Having shaken off its war-torn past, Croatia, the European Union’s newest member, is primed to make the most of its future. That means showing off its gorgeous Adriatic coastline to the ever-increasing number of tourists arriving at its shores. The southern city of Dubrovnik has long been a half-hidden European gem, but other coastal towns are following its example. Travelers can explore the walled medieval cities in the morning, search for isolated beaches for an afternoon swim, and at night sample seafood caught fresh that morning. Read on for details on the allure of our top 10 towns on Croatia’s Adriatic coast.
Wine lovers will adore the island of Korčula, filled with vineyards and said to produce the country’s best white wine. Walls enclose Korčula town, an ancient city filled with narrow, stepped streets. The town itself is overlooked by a number of defensive towers, previously designed to warn away invaders but now used for everything from housing museums to cocktail bars. The town, believed to be the birthplace of Venetian merchant and world traveler Marco Polo, loves to share its history with modern day explorers. Visitors should make a point of seeking out a Moreška performance, routinely given for tourists. This traditional sword dance pits two groups in a mock dance battle over a veiled woman, and its participants are required to be natives of Korčula.
For those after more than just a pretty beach (Rijeka proper has few) this is the town to visit. Home to Croatia’s largest port, Rijeka feels more like a Rotterdam or a Naples than a glossy tourist destination. But that grit churns out some polished diamonds. The city, a famous musical hub in its Yugoslav days, boasts a number of venues featuring live music, as well as playing host to other cultural events. The city center reflects Rijeka’s days under Habsburg rule, with its Baroque clock tower its main centerpiece. When done wandering the pedestrian streets of the Korzo, climb the 561 stairs to Trsat Castle. The fortress, dating from the 13th century, is now another great place in Rijeka to catch a concert or take in a performance. Even when there’s nothing going on, the views from the top of the hill make climbing all those stairs worth it.
Leave the Coliseum to the bustling crowds in Rome and head for Pula instead. This ancient town’s most famous landmark is a 1st century Roman amphitheater, one of the best preserved in the world. Other sites from Roman times include the Temple of Roma and the Arch of the Sergii, while the streets of the old city are still lined with Roman paving stones. Also known by its Italian name Pola, this bilingual city makes the most of its heritage, hosting summer events that recreate gladiator fights and offer visitors the opportunity to taste Roman food and beverages. Those seeking to get away from it all should head 10 kilometers south to Kamenjak National Park on the southernmost point of the Istria peninsula. Jump the cliffs, snorkel the coves or simply find a deserted beach and gaze out at the nearby islands.
Lacking, as it is, ancient ruins or Roman heritage, many visitors to Croatia don’t bother to stop in Šibenik. But as the oldest Croatian town on the Adriatic, missing out on Šibenik would be missing out on a part of the country’s history. The four fortresses still surrounding the town remind visitors of the natives’ continual resistance to outside rule, dating from the 11th century and the many rulers, including Venice, Hungary, Austria and Italy, that it has seen since. The most noteworthy sight in Šibenik is the St. James Cathedral, a renaissance era church made entirely out of stone and featuring external detailing composed of human faces, said to represent town inhabitants of the 15th century. Šibenik is located near Krka National Park, a similarly overlooked destination which features waterfalls and lakes similar to that of the more famous Plitvice Lakes further east.
Visiting some towns along the Adriatic coastline can feel more like stepping inside a museum, a room which time forgot. Not so with Zadar. This small city has enough year-round residents to make for some hustle and bustle during the day, while at night Zadar’s bars and restaurants fill up with a mix of tourists and locals eager to sample their delights. That’s not to say Zadar is just any old town, however. When heading out for a walk along the water, visitors might literally stumble upon ancient Roman ruins, like the Augustinian forum near the center of the old city. Newer installations give Zadar a new flavor as well – along the seafront is the Sun Salutation, whose colored glass plates not only create a light show but also collect enough energy to power the harbor’s lighting system, as well as the Sea Organ, which uses the waves to make music.
The historic city of Trogir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, an excellently preserved medieval town with few modern blemishes. Located just a short drive from Split (another city on our list) Trogir makes an excellent day trip, or visitors might choose to stay just outside of town on one of the many gorgeous beaches. Stroll along Trogir’s seafront and admire its little harbor stuffed with sailboats before ducking inside the city’s gates. Have a look at the Cathedral of St Lovro and its renaissance chapel, then seek out the fortress at the water’s edge. Both sites offer the chance to climb their towers and drink in the view. It’s all too easy to lose several hours within the town’s walls, wandering the narrow, winding streets and discovering charming cafes and interesting shops.
Rovinj is one of the few towns in the world where visitors can wake up in a five-star hotel, then head down to the harbor to watch fisherman haul in their catch. Known as Rovigno to the Italian speakers of this bilingual town, there exists plenty of reminders of its Venetian heritage. The Church of St. Euphemia in Rovinj’s center is topped by a bell tower modeled off the famous cathedral of St. Mark’s in Venice, and a climb to its top offers lovely views. While climbing the hill to St. Euphemia’s, take time to stop in the shops along Grisia, where local artists display their work. Those interested in feasting off the fish they watched pulled ashore in the morning should visit the open-air market, selling fresh seafood as well as olive oil, truffles and other culinary treasures.
The fabulous nightlife of Hvar is best when the summer crowds swell its population, but September may be the ideal time to visit the island and its eponymous town. The island’s beaches, like nearby Uvala Dubovica, won’t be crowded, but it will still be warm enough to sunbathe and swim. When it’s time to return to town, the central piazza will no longer be stuffed with tourists, making for great people watching as the residents use the early evening to stroll and catch up on one another’s lives. Take in the Renaissance-era harbor, then wander through the old town’s marble-paved roads and browse the quirky shops. Follow the path up the hill to the fort built high above the town, where the best views of the town and nearby islands can be found.
Long the crown jewel of Croatia, Dubrovnik misses out on the top spot because it’s just too well known. (Relatively) high prices and large crowds make this southern town a bit less idyllic than others on our list, but its treasures mean Dubrovnik can’t be ignored. The old city is simply breathtaking, paved in marble and surrounded by walls dating back to the city’s time as the Republic of Ragusa. Experience that history with a walk around the walls, or dive into the fantastical by seeking out the sites featured in HBO’s popular Game of Thrones series. Seek out Buža, a bar hidden amidst the walls, famous for its incredible views across the Adriatic. But those seeking beaches should bypass the rows of loungers near the center of the city and catch a ferry to the nearby islands instead, where the vibe is much more chill and the seascape spectacular.
A town that’s grown from the ruins of a Roman emperor’s palace, now that’s pretty hard to beat. Diocletian’s Palace, which dates from the 4th century A.D., is today a UNESCO World Heritage site, but still hosts homes, shops and restaurants within its walls, descendants of those built by the local population who took up residence here way back in the 7th century. Be sure to take a tour of the underground areas of the palace, and those unafraid of heights can climb the steep, winding stairs to the top of the Bell Tower of St. Domnius for incredible views over the harbor. Split has recently revamped its seafront as well, making it the perfect place for a drink after exploring the center of the city, or just for a stroll at sunset.