Croatia could fit into California three or four times. It's a small country and when people visit they spend most of their time in Dubrovnik or along the Dalmatian coast; they might even take a day to venture into Plitvice Lakes National Park. In this itinerary, we're going to skip Dubrovnik; there's plenty of guides out there for it already. For this ten day itinerary, I'm going to try to give you a bit of everything: the capital of Zagreb, Istrian countryside, Dalmatian beaches and an island, and the waterfalls of Plitvice. Croatia has so much to offer that ten days is not nearly enough to experience its natural charm and beauty.
Day One "Zagreb to Istria" Fly into Zagreb, pick up your rental car at the airport (we used Sixt but picked up our rental car from Rijeka and our friends picked us up in their personal vehicle) and head to Motovun in Istria. Choose an AirBnB in Motovun, which are surprisingly affordable for how luxurious they are. We stayed at this one.
Day Two “Istrian Peninsula: Inland” Head up to Motovun and grab a coffee or if you’re feeling particularly decadent in the morning an iced chocolate from Caffe Bar Mure. Caffe bars were one of my favorite Croatian things: an establishment open early that serves coffee and liquor. Caffe Bar Mure abuts the walls of Motovun and spread out before you are the rolling green vineyards and a silver snake of a river slicing through the valley below. This is the cover of a guidebook beautiful. After slaking your early morning caffeine thirst drive to the equally quaint and charming Groznjan. Don’t be alarmed by the road up to Groznjan; it is a real place and you should go there. Groznjan is a perfect gem of a mountain village populated by artists selling their wares. Imagine cobblestone streets, brightly painted flower pots, and ceramic goats, and you will find yourself in Groznjan.
After exploring Motovun and Groznjan, get ready for an adventure off the beaten path into the Istrian countryside. Take a winding drive through mountain hamlets to Slap Sopot, “slap” is the Croatian word for waterfall how onomatopoeic, a waterfall that changes colors with the seasons. You might get lucky and see it in its blue season; we came after a heavy rain and it was in its brown season. We also ran into a middle-aged couple hunting for wild asparagus. So dang cute! After your excursion to the waterfall, head back to Motovun for a wildly decadent dinner of truffles and pasta at Mondo Konoba. If the sun is still up, take a sunset walk in the vineyards surrounding the stunning AirBnB.
Day Three “Istrian Peninsula: West Coast” Start your day off with another coffee in Motovun and then drive to Porec. Porec doesn’t have a ton to offer but it is home to the nearly ancient Basilica of St. Euphrasius, a sixth-century church with a 16th-century bell tower and built on top of a fourth-century oratory. After that, you’re going to drive to Rovinj, one of the damned adorable and attractive towns you will ever step foot in. The old town is a maze of cobblestone streets and is a walking advertisement for a paint company. Ever thought to yourself what does “No More Drama” red look like on a wood door crawling with ivy? Well, then, Rovinj answers that question. If not, well, we’re different people and I probably spend too much time in Home Depot. You should eat in Rovinj; it is considered one of the best food towns in Croatia and is home to Croatia’s only Michelin star rated restaurant, Monte. After eating and to aid digestion, grab a gelato and walk along the walls of Rovinj. There will be steps down to the impossibly clear Adriatic and a mermaid grotto to hang out in. These are life goals: eating gelato in a mermaid grotto. When you’re done achieving things you never thought possible, head to Pula to explore the Roman amphitheater, one of the largest and most complete outside of Italy.
Day Four “The Kvarner Gulf: Rijeka” Rijeka is a working city and Croatia’s largest port. Decidedly less Mediterranean than the Istrian peninsula with its Austro-Hungarian architecture, Rijeka definitively does not feel like a tourist destination, which is what I liked about it. If you want to get a feel for everyday working life in a city, then Rijeka is a good place to do that in Croatia. The best thing to do is walk around the city and go down the various streets. Rijeka seems like the type of place you can get lost in and be just fine. You might even find an entire alley of cool and creepy street art. Oh yeah, there’s also a castle, a central market, and upscale shops if that’s a thing you’re into. For lunch or dinner, enjoy some tasty fried seafood at Girica Restaurant. I would avoid the restaurants near the waterfront as they’re overpriced and not particularly good.
Day Five “The Kvarner Gulf: Pag” This is not a place that I’ve been to but when I go back to Croatia I definitely want to make time to visit Pag. Known for its pungent sheep cheese and lamb, Pag is a large rocky, thanks to massive deforestation by the Venetians, island that on its south end is only a thirty-minute drive from Zadar. But you’re going to be coming from the north end and will need to take a ferry. The drive through this area is supposed to be stunning. If you’re into partying, Pag is the place to do it in the Adriatic, particularly Zrce, but there’s also more relaxing times to be had here. More relaxing, and family friendly, activities include visiting the Lace Museum, a tour of the cheese factory Sirana Gligora, or wander through the protected olive groves at Lun. Now, the thing you must do on Pag, according to my American expat friend living in Croatia, is eat at Hotel Boskinac; you could also stay the night there if you like. This is the restaurant that Bourdain ate at and called the best food in Croatia. How could Bourdain lead me wrong? Just a quick note: this place is not open in winter.
Day Six “Northern Dalmatia: Zadar” Again, not a place that I’ve been to but is on my list of places to visit on my next trip (to visit aforementioned American expat friend). In Zadar, you drink coffee in 2,000-year-old Roman ruins or check out newer architectural monuments such as the Sea Organ or Greeting to the Sun. Zadar is also the jumping off point for a number of national parks and islands.
Day Seven “Southern Dalmatia: Split” After staying the night in Zadar head south to Split to explore the incredible Diocletian’s palace. This over fifteen-hundred-year-old palac can be easily explored without a tour and is still home to a market and stores. I would recommend staying at Villa Lavanda Deluxe in Razanj, about an hour outside of Split. With its own private beach with crystal clear waters, this apartment hotel is a great place to relax. Stay away from the main square for dinner and try out the slightly hipster, and relatively expensive, Bokeria. The Chilean sea bass with cauliflower puree is absolutely delicious.
Day Eight “Southern Dalmatia: Trogir and Salona” The ruins of Salona, a town just outside of Split, are absolutely worth checking out. The archaeological park is extensive with the remains of a city, an amphitheater, and crypts. The hilltop provides expansive views of Split and the Dalmatian coast. From there, head to Trogir, which I did not visit on my trip, to see the cathedral, castle, and hang out on the beach. When you’re done exploring Trogir it’s time to make your way inland to Rastoke/Slunj. On the way there, you need to stop at Roca, a winery and restaurant, that serves some of the best prosciutto and cured meats in Croatia, and one of the best sausages I’ve ever eaten in my life. You will need to reserve your meal ahead of time so make sure to call before showing up. It’s a beautiful place to watch the sunset but you’ve got a three-hour drive ahead of you, so maybe try it for lunch.
Day Nine “Inland Croatia: Plitvice and Rastoke/Slunj” Stay the night in Rastoke, a small village of wooden homes built over numerous creeks and waterfalls. This place is adorable! Enjoy a morning coffee next to the river and walk through this quaint village to warm up your legs for the journey ahead. You will want to dedicate most of the day to exploring Plitvice Lakes National Park, the absolutely stunning waterfall and lake park that you have most definitely seen photos of. You can choose how long you want to stay in the park based on where you park and where you want to take a shuttle to. We did a five-mile walk through the park and by the end of it, I was reaching maximum waterfall intake. The beauty is overwhelming here and one day I would love to come back and go camping. If you’re going to skip anything on this itinerary, please do not skip Plitvice; it’s worth the trip to Croatia alone. You will want to end the day by driving to Zagreb and eating at one of its numerous restaurants.
Day Ten “Zagreb and Fly Out” I liked Zagreb a lot. It doesn’t have much to offer in the way of tourist attractions but with its Austro-Hungarian architecture, numerous boutique shops, and tree-lined walkways, it’s a lovely city to walk through. Walking through Maksimir park on the shady green paths was a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.
You could do this itinerary backward as well. What am I missing from this itinerary? What recommendations would you make?