Looking to travel to or within Europe but worried about the expense? Andy Card makes a strong case for adding Croatia – a small Central European country with a stunningly beautiful coastline – to your bucket list. It boasts delicious eats, natural wonders, and incredible views – and may be more affordable for travelers on a budget.
Tell us about your time in Croatia. What inspired you to travel there?
I had watched an episode from Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations where he visited Croatia, and I was quite surprised by the quality of food and wine he enjoyed. Bourdain had inspired me to travel to other locations in the past: Sardinia, Rajasthan, even different boroughs of Manhattan, and I’ve learned to trust his opinion. So at his recommendation, I decided to travel to Croatia.
My ‘home base’ of sorts was in Split. I rented an apartment located on the main promenade; it had a window that looked out into the city’s harbor and every night I was welcomed by a dramatic sunset. From Split, I traveled around the Dalmatian Coastline – the islands off the south of the country – and to Plitvice, which is located at the center.
And were Bourdain’s recommendations spot on?
Absolutely; I was just as enthralled with the country’s food as I was with the beautiful coastline. There were different varieties of fresh fish in every restaurant – my favorite became the langoustines; their meat was very tender and they were cooking simply, with just salt and lemon.
Have you done much traveling in Western and Central Europe? If yes, what differences have you noticed between the two regions? More specifically, what differentiates Croatia from other Central or Western European cities you’ve been to?
I’ve traveled extensively throughout Western Europe. I currently live in Brussels, and I’ve lived in the west of Germany (close to the border of France) and Italy in the past. I haven’t traveled as much through Central Europe, although I hope to in the upcoming months. From what I’ve seen and experienced, however, prices tend to drop the farther east you travel through Europe. There is a difference in culture as well. Using Croatia as an example, I found from my personal experience that a larger percentage of adults speak better English than the Germans or Austrians. Also, culture is more laissez-faire in Croatia, which I prefer. The Western and West-Central population can come off as unfriendly and rigid. My theory is that a population of people will always be more cheerful, friendly, and will have a positive disposition on life if they are close to the coast and good weather. Consequently, the food is better, too, and all of this may also influence behavior.
Because of the weather and the people and the food, Croatia is becoming a more popular destination among travelers. Do you foresee it reaching the same notoriety as France or Italy or Greece? Why or why not?
To be honest, I hope it doesn’t reach that level of notoriety. I don’t want Croatia to become diluted with tour groups and tourist districts that offer lousy food and cheap souvenirs with inflated prices. You can already see hints of that happening in places, but it’s not yet as intense as it is in the aforementioned countries. Truth is, I don’t think Croatia will reach those levels anytime soon, or ever. For one, the infrastructure isn’t able to handle the number of tourists that Paris or Rome see in a given year. The cities in Croatia are smaller. In addition, the influence of Francophiles is more ubiquitous throughout the world; you sense in Hollywood movies, with accessories and home decor in the United States, etc. Croatia is more under-the-radar, but only because people simply aren’t aware of her beauty.
How did you travel around in Croatia? Is there a ‘popular’ way to get around or through the country?
We used fairies to visit the various islands and often rented a car or scooter to travel around the island once we arrived there. Having your own mode of transportation gives you more freedom (then, say, relying on public transportation) and also allows you to go off on adventures, like searching for hidden beaches. I would opt for the scooter unless you have 5 or more people with you, or if the travel distance to your point of destination is longer than an hour.
Did you encounter any difficulties traveling through the country? Anything other travelers should be aware or cautious of?
Not at all. Croatia is very safe if you adhere to common sense. And the people I encountered were friendly.
Name and describe 3 must-see destinations. What makes them so desirable or unique?
Dubrovnik, Hvar, and Plitvice Lakes.
The Old City of Dubrovnik is very enchanting. In fact, Game of Thrones was being filmed there when I was visiting. You can walk along the city’s medieval great walls and be rewarded with startling views of the coastline and the Old City. You can also hike or take the cable car up Srđ Hill. If you’re a photographer, you definitely want to go up, especially at sunset. I can’t describe the illustriousness of Croatian sunsets, especially in Dubrovnik.
Hvar doesn’t share the same mystique as Dubrovnik, but it does have its own unique charm. There are nice pathways that wind around the city along the water and local restaurants offer fresh seafood near the harbor. There is a lookout point that you can hike up to that offers, once again, breathtaking views. For me, the landscape and scenery that Croatia offers is second to none.
Plitvice Lakes is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in central Croatia and it’s one of a kind. What makes this area famous is the lush vegetation and sixteen cascading lakes that create mesmerizing waterfalls. There is a picturesque footbridge that takes you along the water. And you can swim in the bottom lake. When I go back, I plan to take a helicopter ride for the full scope of the lakes.
Describe one scene or moment in Croatia that you will never forget. What makes that particular scene or moment so memorable?
Walking along the walls in Dubrovnik. It’s overwhelming because the walls are so well-preserved despite dating back to the 15th century. So here you are, walking along centuries of history amid the natural beauty of the sea and coastline. It’s surreal. I like to imagine what this city was like during its pinnacle of power. I’m so fortunate to have traveled here.
Do you have any other recommendations or advice for travelers who hope to add Croatia to their bucket lists?
Here is my advice (and take it for what it’s worth): skip all those other big-name Western European cities and just go island hopping around the Dalmatian coastline for ten days. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.
This piece was originally published on April 4, 2015.