Despite being one of Europe’s most fashionable places to visit, Croatia doesn’t feel like a place that has been thoroughly worked over by the tourist industry. Though development continues apace along the more commercialized stretches of the coast, Croatian tourism has spun off in a number of positive directions. Whether backpackers or touring families, long-distance cyclists, yachters or spa-hotel surfers, all travellers have seen a big leap forward in the range and quality of what the country has to offer.
A renewed respect for natural ingredients has become the watchword of Croatian cuisine, with locally sourced foodstuffs, wines and olive oils standing up increasingly well to globalization. Croatia has a growing reputation for niche festivals – not just in the party-the-weekend-away music events held on beaches and in abandoned factories and ancient sea-forts up and down the coast, but also in the mushrooming number of arts festivals and small-town cultural shindigs. And in Zagreb and elsewhere, a raft of new galleries and art attractions has given the country a cool and contemporary sheen.
Croatia is blessed with a wealth of natural riches, boasting almost 2000km of rocky, indented shore and more than a thousand islands, many blanketed in luxuriant vegetation. Even during the heavily visited months of July and August there are still enough off-the-beaten-track islands, quiet coves and stone-built fishing villages to make you feel as if you’re visiting Europe at its most unspoiled. There’s plenty in the way of urbane glamour too, if that’s what you’re after, with swanky hotels, yacht-filled harbours and cocktail bars aplenty – especially in à-la-mode destinations such as Dubrovnik and Hvar. Wherever you go though you’ll find that Croatia retains an appeal for independent travellers that’s in short supply at more package-oriented destinations elsewhere in the Mediterranean. Most budget and mid-range accommodation is still in the form of private rooms and apartments, and there has been an explosion in the number of backpacker-friendly hostel-type establishments in the major cities.
The country has certainly come a long way since the early 1990s, when within the space of half a decade – almost uniquely in contemporary Europe – it experienced the collapse of communism, a war of national survival and the securing of independence. Two decades on, visitors will be struck by the tangible sense of pride that independent statehood has brought. National culture is a far from one-dimensional affair, however, and much of the country’s individuality is due to its geographical position straddling the point at which the sober central European virtues of hard work and order collide with the spontaneity, vivacity and taste for the good things in life that characterize the countries of southern Europe – a cultural blend of Mitteleuropa and Mediterranean that gives Croatia its particular flavour. Not only that, but the country also stands on one of the great fault lines of European civilization, the point at which the Catholicism of Central Europe meets the Islam and Orthodox Christianity of the East. Though Croats traditionally see themselves as a Western people, distinct from the other South Slavs who made up the former state of Yugoslavia, many of the hallmarks of Balkan culture – patriarchal families, hospitality towards strangers and a fondness for grilled food – are as common in Croatia as in any other part of southeastern Europe, suggesting that the country’s relationship with its neighbours is closer than many Croats may admit.Read More
If untrammelled nature is what you’re after, then Croatia certainly offers variety, with stark mountains, forest-cloaked islands and wetlands teeming with wildfowl all vying for your attention. Several unique locations enjoy national park protection: most celebrated of these is Plitvice, a descending sequence of clear blue lakes punctuated by a stunning series of terraced waterfalls and foaming cataracts.
One must-visit offshore attraction is the Kornati archipelago, an extraordinarily beautiful group of largely uninhabited islands whose sparse covering of shrubs and sage produces an unearthly palette of grey, green and purple shades. A major target for yachting folk, the Kornati can also be reached on day-excursions from the mainland.
Sweeping views of the coastal islands can be enjoyed from the desolate grey slopes of the Velebit mountains, where the Northern Velebit and the Paklenica national parks offer trails along cliff-enclosed gorges and scenic ridge-top hikes. And those who make it to the far east of the country will be rewarded with a glimpse of the mysterious sunken forests of Kopački rit, a renowned haven for wading birds.
Croatia’s top five beaches
Croatia’s top five beaches
Although there are a handful of genuinely sandy beaches in Croatia, most are pebbly or rocky affairs. Some beaches have a sandy sea floor suitable for paddling around, others are stony and uneven underfoot – so plastic sandals or swim shoes are a must. What you’ll find pretty much everywhere is clean, clear water and raw Mediterranean nature – here are a few recommended places in which to enjoy them.
Susak Not so much a sandy beach as an entire sandy island, distant Susak rewards the journey with a succession of bewitching silvery-grey coves.
Kraljičina plaža, Nin One of Croatia’s few sweeping sandy beaches, in a beautiful location.
Zlatni rat, Brač Very much the poster boy of Dalmatian beaches, with a long tongue of shingle extending into a turquoise sea.
Proizd A sequence of sloping stone-slab beaches on a compact unspoiled islet off Korčula.
Kupari, Župa Dubrovačka The derelict hotels of a deserted resort form the surreal backdrop to this sublime crescent of smooth pebbles.