3 Reasons to Love Croatia
MIR’s Helen Holter fell in love with Croatia back in college, after a Russian-language program in Moscow was canceled at the last minute and she instead flew to Zagreb, Yugoslavia (at the time) to independently study Russian and Serbo-Croatian. Helen found a place to live, made friends, and explored a country that few travelers visited, and where English was rarely spoken. So much has changed since then, yet Helen’s favorite places in Croatia remain timeless.
It’s a hard heart that doesn’t fall in love with Croatia at first sight. It’s easy to visit this country for what you think will be a few days, but you end up staying weeks and even months in what has become one of the top travel destinations in the world, lush with natural beauty, sandy beaches and emerald waters, historic hilltowns with swashbuckling backstories, and 10 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Here are just three reasons why so many are captivated by Croatia.
1. Dazzling Dubrovnik
This is what most likely comes to mind when people imagine Croatia: the walled, red-tiled town of Dubrovnik perched on the Dalmatian Coast in an idyllic, iconic setting unchanged for centuries. That image is as true today as it was centuries ago, even as Dubrovnik basks in its fame as a setting for one of TV’s most popular series, “Game of Thrones.”
What perhaps beckons most is to hike atop Dubrovnik’s wide, mile-long massive walls surrounding the UNESCO-listed Old Town. These formidable barriers were first built in the 10th century, with work to extend and strengthen them continuing into the 14th century. The walls reach more than 80 feet tall and 20 feet thick in places – a very solid place to take a stroll!
- Tip: Early morning and evening are the best times to walk the walls, with cooler temperatures, diffused lighting, and perhaps fewer people.
Meander Dubrovnik’s narrow, cobblestoned streets, and explore the cafés, restaurants, and family-run shops along the two-kilometer, limestone-paved Stradun, considered one of the most beautiful pedestrian walkways in Europe. Wherever you wander, there’s history: from Assumption Cathedral and Fort Lovrijenac to the Rector’s Palace and 100-foot-tall 15th century clocktower keeping watch for years.
Beaches, seafood, museums, and boatloads of sunshine make you forget the Serbs shelled this city in the 1990’s Yugoslav war. Dubrovnik’s seamlessly pieced back together again – and protected since 1979 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
More Dubrovnik and Dalmatian Coast stories and photos
2. Plitvice Lakes National Park
If you’re good at descriptions, you’ll be challenged to name all the colors of Plitvice’s 16 terraced lakes, each one connected by gurgling waterfalls and cascades tumbling over tufa rocks flowing from one lake into the next. Turquoise, azure, green-blue or blue-green, emerald, gray: they change by the day or even the moment, depending on light and what minerals and mosses are in the water.
Plitvice Lakes is the oldest national park in southeastern Europe, and Croatia’s largest. This park is big: 113 square miles nestled between the mountains of Mala Kapela and Lička Plješevica. It’s also designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in Croatia, bestowed this status in 1979 for its ecological and geological value evolving over the past 7,000 years. Plitvice’s forests are home to rare bird species and butterflies, and a habitat for wolves and bears.
Boardwalks connect hikers between the chain of 16 lakes; to preserve the natural setting of the park and pristine condition of the lakes, swimming and fishing are strictly forbidden. (It’s truly “look, don’t touch!”)
- Tip: It can take several hours of walking along the boardwalks – typically 4-6 hours – to explore the entire series of lakes. Free seasonal boats and electric buses ferry visitors between Plitvice’s upper and lower lakes, substantially cutting down walking time for viewing all the lakes.
Although beautiful year-round, September into mid-October is a delightful time to visit, as autumn nudges summer aside with its effusion of burnt-orange and yellow colors and a slight bite to the air. It’s also less crowded than in summertime, perfect for a solitary hike along tumbling waterfalls, imbuing a soothing silence to one’s soul.
If you don’t know Croatian, take on the challenge of pronouncing names of lakes like Prošćansko, Kaluđerovac, or Novakovića Brod Jezero. The sound of waterfalls drown out conversation, so it doesn’t matter if you say them wrong!
More Outdoorsy Croatia stories and photos
3. Zagreb’s Old Town
Landlocked Zagreb is an intriguing capital city in its own right, but often overshadowed by its more enticing Croatian seaside sister towns of Dubrovnik and Split, as well as the Dalmatian Islands. Founded in the 11th century, the heart of Zagreb is its Old Town, consisting of two adjoining medieval cities: ecclesiastical Kaptol and hilly Gradec. Among its most famous landmarks are the iconic tiled-roof St. Mark’s Church, 13th century Stone Gate, Ban Jelacic Square, Dolac Market, and the neo-Gothic twin-spired Zagreb Cathedral (also called Assumption Cathedral) – a can’t-miss location to meet up with friends.
Zagreb’s treasures are best uncovered by walking: strolling its winding streets, sipping strong coffee in its squares, and enjoying fresh air, bubbling fountains, and open spaces in its lush parks – which range from pocket-sized to luxuriously large. A favorite park is Zrinjevac, replete with fountains, statues, concert pavilion, walking paths, and the ambience of history; the park is surrounded by 19th-century buildings, including the Croatian Supreme Court, Zagreb Archaeological Museum, and Croatian Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Other popular Zagreb highlights include Mandusevac Fountain, built above an underground natural spring that sourced Zagreb’s drinking water until the end of the 19th century. It’s said that Zagreb’s name comes from the Croatian verb, “zagrabiti” – to scoop up water. Mandusevac Fountain is located on Ban Jelacic Square, named for the Croatian credited with uniting Kaptol and Gradec into one city, Zagreb.
Zagreb’s arts and culture scene is deep-rooted, from the historic Mimara collection of Old Masters and the Art Pavilion’s Croatian and international art to the Museum of Contemporary Art and other cutting-edge galleries. Today many of Zagreb’s Old Town historic highlights are the setting for vibrant festivals and arts exhibitions, from the Festival of Lights in the Upper Town to classical concerts and hip-hop gatherings in Ban Jelacic Square.
Of special note is many Croatians’ love of what used to be known as “Yugoslav naïve art” and now simply called “naïve art” or “primitive art.” Some of the world’s best is on display at the Croatian Museum of Naïve Art in Zagreb, with nearly 2,000 works of art, including paintings, prints, and sculptures. This style gradually caught on in the 1920s and 1930s among Yugoslavia’s peasants and working class, mostly self-taught painters and sculptors with no formal training in art. Their whimsical and fantastical themes were in sharp contrast to other popular art schools, such as Soviet-era socialist realism.
Beloved artists include Ivan Lackovic and Ivan Generalic, who capture on canvas and glass their imaginary landscapes of nature, twilight, and rural life of Croatia. Naïve art pieces from the museum’s holdings have been exhibited worldwide, including the US, Europe, and Japan.
More Zagreb photos and stories
Travel to Croatia with MIR
There are several MIR tours that travel to Croatia, exploring the historic treasures of this country, from Dubrovnik to the Dalmatian Islands and from Plitvice to Perast. MIR is an award-winning company with over two decades of Balkans travel experience, providing a superior edge in on-the-ground operations.
Here are four ways to discover Croatia with MIR:
- Balkan Odyssey: Crossroads of Cultures – This overland small group journey ties together seven wildly divergent Balkan countries, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. A highlight is spending time in Dubrovnik.
- Essential Balkans – You’ll explore both Split and Dubrovnik on this private, independent trip, traveling on your own dates using our itinerary of the seven Balkan countries.
- Venice to Istanbul by Private Train – This rail expedition travels through the Balkans and beyond aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express, stopping in both Zagreb and Dubrovnik.
- Your handcrafted, private itinerary – These journeys are customized to your dates, interests and pace. Travel wherever, however and with whomever you like, relying on our expert assistance. A popular option in Croatia is making Zagreb a base for excursions to Plitvice Lakes National Park, the nearby countryside of Hrvastko Zagorje and Veliki Tabor Castle, as well as Kumrovec, the village birthplace of Josif Broz Tito, Yugoslavia’s legendary leader.
No matter how you explore this Balkan country with MIR – small group tour; flexible, independent trip; rail journey by private train; or custom, handcrafted itinerary – you’re bound to find countless reasons to fall in love with Croatia.
(Top photo: Dubrovnik at sunset. Photo credit: Croatian Tourist Board)
PUBLISHED: December 31, 2014