Nestled along the Adriatic Sea opposite Italy and with a true Mediterranean vibe, the small country of Croatia (population of just over 4.25 million) is a country of 1,000 islands and a popular holiday destination with Europeans, but not yet truly discovered by Americans. That’s sure to change – soon. Though small in size, Croatia is filled with quiet fishing villages, a few buzzing cities, medieval towns and UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Confession number one: prior to a recent trip to Croatia, I didn’t know much about the Mediterranean country.
Long before its gain in popularity as a vacation destination, Croatia has been a destination for the ages. The Dalmats were a tribe who lived in the region from 4 BC, and the Greeks established themselves on the islands of Korčula, Hvar and Vis. In 9 AD, the Roman Empire reigned the territory of today’s Croatia; Roman Emperor Diocletian built his retirement palace in Split – which still stands – when he retired from this reign, in 305 AD. Fast forward 2,000-plus years and today’s Croatia is proud of its history, culture and traditions, while at the same time looking forward to a bright future.
City living is alive and well in Croatia, especially in Zagreb, the country’s capital city with a population of just more than one million people. Filled with green spaces, Zagreb is easily explored by foot, and even easier is via a walking tour. Sign on with Best of Zagreb and take a tour with licensed guide Samia Zitouni, who showcases her city in the most delightful way, blending awe-inspiring sights and anecdotes that bring the city’s history to life. Be sure and stroll through late-19th century Zrinjevac Park and the Gothic-style Cathedral of the Assumption, where the city was founded, as well as along the 16th century Renaissance wall that was erected to protect the cathedral.
Down the coast from Zagreb is Trogir, a smaller city on the Adriatic coast rich in Renaissance and Baroque architecture that is under the protection of UNESCO World Heritage. Inside the city’s defense walls, restored in the 15th century by the Venetians, a thriving community lived and worked and played, much as it does today. The wall, with its original gates from the 16th century, is so impressive that Napoleon spared it when he invaded the area in the early 19th century. Fun fact: the heights of the pillars outside of the houses found within the old city were used to denote the owners’ wealth.
On the Dalmatian Coast just south of Trogir lies Split, another bustling city rich in history. Looming large over the city’s harbor is the aforementioned Diocletian’s Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Monument, and what an impressive monument it is. In its heyday, more than 9,000 people lived inside the palace’s walls; today, it’s still teeming with life through businesses and visitors alike. A few highlights inside the palace include an olive oil press from the seventh or eighth century, which was also eventually used as a wine press; four of the 12 original Egyptian sphinx that remain intact; the “new” part of the palace, and the Church of St Luce, which was built in the 16th century. For even more culture, plan to visit during the Split Summer Festival, held each year, mid-July through mid-August. The month-long festival features open-air theater, music and dance performances around the city, including in and around the palace.
Confession number two: I fell in love with Hvar.
A quick ride aboard a hydrofoil (seasonal; ferries available year-round) from Split ends at the tropical island of Hvar, the oldest establishment in all of Croatia, with its waving palm trees, crystal-clear waters and bright, Mediterranean sunshine. The Greeks first arrived on the island in the 4th century BC and named the island Pharus, from which the island’s name originates. Highlights of a day spent wandering the historic city include the early-17th century theatre – one of the first municipal theaters in Europe currently; and the Gothic Cathedral of St. Steven, built in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Truly, though, Hvar is to be enjoyed leisurely – strolling along the marina, shopping the boutiques, sipping coffee in a sidewalk café. For incredible views, visit the 16th century Španjola fortress high above the city – they’ll take your breath away.
A stay in Šibenik on the Adriatic coast is like staying in a medieval fairytale. Centuries-old cobblestone streets wind through the old city center, established in 1290, delivering wonder around every corner. Sitting atop the town’s hill is St. James’ Cathedral, built in the mid-15th century and currently under restoration to bring it back to its original splendor. But don’t let the restoration stop you – the cathedral is stunning as it stands. Wind your way a bit higher from the cathedral and follow markers for the Medieval Mediterranean Garden of St. Lawrence Monastery, reopened in 2007 after hundreds of years of neglect. Stunning! Šibenik is another town that boasts waterfront views and sidewalk cafes – be sure to take advantage.
Back to Nature
Aside from its more than 327 miles of coastline, Croatia has plenty of green space, parks and beaches to enjoy. Two of the most notable are Kornati National Park, a group of arid islands that dot the coastline and accessible only by boat, and Krka National Park, lush with waterfalls and walking paths. Both parks can easily be visited from Šibenik.
This is but a taste of all that Croatia has to offer. The best way to explore is to rent a car and go – discover for yourself all the treasures that this Mediterranean country has to offer.
Confession number three: I learned loads on my trip to Croatia, and can’t wait to return for more exploration.
When you go:
It may take awhile to get to Croatia, but it’s certainly well worth it! Major European hubs fly into Croatia, whether Zagreb, Dubrovnik, or Split. For more on Croatia, please visit croatia.hr.