Dazzling Dalmatia: The Best of the Croatian Coast in 7 Perfect Days
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Inside: A 7-day itinerary along the spectacular Croatian coast from Rovinj to Dubrovnik with every must-see stop along the way.
Let’s face it, the magical Croatian coast (known as the Dalmatian Coast) 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 the stunning Croatian coast.
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 the Croatian coast 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.
Where is the Dalmatian Coast?
Croatia is home to more than 3,000 miles of sparkling coastline. But the southernmost region, known as the Dalmatian Coast, is perhaps the most famous region. Officially, Dalmatia runs from the island of Rab in the north to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro in the south.
In between, the Dalmatian Coast encompasses the western coastline of Croatia (Split, Rovinj, Dubrovnik) and sun-splashed Adriatic islands like Hvar, Korcula, Brac, Vij, and Mljet.
How to Get to the Dalmatian Coast
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 want to start our trip in the small fishing port of Rovinj, getting there requires a little more creativity.
Rovinj doesn’t have its own airport so the nearest options with flights from Germany are Rijeka or Trieste, Italy (both a 90-minute drive away). Since both are small airports, the flight options are limited and didn’t fit with our planned arrival date.
Enter the ferry…
After a little research, I discover a ferry option from Venice, Italy to Rovinj with Venezia Lines. Since flight options between Munich and Venice are frequent and affordable and Italy is always a good idea, we decide to throw in an extra day in Venice on the way.
Day 1 – Venice & the ferry to Rovinj
We land in Venice at 9am with a scheduled ferry departure at 5:15pm later today. The ferry tickets are 94€ each (for VIP class, which is only slightly more than the regular fare and seems like a smart choice for a 3-hour ferry ride).
After taking a water taxi from the airport, we store our luggage near the ferry terminal and spend a lovely day enjoying Venice’s terrific spring weather and reminiscing about our honeymoon stay four years ago.
At 4pm, we head to the ferry terminal and check in for our ferry. A little over an hour later we’re sailing away from Venice for the 3-hour ride across the Adriatic Sea to the Croatian coast and the town of Rovinj.
The ferry ride is pleasantly smooth and after a quick stop in the summer resort town of Poreč to drop off passengers, we arrive in the port of Rovinj. The sun has just completed its dramatic descent and the entire town is basked in a dazzling pinkish glow.
It is love at first sight.
Where to Stay in Rovinj
Since light is quickly fading and we are starving, we head 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 is the Royal View Apartment. We are greeted warmly by the apartment owner, Xenia. She quickly gets us settled in and recommends what turns out to be an excellent restaurant just a few steps away for dinner.
The apartment is absolutely lovely, with stylish, modern décor and everything we need. But the real show-stopper is the million-dollar view of the harbor from the window.
Day 2 – Exploring Rovinj
The next morning, we awake to an amazing sunrise view over the port from our bedroom window. I can’t wait to go explore!
Pronounced “roh-VEEN,” the picturesque Croatian fishing port is located on the western coast of the Istrian peninsula. Amazingly, it has largely escaped the tourist crowds of Croatia’s southern towns.
The busy working harbor is packed with colorful fishing boats returning from an early morning of fishing. And the pastel-hued homes lining the sea are far more reminiscent of an Italian seaside town than what I’ve seen of the Croatian coast before.
It is absolutely brilliant.
Quiet, colorful, oozing with seaside charm…and not a tour group to be seen for miles. In fact, it reminds us a lot of one of our favorite places in Italy, the practically undiscovered island of Procida.
Read More: Pretty Procida is the Best Italian Island You’ve Never Heard Of
What to see in Rovinj
Honestly, I can’t tell you what “sights” are must-sees in Rovinj (though I’m sure there are some!)
We spend our entire day strolling the quiet streets, sitting in waterfront cafes and just appreciating the beauty of the town. We also check out the facilities at their brand new state of the art marina – just in case we decide to return on a boat someday.
We cap 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 Lakes National Park
Today, we have 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 need our own wheels, so we head 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 is that driving in Croatia is easy, safe and a great way to get around (as long as you avoid driving in the larger cities).
Most of our planned driving itinerary involves the lesser-populated areas of Croatia, so self-driving seems like the perfect choice.
And it turns out to be fine. The highways are well-maintained and easy to navigate, and we really enjoy 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 can’t resist the 45-minute detour down the Dalmatian Coast to the nearby town of Pula. This 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 seems almost absurdly out of place in the small port town, but it’s well-worth the short detour from Rovinj.
From Pula, we drive through the outskirts of the busy port of Rijeka and continue east into Croatia’s rolling countryside.
The plan? Spend tonight at a guest house near the entrance to Plitvice Lakes National Park so we can visit first thing tomorrow morning (and hopefully avoid 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.
Where to stay near Plitvice Lakes National Park
We arrive in the rural town of Rakovica mid-afternoon and easily find our guest house for the night, the Villa Ruhige Lage, located about 15 kilometers from the entrance to the park.
Like most accommodations near the park, Villa Ruhige Lage is basically a large country home converted to a guest house. It has beautiful views of the countryside from the terrace and the staff are very helpful in explaining the entry locations at the park and tips for our visit tomorrow. They also suggest a local restaurant just a short walk down the street for dinner.
How to Visit Plitvice Lakes National Park
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 80 Kuna ($11 USD) in the winter months to 300 Kuna ($43 USD) during peak summer season in July and August. Tickets can sometimes be purchased on arrival. But during the summer months it’s highly encouraged to book tickets in advance.
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.
Tip: For the latest updates on which entrances are open and to purchase tickets, check the Plitvice Lakes National Park official website.
Though we are visiting in May, Entrance 2 is still closed due to heavy rains in the days leading up to our visit. This caused some of the boardwalks to be submerged which is, apparently, not uncommon.
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 is why we chose to get a rental car and spend a night near the park the night before our visit. We wanted to hit the ground running right at the 7am opening time.
And I’m happy to say my plan works like a charm. We book our tickets online about a week in advance. And when we arrive at Entrance Gate 1, we pay a 7 Kuna fee to park and are thrilled to see we are one of the first cars in the lot.
We spend 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 is unlike any place I’ve ever visited and I absolutely adored it.
Another bucket list item checked off the list.
Leaving Plitvice Lakes
Around 10am, we leisurely make our way toward the park exit, still basking in the glow of our perfect morning. And we are shocked by the scene that awaits us at the entrance gate.
It is literally a mob scene. A crowd of tour groups, buses, and tour guides as far as the eye can see. We have to fight our way through them just to exit.
Once we make it back to the car and leave the madness behind, we are so grateful we 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 make the 3-hour drive to the next stop on our Croatian coast itinerary, the vibrant port town of Split. In Split, we return the car since we’ll be taking the ferry the rest of the way.
Croatia’s second-largest city, Split is considered one of the top yachting hubs in the Mediterranean.
Split’s 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 Riva promenade
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 chilled Istrian wine and some people watching (which is exactly how we spend 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 want to be right on the beach, so we opt 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 full-service 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’s time to depart the mainland Croatian coast and move on to the islands.
Split is the perfect base for exploring the Dalmatian islands off the Croatian coast 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.
The ferry from Split to Korcula
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 take the Kapetan Luka hi-speed catamaran and our journey to Korčula Town takes 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 Croatian 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 think wistfully of the island many years later.
And after many years of wondering what lies within those imposing walls, on this trip, it’s finally time to get off the boat!
Where to Stay in Korčula
As we emerge from the ferry, we are greeted by the owner of the guest house we booked for our stay – Guest House Korunic. We followed him inside the fortified walls of the Old Town and through the quaint streets until we arrived at our hotel.
Located in the heart of the Old Town, our studio apartment has all the modern conveniences and even a rooftop terrace with a beautiful view of the sea and the rooftops of the old town.
It’s the perfect base for exploration and ours hosts are 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.
First on my list, a climb up the St. Mark’s Cathedral Bell Tower to get a bird’s eye view over the island. There is a small 20KN ($3) entrance fee but the views are incredible and it’s the perfect way to get my bearings and decide where to head next.
We spend the rest of the day popping in and out of quaint shops and soaking in all the gorgeous water views the town has to offer.
A unique bar in Korcula
We end the day with a sunset cocktail at Massimo Cocktail Bar, which is located literally atop a medieval tower!
We have to climb up a ladder to reach the top. Fortunately for the waitstaff, they bring drinks up on a pulley system from the bar on the ground floor. It’s 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’s time to get back on the ferry and head to our final stop.
We arrive at the ferry terminal in Dubrovnik after a scenic 2-hour ferry ride from Korčula, again on the Kapetan Luka hi-speed catamaran (the ferries have the most epic views of the Croatian coastline!).
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 are 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 of the Croatian coast we’ve spent the past week exploring.
And I definitely found it at the Dubrovnik Colors Apartment #1!
This one-bedroom apartment is decorated beautifully, has all the modern conveniences and – most importantly – boasts a show-stopping view over all of the walled city of Dubrovnik from the terrace.
The apartment is just a 10-15 minute stroll down the hillside to the Old Town (though we do 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 of the Croatian coast feeling like I had the whole town to myself. It was bliss.
Read More: Dubrovnik: Pearl of the Adriatic
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.
Read More: In Dubrovnik Summer Sizzles but Winter is Wiser
On this, my third visit, surely I have nailed it, a mid-May, Spring-time trip. I’ll beat the cruise ship season, enjoy seasonable temps and finally introduce my husband to this beautiful city.
But, unfortunately, I 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 Dubrovnik’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 cross over the drawbridge and enter the Old Town through the Pile Gate, I know we are in trouble.
The crowds are just as bad, if not worse, than my summer visit. Game of Thrones tours and souvenirs are on offer around every corner and tour groups dominate the narrow Old Town streets.
My heart sinks because, thanks to a couple of tours in Iraq/Afghanistan, my Army vet husband does not do crowds. I know I won’t be able to recreate for him the wonderful first experience I had in Old Town Dubrovnik.
But he’s a trooper for a few hours as we walk the city walls, stroll the Stradun and settle in for a cold beer at Buza Bar (my favorite spot overlooking the sea).
Eventually, we decide 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 along the Croatian Coast
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 National Park, to the stylish port of Split, the stunning Dalmatian Islands and the crush of Dubrovnik, the Croatian coast has something for every type of traveler.
If we 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 the Croatian coast’s most beautiful places!