A self-drive tour of Croatia plus a cruise along the Dalmatian Coast

By JoAnn Mayer
This article appears on page 30 of the August 2015 issue.
Overlooking the tiled rooftops of Split.

In June 2014, my husband, Fred Teger, and I began a self-drive tour of several of the countries that comprised the former Yugoslavia. 

As I started planning this 6-week trip, I was slightly apprehensive of the logistics, knowing that we would be traveling through areas where the Cyrillic alphabet is used. No way would I ever consider renting a car in Ukraine or Russia, which also use the Cyrillic alphabet, but, having read about the limited rail and bus services throughout the Balkans, I decided to rent a car and drive. I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised. 

Renting a car and driving through all the countries in this area was easy. It was only in the rural areas of Montenegro and Serbia that we didn’t find signs in the Latin alphabet.

The majority of our six weeks was spent in Croatia, including a one-week cruise along the Dalmatian Coast. As many travelers may not have six weeks available, I will discuss our itinerary mainly through Croatia, separately listing the side trips we took to other countries (Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia) so that one may choose to include or exclude excursions depending on how much time is available.

First stop, Zagreb 

Many guidebooks on Croatia recommend you skip Zagreb, but we don’t feel that way. It’s not as impressive as many of the other cities we visited, but spending two days there at the beginning of our trip to get acclimated worked well for us. 

Upon our arrival, we purchased bus tickets to the terminal downtown (HRK30, or $4.50, each), then spent another 20 kuna, total, for the No. 6 tram, which took us to the Lower Town and past the Palace Hotel (Trg J.J. Strossmayera 10; phone +385 14899 600, www.palace.hr), where we would be staying. We got to our hotel from the airport in about an hour. 

View of Pula Arena.

The Palace Hotel, opened in 1907, is one of the oldest hotels in Zagreb. Many tour groups stay there, as it is centrally located and all the major sights are within easy walking distance. Their complimentary buffet breakfast was excellent.

In the pedestrian zone, Ban Josip Jelacˇic´ is the major square of the city and separates Lower Town from Upper Town. We picked up a map from the tourist bureau in the square and walked the Lower Town. 

This area, with parks extending from Ban Josip Jelacˇic´ to the train station, is filled with buildings displaying impressive Baroque facades and statues. 

Upper Town, the older section of the city, was originally two medieval settlements separated by a small stream. Over time the stream was filled in with cobblestones to create the main thoroughfare, Tkalcˇic´eva ulica. 

In addition to the winding streets filled with shops and restaurants, Upper Town houses the Parliament Building and St. Mark’s Church, easily recognized by its checkered roof.

The open-air Dolac market, with its red Šestine umbrellas, was the best morning market in all the countries we traveled through on this trip. It should not be missed! 

Our favorite restaurant was Pod Gricˇkim topom (phone +385 14833607, www.restoran-pod-grickim-topom.hr), located at the top of Zagreb’s funicular. The restaurant seats 30 outside and 20 inside, so you definitely need to make a reservation for inside seating if the weather is cool. 

The daily menu, written on a blackboard, offers classic Croatian and international dishes. Every dish we had was excellent, but, by all means, you must try the štrukli (cheese in pastry). Yum! Our meal, including appetizers, main courses, dessert and a bottle of wine, cost HRK550 ($80).

The Istrian Coast

After a side trip to Slovenia, we drove 2½ hours to Rovinj, on the western coast of the Istrian peninsula. Originally a fishing village, Rovinj is now a popular travel destination, and deservedly so. 

Driving to Rovinj was no problem, but our hotel, the Hotel Adriatic (Trg maršala Tita 5; www.maistra.com/adriatic_rovinj), was in the Old Town, which, as in several of the cities we stayed in during this trip, was pedestrian only, so we had to figure out how to navigate our way through the winding, cobbled streets to reach the hotel. There was no doubt that we were in a medieval city. 

The rooms in the Adriatic were very small, but the complimentary breakfast buffet, served either in the dining room or on the outdoor terrace overlooking the harbor, was excellent. And the hotel’s location on the main square facing the harbor couldn’t have been better! 

Wandering the streets of the little, bean-shaped peninsula was delightful. All streets eventually led up the hill and ended at the Baroque Church of St. Euphemia. The view from there was lovely. 

Rovinj is small and can be covered in an hour, but it was a delightful city to stay in — one of our favorites on this trip. Some of the noteworthy sights include Balbi’s Arch, the entrance to the city, dating from 1680; the market at Valdibora, which specializes in truffles and was fun for sampling truffle spreads and oils, and Grisia street, known as the artists’ street, lined with little boutiques displaying crafts from local artists. 

The city having been part of the Venetian Empire and being in close proximity to Italy (Trieste is one hour by car and Venice two hours by boat), the Italian influence there was obvious, especially in the cuisine and the jewelry. 

Plitvice Lakes National Park.

We did a day trip to Pula, 30 minutes south of Rovinj via the toll road. 

Pula is known for its Roman ruins, and its most impressive sight was the amphitheater, dating back to the first century. Pula Arena, which seated up to 20,000, was very well preserved. 

Walking along the waterfront, we saw remains of Roman walls as well as a 6th-century church.

Despite the Roman ruins, we did not feel that Pula had any of the charm that Rovinj possessed, so we were very happy we had chosen to stay in Rovinj.

Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is approximately four hours from Rovinj by car. We stayed about half an hour north of the park at Ranch Jelan Klanco, situated outside the small town of Rakovica. Although you can explore the upper and lower lakes of the park in one day, we decided to get a 2-day ticket (HRK180), which was a very wise decision. 

Plitvice is the oldest and largest national park in Croatia. There are 16 lakes interconnected by a spectacular series of waterfalls. A wooden boardwalk and trails take visitors along the sparking turquoise lakes and cascading falls. 

Visiting this park was definitely one of the highlights of our Croatia journey, and it’s not to be missed. There are day excursions to the park available from Zagreb and Zadar. 

The lakes are separated into upper and lower clusters. On the afternoon of our arrival, we walked around the Lower Lakes (entrance No. 1) for three hours, covering 5.7 miles. The following day, we did the Upper Lakes. 

We arrived at park entrance No. 2 around 10:30 a.m. and took the little boat across the lake to walk Loop C. We got to the top of the park around 1:30 p.m. and enjoyed a cup of coffee before walking an hour back. This loop was 6.5 miles. 

I highly recommend taking two days to do both loops.


The next morning we drove two hours to Zadar, on the Adriatic Coast. As it is a walled city, we parked our car in one of the parking lots outside the wall and walked to our accommodation, the Central Royal Apartments (Narodni Trg 5; phone +385 59 129 12978, luka@ac-mitrovic.com). Our apartment (E178, or $199, for two nights) was on the third floor of an older building overlooking People’s Square. 

While Zadar is a large commercial city, its Old Town, on a peninsula, retains its charm. In the center of Old Town are the remnants of the Roman forum, the round St. Donatus Church built in the Byzantine style and the 13th-century Cathedral of St. Anastasia. The bell tower next to the cathedral was open, and for a small entrance fee we climbed to the top for great views of the city. 

A newer addition to Zadar’s must-see sights is the Sea Organ, located on the northwest corner of the seaside promenade. The movement of the waves pulses air through 35 polyethylene pipes built into marble stairs along the promenade, creating “music” resembling that of a pipe organ. It’s a beautiful place to watch the sun set. 

We had dinner at Bruschetta (Mihovila Pavlinovicˇa 12; www.bruschetta.hr/en), known for its seafood. Our delicious meal of black risotto and squid ink gnocchi with arugula cost a total of HRK180 ($26), including a glass of wine and a beer. 

We had breakfast both mornings at Restaurant Groppo (Široka wica 22; www.restaurant-groppo.com), which I highly recommend. It’s located on the main street that runs through Zadar and is across from the cathedral in the shadows of the bell tower. During the day, women sit outside selling lace. 

We enjoyed it so much that we returned for dinner one night. My husband had tuna medallions with artichokes and I had the artichoke salad with prosciutto and Pag cheese, a sheep’s-milk cheese local to the region. The bill, with wine, was HRK170. 

On to Split

We took the coastal route south toward Split, stopping at the historic town of Šibenik, about 1½ hours from Zadar. A medieval town, it had lots of cobbled streets, alleyways and staircases to explore. The Old Town is relatively large, though not as well preserved as those of other medieval cities we visited. However, it was not overrun with tourists. 

Fred and I got to Split mid-afternoon and found our hotel, Villa Varoš (Miljenka Smoje 1; villavaros.hr), located just outside the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. We parked the car in a free parking area, a 15-minute walk from the Golden Gate, one of the entrances to Diocletian’s Palace. 

The next morning, after breakfast at Konoba Leut (included in the price of our room), we headed off to explore Diocletian’s Palace. Outside the western wall we came across the fish market, which had a huge array of fish, including several varieties I had never seen before. 

While there was no charge to enter Diocletian’s Palace, there were fees to enter several of the city’s sites. Numerous tours of the city were offered at the information center or by individual guides stationed at the Peristil, the colonnaded open courtyard in the center of the city. 

We decided to explore the city on our own, using the walking map from the Discover Split newspaper and purchasing a ticket for HRK45 that covered entry to the Cathedral of St. Domnius, the Bell Tower, the Temple of Jupiter and the Basement Halls. 

We had dinner at a restaurant close to the hotel called Konoba Tinel, sharing fresh tuna with spinach and potatoes and a pizza (HRK158, with wine). Both were delicious. 

Cruising the Dalmatian Coast

After we returned our rental car, a driver from Lion Queen Charter picked us up in Split for the drive to Trogir, where we boarded the boat that would be our home for the next seven days. We had a few hours to explore Trogir, another UNESCO Site, before our dinner on board. 

Trogir is a very charming, well-preserved walled city on an island. However, because it is the port for the majority of the Dalmatian Coast cruises, it is touristy and crowded. 

Our boat, the San, was a beautiful wooden boat with six cabins. The week we were on board was the beginning of the season, and there were only two other passengers plus the crew of three. 

Our daily itinerary was to have breakfast on the boat before sailing to our next island destination, arriving around noon. Following lunch on board, we explored that day’s island and had dinner on our own. It was a great itinerary, as it allowed ample time on each island to experience the sights and enjoy the local cuisine and nightlife. 

On the island of Korcˇula, the medieval town of the same name is a walled city with round defensive towers. The main street runs through the city, with side streets running down to the water. 

View from atop the city wall that surrounds Dubrovnik.

There were interesting courtyards from houses built 500 years ago, and the city was very picturesque and well preserved, but it did have a significant number of tourists. 

Restaurants and bars were markedly more expensive than those on the other islands we visited, but outside of the city walls and away from the crowds we were able to find food for a reasonable price.

Vela Luka, a town on the other side of the island of Korcˇula, is relatively small and not too touristy. We walked up to its parish church of St. Joseph, which was closed, and noticed a sign for an archaeology museum 880 meters farther on, so we decided to follow the concrete path. We arrived at Vela Spila, a cave about 130 meters above Kale Cove. 

This very old cave contains evidence that people lived there as far back as 1200 BC. There were signs posted in English that gave good explanations of what happened there during various time periods. 

The area is still being excavated. It’s small but interesting and definitely worth the climb.

The next day we sailed to the town of Hvar on its namesake island, one of the more popular destinations in the area. It was understandable why it is popular. Although it was quite busy, it didn’t seem as touristy as Korcˇula. 

The Town Square was very large, with the Cathedral of St. Stephen and its bell tower at one end. Picking up a map in the tourist office, we began walking, first climbing up to Tvrdava Španjola (Spanish Fort), on top of the hill. Although it looked like quite a hike to the top, there was a paved path and it took only 15 to 20 minutes to reach the fortress. 

The early fort dates from the 13th century, but the present structure is mostly from the 16th century. The views of the city walls and harbor were definitely worth the walk up. 

The fort’s dungeons, or prison, as they referred to it, were also very impressive. 

For our last full day of the cruise, we went to the island of Šolta. Small and quiet, it was a contrast to Hvar. Sailing the next morning from Šolta back to Trogir, our boat arrived at 9 a.m. to the hustle and bustle of returning cruise traffic. 

We got a taxi to the airport and picked up our next rental car, taking the A1 south toward Dubrovnik. After an hour’s drive, the A1 ended and we were on a local road along the coast again. 

On to Dubrovnik

Twenty kilometers outside of Dubrovnik, we arrived at Arboretum Trsteno. The arboretum was laid out in 1494 at the summer residence of Ivan Marinov Gucetic-Gozze, a prominent Dubrovnik resident. Numerous exotic seeds and plants were brought back by ship captains and planted there, so the current garden reflects five centuries of evolvement. 

The aqueduct that supplied water to the original garden was converted into a Baroque fountain in the 1700s. 

After spending an hour there, we continued on to Dubrovnik, arriving at Pile Gate, the main entrance to Old Town. Parking our car in a public lot just outside the gate, we walked to the Celenga Apartments (Svetoga Josipa 13; www.celengaapartments.com)

Our apartment, on four floors, included a full kitchen, a dining room, a living room, a laundry room and four bedrooms. It was located on the corner near the Marin Drzˇic´ House, a couple of blocks off the main street. 

We felt like we were living in Dubrovnik instead of just visiting. It was absolutely fantastic! 

We walked to the local market every morning, buying fresh burek (a round pastry of filo dough filled with cheese, meat or vegetables) for breakfast. 

Dubrovnik is called “the jewel of the Adriatic,” and it certainly deserves the title. By visiting Dubrovnik as our last destination in Croatia, we had saved the best for last. 

Although each medieval city we visited was unique and deserved the time we spent in it, Dubrovnik set a standard that will be hard to equal. If you have only one stop in Croatia, Dubrovnik has to be it. 

City sights

The Placa, or Stradun, is the city’s main street. Entering from the impressive Pile Gate on the western side of the city, you pass the Onofrio Fountain before entering the 300-meter-long Stradun that leads to the main square. 

Dinner inside the city walls was more expensive than those in previous towns (dinner at Pizzeria Bona Fide cost us HRK238). 

Dubrovnik, like many European cities, has numerous concerts in the evenings during the summer. We attended one at the Domino Church performed by the Dubrovnik Chamber Trio, consisting of a flute, bassoon and piano. 

The next morning we went to the open market, which was selling mainly sweets made from orange peel, lemon peel and almonds — all delicious. We took the noon walking tour of the town, which was a great way to learn about the history of key buildings, before returning later on our own. 

After the tour we went to the Old Synagogue, then visited the Rector’s Palace. We bought a one-day pass for HRK150 ($22) per person that included access to the city wall (which otherwise cost HRK100) and the Rector’s Palace, normally HRK80 on its own, so the cost of the pass was a good value. 

We had dinner at Kavana Dubravka, located just outside the city wall near the Pile Gate. The setting was absolutely beautiful, overlooking the water and city walls. 

I had the seafood risotto, and Fred had one of their lamb specialties (HRK300, including a bottle of wine). I highly recommend this restaurant, and reservations are a must if you want to sit by the water.

The next morning we walked the wall, which goes around the entire city. We took two hours to do the almost 2,000-meter loop. It was very hot! 

Along the Stradun we saw signs for War Photo Limited, a gallery devoted to war photos. While it was sobering, it was well done. 

Karlovac was our last stop in Croatia and was specifically chosen so we could be close to the Zagreb airport for our flight home. 

Revelin Tower in Korcˇula.

Hotel Korana-Srakovcˇic´ in Karlovac was about an hour away from the Zagreb airport. Dating back to 1908, it is situated in a park that includes a lake for swimming. The view was beautiful and quite restful. 

It took about an hour the next day to get to the airport and return the car. Zagreb’s airport was pretty small and easy to navigate. 

And, so, our fabulous adventure came to an end.

If you go

I booked all the hotels before we left the US, using TripAdvisor.com for recommendations and Booking.com or Expedia.com for the reservations. Our hotels averaged $125 per night. 

My criteria for a hotel in any walled city we visited was that it had to be within the Old Town walls. This worked out well. We may not have had the most modern or upscale hotels, but we had location and atmosphere.

We rented a Renault Clio diesel through Economy Car Rentals (based in Heraklion, Greece; US phone 206/317-1229, www.economy carrentals.com), which I would highly recommend. The trunk was big enough for our two carry-on suitcases and numerous other small bags. We booked our rental online, paying E193 ($216) for four weeks, including fees for an additional driver and a cross-border card, which we needed to enter Bosnia.

I confirmed that the car we rented would have no problems crossing the borders of the countries where we would take side trips. We did not go to Kosovo, as we had heard that crossing from Kosovo into Serbia with a car could be a problem.

We cruised the Dalmatian Coast with Lion Queen Charter (Dalmatia, Croatia; phone +385 21 872 851, www.lion-queen.com). We liked the boat’s small size, and the staff and crew were all very helpful in answering questions before we arrived and arranging transportation to and from the boat. They even arranged a birthday celebration for me on board. 

It was a very simple lifestyle on the boat, with no showers, but there was swimming, good food and a delightful crew. The cost for our week-long cruise was E890 per person, including all breakfasts and lunches and two dinners.

A key to the success of this trip was downloading offline maps of all the areas we would be driving through before leaving the US. This kept us from getting lost in places with signage in the Cyrillic alphabet or when trying to locate our hotel on foot in a walled city. On our iPad, we used an Apple app called OffMaps2, which eliminated the need for an Internet connection to search the maps for sights, addresses, etc. 

We intentionally stayed in cities for a minimum of two nights or more, making side trips to other cities we wanted to explore. This trip was much more relaxed than previous ones we’d taken on which we often changed hotels every day.

The people in every country we visited were very friendly and helpful. Each was proud of their heritage and seemed to want to make sure anyone visiting their country saw the best it had to offer.    

Next month, Jo Ann Mayer details excursions taken to Slovenia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia while traveling through Croatia.