Croatia’s underrated capital Zagreb is a typical central European metropolis, combining elegant nineteenth-century buildings with plenty of cultural diversions and a vibrant café life. It’s also a good base for trips to the undulating hills and charming villages of the rural Zagorje region to the north, and to the well-preserved Baroque town of Varaždin to the northeast.
The rest of inland Croatia provides plenty of opportunities for relaxed exploring. Stretching east from Zagreb, the plains of Slavonia form the richest agricultural parts of Croatia, with seemingly endless corn and sunflower fields fanning out from handsome, Habsburg-era provincial towns such as Osijek and Vukovar – the latter, almost totally destroyed during the 1991–95 war, is now undergoing something of a renaissance. Lying between Zagreb and the coast, and easily visited from either, are the deservedly hyped Plitvice Lakes, an enchanting sequence of forest-fringed turquoise pools linked by miniature waterfalls.
Croatia’s lengthy stretch of coastline, together with its islands, is big enough to swallow up any number of tourists. At the northern end, the peninsula of Istria contains many of the country’s most developed resorts, along with old Venetian towns like Poreč and Rovinj, and the raffish port of Pula, home to some impressive Roman remains. Inland Istria is characterized by sleepy hilltop villages, often dramatically situated, such as Motovun, Grožnjan, Roč and Hum – each mixing medieval architecture with rustic tranquillity.
The island-scattered Kvarner Gulf, immediately south of Istria, is presided over by the city of Rijeka, a hard-edged port city with an energetic cultural life. Close by are a clutch of resorts that were chic high-society hangouts in the late nineteenth century and retain a smattering of belle époque charm, including quaint, diminutive Lovran and the larger, more developed Opatija. Not far offshore, the Kvarner islands of Cres, Lošinj and Krk have long been colonized by the package-holiday crowds, although each has retained its fair share of quiet seaside villages and tranquil coves; while the capital of the island of Rab, south of Krk, is arguably the best-preserved medieval town in the northern Adriatic.
Beyond the Kvarner Gulf lies Dalmatia, a dramatic, mountain-fringed stretch of coastline studded with islands. It’s a stark, arid region where fishing villages and historic towns cling to a narrow coastal strip rich in figs, olives and subtropical vegetation. Northern Dalmatia’s main city is Zadar, whose busy central alleys are crammed with medieval churches. From here, ferries serve a chain of laid-back islands such as Silba, Olib and the ruggedly beautiful Dugi otok – none of them sees many package tourists, and they’re enticingly relaxing as a result. The site of an unmissable Renaissance cathedral, middle Dalmatia’s main town, Šibenik, is also a good staging-post en route to the waterfalls of the Krka National Park just inland, and the awesome, bare islands of the Kornati archipelago.
Croatia’s second city, Split, is southern Dalmatia’s main town, a vibrant and chaotic port with an ancient centre moulded around the palace of the Roman emperor, Diocletian. It’s also the obvious jumping-off point for some of the most enchanting of Croatia’s islands. The closest of these are Šolta and Brač, where you’ll find lively fishing villages and some excellent beaches, while nearby Hvar and Korčula feature smallish towns brimming with Venetian architecture and numerous beaches. The cocktail bars and beach parties of Hvar Town have earned the place a reputation for chic hedonism, although the rest of the island offers plenty of soothing corners. Slightly further afield, the islands of Vis and Lastovo, which were closed to tourists until the late 1980s, remain particularly pristine.
South of Split lies the walled medieval city of Dubrovnik, site of an important arts festival in the summer and a magical place to be whatever the season. Much of the damage inflicted on the town during the 1991–95 war has been repaired, and tourists have been quick to return. Just offshore lie the sparsely populated islands of Koločep, Lopud and Šipan – oases of rural calm only a short ferry ride away from Dubrovnik’s tourist bustle. Also reachable from Dubrovnik is one of the Adriatic’s most beautiful islands, the densely forested and relaxingly serene Mljet.