For years, we’d been hearing about Croatia and the sparkling Dalmatian Coast. The Balkan country had always appealed to us, with the inviting Adriatic Sea, beautiful coastal towns, and cuisine with Mediterranean flair. This summer, while exploring the Balkans on a train journey with Eurail, we took the opportunity to visit Croatia.
To explore the islands along the Dalmatian Coast, we booked ourselves on a sailing trip from Dubrovnik to Split. With over 1,185 islands peppered all over Dalmatia, it’s clearly impossible to see them all — but this journey definitely gave us a taste of Croatian islands. Although the sailing experience itself wasn’t quite our cup of tea (more on that in this review post), we were charmed by the vibrant towns and striking seascapes along the way. Despite the overwhelming summer crowd, it was easy to see why these islands hold so much appeal.
To give you an idea of what I mean, here’s a look at the seven towns we visited and the highlights of each stop:
Our journey began in Dubrovnik, one of Croatia’s most visited destinations. From the relaxing and calm shores of Kotor, Montenegro, we were quite hesitant about going to Dubrovnik having read about how popular it is with tourists in summer. Thankfully, by the time we arrived, the cruise crowds were gone and Dubrovnik was surprisingly calmer than I’d imagined.
Nicknamed the “Pearl of the Adriatic”, the walled city of Dubrovnik is the star of the show. With its ornate palaces, narrow cobbled streets, Venetian-style architecture, and collection of museums and churches, the UNESCO World Heritage site was definitely an impressive place to wander around and get lost. Despite the shelling of Dubrovnik during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s, the Old Town has been immaculately restored to its full glory and was named by CNNGo as one of the 10 best medieval walled cities in the world.
Highlight: One of our favorite things to do in Dubrovnik was heading up to the top of Mount Srd by cable car for a stunning panorama of the Old Town and surrounding sea.
Aboard the Busabout sail boat, we headed off to our first port of call: Korčula. It was a pity that the initial plan to sail to the famous Mljet National Park was cancelled due to bad weather but that also gave us a bit more time at Korčula than we expected. As one of the biggest islands in central Dalmatia, this island is said to be the birthplace of world-renown explorer Marco Polo. Marco-inspired souvenirs are sold all over town but beyond the tacky gimmicks, the town is actually quite a quiet and charismatic place with an artful layout. The Old Town stands in the heart of the city, enclosed within ancient stone walls and perched on a hill surrounded by the sea. Although the town is small and can be seen in just one day, it’s definitely our favorite stop as it’s much quieter and more traditional in comparison.
Highlight: We watched the sun set at the cool rooftop cocktail bar Massimo – perched on the top of a medieval fort turret for jaw dropping views and an incredible vibe.
Dubbed the Saint Tropez of Croatia, Hvar is the where Hollywood A-star celebrities like Beyonce, Brad Pitt, and Steven Spielberg hang out. When we docked right in front of the row of glitzy clubs in the bustling Hvar town, we could instantly smell the whiff of glitz and glamor. Posh restaurants lined the town’s boulevard while million-dollar yachts parked in rows just steps away. By night, lounge bars converted into booming clubs right on the waterfront and loud music echoed against the stone walls of the city.
While we didn’t quite like the snobbish vibes of the town, we enjoyed walking along the coast and away from the crowd. On the eastern edge, we found quiet cafes, affordable restaurants and pockets of swimming spots where families gathered; while on the western side, we chanced upon a leafy park and spent the evening strolling past several pebbled beaches and high end hotels.
Highlight: We definitely recommend walking up to the hilltop Spanjola Fortress for a bird’s eye view of the whole city from above.
Hvar Stari Grad
The next day, we sailed over to the northern side of Hvar island for a quick wander around Stari Grad (meaning ‘Old Town’). As one of the first permanent settlements on the Adriatic Islands, Stari Grad is the oldest part of the island and well worth visiting if you’re seeking tranquility and authenticity just like us. In stark contrast to the loud and flashy Hvar city, Stari Grad is calm, relaxing and quaint. With the absence of big flashy yachts and the jet-setting crowd, there’s just a row of small boats, clusters of low-key cafes and markets on the waterfront. The small size of Stari Grad meant that we could slowly meander along the empty alleyways, poke our heads into old houses, talk to locals, and hang out at cute little open-roofed cafes. It’s the Croatia that we were looking for.
Highlight: The island is also known for its lavender fields and wineries, so we signed up for a wine-tasting evening out in the countryside of Hvar and thoroughly enjoyed the open-fire barbecue and local wine.
This second half of the journey found us sailing along the mainland of Croatia. Upon arriving in Makarska, the towering Mount Biokovo (that straddles the border of Croatia and Bosnia) came into view, looming behind the picturesque city. But once we had a chance to wander around town, Makarska turned out to be a disappointment. As a playground for locals and tourists, Makarska was rowdy and crowded — its long beaches were completed packed to the brim with holidaymakers and its streets were lined with souvenir shops and carnival-style stalls. It’s yet another party town, with plenty of clubs and bars littered all over the town. Although we enjoyed ourselves at Club Deep, a cave bar on the seafront, we still weren’t quite charmed by this town.
Highlight: To avoid the beaches, we recommend taking a walk around the small patch of hilltop forest just along the coast. We came across the St Philip’s Church and its bell tower as well as teenagers plunging off the craggy cliffs into the sea. This was definitely our favorite part of town.
Next we found ourselves in Omiš, a pirate town that’s also extremely popular with local tourists. Besides the imposing karst mountains that surround the town, it is surrounded by water channels as this is where the emerald green Cetina River meets the Adriatic Sea. As we strolled along the river and further into the gorge, we were pleasantly surprised to find the urban feel quickly replaced by nature. We had the chance to hike up to the main fortress of Omiš, where the Stari Grad (Old Town) used to be. To reach the 15th century fortress, we walked up a steep trail, scrambling along the rocky paths before finally arriving at the peak to see the sun set over the riviera. It was definitely worth the hike and the views were mind-blowing.
Highlight: The sunset hike up to the Stari Grad Fortress was for sure the best part of our visit. The walk takes around 45 minutes each way from and you can start from the eastern edge of town.
The sailing trip came to an end in the port town of Split, Dalmatia’s cultural hub and capital. The city’s crown jewel is the stunning Roman Palace of Diocletian, a ridiculously well-preserved labyrinth of churches, halls, amphitheaters and bell towers. It’s hard not to fall for its beauty and charm considering how many centuries of history this place has. We spent our entire time getting lost in the palace, soaking up the vibes at quiet street corners, and feasting on sumptuous seafood in candle-lit restaurants. It was also the perfect place to end our time in Croatia.
Highlight: Diocletian’s palace itself made our visit to Croatia worthwhile.
Disclaimer: Our sailing trip was made possible by Busabout but all opinions expressed above are our own.