The picturesque seaside country was your choice for this year’s most intriguing place to visit.
This year’s readers' choice winner for Travel + Leisure’s Destination of the Year is Croatia, which captured 28 percent of the vote in an online poll. In a close second, with 24 percent of the vote, is Portugal, which T+L editors chose as the top destination for 2016. In third place was Pittsburgh, which has undergone a cultural renaissance and earned the nickname Robot City, thanks to its tech-start-up scene.
A Mediterranean favorite, Croatia is a jewel in the crown of the Adriatic—the medieval cities of Split and Dubrovnik have long been ports of calls for large-ship cruises—but further inland you’ll discover one of the last unspoiled stretches in the region, where sheep roam the countryside to graze on wild sage, and locals sell homemade olive oil and cheeses.
The arguably biggest draw of Croatia in 2016? The success of HBO's Game of Thrones series. Tourism has boomed in recent years as fans of the show have sought out its stunning landscapes and well-preserved historical architecture. Walk the ramparts of the Lovrijenac Fortress (the Red Keep in King’s Landing) in Dubrovnik and you'll recall the tournament scene from King Joffrey’s name day celebration. Visit Diocletian's Palace in Split and you’ll find yourself in Daenarys’s throne room.
But Croatia is much more than just a beautiful film set; there’s far more to see than the two medieval cities.
Zagreb, the capital, is a bustling urban center along the Sava River with a rich history, 19th-century architecture, many preserved landmarks and museums, and a trendy new design district Martićeva. The stately five-star Esplanade Hotel opened in 1925 to serve passengers on the Orient Express, but other boutique options have opened in recent years, including the Hotel Antunović and Hotel Jarun. The restaurant Zinfandel’s, inside of the Esplanade, is contemporary Croatian dining at its finest.
Croatia has two national parks that feature stunning lakes, caves, and tiered turquoise waterfalls created by the heavy limestone and chalk deposits in the water. Stroll the wooden boardwalk at Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The smaller Krka National Park, two hours south by car, is just as magical.
In the north, Istria has become an agritourism destination famous for award-winning wineries. The Dalmatian Coast might just be the most stunning coastline in all of Europe, drawing tourists to its pastoral calm, stone villages, and the homegrown hospitality of its locals. There are hundreds of isolated beaches on dozens of islands in the Dalmatians, and you might find yourself completely alone. The Jadrolinija ferry line serves dozens of ports, making island-hopping with a car easy and very affordable. For a more romantic excursion, sailboat charters in Split can take you to Hvar, Brač, Korčula, Vis, or Mljet, which is home to a national park with stunning gorges and great hiking.
Related: Best Beaches in Croatia
In the harbor towns, local fishermen sell their daily catches of Mediterranean dorado and Dalmatian squid to seaside restaurants. Stay like a local at one of the many pensions, where you won’t need a reservation. Just find the local chamber of commerce in each city center and they’ll point you in the right direction.
The party scene on Hvar has long been a destination for jet-set Europeans and oligarch yacht owners who love its thumping nightclubs. During the day, rent a scooter and head to Stari Grad on the sleepy side of the island for lunch, passing olive groves and fragrant fields of lavender along the way. The Little Green Bay hotel opened earlier this year with private terraces overlooking the sea.
And finally, the island of Korčula, the birthplace of Marco Polo, is a huge draw for history buffs. The Hotel Korčula de la Ville has gorgeous views of the harbor. On the island of Vis, the harbor is lined with restaurants that are a perfect way to end a long day of sunbathing, biking, or shopping.
See why T+L chose Portugal as the Destination of the Year here.