8 Places in Croatia Locals Love, From Under-the-radar Islands to Stunning Forests and Hilltop Towns
The coast of Croatia gets all the love — and though I was born and raised in the country, even I set my gaze on the Adriatic Sea whenever I visit. You can't deny the beauty of hotspots like Dubrovnik and Split, but these can also come with crowds, stressed-out service, and little sense of discovery — especially during the peak summer season.
Thankfully, Croatia has more than 1,200 islands you can escape to, as well as coastal towns that remain off the radar, plus a majestic interior that spans idyllic pastoral landscapes and mighty mountains where wildlife roams. There is a lot to love in Croatia beyond the go-to tourist destinations, including some of my favorites, below.
For the longest time, Croatia's capital was mostly skipped for the popular destinations down south. That started changing a few years ago, when visitors got wind of numerous delights this pocket-size metropolis has to offer, including its buzzing art scene and the colorful Christmas market that put the city on the wintertime map. This season, Advent festivities are on through Jan. 7, 2022, featuring heaps of alfresco merriment, music, and street food all around Zagreb's city center, including its ancient Upper Town. For the plushest place to stay, pick the grand Esplanade Zagreb Hotel, which blends Art Deco flair with up-to-the-minute comforts, and serves the iconic traditional štrukli (cottage cheese dumplings) at its Le Bistro restaurant.
The coast of Croatia may be the main magnet for both locals and visitors, but the pandemic has spiked an interest in the outdoors. Enter Gorski Kotar, Croatia's answer to Switzerland, a forested expanse of mountain wilderness that lies to the southwest of Zagreb, en route to the coast of Kvarner. This verdant region has become the "it" destination for city people looking for a pocket of pristine nature. Roamed by the endangered Eurasian lynx as well as wolves and bears in its Risnjak National Park, Gorski Kotar has seen a rise in recent openings of chic cabins and lodges you can rent out, like the spectacular Casa Nube and the adorable Gorska Bajka. Don't miss a meal of wild edibles and game meats at Vagabundina Koliba mountain hut (their nettle bread is a treat).
A string of sweet little seaside towns lines Istria, the heart-shaped peninsula in Croatia's northern Adriatic, but Rovinj hands down steals the show for its storybook beauty. It does get jam-packed June through September, which is when locals avoid it. For the most magical time, head to Rovinj out of season (ideally October or April–May) and book a stay at the ultra-sleek Grand Park Hotel Rovinj, one of Croatia's most luxurious. An architectural stunner, with a cascading structure that slopes down to the sea in a twine of fragrant garden terraces, the hotel showcases wow-worthy views of old town Rovinj, with its cobbled piazzas and steep lanes leading up to St Euphemia church, a baroque beauty with a copper statue-topped campanile. At the hotel's fabulous Albaro Wellness & Spa, try the Batana Bodywork ritual, inspired by the flat-bottomed fishing boats that echo Rovinj's seafaring heritage. A meal at the signature Cap Aureo restaurant is a sensory adventure, as is a walk around the protected forest park of Punta Corrente a stone's throw away. Make sure you pop into the hotel's secret art room.
While first-time visitors to Istria make a beeline for the coast, those in the know swear by the peninsula's green interior. As soon as you hit the curvy country roads through the woods, vineyards and olive groves, you'll see why. It's easy to swoon over its bucolic charm, Medieval towns strewn across the hilltops, and shady forests where prized truffles hide. Luxury villa rentals tucked away in the countryside of Istria are increasingly popular hideaways. Take Vinella Estate, the gorgeously renovated abandoned hamlet turned rustic-chic retreat, with wabi sabi–inspired interiors and an infinity pool that overlooks the postcard-pretty town of Motovun on the hill across. For a slow food meal of Istrian mainstays, book ahead at Toklarija, an age-old olive mill turned tavern on the hilltop of Sovinjsko Polje village.
Few visitors to Croatia pay heed to this coastal city in central Dalmatia; it gets overshadowed by Split an hour to the south and, of course, Dubrovnik. What they're missing is a downright seaside gem, one of a handful of cities in the world with two UNESCO World Heritage Sites: St. James Cathedral, a domed basilica built entirely of stone between 1431 and 1535, and the Venetian-era St Nicholas Fortress on an islet across from the old town. Šibenik also has a clutch of charming heritage hotels (the newest one of which, the boutique Armerun, just opened on the seafront steps from the cathedral in summer 2021) and Pelegrini, a destination restaurant graced with a Michelin star, where owner and chef Rudi Štefan conjures up some of Croatia's most innovative cuisine. Don't miss a visit to the forts of St Michael's and Barone, for alfresco concerts and dazzling panoramas.
Silba & Zlarin islands
Though the two islands belong to two different archipelagos — Silba is off the coast of Zadar, while Zlarin is near Šibenik — what they have in common is that they are both car-free, hotel-free, and frequented by those in the know. You'll note a distinct boho, offbeat vibe on these islands, where the creatives of Croatia hide away in summertime. You can find lovely private accommodation, but to score the best, book way ahead, as it gets snatched up fast. On Silba, don't miss a sunset dinner of freshly caught seafood at Konoba Alavija. Both islands are a stellar choice for families, as the little ones can run around barefoot and carefree. Zlarin is also known for its exquisite jewelry handmade out of red coral that's harvested from the surrounding seas. Plus, it's the first island in Croatia that back in 2019 eliminated single-use plastics; in summer 2021 it was joined by the nearby island of Krapanj in the new "Archipelago Without Plastic" campaign.
Stari Grad on Hvar island
Hvar island may be on everyone's list when it comes to visiting Croatia, but the spotlight mostly shines on Hvar town, known for its beach party scene. The more artsy, low-key Stari Grad on the island's northern side has been coming into its own as an alternative base on Hvar — and for all the right reasons. It has two World Heritage sites, the Stari Grad Plain with its striking farm landscape that has been cultivated since the ancient Greek times, and the old town that dates back to 384 BC. On top of that, the leafy Maslinica bay steps from the ferry dock is home to a chic new beach bolthole, Maslina Resort, with Asian-Mediterranean fusion flair and a spa featuring "garden to skin" treatments that showcase herbs from the resort's organic garden.
A trip to Pag is like a trip to the moon. The island is known for its barren, lunar landscapes, but mostly for the parties that take over the beaches of Zrće come summertime. But beyond the raucous revelry, there's so much more to the island, which is home to one of Croatia's loveliest family-run hotels, Boškinac, with an award-winning winery and a Michelin-starred restaurant — all in a beautifully renovated stone building surrounded by olive groves and vineyards, just inland from the coastal town of Novalja. Pag is also known for its sheep cheese, fragrant, hard, and strong. Gligora Dairy, which keeps racking up awards (its most recent in 2020 as "best in class" at the World Cheese Championship in Wisconsin), offers tastings of this local delicacy. While on Pag, check out its Pag Triangle, a mysterious land formation near Novalja rumored to be the site of an UFO landing, and the walkway through the ancient olive groves of Lun, with trees as old as 1,500 years.