What to see and do, where to stay and the best spots in Dubrovnik, Split, some of the Dalmatian islands, Zadar and Plitvice National Park.
After months and months of researching and planning, our Croatia trip finally arrived. We left Charlotte on June 19 to London. I've never been in London before so I decided to stay a couple of days there just to get a feeling of the city. I loved the first impression!! Clean, nice, beautiful metropole full of different things to see and do (more about London on the other post: London in Black and White).
DAY 1: arrival in dubRovnik
From London, we flew British Airways to Dubrovnik. About 2 and 1/2 hour flight at a great price: 135 Pounds (about $178 USD). Flight was great besides the fact that the plane was directly hit by a lightning 15 min before we arrived. Talk about starting an adventure.
The airport is south of Dubrovnik (technically in Cilip), and I hadn't scheduled any transportation beforehand. There are lots of taxis in front of the terminal and also a bus option that will take you to the old city.
My hotel wasn't in the city center so we chose the taxi. It was about 300 Kunas one way (although Croatia is part of the European Union, they don't use Euros. Their currency is called Kuna). Our hotel was near Copacabana beach, on the west part of the Dubrovnik peninsula. Not a very "convenient" location but we were 10 in total and the prices near the city center weren't fitting our budget.
The hotel was actually apartments instead of room, which was great! We were 6 in one apartment with 3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, living room, kitchen and laundry room. Everyone was a lot more comfortable than we would be in a small hotel room. It was impeccably clean, and with a great view!
The other good news is that the Dubrovnik peninsula has a great public bus system that cost only 12 Kunas per person (about $1.90 USD). We just had to walk 5 minutes from our hotel to the bus stop and in 15 minutes we were at the final stop, right at the famous Pile Gate, the main entrance to Dubrovnik old city center. The bus runs every 10 minutes. Safe, easy, cheap and a great opportunity to blend in with Croatians! (ok, maybe not blend in but be side by side :)
We tried to make the most out of our bus stop - someone was probably telling a joke right when we were trying to take a photo
DAY 2: Walking tour of Dubrovnik
I scheduled a walking tour on our first full day there. I love doing walking tours on the first day because you get to know the city from a local guide, you see the basic things you can't miss, and the guide can always point out the best places to eat, visit and shop, avoiding tourist traps and going to where the authentic food is, for much less.
I used one of my suppliers for the walking tour and we got a very energetic guide (that also happens to be a history teacher at the local University) and he showed us around, being able to navigate the crowds (including a "secret passage" to enter the city). From the moment you are outside the walls looking to the Adriatic Sea, you already feel SO lucky to be in such a beautiful, special and full of history place.
1. The famous Pile gate | 2. Dubrovnik Fort | 3 and 4. Going to the "secret passage" to enter the city through a tunnel | 5. Entering the city
6. First glimpse when you enter the city. Definitely a "wow" moment | 7. Columns at the Franciscan monastery | 8. The oldest working pharmacy is here, at Franciscan monastery | 9. Wholes on the oldest church wall, showing signs from the bombing Dubrovnik suffered on the Yugoslavia War (when Croatia was fighting for its independence. Fairly recently, from 1992 until 1995) | 10. Dubrovnik bell tower from the main street | ]11,12,13: Cathedral | 14. Marina | 15. Special place recommended by our guide for a drink and cliff jumping!| 16. Inside of the church. This was a big surprise: this church has a very important reliquary. You need to pay 4 Euros to enter it but you will get to see a piece of the True Cross (wow!!) and part of the fabric that covered Jesus on the cross (wow again!). You will also see a Raphael painting and the arm and cranium of St. Blaise, covered in gold. It's very very impressive.
Farmer's market near the St. Blaise church. It's in a plaza, also a great place to have lunch.
Remember to carry Kunas with you as some places don't accept credit card. There are many ATM available around town.
Try the Cevapcici (or Cevapi): it reminds a long meatball (or a hamburger in the shape of a sausage). It usually comes with french fries and a red pepper cream, which is very different, has a beautiful color and is very tasty!
Other foods to try:
- Burek (which is a pastry dough filled with different things, from cheese and spinach to sweets like apple and fig jam).
- Fritoles (fried dough, reminds donut holes).
- Fig (figs everywhere).
- Seabass (sooo fresh!!!).
- Squid risotto (black risotto).
- Octopus salad (very popular).
In the evening, some of us went to the cable car to see the sunset, while others went on a Sunset Cruise (private) on a beautiful catamaran. We couldn't decide who had the best view so I do recommend both of these activities!
Ok, hang with me as this was only the first day in Dubrovnik!! Did I mention we were walking a lot? Europeans naturally have a healthy lifestyle. Food is local and fresh, and you don't use the car much (if you use it at all).
DAY 3: kayak tour
On the third day, we booked a Kayak tour to the Elaphiti Islands. In the morning we got a boat from Dubrovnik to Kolocep (included on the tour), where we got the kayaks and went all around the island with a magical stop at a blue cave. The water was freezing but it was SO beautiful. One of those places you feel the power and beauty of Nature and think how incredibly lucky you are and how blessed is your life.
1 and 2: Boat ride to Kolocep | 3. Kayak tour around Kolocep (8km kayaking around the whole island) | 4. Right outside the magical blue cave | 5. Eating the freshest sea bass char-grilled in Kolocep, when we stopped for a rest | 6. Boat ride back to Dubrovnik. Feeling the wind... life is good!
DAY 4: Car rental from dubrovnik to split, stopPING in mostar - bosnia
There are some options if you want to leave Dubrovnik and travel north, to the other famous Croatian city: Split. We originally thought about going by ferry (about 3 hours) but decided instead to rent a car for one day and take the opportunity to visit Mostar, in Bosnia. I hadn't many references about Mostar but have seen some pictures and thought it was interesting to at least go there and see a Bosnian city. We left Dubrovnik in the morning and arrived in Mostar for lunch (about two and a half hour drive). You do need to go through immigration to leave Croatia and enter Bosnia but the process was easy and quick. Just be sure to have your passports in hand.
The most interesting thing is that Mostar is so close to Croatia and yet it's so different! It has a heavy Islamic influence (we came to learn that the majority of Bosnia is Islamic) and that shows on the food, on the architecture and on the shops. It is also less expensive than Croatia. Their currency is the Bosnian Marka but most places will accept Euros and the larger restaurants in the old city accept credit cards. It ended up being a very unique experience to be in a different country, with a different culture, currency, and ways... it is definitely poorer and I wouldn't feel safe walking around at night. But during the day, in the tourist area, it was great and the famous bridge is indeed, very pretty!
I liked visiting Mostar BUT if we had a very limited time in Croatia (let's say, 5-7 days only), I would skip it. It's definitely a "side" visit as it is different from Croatia but small and not as pretty. If you have a lot of time - go for the culture and for the contrast. If not, don't suffer for not being able to visit it.
From there, another 2-hours took us to Split. Our "hotel" (more like a guest house) was a jewel in the middle of a very busy and lively city. It had so much character, it was run by the owners and one of the daughters met us at the parking lot, as the hotel was located in a pedestrian area. She provided us with a great customer service, gave us a map of the city, showed us the best spots for food, coffee and shopping. The rooms were extremely clean, cozy and quiet.
DAY 5: Walking tour in Split
The next morning, we again started with a walking tour. This time we hired a 3-hour tour with a picnic at the park (but since it was hot, they changed the plan to a sandwich at a cozy restaurant, which was great as well).
We started the day by the city mockup at the end of the "Riva" (the waterfront promenade). There, he showed us the city, how it grew over time and the most historic (and impressive) area: the Diocletian's Palace (an ancient palace built for the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the fourth century AD). After hearing great stories, we walked to the Palace's basement to see how the palace worked at that time. Today, most of the palace was transformed into regular apartments but the basement gives you an idea of how it was. Our tour also took us to the Roman Plaza, to the Bishop statue, to a world of tinny streets filled with picturesque cafes and shops. I truly enjoyed Split because of its lively feeling.
1. Mockup Split | 2. Entrance to the Diocletian's Palace basement | 3. Diocletian's Palace | 4. The Romans had created the "male" and "female" pipe connection and were using it a loooong time ago! | 5. The beautiful church | 6. Roman Plaza | 7. The "golden gate" of Split |
8. The Bishop's feet. Legend says he will grant you a wish if you touch his feet | 9. The farmer's market (the European fruits and veggies are beautiful!).
DAY 6: BIKE TOUR, IN HVAR.
From Split port, we got the Jadrolinija ferry to Hvar. Hvar is another of many Croatian islands, not far from Split. The ferry was 2-hours long (they have faster options but the times didn't work for us). When we arrived, we met our guide right outside. I found this company - Natural Hvar Tours - researching on the internet, changed many emails with the owner (not kidding, at least 60 emails) to figure out the best possible bike itinerary for our mixed group (that's how picky I am when planning a vacation haha).
Grgo (the owner and guide) had the bikes ready at the ferry terminal. And when we started to cycle, we had no idea of the special moments we had ahead of us.
The whole bike part was fairly flat and suitable to all levels although you need to be comfortable with the bike as you will bike in a gravel road. Our first stop was at the nearby village where Grgo explained a bit about the Croatian way of leaving in the island. This area is barely touched by tourists so it was a great experience to see their culture.
We continued to bike until we found their hut, built exclusively for their bike tours, and had some homemade flavored water (sooo delicious). Grgo and his wife Silvana talked about their family property, showed us their beautiful and very large garden and other plantations. They are very proud of their heritage and their family hard work to manage the property. And are very appreciative of the fact that they put in their plates what they plant. I loved learning some of their family stories.
Hvar also has beautiful beaches and we had some beach stops planned for the day but the weather was weird, very cloudy and windy. So we skipped that and went to another villa for a coffee/ice cream. One of the beauties of a private tour is to have this kind of flexibility.
We continued biking for a few miles to have a true, real and delicious lunch at their family restaurant. This was included in our tour and we received a plate of cold meats and cheeses, octopus salad, a tomato and sardines filled bread, pizza for the kids... everything so fresh and made with love. Grgo aunt was there to receive our group and to carry another great conversation. I love meeting locals!
Our bike tour ended just a mile down the road, at his uncle's house, where we went to test their family wine (produced in-house) and some fried dough. They renovated the grandparent's old home into a beautiful stone room. It was truly a very special moment to be there, talking, laughing, sharing those beautiful memories with the ones we love.
Grgo and Silvana then took us to the other side of the island, Hvar city, passing through a beautiful road that used to be surrounded by lavender fields and with a great view of the two sides of the island. From Hvar city, we got our boat back to Split.
DAY 7: BOAT TOUR, IN BRAC AND solta.
Did I mention this was a multi-sport vacation? :-)
On the 7th day, we went on a boat tour to the islands of Brac and Solta. We figured we would like some water/beach time at that point of the trip. After we realized we were in the wrong boat and went to the correct one, we left Split and soon reached Brac. We were all needing a relaxing day after all the very active tours we did, so our family pretty much took over the front of the boat (need to mention, very nice by the way).
When I booked the tour, I imagined we would be going around the island of Brac and we would go out for a stroll. Much to my surprise (travel agents really try to figure out what a tour is but sometimes it isn't so clear and we get some mixed information), we stop at a quiet place with no civilization around. The boat anchored there so we could enjoy the water. Which I would have LOVED to do if it wasn't freezing to death. Still, I managed to jump from the boat top floor just because I couldn't miss that fun opportunity and because I have very active boys (and if I don't do cool things I will soon be labeled as an uncool mom and that's not an option LOL).
The boat was just a great place to hang out. They had good music, unlimited drinks (including beer and wine) and they also offered snorkel equipment and stand up boards. Most of us chose to just stay in the boat unfreezing from the quick jump while my crazy son - who has clearly a totally different body temperature from his mom - enjoyed the Adriatic sea.
When we left that spot in Brac and were on our way to Solta, they served a delicious lunch. In Solta, they anchored at a small villa where we were able to go for a walk, to enjoy nearby beaches and relax.
DAY 8: leaving split, driving north.
We said goodbye to the other half of the group, who went back to London for another week, while we continued exploring Croatia. It was time to leave the coast and start driving north on our way to Plitvice Lakes National Park. We rented a big car to fit the 6 of us and our luggage. We drove through Krka National Park hoping to see the waterfalls there, but it was very crowded and none of us were in the mood to stay in line on a hot summer day. Since we knew we were going to the father of all parks in Croatia on the next day, we skipped Krka and went for a lunch at a cozy little villa. From there, we drove to our hotel in Zadar, which we figured out later, it is a super nice city, full of history, and great for strolling.
They have something called a "Sea Organ" build in form of steps, and they play different sounds depending on how the waves enter the step. It is so cool to see (and what a great idea!!). They also have the Sun Salutation, an area on the ground that absorbs sunlight during the day and shows colorful lights at night (which together with the sea organ creates a very special experience to the senses).
Our big car, the hotel feast breakfast (served at our apartment right when we woke up, I could get used to this life), the Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation)
DAY 9: supposed to be plitvice lakes but...
There are things travel agents can control and things they can't... the weather, for instance. This day, we drove from Zadar to the Plitvice Lakes area. We had another hotel there because I wanted to visit the park after 4pm when the tour buses leave and the park is a lot emptier. My schedule had us going at 4pm and stay until it closed at 8pm (always check their schedule as these times change). But a thunderstorm combined with the fact that my husband HAD to watch a soccer match (World Cup :) made us change the plans. We stayed at the hotel instead and planned to go to the park the next day really early. We knew it was going to be a loooong day since we had to drive all the way to Venice (Italy) but it was the only choice we had at that point.
DAY 10: plitvice lakes and the end of our croatian trip.
We packed everything and arrived at Plitvice Lakes at 7am, right when the park opens and it was still very quiet. You can visit all the main areas of the park by foot (walking the trails), by boat or by a "train/bus". It's all included in your ticket so be sure to plan what you want to do as boats and trains have different schedules and routes.
Our first route was crossing the lake by boat. From there, we took a trail to see some of the waterfalls. Mid-way, the trail had a long and large puddle from the rain and everyone was turning around and going back. But for a family who had done many Spartan Races, that was not a dead end, but a challenge to be conquered haha. Taking out the fact that my younger son felt on the puddle and got his bottom wet, we all succeed to pass to the other side and continued the trail. The reward?? One o the most beautiful and magical things I've ever seen, without a single person on sight. Ah, the beauty of taking that extra step, to go a bit further, to not let an obstacle stop your journey.
THERE IS NO WORD TO DESCRIBE IT. But I think INCREDIBLE is the closest.
These are all my photos, no filter. You can imagine how impressive it was!
At this more than magical place, we ended our journey in Croatia. From there, we drove to our next destination: Venice. Which will be covered in another post ;-)
Thank you for visiting and reading this blog and for allowing me to share such special moments. I can't wait to help you plan your next vacation - near or far - and hear about your special moments.
Have you ever been to Croatia? If not, are you putting this destination on your list of places to visit? Comment below :-)