Let’s face it, Croatia is just one of those incredible destinations that leaves travelers wanting more after their first visit. If you’ve visited, you know.
I have visited Croatia twice before, once on RTW #2 and again a few years later on RTW 6 1/2 (the Balkans Edition). But both trips were primarily limited to Dubrovnik. I knew there was so much more to see.
To be totally honest, it was probably the spectacular Adriatic vistas showcased in Bravo’s “Below Deck” a few seasons ago that had me dreaming of a trip back to Croatia’s sunny shores.
My husband, Dave, also had Croatia high on his must-see list. And thanks to our current home base near Munich, Germany, all of Europe is practically on our doorstep these days. So there seemed no better time to dive into a more in-depth exploration of the best that Croatia has to offer.
Our plan was to start our 7-day trip in the northern part of the country and work our way south to Dubrovnik, hitting as many Croatian highlights as we could squeeze in along the way.
How to Get to Croatia
Direct flights from all over the world serve Croatia’s two largest airports – Zagreb and Dubrovnik – though some flights to Dubrovnik are only seasonal. However, since we wanted to start our trip in the small fishing port of Rovinj, getting there required a little more creativity.
Rovinj doesn’t have its own airport so the nearest options with flights from Germany were Rijeka or Trieste, Italy (both a 90-minute drive away). Since both are small airports, the flight options were limited and didn’t fit with our planned arrival date.
Enter the ferry…
After a little research, I discovered a ferry option from Venice, Italy to Rovinj with Venezia Lines. Since flight options between Munich and Venice were frequent and affordable and Italy is always a good idea, we thought why not throw in an extra day in Venice on the way?
Day 1 – Venice to Rovinj
So, that’s exactly what we did, landing in Venice at 9am with a scheduled ferry departure at 5:15pm later that day. The ferry tickets were 94€ each (for VIP class, which was only slightly more than the regular fare and seemed like a smart choice for a 3-hour ferry ride).
After taking a water taxi from the airport, we stored our luggage near the ferry terminal and spent a lovely day enjoying Venice’s terrific spring weather and reminiscing about our honeymoon stay four years ago.
At 4pm, we checked in for our ferry at the terminal. A little over an hour later we sailed away from Venice for the 3-hour ride across the Adriatic to Rovinj.
The ferry ride was pleasantly smooth and after a quick stop in the summer resort town of Poreč to drop off passengers, we arrived in the port of Rovinj just as the sun completed its dramatic descent basking the entire town in a dazzling pinkish glow.
It was love at first sight.
Where to Stay in Rovinj
Since light was quickly fading and we were starving, we headed straight for our hotel to drop our bags, get our bearings and find someplace for dinner.
Our accommodation choice for our two nights in Rovinj was the Royal View Apartment. We were greeted warmly by the apartment owner, Xenia, who got us settled in and recommended what turned out to be an excellent restaurant just a few steps away for dinner.
We loved the apartment both for its stylish, modern décor and especially for the million-dollar view of the harbor from the window.
Day 2 – Exploring Rovinj
The next morning, we awoke to an amazing sunrise view over the port from our bedroom window and I couldn’t wait to go explore.
Pronounced “roh-VEEN,” the picturesque Croatian fishing port is located on the western coast of the Istrian peninsula and has largely escaped the tourist crowds of Croatia’s southern towns.
The busy working harbor was packed with colorful fishing boats returning from an early morning of fishing. And the pastel-hued homes lining the sea were far more reminiscent of an Italian seaside town than what I’d seen of Croatia before.
It was absolutely brilliant.
Quiet, colorful, oozing with seaside charm…and not a tour group to be seen for miles. In fact, it reminded us a lot of one of our favorite places in Italy, the practically undiscovered island of Procida.
I couldn’t tell you what “sights” are must-sees as we spent our entire day strolling the quiet streets, sitting in waterfront cafes and checking out the facilities at their brand new state of the art marina – just in case we decide to return on a boat someday.
We capped off our day with another gorgeous sunset, a delicious dinner and an idle curiosity about the cost of real estate in town.
Day 3 – Road Trip to Pula & Plitvice National Park
The next morning, we had a big day planned. A cross-country road trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park with a stop in the nearby town of Pula on the way (roughly a 4-hour drive). But for this road trip we would need our own wheels, so we headed to the local Sixt to pick up our reserved rental car.
Driving in Croatia
Before deciding to rent a car in Croatia, I did a lot of research on the subject. The general consensus was that driving in Croatia was easy, safe and a great way to get around (as long as you avoided driving in the larger cities).
Most of our planned driving itinerary involved the lesser-populated areas of Croatia so self-driving seemed like the perfect choice. And it turned out to be fine. The highways are well-maintained and easy to navigate, and we really enjoyed the freedom of having our own wheels.
The Roman Amphitheater of Pula
Before moving on to our ultimate destination for the day, Plitvice Lakes, I couldn’t resist the 45-minute detour down the coast to the nearby town of Pula. The mostly industrial port town is best-known for what seems an unexpected Croatian attraction, the world’s sixth-largest Roman amphitheater.
A bit like a mini-Colosseum, the imposing structure is situated near the sea and is remarkably well-preserved. It seemed almost absurdly out of place in the small port town, but I thought it was well-worth the short detour from Rivinj.
From Pula, we drove through the outskirts of the busy port of Rijeka and continued east into Croatia’s rolling countryside. Our plan was to spend the night at a guest house near the entrance to the park so we could visit first thing the next morning in the hopes of avoiding the legendary crowds.
Day 4 – Plitvice Lakes National Park
Much of Croatia’s countryside is made up of protected areas including eight national parks, ten nature parks and two strict reserves. The most famous of these protected areas is Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Plitvice is the oldest national park in southeast Europe and the largest in Croatia. Inside the park, 16 interconnected lakes wow visitors with dazzling emerald colors and dramatic waterfalls.
We arrived in the rural town of Rakovica mid-afternoon and easily found our guest house for the night, the Rooms Ruhige Lage 1, located about 15 kilometers from the entrance to the park.
Like most accommodations near the park, Rooms Ruhige was basically a large country home converted to a guest house. It had beautiful views of the countryside from the terrace and the staff were very helpful in explaining the entry locations at the park and tips for our visit the next day. They also suggested a local restaurant down the street where we later walked for dinner.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is open daily all year round, with longer opening hours in the summer months (usually 7am-8pm) and shorter hours during winter (usually 8am-4pm). The entrance fee is a contribution to the park’s upkeep and preservation and it varies by season from 55 Kuna ($9) in the winter months to 250 Kuna ($39) during peak summer season in July and August.
There are two entrances to the park, aptly named Entrance 1 (for the lower lakes) and Entrance 2 (for the higher lakes). In the winter months, Entrance 2 is often closed. Though we visited in May, Entrance 2 was still closed due to heavy rains in the days leading up to our visit which caused some of the boardwalks to be submerged.
How to Beat the Crowds at Plitvice Lakes National Park
Before our trip, I engaged in diligent research to develop a strategy to beat the anticipated crowds at the park.
This strategy can really be summed up in five simple words…
DO. NOT. TAKE. A. TOUR.
Why? Because the vast majority of visitors to the park arrive as part of a group tour from Split (2.5 hours away), Rijeka (2 hours) or Zadar (1.5 hours). Since all of these tours require a few hours drive, the barrage of tour buses arrive at the park primarily around 10am each day.
To get the most enjoyment out of our visit, I knew we needed to visit either first thing in the morning or late afternoon and avoid the mid-day hours entirely. This was why we chose to get a rental car and spend a night near the park the night before our planned visit. We wanted to hit the ground running right at the 7am opening time.
And I’m happy to say my plan worked like a charm. We had booked our tickets online about a week in advance (highly recommended in the summer months) and when we arrived at Entrance Gate 1, we paid a 7 Kuna fee to park and were thrilled to see we were one of the first cars of the day in the lot.
We spent the next three hours winding our way along the serpentine boardwalks, oohing and aahing in wonder at the sparkling emerald lakes and magnificent waterfalls. It was unlike any place I’ve ever visited and I absolutely adored it. Another bucket list item checked off the list.
Around 10am, we leisurely made our way toward the park exit, still basking in the glow of our perfect morning…and were shocked by the scene that awaited us at the entrance gate.
It was literally a mob scene. A crowd of tour groups, buses and tour guides as far as the eye could see. They were barraging the entry gate and overflowing to block the exit gate as well. We had to fight our way through them just to exit. It was ridiculous.
I can’t imagine what the park must have been like for the next few hours. The boardwalks that meander through the lakes are narrow and they don’t have handrails. One false step and you’re in the lake. I would be very nervous in a crowd on one of those!
Once we made it back to the car and left the madness behind, we were so grateful that we’d made the extra effort to enjoy the park in the peaceful, early morning hours. I’m not even sure it would be worth going as part of a tour during high season.
Take my advice, don’t miss Plitvice Lakes National Park, but definitely spend the night.
Day 5 – The Port Town of Split
After leaving the park, we made the 3-hour drive to the next stop on our Croatian itinerary, the vibrant port town of Split.
Croatia’s second largest city, Split is considered one of the top yachting hubs in the Mediterranean. Its most famous attraction is Diocletian’s Palace, another of Croatia’s whopping 10 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Built in the fourth century AD as a retirement palace for the Roman emperor Diocletian, today it serves as the town’s cultural and political center.
Split’s seaside promenade, the Riva, is the place to see and be seen. Outdoor cafes, palm trees and fashionable shops line the street while mega-yachts sway in their moorage just offshore. There’s no better spot for a glass of wine and some people watching (which is exactly how we spent our afternoon).
Where to Stay in Split
If you want to be close to the action in the port, there’s no better choice than the top-rated Splendida Palace. This family-run boutique hotel has a mere 10 rooms and is located in a cultural heritage-listed building just a 2-minute walk from the port.
For a more budget-friendly choice in town, try the Split Old Town Suites. Located directly on Split’s main street, the hotel’s ideal location is steps from the port, train and bus stations. Rooms are comfortable, well decorated and all include a kitchenette.
For our brief stay, we wanted to be right on the beach, so we opted for the Le Meridien Lav Split. The only 5-star resort in Split, Le Meridien Lav is located about 5 miles south of the Old Town.
The resort features a beautiful stretch of beachfront, an expansive pool, a spa and several restaurants. They also provide a shuttle into town if you can tear yourself away from the beach.
Day 6 – The Island of Korčula
The next morning, it was time to move on to the islands. Split is the perfect base for exploring the Dalmatian islands thanks to regular ferry service to popular islands like Hvar, Brač, Vis and our next stop, Korčula.
The ferry route to Korčula from Split is served by 2 companies: Kapetan Luka and Jadrolinija. In the high season it runs 5 journeys per day, in total 35 times per week from Split. In the low season there is just one journey per day. Journey time is between 2 hours 20 minutes and 3 hours 40 minutes depending on the route.
Note that the Jadrolinija ferry serves only Korčula’s Vela Luka port on the west end of the island (a 40-minute drive from Korčula Old Town), while Kapetan Luka and G&V Line arrive and depart from Korčula Old Town. This is an important distinction (and one I missed when I originally looked at ferry schedules).
We took the Kapetan Luka hi-speed catamaran and our journey to Korčula Town took about 3 hours with quick stops in Brač and Hvar to drop-off and pick-up passengers.
Pronounced “Kor-CHU-la,” I first laid eyes on this stunning little island from the ferry several years ago. On that trip up the Dalmatian coast, there was no time to hop off the ferry and explore but the magnificent views of the city walls set against the sparkling turquoise sea as we docked left such an impression that I still thought wistfully of the island many years later.
And after many years of wondering what lay within those imposing walls, on this trip, it was finally time to get off the boat!
Where to Stay in Korčula
As we emerged from the ferry, we were greeted by Philip, the owner of the apartment we’d booked for our stay – White House Apartments. We followed Philip inside the fortified walls of the Old Town and through the quaint streets until we arrived at our apartment.
Located in the heart of the Old Town, our studio apartment had all the modern conveniences and even a terrace with a beautiful view over a quiet courtyard.
It was the perfect base for exploration and Philip was incredibly helpful in providing island information and suggestions for our day of sightseeing.
What to Do in Korčula
Korčula’s walled Old Town is often called “Little Dubrovnik” due to its medieval squares, churches and houses. The local architecture has a decidedly Venetian influence and the compact town center can be easily explored in an afternoon.
The first thing I wanted to do was climb up the St. Mark’s Cathedral Bell Tower that Philip had pointed out on the way to the apartment to get a bird’s eye view over the island. There was a small 20KN ($3) entrance fee but the views were incredible and it was the perfect way to get my bearings and decide where to head next.
We spent the rest of the day popping in and out of quaint shops and soaking in all the gorgeous water views the town had to offer. I couldn’t get over the brilliant turquoise color of the water set against the backdrop of the imposing walls.
We ended the day with a sunset cocktail at Massimo Cocktail Bar, which is located literally atop a medieval tower! We had to climb up a ladder to reach the top (they bring drinks up on a pulley system from the bar on the ground floor). It was the perfect way to end our day on the island.
It’s a magical island and I’m so glad I finally got to see what was on the other side of those walls!
Day 7 – Last Stop, Dubrovnik!
The next morning it was time to get back on the ferry and head to our final stop.
We arrived at the ferry terminal in Dubrovnik after a scenic 2-hour ferry ride from Korčula, again on the Kapetan Luka hi-speed catamaran.
The ferry route between Korčula and Dubrovnik is served by three companies in the high season: Jadrolinija, Kapetan Luka and G&V Line (July and August only). Ferries run 3 or 4 times per day, in total 25 times per week from Korčula. In the low season this route does not run at all, we were fortunate to catch the one ferry per day running during the limited shoulder season.
Where to Stay in Dubrovnik
For our final night in Croatia, I wanted a terrific view. And I definitely found one at the Dubrovnik Colors Apartment #1. This one-bedroom apartment was decorated beautifully, had all the modern conveniences and – most importantly – boasted a show-stopping view over all of the walled city of Dubrovnik from the terrace.
The apartment was just a 10-15 minute stroll down the hillside to the Old Town (though we did opt for a short taxi ride back up!)
To get a great view, it helps to be a bit outside of town so you can look down over it. However, if you really want to stay closer to the action, the historic Hilton Imperial Dubrovnik is my favorite choice (I stayed there on my first visit to Dubrovnik). It’s located directly outside the Old Town walls near the Pile Gate and has an executive lounge with stellar views.
Third Time’s the Charm in Dubrovnik
I first fell in love with Dubrovnik on Round the World #2. It was the middle of January and the smooth marble streets were empty of all but the local residents. I strolled around the city walls soaking in the burnt-orange rooftops and Adriatic views feeling like I had the whole town to myself. It was bliss.
My second visit, several years later, was during the height of the summer tourist season and it was a much different experience. Cruise ship passengers occupied every square inch of the Old Town and city walls and the blazing mid-summer heat was oppressive compared to the cool, breezy temps of my winter visit.
On this, my third visit, I thought I had nailed it, a mid-May, Spring-time trip to beat the cruise ship season, enjoy seasonable temps and finally introduce my husband to this beautiful city.
But I had overlooked one other big factor in Dubrovnik tourism since my last visit…
Dubrovnik’s Game of Thrones Obsession
As someone who has never seen an episode of Game of Thrones, it went totally over my head that this is a big deal in Dubrovnik. Many of the show’s scenes were filmed in some of the city’s most dramatic locations and a bustling tourist trade catering to fans of the show has sprouted rapidly in the last few years.
As soon as we crossed over the drawbridge and entered the Old Town through the Pile Gate, I knew we were in trouble. The crowds were just as bad, if not worse, than my summer visit. Game of Thrones tours and souvenirs were on offer around every corner and tour groups dominated the narrow Old Town streets.
My heart sank because, thanks to a couple of tours in Iraq/Afghanistan, my Army vet husband does not do crowds. I knew I would not be able to recreate for him the wonderful first experience I’d had in Dubrovnik.
But he was a trooper for a few hours as we walked the city walls, strolled the Stradun and settled in for a cold beer at Buza Bar (my favorite spot overlooking the sea).
Eventually, we decided to break from the crowds, pick up some provisions and retreat to our gorgeous terrace for a little peace and quiet and a toast to our final night in Croatia.
Wrapping up 7 Nights in Croatia
Overall, I think the itinerary we chose was a perfect overview of the country.
From the quaint charm of Rovinj (my new favorite small town in Europe) and the natural wonders of Plitvice Lakes, to the stylish port of Split, the stunning Dalmatian Islands and the crush of Dubrovnik, Croatia has something for every type of traveler.
If I could have stayed for a second week, I definitely would have spent more time exploring the islands. And maybe added a few more days in lovely Rovinj. There are so many beautiful places to see in Croatia you could spend months trying to see it all.
But if you only have a week to spare, this itinerary is the perfect way to cover some of Croatia’s most beautiful places!