How to Do Croatia's Dalmatian Coast in 4 Days
The Croatian Coast is one of those places that can be put in the "must see to be believed" category. In fact, you’d be forgiven for thinking all those Clarendon-filtered photos of this region dominating your social media news feeds and showcasing its towering cliffs, terra-cotta-colored Medieval buildings, and oh-so-blue waters were plucked straight from some make-believe movie set. Only, they’re not make-believe. The cliffs are that striking; the Old Towns, that labyrinth-like and intricate; the waters, that clear and blue.
Oh, and those photos smattering your news feeds? It’s not your imagination—they are everywhere. In the past two years, tourism in Croatia has positively skyrocketed, rising by as much as 24% from 2016 to 2017 in key cities like Dubrovnik, and becoming a top-five destination in southern Europe behind only the historically big players such as Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Greece.
So, while you probably won’t need any convincing to plan a visit, you might just appreciate a few tips on how to pack in as much activity as possible once you’re there. So, here’s one way—of many possible ways—to spend four days along the spectacular Croatian Coast, splitting your time between three of its most storied cities: Split, Hvar, and Dubrovnik.
Day 1: Split
Split is the largest city on the Dalmatian Coast and the second largest in Croatia. Like many Coastal Croatian towns, it is comprised of a maze-like Old Town with ancient alleys, polished marble passages and plazas, unmistakable red-tiled roofs, and hundreds of stray cats meandering their way among the throngs of people. Also, like many Croatian towns along the coast, Split has a profound knack for seamlessly blending the old with the new. On one hand, there are these incredibly old structures—4th-century Roman palaces, 14th-century Medieval fortresses, early 19th-century Napoleonic Rivas. On the other hand, there are beachside bars blaring electro house music while young, bathing suit-clad party people sip on oversized drinks and splash into the emerald waters of the Adriatic.
The first activity of choice should be getting a feel for the town. Split is a very walkable city, and strolling through its alleyways offers an enjoyable lesson in wayfinding. Put the Google Maps away and see if you can’t get lost in the web of corridors, and then found again. The town is small enough that you won’t need to worry about getting seriously lost, and you might just stumble upon a secret wine bar or pastry shop tucked away from the masses. Also, be sure to stroll along the water’s edge next to the Riva—an elegant, French Riviera-infused strip of waterfront that is lined with palms trees, al fresco cafes and bars, and maybe even a few vacationing celebrities.
Marjan Hill is a must for any outdoor adventurer. Rising 600 feet above the town center, this forested hill is a veritable recreational playground. Hike up the 300-plus stairs to the highest point, find hiking paths weaving through the Mediterranean pines, or even rope climb the cliffs. There are pebbly park beaches at the base of the hill, ancient cathedrals etched into the rocky cliffs, and sprawling panoramas of the island-dotted Adriatic that only get more expansive the further up you go.
One particularly efficient and worthwhile way to experience the hill is to rent a mountain bike from the Wave Shop, and take the switchbacks on the paved service road all the way from the bottom to the top. You can ride straight from the shop and then complete a roughly 6-mile loop that has you zig-zag up through the shaded pine groves, grinding up the steep road until you reach the summit, where you’re greeted with unrivaled views of the town and the surrounding seascape. (Pro tip: Sunsets from the top of Marjan Hill are especially stunning.)
Once you’ve taken in the view, your just reward for all the earlier uphill pedaling is bombing back down the other side at lightning speed. "Fun" doesn’t begin to describe it.
Konoba Matoni checks all the boxes. Situated in a halfway underground cellar with vaulted ceilings, the atmosphere is warm and inviting; the location is prime with nearby Bacvice Beach being a great place to swim before your meal; the waitstaff is incredibly friendly and eager to help you order the right dishes and wine pairings; the prices are totally reasonable; and the food is exceptional, offering a modern spin on traditional Croatian dishes with meat and fish the focal staples but also some solid vegetarian and vegan options as well.
Bars & Nightlife
Split isn’t as well known for its raucous nightlife scene as some of the other party towns in Coastal Croatia (looking at you, Hvar), but for a mellow night on the town, it’s perfect. And there’s one bar that shouldn’t be missed (even though it’s easy to do so considering how hidden it is): the Academia Ghetto Club. This bohemian bar is located in the heart of Diocletian’s Palace, an ancient Roman structure that comes alive at night with impromptu music performances and young, eager night owls.
Finding the Ghetto Club is nearly impossible without asking locals for directions, as Google Maps can’t accurately pinpoint the actual location. But if you manage to twist and turn through the cramped and dimly-lit alleys and find it, you’ll be in for a treat. It’s where locals and visitors alike gather to sit in a wonderfully intimate courtyard, with bubbling fountains, ivy crawling up the palace walls, and a funky, eclectic vibe on the inside with velvety furniture, closet-sized bathrooms, bass-heavy DJ music, and tattooed bartenders.
Days 2 and 3: Hvar
Hvar is a long strip of an island located about an hour and a half from Split via ferry. It’s comprised of high ridges and bountiful hillsides laden with lavender fields, pine forests, and vineyards. There are two main towns that people visit: Stari Grad, one of the oldest towns in Europe, which was originally founded by the ancient Greeks in the late 4th century, and Hvar Town, once a major naval hub that played host to centuries’ worth of violence and back-and-forth handoffs between various Medieval empires, kings, thieves, and pirates. Hvar Town is the one you’ll want to visit.
The Hvar Town of today gets a rap as being one of the biggest party islands in Europe—and while this rings true during the busy summer season—early autumn offers a much more laid-back vibe and a lot of make-your-own-adventure type of activity. Even though it’s a small town, where pressed-for-time-travelers might get antsy, it’s worth spending two days here to experience it all.
All of the must-see tourist spots in Hvar (the port, St. Stephen’s Square, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the Franciscan Monastery, and so on) are conveniently centralized and easy to string together on one swift stroll. The only one you’ll need to work for a little more will be the stair-laden trudge up to the Fortica—a 16th-century Venetian castle standing guard over the entire port town. From the Fortica, you’re met with sweeping views of the harbour and town below as well as of the numerous Paklinski Islands dotting the surrounding waters. While you have to pay a small fee to enter the castle, the view alone makes it worthwhile, not to mention the interesting historical exhibits and displays.
A supreme way of getting some open-air adventure in Hvar is to rent a small boat and embark on a miniature island-hopping and cliff-jumping tour of the surrounding Paklinski Islands. There are plenty of tour operators to easily (and economically) rent from, and even if you’ve never operated a boat before, they have people who will provide a quick lesson before setting you loose to learn by trial and error. (At first, it’s a little awkward, but it’s easy to get the hang of it rather quickly.)
Once you feel like a bona fide sea captain, you’re free to explore as many little inlets, beaches, coves, and cliffs as your heart desires. There are even a number of places along the Hvar Coast where you can jump from 15-30 foot cliffs, and the water that greets you below is indescribably refreshing—the perfect temperature and a little saltier than most American ocean experiences, which makes you feel buoyant and light.
The restaurants in Hvar tend to be a little pricey, and it’s easy to be pulled into tourist traps by convincing and charismatic hosts and hostesses, but there are a few places that offer excellent food and drink options without the overly chic airs and accoutrements.
Dordota Vartal is a locally-recommended spot with an open-air terrace right on the water, serving authentic Croatian meat and fish dishes. Order a fish plate for a heaping serving of prawn and sea bass. The sea bass comes cooked whole, so you can see the lifeless fish eyes staring at you; but upon peeling back the skin, the white meat resting behind this scaly curtain flakes from the bones with incredible ease and tastes of irresistible butter and lemon.
Konoba Menego is another excellent option—a family-run restaurant that offers traditional Dalmatian fare in an intimate, warmly-lit tavern in the old part of the town. It often has a wait, but as far as waits go, it doesn’t get better than this, as they provide a cushion, so that you can sit on the Old Town steps with a glass of wine and people-watch.
For a slightly alternative dining experience probably best suited for a light lunch, Fig Cafe offers a unique experience with healthier dishes than typical Dalmatian fare (think greens and veggies and watermelon), a relaxed atmosphere, and a young, attractive couple running the establishment (an Australian husband and Croatian wife), who are happy to help you find the local spots for swimming and hiking.
Bars & Nightlife
By and large, the nightlife scene in Hvar is one that’s easy to feel out once you’re there. Given the town’s small size, it won’t be difficult to figure out where people are going; begin your night by just heading to the small strip of harbour bars and try to find a local to show you the way.
There are also two beach bars on the water’s edge, which are great for early evening sunset cocktails and maybe a little swimming. Hula Hula Beach & Bar is the more touristy of the two, offering lounge chairs, house music, easy water access, and overpriced drinks. It’s worth checking out—especially if you’re keen on meeting fellow travelers—but the more local option, Falko Beach Bar, is located about 300 yards further down a seaside walking path, tucked away in a shady grove of pines. It’s a quieter, more peaceful option with less expensive drinks, comfy hammocks, and great people-watching.
Day 4: Dubrovnik
The ferry ride from Hvar to Dubrovnik is about 4.5 hours long, so make sure you pop into a pastry shop before the journey to stock up on some bureks—traditional Turkish/Mediterranean pastries with flaky phyllo dough and overstuffed fillings, which can be either savory or sweet. Think of them like if a cinnamon roll and a croissant had a love child, only with way more filling inside. They’re delicious.
Dubrovnik is the most popular Dalmatian Coast city to visit these days, having made a name for itself in Hollywood recently as a film site for the HBO show Game of Thrones and for the latest Star Wars movie. Known as the "Pearl of the Adriatic," this far southern Croatian port town is defined by its Old City—an ornate bubble of baroque buildings, marble streets, and entangled passageways spider-webbing through a jumbled web of organized chaos, all surrounded by the remarkably intact fortress walls of Dubrovnik.
The quintessential thing to do in Dubrovnik is walk the city walls circumnavigating the Old Town. The entire journey is about a mile in length and two hours in duration, and it takes you—and hundreds of other camera-wielding compatriots—on a rolling stroll over countless turrets and towers with intimate looks inside the Old City and breathtaking views of the glittering Adriatic beyond. There’s a small fee to pay, but it’s undoubtedly a must-do experience; definitely not something to shirk even if so many other people are doing it.
Probably the most popular way to get outdoors in Dubrovnik is to get on the water with a kayaking tour. These half day trips set off from a small cove just below the fortress walls with a tour guide and travel across a short channel to Lokrum Island, a lush, lung-expanding patch of land home to beaches, caves, and even a monastery with botanical gardens. On the way back, you’ll paddle parallel to the Old City walls, which offers a unique view of the fortress from down below.
If committing to a half-day trip is too much, an easier, yet equally thrilling in-town experience, is to visit Buza Bar—an iconic, wholly unique establishment that’s stitched into the seaside face of the fortress walls. Sure, you can snag a table and sit at the actual bar or at some table with chairs, but what really makes this place special is what a free for all it is. It almost seems like you’re breaking the rules by heading down the stairs with a Karlovačko beer in hand to find your very own rocky, sun-soaked perch—only you’re not. There aren’t any rules to be broken. So, rest easy and join the speedo-wearing locals for a bit of sunbathing, cliff diving, and swimming.
For an atypical dining experience—probably best suited as a light lunch, so that you’re not weighed down with starchy meat and potatoes and buttery fish during your city walls walk—Nishta offers a colorful smorgasbord of vegan, vegetarian, and gluten-free food. Many of the dishes draw influences from nearby Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines, and all of the plates are inventive, dynamic, and fresh.
For dinner, many of the places in close proximity to the harbor or the Stradun (the main street) are fairly pricey and touristy. The key is to venture away from these more open-air spaces and up into the steep, stone staircases that are sprinkled with bars and restaurants. A good rule of thumb is: the narrower the alley, the broader your chances of finding an authentic spot.
Bars & Nightlife
D'vino Wine Bar is a cool side cafe that’s dark and stony on the inside with a quintessential European feel. Exit Rock Cafe is a grungy rock bar where fellow travelers are likely to mingle. Buzz Bar offers good coffee, wine, and drink specials and is a solid place to get the night started with pre-dinner drinks. Beer Factory is a fairly Americanized establishment, but good for group settings. And Glam Cafe is a tiny, yet great little bar capable of holding only a handful of people inside, but you can drink outside in the alley and they had the best beer selection. In short, there’s a lot to choose from to fit anyone’s tastes.
If You Go
Here are a few more tips to know before you go:
Seasonality. Summer is the time to go if rowdiness is what you’re after. Early autumn offers a more subdued alternative that still has the warm weather and swimmable temperatures of late summer, yet also the laid-back vibes of the approaching off-season.
Cash. Very few places in these Coastal Croatian cities accept credit and debit cards. The places that do generally only accept cards when the spend amount is over a certain limit, so it’s important to carry dollars or euros that you can exchange for Kuna.
Ferries. Having an understanding of the ferry schedules as soon as you arrive in a new harbor town is key. The ferry websites are a little tough to navigate, so it’s far easier just to walk into a tour operator shop to speak with a real human.
Airbnb. Use it. It’s hands down the easiest, most cost-effective, and enjoyable way to stay in these cities, and some of the places you can snag for a night are really special.
Want to avoid sticking out as a tourist and blend in like a local when you travel? We have some advice for you here.
Written by Ry Glover for RootsRated in partnership with ExOfficio.