Croatia is open for travel for vaccinated tourists, and it’s the perfect European country for a glorious seaside escape.
Croatia offers more than 1,100 miles of meandering mainland coast backed by rugged limestone mountains, along with hundreds of scattered islands and islets, of which 47 are inhabited. It is also dotted with historic and beautifully preserved harbour towns, relics of the four centuries between 1420 and 1797 when it was occupied by the Venetians. This combination makes it the perfect option for those who like to combine cultural sightseeing with lazing on the beach.
But where to go? Within each of Croatia’s coastal regions – South Dalmatia, Central Dalmatia, North Dalmatia, Kvarner and Istria – we’ve highlighted one beach and two standout towns, along with a nearby not-to-be-missed inland attraction, food and hotel recommendations. Remember that there’s very little sand in Croatia – almost all the beaches are of pebble and rock, or in some cases, you swim from man-made concrete bathing platforms with steps into the sea.
When in the South Dalmatia…
Dubrovnik, formerly known as Ragusa, was for centuries a wealthy independent city-republic, which slowly expanded to include a stretch of coast and the tiny Elafiti islets.
From Dubrovnik’s Gruž port, you can make day trips by boat to the Elafiti, as well as the island of Mljet, where Mljet National Park encompasses two stunning turquoise lakes, rimmed by dense woodland – rent a bike and cycle around the lakes, or hire a kayak and paddle across.
Northwest up the coast, tiny Ston (famed for excellent fresh oysters and mussels) is the gateway to the rugged Pelješac peninsular, which produces some of Croatia’s top red wines,
notably Dingač. Opposite Pelješac, verdant Korčula is South Dalmatia’s biggest island.
Dubbed the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ by Lord Byron, Dubrovnik is Croatia’s most visited (and expensive) destination. In the past, its extraordinary wealth was based on seafaring and trading – today it thrives on tourism. The UNESCO-listed old town is protected by sturdy medieval fortifications. Walk a full circuit of the ramparts, then explore the stone alleys, packed with noble Baroque palazzi, elegant churches, museums, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. Even first-time visitors may well recognise the city – it stars as the fictional King’s Landing in Game
See Korčula Town
Perched on a tiny fortified peninsula on the island of Korčula, this medieval settlement is based on a herringbone plan, with a series of stone stepped alleys leading up to a main pedestrianised thoroughfare. On the main square, see the 16th-century cathedral with a finely carved portal, and nearby, the dubious ‘birthplace’ of the explorer Marco Polo (a small stone cottage, open to the public).
Hit the beach
Escape Dubrovnik’s summer crowds with a ferry ride to the nearby islet of Lopud, home to Šunj, one of Croatia’s rare sandy beaches. The sea is warm and shallow, ideal for children, and there are several beach bars hiring sunbeds.
Green and rugged Konavle offers a glimpse of old-fashioned Dalmatian rural villages, which for centuries provided Dubrovnik with wine, olive oil, cheeses, meat and vegetables. Have lunch by the waterfalls at Konavoski Dvori, then drive down to the 15th-century Sokol Tower at Dunave for superb views over the valley, with its elegant cypress trees and carefully tended vineyards.
A rustic agrotourism eatery, the lovely Konoba Maha serves local specialities such as Korčulanski makaruni (homemade pasta with a rich meat and tomato sauce) and barbecued lamb. It lies in the hills behind Korčula Town.
Stay in style
On the coast, immediately outside Dubrovnik’s medieval walls, Hotel Excelsior offers understated luxury and a spa.
When in Central Dalmatia…
Split, Croatia’s second-biggest city (after the capital, Zagreb) is backed by rugged mountains, and fronted by a busy little port, with regular ferries and catamarans to the nearby islands of Brač, Hvar, Vis, as well as Korčula and Lastovo (officially in South Dalmatia).
Down the coast from Split, Mt Biokovo rises 1,762m, casting its shadow over the 40-mile Makarska Rivijera, where you’ll find some of Croatia’s best mainland beaches and shimmering turquoise waters. Up the coast, Šibenik is an up-and-coming destination with a UNESCO-listed cathedral and two renovated fortresses.
Within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace, a magnificent Roman monument built by the eponymous emperor in the 3rd-century, Split’s old town is UNESCO-listed. A labyrinth of stone alleys, Venetian-era houses and churches, it centres on the Roman peristyle (arcaded square), overlooked by the cathedral. Immediately outside the walls, the pazar is a colourful open-air fruit-and-vegetable market.
West of town, in a 1930s villa set in gardens by the sea, the Meštrović Gallery displays the works of Croatia’s greatest 20th-century sculptor, Ivan Meštrović.
Head to Hvar Town
Croatia’s trendiest island destination, Hvar Town on the island of Hvar is built around a deep sheltered harbour, overlooked by a hilltop castle. Hvar’s pricey seafood restaurants and cocktail bars are much loved by yachters, who moor up along the quayside on summer evenings.
The best beach
An absolute stunner, Zlatni Rat is a 450-metre long fine pebble spit, jutting out from the coast in Bol on the island of Brač. It’s a fantastic spot for water sports – try windsurfing, kite surfing and scuba diving, or just hire a pedalo.
From the seaside town of Šibenik, excursion boats sail up the River Krka to Krka National Park near Skradin. Immersed in dense woodland, the river thunders through a rocky gorge, in a series of rapids and seven waterfalls – at Skradinski but you can swim below a waterfall that creates a natural Jacuzzi.
For sophisticated contemporary dining, book a table at Pelegrini, opposite Šibenik’s cathedral. Chef Rudolf Štefan uses seasonal Dalmatian ingredients to create dishes such as hake with Jerusalem artichokes and prosciutto, or lamb with beans. It gained a Michelin star in 2019.
Stay in style
Overlooking the harbour in Hvar Town, Hotel Adriana has funky contemporary interiors and a spa with an indoor rooftop pool.
When in North Dalmatia…
Founded by the Romans, Zadar has a tumultuous history, having been raided during the Crusades, heavily bombed during the Second World War, and blockaded during the Croatian War of Independence. Nonetheless, today it’s a cheerful university town and popular holiday destination.
Northeast of Zadar, the imposing Velebit mountains run parallel to the coast. From Zadar, ferries run to nearby islands, and excursion boats take day-trippers to the uninhabited rocky islets and turquoise waters of Kornati National Park.
Built on a small peninsula, fortified by the Venetians, Zadar’s car-free old town centres on what was once a Roman forum. It is home to the 9th century Church of St Donat and the 12th-century Cathedral of St Anastasia, with a bell-tower you can climb for fantastic views of the town, sea and mountains. For something more contemporary, on the seafront promenade, you’ll find two quirky installations, the Sea Organ (2005) and the Greeting to the Sun (2008), both by local architect Nikola Bašić.
Explore Starigrad Paklenica
This seaside town is the starting point for exploring Paklenica National Park on the southern slopes of Velebit. Hike up the Velika Paklenica Canyon to Manita Peć, a limestone cave adorned with stalactites and stalagmites, which you can visit with a guide.
The best beach
A wide arc of smooth white stones fringes the translucent turquoise bay, backed by pinewoods, at Saharun beach, near Božava on the island of Dugi Otok. It’s quite remote but you can arrive by excursion boat from Zadar.
Drive through rural Lika to visit the Nikola Tesla Memorial Centre in Smiljan, near Gospić. Inventor Nikola Tesla was born here in 1856 – see the cottage where he grew up, watch a film about his life, and take part in a demonstration, presenting his discoveries about electricity.
In Novalja on the island of Pag, Boškinac uses locally reared lamb and fresh Adriatic seafood to create sublime modern dishes. It was given a Michelin star in 2019.
Stay in style
On the coast, a 15-minute drive north of Zadar, Hotel & Spa Ladera offers contemporary design and a vast luxurious spa.
When in the Kvarner…
Overlooking the Kvarner Gulf, and backed by the pine-clad mountains of Gorski Kotar, the industrial port city of Rijeka, with its Austro-Hungarian architecture, was named European Capital of Culture for 2020 (though its programme of events was predictably curtailed).
From Rijeka, ferries and catamarans run to the nearby islands of Lošinj, Cres and Rab, while the nearest and biggest island, Krk, is joined to the mainland by a road bridge. Lošinj, ‘the island of vitality’, offers several upmarket hotels with spas; wild and rugged Cres is known for sheep farming; Rab has some of Croatia’s rare sandy beaches and a medieval capital.
West of Rijeka, Opatija was the birthplace of Croatian tourism, when wealthy Central Europeans began convalescing here, enjoying the mild climate and therapeutic seawater, in the late 19th century. Today its grand Vienna Secession hotels exude a fading glory, and the seven-mile seaside promenade, running from Volosko to Lovran, passing through Opatija, remains a joy to stroll.
Rising from the sea upon a small narrow peninsula, car-free
Rab Town takes you back to medieval times. Three parallel cobbled main alleys are linked by stone steps, with attractions including monasteries, churches and four elegant bell towers.
The best beach
On Rab’s northeast coast, near Lopar, Paradise beach (Rajska plaža) is a sandy one-mile strip with a shallow sea, water sports facilities and beach volleyball.
High above the Kvarner Gulf, in the mountains of Gorski Kotar, you’ll find Risnjak National Park. From the ticket office at Crni Lug, hike the three-mile Leska educational path, an easy circular route taking you through meadows and woodland and ideal for families with kids.
Feast on tuna tartare, homemade ravioli and succulent Kvarner shrimp at Rivica, overlooking the fishing harbour in Njivica on Krk. It’s highly esteemed by foodies and sailing crews and dates from 1934.
Stay in style
On Lošinj, the posh Boutique Hotel Alhambra occupies two early 20th-century villas and offers retro design, sophisticated dining and a spa.
When in ISTRIA…
Sitting on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, Pula was founded by the Romans – it’s somewhat brash, but is a good starting point for a boat trip to Veliki Brijun, a tiny islet with pristine lawns and woodland within Brijuni National Park.
Istria’s most popular seaside resorts, Rovinj and Poreč, lie on the west coast, with centuries-old pedestrian-only historic centres, and big modern hotels hidden by landscaping.
An industrial port with cranes and a shipyard, Pula’s ancient Roman monuments include the Forum Square, rimmed with cafes and overlooked by the 1st century Temple of Augustus, a monumental Triumphal Arch, and the Arena, a well-preserved amphitheatre.
On Istria’s west coast, Rovinj is one of Croatia’s prettiest and most upmarket destinations. Pastel-coloured Venetian-era facades rim a sheltered harbour, filled with fishing boats and overlooked by an 18th-century hilltop church. South of town, past the sailing marina, Zlatni Rt park is planted with pines, cypresses and cedars, and rimmed by tiny coves with pebble beaches.
The best beach
On the southernmost point of the Istrian peninsula, within the pine-scented Kamenjak Nature Park, Mala Kolombarica is an expanse of flat rocks jutting out into the deep blue Adriatic. Come here to sunbathe, or test your courage diving or somersaulting into the sea. There’s a beach bar and it lies just outside Pula.
Often compared to Tuscany, inland Istria has undulating hills planted with vineyards and olive groves, and walled medieval hilltop towns such as Motovun. Foodies will love its agrotourism eateries and rustic konobe (taverns), which make the most of the region’s olive oil and cheeses, and the tartufi (truffles) unearthed in the Mirna Valley.
With waterside tables rimming the fishing harbour in Rovinj, informal Konoba Kantinon specialises in reasonably-priced local fare. Try the monkfish carpaccio, followed by homemade pasta with pungent truffles.
Stay in style
The Grand Park in Rovinj offers elegant contemporary architecture in a blissful coastal location.