Croatia is more than just Dubrovnik and "Game of Thrones"-inspired tourism — set-jetting, as it is now called.
The northern snowcapped mountain regions are home to lakes of such vivid turquoise and pristine beauty that Plitvice was named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Inland Croatia is home to Vinkovci, the oldest town in Europe, established over 8,000 years ago. The seaside cities merge with the Adriatic in fascinating ways, like in Zadar, home to the Sea Organ that symphonizes ocean waves into a musical ebbing hum.
And of course, there are the islands, so celebrated in beauty that their siren songs have lured travelers to their shores for millennia, from ancient Greek heroes to present-day Croatia Yacht Week sailors.
Croatia is home to over a thousand islands that dominate the eastern Adriatic, ranging in size, population and inhabitability. Numerous and diverse, the islands present travelers with unique opportunities for exploration, relaxation and cultural experiences. Follow the guide below, starting in the north and winding southward, to embark on your own island-hopping expedition through Croatia’s best.
The northernmost and largest island in the Adriatic Sea, Krk spans over 155 square miles. White pebble beaches and terra-cotta villages dot this island coastline that has been a European warm-weather escape for decades.
One of the most easily accessible islands in Croatia, Krk is connected to the Croatian mainland by a toll bridge — a rarity in this part of the world. Travelers looking for the typical Krk experience can vacation in Krk Town, while Vrbnik on the eastern coast is a not-so-secret calmer locale. This medieval village is perched atop a limestone ridge, connecting the cluttered buildings with narrow cobblestone streets.
Neighbor to Krk, Cres Island is a sparsely populated refuge from the throngs of tourists in its sister island. Once ruled by the Roman Empire, Venetians, Byzantines and Yugoslavians at different points in history, Cres’ architecture and culture are a unique blend that reflect the wide array of historical influences.
Cres City is the main settlement on the island, with multicolored buildings lining the streets that are reminiscent of Venice. Outside of the cobblestone streets, the crystal-clear waters of the island’s many coves provide wonderful snorkeling and scuba diving opportunities.
Rab island is a seductively slow-paced locale just a short ferry ride away from Krk. Its major city of the same name, Rab, is encircled by ancient stone walls in the shape of a ship. Here, visitors can get lost among the ancient Gothic buildings and explore the many churches.
Rab is home to many luxury hotels as well, including the Arbiana Hotel and the Valamar Collection Imperial, designated for adults only. While staying in Rab, it is essential to indulge on Rapska Torta (Rab cake), a flavorful almond and Maraschino liqueur dessert baked in a spiral shape and coated in sweet powder.
Croatia’s hedonistic tendencies are on full display at Zrce, Pag island’s most famous beach. Just a small part of Croatia’s longest coastline, Zrce is located in the northern town of Novalja; this small-scale Ibiza hosts some of the world’s biggest DJs, including Oliver Heldens and Alan Walker, for all-day and all-night festivities.
A more moderate cultural experience can be found in the eponymous town of Pag, called the “town of lace” for its ancient lacemaking traditions – enough so for Pag lace to earn an esteemed place on UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage. The intricate designs have held an esteemed place in Croatian culture for centuries, and according to UNESCO, “Each variety of lace has long been created by rural women as a source of additional income and has left a permanent mark on the culture of its region.”
The Croats have a word for the palpable lethargy that is often felt in the island towns — fjaka, described by locals as “the sweetness of doing nothing” — and nowhere is this feeling stronger than in Hvar Town.
Hvar Town, a frequent vacation destination for billionaires and the main hub on the island, is only a short hour ride away from Split and easily accessible with ferry service via Jadrolinija. Hvar feels like a town where it can all be done in a day; because it's only a few square miles in diameter, all the main attractions here are an easy walk from one another. Wander through the sun-soaked white-tile streets of Croatia’s crown jewel and surrender to the pervading slowness of the island.
Spend a day lounging at one of the waterside bars like Hula Hula or climb up to Hvar Fortress for an incredible vantage point of the island, best at sunset. The town is home to a varied gastronomy, ranging from crowd-pleasers like Dalmatino to alleyway dining experiences at Black Pepper, where guests are greeted with a shot of locally-made wild rose liqueur – a gesture of Croatian hospitality.
The island comes alive at night with clubs like Pink Champagne and Central Park, the most popular of which is exclusive Carpe Diem, situated on a separate island and accessible only by water taxi.
The closest island to Split and Croatia’s Dalmatia region, Brac is most famous for the world-renowned Zlatni Rat beach — Golden Horn in English — which is constantly securing a spot among the world’s best beaches. Aside from the stunning crystal-clear and turquoise waters surrounding the small peninsula beach, Zlatni Rat’s fascination stems from its malleable shape — the pebble beach changes form with the tides, winds and ocean currents throughout the day.
Aside from Zlatni Rat, nearby Bol is the island’s most prominent city and a popular draw for tourists. Up in the mountains, travelers can enjoy wine and olive oil tasting amidst ancient Dalmatian stone buildings and a working vineyard in Nerezica.
Croatia’s second-most distant island presents an opportunity for isolation and disconnection from the outside world. A five-hour ferry ride from Split, Lastovo brings a new meaning to the word remote. The 2011 census posits Lastovo’s population at 792, with roughly a third of the residents living in Lastovo town.
A city with a history stretching back to Greco-Roman times, Lastovo was converted into a military region following World War II, a designation which forbade foreigners from entering the island. It wasn’t until 1992, when the Yugoslavian armies left Lastovo, that the island became open to the public again.
Travelers dedicated enough to make the trek to Lastovo will be greeted by unspoiled beauty, genuine Adriatic cuisine and local wines made from the one of the archipelago’s 46 vineyards. Seeking a true off-the-grid experience? Stay in one of the island’s many lighthouses with a local host.
According to local legend, this island south of Hvar is the birthplace of Marco Polo. While that myth remains to be proven, a true fact is that Korcula's namesake stems from Korkyra Melaina, the name from the early Greek settlers meaning Black Corfu, for the thick forests that cover the island.
Among all of Croatia’s islands, Korcula especially is a haven for history buffs and antiquarians. On the east side of the island is the ancient old town, concentrated on a small peninsula that juts out from the island, ringed by a medieval fortress and Aleppo pines.
In the center of the walled city and winding alleyways is St. Mark’s Cathedral, the jewel of the town. A fine example of Dalmatian architecture, the church was constructed with Korcula limestone over the 13th-15th centuries. Visitors will awe at the intricate carvings on the cathedral’s exterior and the interior paintings by the renowned Renaissance painter Tintoretto.
While Dubrovnik and Split have gained notoriety for their roles as "Game of Thrones" filming locations, Vis Island made headlines for starring as the backdrop in a recent blockbuster – "Mamma Mia 2: Here We Go Again." There’s a reason this island was chosen as the film’s location instead of Greece, where the story is set – Vis’ breathtaking beauty.
The sleepy sister of Hvar island, Vis is home to quiet coves and stunning beaches that draw in tourists seeking less partying and more R&R. Accessible by ferry from Split or Dubrovnik, a visit to Vis is worth it for Roki’s restaurant alone – an authentic Dalmatian dining experience serving peka, a dish of vegetables, meats or seafood, oils and herbs, all cooked under a special bell-shaped dome.
Lokrum is a tiny island immediately off the coast of Dubrovnik, easy accessible via a 15-minute water taxi ride. Less than a mile wide in diameter, Lokrum is the perfect half-day trip from Croatia’s prominent port city.
With no permanent human inhabitants, Lokrum’s peacock population dominates the island, and lucky visitors can get a glance of the birds’ iridescent hues and prized feathers. Ironically not actually native to the island, peacocks were brought over from the Canary Islands in the 1800s but have grown well-adjusted to their new home.
To further its role as a refuge from Dubrovnik’s demanding crowds, there are no cars allowed on Lokrum (or roads to drive them on), creating an island-wide atmosphere of peace. Stroll through the shady shores, admire the unique view of Croatia’s coastline and enjoy Lokrum’s meditative stillness.
Croatia’s greenest island, Mljet is a mecca of Mediterranean archetypes like handmade wines, olive oils and goat cheese. The southern end of the island is an expansive national park with verdant forests, established in 1960, and the western end is home to the popular bay of Pomena.
At the foot of Babino Polje, one of Mljet’s small villages, is a cave of legends – according to myth, here Odysseus was shipwrecked on his homeward journey from the Trojan War and held captive by the witch Calypso for seven years. Whether true or not, the endless blue waters and peaceful forests of Mljet still enchant visitors to this day – many of whom probably wish they could stay for seven years.
The island’s national park is a wonderful setting for active adventures – kayaking, hiking, swimming and more. The park is home to two lakes, the Great Lake and the Small Lake, which are in truth two bays with narrow sea access.
A small archipelago consisting of six islands, including Kolocep, Lopud and Šipan, the Elafiti Islands are perhaps some of the most gorgeous in all of Croatia. Take a short ferry ride from Dubrovnik to any of the islands, or join an all-encompassing tour of the Elafiti in a modern (motorized) pirate ship.
Small and quiet like Lokrum island, these islands boast a population of under one thousand people. On car-free Kolocep, visitors can swim through the luminescent waters in the island’s Blue Cave or wander through the island’s churches, some of which were built over a millennium ago.
Neighboring Lopud is another tranquil paradise outside of bustling Dubrovnik. Sunj Bay is one of the island’s two main beaches, alongside Lopud Bay, and is home to a Croatian scarcity – sandy shores. Travelers seeking an extended stay on the island can sojourn at Lafodia Sea Resort, a luxury hotel with almost as many rooms as there are local residents.
Šipan, the last and the largest of the Elafiti, is a sleepy island with seaside hamlets, sprawling olive trees and vineyards in between. Adventurers can kayak through the surrounding opaque waters or discover the lush secret gardens throughout the island.