Croatia has been on my bucket list for many years, before it ever became fashionable as a tourist destination. I wanted to go to Croatia to explore it’s historical sites and take in its breathtaking natural beauty and National Parks when it was still relatively unknown as a holiday destination. But then, word got out about what this amazing country has to offer and it has become a trendy place to go, with hoards of tourists descending on the Dalmatian coast every year.
Game of Thrones used Croatia as a filming location, which no doubt added to its popularity. I am still one of the minority that has never seen Game of Thrones and I don’t think that will be changing in the foreseeable future. I feel like there are just too many seasons to catch up on now. Controversial, I know! Anyway, back to Croatia’s growing popularity… the country has also become a hot destination for music lovers, with well-known music festivals bringing the country into the spotlight for even more tourists yet again. Obviously all of this tourism is great for the country, making up around 20% of its GDP and bringing jobs and money to the economy, but it wasn’t so great for me as I watched the cost of a trip to Croatia rise more and more each year. But in 2018, I bit the bullet and booked my Croatian escape at long last.
Where did I stay?
I was torn between booking to stay in Split or Dubrovnik for my week in Croatia, but saw a great deal for Split on Travelzoo (my favourite travel app!) which swayed it for me. Located on the Dalmatian coast, Split is the second largest city in Croatia after the capital, Zagreb.
Croatia itself is a country shaped like the letter “C”, but the lower part is separated by Bosnia and Herzegovina. The upper and larger part contains Zagreb and Split, and the smaller, lower part is where you will find Dubrovnic.
Split turned out to be the perfect base for exploring Croatia. Close to the Bosnian border for day trips into yet another new country, yet ideally located to reach the northern part of the country without having to go through passport controls.
What to see and do near Split
Split walking tour
The city itself was fascinating and full of history, and a walking tour with a local guide was the perfect way to get our bearings and see the sights. Split is built in and around the ancient Diocletian’s Palace, which is the oldest “living museum” of its kind, meaning that even to this day, people continue to live and work within the walls of the ancient palace.
Over centuries, it has developed and evolved with the times, with generations adding to its structure and bringing together an eclectic mix of architectural styles. In fact, you can easily identify ancient Roman, Venetian, Ottoman, Renaissance, Baroque, Medieval, Gothic and even Egyptian influences, with some new and modern architecture thrown in too. The city is like taking a step back in time and walking through the ages. It is easy to imagine what it was like in Diocletian’s time when you stand in the main square, known as the Peristyle (Peristil), surrounded by grand marble columns and with the magnificent bell tower looming above. It amazes me that they managed to build such incredible structures thousands of years ago, without the help of heavy machinery that we are able to use today, yet you won’t see buildings like that being built anymore!
The Peristyle is the heart of the city and it was a hub of activity in ancient times as well as today. The square is adorned by a 3,000 year old sphinx that Diocletian brought back from his crusades in Luxor, Egypt, and it stands guard of the cathedral, mausoleum and bell tower while tourists drink coffee at the city’s oldest coffee shop, aptly named Luxor! The Peristyle is a great spot for people watching, with marble steps surrounding it and offering the ideal place to stop and sit for a while to watch the world go by. You’re never short of entertainment here, from locals dressed up as ancient Roman guards who are posing for photos with tourists, to musical performances from the steps of the Luxor cafe. Not to mention the sound of the Dalmatian Chorals echoing from the circular Vestibule leading off the square, that was designed to have perfect acoustics. The Peristyle is worth a visit at both day and night time to fully experience it all!
The historical centre of Split is a labyrinth of narrow streets squeezed between ancient buildings. It is easy to find your way around, as all streets seem to lead back to the Peristyle. The incredible bell tower is also almost always visible from any part of the city, making it easy to find your way back to the central point, but a walking tour proved to be a great way of learning our way around with the added bonus of discovering the history of the city.
Beyond the walls of the Palace, Split is growing at a fast rate and we didn’t explore much of the new city as we were staying within the Palace and there was already so much to see. But if you do want to explore beyond the old city, there are four ancient gates still in existence – the Golden Gate to the North, the Silver Gate to the East, the Bronze Gate to the South and the Iron Gate to the West – that you can wander through. The gates themselves no longer exist, but there are still magnificent limestone and marble archways and carved pillars in place.
Diocletian’s Palace – Bell tower, cellars, mausoleum, cathedral
Exploring some parts of the palace are not included in the walking tour, but they are well worth a visit. For just six euros, we were able to access the bell tower, cathedral and Mausoleum. The best part of this was the view of Split from the top of the 57-meter-high Medieval bell tower. There were a lot of steps to climb, and the bells rang when we were stood next to them which nearly deafened us, but the views at the top are incredible. Overlooking the ancient Diocletian’s Palace from a bird’s-eye viewpoint, we could see across the rooftops and beyond the Palace walls, to the seafront and the mountains that surround the city.
From the top of the bell tower, we descended to the cellars below the city – a complex system of rooms in the basements of the Palace which are the perfect place to escape from the heat, proving to be quite cold at times.
If you exit through the South Bronze Gate, you will find yourself on the sunny seafront Riva Promenade. This Gate originally opened onto the sea, as Diocletian once had a wish to enter his palace by boat. However, these days, land has been reclaimed to form an esplanade with lots of cafes, bars and restaurants with views of the harbour. It is a lively part of the city with a vibrant nightlife and lots of harbour-front bars, cafes and restaurants. At the western end of the promenade, an old area of the city leads steeply uphill to the Marjan Forest Park, and the Eastern end leads you around the coast to the charming sandy beach of Bačvice Bay.
Marjan Forest Park
Once you walk west of the Palace of Diocletian, steps gradually start to lead you upwards through an old part of the city full of traditional restaurants offering local specialities – these are known as Konobas, and you should try at least one while you’re in Split to sample some Dalmatian or Croatian cuisine. As you continue to climb, you will eventually reach a view point with great view over the city, but you’re still far from the top at this point. It is quite a climb. I didn’t count the steps, but it was quite a slog on a hot day. The next point to stop at is a small medieval chapel at the base of the Marjan Forest Park, a nature reserve at the edge of the city. The trees provide a lovely shaded spot to sit and enjoy the peace and quiet. After a short rest, you can continue up the hill and through the trees until you reach the view point at the very top and the highest point in Split, marked with the Croatian flag. The views from here are incredible. You can see the Palace, the new parts of the city and beyond. We could see and hear the horn of a cruise ship that had stopped in Split for the day and was signalling its time to leave for the next destination. Marjan Forest Park surrounds the hill top at 178 metres above Split and it is a beautiful part of the region to explore. Going back down was much easier and quicker than going up, but I would definitely do it again, maybe at sunset, because the views were worth it!
Just around the corner of the coastline lies the sandy Bačvice Beach. It didn’t take us long to walk there from the promenade and it was a pleasant surprise to discover a small bay with a perfect sandy beach tucked away. We visited in October, when Croatia was having a bit of a heatwave for that time of year, and the sea temperature was still 21 degrees! I dipped my toes in and it felt pretty chilly to me, but it was so relaxing to walk along the shoreline as the sun was setting and casting a golden pink glow across the sea.
The ruins of the ancient city of Salona
To the north of the Palace and beyond the Golden Gate, was once the road to the ancient city of Salona at the foot of the hills surrounding Split. Now located in the area known as Solin, Salona was originally a settlement founded by the Romans, that was once the capital of the Dalmatia region in the 7th century. However, in its tumultuous history, Salona was mostly destroyed during attacks, leaving it to ruin as the inhabitants fled to the nearby Diocletian’s Palace for refuge, which led to the rise of the modern city of Split. Salona was reminiscent of Pompei in Italy, but not preserved quite as well due to its history of conflict.
Krka Waterfalls and National Park
Krka Waterfalls and National Park must be one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited. Around an hour from the city of Split, this national park draws in tourists who don’t want to make the trek to the more well known Plitvice Lakes which is much further from Split and in a different part of Croatia. I’m glad it’s less popular in Krka, because this is a lesser-known hidden gem!
Arriving in the small lakeside town of Skradin, we took a boat along the Krka river and into the national park. On arrival in the park, we had plenty of time to wander around and absorb the beauty of nature at it’s finest. The 7 cascading waterfalls and bubbling pools are crystal clear with a bluish-green hue and the surrounding trees are the greenest I’ve ever seen. The mirror-like surface of the lakes reflects the national park all around you and you can truly feel lost in nature here. It’s hard to believe it, but the pictures here are not photo-shopped! The landscape and scenery almost looked unreal and like a colourful dream even on a slightly overcast day.
We visited in October, a time of year when the seasons and colours are changing and it was magical. But a word of warning, it gets busy at Krka national park and you don’t want to get stuck behind a tour group of elderly visitors like we did. The wooden board walks that meander through the scenic lakes are not very wide and there is no space to over-take the slow coaches and pass by. We ended up walking annoyingly slowly, but on a positive note, it gave us plenty of time to appreciate our surroundings and take lots of photos… we just didn’t want to miss our coach back to Split!
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Just like the Krka waterfalls, Plitvice Lakes are incredibly beautiful! Possibly one of Croatia’s most famous and well known attractions, the lakes attract visitors from all over Croatia and we were able to take a coach trip to Plitvice from Split, taking around 3 and a half hours to get there. It was a lot of travelling in one day, but well worth the effort.
Plitvice Lakes is a national park, an area of outstanding natural beauty and a UNESCO World Heritage site full of magical forests, flowing waterfalls, limestone canyons and 16 terraced azure lakes. Our tour of the park included a knowledgeable guide who explained the unique formation of the karst waterfalls and why fallen trees are left where they land as a conservation practice. We also took a short cruise and walked around 5km of the park to explore the breathtaking views of different waterfalls flowing into various crystal clear lakes. They looked shallow until you notice there are whole trees submerged beneath the deceiving, clear water. It may be popular and the board walks here get crowded too, but there is a reason for this. It is an exceptionally beautiful part of the world that is a must-see when you’re in Croatia!
Mostar – Bosnia and Herzegovina
The beautiful country of Bosnia and Herzegovina borders the south east of Croatia and we felt it would be rude not to take advantage of this and take a trip into another new country when we were so close already. A bit like Plitvice Lakes, the bus trip took around 3 and a half hours with a stop at border controls along the way. The border control team are not know for their friendly manners and people skills, but the tour guide on our bus was hilarious and made light of what could have been a tense situation! Once we had passed the border, we cruised through the stunning countryside of Bosnia and Herzegovina towards the UNESCO-protected city of Mostar. The country is still under-developed and shows signs of poverty following recent years of war and Balkan conflict, but the scenery is undeniably beautiful and I feel that this country will only be on the up from here and one to look out for in years to come!
To break up our journey, we stopped in the historical walled town of Počitelj, which is overlooked by the ruins of an ancient castle. The architecture is so unique here – a mixture of Ottoman and European styles interwoven perfectly together. This steep and picturesque village clings to the hillside with stone houses and an impressive mosque built into the karst. You can climb through the streets and up the crumbling steps all the way to the castle ruins above, passing wild pomegranate bushes along the way. The panoramic views of the river and valley below the octagonal castle turrets are spectacular and one that I won’t forget in a hurry! Just as we were descending back down through the steep streets of this lovely village to climb back aboard our bus and continue our journey, it seems that the town was springing to life. The locals were emerging and setting up stalls along the side of the streets selling fresh fruit and hand-made souvenirs to tourists as they continued to arrive at this hidden gem of a tourist attraction.
The main part of our tour was, of course, a visit to Mostar – a city ravaged by recent war and conflict. It is like nowhere I have ever been before. The newer parts of the city show clear signs of recent fighting, with innumerable abandoned buildings and a shocking number of bullet holes still clearly visible spattered across the walls of the crumbling buildings. However, at the heart of the town, the ancient city of Mostar has been restored to provide an unbelievable contrast to the war-torn remains of the new city. With ancient techniques used to restore the historic UNESCO-protected centre, it truly feels like taking a step back in time as you walk onto the cobbled streets of the old town of Mostar, surrounded by wonky and leaning buildings with wooden frames and the scent of wood smoke on the air. The city has clearly been restored as a tourist attraction, designed to bring in visitors and a desperately needed income to boost the economy of this torn country, however I would highly recommend a visit.
The breathtaking arch of the Stari Most bridge that linked the old Islamic and Christian sides of the city is symbolic of peaceful times in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Reconstructed in the original Ottoman style, this iconic bridge is now famous for the diving club that resides here. If you stay long enough, you may even spot one of the brave divers plunge from the apex of the bridge into the flowing waters below!
Either side of the bridge, you will find an abundance of souvenir shops and eateries where you can sample traditional food from the locality. We were recommended the local speciality – a type of kebab called “small sausage” – but it seems we accidentally ordered something else and ended up with a mouth-wateringly delicious beef stew instead.
After lunch, we visited the beautiful Koski Mehmed Paša Mosque, with intricate paintings inside and a tall, steep minaret with impressive bird’s-eye views of the old town. It is incredible to think that all of this history and beauty was destroyed recently during the Bosnian war, but it has been resurrected and rebuilt so that we can appreciate it today as the treasure that it was so many years ago.
After our visit to Mostar, we left the town and made our way back to Split, stopping at the Kravica waterfalls around 40 kilometers south of Mostar on the way. This secluded spot is a haven for peace and quiet out of season, with water cascading over the lush foliage and plunging into emerald green pools 25 metres below. However, I imagine that during the summer, it would be packed with holiday-makers searching for a sunny spot where the kids can swim all day, ideal for picnics, boat trips and hiking!
If you are visiting any part of Croatia, I would highly recommend considering a trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a destination I would never have considered before and one that I will never forget! It is also another country ticked off the bucket list!
So in conclusion, Croatia is a country that I have dreamed of visiting and exploring for years. With history, culture, activity, adventure and nature all rolled into one exquisite package, I’m very glad to say that I have finally been there, loved it and will be going back one day. Maybe next time I will investigate Dubrovnik instead!