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Affordable Croatia: Insider’s Guide

by WendyPerrin.com | June 20, 2024

The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Croatia: Jay Ternavan of JayWay Travel.

Trusted Travel Expert
Jay Ternavan

Jay makes travel to Croatia—and beyond to other parts of Europe—more affordable via a wide range of accommodations, including boutique hotels, B&Bs, and sea-view apartments. He knows where the trains and ferries are convenient and reliable, where it’s easy to drive yourself, and where you’ll save time and aggravation by hiring a private driver. For sporty families, he can arrange everything from biking to canyoning, and if you’re near the coast, he’ll be sure to include time on the water, be it by sailboat, kayak, or ferry. He’s also knowledgeable about wine, thanks to a previous career in the wine industry, and can tell you which boutique wineries, even those that don’t export widely to the U.S., are worth a visit. Jay is headquartered in New York but has staff based in much of Mediterranean, Central, and Eastern Europe.

Expect trips orchestrated by Jay to have a 7-night minimum and start at $750 per day for two travelers.

Where to Stay and Eat

Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
The Piazza Heritage Hotel in Split. First of all, you’re sleeping within the walls of a 4th-century Roman emperor’s palace, luxuriously renovated in the 1900s as a Viennese Art Nouveau palazzo. With just 16 rooms, this 4-star hotel delivers a 5-star experience, including 24/7 room service (a rarity in Croatia). Jay’s travelers consistently rate the breakfast here as the best of their trip, and thanks to his connections they get room upgrades when available.

The Piazza Heritage Hotel in Split, Croatia.

The Piazza Heritage Hotel sits at one end of Split’s main square. Photo: Piazza Heritage Hotel

Best-value splurge hotel
If ever there was an argument for blowing your budget on one special stay during a trip, it’s Villa Dubrovnik, which is close enough to the city to visit easily using the hotel’s free shuttle, but far enough away from the crowds that you feel like you’re living the life of the 1%. The entrance to this cliff-face hotel feels like that of a Bond villain’s lair, but once you descend in the elevator from the parking lot to reception, you enter another world of peace and calm. Everyhing but the Premium category of rooms has a balcony overlooking the sea, and the hotel’s sun terraces have a view of Dubrovnik’s old city (as do the Deluxe rooms). Jay’s travelers frequently receive room upgrades here. Note: Villa Dubrovnik is closed for renovations until September 2024.

Restaurants the local love
Pivnica Dubrava, Dubrovnik. Most visitors stick to dining in the Old Town, but if you want to eat with locals, you need to go elsewhere. This is a bar and grill Croatian-style, with traditional Balkan grilled meats like cevapi and pljeskavica on the Croatian-only menu.

Konoba Matejuska, Split. Not far from the walls of Old Town sits this 19th-century tavern, updated for the 21st century. Popular with locals and visitors alike, this is the best place to acquaint yourself with the bounty of the Adriatic Sea, especially if Split is your first stop on the coast.

Pimpinella, Split. Tucked in a small alley in the Firule neighborhood, don’t be put off by Pimpinella’s simple, old-fashioned interior. This informal, easy-going place with a traditional Dalmatian kitchen is visited mostly by locals and can offer you a proper feast. Jay recommends the seafood, and the black risotto with prawns and clams in particular.

Lanterna na Dolcu, Zagreb. if you’re visiting the Croatian capital, get to know the country’s heartier inland cuisine. Lanterna is Jay’s favorite place in Zagreb, right in the heart of the city at the Dolac market. Order the Zrinjevac steak, a beef fillet in a porcini mushroom sauce.

Black truffles displayed on wooden logs from truffle-hunting in Istria, Croatia.

In Istria, you can go hunting for tuffles like these. Photo: JayWay Travel

Dish to try
If you eat nothing else local in Croatia, you have to try peka. This is a dish featuring lamb and veal (or octopus) and potatoes cooked in a fireplace, with a metal dome placed on top and then covered in coals. Over the course of a few hours, the radiant heat cooks everything until it’s tender. Jay can arrange for you to enjoy peka at a local home in Dubrovnik.

Prime Picnic Spot
In Dubrovnik, Jay can arrange private picnics on Lokrum island, near the old town. A private boat will drop you off with a backpack full of goodies and a map of secluded picnic locations. (Jay has even set the scene for several marriage proposals here, sometimes with a photographer discreetly positioned to capture the moment.)

Outdoor picnic with snacks and wine in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

Take lunch to go and find a secluded spot on Lokrum Island, near Dubrovnik. Photo: JayWay Travel

What to See and Do

Don’t miss
The Istria region gets far fewer visitors than the Dalmatia region—which is curious, because this northwestern peninsula is studded with charming hill towns like Motovun and Groznjan, vineyards that produce excellent wines, and a gleaming gem in the atmospheric coastal town of Rovinj. Rovinj has everything from Michelin-starred restaurants to farm-to-table taverns, and it’s gorgeous from any angle—especially that of the Grand Park Hotel, which has views across the harbor to the old city from most of its rooms.

Skyline view of Groznjan, Croatia.

Make time for the top sights in Istria, including the hill town of Groznjan. Photo: JayWay Travel

Don’t bother
Rijeka is on the coast, but it’s a major port city with little to interest travelers. If you’re looking for a city by the sea, Rovinj, in Istria, and Zadar, in the northern reaches of Dalmatia, are much lovelier.

Most Underrated Place
Usually short-changed by people who assume they should make the longer trip to Hvar, Korčula is a beautiful island closer to Dubrovnik that rewards the traveler willing to give this quieter spot three or four days. Why? Count in its favor a “mini Dubrovnik” old town, glorious beaches on its coast and nearby islets, fascinating indigenous wines, and the ideal jumping-off point to visit the national park on Mljet. It can also be a bit better value than Hvar, where the party scene drives up prices.

Aerial view of Korcula, Croatia.

Korčula is a less-visited spot with a “mini Dubrovnik” old town. Photo: JayWay Travel

Most Overrated Place
The island of Pag is popular as a party destination, but there’s not much else to do there as the landscape is vast and barren. Pag is most famous for its eponymous cheese, but that’s available to taste everywhere.

Hidden Gem
Croatia’s history as part of Yugoslavia is often only told by way of describing the shelling of Dubrovnik, with little mention of what life was like then. The Red History Museum, near Dubrovnik’s cruise-ship port, is an effort by young Croatians to preserve that period in their country’s past.

A soviet style bedroom in the Red History Museum in Dubrovnik, Croatia.

The Red History Museum’s exhibits dive into Croatia’s socialist past. Photo: JayWay Travel

Cheap Thrills
In Split, the Cathedral of Saint Domnius belltower provides 360-degree views over the old town for less than €10.

Aerial view of Pakleni Islands, Croatia.

You can visit the Pakleni Islands by private boat—or an inexpensive water taxi. Photo: JayWay Travel

In Hvar, a private tour around the Pakleni archipelago is the spendy way to see these tranquil islands and visit empty bays. But you can also take an inexpensive taxi boat to one of the beaches. There’s usually a small tavern close to the beach, where you won’t have to splash out for lunch.

 

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Best Times to Go

June to mid-October, to experience the best of Croatia’s coast and islands. Summer is peak season, but the crowds of European tourists generally congregate near the sea, rather than at the historical and cultural attractions.

If you aren’t set on swimming in the enticingly crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic, May and late October are delightful—and offer the additional benefit of lower hotel rates.

Worst Time to Go

Zagreb’s Christmas markets aside, the country’s tourism industry goes into hibernation from November until April. During those months you’ll definitely experience Croatia without the crowds, but finding restaurants that are open is a challenge.

Biggest Rookie Mistakes

Trying to “do” Croatia in a week. True, the country is smaller than West Virginia, but geography makes it hard to cover a lot of ground quickly, and getting to and from islands by ferry takes time.

Sleeping in. Start exploring early, break for lunch and a dip in the sea or your hotel pool, then head back out around 4 p.m. and carry on into the evening. That way, even if you’re touring Dubrovnik on a day when there’s a big cruise ship in town, you won’t be too impacted.

Can't-Miss Photo Op

The best view of Dubrovnik is from the city walls in the early morning (do NOT walk them in the middle of the day in summer!) or the top of Mount Srď at sunset; take the cable car for increasingly stunning views as you ascend. The restaurant at the top of mountain is a little pricey, but the food is surprisingly good and the views as the sun sets are out of this world. Daredevils will want a shot of themselves on the Sky-Bike, a pedal bike attached to wires and suspended over the hillside.

Don’t Forget to Pack

Flip flops or water shoes: Most of Croatia’s beaches are composed of small stones or pebbles, which are uncomfortable in bare feet.

Bragging rights

Jay’s favorite moments are when travelers spend time one-on-one with locals. That can mean getting hands-on in a farmhouse kitchen outside Dubrovnik, chatting with the proprietor of a family-owned oyster farm—over the freshest oysters and mussels of your lives, of course—sitting down with a winemaker and sampling his creations in his simple tasting room, or being a guest in a Dubrovnik family’s backyard, enjoying a peka feast finished off with their homemade liqueur and desserts.

The Souvenir

Bring home a bottle or two of a wine you won’t be able to find back home. Jay can introduce you to small, family-owned wineries with no shop, just the owner or winemaker pouring glasses for you to try. Jay’s favorites are the red Dingac wine from the Peljesac peninsula, and the quirky white Grk varietal on Korčula.

How to spend a lazy Sunday

If you’re in Zagreb on a Sunday, go early to the antique market on Britanski Trg (because the best bargains are gone by 10 a.m.). Afterward reward yourself with breakfast at one of the many cafes lining the square.

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