Croatia Travel Guide: Overview
Perhaps you've seen photos of Croatia’s gorgeous coastline and picture-perfect beaches beside the Mediterranean’s clear blue waters. Maybe friends have told you about its charming medieval towns—Split, Hvar and Korcula—that dot its famous Dalmatian Coast. Perhaps you’ve heard tales of the wonderfully preserved walled city of Dubrovnik, a World Heritage site recently made famous as a primary filming location for the hit series Game of Thrones. Whatever has caught your eye and enticed you to visit this beautiful corner of Europe, a trip to Croatia will definitely not disappoint.
Croatia has overcome much over the past three decades to get to its current state: an independent country with a humming economy and a fast-growing tourism industry. Its sunny, warm climate and diversity of natural beauty and historic cities, towns and landmarks mean travelers of all interests will find much to enjoy. Fresh cuisine, including an abundance of excellent local wine and olive oil, and friendly people who are especially proud of their newfound identity make Croatia a truly pleasant place to visit. Come here just once, and you'll understand why people from all over Europe (and, increasingly, the rest of the world) return time and again.
Although the area has been inhabited for centuries—many examples of the Greek and Roman past exist in its monuments, historical sites and medieval town squares—Croatia (an independent country only since 1991) and its people have largely been shaped by 20th-century events. This is especially true of its brutal war in the 1990s.
After the collapse of the region’s dominating powers, the Austrian and Ottoman Empires, after World War I, the victors redrew the European map and created the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, ethnic Albanians and Slovenes. This combined people of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and they soon disagreed about how they wished to be governed. A strictly centralized state formed, but opposition continued, and in 1929, after the Croat leader was shot while at parliament, the king dismissed representative government and began to rule as a monarchical dictator. The kingdom became Yugoslavia, and the new government willfully ignored both the existing traditional regions and peoples. As World War II spread over the continent, Axis soldiers invaded in 1941.
Liberation was eventually achieved, but the communists then took power under their leader, Josip Tito. A federation of allegedly six equal republics (including Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and two autonomous regions, one of which was Kosovo) replaced the old kingdom. Tito kept this nation together largely by sheer force of will and a communist party that cut across ethnic boundaries. The USSR soon broke with Yugoslavia, and the latter took its own path under Tito, his army and his local brand of communism. When Tito died in 1980, the six republics began to diverge and pull Yugoslavia apart. The collapse of the USSR in the late 1980s only exacerbated this situation and left just a Serb-dominated army. Without their old leader—and with the new possibility of free elections and self-representation—Yugoslavia disintegrated.
Following a Serb seizure of Yugoslavia’s presidency, Croatia declared independence in 1991, and clashes between Serbs and Croatians increased. Tensions escalated into war when the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) and various Serb paramilitary groups attacked Croatia. By the close of 1991, a high-intensity conflict was being fought along a wide front, and Croatia ended up losing a third of its territory. Serbian paramilitary groups then began a campaign of terror against non-Serbs in the rebel territories. Thousands of Croat civilians were subsequently killed, and at least 170,000 were forced from their homes.
In 1992, the international community recognized Croatian independence, but UN-protected areas still remained occupied by the Serbs. The conflict continued to escalate as both Serbia and Croatia maneuvered to maintain control over their respective borders and ethnic minorities within Bosnia and across national lines.
In 1995, Operation Storm initiated, and Croatia’s government won back control of most of the country from the Serbs. This operation was thanks, in part, to US training and US mercenaries. Both sides committed atrocities, and the Serb population soon fled. In 1996, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic succumbed to pressure, and he surrendered Eastern Slavonia and pulled out his troops. Croatia finally won back this region in 1998, and UN Peacekeepers left in 2002.
Since that time, Croatia’s tourism industry has flourished, and people from all over the globe are flocking to this still largely undiscovered nation in order to enjoy its beaches, food, culture and people.
Being part of Yugoslavia and being governed by Tito’s iron fist for much of the 20th century, Croatian identity is a relatively new thing. Having gone through the recent period of war and intense conflict and finally establishing itself as an independent country apart from Serbs, Bosnians and its other neighbors, Croatia's national identity is now very strong among its people. Visitors should always be aware of the region’s sensitive history and avoid confusing Croats with their neighbors.
Ninety percent of Croats identify as Catholic, and many churches and religious sites exist throughout the country. Adherence to religion differs wildly throughout the country and between its younger and older populations. In more rural and less visited areas, tourists should be sensitive to the locals' more conservative beliefs. Along the southern coast, however, it's a different story. Topless sunbathing is common here, and public displays of affection are acceptable.
Although locals will greet each other with two kisses to the cheeks (never three like their Serbian neighbors), visitors should stick with handshakes and verbal greetings. Not greeting someone at an event that traditionally requires a greeting or using an exceedingly familiar greeting to mere acquaintances are both serious breaches of Croatian social etiquette.
Croatians appreciate a good sense of humor. It’s always well meaning and isn’t meant to be offensive, so if you find yourself the subject of a joke, know it’s all meant in good fun. Croats are very enthusiastic about sports (mostly football/soccer) and are usually up for a discussion about the state of their national team or their star footballers who play throughout Europe.
Good to Know
When traveling in Croatia, it’s good to keep the following in mind:
Croatia's currency is the kuna (HRK). Although many tourist business owners accept euros, the EU currency is not legal tender in Croatia. Any kuna left at the end of your trip can be converted to euros at a local bank or exchange office. ATMs are readily available throughout the country, and credit cards are widely accepted in hotels and restaurants, especially in touristy areas.
Tap water is safe to drink in Croatia.
Tipping is not obligatory, but it's a good practice to leave 10 percent for good service in restaurants. At bars or cafes, rounding the bill up is sufficient. Taxis don't expect tips and operate on meters, so paying the exact amount or rounding up slightly is fine.
Due to its recent turbulent past, tensions are still palpable with Croatians and their neighbors. Having overcome the devastating Bosnian War of the early ’90s, Croatians are now truly free and have a well-deserved sense of national pride. Therefore, visitors should steer clear of calling them Yugoslav or Serb.
Outlets are standard European plugs (types C and F), and the current is usually 230 volt and 50 hertz. If a US-made electronic item doesn’t have dual voltage, a converter will be necessary.
Public toilets in cities are generally a scarcity, but you’ll find them at bus stations, train stations and service stations. They usually cost two or three kuna, and this is paid to an attendant. If no public toilet is available, Croatians are relatively tolerant of ducking into a cafe, bar or restaurant, but in this case, it's polite to at least buy a drink.
When To Visit Croatia
Thanks to its growing popularity as a tourism hub, Croatia draws many to its sunny climate, pristine beaches and historic cities—particularly those along the coast. It tends to be busy in the major tourist hubs, as well as quite hot, in the peak summer months (July and August). The shoulder seasons (May to early June and September to October) still offer warm, sunny weather but with fewer people. The crowds are quite sparse during the cooler winter months, but much of the country's natural beauty and coastline aren’t quite as appealing during this time.
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- The lucky people of Croatia enjoy 2,715 hours of sunshine a year.
- The Dalmatian dog breed can be traced back to Croatia and the Dalmatia region.
- Dubrovnik and Split are two primary filming locations for the HBO show, Game of Thrones.
Full Article Coming Soon!
Regions and Cities
Croatia’s capital and largest city, Zagreb boasts a medieval “old city” with architecture and cobbled streets reminiscent of many iconic Central European capitals, including Vienna, Budapest and Prague.
This historic coastal city and UNESCO World Heritage site is absolutely worth a visit. The beautiful walled city (also known as “King’s Landing” to Game of Thrones fans) offers proximity to islands and other coastal sites.
This 30-mile island is the alleged birthplace of Marco Polo, the famous merchant traveler, but that’s not all Korcula has to offer. Prepare for lush forests, vineyards, olive groves, sandy beaches and charming villages, as well as a historic walled town with colorful markets and memorable Renaissance architecture.
Croatia’s second-largest city, Split offers a historic core, Roman Emperor Diocletian’s 3rd-century palace, a seaside promenade and beautiful beaches.
Another spectacular island off the Dalmatian Coast, Hvar's town square might just be Croatia's most beautiful. Additionally, there are vineyards, lavender fields and plenty of options for outdoor activities, from hiking to swimming in secluded coves.
A 3,000-year-old city situated on the northern Dalmatian Coast, Zadar offers plenty to see and to do—without the crowds of other popular destinations. The Old Town offers sightseeing, including Roman ruins, medieval architecture and numerous old churches, as well as a string of beautiful beaches along the coast.
Worth a Visit
Pula: Located on the Istrian Peninsula’s southern tip, Pula is a popular destination that’s been attracting tourists as far back as ancient Roman times. In those bygone days, fans flocked to the city’s amphitheater to watch gladiator fights.
Krka National Park: A protected area filled with spectacular natural scenery, wildlife and historic sites, the park’s best known for its numerous waterfalls and natural pools of clear blue-green waters. Easily reached from Split, Krka National Park provides well-maintained walkways, as well as boat excursions, for getting around.
Plitvice National Park: A beautiful natural wonder, this park features 16 interconnected lakes that are divided into upper and lower clusters. They can all be explored via wooden walkways or by boat.
Things to See and to Do
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How to Get to Croatia
Croatia joined the European Union in 2013, meaning tourists from the United States or the European Union don’t need visas to enter. A visitor must have a valid passport (at least six months before expiration), and entry is valid for three months within a 180-day period. Croatia has an impressive seven international airports, but only Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik (the three biggest) accept international flights year round.
While hitting the rails is the obvious choice in many European countries, train travel isn’t always the best way to get around Croatia. The national train company does connect many Croatian cities, but there’s no service to the Dalmatian Coast, Croatia’s most popular travel and tourism destination. On the Istrian Peninsula, only limited train service exists, and for many, this is a can’t-miss stop. The northern travel hotspot is often likened to Tuscany due to its idyllic rolling hills filled with vineyards and olive trees.
Bus or ferry travel is available and generally more efficient and enjoyable. If you're intent on exploring the southern coast, consider hopping on a ferry. Not only can it be a beautiful boat journey, but it can be faster than road travel. Otherwise, taking buses is a great option to travel between cities and tourist destinations. When it comes to Croatia travel, there are usually plenty of options, especially during the busier travel months.
Lastly, renting a car is a viable option, but be aware of regulations and added costs for taking the vehicle across international borders (into Slovenia, Bosnia or Montenegro, for example).
Linguists note that Croatian is almost identical to Serbian. Croatian, however, is written in the Roman alphabet, and Serbian is written in Cyrillic. Luckily for Western tourists, this makes it a bit easier for non–Croatian speakers to read signs in public.
Nonetheless, always call the language “Croatian,” not “Serbo-Croatian.” It has sometimes erroneously been called this in the past, and comparisons to anything Serbian can still be a touchy subject for some.
While English is commonly spoken in Zagreb, along the southern coast and in tourist sites, learning a few words of Croatian will go far in gaining locals' respect and an extra smile.
- Hello/Good-bye: Bok
- Good-bye: Doviđenja!
- Yes: Da
- No: Ne
- Good morning/day: Dobro jutro
- Good afternoon/evening: Dobra večer
- Please: Molim
- Excuse me : Oprosti/Oprostite (informal/formal)
- Thank you: Hvala
Food and Drink
Although Croats are not overly experimental when it comes to food, they’re particularly passionate about it. Don’t be surprised to find locals discussing for hours the quality of the lamb or the first-grade fish and why those dishes overshadow all food elsewhere. Foodie culture is on the rise here, inspired largely by the slow-food movement, which emphasizes fresh, local and seasonal ingredients and the joy of slow-paced dining. Wine and olive oil production has been revived, and there’s now a network of roadside signs throughout the country celebrating these precious nectars.
Cuisine can differ quite a bit regionally. Hungarian cuisine (with its copious amounts of paprika and spicier flavors) has influenced the northern and inland areas of Croatia, whereas closer to the northwest and along the Istrian Peninsula, Italian cuisine is a greater influence. Along the Dalmatian Coast and in most of the areas tourists visit, the food is very Mediterranean, using a lot of olive oil, garlic, flat-leaf parsley and all manner of seafood. Along the coast, look for fried lignje (squid) as a main course. (Adriatic squid is generally more expensive than squid from farther afield, but it’s tastier and fresher.) Meals often begin with a first course of pasta, such as spaghetti or rižot (risotto) topped with seafood. For a special appetizer, try paški sir, a pungent hard sheep-milk cheese from the island of Pag.
Dalmatian brodet, also known as brodetto or brujet, is essentially stewed fish served with polenta, and it’s another regional treat. It’s often only available in two-person portions, though, so bring a friend! Dalmatian pašticada (beef stewed in wine and spices and served with gnocchi) appears on coastal and interior menus. Lamb from Cres and Pag is deemed Croatia’s best because they feed on fresh herbs, which makes the meat delicious.
Food in Croatia: What to Know and to Eat—Full Article Coming Soon!
Croatia's tourism industry is significant to its economy. Its infrastructure, therefore, is generally well organized and safe. That said, it's important to maintain caution and safety at all times. Petty theft can be common, especially in touristy areas. Keep all valuables you don't need during the day locked in a hotel safe. The things you do carry with you should be hidden and difficult for anyone to access or to steal. Since many places accept credit cards, it's a good idea to only walk around with some cash, one or two credit/ATM cards and maybe a copy of your passport. Keep these in safe pockets or a money belt. Remember, purses, backpacks and camera bags invite extra attention from thieves. Always be mindful of what you bring with you, and take extra caution to ensure nothing is easy for a pickpocket to access.
No Croatian travel guide would be complete without cautioning against the summer heat. Carry plenty of sunscreen and water, and remember that shade can be tricky to find at times. A wide-brimmed hat is recommended.
If you tend to gravitate toward less touristy areas, beware of unexploded minefields. These still exist in certain inland areas, including Eastern Slavonia, Karlovac County, Brodsko-Posavska County and some areas around Zadar County, and in certain remote areas in Plitvice National Park. Upwards of two million mines were laid during the ’90s war, and Croatia isn’t expected to be declared free of those mines until 2019. The mines, however, are not in tourist spots, and chances that foreigners would visit many places where these mines still exist are very slim. In case of emergency, call 112 for help.
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