Ask Ivan Boban, a 34-year-old Croatian who lives in Dubrovnik, why you should visit his country and he won’t skip a beat.
“Because of our crystal clear Adriatic Sea, our sunny skies, our coastal towns and islands, our beautiful beaches and walled cities, our wonderful national parks and our UNESCO world heritage sites,” he says.
“Our food, our wine and, of course, our hospitality,” he adds.
If you’re sold, here’s a two-week itinerary that will give you a good feel for the country, located at the crossroads of Central Europe, Southeast Europe and the Mediterranean. It starts in Zagreb, the capital, then heads east, winds along the coast and ends with a flight back from Dubrovnik. Recommended stops along the way include Zadar, Sibenik, Split, and the islands of Korcula and Hvar.
This under-appreciated city with 19th century Austro-Hungarian architecture, beautiful squares and wide boulevards is perfect for the city’s favorite sport: drinking kava and people-watching at outdoor cafes. Stroll the narrow streets of the upper town, walk through the open air market and visit the Croatian Museum of Naive Art and the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships (really!). On your way to Zadar, try to make time for a stop at the magnificent Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Alfred Hitchcock loved the sunsets in this once-Roman coastal town. These days, the best place to see the sun go down is on the promenade by the water, where you’ll find Nikola Basic’s one-of-a-kind Sea Organ and solar Greeting to the Sun installations. SIBENIK: Getting more and more popular every year, this town’s medieval quarter, with its steep backstreets and alleys, is not yet as crowded as the ones in Split and Dubrovnik. See the Cathedral of St. James’ amazing exterior frieze — 71 sculpted faces depicting actual 15th century residents of the town. From Sibenik, take a side trip to Krka National Park to walk along the river and its cascading waterfalls.
No photo will prepare you for actually seeing the remains of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace, built in about 300 AD and still the epicenter of the city. For a panoramic view of the palace and the rest of this splendid port, climb to the top of Marjan Hill. For beaches, go to Bacvice Beach, where you can watch a game of picigin, a uniquely Croatian water sport, or take the ferry to Zlatni Rat, a short ride away on Brac Island.
THE ISLANDS OF HVAR AND KORCULA:
Both islands are easily accessible from either Split or Dubrovnik. Hvar is a scenic mix of lavender-covered hills and vineyards and beautiful people attracted by the promise of nearly 3,000 hours of sunshine every year. Croatians insist that Marco Polo was born on Korcula and will proudly show you both the remaining wall of his family’s home. Although there are beaches a short walk from Korcula Town, head to the more laid-back beaches in the town of Lumbarda, accessible by water taxi or bus from the port.
The landmarks in this beautiful city, damaged by shelling in the Homeland War during the early 1990s, have been lovingly restored, and Dubrovnik is back in business as a world class port. Take the hour-and-a-half walk on the walls of the old city and wander the steep and winding streets that branch off the Stradum, the city’s main thoroughfare. Beaches right near town will be wildly crowded in summer so try St. Jacob’s Beach, about a half hour walk from Pile Gate. Or, hop a boat from the old city harbor to the Island of Lokrum to enjoy its inviting mix of forest and beach.
Getting around: Renting a car is easy enough and gives you the most flexibility, but you can also travel by bus or ferry to just about every place along the route. Do what the Croatians do and take at least one ride on a government-owned Jadrolinija ferry line to one of the country’s 1,000-plus islands.
The language: Croatian is a tricky language to master but, since English is a required subject in Croatian schools, many people you meet will speak it. Good words to know are hvala (pronounced “kvala”), which means “thank you”; dobro jutro (the j is pronounced like a y), which translates to “good morning”; and, for when you’re out with your Croatian friends, zivjeli (zheev-yay-lee), or “cheers.”
Where to stay: Many local families rent rooms or apartments in their homes for a day, a week or more. Accommodations in a home will give you a much more authentic (and usually less expensive) alternative to a hotel stay. Overnights on a farm or vineyard are also possible — Croatia is keen on agrotourism.
What to eat and drink: Foodies rejoice! Croatians were making slow food even before it had a name. If you visit a Croatian home, chances are you will be welcomed with a small glass of grappa (brandy made from everything from grapes to herbs) and dried figs, often from a nearby tree. On the coast, try cuttlefish risotto or proset — a fish stew — and be sure to have pršut (Croatian prosciutto) — marinated anchovies and Croatian olive oil. For dessert, try rozata, the local version of creme caramel. Local beers are good, while white wine drinkers will like posip. Red wine fans should try the Plavac Mali. Croatians love their “kava” (coffee) strong, in little cups, with or without sugar and often. (Heads up: Croatian cafes serve coffee and drinks, bakeries have pastries, but it is rare to find both in the same place.)
When to go: Most people visit Croatia during the summer when its Adriatic coast is a magnet for the young and hip from all over the world and party central for the likes of Beyoncé, Michael Douglas, Tom Cruise and Valentino. To avoid crowded beaches and lines at the most popular cafes and restaurants, the best time to visit is the off-season — May, June or September. Of course, that means you’ll miss the music, dance and film festivals that rock the coast during July and August.