Our Croatia Travel Guide
Whether it’s your first time travelling to Croatia or you’ve been there before, read our guide on the country’s history, etiquette, tipping culture, food, festivals and more.
At a glance
One of the world's newest nations and a kingdom over a thousand years old; an imperial outpost and a socialist state - Croatia has been on the fluctuating frontline of European power politics for centuries. With a history as chequered as the country's famous coat of arms, Croatia offers travellers a stunning array of towns rich with ancient European charm, over a thousand glittering islands, magical karst landscapes and wetlands on the Danube plain.
Most tourists will be attracted to the long and rocky Adriatic coastline, firstly for its natural beauty and climate, and secondly for the historic legacy of the powerful maritime republics which emerged on the trading route between the capitals of the Venetian and Ottoman Empires in the Middle Ages. Alongside its pleasant Mediterranean weather and rugged topography, the entire Dalmatian coast offers spectacular scenery, secluded beaches and turquoise waters, making it perfect for a classic sun-seeking holiday, while a number of towns are of notable cultural interest. The southern city of Dubrovnik is by far the best-known, boasting a picturesque old town of cobbled streets, limestone buildings, cinnabar rooftops and a serene harbour, all enclosed by towering ramparts. Further north, the island of Hvar is home to a similarly historic harbour town, as well as hillsides covered in pine and lavender. The region's largest city Split is also well worth a visit and can serve as a good base from which to explore the rest the region has to offer.
Further inland is Croatia's mountainous spine, the Dinaric Alps, a vast range of craggy peaks and limestone rock formations which provide a range of activities for energetic travellers: hiking, mountain biking, caving and more. Right on the Bosnian border, the mountains are at their most beautiful in Plitvice Lakes National Park, which contains canyons of cascading cobalt-coloured crystal-clear pools, separated by travertine terraces typical of limestone lake landscapes.
The capital, Zagreb, is often ignored in favour of the Adriatic cities, but is an attractive city that is both historical and modern. The city is something of a hub, serviced by highways and Croatia's largest airport, and within the city is also good, with bus, rail and tram options. There are a range of museums and cultural sights to see, while nearby Medvednica mountain offers great views of the city.
Culture & etiquette
Years of war and shared Balkan heritage has led modern day Croats to assert their now independent identity strongly. Characteristically sharing the strong stoicism of Eastern Europe and the relaxed vibes of the Mediterranean, Croatians are an incredibly likeable, passionate bunch, with a lot to say.
With a population that is both old school and modern, conservative and liberal, how to behave in Croatia can depend on where you are - there are nudist beaches and mosques, religious pilgrimage sites and all night beach parties. Generally the south is more conservative than the north and the islands, so in these regions it may be advisable for women to avoid topless sunbathing when on the beach and avoid wearing skimpy attire when away from it. The north is much more relaxed about this sort of thing.
Croatian politics is a hotchpotch of allegiances and grievances and has an incredibly complicated past. It's perhaps best avoiding discussing, unless someone else brings it up. Also avoid referring to Croatia as Yugoslavia or the Former Yugoslavia, as this tends not to go down well.
Croatians love cafes and coffee, and the quality is excellent. Most Croats prefer strong, black coffee, so ask for yours "sa mlijekom" if you'd like a dash of milk.
Though not internationally known for its vineyards, parts of Croatia possess a suitable terroir to produce drinkable wines as do their other Mediterranean cousins. There are many great Croatian wines to try, although discerning imbibers should look for the label kvalitetno, meaning good quality, or even better, vrhunsko.
If wine isn't to your taste, there are a few light lagers to choose from, or alternatively OÅ¾ujsko produce varieties better-suited to an educated North European palette. Croatia doesn't have the reputation of other Slavic nations for hard liquor, but does have a tradition of making liquers, sometimes based on brandy or made from cherries, or plums, walnuts or rose petals, often at home on a small scale. They can be delicious and are always accompanied by a toast of zivjeli - which means cheers of course.
February - Karneval, typical Catholic carnival celebrations preceding Lent, best in Rijeka.
February/ March - Zagrebdox, a global documentary festival in Zagreb.
April - Biennale, every two years, celebrates contemporary classical music in Zagreb.
May/June - Festival of the European Short Story, international literature event held in Zagreb and an Adriatic city.
May/June - Contemporary Dance Week, the main celebration of dance in Croatia, Zagreb.
June/July - Summer Nights, classical music in Rijeka
July - International Folklore Festival, celebration of ethnic and folk music, Zagreb
July - Garden Festival, Croatia's original dance music festival, on Murter Island, near Zadar
July - Dubrovnik Summer Festival, classical music around some of the best spaces in Dubrovnik.
July/ August - Movutun Film Festival, arthouse film festival and five day party, Motovun.
August/ September - Hideout & Dimension Festivals, held in an old fort at Pula, near Rijeka. Hideout is all about bass; Dimension offers a more chilled and underground vibe.
September - Festival of World Theatre, high class drama, Zagreb.
October - Zagreb Film Festival, including free late-night parties.
Food & drink
Croatia's cuisine reflects the diverse influences the region has experienced over the years - Illyrian, Greek, Roman, Slav, Venetian and Ottoman - while there is also a coastal/inland dichotomy. Coastal towns specialise in seafood, as you'd expect, with a huge range of fish dishes, from octopus to lobster to sole available. For the ultimate seafood experience however, head for Ston, on the Peljesac peninsula. The oyster farms in the Bay of Mali Ston are celebrated for producing the most succulent oysters and a trip on a boat to the farms is a must for fans, as it offers the chance to taste them at their freshest, directly from the sea.
Inevitably, there is a heavy Italian influence that sees grilled fish, shellfish cooked with garlic and white wine, and squid ink risotto, but there is also a fishy equivalent of the Greek spiced red wine stifado stew, while most fish dishes are accompanied by blitva, a local recipe fusing potatoes, chard and garlic.
Grilling and frying is Croatia's favourite way to cook meat, and influence from central Europe is very evident in a variety of fried pork and veal dishes. Cured ham and spiced sausages are also very popular, particularly as a snack alongside some hard local cheese. Stuffed pastries are also common in northern parts.
Croatian lamb cooking follows Greek and Eastern Mediterranean culinary conventions, and is commonly cooked on a spit-roast over an open fire. Rice and meat-stuffed peppers are just another example of an eastern-inspired delicacy.
A more local speciality is meat cooked under an iron bell, or peka. This traditional way of cooking lamb or veal for hours under a metal dome buried in glowing embers ensures a meltingly tender result. This is a historical way of cooking in the villages of the interior, but on the Dalmatian islands, this method is used to delicious effect with octopus or larger fish.
If all this seafood and the meat-focused dishes begin to pall, thin-crust, Italian style pizza is extremely popular nationwide, in addition to a large variety of bread which is served with every meal as the main staple. International cuisine is more widely available in cities and resorts.
Croatia is part of the Balkan region, which consists of the land to the north of Greece and immediately across the Adriatic from Italy. The country is known for its distinctive parabolic shape, which curves around Bosnia-Herzegovina to the immediate south. Croatia shares an eastern border with Serbia, and northern borders with Hungary and Slovenia, with its entire coastline on the Adriatic Sea. A narrow strip of Croatia's southern coastline is annexed from the rest of the country in order to allow Bosnia access to the sea; beyond this interruption, Croatia shares a small border with Montenegro to the south.
As the world's 127th largest country, Croatia is slightly smaller than the Republic of Ireland, but boasts a considerably longer coastline thanks to the many fragments of land that disintegrate into the Adriatic as islands, accounting for almost 70% of the 5,835km seaboard. Its highest point is 1,831m Mount Dinara, and the lowest is at sea level on the coast. The longest river in Croatia, the Sava, runs for 562km through Zagreb and on to form much of the border with Bosnia before meeting up with the Danube in Belgrade. The Danube itself flows through parts of Croatia near the Serbian border.
Croatia has a well-developed highway network linking its major cities, although travelling by road poses some problems due to the shape of the country. To reach Dubrovnik overland from, for example, Split, requires crossing briefly into Bosnia and back to Croatia. The most direct routes from the southern Adriatic coast to eastern cities such as Osijek also involve a lengthy crossing through Bosnia, where roads are generally not as fast. Some highways, bridges and tunnels charge motorists a toll.
The cheapest public transport is the train, although it is slow and coastal rail infrastructure is limited. Buses are still relatively inexpensive, and a number of companies offer regular intercity services. An all year round ferry service carries passengers and vehicles the length of the coast, from Rijeka to Dubrovnik, stopping at key islands and coastal destinations along the way.
Croatia and the wider region have been settled since prehistoric times, with a number of archaeological findings of Neanderthal remnants across the country. The most famous of these, near Krapina, gave rise to the classification homo krapiniensis.
Although useful in many ways, 'Recorded History' is heavily reliant on the trustworthiness of those who were doing the recording - and, in the case of early Balkan history, this was usually the Greeks or the Romans. It was in this period, from around 4,000 BC, that the region became known as Illyria (not the fictitious land of Shakespeare and Sartre!), although it is unclear whether this was a blanket term used to describe a variety of tribes or if it was a singular, homogenous people who all spoke the Indo-European Illyrian languages, since other tribes like the Liburni and Iapodes also settled in the region. What is likely, then, is that a pre-eminent group in the area were Illyrians, and that the Greek and Roman writers subsequently grouped every other local tribe under the 'Illyrian' umbrella by association.
A series of wars between Illyrians and the Romans between 229 and 9 BC saw an ultimate Roman victory and the establishment of the province of Illyricum and its expansion into what is now eastern Croatia, and beyond into western parts of Hungary and northern Serbia. The enlarged province of Illyricum was short-lived, however, as the whole region revolted against Roman rule after a mercenary mutiny in 6 AD. The Great Illyrian Revolt saw three years of bitter belligerence in Bosnia until the rebellion was finally crushed in 9 AD. Illyricum was then divided into two provinces - Pannonia, which included today's Zagreb and eastern Croatia, with coastal Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania and southern Serbia all incorporated under the new province of Dalmatia.
For the remaining four centuries of the Roman Empire's dominance, Dalmatia remained a prosperous and peaceful province, with thriving Romanised cities and even the a distinctive Dalmatian dialect derived from Latin which outlasted Roman rule. The parts of Croatia in Pannonia, meanwhile, underwent further divisions, firstly becoming part of Pannonia Superior, then the smaller Pannonia Savia which roughly corresponded to the modern shape of north-eastern Croatia.
In 476, the Western Roman Empire collapsed and the land came under the rule of the Ostrogoths. This signalled the beginning of Croatia as it is known today, because the power vacuum left by the Romans meant that the land was up for grabs once more. The Eastern Roman Empire - the Byzantines - swept into Dalmatia in the sixth century, but more important were the seventh century invasions by two tribes - the Avars from Eurasia, and a Slavic tribe from around the Polish-Ukrainian border: the Croats.
The arrival of the Croats saw Byzantine Dalmatia pushed back to the Adriatic coast and islands, as the tribesmen destroyed the remaining Roman towns inland. Over the course of the next few centuries, the Croats established themselves in the region and in the ninth century two dukedoms had been formed, leading to a confirmation of their Christian status with Papal recognition in 879. In 925, the Croatians crowned their first king, Tomislav, establishing the Kingdom of Croatia over most of the modern territory and that of Bosnia.
The zenith of the Croat kingdom came in the late 11th century, when the previously Byzantine-controlled coastal Dalmatia was incorporated into the territory. However, this success was quickly undermined by invasions from the Hungarians to the north, which eventually saw the two kingdoms unified under Hungarian King Coloman in 1102; Croatia would remain under foreign rule until 1918, although it maintained a degree of local sovereignty.
The 15th century saw the rise of the Venetian and Ottoman Empires, meaning that the land and the coastline in between the two were fiercely contested. In this period, the Venetians gained control of Dalmatia, except the city-state of Dubrovnik, which remained independent. After decisive victories in 1493 and 1526, the Ottomans gradually seized control of Croatian lands as a military frontier was formed between the Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, with the Croats granted autonomy in exchange for military service to the Hungarians. This situation remained until the 18th century, when the declining Ottomans lost their inland Croatian possessions to the Austrians, who also took the Adriatic coastal territories after the fall of the Venetian Republic.
A rise in nationalism in the 19th century prompted more turmoil in the region, but the ultimate result saw more autonomy granted to Croatia and a greater role for the Sabor, the Croatian Parliament.
The First World War defined much of the 20th Century history of Croatia. Woodrow Wilson's principles of 'National Self-Determination' meant that the defeated Austro-Hungarian Empire suffered many territorial losses, and upon the end of the year much of the Balkan region was incorporated into the new Kingdom of Yugoslavia, including Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Serbia and Montenegro. In spite of being inspired by a pan-Slavic unity, this quickly dissipated as the new kingdom became centralised on Belgrade, with an increasing Serb dominance in Yugoslavia's most powerful positions, police, and its top-down cultural outlook. Over the course of the 1920s and 30s, Serb-led Yugoslavia distanced itself from the Allied powers and associated with the fascist axis of Germany and Italy. By 1941, the Axis had occupied Yugoslavia and fascist Croatian authorities had assumed power, commencing a cleansing policy which saw Serbs, Roma and Jews sent to concentration camps.
In response to the fascists, a communist-inspired pan-Slavic movement began to resist for the duration of World War II, and upon the Allied victory in 1945, set up the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia, which managed to be pan-Slavic while maintaining autonomy for individual states such as Croatia. Until the 1980s, this proved to be a largely successful setup, with socialism bringing greater equality, industrialisation bringing greater prosperity, and a more relaxed and market-based attitude than other communist countries, allowing citizens more freedom. However, the success of Yugoslavia depended on the benevolence of its dictator, Tito, and after his death a variety of tensions re-emerged.
By the late 1980s, as ethnic tensions between Serbs and Albanians in Kosovo were reaching boiling point, Slobodan MiloševiÄ‡ began to increase his own political power and with it, the power of Serbians within the Federation, consequentially causing a rise in Croatian nationalism and soon, the first pluralistic elections were held in Croatia in 1990, a major step towards Croatian independence. Imminent independence led to tensions between Croats and the country's Serb minority, resulting in battles between Croatian police and Serb paramilitaries, and in the face of ongoing conflict, Croatia declared independence following a referendum in 1991.
Independence instigated a four year war between Croats and Serbs, the first in a decade of ethnic conflicts in the Balkans caused as Yugoslavia split up, and the brutal fighting and atrocities seen in the Croatian War of Independence set the tone for the multiple ethnically-driven humanitarian tragedies of the 1990s. Since the end of the war in 1995, Croatia's focus has largely been on recovery and greater integration within the wider European community, which has been achieved with their admission to the EU on 01 July 2013.
A 10% tip for good service in a restaurant or bar tab is normal. However taxis and other bar tips are not widely expected and should be at your discretion, often by rounding up the bill. Porters and maids in hotels should be tipped 15 Kuna.
Where to eat
The choice of restaurants varies and includes family-run inns known as konobas, cafés or kavanas, gostiana (serving a rustic and limited menu) pubs or pivica, as well as local restaurants known as restauracija, or restoran, which will offer the best selection of meals.
The settings are often delightful, with many restaurants serving fresh fish, lobsters, shellfish and squid on terraces overlooking the Adriatic that supplied this maritime menu.
Lunch is the biggest meal of the day, and is usually taken mid-afternoon. The late lunch means that brunches are also popular, so at this time you can often order a smaller portion of a main.