The Croatian coast spans a staggering 1,800 kilometres. The actual beach space, though, is three times that.
There are thousands of Adriatic islands that belong to Croatia.
And also tons of beautiful towns and stunning beaches on the mainland.
With so much diversity, how do you even choose?
This guide attempts to help out.
Read on to find out:
- What are the main regions of the Croatian Coast
- Why Northern Dalmatia is so family-friendly…
- While party animals should head to Istria or Southern Dalmatia
- The places you must absolutely see
- The food you should eat
- And, all the amazing historical sights around you.
If you have already been to the Croatian coast, feel free to add your tips in the comments below. Let’s make this one as useful and comprehensive as possible.
First things first, what is the Adriatic Sea?
It’s actually a part of the Mediterranean. It separates the Italian Peninsula from the Balkans.
There are thousands of islands in the Adriatic and a lot of them belong to Croatia. Even Croatians don’t agree on how many there are. Depending on classification, they might be anywhere between 1300 and 1800. Either way, the number gets bumped up by small rocks and other not-super-significant pieces of land.
We will be looking at the Croatian coast from north to south. Dubrovnik is separate, as it is practically an exclave. There is actually a small strip of Bosnian land that separates it from the rest of the country, that’s why.
Dating Notes About Croatia
Croatian is a coastal country as a whole.
There is not a lot of inland, besides the capital of Zagreb.
Hence, a lot of the population does in fact live in these seaside towns. This also means they are very used to seeing foreigners, and also used to foreigners behaving very badly.
Croatian, and Balkan dating culture in general, does tend to be a bit closed off and cliquey. This means that while they are friendly to outsiders, they also can be a bit wary of them as far as actual romantic relationships are concerned. Often times, they marry within their “selo” (village), and keep the same friends from childhood all the way through their entire lives.
And, while “official” arranged marriage is not as big as it is in say, India, it is not uncommon for the grandpas and grandmas of a village to set up a young couple on their first date.
And now, without more fussing, let’s explore the regions of the Croatian coastline!
Istria: The Jewel Up North
A few key facts about Istria:
- It is actually a peninsula – the biggest one in the Adriatic Sea.
- Istria borders Italy and Slovenia. It has a decidedly Italian vibe, though it also preserves some Balkan identity.
- The largest city here is Pula and it has around half a million inhabitants. It’s a great base to explore the region and the islands.
The less-than-exciting fact about Istria is it’s very crowded, especially in some places. You could still find the occasional untouched corner but it is much harder than other places along the Croatian coast.
That being said, the tourist density could also be a good thing. There are plenty of kid-friendly spots, the beaches are well-maintained with enough facilities and easy access, and the nightlife is hot.
Here are a couple of places in Istria for you to explore:
Rovinj And Cobbled Plazas
Rovinj is easily one of my favourite Croatian towns. Not only does it boast beautiful pebble beaches, it is also a fascinating historical location.
Sip on some Istrian Malvazija and grab a bite of fresh seafood on one of its’ many charming plazas. Rent a bike and ride along the coast. Get lost in the tiny streets of the Old Town. Rovinj has it all!
Just five minutes away from the Rovinj Old Town lies the lush green Katarina island. The water here is crystal clear and the beach gives you a mesmerizing view of the medieval town in front of you.
The island is popular among visitors but just secluded enough to still feel intimate. This is the best beach spot if you are on a honeymoon in Rovinj.
This one is not for the lovers of intimacy. Poreč is easily the most touristy spot in the region. Between May and September, it is packed full of sun-seeking visitors.
This is a resort destination. Don’t expect wonders of authenticity. Do expect an amazing nightlife and wonderful beaches. And if you get bored of the lush life, make sure you also visit the Romanesque Basilica of Euphrasius. It’s one of the most important historical sights in the whole of Istria.
We now move south toward Kvarner Gulf. It’s not as popular among visitors and this works in your favour. You have here some of the country’s best beaches and not nearly enough tourists to spoil them.
Start Your Kvarner Gulf Adventure In Rijeka
Rijeka is the largest city, a transportation hub, a buzzing cultural centre, and the one and only place to eat squid ink and prawn risotto.
The local Kvarner prawns are praised throughout Croatia and widely considered to be the best in the country. They are meatier and have a sweet aftertaste. Rijeka is a gastronomic capital and chefs take advantage of everything that Croatian nature gave them – the seafood, the olive oil, the fresh local veggies.
At night, head to the Hartera Paper Factory by the waterfront. In summer they do live music almost every night, just remember to check the schedule.
Check out the St Vitus Church, which is the symbol of Rijeka; and drop by the nearby Church of St Mary’s Assumption, where you’ll find Rijeka’s own ‘leaning tower’. Thought it was just Pisa? Nope, historical civil engineering was not as advanced as we are today.
What Are The Best Islands In The Kvarner Gulf?
It’s hard to pick just a few.
If you can, definitely do an island hopping tour. Yes, it’s a very touristy thing to do. Yes, you could do the same for much less money.
The thing is: it saves a lot of time. You will get to experience more islands and more beaches this way. It’s convenient and you just get to relax and enjoy your vacation.
But maybe you want to be free and adventurous, or maybe you are on a budget. In that case, start with…
Krk: The Most Populous
Krk is not Croatia’s biggest island but it is the most populous. It’s connected to the mainland by a bridge. A mere thirty minutes away from Rijeka, Krk is a favourite among local families. Grab some sandwiches and wine and you are in for the perfect Mediterranean picnic!
Cres And Lošinj
These were once one island but today they are separated by a channel. You can cover both of them in half a day or a full day if you really want to take your time.
The islands are connected by a bridge at the town of Osor. This small settlement dates back to Roman times. It was also the Romans who separated the two islands by digging up a channel.
You could stay for a couple of days in one of the many camping spots around Osor or take a boat to explore nearby tinier islands. The town is also art lover’s central with sculptures by famous Croatian artists scattered around the streets.
All of the beaches around Cres are amazing but one deserves particular attention:
The Secret Cave Beach Of Croatia
The Blue Cave is world-famous. It’s gorgeous, that’s for sure, but you wouldn’t get much peace and quiet there.
If you want a real secret and secluded cave to swim into, look no further than the sea cave Plava grota. You can get in by swimming and then relax on the pebble stoned beach inside. There is a second entrance but it’s only accessible for divers.
You want to first get to Žanje bay – either by water taxi (if you are going with kids or you have a lot of stuff on you) or descending from the nearby town of Lubenice. The second option is not for the faint of heart. Going down takes around 45 minutes on a fairly treacherous part. Don’t even think about doing it in flip-flops!
This is the single most underrated spot on the Croatian coast. Unlike the south, Istria, or world-famous Dubrovnik, Northern Dalmatia has a calmer, more family-friendly vibe.
If you are looking for an affordable and enjoyable vacation for the whole family, Northern Dalmatia is your place! Here are some places to enjoy the region’s postcard beauty:
Zadar: The World’s Most Beautiful Sunset
Zadar is the capital of Northern Dalmatia and a major transport hub. But it is also, allegedly, the place to enjoy the most beautiful sunsets on our little planet. Alfred Hitchcock came here in 1964 and said it first:
Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world, more beautiful than the one in Key West, in Florida, applauded at every evening
The city will likely also be your first point of entrance to Northern Dalmatia. The Zadar International Airport is several miles away from the centre. It’s a great spot to safely hire a car for day trips.
But before you head outside the city, make sure you visit the beautiful Old Town and that you watch the sunset at the promenade. At the end of the walk, you will find the sea organ (which plays music by the waves), and Nikola Basic’s ‘Greeting to the Sun’ installation that lights up powered by the sun and sea.
It’s an incredible place to experience Zadar and Croatian sunsets.
Sibenik: Islands And Waterfalls
Sibenik is a charming medieval town some 45 miles away from Zadar. It’s a must-visit for all history nerds.
It is also a great base to explore both the Krka Falls and the Kornati islands.
Krka Falls are just a quick drive away from Sibenik but they will become your favourite non-beach spot in Dalmatia. Set aside at least a day to explore them in peace and make sure you bring a swimsuit. The water is colder than the sea but it’s ok to swim in during the summer.
Going island hopping? The Kornati islands are the place to go. This nautical paradise is actually a strictly preserved national park. You will see amazing wildlife here and the water is crystal clear!
Since it is a National Park, you would have to purchase tickets. These are sold by vessel, depending on how long you will sail and how big the boat is. However, I doubt you will be hiring a boat. Usually, tour companies cover this in their prices.
Tour operators offer day trips, departing from Cres or Sibenik, or longer excursions with accommodation on the islands. You can find a list of registered companies on the Kornati Islands website.
You could also do a diving excursion. There is a list of registered scuba companies on the Kornati island as well. It’s best to stick to them – all other scuba diving is illegal (if the company has not registered the group or fulfilled the requirements). Not only is this harmful to the fragile ecosystem of the park, it could also be legitimately dangerous for your health.
But even if you are not going scuba diving:
Bring your snorkel and fins!
Snorkeling doesn’t require that much skill but it is an amazing way to see the marine life. Bring your own gear, as the tour company might not have enough for everyone!
Southern Dalmatia: For The Buzz-Lovers
Southern Dalmatia is popular. In fact, it’s more than just popular – it is truly booming right now.
There is, of course, a very good reason for this. The downside here is it’s hard to find a chilled out spot for a family vacation. That’s why it’s a night owl hotspot but not necessarily super kid-friendly.
By the way, just as a side note, we are covering Dubrovnik separately. For now, let’s look at some other Southern Dalmatian beauties.
Ston And The Peljesac Peninsula
A little over an hour away from Dubrovnik is the pretty town of Ston, famous for city walls, mussels and oysters, and saltworks. And yes, in that order.
The city walls offer various cool vantage points for you to enjoy a view of the Adriatic. They are open year-round but the opening hours are longer in summer. If you’re going during the summer months, it’s best to leave your walk for dusk/sunset. This way you won’t suffer third-degree burns and you would enjoy an amazing panorama of the sunset.
And if you decide to stay around, the Peljesac Peninsula is a great place to go hiking and it also has many hidden beaches. Hire a car and explore the region – you will try some of the best seafood in Croatia, get to swim in secluded and beautiful spots and meet charming locals. What else is there to ask for?
Southern Dalmatian Islands
The Southern Dalmatian islands off the Croatian coast are arguably the most popular destinations in the country (apart from Dubrovnik, that is).
Thankfully, they still preserve their relaxed Mediterranean vibe. Apart from some small resorts, most of the accommodation, restaurants, and bars have a distinct boutique feel to them. Locals have made a great effort to preserve what brought people here in the first place – the ancient ports, the palms, the wine, and the leisurely hours at a beach with turquoise water.
Brač And Šolta
The island of Brač is a perfect choice if you are short on time. It’s super easy to reach from the mainland, it boasts some spectacular beaches, and if you’d rather have some solitude you have Šolta and Bol right off the coast.
Set aside some time to wander around the fishing village and to sample the seafood and wines.
Šolta, even though it’s quite close to Split, is your alternative off the beaten track. This sleepy island is covered in hills, olive trees, and the biggest, most beautiful sky in the Adriatic. Check out the harbour villages of Maslinica and Stomorska or hire a bike to go around the island. You would be one of the very few tourists!
Hvar: Dubrovnik, Watch Out!
The ridge of Hvar boasts one of the most architecturally beautiful island towns. Hvar Town is a chic hangout and a nightlife hotspot, too. The Gothic palaces combine perfectly well with the ultra-modern cocktail bars.
But outside of the capital, Hvar is completely different. The small towns of Jesla and Stari Grad give you that typical lazy Mediterranean summer experience. Stari Grad has been getting popular with yachting enthusiasts and wealthy families, so better head there before it gets impossibly expensive.
Dubrovnik And Surroundings
Dubrovnik deserves a separate article on it’s own. Unlike the rest of Croatia, this one is on everyone’s bucket list.
And, while it might be totally overplayed…at the end of the day, it still is a beautiful spot. Here’s why Dubrovnik is one of the most, if not the most, overtouristed (is that even a word) spots in all of the world:
- The ancient walls evolving the city
- St John’s Fortress at night
- The intricate architectural of the Rector’s Palace
- How I associate it with Game of Thrones (and who doesn’t love Game of Thrones?)
- The entire city is on the UNESCO World Heritage list. Yes, because it’s that beautiful and unique.
So where is Dubrovnik, in terms of the Croatian coast?
It’s very far down south. Technically, it’s an exclave – a land that belongs to Croatia but isn’t connected to it by land.
Why Dubrovnik Is Separated
Dubrovnik is located in the Dubrovnik–Neretva county. But right in the middle of the county, a strip of Bosnian land separates Dubrovnik from the rest of the country.
This small strip and the town of Neum are Bosnia and Herzegovina’s only access to the Adriatic sea and they are not about to give it up anytime soon. Sadly, for Dubrovnik this means you have to pass two checkpoints if you want to get there by land.
Croatia is now in the EU but Bosnia isn’t, so this means more sophisticated checks, too, and it could possibly mean that you will need your passport. Check your own country’s passport validity before you take off to go to Dubrovnik. Else, you might end up stuck there.
Come For The Dubrovnik Summer Festival
To quote Wikipedia on this one:
The idea of founding the Dubrovnik Summer Festival’ in 1950 was harmonizing the renaissance and baroque atmosphere of Dubrovnik and the living spirit of drama and music;
And thus, Dubrovnik got a nearly two-month art festival in summer. If you are coming here during the festival, make sure to take in as much as you can. The drama, opera, ballet, and music programme are always rich and each year there is something new.
Traditionally, the festival runs between July 10 and August 25. Take that into account as you book your tickets.
Best Beaches In And Around Dubrovnik
Sveti Jakov is, without a doubt, the local favourite. While tourists squish up in the city beach (which is pretty but also horribly crowded for most of the year). Sveti Jakov, on the other hand, is popular but never too busy.
You would have to grab a cab or a bus to get there and thenn walk around 20 minutes through the quiet green Vlaha Bukovca. It’s a pleasant day trip or even an afternoon getaway. From Sveti Jakov, you can observe as the sun bathes the Old Town in golden lights. Stay to see the sunset, too, it’s a sight that should never be missed.
The other big one is Copacabana – yes, maybe it’s not the original Brazilian one but it is still pretty great. The pebbly beach set in Seka Bay and it’s one of the most fun places to spend your time around Dubrovnik. Virtually all water sports you can imagine you are available here. It’s also a fun place for day drinking, just an FYI.
Beyond The Croatian Coast
The beach is amazing and the medieval towns are cute… But let’s not forget that there is more to Croatia than just the coast. For instance, there is wine and there is the excellent olive oil. There are also gorgeous national parks, the capital, Zagreb, has an entirely different vibe than the coast, and the people of Croatia are warm and friendly.
Croatia is also a great base to explore the rest of Central Europe, the Balkans, or Italy. It’s relatively inexpensive to live in as well (you know, if you love the Adriatic so much that you decide to relocate).
So I guess this is a reminder: whether you choose to go south or north on the Croatian coast, consider exploring the country beyond the dreamy beaches. And, as usual, make sure you come back with a field report.
Travel tips are so time sensitive and we are trying to keep this article as useful and relevant as possible. Help us out and we will owe you one!