The Prettiest Places in Croatia Will Make You Long to Go
When it comes to scenery, Croatia is a strong contender for Europe’s best in show. The country’s dazzling Adriatic coastline—with its sunny beaches, shimmering waters, and clusters of walled, red-capped towns sprouting from photogenic headlands—are well known (with an assist from Game of Thrones).
But that doesn’t even begin to exhaust the country’s supply of eye candy. There are also castles, caves, ancient ruins, historic cities, café-lined courtyards, emerald forests, turquoise lakes, and showstopping waterfalls. Here are 14 of the most beautiful places in a uniquely beautiful nation.
Pictured above: Hvar
Also known as the Golden Cape or Golden Horn, Croatia’s gift to aerial photography is a long tendril of pebbly sand reaching into the sparkling Adriatic Sea along the southern coast of the Dalmatian island of Brač. Accessible from the town of Bol via a tree-lined promenade, Zlatni Rat is a prime destination for see-and-be-seen sunbathing as well as sailing and windsurfing.
Local legend has it that the mythical island where the nymph Calypso held Odysseus captive for seven years in Homer’s The Odyssey is actually Mljet, a heavily wooded Adriatic isle within day-trip distance of Dubrovnik. Odysseus Cave is supposedly the spot where the hero swam after getting shipwrecked; today, visitors can take a dip or boat ride in the cave’s azure water amid towering limestone walls.
At this nature reserve north of Šibenik in southern Croatia, the Krka river fuels seven impressive waterfalls—or more, depending on your arithmetic: The 150-foot-tall Skradinski Buk is made up of 17 different smaller cascades. After cooling off with a swim in the pool at the base, visitors continue north on hiking trails that lead to monasteries, ancient Roman ruins, and more scenes of thundering water tumbling over rocks.
Croatia’s answer to the Everglades is this vast expanse of marshland at the confluence of the Drava and Danube rivers near Osijek in the country’s northeast. On wooden boardwalks and boat rides through greenish water surrounded by dense forest, you might spot red deer, wild boar, and up to 300 different species of birds, including eagles and storks.
Routinely ranked among Europe’s most beautiful beaches, Punta Rata sits near the northern end of the Makarska Riviera, a roughly 60km (37-mile) stretch of sunny Adriatic coastline between Brela and Gradac. At Punta Rata, a pebbly rim separates the crystal-clear sea from a pine-covered cape that’s set in turn against the dramatic backdrop of rugged Mount Biokovo.
Rovinj’s storybook Old Town crowds a promontory jutting into the sea on the west coast of the Istrian peninsula. Tightly clustered shops and houses line narrow, winding cobblestone streets that lead to the highest point, occupied by St. Euphemia Church. The scene is especially ravishing at sunset, with wooden fishing boats bobbing in the water and the church’s campanile dominating the skyline.
Croatia’s most touted natural wonder and most famous inland attraction encompasses 16 turquoise lakes connected by spectacular waterfalls created by deposits of powdery white travertine, which also accounts for the vivid color and clarity of the pools. The water is surrounded by a bright-green forest of beech, fir, and spruce. Well-marked hiking trails take visitors to the lakes as well as caves, springs, flowering meadows, and the lush gorge at the source of the Korana river.
From the outside, Trakošćan Castle, which dates to the 13th century, looks like the sort of place where a fairy-tale princess would live. The hilltop fortress in Varaždin County near the northwestern border with Slovenia has imposing stone walls, turrets topped with red tiles, a drawbridge, and extensive pleasure grounds including a picturesque park and lake. The interior restoration is on the shabby side, but what can we tell you? Some princesses are only beautiful on the outside.
Perhaps the best way to see Dubrovnik’s astonishingly well-preserved Old Town is by walking a complete circuit on the medieval walls that gird the historic district—a trek that puts you between the red-tiled rooftops and yacht-dotted Adriatic. Then again, it’s also rewarding to stroll along the main pedestrian thoroughfare, limestone-paved Stradun, amid the jumble of Baroque, Renaissance, and Gothic structures housing churches, museums, restaurants, and palaces. Hollywood couldn’t have built a better set, which could be why Dubrovnik has appeared in so many films and TV shows.
This seaside city at the tip of the Istrian peninsula contains some of Europe’s most significant Roman ruins, starting with a first-century amphitheater that looks like a smaller version of Rome’s Colosseum—except that Pula’s arena remains almost entirely intact. The city’s strategically desirable location drew not just the Romans but, later, Venetian and Austro-Hungarian occupiers as well. Elegant buildings from those eras can be found among the ruins in the old town.
The Dalmatian island of Hvar, which floats between Brać and Vis, is a sunny and glamorous summer destination comparable to the French Riviera and Spain’s Balearic Islands. The coast’s glitzy beaches and secluded coves give way to inland vineyards, lavender fields, and towns with medieval architecture. In Hvar Town’s 13th-century St. Stephen’s Square, a small harbor and a cathedral bookend a sun-bleached plaza with galleries and cafes along the perimeter.
Situated between Medvednica mountain and the Sava river in northwestern Croatia, the country’s vibrant capital city makes up for what it lacks in Adriatic beaches with historic architecture, abundant green spaces, and eminently walkable cobblestone streets that radiate from grand gathering spaces such as Lower Town’s central Jelačić Square. Sidewalk cafes, museums (such as the Art Pavilion, pictured above), and outdoor markets are liable to slow down your stroll, but you definitely won’t mind.
Šibenik hugs the slopes of a hill overlooking a broad bay where the Krka river meets the Adriatic. But even more eye-catching than the natural setting is the warren of steep, serpentine streets, passageways, and rocky steps that ascend to a center crowded with stone dwellings, medieval squares, and churches, none more striking than the big, white Cathedral of St. James. The yachts in the harbor are likely headed for the heavenly Kornati Islands nearby.
Croatia’s second-largest city is a looker in general, thanks in no small part to its location between mountains and the Adriatic. But what makes Split truly stand out is Diocletian’s Palace, which started out as a kind of imperial retirement home built for the Roman ruler around A.D. 295. The walls of the complex enclose a massive, 8-acre city-within-the-city filled with scores of buildings—ancient temples and towers as well as additions from more recent centuries—where residents still live, run shops, and congregate in romantic courtyards paved with white stone.