I am a big researcher. I love, love the thrill I get from planning a trip. I tend to read numerous guidebooks, articles, and blogs related to the destination I am going to visit.
Even with all the reading (and posting questions in groups), there is a certain level of discovery involved with every trip. It is impossible to print real-life experiences in a paper (or on a digital form).
And, to be honest, the real learning about a destination starts once I hit the ground. At least, that is the feeling I got when I visited Croatia earlier this year. I got super prepared for the trip but got surprised by several aspects anyway.
I realize my experiences may benefit others who have never visited the country. That is why I have decided to share some observations and insights.
Ready? Let’s begin.
Planning a Trip to Croatia
Here is a list of the things I wish I have known about Croatia before planning a trip to the country.
1.As with Iceland, I was surprised by the inaccuracy of prices reported by travel websites and blogs. Prices are increasing by the minute due to the country’s rising popularity. If the article you are reading is more than a year old, the prices are probably outdated. In addition, I noticed articles reflecting last year’s prices because that is when a blogger visited but the article was written a year later.
Moral of the story: double check prices before visiting a place/attraction.
2.You will probably hear a lot of sources mentioning the affordability of the Balkan countries. Well, they may be referring to Montenegro or Bosnia because let me tell you, I didn’t find Croatia inexpensive at all. A lot of prices are on par with what you will find in Western Europe.
3.Even though I didn’t find Croatia economical, I noticed a big difference between Zagreb and the Dalmatian Coast. Zagreb and other inland cities offer an excellent value for your money. However, prices start to blow up when you hit Zadar and Split. Then, things get totally out of control once you arrive at Dubrovnik.
I am talking about $15 for a simple dish, $40-$50 for a seafood dish and $100 for a day excursion.
Keep this in mind when planning your travel route.
4.Dubrovnik is the most popular city in Croatia and, as a consequence, it can get very crowded. I visited during late May and the crowds were crazy. I heard it gets worst in July and August.
Most of the crowds congregate in and around Old Town. If you visit during those months, try to stop by Old Town first thing in the morning.
5.Even though Dubrovnik can get insanely crowded, there are areas where you can go to escape the madness. For example, you can walk around the ports, visit the Lapad beaches or take a boat to Lokrum island.
Also, remember Dubrovnik is part of a Riviera. You can stay or visit towns such as Slano, Trsteno, Zaton, MIini, Plat, and Cavtat. These places are gorgeous!
6.Even though my husband loved Split, I am not that fond of the city. The sights can be seen in a short amount of time and this is not a beach town. Now, Split is an excellent base for island hopping and national parks visits.
7.The saving grace in terms of prices is lodging. You can find beautiful apartments and private rooms for a nice amount. I didn’t pay more than 40 euros per night (2 persons). Book well in advance to get the best deals!
8.Your host will be your best friend! He or she can recommend the best things to do, see and eat in their city. I loved every one of my hosts. Their advice was on point. We would have never found the great restaurants we visited without their advice.
9.Save money on food by replacing one or two meals with items found at a grocery store. There are plenty of big and small stores in touristic areas. Sounds totally unglamorous but a lot of people balance their budget by doing that.
10.For meals, restaurants located in residential neighborhoods offer the best value. For example, in Dubrovnik, we stayed in the Gruz area (close to the port). We used to eat at the local pizza joint before walking to our apartment instead of having something at the Old Town. By doing that, we saved more than 40% (and I bet you the food was better).
11.Many cities have a daily market selling fresh produce (or stalls selling produce all day on the main plazas). This is a great opportunity to taste the country’s bounty while support local businesses.
12.I found taxis rides on the expensive side. The prices are fixed (instead of metered), therefore, you will pay the same price for short or long rides on a route. I would use taxis only for emergencies.
Update: A fellow Croatian blogger told me taxis in Croatia should be metered. He mentioned I was probably scammed (and I do not doubt it). However, I would like to mention I took taxis in designated areas (I did not hail them on the street). At Plitvice National Park, I was directed to the taxi area by the touristic info office. Those taxis did not have meters.
13.Uber worked great for me in Zagreb and Dubrovnik. As mentioned, the service is really cheap in Zagreb and a bit pricier in Dubrovnik. The bus, which everyone uses, is a better deal in Dubrovnik.
14.Dishes vary per region. The Istrian Peninsula has a strong Italian influence, Zagreb and Slavonia have a central European vibe (stews, goulash, sausages) and seafood reigns on the Dalmatian coast. I know I am simplifying things in here (regions may not be that homogeneous) but you will notice the differences in terms of food.
15.Did I mention the pizza in Croatia is super delicious? I still dream about those thin crusts topped with ingredients such as prosciutto, arugula, and anchovies. Now that I am back home, I keep comparing all pizzas to the ones in Croatia. Not sure if I have become a pizza snob.
16.Split and Dubrovnik’s Old Towns are pedestrian zones. If you are staying inside their perimeters, get prepared to move your luggage around stairs, inclines and narrow alleys. Several neighborhoods in Dubrovnik are located in hills. Since roads are slim, some taxis leave people at the base or top of the nearer staircase. Pack light if you are staying in these areas.
17.And, since we are talking about mobility, many people find the geography of the Dalmatian Coast a challenge. I may add it is not only the geography but the attractions too. The walls of Dubrovnik and Ston can be classified as a full workout. The best views in Trogir and Split are accessed through long staircases. As a matter of fact, I have never traveled to a country with so many stairs. Make sure you are physically and mentally prepared to tackle these “challenges.”
18.Train service is almost nonexistent in Dalmatia. There is a train connecting Zagreb and Split (the two biggest cities) and that is pretty much it. Transportation is by bus, ferry, private transfer or car.
19.Bus service is affordable and reliable. Do not expect premium buses with TVs, Wi-Fi, and restrooms. Some companies may offer these but, for what I observed, this is not the norm. I thought service was decent.
20.Bus drivers may charge a fee (usually 1 Euro) per suitcase stored in the luggage area. This is normal in the country (and area).
21.Do not assume your destination is going to be clearly labeled on the bus or platform. If departure time is approaching and you cannot identify your bus, start asking around. The bus is probably on the station but on a different platform or the destination is labeled in small letters.
22.Ferry schedules offer the best times during June, July, and August (morning, afternoon and evening departures to the islands). Schedules are somehow limited during the rest of the year. I visited Croatia during late May and was not able to visit the islands as a day trip because there were only afternoon departures available. Take this into consideration to avoid potential disappointment.
23.Many companies offer short cruises (60 to 90 minutes) for about 20 to 30 Euros. Taking a ferry between cities may cost one-third of that and provide the same wow factor.
24.Many businesses do not have a presence in their actual location. Once you arrive at the site (hotel, apartment, car rental agency), you have to call for somebody to show up and provide the service. This may present a problem for those who do not have a phone with an international data plan. I recommend you agree on an arrival time with your service provider a couple of days before the arrival date. However, there is no guarantee a person will be waiting for you. Get prepared to wait.
25.This point is related to the previous. When booking a hotel or apartment, the booking site may show the reception is open for a determined amount of time. For example, it may show the receptions is available for check-in from 2:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. Well, the same concept as above applies. A reception area may not exist and you will need to call for somebody to show up. It is very difficult (or almost impossible) to determine from the booking site if a “traditional” reception exists. Coordinate with the hotel/apartment beforehand.
26.I found the weather forecast in the country inaccurate. Things ended up being the complete opposite of what was forecasted. Locals told me there are several factors that make weather prediction difficult. Therefore, be prepared for anything. You have no idea how a cheap poncho saved me more than once.
27.The sun is strong in Croatia. Because of that, it is important to pack sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen. I would go for the highest SPF. This one is not a joke. I saw a lot of people badly sunburned (there is no way they were enjoying their vacation in that state).
28.The southernmost part of the Dalmatian Coast is separated from the rest of the country by a coastal strip belonging to Bosnia. That means that to reach Dubrovnik you will need to exit Croatia, enter Bosnia, exit Bosnia and enter Croatia. Have your passport on hand to expedite the process!
29.Many people have a desire to visit Bosnia and Montenegro as a day trip from Split or Dubrovnik. I would recommend checking the time you are going to spend on transit if you book an excursion to one of these countries. The transit time may be longer than the time spent on location. This may be tough for some people.
In my opinion, these are not places to visit on a day trip because of the distance and border crossings (you can tell I was stuck more than two hours on the border when returning from Montenegro). And, to be honest, it is very difficult to visit these places as a day trip using public transportation.
30. Many beaches in Croatia are rocky or pebbly. Beachgoers compensate for this by bringing a mat, renting a chair or spending the day at a beach club. Also, people are not that worried about sunbathing on a beach per se. I saw a lot of people claiming a random rock on the shore and spending some time there.
31.Croatia has plenty of beaches designated for naturalists. These beaches are designated with an FKK symbol on maps. You may encounter people sunbathing nude on areas non-designated as naturalist. Make sure to respect their privacy.
32.I got a lot of puzzled looks when I mentioned I was visiting Croatia. Just to make things clear, Croatia is a modern, developed and safe country. There is no need to worry about security or infrastructure issues.
33. Also, I didn’t have any problems communicating with locals. English is widely spoken and you should be fine if you have a basic knowledge of the language (Note: English is not my mother tongue but I am referring to it since it seems to be what people from different nationalities use to understand each other).
34.During my time in Croatia, fellow travelers expressed their discontent with the Croat’s way of being. These comments broke my heart since I received a lot of help and attention from the people in Croatia. I was even invited to homes.
I was being told by locals that I had a “different spirit” and that is probably one of the greatest compliments I have ever received. I am not going to pretend I have all things figured out but I can tell you people can detect if have a genuine interest in them. Superficiality shows.
People will open up when you show interest in their story. A couple of minutes is enough to make a connection that is going to be remembered for years. Keep that in mind when visiting Croatia (or any other country).
35.You are not going to see Croatia in one or two weeks. The country has an area of 56,594 square kilometers (21,851 square miles) and more than a 1,000 islands. Several trips are needed to get to know the many marvels of Croatia. But, those are very good news!
More of Croatia
Do not miss my article about the best things to do in Cavtat, a small town located 10 miles south of Dubrovnik.
More European Travels
Remember to check these other stories if you want to see more of Europe.
- 7 Phenomenal Things To Do in Frankfurt
- 10+ Things to Do In Old Town Prague
- Vienna in 2, 3 or 4 Days
- Best of Budapest: Sights, Itineraries and Day Trips
Have you been to Croatia? What surprised you about the country? What advice would you give to those who have never been?