Exploring the Dalmatian Coast of Croatia
The Dalmatian Coast
The Dalmatian Coast is in the south of Croatia, from the island of Rab in the north and moving south past Dubrovnik to the border of Montenegro. I spent over two weeks exploring this glorious destination, and it left a big impression. Many travelers dislike the question: What’s your favorite place? But people invariably will ask it. I usually give a top three, and Croatia is always in the top three. The Dalmatian Coast is why.
Dalmatia is a place where you can be anything you want to be. A jetsetting yachtie, a history buff, an intrepid explorer hiking national parks. I got to be all of these, and here’s a guide how you can too.
Split: The Gateway to Dalmatia
If you fly to southern Croatia, there’s a good chance you’ll land at the Split airport. Don’t rush on to your next destination! Split deserves your time and attention. It’s a beautiful town of whitewashed marble and deep blue seas, tiny ancient laneways and bustling ports. The heart of the town is the ancient palace of Diocletian, a Roman emperor who hails from Dalmatia. Enter through ancient gates and get lost in a bustling labyrinth of laneways choked with tourists. The spire of the Cathedral of St. Dominus stands as a silent sentry to the commotion below. Climb to the top, and the city sprawls out on all sides with the shimmering Adriatic offsetting the white stone and red roofs.
If you’re on a budget (like I was), don’t miss Back Pack Sack hostel. Suzy, the owner and proprietor, is a wonderful host, the location is great, and the other guests are awesome.
Croatian food is heavy on belly-busting meat dishes, but in Dalmatia seafood also has a starring role. It’s role as a travel hub means you can get all kinds of food at all kinds of prices in Split. Here are a few places worth checking out:
Fife: You will get a lot of food at a decent price here. I ordered Croatian classic cevapcici (pronounced chevap-chi-chi) and I was full well before I was halfway through the dish. Go out on a limb and try something you wouldn’t normally order — these guys know how to do Croatian food.
Link: Location on Google Maps
Konoba Marjan: This tiny, family-run restaurant will make you feel like you’ve stepped off the tourist track for a few hours. They do phenomenal seafood and have a truffle pasta that will make your heart sing with gladness. If you go in the summer you will definitely need to book — they only have eight tables!
Apetit: If you can find this spot tucked down a laneway just outside Diocletian’s Palace, you’re in luck. Once you step inside, the whitewashed brick and modern furnishings take you from ancient to modern in a breath. The food matches the decor — classics with a modern twist. Great for lunch.
Diocletian’s Palace: This is a no-brainer if you want to see the ancient history of Split. Walking down the same streets that ancient Roman’s tread is an experience unlike any other, and if you try hard enough, you might find an empty little laneway all to yourself.
St. Dominus Cathedral: There is a fee to see this site, but it’s such a central part of the history of the Old Town that I think it’s worthwhile. Catholic history dominates in the chapel, but if nothing else, make the climb to the top of the tower just to get that view.
Marjan Hill: This is a pleasant wooded area that is accessible on foot from central Split, and it’s worth the hike. There are rest areas where you can see the ancient center of town from a different vantage point, but do a full loop of the area to see the shipwrecks in the water. They may not have the history of the Old Town area, but they make a pretty photo at sunset.
Krka National Park: Natural Beauty at it’s Finest
Drive an hour north of Split to be thrust into a magical land of waterfalls, trees, and tiny little towns. Krka National Park is the stuff travel brochures are made of: Pristine aqua water cascades down rocks, winding rivers give rise to soaring mountains, and small hamlets are nestled in the valleys. My recommendation? Rent a car and go there on your own. You’ll be able to skip the massive crowds from the organized tours from Split and can go at your own pace. Here’s what to check out when you visit:
These are the iconic Krka Waterfalls. Everyone who visits the park will have a photo of this long row of waterfalls, where you can strip down and jump in for a swim. It’s a magical experience, and the cool water will be a welcome reprieve from the hot sun. It’s crowded, but once you’re in the water all of that slips away. You’ll park at the visitor center in Lozovac and can hike down to the falls, plus there are plenty of other great trails all throughout the area. A bus runs up and down the hill to the waterfalls and is free, if the hike back up the hill isn’t your gig. Try to get here early to avoid the crowds.
Once you’ve entered the park, you can pay for the river cruise, which will take you down the river and to the Visovac Monastery. Located on a small island in the middle of the river, it’s a quaint red-roofed building that looks like the perfect place to live… if living a life of monastic self-denial is what you want. One thing those monks didn’t miss out on? Stunning views from their living room.
As you head to the north end of the park, the crowds thin. If you head this way later in the day (like I did), you might get the area entirely to yourself. My travel companion and I decided to brave the intense hike to the top of the hill just on the other side of the aptly-named Necklace Cascades. And dang did the view make it worthwhile. If you have a decent level of fitness, I highly recommend it. If not, there is a flat loop around the the Cascades that’s a pretty (and easy) chance to connect with nature.
Dubrovnik: The Iron Pearl of the Dalmatian Coast
Dubrovnik will simply take your breath away. History will start vibrating through your bones from the moment you step onto the ancient marble streets. You’ll feel like an ancient centurion as you slip (literally) along the stones that have been worn smooth by thousands of feet over thousands of years.
Accommodation in Dubrovnik is expensive, especially if you want to stay within the walls of the Old City (and I think you should). There are a couple of hostels within the city walls if you’re on a budget. I opted to splash out and rented my own private little apartment on Airbnb and I adored it.
Restaurant 360: This is the ultimate Dubrovnik dining experience. Set within the ancient walls of the city, the food is presented like a Michelin-starred restaurant and the wine list is insane. It’s pricy, so if you’re on a budget stop in at least for a glass of wine. The view is worth it.
Konoba Dalmatino: Come here to get yummy traditional Dalmatian food with a gourmet twist. And the prices are reasonable! Win win. Don’t miss dessert at this one.
Walk the Walls: You can circle the walls of Old Town Dubrovnik on foot for a small entrance fee, and it’s a must-do. Pretend you are Khaleesi or Jon Snow as you pace the thick medieval stonework that towers above the red-tiled roofs. Peek down at gardens and into narrow laneways, and imagine enemy ships approaching the fortress-like city from the Adriatic. It’s make-believe unlike any other.
Lovrenjiac Fortress: Just outside of the Old Town gates is a pathway to Lovrenjiac Fortress, a sturdy square stone building that stands sentry over the walled city. If you’re a fan of HBOs Game of Thrones, this is the iconic structure that delineates King’s Landing. Entry is included with a ticket to walk the walls, so hang onto your stub!
Buza “Beach”: Find the hole in the Old Town walls on the western edge of the city and make your way through. A throng of bikini-clad tourists await on the other side, sunbathing on flat rocks and jumping into the warm sea. Just finding this place is an adventure, and the bar-cafe and people-watching might keep you there all day.
Hvar: Live Like a Millionaire
Hvar is world famous for it’s yacht-party lifestyle. In fact, Hvar is hub of Yacht Week, which is actually more like Yacht Month throughout July. Young people pour into the town and fill every bar, beach, and boat with a hard partying lifestyle. For a few days, I decided to join the fray. Here’s how you can too.
I wanted to save my money for drinks, so I opted for Villa Zorana Hostel. It was clean and the staff was very invested in ensuring a good time. One night I was thinking about just staying in, but the manager of the hostel insisted I jump on the back of his bike and join him and the other guests at the bars. It ended up being a great night (way better than me and my Kindle would have been).
Rather than talk about the restaurants, I’ll tell you a bit about the bars and clubs in town. After all, that’s the whole point of the Hvar lifestyle, right?
Kiva Bar: This hotspot is smack in the middle of a tight alley full of bars. Young people pack the pavement between the doorways, and bartenders pass drinks out of windows. A ridiculous drink with sparklers and long straws is the star of the show, and trying one is a must.
Carpe Diem: This is another can’t-miss hotspot in Hvar. A small boat will take you to an island in the middle of the harbor, and you’ll stay in the sprawling nightclub until the sun starts lighting the sky behind Hvar town. The DJs who play here are usually well-known, and the antics of the guests are hilarious.
Pokonji Dol Beach: The best way to fight your hangover? On the beach, of course! Hvar Town is home to a few nice beaches, but Pokoji Dol has fewer crowds. If you didn’t get a motorbike, this is the best place to pay your penance for last night’s drinks. I spent a day doing exactly that after a long night at Carpe Diem. Perfect!
Fortica: If you want to get up high above town, you can meander your way through the laneways at St. Stephen’s Square up through a lush park to the fortress. It overlooks the town and the sea beyond, and a visit at sunset is perfection.
Mljet: A Quiet Haven Among the Trees
With a giant national park dominating a third of the island, Mljet is the place you come to relax and reconnect with nature. I spent several days doing exactly that: hiking through forests, swimming in lakes, and simply relaxing. Mljet is steeped in history: legend says that both St. Paul and Odysseus shipwrecked on this island. I can see why they wouldn’t want to leave!
There are a few towns with accommodation options in Mljet, but I opted to stay near the National Park (since that was why I was going to the island in the first place). So I ended up in tiny, sleepy Polace. I checked into my apartment overlooking the bay and promptly fell in love with the place. Buses connect the town to the National Park and the other towns, but you won’t want to go anywhere.
I’ll be honest: I spent most of my time on Mljet cooking for myself (my rental apartment had a kitchen). There are restaurants all over the main towns on the island, but my lack of experience with any of them means that (gasp) this section is going to be pretty anemic! One thing I can say for sure? Buy big chunks of the paski sur cheese — it’s delish.
Mljet National Park: Jump on a bus to Malo Jezero (Little Lake) and Veliko Jezero, the hop on a ferry to the Monastery in the middle of Veliko Jezero. There’s an old monastery set on a tiny island that’s a charming place to spend a few hours swimming and soaking up the sun. Then make your way to Little Lake, but hike the trail around to the less populated side of the lake if you want to swim without the crowds.
Have you visited southern Croatia? What would you add to this guide that can’t be missed? I can’t wait to make a return trip to explore more of the islands, so let me hear it in the comments!