Lonely Planet's top 10 Croatian highlights
The dazzling beauty of Dubrovnikâs old town. (Rachel Lewis/LPI)
Touted as the “new this” and the “new that” for years since its reemergence on the world tourism scene, it is now clear that Croatia is a unique destination that can hold its own and then some: this is a country with a glorious 1,778km-long coast and a staggering 1,185 islands.
The Adriatic coast is a knockout: its limpid sapphire waters draw visitors to remote islands, hidden coves and traditional fishing villages, all while touting the glitzy beach and yacht scene. Istria is captivating, thanks to its gastronomic delights and wines, and the bars, clubs and festivals of Zagreb, Zadar and Split remain little-explored gems. Eight national parks protect pristine forests, karst mountains, rivers, lakes and waterfalls in a landscape of primeval beauty. Punctuate all this with breathtaking Dubrovnik in the south - a country could not wish for a better finale.
Dubrovnik is the star of the show, dazzling all with its heart-stopping beauty. It is packed with five star hotels, high-class restaurants and countless tourists, but move away from the main streets and there is still much to discover.
2. Hvar Town
Hvar Town is home to posh yachties and a see-and-be-seen crowd. You will certainly find a luxurious place to lay your head here - when you are not out partying. But the sunniest place in the country (2,724 hours a year) also holds a few surprises. Lavender plants and aromatic herbs fill the inland fields, and Jelsa is an intimate port town within easy reach of swimming coves and sandy spots.
3. Adriatic Sea
It may be obvious, but it is hard not to over-emphasise the beauty of the Adriatic. It is smooth, silky and translucent, and the colour (in turn electric blue, jade green and steely) is unmatched. Fish will tickle your calves as you step in, and watch out for sea urchins.
4. Diocletian's Palace
One of the world's most impressive Roman ruins in existence, these UNESCO-protected remains still serve the very purpose they were built for: life is lived inside them. As the city of Split's heart, soul and most of its arteries, Diocletian's Palace is packed with shoppers, bar-hoppers, workers, kids and tourists. It is a real beauty.
You may not have heard as much about Zadar as other coastal towns, but you should have. A lively cafe scene and bustling market bring this little town to life. The marble-clad, traffic-free old town follows the old Roman street plan, complete with ruins which dazzle, as does its nightlife. Feel the might of the circular Church of St Donat in Dalmatia when you stand in its shadow.
6. Cruising the Dalmatian coast
Croatia's most scenic ferry ride is the nine hours spent cruising between Split and Dubrovnik. Sunbathe while you soak in the rugged shoreline views, and islands like Hvar and Korčula pass by at a leisurely pace. The boat trip takes about twice as long as the bus, but it sure is worth it.
7. Cafe culture, Zagreb
One of the nicest ways to experience špica, the Saturday morning and pre-lunch coffee drinking ritual, is on a terrace in Zagreb, a year-round outdoor city. Order your macchiato (strong espresso-like kava diluted with milk) and watch the world go by. On summer nights the scene resembles a vast outdoor party.
Possibly the most popular activity on the Adriatic, the privileged and much-envied owners of sailing boats or those renting them can exercise their biceps while gliding between the beautiful Croatian islands. The most popular place to dock is Hvar, but use your chance to discover some of the more difficult-to-reach islands such as Kornati or Elafiti.
9. Plitvice Lakes National Park
A verdant maze of paths, woods and meadows revolves around 16 sparkling lakes and crashing waterfalls at Plitvice. It is a World Heritage site and Croatia's most popular national park - also much loved by its resident bears and wolves and more than 120 species of birds.
10. Slow food
Check out Croatia's own version of slow food, which is all about promoting local, fresh and seasonal ingredients, and enjoying the ritual of eating. Not only that, but each course is paired with fitting wines. Go on, get proficient in the joy of eating.