Things to Do in Croatia
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.
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.
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.
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 national park since 1949 and a World Heritage Site since 1979, Plitvice (prounounced pleet-wee-cheh) is still relatively new on the European tourist trail, but certainly not undiscovered. Set at the top of Croatia’s Adriatic region in a karsted area of the Dinaric Alps, just two hours from the capital city of Zagreb, the park is visited by over 1.2 million people each year.
A sprawling limestone and dolomite chalk landscape of blue-green lakes, mossy caves, trickling streams and spectacular waterfalls, this geological wonder formed at the confluence of two rivers dates back as far as the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. Most of the 16 lakes within the park are rimmed with curvilinear boardwalks that wend alongside the most scenic waterfall areas, allowing visitors to get a closer look at the craggy travertine formations created by the constant rushing of water over mineral-rich rocks. Humans are not allowed to enter the clear, clean water here.
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.
More Things to Do in Croatia
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.
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.
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.
With their startling turquoise waters fringed by pine forests and set against a backdrop of distant mountain peaks, the Bacina Lakes are one of Croatia’s most enchanting and still-undiscovered natural wonders. The postcard-worthy views are just part of the fun – the seven lakes, six of which are interconnected, and the surrounding Neretva River delta, also offer an idyllic setting for outdoors activities. As well as hiking around the waterside, the Bacina Lakes are a prime spot for fishing, with the freshwater lakes teeming with fish. Alternatively, water sports like canoeing, kayaking and stand-up paddleboarding have become popular in recent years, and make an excellent way to explore the lakes’ islands, swamps and fishermen’s villages.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Rising to heights of over 1,000 meters and surrounded by forested foothills, Mount Medvednica (‘Bear Mountain’), looms over the city of Zagreb and makes an easy escape from the capital. Sljeme is the highest point at 1,033 meters and while hiking the scenic route to the summit is a popular choice, the peak is also reachable by road and cable car, making it the focal point for most day-trippers. The wooded slopes around the summit make up the protected area of Medvednica Nature Park, crisscrossed with hiking and mountain biking trails, as well as restaurants, traditional mountain lodges and a winter ski area.
Another key attraction of Medvednica is the medieval fortress of Medvedgrad, originally built in 1242 and now home to the Altar of the Homeland memorial, a poignant dedication to the local soldiers who fought and died in the Croatian war of independence.
- Things to do in Zagreb
- Things to do in Split
- Things to do in Dubrovnik
- Things to do in Zadar
- Things to do in Šibenik
- Things to do in Pula
- Things to do in Plitvice Lakes National Park
- Things to do in Rovinj
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- Things to do in Dalmatia
- Things to do in Central Croatia
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- Things to do in Hvar
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