From the storybook-perfect medieval city walls of Dubrovnik, the luxurious seafront promenade and paradise beaches of Hvar, and the Roman splendour of Split, I loved the week I spent exploring these three spots on the Dalmatian coast of Croatia!
Croatia has been on my travel wish list for a long time and I was so excited to tour some of the coastal highlights during the late-season September sunshine. My goals for organising the holiday were to meet the needs of my fiancé who loves medieval history and swimming, plus ensure I was supplied with a hefty dose of time in nature, boat trips, and delicious food. A three-stop trip taking in Dubrovnik, the island of Hvar, and Split, was absolutely perfect for us! Read on to hear about some of the highlights of our trip.
The trip started with a guided tour of the walled city of old town Dubrovnik. The incredibly well-preserved medieval architecture has earned it UNESCO World Heritage status and it was a fascinating place to explore.
I felt totally immersed in this history while walking around this city…
The tour really helped us orient ourselves around the city and gave us a crash lesson in how the city had been shaped over time. The city has a vibrant history with many influences: from early settlement in the 7th Century by refugees from a nearby Roman town, a brief stint under the rule of the Venice city-state in the 14th and 15th Centuries, until a long and prosperous stretch as an independent city-state from the 14th to 19th Centuries (in alliance with the Ottoman Empire). The only successful “invasion” of the city was in 1806, which led to a 7-year occupation by Napolean’s army under the Empire of France. Subsequently, Dubrovnik was ruled by the Austrian Habsburg Empire until the city became part of Yugoslavia in 1918. Since the early 1990s, Dubrovnik has been part of Croatia following the Croatian War of Independence, which left its mark on the city through visible shelling damage to buildings and stone floor tiles.
I felt totally immersed in this history while walking around the city. I particularly appreciated how there were rules about the signs shops and restaurants are allowed to display: elegant printed fabric scrolls detailing the businesses on each street corner. They could easily be removed and it would be like stepping back through time – one of the reasons why it’s a popular filming location for productions like Game of Thrones!
After the tour, we decided to relax by the sea and enjoy a swim and a restorative frozen margarita (hydration is important!) at a famous Buža Bar. Stepping through a narrow entryway literally through the city walls, these bars (there are 2 of them) cling to the side of the cliffs and offer gorgeous views of the island of Lokrum. We pitched up on a spot right by the sea and dipped our toes in the Adriatic for the first time! Thankfully, it was quite warm (I’m a total wuss about being cold!) and I managed to make it in with only a small burst of screeching…
After our break, we recommenced touristing and climbed the city walls. The walls present today were constructed from the 12th to 17th Centuries and form an almost 2km loop around the city. The views were magical: terracotta-coloured rooftops, sailing boats on the turquoise ocean, and picturesque mountains! We even spotted a “pirate ship” (a 16th-Century replica tall ship) setting out for a sunset cruise, and an unusually-shaped basketball court crunched in against the walls.
We headed to another Buza Bar to watch the sunset and try cliff-jumping…
After walking in the warm sun, we headed to another Buza Bar to watch the sunset and try the cliff-jumping we’d seen from the walls. OK, so technically my partner did the cliff-jumping bit and I (literally) held his towel! There was a nice atmosphere of camaraderie, as those waiting to jump encouraged those ahead of them in the “queue” and onlookers clapped and cheered as they took the plunge. There was time for a quick beer before returning to our apartment (only 2 streets away) to shower and change for dinner.
Truffles are a local delicacy and one of my favourite flavours, so this was a priority for dinner. We decided to treat ourselves and dine at Ezza, a steak restaurant founded by a famous Croatian footballer. We sat on the terrace and enjoyed the lovely views of the city walls and harbour. My partner had a steak while I had the most incredible freshly made pasta with a generous helping of local truffle grated on top – fabulous!
we boarded a golf buggy “taxi” to take us on a bumpy adventure…
The second day was a total change of scenery and a slowing of the pace: a boat trip around three of the nearby Elafiti islands. We boarded our boat from Dubrovnik’s modern port and set off to our first stop: Lopud. We strolled along the scenic seaside promenade and then headed to the other side of the island to the sandy beach of Šunj (something of a novelty as the majority of Adriatic beaches are rocky). No cars are allowed on the island so we boarded a golf buggy “taxi” to take us on a bumpy adventure up and over a considerable hill and down to the shore! The beach was beautiful and perfect for swimming with smooth sand and a gradual slope out into the ocean (plus a sea swing for an “Instagram moment”, featured at the top of this post!).
A homemade lunch of salad, potatoes, and wine was waiting for us as we boarded the boat before sailing to our second stop: Šipan. Famous for the high density of olive trees and several vineyards, we went for a walk inland to see the countryside. My partner had never seen an olive tree before, so he had a nice little “first” moment. We had a wine tasting at a small shop and purchased a bottle of local white wine to take home as a souvenir.
Our final stop was at the small island of Koločep. We made the 15-minute walk along the pretty seafront to the clothing-optional beach area tucked away around a corner. We finished up our day with a cheeky nudey swim and a short nap in the glorious sunshine.
The second part of the trip involved a very early alarm clock to catch the 7am catamaran ferry to the island of Hvar. We arrived around 10am and checked into our room, which was perfectly located directly above a gelato shop overlooking the marina.
Before splurging on gelato, we decided to really earn it by taking a walk up to the Spanish (Spanjola) Fortress, 100m above Hvar town. Despite the name, the fortress was originally constructed by the Venetians in the late 13th Century to protect the town against pirates. The nickname came in the 14th Century when Spanish engineers worked on strengthening the defences, which protected the residents during a Turkish invasion in 1571. The fortress was severely damaged when lightning struck the gunpowder stores (yes, really!!), so much of the visible fortress today was the repair work of the Austrians in the 19th Century. The views down over the town and out to the Pakleni Islands, are fantastic and there is a small but interesting display of Roman artefacts recovered from a ship found on the nearby seabed.
They even had a sign outside advertising “no beer, no rice, no Coke”!…
Our first dinner was at a very special family-run restaurant, Konoba Menego, located in the converted house of the owner’s mother, offering traditional Croatian home cooking. They even had a sign outside advertising “no beer, no rice, no Coke”! We shared a richly flavoured bulgar wheat with bacon dish, I enjoyed a local goat cheese salad, while my partner opted for the rich wild boar stew. It was one of our favourite meals of the trip!
So enamoured by our first boat trip experience in Croatia, we booked a second trip, but this time a small-group beach tour of Hvar and the Pakleni Islands by speed boat. The winds were quite high so we had a bumpy ride at times, but I was absolutely thrilled to be sitting at the front like a celebrity as we powered across the waves!
Our first stop was at a lovely beach which literally had a carpet leading into the water to save your feet from the rocky shore – I could get used to these kinds of facilities! We walked to a nearby second beach with stunning cabanas overlooking the sea. This was definitely somewhere I’d like to return to on a future trip for a full day of relaxation.
The next stop was probably our favourite: a bar and beach that can only be accessed by boat. Luckily for us, we had it all to ourselves and I enjoyed reading my book on a sun lounger while my partner snorkelled in our crystal-clear private bay (one can dream!).
It was time for lunch and another “film star” moment of the day: the restaurant sent out their dingy to transfer us from our boat to their private jetty! We shared hearty main courses of traditional Croatian home cooking: sea bass and homemade pasta, with glasses of refreshing lemon Radler, looking out over the sea.
we sang along (at high volume!) to classic rock tunes blaring from the sound system…
In the afternoon, we jetted along the coat of Hvar to visit a very special winery, Zlatan Otok, with unique underwater cellars. It was beautiful to see the vineyard from the water as we approached, with vines planted on the steep slopes of the mountains, descending sharply into the sea. We visited the cool, underwater cellars and had a mini-tasting of a couple of lovely and affordable local wines, which made our journey home at sunset particularly fun: we sang along (at high volume!) to classic rock tunes blaring from the boat’s sound system!
The next day, we took another ferry ride to our final location: Split, the second-largest city in Croatia. I booked a room just outside the historical centre of the old city, with a very cool view of the imposing Roman walls.
The palace is a vast complex of ancient ruins and a hodgepodge of tiny streets…
We started our stay with a guided tour of Diocletian’s Palace, the Roman villa complex that makes up much of the centre of Split and is town-like in scale itself! Built in the 4th Century AD as a retirement home of former Roman Emperor, Diocletian, the only Emperor from Croatia (and the only one to “survive” his time as ruler by abdicating!). The palace is a vast complex of ancient ruins and a hodgepodge of tiny streets as further buildings were added in later centuries. The tour was excellent and, again, helped to orient us in the local history and geography of Split.
My favourite highlights were the two 3,500-year-old black granite Egyptian sphinxes, gifted to Diocletian as ancient treasures, even at this time! One has had its head removed as a statement against the old religions and superstitions as Christianity took hold, but the second is intact and simply hanging out overlooking the open air of the main square. Another favourite was the cellars of the palace, excavated in the 1970s and now operating as an underground market area. These cellars were previously where waste was funnelled, which has worked to preserve many of the original Roman stones used in construction- very cool!
After dinner that evening, we enjoyed some live music and the festive atmosphere in the Roman central square. Tourists were sat on the steps having drinks and all singing along to the ubiquitous, “na, na, na-na, na, na, na-na”, of “Hey Jude” in unison.
On our second and final day, we toured the main ancient sites: visiting the circular Split Cathedral, climbing the cathedral bell tower for a bird’s eye view of the city, an underground crypt, the ancient Jupiter’s Temple, and the bigger-than-it-looked-from-the-outside, city museum. There was just enough time to relax with a beer while sitting in an alcove on the Roman wall, taking in a final dose of sunshine and making friends with the local cats, before heading to the airport for our flight home.
I was so impressed with my first trip to Croatia! The history was incredibly rich, as was the indulgent food (!), and the variety of activities made for an exciting and adventurous trip that felt like a lot longer time off work! My favourite days were probably the boat trips to beautiful islands and beaches. I enjoyed excellent customer service from locals at most places, and the late-season timings meant that it wasn’t quite as busy and the weather was perfectly warm-but-not-boiling. I’d definitely plan to return and explore other sites such as Krka National Park outside of Split, and even more islands and beaches.
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