Croatia

Croatia – Dubrovnik, Dalmatian Coast, and Plitvice Lakes

Dubrovnik at Sunset
Dubrovnik at Sunset

When people say Croatia is on their bucket list, it’s for good reason. We checked this one off of ours with a 1-week car tour through the country.

Dubrovnik

Our first night was spent in the historic Old Town of Dubrovnik. Once an independent nation, this former shipping port maintains its pristine travertine finishes that implies an old-time wealth. The city is completely walled-off, a necessary precaution against the Byzantine Empire that also paid off during an attempted siege during the Yugoslavian war just twenty years ago!

Stradun Dubrovnik, night
Stradun (Main Street) Dubrovnik at night
dubrovnik, shadows, walk the walls
Dubrovnik Shadows, from the “Walk the Walls” tour

This gorgeous city is perfect for wandering – both through the streets and on top of the walls. We spent the first day getting lost in town and were especially taken away by the jaw-dropping beauty of the Strandun (central promenade). That evening we popped through a hole in the wall (literally, there are only 3 gates and otherwise improvised small exit points) to enjoy a drink at the scenic Buza Bar. We then took a completely pointless cable car to a Napolean-era fortress overlooking the orange-roofed city and spent sunset at this stunning spot. The following morning we went up to the top of the wall for circumferential tour of town, known as the “Walk the Walls tour”. We were amazed to see how such a small town can vary from one side to the other and also shocked to see evidence of damage from the recent war.

Coastal/Dalmatian Croatia

After our quick tour of Dubrovnik we rented a car and headed north up the Dalmatian Coast. We opted to take the scenic road that follows the winding Adriatic coast. We drove a brief 20 minutes through Bosnia (much less stressful than expected), which divides Dubrovnik from the rest of Croatia. This coastline is incredible and we passed numerous quaint coastal towns begging for a visit. After 3 hours we reached our first destination, Brela, and the Blue Sun Berulia resort. Here, we enjoyed an afternoon of beach sitting and relaxation before pressing onto a more bustling Split.

Split Croatia at Twilight
Split, Croatia at Twilight
"Modern art" inside of ancient roman ruins. Weird, Croatia, weird.
“Modern art” inside of ancient roman ruins. Weird, Croatia, weird.

Split is much different from the rest of Dalmatia, as its industrial area takes away from much of the coastal charm. It seems that the city has outgrown its infrastructure and doesn’t believe in parking garages – and we spent the first 20 minutes here doing a 65-point turn into a tiny parking spot (giving Chris a back spasm for 2 days!). Once our car was finally secured, we headed to our cute apartment for the night just inside the pedestrian zone. The most important site to see here is Diocletian’s Palace – a compound where the Roman emperor, Diocletian, lavishly spent retirement. This palace is interesting to explore, with crypts and cellars that have been excavated and skillfully restored. Definitely surprising to see Roman ruins where you don’t expect them – but as we were coming straight from Rome, it was a bit underwhelming. The highlight of our stay here was definitely an excellent dinner: fresh-caught Sea Bass at the restaurant Konoba Mastejuska, delicious!

Sibenik was our third and final destination along the Dalmatian Coast. We were tempted to come here by the Krka National Park but the cute town was just an added bonus! We endured yet another stressful parking situation but were pleasantly surprised by this town’s charm. The main attraction here is its proximity to the National Park, which is famous for its huge waterfall and the ability to swim in the lower basin (we resisted the urge as it was 50 degrees and raining!) This park served as a teaser for the more impressive Plitvice Lakes, but we had a nice visit. That night we wandered the cobble-stoned streets and tried to find a restaurant that didn’t claim to be full of reservations despite seeing 60% of the tables open (something we’ve unfortunately gotten used to in Europe).

Sibenik at Sunset
Sibenik, Croatia at Sunset

Plitvice Lakes

This day’s trip marked the exit from the coast and a change of scenery. We drove through rolling hills and fall colors, a scene reminiscent of back home (Katie’s) in Ohio! After 2 hours we arrived to Plitvice Lakes – Croatia’s must-do National Park due to its beautiful tiered lakes system. A stroll through this park will take you past thousands of cascades falling into crystal blue water and one really tall waterfall (appropriately named “Big Waterfall”).

The impressive boardwalks at Plitvice Lakes
The impressive boardwalks at Plitvice Lakes

Like most parks abroad, we found the organization to be poor and spent the first hour here just trying to figure out where to go (partly thanks to my stubbornness!) This park is divided into the lower and upper lakes, with connections possible via shuttle bus and boat. Most explore from the lower lakes to the upper lakes so that the cascades are always in front of you. Once we got our bearings, we took the shuttle bus to the lower lakes and entered the endless line of tourists wandering the boardwalks.  Our plan had been to take the boat to the upper lakes to complete the tour, but due to our initial delay and countless photography stops, we missed the final boat and had to walk back to our hotel.

All was not lost, however, as we woke before dawn the following morning to hit the upper lakes before the crowds arrived. The early morning fog layer was surreal, and it was amazing to have this park to ourselves! Without tour groups elbowing through we had a peaceful visit and Chris managed to get some great shots. Any visit to Croatia is not complete without a stop here.

Plitvice Lakes in the Fall
Plitvice Lakes in the Fall

Zagreb

Our final stop in Croatia was in the capitol city of Zagreb. We were lucky to meet up with Chris’ college friend who lives here and were treated to a local’s perspective of this thriving city. A wander through parks and past historic buildings led to the best ice cream we’ve had in Europe (sorry Italy!) We also visited the quirky “Museum of Broken Relationships”, but had to leave before Chris turned too Emo.

Departing Remarks

Croatia’s laidback culture, inviting coastline and historic cities make it an obvious destination on any European vacation. We were also pleased by the favorable exchange rate, a nice break from the rest of our trip! You really need at least 5 days here in order to take in Dubrovnik, the coast, and Plitvice Lakes. We were pleasantly surprised by Zagreb and also recommend an overnight here!

Pros: varying itinerary (city, coast, and nature!), easy on the budget, welcoming culture, yummy seafood

Cons: getting scammed by the rental car agency (Sixt required a $4500 hold on our credit card!), rainy conditions (October brings rain to this area!).

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