From the idyllic emerald waters that lap the Dalmatian Coast to the ancient fortified cities of the south, Croatia has become the Mediterranean’s hottest escape.
It is difficult to imagine Croatia as a place that was ever anything other than the serene Mediterranean paradise that you encounter today. The wounds of war have healed, concealed by swathes of lavender flowers and blankets of evergreen pines. When you long for balmy summer days spent sipping wine in the shade of seafront canopies and when the sparkling waters of pebbled coves become too tempting for your toes to resist, the allure of the Adriatic becomes impossible to deny.
It isn’t clear who bestowed the moniker ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ upon Dubrovnik, but we imagine that they may have conjured up the appellation on impulse, enraptured as the ancient walled city appeared on the horizon. Dubrovnik’s labyrinth of walls and fortifications have protected the city since the 9th century, and when seen with her iconic red roofs, it creates a port approach from the Adriatic Sea that remains one of cruising’s most awe-inspiring. Step foot inside those walls and it becomes even more obvious why its residents have fought so fiercely to protect it.
The best way to explore Dubrovnik is on a walking tour, particularly as many of the city’s sights are hidden in a maze of marble streets, each of them as unmissable as the last. Begin in the Old Town with a visit to the Large Onofrio Fountain, one of Dubrovnik’s most famous landmarks, before continuing to the Old Port, calling at the charming St Saviour Church along the way. The Old Port is home to some of Dubrovnik’s most impressive architecture including the 18th century baroque Church of St Blaise, the Gothic-Renaissance Sponza Palace and the Cathedral of the Assumption, where you’ll find a gold and silver studded treasury of works created by Dubrovnik’s goldsmiths over the course of six centuries. The Franciscan Monastery features a 14th century cloister considered to be one of the most beautiful Romanesque structures in Croatia, along with a historic apothecary known to be the third oldest functioning pharmacy in the world.
No trip to Dubrovnik is complete without heading above the rooftops and seeing the city and sea from above. The Dubrovnik Cable Car takes just four minutes to whisk you to the top of Mount Srd, where the views stretch across the Old Town and 37 miles out to sea on a clear day. Alternatively, see the Old City as its protectors did many years ago at the Fort of St Lawrence. Built upon a sheer 37 metre rock to the west of the Old Town, the fortress has been an important line of defence since the beginning of the 11th century. An ancient inscription above the entranceway translates as ‘Freedom is not sold for all the gold in the world’, giving a telling nod to the determined defenders of Dubrovnik.
A history of battle and bloodshed has helped the city slip effortlessly into character for its starring role in hit TV series, Game of Thrones. Dubrovnik’s reincarnation as King’s Landing has led to countless dedicated Game of Thrones tours that include visits to key filming locations around the city’s medieval monuments, fortified battlements and imposing gates.
Outside of its historic Old Town, Dubrovnik is typically Mediterranean. Green shuttered windows and blossoming bougainvillea appear on almost every limestone façade, alongside lines of washing strung out to dry below wrought iron balconies. Wicker chairs invite you to rest a while in the shade of cream and green canopies, tucking into the freshest tuna, octopus and calamari you’ll find outside of the sea.
It’s impossible to tire of Dubrovnik but there are plenty of options if you have visited the port before and are keen to venture further afield and see more of what Croatia has to offer. Coach tours will take you to the seaside town of Cavtat, where you’ll find the pebbled beaches, sparkling waters and acres of pine forest that instantly come to mind when you think of holidays on the Adriatic. You’ll have your pick of beaches here and whilst some are busy with bars and bathers, others are undisturbed by any sound other than the lapping of the waves.
Croatia’s national parks are as beautiful as its beaches, their sprawling acres filled with waterfalls, lakes, forests and mountains. Mljet National Park sits on one of the most scenic islands in the Adriatic Sea and can be reached within an hour of Dubrovnik by boat or catamaran, though you’ll need to make reservations ahead of time; this tiny island is so prized that officials have placed a limit on the number of boats permitted to visit its shores each day. Swim in the park’s two turquoise lakes, Veliko and Malo Jezero (Big Lake and Small Lake), or take a boat ride out to the spectacular Benedictine monastery on the tiny isle of St Mary.
Korcula Old Town is a medieval walled city that draws comparisons with Dubrovnik, though the island is perhaps most famous as the supposed birthplace of legendary explorer Marco Polo. Given that Korcula is arguably the most scenic of all the islands on Dalmatia’s coast, we can’t help but wonder why he suffered with such itchy feet; we would lay down our roots and stay here forever.
The north of Korcula is predominantly green with hillsides blanketed in dense pine forest creating some of the freshest air you’ll ever breathe. Explore the wild terrain by buggy or sample Croatian wines at vineyards stretching along the Pelješac peninsula, your sips supplemented by nibbles of salted sardines, creamy goat’s cheese and olives grown on age-old trees.
There are over 200 tiny beaches and quiet coves carved into Korcula’s south coast and each of them is best discovered from the water. Charter a sailing boat, rent a kayak or hop aboard a catamaran to flitter between secluded swimming spots and vast expanses of golden sand, setting aside time to stroll ashore and dine at olde worlde taverns in villages where time has seemingly stood still. If you’re short on time, ask a local to tip you in the direction of Luka Korculanska, one of the best beaches on the island and located just a short walk from the main Old Town harbour.
The Old Town sits on the east coast of Korcula and its narrow, herringbone designed streets are home to numerous Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque palaces, monuments and public galleries. Visit the supposed home of Marco Polo for dramatic views across the island and towards the seas he was so keen to sail, before heading to the most important building in the Old Town, the Gothic-Renaissance style St Mark’s Cathedral, which was built in the 15th century.
Statistically the sunniest place in Croatia and often referred to as the new St Tropez, Hvar attracts a well-heeled crowd. The parties are exclusive, the beaches are pristine, super yachts bob on the surrounding waters and late evening dinners are enjoyed on fine china with even finer wine. Italians are experts in living ‘la dolce vita’ and it says much that they choose to head here for their sophisticated summer holidays.
Hvar has welcomed tourists for over 145 years but, despite its affluent appeal, the destination shows no sign of selling its soul to the tourist masses. Having once stood as one of the most important and prosperous ports in the Venetian Empire, Hvar has always worn its riches well. A treasure trove of Venetian architecture casts a nod to the town’s trading heyday and must-see sights include St Mark’s Church, the Franciscan Monastery and the imposing Fortica Spanjola, where impressive views extend across Hvar and as far as the neighbouring Pakleni Islands.
Visit the 16th century Cathedral of St Stephen, whose elaborate four-tier bell tower provides a majestic backdrop to the Renaissance square that bears the same name. St Stephen’s Square follows the design of a traditional Venetian piazza and is one of the oldest of its kind in Dalmatia, as well as one of Croatia’s largest at a sprawling 4500 sq. metres. The town of Hvar, as we know it, slowly spreads from the limestone-paved square that continues to dominate its heart, expanding to the north in the 13th century and spreading to the south in the 15th century. Green shuttered windows, terracotta-potted citrus trees and cream canvas parasols complete the Mediterranean scene, with the whole square becoming bathed in candlelight each evening, glasses clinking and cutlery clattering.
Hvar’s natural beauty is every bit as impressive as its architectural attraction, starting with the fields of purple lavender that frame the town in summer and extending to the pebbled beaches, coves and islets that are scattered along the coastline, all of which are lapped by ombré seas of emerald and azure. Take a pew beneath the shading palms of the waterfront promenade, tucking into Dalmatian delicacies whilst hatching best-laid plans to make this Mediterranean paradise home.
Island hopping is easy from Hvar and boat trips from the harbour can take you to the Green Cave of Ravnik and the ethereal Blue Cave of Bisevo, neither of which you’ll forget in a hurry. Visit the island of Vis and the old fishing village of Komiža, or take a taxi-boat from Hvar harbour to the Pakleni Islands. Pungent pine trees carpet these tiny islets, creating a maze best negotiated on two wheels, your hard work rewarded with relaxing afternoons on unspoilt shorelines.
Those seeking an authentic taste of Dalmatian life head to Split, Croatia’s second largest city. More chic than historic Dubrovnik, yet not nearly as exclusive as Hvar, Split shows its visitors how a modern Mediterranean life should be lived.
Despite its small size, Dalmatia is a hive of activity when it comes to wine; over 300 wines are produced in the region and the zinfandel grape has been grown here for over 1000 years. Croatian’s take their wine seriously and you’ll find plenty of opportunities to enjoy a glass of zinfandel whilst in town. Sip it on the steps of Peristyle Square, taking in the hustle and bustle as the skies turn navy, candles are lit and couples dance to the serenades of acoustic guitars, and drink it on the Riva Waterfront Promenade, where cafes and bars are built into the walls of Diocletian’s Palace.
Food is taken even more seriously than wine and the region’s second most popular export is olive oil. In fact, so strong is a Dalmatian’s dedication to food and wine, they live by the saying ‘to taste good, a fish must swim three times – once in the sea, once in olive oil and once in wine’. Split’s cuisine is typically Mediterranean and visitors can expect to feast upon lamb, goat and fish, served alongside dishes piled with aubergine, tomato, peppers and courgette tossed in lemon, rosemary and of course, olive oil. Peka, a combination of meat and vegetables baked in a bell-domed dish known as an ispod čripnje, is the signature dish of the Dalmatian region. Traditionally cooked in a fireplace or outdoor oven, the dish can be sampled in restaurants around Split, and although you’ll often need to order ahead of time to give the ingredients time to bake in their own juices, the result is certainly worth the wait.
Of course, there is much more to Split than food, most notably the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Old Town and Diocletian’s Palace. If you find yourself stood in the Old Town looking for the palace, the chances are that you’re already in it; upon being commissioned by Roman Emperor Diocletian in 295AD the palace thrived to eventually incorporate an eight-acre space and over 200 buildings. Getting lost here is almost a given, so we recommend joining one of the many walking tours to see the sights. Linger in Peristyle Square, squeeze down the startlingly narrow ‘Let Me Pass Street’ to the Temple of Jupiter, visit the Cathedral St Duje, climbing the stairs of its elaborate Romanesque bell tower for views across Split, and check out the subterranean cellars that provide an insight into life in an Imperial residence.
Game of Thrones fans will recognise the underground cellars of Diocletian’s Palace as the setting for Daenerys Targaryen’s throne room, just one of a number of filming locations scattered around Croatia. Embark on a Game of Thrones tour and you’ll undoubtedly head to Klis Fortress too, a medieval stronghold that straddles the scenic Mosor and Kozjak mountains. You mustn’t begin the twenty minute journey back to Split without calling for lunch at picturesque Antonica’s Mill, a 600 year old stone water mill on the Zrnovnica River and another filming location used in the series.