There’s hardly a person whose wanderlust is not tickled by the images of Croatia’s sun-kissed, crystalline coast. And with so many amazing sites, most of them listed as Unesco-protected heritage, the excitement can turn into a sweet problem. Where should you go, and how can you connect with the local culture even in touristy places?
This road trip begins in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, shows you the green and rugged Plitvice Lakes, then swerves towards the Adriatic. From Zadar, Šibenik, Split, all the way to Dubrovnik, the road snakes along the prettiest shores and reveals Croatia’s absolute best destinations. There are enough stops to discover hidden gems, such as river Cetina or the ancient Walls of Ston, so you can truly bond with the country.
Starting the road trip in Zagreb is both convenient and illuminating. The city that was once a stop-over to the more popular Croatian coast has blossomed into a year-round, cultured hub.
On day one, explore the Upper Town, Zagreb’s oldest and irresistibly mystical quarter. Walk along its winding gas-lit alleyways and aim to catch the sunset. This is when the streetlamp lighter does his rounds and will happily pose for a selfie. Admire the brilliant St. Mark’s Church with its red-and-white roof tiles. Then, just around the corner, dive into Zagreb’s oldest cafe – Pod starim krovovima – to experience the city’s revered coffee culture.
Streets of the Lower Town teem with people and events, from live music to foodie festivals, especially April-October. Hit the Green Horseshoe, a network of parks and squares, that will show you the newer and edgier side to Zagreb.
On day two, drive to Sljeme, the peak of Medvednica mountain. Apart from exquisite nature, the mountain boasts the medieval Medvedgrad Castle and numerous huts which serve hearty home-cooked food. For the final night out, choose Wine Bar Bornstein or any of colourful bars dotted along the buzzy Tkalčićeva street – Zagreb’s famous nightlife strip.
In less than an hour’s drive, Zagreb’s plain gives way to the mellow hills of Plešivica wine region. This is where the red portugizac and Croatia’s sparkling wines are produced. Grab a seat on the terrace of Restaurant Ivančić and pair your lunch with the breathtaking vista of the vineyards.
Set aside half a day to soak up the allure of the Plitvice Lakes. Go on a boat ride across Lake Kozjak, have a selfie in front of the highest waterfall in the park, Veliki Slap and, most of all, be in communion with nature. Refuel at the rustic restaurant Lička Kuća with roast lamb or pan-fried trout.
On your way to Zadar, enjoy watching the change of scenery because it’s fast and quite dramatic. Lush forests turn more into rugged moors until your view gets blocked by the imposing Velebit Mountain. You will drive through it, via the five-kilometre-long tunnel, and there, on the the side, the Adriatic Sea awaits.
Zadar is the best introduction to the Croatian coast. This is the only place where the sun and the sea are more than wonders of nature. Stroll along the majestic Zadar Riva until you can hear the Sea Organ or spot the glitters of the Sun Salutation – both of which are phenomenal art installations situated at the waterfront.
To breathe in the history, visit Forum Square and St. Donatus Church, the 9th-century landmark of Zadar. Roaming Zadar’s cobbled streets, from Five Wells Square to the main street Kalelarga, is a treat enough, with every building, archway and alley oozing with the flavour of antiquity. Stop for another treat at the ice cream shop.
Spend the following day on a boat, snaking around the myriad of tiny islands which make up the Kornati National Park. Trips usually include a lunch of freshly caught fish. If this opens your appetite for more seafood, look out for Proto Food&More restaurant.
Krka Waterfalls and Šibenik
From Zadar onwards, stay on the Adriatic Highway (Jadranska magistrala, D8 or E65), the most scenic route along the coast. You can meander on this narrow road, sandwiched between the crystal blue shore and the towering mountains, all the way to Dubrovnik.
Enter Krka National Park from Skradin town, pack your swimming gear and hop on a boat to reach the longest waterfall in Krka: Skradinski Buk. The best way to explore Krka’s network of cascades is by strolling around but don’t miss having a dip in the river either – it’s allowed.
Onwards in Šibenik, enjoy a proper food feast in Pelegrini, one of Croatia’s first Michelin-star restaurants. Then walk up to St. Michael’s Fortress – a medieval edifice with captivating views of the city and its archipelago.
No city measures up to Split when it comes to the total immersion in history.
On day one, tick off the top attractions: Cathedral of St. Domnius, the Peristyle and the underground of the Diocletian’s Palace. Then ease into the local laid-back rhythm at the fabulous Pazar (farmers’ market) or by lingering over coffee at Split Riva – the seafront promenade.
Do a moderate trek up the lush Marjan Hill because the view of the city is something else, especially from Vidilica café. The freshest of seafood is served in Nostromo, a tavern next door to famed Split fish market, Peškarija. Round the evening at Paradox Wine & Cheese Bar with the finest selection of Croatian wines, paired with local cheese and prosciutto.
Save the next day for a trip to Trogir town. The 13th-century Cathedral of St. Lawrence, including its door carved by Master Radovan, is a masterpiece of the medieval masonry. On your way back, don’t skip Kaštela, a town consisting of seven villages (kaštel) each with a fortified castle. Kaštilac fort in Kaštel Gomilica made an appearance in a popular series – guess which – and a 1500-year-old olive tree still grows strong in Kaštel Štafilić.
Stop for a one-of-a-kind lunch experience near Omiš town, where river Cetina flows into the Adriatic. Radmanove mlinice, a traditional watermill-turned-restaurant, excels in local food, especially bread baked under the bell jar.
Use the following 24 hours only to unwind. When you get to this dazzling stretch of white pebbly beaches, you won’t need anything but the sun and the sea, at least for a day.
South from Makarska, the road goes through the valley of the Neretva River – a fertile plain famous for fruit orchards and the abundance of vegetables. Stop in Opuzen town and stock up at one of the food stalls alongside the road. When you reach Neum, you are actually crossing into Bosnia and Herzegovina for a bit and then exiting again – so get your passports ready.
Make a stop in Ston on Pelješac peninsula, famous for its shell food and the world’s second largest fortifications: the Ston Walls. Don’t skimp on the lunch of fresh oysters and mussels in Bakus tavern because you can always burn the calories trudging up those grandiose walls.
Press on to your final destination, Dubrovnik. Consider staying in the quieter Lapad neighbourhood, where beaches are close and from where you can explore the Old Town. Secluded Danče beach just off Pile Gate is wonderful and so is the entire Lokrum Island, only a quick boat ride away.
Spend the first day immersed in the charms of the Old Town. Walk the City Walls, explore the Rector’s and Sponza Palaces, poke inside the world’s third oldest pharmacy inside the Franciscan Monastery. To top it all off, take the cable car up to Srđ mountain and get swooned by the view of the city and beyond.
For the real flavours of Dubrovnik, seek out Pantarul restaurant, where ingredients are sourced from the surrounding Konavle area. Have a drink at Troubadour jazz cafe, an old-time darling of the Dubrovnik locals.
Just before you fly off, stop in Cavtat – hometown of Croatia’s renowned painter Vlaho Bukovac. After you visit his memorial house, have the last dip in the sea. There are plenty of irresistible beaches nearby.
Other scenic rides to consider:
- tour Southern France and explore sun-drenched Languedoc
- or, consider taking one of the world’s greatest train journeys