Home to over 1,000 islands, centuries-old villages, a fresh, seasonal and local cuisine that rivals Italy’s (to say nothing of its olive oils), and pristine natural parks, there are a million reasons Croatia is worth traveling for. At the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, Croatia has quite rightly become one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean. Plenty of people make the trip just to scout out the otherworldly Game of Thrones locations, but here are 10 more reasons to plan a vacation to Croatia.
Mindful Luxury Inspired by Nature
The check-in desk at the new Maslina resort on the fashionable island of Hvar sets the tone: It’s a 12-ton slab of rough-hewn white stone that was quarried on a neighboring island. They set it up first and then built the 50-room hotel around it. Everything is natural, elemental, and soothing, most of all the sea views. The spa follows Croatia’s tradition of using herbs, many of which are grown on the resort grounds, for healing, and the restaurants also make fine use of local ingredients, especially the house-made olive oil, which is fitting for a place whose name means “olive tree.”
A Sailor’s Paradise
The Kornati National Park is a collection of 89 semi-arid islands, islets, and reefs. Because the water is quite deep, even right in front of the dramatic rock faces of some of the islands, skilled captains can navigate very close to the land, giving visitors an up-close look at the violent wonders of geology. Some of the islands have Roman ruins, and others have tiny, car-free fishing villages where time seems to have stood still for generations.
An Old, Old Town
Built for a Roman emperor at the turn of the 4th century, Diocletian’s Palace makes up more than half of the remarkably well-preserved old town in the city of Split. It’s one of the best-preserved monuments of Roman architecture that still exists in the world today. Along with the important, historical cathedrals and gates, it has places where history is still being made. It’s the city’s beating heart, where the narrow streets are full of bars, cafes, people, shops, and restaurants.
There’s a Museum of Broken Relationships
That’s the actual name of this place in the capital of Zagreb, a collection of the ephemera of heartbreak. The universal nature of painful breakups led the creators to curate this thoughtful museum, full of love letters that turned out to be lies, shoes, and clothing left behind by former lovers, and a mobile phone sent back to an ex-boyfriend so that he could never call the woman again. Visiting is bittersweet, but it ultimately reminds us that if you’ve ever experienced the anguish of a broken heart you aren’t alone.
And an Unusual Equestrian Tournament
About 30 minutes up into the hills is a place to visit in Croatia near Split, the town of Sinj continues its centuries-old tradition called the Sinjska Alka. Local men dressed in antique costumes (weighing as much as 40 pounds) ride horses at a full gallop with a long spear, with the aim of capturing a small amulet that’s hung on a rope in the middle of the track. The event is the first weekend of August, but if that timing doesn’t work, the town also has a very good museum documenting the whole thing.
Explore the Wine Region with Spectacular Sea Views
The Paljesac peninsula, about midway between Split and Dubrovnik, is one of Croatia’s premier wine regions, and it just happens to have some excellent views over the Mediterranean. At Rizman winery, the great-grandchildren of the original owner are producing wines organically and serving them (by appointment) on a terrace with local “snacks” like local prosciutto, briny oysters, minced mussels, octopus salad, and cuttlefish risotto. Another must-visit is Saints Hills, in an old stone house, which pairs its wines with tapas or all-out wine dinners.
Eat Seriously Good Food in a Grand Hotel
The Esplanade is a grande dame of a hotel in Zagreb that dates from 1925. Since 1999, chef Ana Grgic — a juror on Celebrity Master Chef, and named the Great Chef of Tomorrow in the inaugural edition of the Croatian edition of Gault & Millau — has been involved with the restaurant, the Michelin-listed Zinfandel. Her risotto is deservedly famous, and the terrace is a lovely spot for alfresco dining, particularly during the lavish Sunday brunch.
Island Escapes from Dubrovnik
Dubrovnik is impossibly lovely, but it can be a bit much, especially if you’re there for Game of Thrones sights. Take a break from the crowds with a day trip by boat to the nearby Elaphiti Islands. They’re full of gorgeous swimming caves, chic beach clubs, and chilled-out places for a simple seafood lunch.
A Dreamy Lunch Spot
On one of those islands, called Šipan, there’s a fabulous restaurant called BOWA, an acronym for Best of What’s Available. If you go in the right season, servers will harvest sea urchins from the nearby sea, then serve them fresh, with a spritz of lemon. They’ll then present a selection of fish, and while yours is on the grill, you can go for a swim — no one will care if you come back to your table, on a pavilion veiled with a floaty white curtain, with your hair wet or your skin salty.
Adriatic Luxury Hotels
It sounds like a description, but it’s in fact a brand name for the collection of the smartest hotels in Dubrovnik, just outside the craziness of the old, walled city. The group’s flagship, the Hotel Excelsior has expansive views over the Adriatic and underwent a major renovation several years ago. Alternatively, the seafront Villa Orsula has just 13-rooms and an improbable, but very good, Peruvian fine-dining restaurant.