Split and Dubrovnik are the stars of Croatian tourism. Both have an ancient core historic enough to be listed by UNESCO yet vibrant enough to remain home to a sizeable local population. Both have beaches backed by clear waters, fresh local seafood and plentiful bars with Adriatic views.

But should Split or Dubrovnik be your first Croatian port of call? Here’s our lowdown on what they have to offer.

Where's best to soak up some culture?

Outdoorsy types rejoice, neither Split nor Dubrovnik are best discovered through museums. These are living, breathing cultural sites that beckon you outdoors onto sun-soaked streets.

Split first sprouted around the Diocletian’s Palace, a medieval hotchpotch of buildings superimposed onto a Roman blueprint that dates back to 295 AD. Wandering its spaghetti mess of alleyways and courtyards is the best way to get to grips with the city. Climb the bell tower of St Domnius for views across the red roofs to the harbour beyond and settle in on the steps of a café to watch local life pass by.

Dubrovnik’s old town is still home to about 1000 people and a walk along the 25m-high medieval city walls means peering down over people’s washing lines and into their kitchen windows.

All is peaceful now but in 1991–2 the city was under siege and there’s no better insight into this painful chapter in its history than the War Photo museum, a moving collection of photojournalism that pulls no punches.

It’s also worth taking the cable car up lofty Mount Srđ to see where the local population defended their city from the Serbs.

Old Cathedral, Dubrovnik, CroatiaPixabay /CC0 

Where can I find the tastiest food?

Croatian food is fabulous, making creative use of the country’s excellent local produce.

Both Split and Dubrovnik are port cities, with easy access to superb fresh seafood, and grilled fish is a staple of the menu in both cities. You’ll also find the Dalmatian classic, pašticada (beef stew), served up in every konoba (traditional restaurant) and, in Dubrovnik, plenty of fresh oysters from the country’s oyster capital Ston.

In Dubrovnik, a good general rule for finding authentic Croatian food is to stick to the restaurants south of Stradun (Prijeko to the north is particularly tourist-trap heavy) and, for the very best seafood, head out to Gruž, home to the fish market and some great seafood restaurants.

It’s even easier to find authentic food in Split, especially in the streets to the west of the palace, towards the Varoš neighbourhood.

Delicious SeafoodPixabay /CC0

Where can I find a party?

The perfect night out in either city starts with finding the perfect pavement table to sit at and watch the world go by.

In Split you’ll most likely find this on the Riva, where the strip of bars with their large harbourfront terraces are the perfect place to wave off the day’s cruise ships. Afterwards head into the Diocletian’s Palace with the locals to find a place to perch on the steps and order a glass of local wine – keep heading upwards to find the quieter, less touristy spots.

In Dubrovnik, sundowners are best at one of the Buza bars. Buza means “hole” and both Buza I and Buza II are tucked away in the city walls and accessed by a small doorway – beyond you’ll find tables balanced on the rocks and stunning Adriatic views. From here head back to Stradun and follow the alleyways running off it to find tiny wine bars such as long-running D’Vino.

Bar in CroatiaDubrovnik Photography/Flickr

Where can I go for a dip?

The Adriatic has some of the cleanest, clearest waters in Europe and no visit to Croatia is complete without a swim.

In Split, head to Bačvice beach, a short walk east of the city centre, for shallow waters and – unusually for Croatia – a sandy ocean floor, or escape to the facilities-free Kašjuni beach, on the southern coast of the Marjan peninsula some 4km west of the city.

In Dubrovnik, few experiences beat swimming from the rocks at one of the Buza bars, returning to flop onto the warm rocks and order a cold beer. Banje beach just outside the city walls to the east is another good bet, with the chic Banje Beach lounge bar providing lounge beds on the sands.

Croatia, Dalmatian Coast, Split, Bacvice, people on sandy beach

Which is the best base for day trips?

Split is located in the middle section of Croatia’s lengthy Adriatic coastline and so is in a far better location than Dubrovnik when it comes to seeing more of the country (it also has better international flight connections).

Croatia’s fast motorways make it possible to visit the Plitvice Lakes national park from Split, some 250km away (2.5hrs drive). This is Croatia’s most popular natural attraction, a wonderland of tumbling waterfalls and idyllic lakes. Shorter trips can be taken to the beautiful ancient town of Trogir, some 20km drive up the coast, and across to the island of Brač, a 50-minute ferry journey from Split and home to the country’s most famous beach, the golden sandy spit of Zlatni Rat.

Dubrovnik lies in the far south of Croatia, but still has plenty of options for day trips. Perhaps the best is over to the island of Lokrum, a 15-minute ferry ride from the old harbour and home to monastic ruins, unspoiled woodland and plenty of peacocks.

Even more unspoiled are the gorgeous Elaphite Islands, with their olive groves and quaint hamlets, to which several full-day boat tours run. Ston is another great day trip option, its ancient city walls and abundant oyster beds just an hour’s drive along the coast.

Croatia, Plitvice Lakes National Park, view of the Lower Lakes

So, what's the verdict?

That depends – how good are you with crowds? Dubrovnik heaves with cruise-ship passengers and holidaymakers in summer. Split suffers less with overcrowding so in high summer we say head here. Off-season, though, Dubrovnik is far quieter and there’s no denying that this Croatian stunner is the country’s crowning glory for a reason – it is truly spectacular.

Explore more of Croatia with The Rough Guide to CroatiaCompare flights, find toursbook hostels and hotels for your trip, and don’t forget to buy travel insurance before you go.