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10 stops for a perfect road trip through Croatia
There is no better way to explore a country in all its diversity than a well planned road trip. A vehicle offers you the opportunity to visit as many places as possible in just a couple of days. And there is no better place in Europe for a road trip than the Jadranska Magistrala (Adriatic Highway) in Croatia.
This road stretches all over the adriatic coast line and links some of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Whether you arrive with your own car or you go for a rental car doesn´t matter. You just have to be as mobile as possible to see the entire beauty of this country.
While most of the old towns in Croatia are alike in structure and appearance, every city has its specialties. The ancient cobbled streets with its medieval atmosphere encircled by fortified walls never cease to amaze.
Jadranska Magistrala -The best road in Europe for a road trip?
The common way to travel the Adriatic Highway is from North to South, as you save the best for last (Dubrovnik and Kotor, obviously…). But the route works just as well from South to North. If you travel in your own car you probably have to drive back where you came from. So it makes sense to skip some stops on the way down and include them on the way back.
Here are ten stops along the Adriatic Highway for a perfect road trip (Headings linked to more detailed blogs for each location!):
1. Croatia – Rovinj
Starting at the northern point of the croatian coastline, arriving from Italy/Slovenia, the first stop is Rovinj*. As most towns on the Istrian Peninsula the old town of Rovinj feels more like Italy than Croatia. With its narrow and twisting streets it is easy to get lost. But actually the old town is not too large. Which makes is easy to see all highlights in one day. Starting with the cathedral on the hill in the city center. Perfect pictures can be taken from the harbour. Here you can also enjoy some of the best seafood in Croatia.
During a stroll through the small streets it is possible to discover new things new at every corner. As those streets are very narrow it is easy to take photos without other people on it. The houses are colourful giving the city a look similar to the Cinque Terre in Italia.
Climbing the Bell Tower at the Church of St. Euphemia is the best way to get a panoramic view over the city and the adriatic sea. As Rovinj is a popular holiday destination you will find a various offers of beaches, habour cruises and day trips. At the end of the day, get a cocktail at one of the small bars close to the waters edge.
2. Croatia – Pula
Second stop is Pula in the southern part of the Istrian Peninsula. Have you ever been to Rome? Then Pula will be a dejá vú. The main attraction of Pula* is the huge amphitheater in the city center. The Pula Arena may not be as big as the Colloseum in Rome, it is one of the best preserved amphitheater in the world though. The entrance fee is cheap and there are way less tourists in this one.
Close to the Pula Arena you can explore all kinds of roman architecture and ruins (i.e. the Temple of Augustus) giving the impression as if the modern city has been build into the ruins. Similar to Rovinj the city center is walkable and can be explored in just one day. Pula is close to the sea as well. Which offers you a range of different beaches and ship cruises to one of the islands nearby.
3. Croatia – Baska
Leaving the Istrian Peninsula the next stop is Rijeka. However, I would suggest to do a little detour to the Krk Island. You will have to pay a toll to cross the bridge to the island, but it is worth it. Crossing the island by car will take about one hour. At the end of the island surrounded by karst mountains lies the town of Baska. Baska is a popular holiday destination with many camping sites and affordable accomodations.
There is only one beach, but it is a huge one. Covering basically the full coastline of the Baska valley. The surrounding mountains have a unique vast look. You can take a hiking path up to the top to enjoy the contrast of the mountain landscape and the Baska valley. There are a lot of hidden bays on the Krk island. As they can be reached by ship only, you will have the beach almost for yourself.
The range of restaurants and shops is enormous. The beach promenade is basically one big shopping center. Other small towns on the Krk island can be explored best by renting a bicycle. Not like the rest of Croatia, the Krk island has a well developed cycling infrastructure.
4. Croatia – Zadar
Starting from Baska the next stage will be a long one. Leading to one of the major highlights along the adriatic coast: Zadar*. Leaving the Rijeka area the road is starting to get curvy, always offering beautiful views at the adriatic sea. It is one of the most scenic roads in Europe and it kept reminding me of the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
For the first two hours you will drive next to the Krk island. You can even take a look back and spot the city of Baska on the other side of the sea. The perspective is totally different, so you have to look twice to realize that you just started there a few hours ago. The next island to spot is Pag. You can take a quick ferry and drive the same way down the island of Pag. The famous party beach of Zrce is located at this island.
However, we will stay at the more scenic road and enjoy coastline views with a lot of tiny, picturesque fishing villages. Leaving the adriatic sea you can either take the highway to speed things up or stay on the tollfree road to Zadar.
Zadar has a lot to offer. As usual, the main attractions can be explored in one day. But if you have some additional time I would recommend to spend two or three days at Zadar. The most famous sights are the magical sounds of the Sea Organ and the church of St. Donatus cicled by roman ruins. The Bell Tower is the tallest standing structure in Zadar. You can visit the tower to get a view on the old town from above. There are a lot of museums, restaurants and shops to explore as well.
Fun stuff to do in Zadar includes counting cash machines
The oldtown is almost completely surrounded by the adriatic sea and enclosed by fortified walls. If you park at the harbour and walk over the Gradski bridge to enter you get the impression that the old town is located on an island. Fun stuff to do in Zadar includes counting cash machines. There are a lot of cash machines in Croatia, but I have never seen more than in Zadar. I would say I counted at least ten machines in five minutes.
Alfred Hitchcock once described the sunsets in Zadar as the most beautiful in the world. The most amazing sunsets can be watched from the Sea Organ and „The Greeting of the Sun“. But don´t expect to be the only one watching it at this place. Spending the night in the old town can be tricky as you are not allowed to drive into it and the nearest parking spots can be expansive. This is why I would recommend to drive south to one of the close towns. Most appartments are renovated, modernly equipped, close to the beach and very affordable.
5. Croatia – Sibenik
Next stop is Sibenik. We are getting closer to Dubrovnik, which also means getting in touch with Game of Thrones filming sites. Sibenik* has some of them to offer. For example the Cathedral of St. James in the heart of the Old Town which was used for scenes of Braavos.
The city center is build on hills and there are a lot of stairs and endless winding streets leading up to two fortresses overlooking the city and the bay area. You can visited both fortresses with one ticket. Different styles can be explored across the city as it has a ancient history from the Venetians, Ottmans, Austro-Hungarian to the Italians.
Krka national park
Sibenik is a charming city with way less tourists than the famous Dubrovnik or Zadar. The city is located in a bay area which will give you the impression of a huge lake. Actually the water flows down the Krka river. The Krka national park* is a perfect day trip from Sibenik. It is easy to access by car offering parking at the entrance. After purchasing a day ticket take a shuttle bus down to the most famous hiking trails.
The national park is huge. You can spend days hiking this place. The most scenic route is alongside the river leading to a big fall with emerald water at the end where you can also take a swim. The location was used as filming set for the old Winnetou films, so maybe you will recognized this waterfall. The Krka national park may not be as famous as the Plitvice Lakes, but it is definitely worth as visit.
On the way south there are more small towns worth seeing. You will pass them on your way to Split. As you can visit those quickly, you don´t have to stay for the night. The first one is Primosten. It is a small coastal town with a beautifully embedded old town on a small peninsula. Originally it has been the island Gola Glava which was a rescue spot for the inhabitants fleeing from the Turks. Later the area between the main land and the island has been filled and connected the town of Primosten to the mainland.
Similar to Rovinj there is a church on a hill in the city center (Church of St. George). This is the highest point of the peninsula and also a good orientation if you get lost in one of the twisty streets. The structure and atmosphere will definitely remind you of Rovinj. Leaving Primosten make sure to stop at the view point to get a perfect panoramic view.
Before arriving at Split take a quick stop at Trogir. Other than Zadar and Primosten which just create the impression to be located on an island, Trogir is actually located on an island. There are three bridges to enter the old town. Two bridges for cars and one pedestrian bridge close to the parking.
The historic town center of Trogir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with an ancient history (city tour*). It is encircled by stone walls and has a strong venetian look. So strong that it is actually used as filming location for films set in Venetia (as it is far less crowded and shooting is way easier than in the overcrowded city of Venetia).
From Trogir you can already spot the next stop on our list: Split.
If Zagreb is the capital of Croatia, Split is definitely the capital of the adriatic coastline. It is a key point for ferries and cruise ships. There are ferry lines to the croatian islands of Hvar, Brac, Vis and Korcula as well as Italy.
The waterfront is impressive and filled with pictureque restaurants offering great views on the yacht covered sea. Split also offers a beautiful old town with an old historic centre (you might have noticed the pattern here). Walk the cobblestone streets and marvel at the wonderful buildings. The Diocletian´s Palace with the Cathedral of Saint Domnius and the Golden Gate is another Game of Throne filming location worth visiting. While waiting on a Ferry to the close islands you can spend your time at the bars on the waterfront.
If you are planning to propose to your fiancé or to go on a honeymoon, Hvar* is a place to consider.
With some additional time I would definitely recommend to stay a few days on the Hvar Island. It is called the Saint Tropez of Croatia for a reason. Because is expansive as hell. But just as beautiful. The city of Hvar is located in a bay with small islands close to the coast. Take a hike up to the fortress for one of the most stunning views you will get in Croatia (definitely challenging the view on Dubrovnik from Srd mountain).
There are a lot of affordable appartments in Hvar*. However, my recommendation is to stay at this completely new luxuary hotel* close to the city. Offering the best hotel room view I ever had. If you are planning to propose to your fiancé or to go on a honeymoon, this is a place to consider. There is a long promenade with countless beach bars just in front of the hotel and you can walk to the city center in about ten minutes.
8. Croatia – Makarska
Alongside the mighty Sveti Jure mountain you will find a lot of holidays destinations*. As well as mountain roads and national parks. The road alongside the coast is not as close to the sea as on the way from Rijeka to Zadar, but still offers a lot of scenic views.
Whatever you do, do not drive up the Sveti Jure mountain road by car. The road is extremely steep, narrow and most of the time close to the abyss. It is basically a one-way street with traffic in both directions. If you survive, you will have an aweful time. I did ride up the mountain with my road bicycle and it was very hard to pass cars. Saying, if you want to see the incredible views from up there, take a scooter or an e-bike.
Reaching the city of Ploce there are two options to continue the road trip. The easiest way is staying on main road alongside the coast and crossing the small promontory of Bosnia and the city of Neum. This means leaving Croatia and the European Union, so make sure to have your insurance card with you. It also means two border crossings which can take a lot of time during busy tourist season.
But there is another way, which is actually way more fun. I would recommend to go for option B. Take the car ferry from Ploce to Peljesac Island. Then drive down the island until you are back on mainland. On the way take a stop at Mali Ston and climb the stone wall.
9. Croatia – Dubrovnik
Arriving at one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – Dubrovnik*. The city has gained enourmous tourist attraction with the Game of Thrones series. But there is so much more at this city than just GoT filming Locations (check it out*). Spend as much days as possible in Dubrovnik. You can explore the old town in one or two days, but there are a lot of possibilities and day trips which can be done starting from Dubrovnik. (A city as beautiful as Dubrovnik can not be fully described in a few paragrahps. I will save this for another blog post. So, just a few highlights)
Walking the city walls is expansive but you won´t regret it. Visit the old town early in the morning to have some space while exploring the streets and city walls. When the crowds arrive, take the cable car up to the Srd mountain. You will get the best view on Dubrovnik from up there and you can have a meal at the restaurant. Or stay until sunset for a romantic dinner. There is a hiking path up to the Srd mountain. Don´t underestimate the time it will take to walk up and down. Also the surface is graveled and slippery.
Take a day trip to Korcula island
There is also a war museum on top of the Srd mountain with interesting insights into the croatian war of independence. Dubrovnik has been under attack for a couple of years during the war. As the old town has been completely rebuilt you won´t spot any war marks (except for a few hidden places which have been kept as a reminder). However, if you visit other places in this area, as well as in the neighboring countries of Montenegro and Bosnia, you will see a lot of explosion marks from bullet holes reminding you that this area was a war venue only a few years ago.
If you have more time, take day trips starting from Dubrovnik. For example visit the island of Korcula. The city center has been build with streets similar to grates of a fish sceleton, all of them pointing to the sea. Take any road from the church at the city center and you will get tot he sea. Try it. Also walk up the stairs to the Bell tower to get a panoramic view on the old town.
The bridge of Mostar
On the next day, take a day trip to Mostar in Bosnia. The most famous sight is the iconic stone bridge over the river separating the city center. It has been destroyed during the Balcan war and rebuild perfectly. The streets are paved with huge cobbles. Make sure to have some comfortable walking shows. It is said the streets have been cobbled in this way for the women to only be able to walk this streets looking down at their feet and so avoid getting destracted by any men walking past. Try to walk it with sneakers or high-heels and you will understand. The stones have gotten very smooth and slippery with more and more tourist visiting the city of Mostar.
As Bosnia is a muslemic country, the atmosphere is completely different than in Croatia. There are many mosques and you will hear the Muezzin calls everywhere. After some repetitive days of croatian old towns this is a perfect alternation for your road trip.
More trips starting from Dubrovnik include the towns of Cavtat and the Dunave valley with it´s watermills. If you don´t want to enter another country by car you can also do our last stop at this road trip as a day trip from Dubrovnik. But I would recommend to drive to Kotor, as there are also a lot of possibilities to take some day trips in Montenegro.
10. Montenegro – Kotor
For our last stop we will leave Croatia and the European Union. The route leading to Kotor* is the first highlight. The city is located at the end of a large bay area encircled by high karst mountains. If you close your eyes and open them again, you may think you arrived in Norway. The route passes the islands of Sveti Dorde and Our Lady on the Rocks.
Arriving in Kotor the first thing you will notice is St. John´s Fortress high above Kotor with countless stonewalls seemingly hanging in the rocks below. Compared to Dubrovnik the old town of Kotor is tiny. It´s possible to walk through most of the streets in one hour. Which leaves enough time for the way up to the fortress. Because hundred of stairs have to be conquered. As the steps are not regular and the range between the steps can be quite large the climb takes some efforts. On top you will be rewarded with a maze of stone walls and one of the best views at the adriatic coast.
Back down in the old town there a plenty of restaurants to rest, museums and entrance free churches to visit and even a cat Museum (check it out*). The bell tower of Kotor is called the slate tower of Kotor. Caused by one of the big earthquakes in this area the tower is crooked resembling the famous slate tower of Pisa.
If you ever dreamed of traveling to Hawaii, this is your chance
Kotor and the Bay area can be visited in one day, so a day trip from Dubrovnik may be enough. With more time available I would recommend to take a detour to Budva. The city is located directly at the adriatic sea and has beautiful sand beaches. If you ever dreamed of traveling to Hawaii, this is your chance. There is a small island close to the coastline, just a quick boat trip away. And it is called Hawaii!
There is another famous island in the Budva area: Sveti Stefan. This is a private island which is very popular with celebrities. For example Sophia Loren, Sylvester Stallone and Silvio Berlusconi stayed on the former fishing island. Since 2007 it is privately owned by a luxuary hotel resort. It is not possible to enter the island without booking one of the pricey rooms starting at 1000 EUR per night. It is a nice to see from up the highway though. On the way back to Kotor you may check out the mountain road up to the Lovcen national park (if you dare). It is a beautiful serpentine road with countless u-turns offering perfect views on the Kotor bay.
As mentioned in the beginning the tour can be done in both ways. Always consider saving some stops for the return trip. As I love Dubrovnik and Kotor my recommendation is to just take some quick stops at the other destinations as those can be visited in a couple of hours each. Spend most of your time in the area around Dubrovnik/Kotor and use them as a starting point to explore more of the beautiful three country corner Dalmatia/Bosnia/Montenegro. If you enjoy beaches, you will find them everywhere alongside the coastline. However, if you are looking for sand beaches you will find them in Montenegro (natural beaches) and in Dubrovnik (artifical beaches). My recommendation is to avoid the beaches in Dubrovnik. Those are crowded and expensive as hell.
How you plan your road trip is up to you. It does not really matter, because the adriatic coastline is covered with beautiful places all over. You will be rewarded with epic sunsets wherever you stay, as the sun always sets on the sea. there are a lot of other places to discover alongside beautiful Adriatic Highway. Keep exploring.