With a seemingly-endless stretch of spellbinding coastline, perfectly-preserved medieval cities, cascading waterfalls and azure waters, it’s no wonder Croatia is one of eastern Europe’s top vacation spots. In a single day, one can easily go island hopping around the shimmering Adriatic Sea, relax on a sun-soaked beach, wander around a charming old town and still make it back to their hotel in time to admire a rose-hued sunset with a cocktail in hand.
Despite being a popular summer playground for well-heeled jetsetters who flock to glam islands like Hvar or bronze their bods during Yacht Week, Croatia is still budget-friendly which also makes it a great option for families or backpackers. With so many great spots to explore, the best way to see the country’s highlights is by renting a car and hitting the highway for an unforgettable road trip that winds through the mountainous countryside and along the spectacularly scenic Dalmatian Coast.
Here’s how to see some of the best places in Croatia in just one week.
Croatia Road Trip Day 1: Zagreb
Many international flights land in Zagreb, and since it’s easy to see the main attractions in one afternoon the country’s capital is a great place to do some sightseeing while getting over your jet lag. Most are situated around the upper town which is very walkable, particularly if you base yourself near the iconic Zagreb Cathedral.
Top things to do in Zagreb include:
- Ban Jelačić Square– This is the city’s most happening spot, with plenty of outdoor cafes, bars and shopping.
- St. Mark’s Church– This gorgeous Gothic church is famed for its colourful, intricate tiled roof which includes Zagreb’s coat of arms.
- Museum of Broken Relationships– A bittersweet museum that displays momentos from real-life breakups, and the stories behind them. Fingers crossed that nothing you recognize ever ends up here!
- Dolac Market– Located just steps away from Zagreb Cathedral, dozens of stalls serve up the freshest food in town.
- Lotrščak Tower– This tower perched high on a hill offers the best panoramic views of Zagreb.
Where to stay in Zagreb:
- Esplanade Zagreb Hotel– This elegant, historic hotel exudes class, and its luxurious rooms are perfect for retiring to after a day of wandering around the surrounding city centre.
Click here to book
- Cool Rooms– Located in the tiny village of Velika Gorica just a five-minute drive from the airport, this hotel is a great option for those arriving in Zagreb late at night, or who need to catch a flight the next morning. Click here to book
Day 2: Plitvice National Park and Zadar
Wake up early to make the two-hour drive to Plitvice National Park, a place that will likely be the highlight of your entire trip. Yes, Plitvice is that stunning. 16 pristine lakes cascade into one another, forming countless aquamarine pools framed by the Mala Kapela and Lička Plješivica mountain ranges. The lush landscape is accented by crystal clear waterfalls pouring out of the hillsides, providing eye-candy at seemingly every turn along the wooden boardwalks that wind through the park and into a limestone canyon.
With more than 22 kilometres of pathways around the lakes and 36 kilometres of hiking trails throughout the UNESCO World Heritage Site, one could spend days in Plitvice and still not see it all. Be sure to budget at least six hours for a visit, which allows time to explore both the lower and upper lakes, hop on a boat ride across the canyon, grab lunch and stop for plenty of photo-ops. Click here to book
Top tip: To get a great view of the wooden boardwalks winding through the turquoise lakes, walk on the path between the P1 entrance and S1—no drone required!
Plitvice Lakes hotels:
- Hotel Plitvice– A prime example of Croatian architecture, this property is found in the heart of Plitvice Lakes National Park which makes it easy for guests to hit the trails before the throngs of tour buses arrive each day. Click here to book
- Hotel Degenija– Located just a 10-minute drive from the park, its outdoor pool is a great place to relax after a long day of hiking through Plitvice. Click here to book
Another option is to make the 90-minute drive south to Zadar once you’re done exploring Plitvice, where you’ll finally get your first view of the sea. This pretty, Romanesque city comes alive at night, as it boasts some of the country’s best sunsets as well as the Greeting to the Sun, a light instillation on the waterfront that’s particularly popular with kids.
Staying in Zadar means a chance to experience the enchanting old town while it’s all lit up at night, then explore the city walls that wrap around the coastline in the morning before hitting the road.
The top things to do in Zadar are:
- Church of St. Donatus– Built in the 9th century, this domed church surrounded by ruins is Zadar’s crown jewel, and has a bell tower that visitors can climb up to see the surrounding old town from above.
- Sea Organ– This attraction is actually heard, not seen, as it simply looks like a series of steps along the waterfront. However, its clever design allows water and air to flow underneath, creating chime-like notes.
- Saint Anastasia’s Cathedral– This 12th century masterpiece is the largest cathedral in Dalmatia, with a picture-perfect stone facade.
Where to stay in Zadar:
- Apartments Hills– A fabulous choice, particularly for larger groups or families. These modern, bright apartments have plenty of space to spread out, and balconies with incredible views of the city and Adriatic Sea.
- Art Hotel Kalelarga– This modern hotel is in the heart of the action, located in the bustling old town. Guests rave about the superb service and spacious rooms. Click here to book
Note: If you have an extra time to spare on your Croatia itinerary, you might want to spend an additional day in Zadar.
Day 3: Krka National Park
If you liked Plitvice, then you’re sure to love Krka National Park as well. Krka is like Plitvice’s little sister, but with one big difference: you can actually swim under the falls!
A one-hour drive from Zadar, Krka is accessed by boat from the tiny town of Skradin. Visitors are treated to the sight of massive limestone walls and wetlands as the boat glides across the glass-like water, arriving at the park to find a loop of trails winding around the Krka River.
The highlight of any trip is Skradinski Buk, a massive set of waterfalls created by travertine barriers which is limestone that has settled out of the water over time. The result is a phenomenon that seems like a never-ending set of pools, including one that’s designated as a swimming spot.
The most popular way to explore Krka and its seven main waterfalls is to start with the hour-long walk along the Skradinski Buk trail which curves over tiny ponds frequented by ducklings and fish, through shaded forests overflowing with flora and fauna, and grants epic viewpoints of the falls from above. Then, book a boat ride out to Visovac, an idyllic island surrounded by deep blue and aqua waters which is home to a Franciscan monastery, or over to the spectacular Roški slap waterfall which flows out into a canyon and pools into Visovac Lake. Click here to book
Finish the day by slipping on your swimsuit to lounge along the rocky shoreline that frames Skradinski Buk, before making the one hour drive to your next stop: the town of Brela, along the stunning Makarska Riviera.
Have more time to spare? Consider staying in vibrant Split for a couple of days to explore Croatia’s second-largest city, which is best known for the gleaming, white stone Diocletian’s Palace, its waterfront locale and Roman ruins. The medieval town of Trogir is just a short drive away, and well worth a visit to wander through its perfectly-preserved old town which is set on a tiny island and framed by a seaside promenade.
Day 4-6: Makarska Riviera
Since your Croatia itinerary has been packed so far, slow down the pace and plant yourself on one of the Makarska Riviera beaches for a few days. Here, a series of tiny towns daringly built into the hillside stretch along the dazzling coastline, polished white boats bob in the harbour ready to transport vacationers to the surrounding islands, and groves of pine trees and the Biokovo Mountain serve as a picture-perfect backdrop.
The region is popular with holiday-makers drawn to this part of the Dalmatian Coast thanks to its sunny weather, world-renowned (yet pebbly) beaches and wide range of accommodation with everything from swanky resorts to charming, family-run villas.
The town of Brela makes a good base for Croatia island hopping, as it’s easy to book a day trip out to two of the country’s most popular beach spots: Hvar and Brač. For about $40 per person, you can book a tour that leaves first thing in the morning and sails over to Hvar, where you’ll have about an hour to explore the town of Jelsa which is best known for its lavender crop, pretty waterfront promenade and being a great alternative to its busy neighbour Hvar Town.
A fresh lunch is served back on board en route to the island of Brač, where you’ll find one of Croatia’s most iconic beaches: Zlatni Rat in Bol. Popular with kite surfers, the tip of the island constantly changes shape due to ever-shifting winds, waves and sea currents, and the surrounding waters are a brilliant kaleidoscope of cerulean shades. Water taxis transfer visitors between the Bol harbour and Zlatni Rat, but if time allows it’s worth making the half-hour walk between them to see a bit more of the island.
Back in Brela there are plenty of beaches to choose from, including a couple of standout spots:
- Punta Rata Beach– This beach is synonymous with the Makarska Riviera, as it was once billed by a top publication as one of the most beautiful in the world. While its rocky shore isn’t terribly comfortable to lay on (chair rentals are available nearby), the payoff is that you’ll get to admire the famous Brela Stone, a pine-covered rock in a protected area said to symbolize beauty, force and power.
- Vrulja Beach– Getting to this secret spot is a grind, but rewards those who put in the effort with incredible views and seclusion. Found a 10-minute drive from town, sun-seekers need to walk down a steep, dusty, rocky pathway for nearly half an hour to get all the way down to the beach, at some points even doing a bit of a scramble. However, the scenery is second to none, and chances are you’ll have the entire place mostly to yourself unless some lucky duck who chartered their own boat happens to sail over.
- Bluesun Hotel Soline– This sprawling resort is part of the Bluesun chain which is popular in the area, and its location can’t be beat as it’s right on the waterfront and close to the centre of town. Rooms are modern, and there’s also an outdoor pool and lounge area. Click here to book
- Villa Bose– This budget-friendly option serves up fabulous sea views thanks to its hillside perch, and guests love the attentive owners and private balconies. Click here to book
Day 7: Dubrovnik
The Croatia trip itinerary comes to an end in one of the country’s must-see spots: Dubrovnik, which is a two-hour drive from the Makarska Riviera along the breathtaking Dalmatian coast.
Favoured by the day-tripping, cruise ship crowd, the medieval city is perhaps best known for serving as a backdrop for the Game of Thrones TV series, which showcases its perfectly-preserved fortified walls. Visitors can wander the length of the walls which hug the coastline and protect the old town, granting dreamy views of the surrounding Adriatic and a sea of orange, terracotta rooftops.
Spend the morning wandering around the narrow laneways that wind through the centuries-old city centre, stopping to admire iconic spots like King’s Landing and watch thrill-seekers jump off the cliff sides into the cool water below. It takes about two hours to walk the entirety of the walls, and with some up to 25 metres high the vantage points are sublime.
To see the city from a different perspective in the afternoon, head out on the water for a sea kayaking adventure around Dubrovnik to paddle around the shoreline, explore hidden caves and snorkel in the sparkling sea. Another option is to take the quick boat ride over to Lokrum Island to relax in secluded coves, float in its so-called ‘Dead Sea’ and marvel at the regal peacocks that call Lokrum home.
A memorable way to cap off a day exploring Dubrovnik is by heading up the cable car, which is one of the city’s top attractions. It only takes a few minutes to ride all the way up Srd Hill, where guests are dropped off on a viewing platform for a panoramic, birds-eye view that stretches for miles. Timing a visit with sunset means glorious photo-ops of the city bathed in a golden glow, making it the perfect way to end to your one week Croatia road trip.
Getting to Dubrovnik
Croatia is often visited as part of a road trip around the Balkans or on a Mediterranean cruise, and airlines such as Air Transat offer direct flights to Croatia which makes getting there a breeze. All passengers have the option of upgrading to Option Plus, which means priority check-in and boarding, additional luggage allowance, and a comfort kit with noise-cancelling bamboo headphones which you’ll definitely want to keep after. Or, spring for a seat in their luxe Club Class, which includes chef-prepared meals, amenity kits and spacious seating in an exclusive cabin with a dedicated flight attendant available to cater to your every need. The experience is such a treat you won’t want the flight to end!
Globe Guide’s flights to Croatia were kindly provided by Air Transat, which offers direct flights to Croatia from Canada.
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