatian, Slovenian and Hungarian borders meet. The ornate architectural style prevalent in its palaces, churches and cultural landmarks augments its historic status. The city has a big annual music festival, Varaždin Baroque Evenings; it helps showcase the many castles in the surrounding countryside.
Croatia’s fourth city of Osijek is rarely explored by tourists despite the recent boom in visitors. Set in the far east of Slavonia close to the border with Serbia, Osijek echoes its Habsburg and Hungarian past, with Baroque architecture, a centrepiece citadel known as the Tvrđa and spicy, pepper-laced cuisine. Its must-see sight, the soaring Church of St Peter & St Paul, is equally impressive with beautiful stained glass and neo-Gothic finery.
Arguably the most significant historical site in all Croatia, Krapina is where Zagreb paleontologist Dragutin Gorjanović-Kramberger discovered the remains of a 900-strong Neanderthal community. Since his discovery in 1899, the cave dwelling has collapsed, but, nearby, the Kraneamus Krapina Neanderthal Museum tells the story of this unique find and shows how our ancestors lived some 130,000 years ago.
Pretty Đakovo, pronounced ‘Djakovo’, announces itself before you pass endless cornfields to reach it. Poking high up over the horizon, the towers of Đakovo Cathedral beckon visitors to explore this tranquil Slavonian town forever linked with the influential figure responsible for the soaring landmark, Bishop Josip Strossmayer of the late 19th century. Đakovo is also synonymous with white Lipizzaner horses, bred at stables here and a common feature in several folkloric events throughout the year.
At the modern-day border between Slovenia and Croatia, Kumrovec is where Tito was born. It seems an unlikely setting for the man who created Yugoslavia from the rubble of World War II – but somehow an apt one. Now a museum with his statue outside, this brick house would have stood out even back in 1892, when other properties in this farming village would not have been so solid. Built by Tito’s father, it played an infrequent but constant role in the later military leader’s life, reflected in the displays here.
The area of Croatia north of Zagreb was where many noble families had their estates some 500 years ago. One such was the Drašković dynasty, whose seat was at Trakošćan. We have Major-General Juraj V Drašković to thank for the property’s conversion from crumbling medieval fortress to fairytale castle in the 1800s, not forgetting to add beautifully landscaped gardens. You can find out more about the Drašković clan by admiring the family portraits and original furniture as you tour this popular historic attraction.
Though lacking the immediate cachet of Plitvice, the national park of Risnjak has its own particular attractions, set amid the wooded slopes of the unspoiled Gorski kotar region. The name gives it away, ris being the word for lynx in Croatian, this rare creature sharing its lofty habitat with chamois and eagles. Brown bears and wild cats have also been spotted. Botanists join the many hikers and climbers who flock here, the Alpine flora adding to the illusion that you might be in Switzerland, not 90 minutes’ drive from Zagreb and an hour from the coast.