I’d long had dreams to visit Croatia, spending weeks hopping from island to island through the Adriatic Sea, seeing the varied landscapes and locations of this beautiful country. Of course, I’m also really cheap, so got a bit excited about the idea of planning a DIY trip, shrugging off the fancy yachts for the public ferries. We had expectations of a mediterranean island experience without the hefty price tag, and boy were we right.
I’ll also stick my heels firmly in and say that seeing a country by public transport is a much better way to travel. Yes, it’s hard work, but the rewards pay off big time. It’s worth noting that, aside from the ferries, which were incredibly cheap with tickets starting from around £5 per leg for adults, many islands in Croatia are poorly served, if at all, by public transport. You will need a hire car to travel around properly and explore, or risk forking out some pretty hefty taxi or tour fees.
For our trip we focused on the south of the country, which stretches itself across the shore of the Adriatic Sea, spending our time between the historic cities of Split and Dubrovnik, with a week of Island hopping between the two. It’s a region that, despite its location on the edge of Eastern Europe, feels definitely Mediterranean in its soul.
NB: This post talks about a trip I took to Croatia in May 2017. I fully appreciate that some parts of this country, particularly in the more touristy areas, might be changing pretty quickly, so it’s worth checking on whether restaurants, shops, bars etc still exist before fully committing.
Split was the starting point for our journey south through the Adriatic. It’s a relatively compact city, stretching back from the central harbour. About half the labyrinth of alleys and squares that make up the old city are actually part of Diocletian’s Palace, which dates all the way back to the 4th Century AD. It’s quite something; with the city merging into the palace and vice versa you really get the sense of how this city operated hundreds of years ago (though maybe substitute the tourists for Roman soldiers).
We happily spent half a day roaming the palace: highlights are the Imperial Audience Hall with it’s round window open to the sky, where we were lucky enough to catch some local buskers testing out the acoustics; the very creepy cellars, recognisable to Game of Thrones viewers as where Daenerys Targeryan keeps her Dragons; and the central Peristyle, which is the perfect place to grab a seat (not on one of the cushions as you’ll have to pay rent to one of the nearby cafes) and enjoy a picnic.
Out to the west of the city is Marjan Hill, a huge woodland park full of trails, the odd playground, and bordered by beaches. The top of the hill itself is a relatively easy hike from Split and is absolutely worth it for a spectacular view of the city and harbour.
Split is also just best enjoyed from a cafe terrace on the harbour front, sipping on an Aperol Spritz and watching the yachts come in and out. This is definitely a place that takes things slowly, so make the most of it.
In terms of food, Marta’s Veggie Fusion, a tiny little outlet right in the centre of the Old Town, is a wonderful little casual vegetarian eatery selling delicious burgers and salads and is absolutely worth a visit. Aside from Marta’s, there are, unfortunately, very few veg/an eateries in Split. However the mediterranean influence is thankfully pretty hefty here, so the city is bursting with Italian restaurants and pizzerias, and none that we visited had any issues in making us a pizza without cheese or preparing a simple pasta pomodoro or arrabbiata.
From Split we took a ferry to the island of Vis. Ferries, operated by Jadrolinija, leave from the main harbour, around 10 mins walk or so from the centre of town, and take around 2 hours to get to Vis Town.
Having left the relative bustle of Split, Vis Town was a minor culture shock, being entirely deserted when we arrived right in the middle of the post-lunch siesta. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed, thought we managed to happily spend an hour or so strolling the streets and enjoying the peace and quiet.
Komiza, at the western end of the island, has generally a lot more going for it, with a bustling harbour and plenty of cafes, shops, bars and restaurants. This is also the place to book day trips and tours to some of the island’s sites, including the famous Blue Cave.
Though the island is pretty small, it’s relatively difficult to get around; there’s a bus that connects the towns of Vis and Komiza but very little else in the way of public transport. If you want to hire a car to explore then you can pick one up in either Vis Town or Komiza, and there are plenty of taxi and boat taxi companies in either of these locations. If you’re not staying in Vis Town or Komiza and don’t plan on hiring a car, then make sure you search out contact details for a good taxi driver from a friendly local before heading on your way. Beware that there’s often a hefty tourist premium on taxis so make sure you check prices before you book anything.
As for us, we’d decided to shun civilisation for a few days and had booked into a cottage through AirBnB on the south of the island, in a small bay called Vela Travna, largely populated by family-owned holiday cottages. As we were visiting at the end of May, before the start of peak holiday season, we had the entire bay to ourselves, save for the occasional sailboat that decided to moor up and share the glorious sunsets with us.
We spent our days sunbathing, swimming, exploring the bay, making friends with the many local cats, and drinking the litres of ridiculously cheap Croatian wine we’d picked up in Vis Town. We felt like we’d discovered something for ourselves, something no one had ever experienced before. It was absolutely magical.
Fear not though, if you’re not one for constant lounging, there are plenty of things to do around Vis; the island is surrounded by stunningly beautiful coastlines. You can join a pre-arranged tour from Komiza, or, for a much more personal and up-close experience then try and charter a boat for a few hours to make the most of the sights.
The Blue Cave is the most famous, but it’s very congested and crowded, so head instead to the Green Cave or Monk Seal Cave; leave the boat at the entrance and swim your way in for an absolutely unique experience. The island is also famous for Stiniva Beach, accessible only by boat or a narrow and steep footpath. Like the Blue Cave, it’s very well visited, so make sure you turn up early.
Vis is a little off the main tourist route, so ferries to Hvar depart only once a week. In Komiza we saw adverts for private charters, but the cheapest option for us was to hire a private taxi boat, basically an large inflatable RIB boat with skipper that can seat up to 4 people comfortably.
These boats are not particularly stable, so if you get sea sick (or the water is a bit choppy) then you may want to consider a more hard-sided vessel, but for either option you should budget around £100 for a RIB/4 people and the journey will take around 40 mins.
We arrived in Hvar Town at around 8am, just as the town was starting to wake up. I was pretty glad straight away that we weren’t staying in the main town; this is a place that caters to the yacht crowd at any time of the year, and the harbour was absolutely rammed even in the off season with swanky looking boats, which at that time of the day were scattered with hungover not-so-bright-young-things hanging off sun decks.
The town is full of chichi little knick-knack shops, so if you’re into white linen boho dresses or jewellery made from shells then this is the place for you. There’s a very small health food shop called Green House and a good cheap market just outside the centre by the bus station, but beyond that we were quite happy to move on relatively quickly. We were staying in Stari Grad (which translates to “old town”), about half an hour drive or by bus away, and decided to hire a car, which we picked up from Suncity Rentals, located just past the bus station and an easy walk from the harbour.
On arriving in Stari Grad, it was pretty clear that we’d made the right choice for our next island accommodation. In contrast to the desertion of Vela Travna, Stari Grad is a traditional Croatian town, slowly resisting the encroachment of tourism. The u-shaped harbour is a beautiful place to stroll and there are plenty of shops, restaurants and bars that deserve a very good explore.
Porto Culinarium is a great spot right on the harbour for lunch or a light meal, with a decent number of vegan options. Kod Damira is a traditional Croatian restaurant that has an extensive menu, including pastas and vegetable tapas-style dishes. The terrace fills up most evenings and this seems to be the centre of things in Stari Grad, so order a large carafe of wine and enjoy!
We were incredibly lucky to be in town for the opening of Fig, which I’m really happy is still open. Run by a trio of Brits & Aussies, it’s a super cool laid back bar and restaurant with incredibly friendly and accommodating staff. We felt completely at home and only wish it had opened sooner so we could have spent more time here!
There are some great beaches scattered around Stari Grad, all of which are a short drive away. Our absolute favourite was Zukova beach, which we were lucky enough to have completely to ourselves for a day. It’s a bit of a hike down a steep and narrow dirt track, but the beach more than makes up for it; crystal clear waters (watch out for the sea anemones!) and flat rocks that are perfect for sunbathing.
Regular Kapetan Luka ferries depart from Hvar Town to Dubrovnik, via the beautiful islands of Korcula and Mljet (which are on my list to come back and visit!), with the total trip taking around 3 1/2 hours. Arriving in Dubrovnik was a pretty hard bump back down to earth after our week of serenity and calm; the ferry nudged its way into the harbour alongside gigantic mega cruise ships and immediately it was clear that we were in the world of mega tourism. Having barely survived the crush to get off the boat we lumbered to the bus station to catch the number 3 bus to our AirBnB.
A note on accommodation – staying in or near to the Old Town of Dubrovnik is expensive.
We found a beautiful, spacious and affordable AirBnB about 20 mins walk from the Old Town, but didn’t realise that in Dubrovnik the Old Town is basically at the bottom of lots of very steep hills. Getting anywhere from the Old Town therefore requires hiking up lots of steps. So getting there is fine, but coming home, especially in 30 degree heat, is a little more difficult. Thankfully there are good cheap bus routes, but the timetable does not run regularly throughout the day and some routes not at all at the weekend, so it’s worth familiarising yourself with the timings and route so you don’t end up waiting an hour for a bus at the end of an already long day (yeah we did that).
It’s pretty apparent that the vast majority of things that happen in Dubrovnik happen in the Old Town, and probably for good reason, because it’s an absolutely spectacular place. Completely contained within gigantic city walls, this is a place of light stone houses and red slate roofs that feels as though it hasn’t changed in centuries. Beware though, because it’s a place that you’ll have to share with a lot of other tourists, a large number of which are daytrippers from the aforementioned gigantic mega cruise ships. As such, Dubrovnik is a place best enjoyed first thing in the day or in the late afternoon if you want to not feel like you’re spending your time in a theme park.
Dubrovnik also has some pretty extreme geography. Those hills put all but the centre of the Old Town on some pretty steep slopes, and many of the alleyways are basically staircases. I won’t lie, it’s incredibly claustrophobic, particularly when combined with the large tourist hordes. To get away from it, we were delighted to spend a few hours walking the circuit of the old town walls, which gives fantastic views of the city as well as out across the Adriatic. We also really enjoyed taking a little trip down to the West Harbour (recognisable to GoT fans as the dock of Kings Landing) which is a beautiful spot for a picnic.
Unsurprisingly, finding good quality and good value vegan food and drink in Dubrovnik is pretty tough. Like the rest of the places we visited, Italian food reigns pretty supreme here, and we survived mainly on cheeseless pizzas and pasta. This is not really a place to relax at all, so we were more than happy to head back to our apartment to spend our evenings watching boats come in and out of the harbour and enjoying the nightly parade of swifts, whilst drinking more excellent value Croatian wine.