While we aren’t quite locals of Croatia, we’re residents of Slovenia, Croatia’s bordering country to the west. If you don’t know where Slovenia is, or are confused with Slovakia, you should get to know this gorgeous little country that has remained under the radar for so long. We’re sandwiched between some of the most travelled countries — east of Italy, south of Austria, and northwest of Croatia, and a small shared border with Hungary. We won’t get too sidetracked, because Northern Croatia is the star of this show, but really — Slovenia has so many beautiful sights to explore, and may just be home to Europe’s most charming capital city, Ljubljana.
Slovenia maintains a short, 47km stretch of coastline on the Adriatic — and while the seaside towns of Piran, Portoroz, Izola and Koper are lovely, it can get a little too crowded on the beach in the summer months. When Friday rolls around and the tourists flock into Ljubljana, we escape the scorching concrete and run for the hills — or rather, the Croatian coast. We took our first trip to Istria in April and fell in love. Since then, we’ve returned a handful of times, returning to a few of our favourite spots and exploring new places too. With Croatia being hot on the radar for a lot of travellers these days, we figured we’d do the heavy lifting and let you in on our favourite sights and eats, so you don’t get stuck at some tourist trap you found on TripAdvisor.
First off, Northern Croatia is magical. While most go south to take in the biggest hotspot, Dubrovnik (thanks, GOT), the port city of Split, or the more known islands like Hvar and Brac, we’ve preferred to explore the northern coast where fewer tourists hang out. Keep reading to start planning out your dream vacation in Croatia (warning: FOMO may ensue).
THE ISTRIAN PENINSULA is the most western point in Croatia, shaped like a wedge and bordering Slovenia. Pula is the largest and most known city in the region, and is home to the Pula Arena, the only remaining Roman amphitheatre to have four side towers and with all three Roman architectural orders entirely intact. We consider ourselves very slow travellers, but can definitely say that one day in Pula is sufficient. Banjole, a small town 10km south of Pula, is our favourite place to stay in the area, allowing you to see the sights in the main city and then escape the crowds for a quiet glass of wine in the evening, and an exceptional sleep in complete darkness and silence. Here’s what we’d recommend:
Batelina - Let me just start out by saying DO NOT MISS THIS ONE. We’ve eaten at Batelina twice and it’s been one of the most remarkable food experiences we’ve had in Europe. The restaurant is run by a father/son duo, with the son preparing a range of seafood caught that day by his dad.
There are no menus in the restaurant, and wine is limited to local, house wines all at affordable prices, unlike the typical alcohol markups you see in most restaurants. Servers explain the daily options verbally and bring a platter of the daily catches to the table, allowing you to pick your fish. Start with the array of small plate options (we highly recommend you order the full selection that the server will select — you’ll have a chance to try everything, and trust us, you’ll want to. Move into a mix of shells prior to your main dish — queen scallops, clams, mussels and Noah’s Ark.
Exceptional value. Batelina has won Michelin's Bib Gourmand award and has been highly praised by Anthony Bourdain.
Open for dinner. Cash only, reservations required. Call a minimum of 7 days in advance to book. Dinner is approximately 50-60 euros per person for three courses and wine.
Konoba Boccaporta - Boccaporta is another one of the restaurants we visited on our first trip to Istria, and returned a second time. Located just 10 minutes from Pula’s centre, this tavern is immensely authentic is a favourite among many locals. Visitors to the area are also known to travel quite a ways to get here — it’s worth it. Order a meat from their ‘Peca’ menu. Veal ‘under the bake’ is their trademark specialty and is exceptionally delicious. Salty, savoury, melt in your mouth — expect to overeat and go home with your button undone.
Vina Benazic - A family-owned and operated winery located in Pula. Stop by for a tasting and charcuterie board on their sunny terrace. They offer a range of wines including Instrian native grapes — Malvazija and Teran. Their meats and cheeses are all locally sourced as well.
Rt. Kamenjak (Cape Kamenjak) - The southern most point in Istria, the Cape is stunning, and was our favourite part of our weekend getaways multiple times. We highly recommend driving into the park instead of walking/biking. It’s a very long, dusty road to get out to the point, and is much more enjoyable to navigate by car. There are a range of beaches and parking lots across the national park — don’t get distracted by the first ones you’ll pass inside the entrance. Keep driving out towards Uvala Debeljak, park your car, and follow the trails on foot out to the end of the Cape. There are two inlets at the south end of the point that have far fewer people around — on our second visit, we had the entire area to ourselves for hours, even in the midst of high season. The clear, turquoise waters are incredibly inviting and wonderfully warm. Entry fee for cars is 80 kunas, cash only.
Pula Arena - The amphitheatre is a remarkable piece of architecture that warrants a visit. In our experience, everything you'd want to see can be viewed from the outside, so we'd recommend skipping the lineup and entrance fees. Walk up and around the left side of the Area for great views inside, and then find a spot at the Caffe Bar LIPA situated up on the hill for a panoramic view. In the summer, there are a number of concerts and festivals played at the amphitheatre -- if you're visiting, keep your eyes peeled for event dates.
Brijuni National Park by Boat - There are a number of ferries that travel out to the national park where you can spend the day, but we recommend seeing the island from another angle. In the evenings, a handful of boats leave the Pula marina on sunset dolphin cruises. Initially very hesitant, I ended up loving this experience. Over three hours, the boat offers exceptional views of the Adriatic sunsets with high likelihood of dolphin sightings, which were amazing! If you aren’t chartering your own yacht while in Croatia, this is a great opportunity to get out on the sea.
Most boats offer three hour cruises that cost 30 euros per person and include dinner.
Rovinj - One of our favourite day trips from Banjole was to Rovinj, a stunning little fishing town 45 minutes north of Pula. Historically a Venetian settlement, the Old Town feels more Italian than Croatian. Narrow, winding cobblestone streets run through the historical centre of Rovinj, with skinny stairways that run perpendicular, directly down to the water. We don't have a lot of recommendations here as we simply parked, explored on foot for an afternoon, and then made our way back south. For us, the best part of this experience was not having a plan; wandering the streets and snapping photos of the endless charming architecture along the way. Stop at Bar Monte Carlo for a cappuccino or glass of Malvazija -- it has some of the best views of the Adriatic.
Seaside Apartment with Marina Views, Banjole - this apartment isn’t fancy, but we booked it for the views and outdoor space. We spent a lot of time on the terrace, with coffee in the mornings and wine in the evenings. Sunsets are gorgeous here and you can sleep soundly with the windows open. Ingrid and her husband live in the neighbouring apartment and were very sweet hosts. If you’re into furry friends, their pup is a total bonus.
Two-Bedroom Apartment with Terrace, Vinkuran - similar to the first apartment, this rental isn’t luxurious, but it has a few things we love in holiday rentals. First, the outdoor space is excellent — lots of room to dine outside with a lounge area for pre-dinner cocktails and a game of cards. It’s surrounded by mosquito netting which we appreciated in the evenings. The apartment is newly renovated, has two spacious bedrooms, an equipped kitchen and bikes available for use during your day. It’s located just outside the Pula city centre, ensuring fewer crowds but quick access to great restaurants. Andrea, the owners’ son, was an excellent host and had great recommendations for our stay.
ZADAR, located at the top of the Dalmatia Coast, is about four hours from Pula and is absolutely worth building in your trip. Only 1-2 hours from the best national parks in the country, it’s a great jumping off point for a range of day trips. A few of our recommendations:
Proto Food&More - Gorgeous decor with great outdoor seating and a nice vibe. We stayed for hours, making our way through flowing wine and a few courses. We recommend the charcuterie board and anything on the specialties portion of the menu — particularly the oxtail.
Degarra Winery - Translating to ‘garage wine’, this winery and tasting room is located in an old converted barn that was entirely renovated by the owners a couple years ago. We sat for hours, enjoying very generous pours of their full selection of wines. The charcuterie plate is amazing, and is all locally sourced. Pag cheese, famous in the area, is a perfect complement to the tasting. Maure offered us a full tour of the cellar, and tastings of some unreleased wines from the barrel. One of our favourite winery experiences to date. We recommend calling ahead to let them know you’re coming.
Sea Organ - This sight is the most talked about attraction in Zadar, and for good reason. This set of stairs leading into the water was built with 35 pipes under the concrete, playing beautiful music as the waves wash up. There is little more therapeutic than the sound of the sea playing gentle tunes during sunset.
Sunset - Zadar is famous for its fiery sunsets. Make your way to the water (preferably the Sea Organ) shortly before the sun starts to come down in order to get a good spot on the pier.
Pag - This is a half-day to full-day trip and requires a drive across the causeway, but the island is worth a visit. We drove across the entire length of the island to Lun, a teensy town at the northern tip. The island is famous for its Mars-like landscape, endless stone fences, and salty sheep’s cheese. If you’re into partying, Pag is also home to the Croatian Ibiza, Zrce Beach.
Bright, Two-Bedroom Apartment Near Zadar City Centre - This Airbnb has been the highlight of our accommodation in Croatia. It has three small terraces with tons of natural light, modern furnishings, a well-equipped kitchen and an exceptional host. As we mentioned earlier, it’s usually best to stay outside the walled Old Towns, and this is only a 20 minute walk from the centre. No dedicated parking but many spots available on the street outside the building.
Lastly, our $0.02 on logistics:
Rent a car - it’s near impossible to do Croatia properly without wheels. While you’ll need to park slightly outside the city centres (as most Old Town’s are restricted to pedestrian traffic only), most Airbnb’s have parking included and everywhere we’ve been had free street parking.
Stay outside the Old Town in Zadar - the immediate city centres are packed with tourists, and if you prefer to dodge the crowds, you can get much better accommodations if you stay in the surrounding areas. The city is small and there are lots of great options within a 15-20 minute walk of the centre.
Drive the coast - if you can, drive the coastal highway between Pula and Zadar. A single-lane highway curves alongside the Adriatic Sea, and for two-hours, you’ll have jaw-dropping views over the water. A quick note of caution: if you’re not the driver, this can be a bit nauseating — if you suffer from car sickness, the main highway route might be best.
Note: none of these places are by any means affiliates of ours — we’re simply recommending because we loved our experience and trust you will too.
Get planning - Croatia is calling! Have other questions about Croatia? Comment below or send us a DM, we’d love to hear from you.