After three weeks traveling through Eastern Europe, we finished off the trip by spending a week in Croatia. Grant’s grandparents visited Croatia when he was younger and it’s been on his bucket list ever since. Located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, Croatia is widely known for its beaches and islands. We enjoyed its history, natural beauty and mountains.
So, here’s our one week Croatia itinerary, complete with a road trip, Roman ruins and a national park visit!
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Updated January 2019
Day 1: Getting to Croatia
We arrived in Croatia via train from Ljubljana, Slovenia. Oh, how we love the rail system in Europe!
One thing to note about traveling to Croatia: While it is part of the European Union, it is not part of the Schengen Agreement. You’re probably wondering exactly what that means. Basically, that is the agreement that allows open borders between the various countries.
For us, that meant that after we entered the European Union in Amsterdam, we did not have to show our passports or go through border control as we entered other countries. That was very nice considering we visited the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary and Slovenia.
As we entered Croatia, however, we did have to pass through border control. Thankfully, on the train that was a very easy and painless experience. The train stopped at the border and the agents came on board to handle everything.
The Slovene Border Patrol stamped us out and about 15 minutes later the Croatian Border Patrol stamped us in. Getting these stamps did somewhat make up for all the other stamps that we did not get.
After dealing with passports, we were on our way to Rijeka. We chose Rijeka for our first stop because we planned to explore the Istria Peninsula. Honestly, though, the capital city of Zagreb is a more common entry point. It just didn’t work for us with the time that we had.
Getting Around Croatia
Due to the varied terrain, train travel is not as abundant throughout Croatia as it is in other European countries. As such, we opted for a rental car to explore the country. If you know us, you know that we always love a good road trip. A Croatia road trip… even better!
Ultimately, having our own car was nice and did allow us to get to Plitvice National Park with ease.
If you’ve read about our Slovenia Road Trip, you may be wondering why we didn’t just keep the same car we had there. Basically, that was to save money. Returning a car in a different country can be pricey, so we decided to just do two different rentals.
The most common form of mass transportation in Croatia is the bus. Ferries and boats are also popular around the islands.
One thing to note about the roads in Croatia: Due to the rugged and varied landscape, you’ll find a lot of tunnels here. Certainly more tunnels than bridges and switchbacks, for whatever reason. Throughout our trip, we drove through a number of tunnels, many that were several kilometers (up to 3 miles) long.
Our first stop in Croatia was Rijeka, located right on the Adriatic Sea in the northwestern part of the country. We chose Rijeka as our first stop because it was a short and easy train ride from Ljubljana, Slovenia. Other than that, I’m not sure there is much reason to visit the town.
As we walked through the town from the train station to the Hotel Jadran, we understand why we did not find anything about it in our Rick Steves’ Eastern Europe guidebook. Its location on the Adriatic Sea provides a bit of scenic beauty in the big picture sense. Up close and personal, though… we found it to be a bit drab and dirty.
But, our hotel was fabulous and provided an opportunity to take a dip in the sea. Yep, the Hotel Jadran is located right on the water. When I say right on it, I mean only a concrete slab/sidewalk/stairs between the door and the water.
After arriving at the hotel, Grant enjoyed a dip in the Adriatic while I just stuck my feet in – I really don’t like swimming in any kind of open water (lakes or oceans). On top of that, the water was very cold!
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Day 2: Istria Peninsula
The next morning, we took a taxi to the airport, which is located on a small island about 20-30 minutes from town. Here we picked up our rental car and officially started our Croatia road trip.
After leaving the airport, we drove west to the city of Pula, the largest city in Istria. Pula is known for its ancient Roman buildings, especially the arena, which is one of the best-preserved Roman amphitheaters.
While Pula is a relatively large industrial town, the tourist area is very small and quick to explore. The Pula Arena was built in the first century AD and is still in use today. This arena certainly is not nearly as big or impressive as the Colosseum in Rome, but it is certainly worth a visit.
Once a week the arena is host to live gladiator battles. Sadly, we missed the battle. That would definitely be something to plan ahead for if your itinerary is flexible.
Also in Pula is the Temple of Augustus. The
We only spent about an hour in Pula, but it was an interesting and worthwhile stop.
From Pula, we turned north to Rovinj, our destination for our second night in Croatia. Here we stayed at the Pansion Comfort Exclusive, a nice apartment/guest-house about 10-15 minutes (walking) outside of town. After a quick siesta to escape the intense heat, we headed into town to explore.
Rovinj is located right on the coast and has some amazing views, which are the real highlight of the town. We enjoyed wandering the streets of Old Town, finding interesting alleys and lanes all over the place. Many alleys went directly to the water, which is particularly scenic.
After a stroll around
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Day 3: Driving Inland
After enjoying the seaside town of Rovinj, it was time to head inland and make
From Rovinj, we headed northeast for a quick stop in the small town of Motovun. Motovun sits high atop a hill, and will certainly remind you of some of the Tuscan towns in Italy. Even if you’ve only ever seen pictures of Tuscany, you’ll immediately see the resemblance.
You will not find a lot to do in this town of only about 1,000 residents. Instead, use this as an opportunity to stretch your legs and enjoy the scenery.
There is a very steep road up the mountain, though only locals and guests at the one hotel can actually drive all the way up. We were able to drive about halfway up before having to park and walk the rest of the way. We definitely had a moderately strenuous uphill walk, but at least it was paved. The views are well worth the effort, though.
Once in town, we were rewarded with some of the best scenic views from our entire week in Croatia. We spent about 10-15 minutes wandering the streets, walking the old town walls and checking out the shops.
The area around Motovun is well known among foodies for its abundance of truffles. As you walk through town, you’ll find many of the shops sell truffles and some offer excursions for truffle hunting. If this is something you’re interested in, you could certainly enjoy more time here.
Driving through Croatia
From Motovun, we backtracked a bit to Rijeka (where we picked up the car
One thing to note about the beaches in Croatia is that they are all rocks, at best. Sometimes, it’s just a concrete slab.
We finally turned east toward the interior of the country and enjoyed some switchbacks across the mountains. The terrain was again very rugged, but slightly more lush inland. We drove through many tiny towns and saw a lot of rural Croatia.
We passed several roadside stands selling homemade honey and/or cheese. Surprisingly, we did not see a lot of livestock, especially for a place that seems to eat a decent amount of meat.
Our destination for the night was Grabovac, a small town just north of Plitvice National Park. Grabovac is located in the rural municipality of Rakovica, which consists of nearly 30 small settlements. Many of these small towns have fewer than 100 residents. Grabovac is one of the few with a population over 200.
In Grabovac, we stayed at the Guest House Korita. Here, we found a good-sized, well-appointed room. Most importantly, the air conditioning worked and actually cooled things down. Sadly, we found the many of the air conditioning units just haven’t been up to the
There really isn’t anything to do in town here, but it is a good place to stay overnight if you’re looking to explore Plitvice National Park.
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Day 4: Driving South
The fourth day was the last leg of the road trip and a return to the coast.
Plitvice National Park
The next morning, we got up bright and early to beat the worst of the crowds into Plitvice National Park, Croatia’s first and most popular park.
At Plitvice, you’ll find a series of lakes and waterfalls that is really pretty spectacular, especially considering the rest of the country is very rugged and mostly barren. The water was perfectly clear and a bright, beautiful blue that is difficult to describe. The vegetation is lush.
To see the park, you’ll wander through a series of paved and dirt paths and wooden boardwalks. Every turn brings a new view of lakes, waterfalls, cascades, and overall beauty. It just doesn’t get old walking through that scenery!
The best part of the park is that the trails and boardwalks are right there in the middle of it all…on the edge of the lake, boards barely clearing the surface of the water; stairs literally right over the waterfalls. You really do get up close and personal with nature here.
We thoroughly enjoyed our morning and by the time we left about 11:00, we were VERY glad we made the effort to get up early!
A couple of things to note about Plitvice NP, especially if you are used to US National Parks:
First, size: we saw the highlights of Plitvice in about three hours, on foot. For many US National Parks, you would need 2-3 days.
Next, cost: Plitvice cost us about $25 each, plus parking. So about $55 total. If we wanted to go back tomorrow, we’d pay the same amount again. Many US parks cost at most $20-25/vehicle for a 7-day pass.
Back to the Coast
From Plitvice, we headed southwest to the coastal city of Split. Once on the highway, it felt like we joined the rest of the continent on our journey to the coast. Seriously, there was soooo much traffic! It truly was every bit as bad as Atlanta traffic. Maybe worse.
We saw tons of cars, from countries all over Europe, packed to the gills with stuff. We had heard that the beaches of Croatia were popular tourist spots. After the traffic we experienced this day, we certainly believe it!
We also passed through our longest tunnel yet, at 5.6 km. It was on this trip that I truly came to understand that Grant’s dislike of tunnels really is as bad as my dislike of bridges. The one good thing about the tunnels is they generally are reasonably wide, are well-marked and do have “emergency exit” doors along the way.
Our first task once we arrived in Split was to return the rental car. While we enjoyed the independence that comes with having a car, after the traffic we experienced getting to Split, we were very glad to be done driving!
As we dropped off the car, we noted that the temperature was reading 42 degrees Celsius, which is 107.6
From the rental agency near the airport, we took a shuttle bus into town and got settled into our hotel. We stayed at the Fabio Residence, which was a nice, small apartment building located just a 5-10 minute walk from the main part of Old Town.
That evening, we wandered around the main promenade, called The Riva. Here, you’ll find more restaurants and shops than you can imagine, all right along the main marina/boat dock. We enjoyed our meal, but it was a bit pricey. I suppose that is somewhat to be expected in a touristy location along the water, though.
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Day 5: Exploring Split
The next morning we got out and about early, trying to beat some of the outrageous heat. We wandered through Old Town, which we have discovered is a must in any European town.
We went through the Diocletian Palace, a former vacation home of a Roman emperor. The only thing left truly intact is the basement. The rest has been absorbed and repurposed into the rest of the city, which is also pretty cool.
At this point, we are a bit museum-ed out, so we took Rick Steves’ advice and skipped the museums.
We found a grocery and sandwich shop to pick up lunch and headed back to our room for the rest of the day. Sorry, but 100+ temperatures is not a fun way to explore a stone city… The sun does cook you.
After the sun went down, we went back out for dinner, enjoying a much better-priced meal the second night.
Split, honestly, felt a bit like the Panama City Beach of this part of Europe… Overpriced and overrun with tourists. I know the busy season here is just getting started… Add in the heat and it makes for a less than awesome experience.
Still, Split is a nice town and worthy of a visit. I think we just got spoiled by the small towns and lack of crowds.
Day 6: Ferry to Dubrovnik
Generally, the best way to get to Dubrovnik is by air or sea. We chose the passenger ferry from Split. There is a slower ferry that carries vehicles if you have a car. You really don’t need a car in Dubrovnik, though.
The ride was ok – the AC was minimal to nonexistent in some parts of the boat, so it took some moving around to find the best seats on a very crowded boat. The ferry did make a few stops at some of the islands, which looked like a great resort/beach locations (keeping in mind that “beach” means rocks or concrete slabs).
Unfortunately, Grant and I took turns not feeling well this day. I think that maybe I am getting sensitive to motion sickness, especially when reading. I’ve never had this problem before, but on both long-distance bus rides (to and from Czesky Krumlov) and today’s boat ride I felt almost nauseous and just generally not good.
Thankfully, I felt better almost immediately after getting off the boat. This was frustrating, though, since I don’t generally have this problem. At least I didn’t get sick!
After arriving in Dubrovnik, we took a bus from the ferry dock to Old Town. In town, we found some lunch and then headed off to settle into our hotel, the Peric Room Dubrovnik.
Almost as soon as we started walking after lunch, Grant started struggling, as in needed to stop and rest. We weren’t sure exactly why at the time. Our best guess was indigestion combined with the heat and maybe a little dehydration/electrolyte imbalance.
We later found out it was actually a heart attack. You can read all about how Grant walked off a heart attack in Croatia here.
So, we slowly struggled our way up through the city to the hotel and basically collapsed for the rest of the day. Dubrovnik is situated on the side of a hill, with Old Town at the bottom. Most of the streets are actually stairs up the hillside. There are a few actual roads that cars can drive on, but if you want to walk it’ll be stairs.
It was a bit of a struggle, but once we got into our hotel room, it was certainly worth it. We had a balcony overlooking the ocean and the rest of the city. This view was the best we could have asked for!
We did walk through the Old Town and our hotel is near the top of the city with great views, so even though we didn’t “do” anything in town this day, we still got a sense of what the city has to offer. Just that quick glimpse of Dubrovnik told us this is easily the best city we visited in Croatia. It is much cleaner and more polished than the others.
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Day 7: Old Town Dubrovnik
The next morning we got out early to explore. The main attraction in Dubrovnik is walking the walls of the old town. From the top of the walls, you have great views of the interior (Old Town, where all the cool stuff is), the exterior (new and newish town), and of the Adriatic Sea.
We started as soon as the gates opened at 8 a.m., trying to beat both the heat and the crowds. We succeeded on beating the crowds. Unfortunately, we did not exactly beat the heat. By about 8:30/8:45 we were sweating through our clothes and hats. So was everyone else.
Of course, the low the previous night was about 80 degrees, so it really didn’t even have time to cool down much. And sunrise is about 5:30, so by 8:30 the sun has definitely made its way high in the sky. With no trees or grass to absorb anything, it’s just plain hot!
We did enjoy our walk, though. We had amazing views of everything! After walking the walls we wandered through the streets a bit. Grant recognized some stuff from Game of Thrones (a lot of it is filmed here), but we did not do any of the official tours.
Heat and Haze
Unfortunately, we spent the late morning and afternoon inside again. I really don’t know how to describe how hot and miserable it was. It really makes me wonder how I survived all those years of marching band practice and half-time shows in full uniform.
In addition to the heat, it has been very hazy. After some research, we found that Croatia really does not track air pollution or smog, but most visitors agree that it is a problem. We know from living in metro Atlanta that smog and extreme heat really don’t mix well. On those days, it truly is best to just stay inside.
We found out later there had been several wildfires in the area, further contributing to the poor air quality.
After the temperatures started cooling down a bit, we headed out for dinner. For this, we took the cable car up to Srd Hill, the highest mountain in Dubrovnik. At the top, you’ll find a nice restaurant and even better sunset views. Despite the haze, it was an amazing sight!
We had dinner inside (glass walls allowed us to still enjoy the views), then wandered out to try to catch the
While we certainly would have preferred cooler weather and less air pollution, Dubrovnik turned out to be the perfect city to end our four weeks in Eastern Europe. It is by far the best city that we visited in Croatia and one that we would love to return to.
Final Thoughts After a Week in Croatia
Our one week in Croatia was fairly
Having a car made exploring the rural parts of Croatia easy. The drivers in Croatia weren’t quite as crazy as the drivers in Slovenia. The only problems on the road were dealing with the tourist traffic near Split and the tunnels. And the tunnels were not really a problem, Grant just didn’t really like them.
If you’re just exploring the popular cities of Split and Dubrovnik, you definitely do not need a car. We did take a taxi a few times in Dubrovnik but only because of the hills and how Grant was feeling. Without that, we probably would have walked most everywhere.
We really enjoyed everything we saw in Croatia. If I had to leave out one town, it would probably be Split. The town was nice and we did really enjoy the main promenade, but it was just way too touristy for us.
Dubrovnik is every bit as touristy, but we found its attractions to be more interesting. And, no, it’s not just all about Game of Thrones.
Compared to the rest of Eastern Europe, we did find Croatia to be a bit more expensive. Still, the prices were mostly reasonable, especially in the non-touristy areas.
Overall, Croatia is a great country with a lot to see…mountains, beaches, national parks and Roman ruins. There really is something for everyone.
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As a general rule, we book with Hertz for rental cars. We have had nothing but good experiences with them. Plus, we really like unlimited mileage and not worrying about crossing state lines. We have even rented from Hertz overseas in both Slovenia and Croatia.
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We have had AAA as long as we have been married and it has more than paid for itself in discounts at hotels, aside from the peace of mind of having roadside assistance. Add in paper maps and the ability to get an international driver’s license and it is more than worth it for any traveler out there.
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