In the past few years, many travelers have been adding Croatia to their “bucket list.” Since it has become a popular destination, you may be thinking: Is Croatia worth visiting?
Even non-travelers are probably aware, at least vaguely, of this place called Croatia. For better or worse, “blame” it on the World Cup Finals earlier this summer, and the popular series Game of Thrones.
With or without pop culture, It’s become quite the hot spot in Europe, as I had predicted. Along with this, however, comes some growing pains and misperceptions.
Is it worth all the hype?
My short answer is Yes, definitely! But your experience can vary depending on how and when you travel here, and what your own preferences are.
What Croatia is and isn’t
Croatia, unlike places like Las Vegas or Dubai which are built on vast swaths of land which are otherwise not particularly desirable, has already existed for a long time as a tourist destination without the help of much development.
Aside from a brief period in the 90’s due to the domestic war, it has been a popular spot for most of Europe, especially during peak season July-August.
Croatia isn’t designed for mass tourism, which I’m grateful for. It’s known for its old cities with narrow streets, “cozy” inlets and beaches, and an abundance of islands accessible only by boat. It just has a more intimate “vibe” than most places I’ve been to.
However, any place experiencing a spike in popularity is bound to be vulnerable to overdevelopment and overtourism, which must be managed intelligently.
In fact, Croatia’s minister of tourism, Gari Cappelli, is developing a strategy which is steering away from mass tourism and focusing on more specific, and sustainable ways to enjoy Croatia. (1)
Don’t worry..There are plenty of places in Croatia which are not overrun by tourists.
Is there enough “to do” in Croatia?
As one who keeps a finger on the pulse of trends in Croatian tourism, I’m always amused when I sift through blogs about Croatia. It seems like people either love it and return again and again, or find it “boring.”
The ones who find it boring are typically the younger backpackers who spend a few days here looking for places to “party” or a long stretch of sandy beach to play on.
You can find plenty who spend 2.5 days here and declare themselves “bored,” and write blogs about why the rest of us shouldn’t bother.
This is fine with me, actually. Croatia can be enjoyed on its own terms, with very little intervention from an “industry” or “tourism infrastructure.”
I can’t imagine ever getting bored here, and I typically stay for months at a time. I have the opposite problem: So much Croatia, so little time!
To enjoy Croatia on its own terms, keep these 3 things in mind:
1. Croatia is NOT just Dubrovnik.
Dubrovnik is beautiful. Just like many places in Croatia, its old and recent history has shaped the soul of this city. But Dubrovnik may be getting too much of a good thing. This past season, there were twice as many visitors to the walled city as residents (2)
Dubrovnik is currently listed as the number one city burdened by overtourism, and is taking measures to protect both its UNESCO status and the experience of both tourists and residents.
Without these measures, Dubrovnik may be running the risk of developing a bad reputation for crowds, inflated prices, mediocre food, and bad service. I’m hoping to give Dubrovnik the benefit of the doubt, as it is a beautiful and unique city, but this is a warning sign for ALL of us.. not just Croatia, but those of us who travel or live here as well.
Gorgeous as it is, Dubrovnik represents only a small fraction of what you can experience in Croatia. You can discover so much more if you are willing to look beyond the obvious places. I’ll do my best to cover them in my blogs!
2. Croatia is NOT just a playground for backpackers and partiers.
I admire young travelers and how they navigate the world and write about their experiences. But many don’t care to invest enough time really appreciate a place on its own terms.
Croatia, to me, isn’t just a destination to “tick off your bucket list.” Croatia isn’t about a one night stand or a whirlwind tour. Take time to get to know this place, and it will reward you.
But even if you can only spare a short week, . you’ll still leave feeling inspired and refreshed.. and maybe wanting just a bit more. It happens!
3. Croatia has something for everyone.
It incredibly diverse in its culture and history. It also has a wide range of microclimates and opportunities to enjoy life.
Zagreb on a late autumn or winter day reminds me of my childhood in Chicago, and the climate is very similar to my hometown. (minus the bone-chilling days Chicago is famous for)
The Austro-Hungarian architecture is the essence of Central Europe, which has also influenced many cities in North America.
It offers what most major cities do. To me, it’s also the perfect size. Zagreb also has an excellent public transit system.. much better than my previous home in Denver, by far.
Zagreb is also becoming famous for its Advent season, and has been voted as the best European destination for Advent season several years in a row. I was there before it became quite popular. From Zrinjevac to Krajl Tomislav square.. where you can find a festive atmosphere with ice skating and plenty of kuhano vino, (mulled wine) the whole city felt magical.
Split and Trogir have more of a Mediterranean flavor and climate, with a very distinct Italian influence. You can see it in everyday architecture, but also in the old cities and ruins in the area. Split also has its own Advent activities on the Riva.
Don’t miss the usual attractions like Diocletian’s palace. However, there is a lot more to explore in in the Split/Trogir area (let alone Central Dalmatia!) than can be covered in a few days.
The food is also, in my opinion, some of the best food on the planet.
And if you like wine, as Anthony Bourdain said: You would have to be crazy not to try Croatian wines.
Croatia has 1244 islands, which are worthy of exploration by boat. Often overlooked are the Dalmatian hinterlands.. the area beyond the coast and into the Dinaric alps. Here, you will find even more treasures.. national parks with gorgeous waterfalls, mountain biking, hidden wineries, and more historic places.
And the beaches.. it took me 2 blogs to describe the beauty and magic of Croatian beaches.
The Dinaric alps have their own micro-climate. The views and the climate from the alps are fantastic, and the trails are not crowded with tourists.
If you are into adventure travel, Croatia has it all. Skiing, hiking, sailing, mountain biking, climbing, diving, and more. There are even adventures that offer a combination!
How can one small country contain ALL of this.. all within a half day’s bus ride apart?
Croatia to me is like having easy access to Chicago, Colorado, and the California coast.. all the places I’ve lived. It’s also like having some of the best cities in Central Europe within easy reach.
4. Croatia is the “land of truly well-kept secrets.”
Not everything you will find here is going to be obvious and marketed to or catered to you.. In fact, the best things about this place you may not find on a typical tour. This isn’t for everyone.. some are stressed by not having every aspect of a trip planned out in advance.
It may be true that for some types of travel, such as adventure travel requiring complex logistics, will require advanced planning. But the truth is, you can really do fine and possibly even have a better time here without a rigid itinerary.
If you over-plan, you may miss out on opportunities that arise in the moment. You may not know that certain shops, wineries, boat tours, trails, museum exhibits or events exist, unless you happen to stumble upon them. Not to mention the people you might meet!
Croatia is still is largely “undiscovered” and is waiting for you!
Friends, contacts, and guides
This doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone. At Villa Pape, we are happy to help our guests have a great experience. Whether it’s the easiest way to get to the old city from the island..or places to explore, we are here to help.
I’ll do my best in my blogs to write about the treasures I discover here, but know this: Croatia is almost designed, by default, for discovery. If that’s what you prefer, then this is the place for you!
Yes, Croatia is worth it! Want to know more specifics about where to go in Croatia? Glad you asked! Find out in upcoming blogs about what to do each season, starting with October.
Julie Odler is an American writer, digital marketing consultant for T&W marketing, and a former acupuncturist living in the Split/Trogir area, Sarajevo, and Belgrade. She loves Croatia and writes about her experiences in her own blog, The Balkan Nomad.