On the eastern coast of the Adriatic sea, a renaissance in tourism to Croatia is underway. Though a very popular destination for Europeans for over 40 years, Croatia is only now coming into its own for Americans, when—finally—gleaming new cities have been rebuilt out of the wreckage of the civil war of the mid-1990s.
When cruise ships first returned to Split and Dubrovnik in the late 1990s, cruise passengers might have seen bombed-out buildings on their way to the beach. But the pace of infrastructure repair caught up with skyrocketing tourism, and since 2001, Croatia has come onto travelers’ radar in a big way. Now it is a major summer destination for hundreds of thousands of Americans.
Most people planning a trip will go to Split, Dubrovnik, or one of the beautiful islands in between. There are many ways to travel, of course, and our forums are full of suggestions: Is 8 days too short?, Itinerary & Lodging help, and Favorite Islands? are just a few recent examples. For our take on the essential places to see in Croatia, consider this itinerary (link to pdf) from Fodor’s Croatia & Slovenia.
Both Split and Dubrovnik have international airports, so this itinerary could be reversed if you want to fly into Dubrovnik. Both cities are popular in summer, so be warned: you won’t be sightseeing by yourself in August. In some respects, this itinerary can be best enjoyed without a car, as traffic and parking in high season are frazzling aspects of the southern Dalmatian coast. A little advance research about ferry schedules at the time of your travel (ferry and hydrofoil service is significantly reduced in the off-season) can make this a pleasant, mostly seafaring itinerary. Try to start your weeklong trip on a weekday (Monday to Monday, for example) instead of the weekend, so that your weekends are spent on a quiet island instead of in bustling Split or Dubrovnik.
Day 1: Split
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Arrive in Split and head to a hotel (which you booked months ago) or take one of the many private rooms available around town. Accommodations in Split can be surprisingly limited. Spend this first day getting your bearings and exploring the Mestrovic Gallery and the Archaeological Museum, two of the city’s best museums. Save the full day for Diocletianâ€™s Palace tomorrow.
Day 2: Diocletian’s Palace
Get up early and head into the Grad, the Old Town area that once encompassed Diocletian’s palace. You’ll need a whole day to explore the palace, but the area is best seen on foot. Sit in the open peristyle and admire the imperial quarters, the Cathedral of St. Domnius, and the Egyptian black sphinx. Walk through the Grad area noticing all the different styles and materials used in the construction and renovation of the palace. Head out of the eastern Iron Gate to find a good spot for lunch and then continue along the Riva toward Marjan for a relaxing afternoon by the sea.
Day 3: Island-Hopping
Take one of the ferries or catamarans from Split to Brac, Hvar, or Vis, and spend the night in an island paradise. This is the heart of Dalmatia, after all, and these islands are the stuff of glossy tourist brochures. Book your accommodations in advance, or try to book a private room through an agency in Split. In summer, ferries, hydrofoils, and catamarans operate regularly to the islands. Rent a bike or scooter once you’ve landed and tour the back roads where you can find uncrowded coves and beaches.
Days 4 & 5: Dubrovnik
Get back in the car, or, if traveling without one, take the bus or ferry to Dubrovnik. The arrival by ferry is more dramatic, because youâ€™ll see one of the prettiest fortified cities in the world as it was meant to be seen: from the sea. From this view, you can tell why Dubrovnik (formerly Ragusa) was once master of all of Dalmatia. Choose a hotel slightly outside the city walls, as the crowds flock there daily in high season. Have lunch in one of the many fish restaurants near the fish market and enjoy some Dalmatian wine. Save the sightseeing for the late afternoon, when the cruise-ship day-trippers have departed. Stroll along the placa in the early evening with the locals, stopping along the way for some Italian-style ice cream.
Day 6: Elafiti Islands
The great thing about the Elafiti islands is that they’re very close to Dubrovnik, so you can easily make a day trip out here if youâ€™re pressed for time. A trip out to one of the islands is ideal for a final wind-down before the week’s end. Most of the islands have no cars and are sparsely populated, so it’s just you and the sparkling Adriatic out there. Logun has the best overnight accommodations if you have an extra day, or for wilderness seekers a trip to farther-flung Mljet is rewarding in its forested beauty and serenity. All the islands have regular service in the summer, and hydrofoils and fast catamarans can get you there in half the time the ferry takes. In winter there is limited boat service from Dubrovnik.
Day 7: Back to Split
Day 7 will most likely be a travel day, no matter if you travel by car or ferry. Have one last seafood lunch in a restaurant with a view of the sea, buy a bottle of Dalmatian wine to take home, and vow to come back next year.