The insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Croatia: Mariana Fisher of Exeter International.
While growing up in Prague, Mariana spent many summers on Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, which to this day is her favorite destination in Eastern Europe—in equal parts for its beautiful scenery and its fantastic food (she likens the Croatia of today to Italy 20 years ago). Mariana has spent nearly a decade designing trips to the region, working with small farmers, local artisans, and museum curators to create authentic experiences that are far from the tourist traps. She speaks Czech, English, French, Spanish, and Hebrew, and understands Croatian and Russian as well—so she can teach you how to pronounce Plitvice and Rovinj like a local. Mariana is also an expert in Eastern European Jewish history; she has master’s degrees in Hebrew and in Spanish Philology and Literature.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your-buck hotel
Given the limited number of four- and five-star hotels in Croatia, accommodations are rarely a good value; in high season, many charge more than what you’d pay in other European cities for an equivalent room. That said, the best value in Split is the Judita Palace, a charming, privately owned boutique hotel in the heart of the Old Town. Since there are only 11 rooms, you need to book one at least six months in advance.
Restaurants the locals love
Lambik, in the town of Milna on Hvar Island, is a konoba, or tavern, known for its bread—freshly baked in a stone oven—and the Buzara-style scampi or mussels, cooked in white wine with onions and fresh local herbs.
At the family-run konoba Astarea Brtonigla in Istria, the fresh seafood is cooked over an open fire. The owner can usually be found in the dining room, greeting guests and talking to regulars—many of whom are Italians who’ve driven across the border just for the delicious food.
Dish to try
While Croatia is a land of fabulous seafood, don’t miss the traditional peka, a hearty and slow-cooked dish of vegetables and meat with plenty of herbs, prepared in a metal dome-like pan over the fire. Lombik offers a delicious one.
What to See and Do
Most overrated place
For some reason, Korcula Island pops up on many American travelers’ wish lists these days. Europeans rent villas and enjoy a month-long vacation there. This is a place to relax and do absolutely nothing, not sightsee or check something off your bucket list. Korcula is just one of more than 1,000 Croatian islands, and while the fishing villages are quaint, they’re the same as you’ll see on other islands that are far more convenient to get to.
Hvar, the party town of the jet-setters, is magical in the off-season but can be disappointing in high season because of the crowds. See it on a day trip from Split: Explore the town of Hvar, but also stop in Jesla for a sip of wine, or in one of the villages in the hills, where locals will invite you in to sample their pomegranates or homemade olive oil.
Most underrated place
The smaller islands, such as Lopud and Lokrum, are welcome oases from the bustle of the cities. If you wish to overnight on an island, skip Hvar in favor of Vis, formerly closed to visitors and now a foodie paradise with unspoiled beaches and rustic accommodations.
Most Americans never think of visiting Istria, up in the north. I love Villa Meneghetti, a secluded and tiny family-run hotel with a fabulous restaurant, in the middle of olive groves and vineyards. Think Tuscany without the crowds or the high prices!
Rent kayaks to explore Dubrovnik and its surroundings from a different perspective. A half-day tour with a small group of kayakers and an experienced guide will cost about $35.
How to spend a lazy Sunday
Sit on the Riva promenade in Split, sipping espresso and people-watching. Or escape the cities and rent a private motorboat for a picnic on a secluded beach (on Lokrum or Lopud islands out of Dubrovnik, Vis Island out of Split).
In late April, May, September, and the first half of October, you have nice weather, the crowds aren’t there, and prices are a little lower than at the height of summer.
July and August, when Europeans descend on Croatia’s coastline with their kids and the country is flooded with thousands of day-trippers from cruise ships, making even the most charming coastal towns seem overcrowded and touristy. During these months, hotels usually have a four-night minimum or charge higher rates for shorter stays.
Board a private yacht from Dubrovnik to tour the Elafite Archipelago, a lovely scattering of quiet islands hiding in plain sight, just 30 minutes from the busy city. Your first stop will be the former residence of Vice Stjepovic-Skocibuha, a 16th-century maritime entrepreneur, now owned by a local family that has spent years returning it to its regal state. (The mansion is normally off-limits, but I can arrange for you to visit.) After that you’ll hop to another island for a private piano concert at St. Nicholas Church, one of many medieval stone churches—dating from Dubrovnik’s heyday as a leading city-state of the 15th and 16th centuries—that fell into disrepair during communist times. St. Nicholas is one of the best preserved. This will put you in the perfectly lazy mood to stroll through the town of Lopud; its stone pathways winding through olive groves and vineyards feel like a breath of fresh air after the bustle of Dubrovnik’s Old Town.
At the other end of the spectrum, I can arrange for an oyster farmer to take you to his family’s secluded private island on the Peljesac Peninsula for a lunch of fresh-from-the-sea oysters or mussels. You’ll help pull the catch out of the sea, learn about how they’re grown, taste them right on the boat, and then enjoy lunch accompanied by the family’s own homemade wine.
From the top of Srd Hill in Dubrovnik in the early morning or at sunset, to capture the postcard views of the Old Town’s red roofs, white walls, and the azure waters of the Adriatic. You can hike or take a cable car to the summit.
Five- and four-star hotels are excellent in Croatia—but not always worth the steep rates they charge during the highest of high season. Avoid July and August, and book well in advance.
Croatia produces delicious olive oil, but in small quantities. While in Croatia, drizzle this green gold on each and every one of your meals, and before you leave, buy several bottles. My favorite is Ipsa, from the Istrian peninsula.
Even if you pay by credit card, leave your tip in cash; otherwise, the staff never gets it. At restaurants, 10% will do.