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.
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.
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.
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.
A mere 1km from Dubrovnik, the small island of Lokrum makes a welcome escape from the city and with regular boats making the 15-minute trip, it’s an easy excursion from the mainland. Nicknamed the ‘Island of Kings’, legend has it that King Richard the Lionheart was shipwrecked on Lokrum Island following his 1192 crusades. Continuing its royal connections, the island was bought in 1859 by Maximilian von Habsburg, the Archduke of Austria, who transformed its 12th-century Benedictine abbey and monastery into a summer palace.
The Abbey and its formal gardens remain one of the island’s principal highlights, but equally impressive is the botanical garden of the Dubrovnik Oceanographic Institute and the Fort Royal, an early 19th-century French fort, which tops the Lokrum Hills. For many though, a visit Lokrum is simply an excuse to soak up the idyllic scenery – swathes of pine and cypress forests, olive groves and rocky coves that make up the Lokrum island nature reserve.
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.
Dubrovnik’s Old Town is completely surrounded by enormous stone walls that date back to the 10th century. Up to 6m (19ft) thick and 2.5m (8ft) high in places, Dubrovnik's Ancient City Walls were built to protect the city and deter would-be invaders.
You can walk along the entire (2km/1.2mi) length of the ancient walls today and it is one of the best ways to appreciate the majesty of the Old Town (and get some great views over the Adriatic sea). There are 2 towers and 2 forts incorporated into the walls that were built and/or strengthened in the 15th century to bolster the city’s defences. The Minceta Tower protects the city’s northern edge; the Bokar Tower protects Pile Gate (the city’s main entrance); Lovrjenac Fort protects the west, and the Revelin Fort protects the eastern entrance.
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.
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.
Pile Gate is a grand entrance into Dubrovnik’s Old Town, on its western wall.
Built in 1537 to protect the city from invaders and monitor trade, Pile Gate was originally reached via a wooden drawbridge, which was raised every evening, the gate locked and the key handed to the prince in an elaborate ceremony.
Pile Gate has an outer and inner gate with statues of St. Blaise, the city’s patron saint. The St. Blaise statue in the niche of the interior arch is the handiwork 20th-century Croatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic. You’ll also find an old door here that dates back to 1460.
As you pass over the stone bridge towards the outer gate you’ll notice a green space below. This space used to be the moat, another defense mechanism to deter those who wished to infiltrate the city.
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.
Peristil Square is Split's main square, the former entry hall in Diocletian's Palace. It is derived from a Roman architectural term called the peristyle, an open colonnade surrounding a court.
The spacious central courtyard is flanked by marble columns topped with Corinthian capitals and richly ornamented cornices linked by arches. There are six columns on both the east and west sides, and four more at the south end, which mark the monumental entrance to the Vestibul. Most of the structure is made of white stone from the nearby island of Brač; however, the columns are made of Italian marble and siennite from Egypt. The Vestibul is a cavernous open dome above the ground floor passageway; a foyer that leads you into the emperor's residential quarters. The Vestibul provides great acoustics allowing klapa bands to perform traditional a capella songs there in the mornings.
The Pula Arena, built under the reign of Emperor Vespasian between 27 BC–68 AD (at the same time as the Colosseum in Rome), is the best-preserved Roman amphitheatre in the world. It is the only remaining Roman amphitheatre that has four side towers; it also represents all three Roman architectural orders. The amphitheatre, which was once the site of gladiator fights, is the best-preserved ancient monument in Croatia.
The design is elliptical, with gladiator fights taking place in the central flat arena and room for 20,000 spectators to sit in the stone tiers and stand in the gallery. During the Middle Ages, Pula Arena was used for fairs and knights’ tournaments. Today the venue seats 5,000 and is used for outdoor performances like operas, films, equestrian festivals and concerts. Its underground passageways, once used by the gladiators, now have regular viticulture and olive-growing exhibitions that include reconstructions of historic machines and storage vessels.
Built into the eastern flank of Dubrovnik’s fortified walls adjacent to Fort Revelin, the 14th-century Dominican Monastery is designed in a combination of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture that is seen in several of the city’s palaces and churches. The monastery’s church was rebuilt several times over the centuries and was used as an army depot during Napoleon’s occupation of Dubrovnik in the late 18th century; today its single nave features a massive painted Gothic cross by Paolo Veneziano, dating from around 1384, St Dominic by 19th century painter Vlaho Bukovac — widely regarded as Croatia’s finest artist — and sparkling contemporary stained glass in the apse. The elaborate 15th-century Gothic cloister of the monastery surrounds a shady garden that was used as stabling for French army horses and their troughs can still be seen between the cloister’s pillars. The well in the garden provided water for Dubrovnik’s residents when the city was under siege in 1991.
A short walking distance from Diocletian's Palace, this hilly peninsula is a recreational park for both locals and visitors. A protected nature reserve since 1964, the park is dotted with pine trees and Mediterranean shrubs.
Some of Split's best beaches are at the foot of Marjan hill and are easily reachable by bicycle which you can rent at the entrance. To enter the natural preserve, just follow the steps from the Veli Varos neighborhood. Keep climbing and you'll reach the Telegrin belvedere -- on a clear day you can see as far as Vis Island. You'll get some of the most spectacular views of the island and the Adriatic Sea from the top of the hill. There are many other cultural spots on the hill, including Split's most interesting museums, such as the Mestrovic Gallery and the Museum of Croatian Archaeological Monuments. Many churches are dotted on the site, including the Church of St George, situated on the western slopes, with the Oceanographic institute next door.
Marking midday with a single shot from the famous Grič cannon since the late 19th century, Lotrščak Tower is one of the oldest buildings in Zagreb’s historic Gornji Grad (Upper Town). It was built into the defense walls of the original 13th-century settlement of Gradec and closed every night at sundown; reputedly those who were left outside the walls overnight were in grave danger of being robbed.
As Gradec was gradually absorbed into present-day Zagreb, the use of Lotrščak Tower changed and down the centuries it has been a prison, a warehouse, a fire station and even a billiards club. The tower has been extended upwards since the 13th century; today the square, five-story tower houses an art gallery but most people visit to scale the spiral staircase up to the observation post to catch a glimpse of the bright tiles on the roof of St Mark’s Church and gaze out across the parks and Baroque mansions of Zagreb’s Donji Grad (Lower Town).
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.
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.
Travelers who are looking for the perfect way to spend an afternoon soaking up the beauty of Croatia’s idyllic coastline will find exactly what they’re after on the Riva Promenade. This incredible stretch of walkway runs the entire length of the old town and offers up incredible views of the surrounding harbor, European-style apartments and remote island’s are some of the city’s most picturesque.
Visitors will find some of Split’s best restaurants, cafes and nightlife along the promenade, which is also near to the city’s largest port. The famed walkway is flanked by towering palms and lined with glazed white tiles that lend some serious European-flare to this coastal destination.