Croatia Travels

The reason we decided to travel to Croatia was to run the Wings for Life race in Zadar on May 6, and we are so glad that we chose this location and decided to make a vacation out of it! We spent almost two weeks in the country and it went by in the blink of an eye. There is so much to see and do there – here are some highlights and things that we learned.

Things to note:

  • Money
    • You must have cash (kuna), as many places are cash only. Paying is easy because prices are generally rounded and tax is included (and tipping isn’t necessary).
    • Prices of food and drink are relatively cheap in Croatia. $1 USD = about 6 kuna. Generally, two coffees cost us 20 kuna, so about $3.33 USD. You could get a pastry or bread at the ‘pekarna’ for around 10 kuna or less. Even our most expensive, fanciest meal was less than 300 kuna.
  • Driving
    • Navigating was pretty simple and road signs were intuitive. Roads were generally in good conditions, but in small towns, very narrow. The highways were great.
    • There are tolls (cestarina) on all the major highways and the cost really adds up! They do take credit card.
    • When we were there in early May, there was a lot of construction and road work going on (before their busy season starts in June/July). Be prepared for this and to follow signs for detours.
    • Parking can be a disaster. If you are using a car, make sure the places you are staying have parking available.
    • Gas was pretty expensive – it’s worth it to have a car and spend the money on driving, but make sure to add it into your budget.
  • Language
    • The common greeting, meaning Good Day, is ‘dobar dan’ (pronounced doh-bra dahn). Thank you is ‘hvala’ – the H is silent. Those were pretty much the only Croatian words we used regularly. Bathroom is often labeled as ‘WC’; water is ‘voda’; and ‘kava’ is coffee.
    • Pretty much everyone speaks at least some English in Croatia, and many people speak it very well. Eventually, we just started saying ‘hello’ to servers so that they knew to speak in English to us. They didn’t seem bothered at all by this.
    • Most restaurants/cafes have English on their menus.
    • Language really wasn’t a barrier at all. The only time we had any issues is when we went to the ‘fast food’ stalls where the staff probably don’t get as many tourists.

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  • Food
    • Overall, the food is very meat and seafood heavy. And if there isn’t meat, there is probably cheese or cream. It would be hard to follow a vegan diet there.
    • On the Dalmatian coast where we spent most of our time, there is a lot of seafood. Zadar, in particular, is known for their tuna. If you order a sea bass, you might just get two whole fish with eyeballs staring back at you.
    • You can find French fries on any menu. Also, gnocchi is very common and we had some delicious versions of it. And pizza is everywhere. So are gelato stands.
    • We generally would have one big meal out (typically lunch) and then snacks at home or we’d pick something light up for dinner. In Split, particularly, there are fast food stands that we still didn’t get quite the hang of ordering from, but we had fun trying them. We would get ‘tortillas’ that were either round sandwiches or actual big tortillas stuffed with chicken (or your choice of meat) and then toppings that you could choose (cabbage, pickles, onions, tomatoes, hard boiled eggs, mayo, corn, and ayjar – a red pepper sauce that we saw a lot of it).
    • If you order a mixed salad in Croatia, it will probably have corn in it. And maybe beans and sauerkraut. I found this disgusting, but Dan really liked it. I’m not a fan of corn and it’s randomly included in a lot of dishes there.
    • In Istria, the northern peninsula, the food has a much more Italian influence. We had some amazing handmade pasta and pizza up there.
    • Similar to other countries in the region, Croatia loves their olive oil. In the global sphere, they aren’t as well known as Greece and Italy for it, but you’ll have plenty of opportunities to try it while you’re there. There are also many stands (especially in Istria) where people are selling olive oil, as well as cheese, truffles, and lavender.

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  • Culture
    • Croatia has only had independence from Yugoslavia since the 90s so they are still a relatively new country. We got the impression that the people are very proud there, and we can see why – it’s amazingly gorgeous land!
    • The Dalmatian coast feels much different than Istria – both are lovely and should be visited. Istria felt older and slower, with vineyards and olive trees everywhere, while the coast is all about that bright blue water.
    • The people are kind and generous. We felt safe and comfortable there. We were never worried that we were doing something “wrong” like we were when we visited France.
    • Café culture, especially in Split, is alive and well. At all times of the day, there are people sitting under awnings and umbrellas on sidewalks drinking espresso and/or beer. The cafes generally don’t serve food, just drinks, so keep that in mind.
    • I felt underdressed in shorts. No one was wearing hats, even in the bright sun. Hardly anyone on the streets was wearing leggings. Though we did see a lot of graphic tees with American phrasing.

Our Itinerary with Some Highlights

  • Zagreb
    • The capital city and home of the major airport; though, the airport is still very small. Dan flew in the day before me, picked up the rental car, and spent the night near the airport. When I got in to Zagreb, he picked me up and I was worried because we didn’t have cell service to contact each other, but it’s so small that we had no problems finding one another. Customs and baggage claim were a breeze there.
    • We also spent a night in Zagreb later in the trip when we needed to return our car and hop on the train. Granted, we didn’t really give the city much of a chance, but we wouldn’t be anxious to spend too much time there. There are so many exciting places to explore in Croatia, I wouldn’t waste my time inland.

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  • Zadar
    • A three-hour drive from Zagreb, this coastal town is a must-see, in my opinion. We may be biased, though, because this is where the Wings for Life race was and we felt so welcomed there! You don’t need more than a couple nights in the town though.
    • Stay: Hotel Bastion
    • Eat: Restoran Konoba Martinac. This quiet restaurant with a beautiful back terrace was where we ate the night after Wings for Life. There was one server and one cook: his brother. The table next to us asked for ice for their drink around the same time we asked for our bill. It seemed to be taking the server awhile to bring the ice and the guests were complaining, “Sir, the ice!”. When we were leaving the restaurant, we saw the server running down the street carrying a cup of ice back to the restaurant. He had to go get it from somewhere else. I don’t know why, but even a few weeks later, I’m still thinking about this scene. The food was delicious too.
    • Do: Visit the sea organ at sunset – this was a highlight of the whole trip for us. It’s just a set of pipes built into stairs along the water that plays music powered by the wind and waves. It sounds simple, but it was incredible.

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  • Split
    • We naively expected Split to be a small beach town, so were quite taken aback when we drove in and saw a big sprawling city! We learned it’s the second largest in Croatia behind Zagreb. Okay, then. To be honest, we were a little overwhelmed by this when we got there. But it ended up being a GREAT home base to explore the region.
    • Stay: in one of the many Airbnb apartments.
      • We stayed a bit outside of the town center, which meant we had to walk about a mile to get anywhere. This got a little old, but I also think being near the touristy area would have been just as annoying to us. If I was going to pick a location now, I would look for lodging on the north side of town closer to Marjan Park.
    • Eat: Djukin Dvor – we loved this restaurant! Check out some of the fast food stands too, for a sandwich, kebab, or tortilla.
    • Do: a lot! There are so many things to do from Split, especially if you have a car.
      • Drive south to the Makarska Riviera. There are many towns, but we chose to go to Brela, the northern-most (so, closest to Split) town which technically started the riviera region. Brela was amazing and the beaches there were impeccable. We spent hours just walking along the water and dipping in whenever we felt like it. Brela would be worth staying in for a few days too.
      • Take the Jadrolinija ferry to Hvar Island. From Split, there are many (inexpensive) options to get to Stari Grad, the closest port on the island to the mainland. Once there, rent a bike from Hvar Life and follow the bike routes. We went to the town of Stari Grad (lovely!) and Jelsa, riding through vineyards and olive tree groves and small towns.
      • Explore the beaches – there are many in Split. Most of them are rocky, not sandy, so make sure to bring water shoes/sandals that you can wear in. The lack of sand is what makes the water so clear and blue, so we didn’t mind it at all. Also, check out Bacvice beach – the biggest beach in the area and a great spot for people watching. This is the only sand beach we went to and was a party zone.
      • Go to Marjan Park – we loved this park and ended up walking here for over two hours. So beautiful.
      • Check out Diocletian’s Palace – this was packed with tourists, but really cool. There is a big market right outside with fresh produce and also clothes and trinkets, plus lavender and olive oil.
      • Note: we thought about driving to Dubrovnik (about 3 hours) and to Pitvice Lakes National Park (about 2 hours), but ultimately decided not to because we didn’t have the time/energy.

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  • Rovinj
    • This was a 5-hour (supposed – we had a detour and missed exit that made it longer) drive from Split and it takes you to a completely different region (Istria).
    • Stay: Everywhere you look in Rovinj, there is a sign on housing that says ‘apartman’ – it’s a really popular tourist destination and it seems like they run their home rentals like real businesses. I’d recommend an Airbnb. Ours was in a lovely and quiet residential area and was about it a 5-minute walk from the town center, 10 minutes from the water. Rovinj is a really nice small town, so I think it would be hard to go wrong with location.
    • Eat: At Pizzeria Robi – just kidding, sort of. This is where we met Dan’s Wings for Life Instagram pen pal. It’s his restaurant and he invited us for a meal. It was about a 40-minute drive from Rovinj, but the area was lovely, and the pizza was delicious! Istria is famous for truffles so make sure to try them on something. I had a truffle pizza that was amaaaazing (and didn’t have meat). Also, we stopped at Konoba Vela Vrata on our drive into Rovinj and it was my favorite dining experience of the trip. We had been driving through a storm and I directed Dan to this restaurant up a few switchbacks. The views were breathtaking and the food was amazing. We both had handmade pasta and I’m still thinking about my ravioli with steak, arugula, and parmesan.
    • Do:
      • Walk around the lovely old town. Watch the sun set from around the St. Euphemia Cathedral.
      • Take the water shuttle to St. Andrew’s Island (actually two islands connected with a causeway). We loved this little excursion. The shuttles leave every hour from a port right in the town center. You pay for your ticket at Hotel Istra when you want to return from the island. We walked around the islands and took a dip in our own private rocky alcove.
      • Go to Punta Corrente, aka the Golden Cape. This is a beautiful park that wraps along the coast – on one side you have fragrant green trees and the other side, the clear, blue water. We walked for awhile here.

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We absolutely loved our time in Croatia and think it is a must-see country with a little bit of something for everyone. If you go, we recommend May before it gets too busy – maybe you could even go run Wings for Life there next year! 😊

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