The Best Things to Do and See in Croatia
Whether it’s windsurfing or diving, contemporary art or Roman architecture, Croatia offers a wealth of outdoor activities and cultural treasures. The capital, Zagreb, is full of museums and galleries and the clear seas around the Dalmatian islands were tailor-made for sailors, while the historic city of Dubrovnik beckons with its pristine medieval stonework.
Booze at the Bužas
Dubrovnik contains two of the most atmospheric bars in all Croatia, but finding them is never easy for the first-time visitor. Referred to as Buža, or ‘hole in the wall’, each is cut into the sea-facing cliffs that support the City Walls, gazing out onto the seamless blue of the Adriatic. Buža I, with sunbathing and access to the Adriatic via metal steps below, can be found near the Azur restaurant. Nearby Buža II hides by a sign saying ‘Cold Drinks With The Most Beautiful View’.
Buža II, Crijevićeva 9, Dubrovnik, Croatia, +385 98 361 934
Marvel at Meštrović
Some of the finest works by Croatia’s greatest sculptor, Ivan Meštrović, are gathered in the sprawling, sea-facing property he designed himself just outside Split city centre. Sculptures, plans and drawings cover the two floors of the Meštrović Gallery, as well as in the garden. Pieces in marble, bronze, wood and plaster sit alongside original furniture Meštrović and family would have used, and the gallery was also once their summer villa.
Šetalište Ivana Meštrovića 46, Split, Croatia, +385 21 340 800
Swim the Blue Cave
The initial reaction of many visiting the Blue Cave on Biševo is to swim in it. Every day, boatloads of tourists head to this small island near Vis from the nearby resort of Komiža. Accessible only by sea, the Blue Cave is so called because of the strange phenomenon that occurs as the sun gains full height in summer. An underwater opening lets in the sun’s rays to bathe the cave in blue light, encouraging visitors to dive into the water. Tours also involve a picnic lunch at a nearby beach.
Appreciate Contemporary Art
Little-known in the West when they were being created, the computer art and abstract-geometric works produced in what was Yugoslavia from the 1950s to the 1970s are now gathered in one place to be appreciated and admired. A long time in the making, the Museum of Contemporary Art is the largest and most significant cultural landmark to open in Zagreb for over a century. It replaced its predecessor in the Upper Town, as the City Gallery was too small to house a permanent display.
Museum of Contemporary Art, Avenija Dubrovnik 17, Zagreb, Croatia, +385 1 6052 700
The City Walls that surround Dubrovnik, pristine white against the blue of sky and sea, signify Croatia. As captivatingly beautiful as the day they were first broached by Napoleon in 1806, they represent the power and guile of what was Ragusa, the medieval maritime city state that created today’s Dubrovnik. A tour around them reveals the exquisite craftsmanship involved, first by Florentine master Michelozzo and then by his successors.
Comprising 89 of a 140-island archipelago in northern Dalmatia, the national park of Kornati is like no other. What you’ll see as you drift past on an organised boat tour is raw natural beauty, interspersed by the occasional fisherman’s hut or temporary shelter close to shore – nearly every island is uninhabited. A treat for scuba divers, the waters around Kornati contain rare marine life such as sponges and coral.
Plunge into Krka
While the cascades, pools and waterfalls of Krka are there to be admired, this is a national park with a difference. Here, at the photogenic lagoon of Skradinski buk, you can dive in. So popular has this activity become that in 2017, the authorities limited the numbers of visitors at any one time.
Krka National Park, Lozovac, Croatia, +385 22 201 777
Stroll Diocletian’s Palace
Exploring Diocletian’s Palace, built as a retirement home for a Roman emperor and garrison, is pretty much the first thing everyone does when they arrive in Split. This is not a historic monument where you queue up, pay admission, stand back and admire. The Palace is the living centre of Croatia’s second city, with scores of shops, cafés and restaurants tucked down curious passageways and enclosed courtyards. For straightforward sightseeing, however, you can’t do better than a stroll across the central square of Peristil, where an original 3,500-year-old sphinx from Luxor tops one of its stairways.
Admire Old Masters
Zagreb is where to find a huge collection of Dutch, Spanish and Italian Masters at the ornate Mimara Museum. Gathered together by Ante Topić Mimara, an art lover and canny operator who bequeathed his paintings to what was then Yugoslavia, the collection features works by Rubens, Goya, Canaletto, Velázquez, Delacroix and Van Dyck, among many, many others.
Mimara Museum, Rooseveltov trg 5, Zagreb, Croatia, +385 1 4828 100
Croatia’s biggest and most popular national park is Plitvice, a verdant complex of 16 cascading lakes, waters of ever-changing colours and lush woods. A series of walkways brings you close to the waters up. Visiting Plitvice also allows you to admire the 100-plus plant species identified here and maybe glimpse a rare lynx, brown bear or wild cat.
Plitvice Lakes, Croatia, +385 53 751 015
There are various ways to gaze upon the celebrated beauty that is Dubrovnik, from the deck of a cruise ship, or the restaurant terrace of a five-star hotel. Once you’re there, you become lost in the tourist swarms and high-sided streets of the Old Town. All you need do is take a steep stroll past the northern fringes of the City Walls for the Cablecar station on Petra Krešimira IV. Climbing to the top of Mount Srđ, the Cablecar only takes four minutes to reach its destination but it’s a ride to remember, with all of Dubrovnik spread out below.
Windsurf on Zlatni Rat
The most celebrated of Croatia’s many, many beaches, Zlatni Rat or ‘The Golden Cape’ sits close to the resort town of Bol on the southern coast of Brač. A tourist magnet and natural phenomenon, Zlatni Rat is a triangular-shaped spit of land whose shape changes according to the whims of the tide, sea current and Jugo wind, Croatia’s own Sirocco. Windsurfers flock here in the afternoons to take advantage of the other gentle wind, the westerly Maestral, creating a multi-coloured horizon of bright sails. Beginners can also get started thanks to the handful of windsurfing schools around Bol.
Dive to discover Croatia’s Titanic
The famously clear waters surrounding Croatia are a haven for divers, treated to a wealth of marine life and occasional sunken finds. The most notable lies 40 metres down off the Brijuni Islands, a popular site for experienced divers at clubs in Pula and Poreč. Elegant passenger ship the Baron Gautsch hit a mine in 1914, only two years after the Titanic disaster. Carrying refugees, holidaymakers and military personnel, it was making one last journey from Kotor in Montenegro back to port in Trieste. A century on, the outline of the ship remains intact, a home to long-established marine life.
You hear the ethereal sounds of the Sea Organ on the seafront at Zadar long before you realise you’re standing on it. No conventional organ, the creation of local installation artist Nikola Bašić is powered by the strength and pattern of the waves, strange noises emitted from rows of boreholes in the concrete. Being flat, smooth and lapped by the Adriatic, the pavement almost begs you to lie down and let the other-worldly tones wash over you. Bašić was also responsible for the ‘Greeting To The Sun’ nearby, a ring of glass panels that follows similar rhythms.
Be bedazzled by Byzantine decoration
The most sumptuous example of Byzantine art and architecture stands in the middle of Poreč, a resort town on the west coast of Istria. Commissioned in the sixth century by the Bishop Euphrasius, whose likeness appears amid the iconography, the Euphrasian Basilica is a riot of bright colours splashed across sparkling mosaics. Outside, a floor mosaic dates back even earlier to when this was a Roman villa.
Euphrasian Basilica, Eufrazijeva, Poreč, Croatia, +385 52 451 784
Dine out in Hvar
Party island for celebrities and oligarchs, the celebrated destination of Hvar offers more than just partying on yachts. Further along the harbour front, top-notch dining spots such as Gariful provide prime lobster to international footballers and heads of fashion houses. Behind the main square, the winding thoroughfare of Petra Hektorovića, known as Groda, is lined with dining spots such as Giaxa, where Dalmatian favourites are given a contemporary spin. Still in Hvar’s historic hub, Konoba Menego suits most budgets with its renowned sea salad and Dalmatian stuffed bread, both made with in-house recipes.