Still wondering where to go in Croatia? Or what it means to have an “authentic Croatian” experience?
From having coffee to odd adventures, from simple pleasures to honestly enjoying being a tourist in the best sense of the word, I’m going to start sharing with you what this means to me.
But ultimately, it’s up to you.
All of my authentic, cool, mundane, wonderful, playful, adventurous, and unusual things to do in Croatia. Some may be secret or exclusive, but some are completely accessible to all and free or at very low cost.
It will change from season to season.
This month (October) I’ve experienced, and want to share:
• Late season swimming in Čiovo, (Okrug Gornije) with the hardcore locals
• Enjoying the (relatively) empty streets of old cities again, and some delightful off-season sightseeing in Trogir
• Trogir Cathedral
• St. Dominic monastery in Trogir
• Getting lost in the old city of Šibenik
• St. James cathedral in Šibenik
• Klapa music
• Photography and capturing meaningful moments
• Babić wines
• Grilled food, Dalmatian style.. at home.
..and I admit it, some great photo ops for Game of Thrones filming locations in Croatia, which sounds super touristy, but in reality, is kind of fun! I did it all without a tour, but who knows, in the future I will be looking for some good tours to check out.
Let’s start with..
Swimming in the Adriatic off season
Late season swimming sounds like something that isn’t for the faint of heart, but honestly it’s not too bad, and the water isn’t really THAT cold. I admit that I want to get as much out of that beautiful, clear blue-green sea as I can, since I have to divide my time between here and Sarajevo.
I also swear by it for its health benefits, which I can back up with solid data, but I won’t get into that right now.
There are some locals who swim all year round!
My advice that I don’t always follow? Do it quickly. Once you are in, the water feels warm and quite comfortable. It’s hard to believe it. And when the first Jugo or Bura wind of the season hits, you may think you are done with swimming till next season.
Probably not. In fact, in the early autumn, there may still be a lot of days left to linger on the beach. Even wading in the water or simply being near it could be enough, should you decide to pass on the swim and just enjoy a good book.
The sun and the quality of light in Dalmatia is completely different in the autumn and winter, but I love it.
You might, too. DO Bring a nice towel or blanket, a good book, and cash to buy a coffee. I’ve also done some sprint workouts on the beach, but just as much, I enjoy being lazy. Beaches here are designed for relaxation, regardless of the season.
Some might prefer the vibrant atmosphere of Croatian beaches in the summer, but for me autumn is the perfect balance.. I can take a solo walk or read a book, then take a few steps to have coffee with a friend. Perfect for an introvert like me.
It’s also the perfect place to hang out with a special someone. See? This place isn’t just for oddballs like me.
Sightseeing Croatia: Culture and Architecture in the City of Trogir
I would say that autumn is the perfect time to explore the city. I like to start at the main square with a cup of coffee. I have never considered myself the “tourist” type, but I have to admit, lately I’m having fun doing exactly that.. being a tourist.
I’ve done some research online, and I’ve got my guide books in hand. My phone battery is charged and I have sufficient storage space, a rarity for me. And a whole day. Bliss.
30 steps later I’m at the entrance of the old cathedral, taking my time enjoying the work of the Croatian artist Radovan. I had read about how it’s interior design was different from the external structure, but still, when I gazed inside, it was even more beautiful than I thought it would be.
Don’t miss the self guided tour of the cathedral. I took my sweet time. I am still in awe of the old buildings and churches here, and can’t imagine getting tired of them anytime soon.
You may also be in for another treat, if you are on a guided tour or are willing to have a coffee in the square. Unfortunately I didn’t capture the moment, but there was a group of singers performing traditional Klapa music at the end of each tour on the day I visited, in the main square. Klapa music is the essence of Dalmatia, which traditionally, features an acapella group of singers.
There are newer bands that blend popular music with traditional Klapa. I’m becoming a fan.
A Not-so-Secret Monastary
Next, I meandered to the St. Dominic’s monastery, an easy stroll from the cathedral. Along the way, you can admire the older Romanesque churches and may even get sidetracked at another wonderful place, the Benedictine monastery of St. Nikola, as you pass the South gate into the Riva.
Turn right past the gate, and walk a short distance. You will see a café of the same name, and perhaps a familiar looking bell tower. I’ve photographed this place plenty of times, from the outside.
Again, I had no idea what was on the inside, only that some episodes of Game of Thrones were filmed there. I also heard from a local that a few nuns still live there.
I was intrigued.
I purchased a ticket, which I think was either 10 or 20 kn. I went through a small door, past a little souvenir shop, wondering if this was the place. I opened the door.
Oh, yes. This was the place. It was like being transported to a movie set. I’m not going to dive into the history of this place.. you can read more about St Dominics here.
I was surprised by some of the negative reviews about this place.. that it “wasn’t all that” and that it was under renovation. Personally, I saw a peaceful and beautiful place, with evidence of the past right there, where I could touch it. You simply can’t compare the beauty of a humble monastery with a gothic cathedral. They are both beautiful in their own way.
I visited at the very end of the season, and saw maybe one other person. I’m not sure about peak tourist season. It typically closes in mid-October.
Come and see for yourself, and perhaps linger for a bit before or after you make your obligatory daily cafe visit.. without it, you simply cannot have that authentic Croatian experience!
Here I also found the most striking image of the Virgin Mary I have ever seen, and another surprise.. I almost don’t want to spoil it, but there are a few “pets” in the monastery that I could have watched for hours.
Afterwards, you can have a coffee and watch boats on the Riva and take in more of the Venetian architecture afterwards.. or walk towards the Kamerlengo Castle.
Šibenik is an easy day trip from Trogir, and a scenic drive up the coast. It’s a perfect if you are looking for a day trip by car in Croatia. I think I was lucky that day.. I was in the right places at the right time, just like in Trogir, another city of happy surprises.
First, I stumbled upon a wedding party. Full blast, with singing. I love to watch Dalmatians sing, I admit. I seem to have good luck with it.. Klapa music, singing on boats, and now this…
I felt a little bad because I took some video footage and then realized.. do the residents want to feel like they are a zoo exhibit? What does it mean to be a tourist? Sometimes it is about discovering something new, like a child, in a good way. Other times it’s more about blending in and being respectful. I had to find that middle ground.
I could not resist a video of the band, although the bride did make a cameo appearance. With singing.
Then there is St. James Cathedral. Again, I was truly in awe of the place. It is a testament to both Croatian and European architecture, and of the transition from Gothic to Renaissance architecture. It was built entirely of stone, with no binding material. It was affected by the recent war, but repaired.
I say this because I’m fascinated by the engineering it took to build such structures, but also how they are repaired and kept intact. (Like the bridge in Mostar)
You could say that much has happened in this square, and still does. And then there is just the energy, in my opinion, that you really do find in certain sacred places.
That’s a lot to take in, and why I lingered so long.
I decided to attend a short mass the next morning. I’m not Catholic, but all are invited to mass. I sat in the back row and watched others take communion. Note.. don’t take photos during the mass. It’s only 20 kn to gain entrance and linger to your heart’s content, and it’s worth every lipa.
When I take pictures, even just on my iPhone, I tend to look at every detail. I took photos of this cathedral in the evening light, during the wedding, at night, walking in the square, and the interior.
Photography in Croatia is easy.. almost anyone can be a great photographer here, with the right mindset.
Sibenik and Trogir are teaching me that taking photos is a highly personal process. It’s worth it to take the time to do more than just pose for or take cursory shots. It’s an art, I know. Being a tourist is about taking it slow and allowing yourself to take delight in things that locals may miss. Enjoy that, and also weave in your own experiences.
That cathedral and the square at night had meaning to me, and I hope that this is reflected in my photos. I think the locals may be ok with that. (Just don’t feature them in your photos without permission)
Afterwards, it’s worth it to walk up the stairs to see more. Like Trogir, Šibenik a great city to get lost in. Above the cathedral, you will find monastaries and fortresses and more, but fair warning: there are quite a few stairs. This didn’t deter me.. in my mind, it’s a bonus: a great workout, which I love.
You can also check out a world famous restaurant called Pelegrini, which is where I took this photo. And if you are lucky, there may be an unreserved table with a view of the Cathedral.
I decided not to investigate this time, but ended up at a small Konoba called Dalmatino. There, I sampled one of the most well known Dalmatian wines.. Babić.
The region around Primošten and Šibenik is famous for its Babić wines. This was a perfect spot to just be.
As it grew dark, I enjoyed getting lost again, in this city, as I do in Trogir. I like those moments, when the streets are empty. At one point, I found a fork in the road. One side looked bright, with the promise of other people. The other, was darker and empty, but intriguing. I chose that path.
And found a favorite bar, with the perfect ambience. I get that these are just everyday places, but I love those moments when you feel as if you discovered something.. that you are in exactly the right place at the right time. Turned out, I was close to the hostel where I stayed for the night.
This is what Trogir and Sibenik, and to an extent, Split, are like for me.
Sometimes back home is the perfect place to be, so I’m going to end this blog with one of my favorite things: Croatian food. This plate was brought to me by my neighbor, who has invited me over for coffee on a few occasions to practice my Croatian.
Grilled fish is one of my favorites. It’s simple, but just like how you can’t compare a cathedral with a simple monastery, I’m not into comparing a Michelin star restaurant with what I just consider some of the best food on the planet: Home cooked Croatian cuisine. I also love just having a good conversation.
This is what you will find at Villa Pape: A place to come home to after a day out exploring, and some good conversation over coffee as you plan your day. Although I will say that Ira’s food is pretty much as good as anything I have found in restaurants.. perhaps even better. I can’t lie.
Coming soon: Winter and Christmas in Croatia, food, and other “happy” surprises.
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.