9 Best Places to Visit in Croatia, According to Locals

Here's how to see the best of Croatia, 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 busy locales like these can also mean 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 in nature. There's a lot to see and do — and love — beyond the go-to tourist destinations as well. Here's my list of some of the best places to visit in Croatia.


People Walking On Street Amidst Buildings in Zagreb, Croatia

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For the longest time, Croatia's capital was mostly skipped in favor of more popular destinations down south. That started changing a few years ago, when visitors got wind of the numerous delights this pocket-size metropolis has to offer, including its buzzing art scene and the colorful Christmas market that helped put this city on the wintertime map. Advent festivities, typically held throughout December and into early January, feature alfresco merriment, live 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 the latest modern-day comforts, and serves iconic and traditional štrukli (cottage cheese dumplings) at its restaurant, Le Bistro.

Gorski Kotar

The Kupa originates in Croatia in the mountainous region of Gorski Kotar, northeast of Rijeka, in the area of Risnjak National Park, Croatia.

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While the country's coast may be one of the best places to visit in Croatia for local residents and visitors alike, general interest in the great outdoors has spiked in recent years. Enter Gorski Kotar, Croatia's answer to Switzerland, a forested expanse of mountain wilderness that lies southwest of Zagreb, en route to the coast of Kvarner.

This verdant region has become the "it" destination lately, especially for city dwellers looking for an easy-to-reach pocket of pristine nature. Wolves, bears, and the endangered Eurasian lynx can be spotted roaming through Risnjak National Park. Gorski Kotar also offers a number of chic cabins and lodges to rent, such as the spectacular Casa Nube and the adorable Gorska Bajka. Don't miss the chance to indulge in a meal of wild edibles and game meats at the Vagabundina Koliba (Vagabond's Cabin) mountain hut, where the nettle bread is a real treat.


Croatia, Istria, Rovinj, ship in foreground

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A string of sweet little seaside towns may line Istria, the heart-shaped peninsula in Croatia's northern Adriatic, but Rovinj steals the show for its storybook beauty. The area is so stunning it tends to get regularly jam-packed with visitors between June and September, so the locals will generally try to avoid it that time of year.

It's best to head to Rovinj outside of that busy season, ideally in October or from April to May. Book a stay at the ultra-sleek Grand Park Hotel Rovinj, one of Croatia's most luxurious properties. An architectural stunner with a cascading structure that slopes down to the sea in a twine of fragrant garden terraces, the hotel showcases impressive views of Rovinj's Old Town, 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 treatment, which involves using a stimulating combination of hemp balm, a traditional Rovinj boat's batana oar, and intense rowing motions to massage your sore spots. A meal at the property's Cap Aureo Signature Restaurant is a sensory adventure, as is a walk around the protected forest park of Punta Corrente (Golden Cape), located nearby. And don't leave without checking out the hotel's secret art room.

Inland Istria

Idyllic landscape of inland Istria in fog view, towns of Motovun and Vizinada, famous tourist destination of Croatia

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While first-time visitors to Istria, easily one of the best places to visit in Croatia, make a beeline for the coast, those in the know swear by the peninsula's green interior. And as soon as you hit those curvy country roads — winding their way through the woods, vineyards and olive groves — you'll see why. It's easy to swoon over the area's bucolic charm, home to medieval towns strewn across the hilltops, and shady forests where prized truffles hide.

Luxury villa rentals tucked away in the Istria countryside are increasingly becoming popular hideaways. Take Stanzia Vinella, a renovated and formerly abandoned hamlet turned rustic-chic retreat, with Wabi-Sabi–inspired interiors and an infinity pool that overlooks the postcard-perfect town of Motovun on the hill just across the way. For a meal of Istrian mainstays, book ahead at Toklarija, an age-old olive-mill-turned-tavern on the hilltop overlooking the village of Sovinjsko Polje.


Old town of Sibenik Croatia at night

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Few visitors to Croatia pay heed to the coastal city of Šibenik in central Dalmatia; it usually tends to get overshadowed by Split, located just an hour to the south, and, of course, Dubrovnik. What visitors are missing is a true 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, situated on an islet across from the old town.

Šibenik is also home to a number of charming heritage hotels, including boutique Armerun, which opened in summer 2021 along the seafront just steps from the cathedral, and Pelegrini, a seasonal 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 St. Michael's Fortress and Barone Fortress, each known for their alfresco concerts and dazzling panoramas.


Island of Zlarin and archipelago of Sibenik view, Dalmatia region of Croatia

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Close to Šibenik, the island of Zlarin is best known for its exquisite handmade red coral jewelry. It was also the first island in Croatia to eliminate single-use plastics back in 2019; in the summer of 2021, it was joined by the nearby island of Krapanj as part of a special "Archipelago Without Plastic" campaign.

Locals head here for its beautiful beaches, which may have pebbles in place of sand but offer clear, warm waters perfect for swimming, floating, and snorkeling. Other popular waterfront activities include sea kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding, while landlubbers can enjoy hiking, biking, and rock climbing. The island is car-free, giving you the perfect excuse to explore it by bike or on foot. Accommodations are few and far between, with just one hotel and a limited amount of apartments available for rent, so during more crowded times of the year (like summer), it might be worth staying nearby in Šibenik and visiting Zlarin as part of a day trip instead.


Blue lagoon paradise bay and on the island of Silba, Croatia

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Located just off the coast of Zadar, the island of Silba is a car-free, hotel-free paradise that tends to be frequented by those in the know. You'll note a distinct Boho, offbeat vibe, where the creatives of Croatia prefer to hide away in summertime. It’s also a stellar choice for families, as little ones can run around barefoot and carefree.

Be sure to book your accommodations way ahead of time, as rooms can fill up quickly here. And don't miss the chance to enjoy a sunset dinner of freshly caught seafood at Konoba Alavija. Spend your days sunbathing or playing volleyball, basketball, or tennis at the island's busiest beach, Sotorišce, known for its clear, shallow waters. Under the water, the archaeological ruins of an ancient sarcophagus, estimated to be more than 1,500 years old, can be seen just off the shore of Pocukmarak Bay.

Stari Grad

Aerial view of Stari Grad, a town at Hvar island, Croatia

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Hvar island may already be on everyone's list of the best places to visit in Croatia, but that spotlight mostly shines on Hvar town, which is known for its funky beach party scene. More artsy and low-key, Stari Grad, located along the island's northern side, has been coming into its own lately as an alternative Hvar base — and for all the right reasons.

For starters, Stari Grad has two World Heritage sites: The Stari Grad Plain, with its striking farm landscape that has been cultivated since ancient Greek times, and an old town that dates back to 384 B.C.E. On top of that, Maslinica Bay, just steps from the ferry dock, is home to the chic Maslina Resort, featuring Asian-Mediterranean fusion flair and design and a spa with "garden to skin" treatments that showcase herbs from the resort's organic garden.


Croatia, Adria, Dalmatia, View of pag island with rucica bay

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Taking a trip to Pag is comparable to taking a trip to the moon. The island is well known for its barren, lunar-like landscapes, as well as for the epic parties that take over the beaches of Zrće come summertime. But beyond the raucous revelry, the island is home to one of Croatia's loveliest family-run hotels, Boškinac, which sports an award-winning winery and a Michelin-starred restaurant within 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 fragrant, hard, and strong sheep's milk cheeses. Gligora Dairy, which keeps racking up awards internationally, offers tastings of this local delicacy. While on Pag, check out the Pag Triangle — a mysterious land formation near Novalja that's rumored to be the site of a UFO landing — and the walkway through the ancient olive groves of Lun, where most of the trees are as many as 1,500 years old.

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