A cluster of isles and islands found along the Dalmatian Coast, the Elafiti Islands are one of Croatia’s most popular destinations and make an easy day trip from nearby Dubrovnik. Fourteen islands make up the small archipelago, but only the largest three - Kolocep, Lopud and Sipan – are inhabited and linked by ferry and taxi-boat to the mainland, making them the focal point of island hopping tours.
Despite their popularity among day-trippers, the trio of islands remain largely unaffected by the spoils of tourism, dotted with a mere handful of hotels and maintaining many car-free roads. Koločep benefits from being the nearest island to Dubrovnik, celebrated for its dramatic coastal cliffs, tranquil pebble beaches and shaded olive groves, whereas neighboring Lopud is best known for its well-preserved 11th century Benedictine monastery, 16th-century churches and sandy Šunj beach.
On your visit to the coastal Croatian city of Zadar, follow the sound of music to find your way to what is arguably the city’s most popular sight. And it’s not just any music, but rather ocean-made melodies produced by a sea organ, or morske orgulje. The massive underground instrument is composed of 35 organ pipes, which play musical chords prompted by wind and waves from the sea. The result is a haunting harmony of tunes that lures visitors to the coast to commune a bit with nature.
The wave-played instrument was opened in 2005, and was created to give new life to this stretch of peninsular coastline, which had fallen into a rather unloved state after the Second World War. Now locals and out-of-towners alike flock to the harmonic marble steps — where the sounds are pushed through the stone surface via holes — to watch one of the best sunsets around, and while listening to a soundtrack produced by nature itself.
Croatia is gaining a reputation or its stunning coastlines and idyllic beaches. And while the tiny island of Budikovac is still relatively untouched, it is without a doubt, the perfect escape from the energy of the mainland. Travelers who find their way to the picturesque pebble beach, protected bay, shallow waters and relaxing lagoon that exist here will be overcome with a sense of natural beauty and pure peace.
Visitors will quickly learn that only a single person lives on Budikovac Island. He is also responsible for the single restaurant that runs at this destination that attracts travelers looking to get off the beaten path and into incredible Croatia.
Lying just minutes offshore from fashionable Hvar Island along Croatia’s spectacularly indented Dalmatian coastline, the Pakleni archipelago (Pakleni Otoci in Croatian) forms 17 sand-fringed low-lying speckles lapped by crystal-clear seas and backed by stunted pine forests. While they are mostly uninhabited in winter, these car-free islands are one of the most popular summertime getaways in the Adriatic, for their pocket-sized beaches and easy walking through the heather-scented maquis scrub. The central island of Sveti Klement offers several photogenic and miniscule settlements including Palmižana, which has a small museum of island life, elegant villas, botanical gardens and smart beach restaurants, and the ancient fishing hamlet of Vlaka with its 14th-century church, tumbledown stone houses and vineyards.
Skirted by a fringe of trees, the 16th-century Hvar Fortress rises above its namesake seaside village. Not long after the castle’s 16th-century completion, it dutifully protected Hvar citizens from attacks by the Turks, and then shortly thereafter was all but destroyed due to fires from a lightening storm. But the fortress was rebuilt, and its Middle Aged walls survived — and all of it stands tall today as arguably Hvar’s most prized sight.
Also called Fortica Španjola (meaning Spanish Fortress, given that it is said that Spanish engineers worked on its construction), the castle can be reached by first trekking up the staircase-filled backstreets of Hvar, then onto a zig-zag path that takes you farther up a hill of flowers and greenery. It’s not a brisk walk by any means, but your efforts will be rewarded with spectacular views of the town, harbor, and islands beyond. Meanwhile, catch your breath and quench your thirst at the castle café.
There’s no better place to take in the essence of Hvar than in its main plaza while admiring the Cathedral of St Stephen. Set upon a backdrop of green hillside, the church you see today was built between the 16th and 17th centuries, with elements of an even older church still preserved inside.
Though the cathedral boasts a relatively humble interior, it is noted for its attractive altars, late Renaissance paintings, and 15th-century wooden choir stalls. For most, though, it’s the exterior that really leaves the biggest impression, with its scalloped rooftop and four-story, 17th-century bell tower that both grandly watch over the expansive limestone plaza that rolls out to the Adriatic Sea.
Perched on a 37-meter cliff top jutting out into the Adriatic Sea, it’s easy to see how the dramatic Fort Lovrijenac earned itself the nicknamed of ‘Dubrovnik’s Gibraltar’. The mighty stone fortress is one of Dubrovnik’s most recognizable landmarks, looming over the western gate to the walled Old Town and providing a striking backdrop to the annual Dubrovnik Summer Festival.
Immortalized on-screen as part of the fictional King’s Landing in HBO’s hit fantasy drama, Game of Thrones, Fort Lovrijenac has further cemented its place at the top of tourist itineraries and few views are as breathtaking as looking out over the coastal city from the cliff top ramparts. Built in the 11th century, the fortress was once an impenetrable stronghold, with its 12-meter thick sea walls and infamous 3,000kg bronze ‘Guster’ cannon.
The medieval core of Dubrovnik and the focal point of most city itineraries, Dubrovnik’s Old Town is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site, made up of a warren of limestone-paved streets and painstakingly restored medieval architecture. The pedestrianized center is still surrounded by its 15th-century fortification walls and walking along the ramparts provides expansive views over the town.
Navigating the labyrinth of the Old Town unveils many of the city’s most impressive buildings, now flanked by an array of modern shops, restaurants and hotels. Highlights include the reconstructed gothic-renaissance Rector’s Palace; the baroque-style Cathedral of the Assumption, built in the 18th-century; and the landmark Bell Tower, which looms 31 meters over Luza Square. Don’t miss a stroll along the main thoroughfare of Stradun Street, a tour of the Franciscan Monastery and Museum and a visit to the striking 16th-century Sponza Palace.
This palace right in the heart of Split, was used by Roman Emperor Diocletian and is one of the best preserved monuments of Roman architecture in the world. In 1979, it was declared -- with the historic city of Split -- a UNESCO World Heritage site. The ruins of the Palace can also be found throughout the city.
A military fortress, imperial residence and fortified town, the palace covers over 31,000 square meters (334 square feet). Diocletian spared no expense in the building of the palace, importing marble from Italy and Greece, and columns and sphinxes from Egypt. Many of the buildings are made from local white limestone quarried on the nearby island of Brac. Each wall has a gate named after metals: the northern gate is the Golden Gate; the southern gate is the Bronze Gate; the eastern gate is the Silver Gate; and the western gate is the Iron Gate.
This Cathedral has two lives: its first life was as the Cathedral of St. Dominus, the mausoleum dedicated to Diocletian. Diocletian was known for his brutal persecution of Christians after a campaign to get rid of Christianity. Ironically, what Diocletian built to glorify his memory was used to remember his victims. His body was removed from the mausoleum in the 7th century, with no record of where his remains are now. Today, the cathedral is a popular meeting place because of its proximity to the Silver Gate at Diocletian's Palace (it leads to Hrjvojeva Street). The courtyard is the location for Split's Summer Festival in July and August.
Its second life is now as the Cathedral of St Duje, a shrine to St Dominus. St Duje was the patron saint of Split, who was a 3rd-century Bishop of Salona in Dalmatia.
Since the late 19th century, the bustling Republic Square (known by locals as Prokurative) has been serving as a gather place, people-watching spot, and town center for residents of Split. Its unique architecture-constructed as a nod to buildings in Venice-proves a remarkable departure from what is found in the rest of the city.
Travelers will find dozens of quiet cafes, tasty restaurants and quiet shops located in close proximity to this central square. Epic views of the nearby harbor and easy access to the Riva Promenade make it an idea place to spend a perfect morning in the sun, or an afternoon or evening taking in the local character of Split.
Fruit’s Square (Trg Brace Radic) is named after the busy fruit market once held in the square; considered one of the most beautiful squares in Split, Fruit’s Square today is home to a number of historic landmarks, bars, restaurants and shops. On one side of the square is a Venetian castello, or castle. Visitors should look for an arched passageway in the structure that features two etched Christian crosses—legend says that anyone who points their fingers at the points of the cross and makes a love-related wish while closing their eyes will see that wish come true.
On the other side is the 17th-century Milesi Palace, one of the most impressive examples of Baroque architecture in the Dalmatian region. Known for its arch-shaped windows on the ground level, the palace today hosts lectures and cultural events. In front of the palace is a statue of Marko Marulic, a 15th-century poet who is considered the father of Croatian literature.
The living heart around which Zagreb beats, Jelačić Square was built in the mid-19th century when Croatia was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it marks the boundary between Gornji Grad and Kapitol (both in the Upper Town) and Donji Grad (Lower Town). The huge, paved piazza is named after a military leader of the 19th century, whose equestrian statue by Austrian sculptor Anton Dominick Ritter von Fernkorn was erected in 1866; it has great sentimental value to the Croatian people as it was removed from the square in 1947 by the Communists, and only replaced in 1990 during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Surrounded by elegant Baroque buildings – many swathed in advertising hoardings – the vast square is crossed by several of the city’s great boulevards, including Illica and Radićeva. It is lined with bars and cafés that move outdoors in the summer, when locals and visitors jostle for space with buskers, beggars and the trams that constantly rattle around its perimeter.
Encompassing the medieval hilltop settlements of Kaptol and Gradec, Zagreb’s Gornji Grad (Upper Town) is the capital’s historic district, looking down over the modern center of Donji Grad (Lower Town) below. Loosely defined as the area north of the central Bana Jelačića square, Gornji Grad’s lattice of cobblestone streets, pretty medieval squares and lively café culture make it Zagreb’s most picturesque neighborhood and visitors to the city will likely find themselves spending a large portion of their time here.
Stroll along the leafy walkway of the Strossmayer Promenade, where the old city walls once stood; light a candle at the revered Stone Gate (Kamenita vrata), now transformed into a shrine to the Virgin Mary; or pay a visit to the adorably quirky Museum of Broken Relationships. The most famous landmark of the Upper Town is the Gothic Zagreb Cathedral of the Assumption, perched on Kaptol Hill, but other notable highlights include the mosaic-roofed St Mark’s Church.
The dramatic Stone Gate (Kamenita Vrata) marks the eastern entrance to Zagreb’s medieval Gornji Grad (Upper Town) and is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks, providing a useful navigation point for visitors passing between the Upper and Lower towns. The stone-carved arch is more than just a gateway though – local legend has transformed it into a shrine and the adjourning chapel flickers with candles, lit daily by local worshippers in honor of the Virgin Mary.
The origins of the Stone Gate date back to as early as 1266 and today the restored archway forms a key part of the ruins of the ancient city walls. The story goes that the original gate featured a painting of Mary holding baby Jesus and after a devastating fire swept through the capital in 1731, the artwork miraculously survived, appearing to locals like the image of the Virgin Mary was emerging from the ashes.
A repository for broken dreams, the museum is stuffed full of discarded clothes, letters, stuffed toys and photographs, each accompanied by a short story explaining the item’s significance or how the relationship foundered – some are sad, some humorous, some sweet, others angry and bitter, all are touching and therapeutic, signifying a final letting go of lost love. All exhibits – from the handcuffs to a collection of neatly labeled underwear – are displayed in snowy white galleries, with the most macabre possibly being the axe used by one lovelorn suitor to chop up his ex-girlfriend’s furniture.
Dubrovnik’s distinctive orange cable cars speed 778 m (2,552.5 ft) in around three minutes to the top of Mount Srđ from the Lower Station positioned just north of the sturdy walls of the city. Opened in 1969, the cable car was destroyed during the Balkan Wars of Independence in the 1990s but was reopened in 2010; today it serves up to 2.5 million visitors each year who make the journey to enjoy the peerless views across the terracotta rooftops of Dubrovnik, the indented coastline of Dalmatia and the island archipelagos sprinkled across the Adriatic Sea. Sitting at 405 m (1,328.75 ft) above sea level, the scenic viewpoints around the upper cable car station on Mount Srđ are popular local spots for weddings; there’s a souvenir shop selling Dalmatian olive oils and landscape paintings plus the Panorama restaurant, serving up delicious Croatian dishes along with its far-reaching views; book an early-evening table in advance to enjoy the spectacular sunset sliding into the sea.
Travelers looking to explore untouched Croatia while getting a true taste of the Adriatic Sea will find all they’re looking for at Elaphite Islands. This cluster of coastal escapes stretches from Dubrovnik to Peljesac and boasts thick foliage and unspoiled natural wonders that have become difficult to find on the mainland.
Just three of these favorite getaways—Lopud, Sipan or Kolocep—are accessible to visitors, but their diversity means there’s still something for everyone in the Elaphite Islands. Kolocep, the smallest of the three, is surrounded by brilliant blue waters and proves a remarkable respite for tired travelers. Sunj beach has made Lopud the most visited of the three, but those in the know say despite its popularity, Lopud is still perfect for a quiet escape. Sipan, the largest of the three islands, offers travelers the most to do, including tours of some of the stately aristocratic manors of the Dubrovnik Republic.