This summer, feeling in dire need of a large dose of vitamin D, I managed to persuade a friend to spend a month travelling with me through the Eastern European country of Croatia. Starting in the inland northern cities, we worked our way down along the Dalmatian coast, visited 3 very different islands, and ended in the ancient city of Dubrovnik. As we are both full time students, we were not expecting a life of luxury; hostels, home cooking and budget buses allowed us to afford a month of backpacking. Here is my travel diary – a loose guide for anyone looking to explore this beautiful and eclectic country on a shoestring budget.
Our first stop was the city of Zagreb, Croatia’s vibrant northern capital. What struck us first about this city was how Eastern European it felt- not what we expected from a country famous for its white pebble beaches and crystal clear ocean. With only one night in the city (spent in The Dots Hostel, at £18 for a 6 bed dorm), we felt like we had to make the most of our brief time there. On the advice of the very friendly hostel receptionist, we made a meandering track through the city, via the colourful and winding market and past the mosaic-roofed church of St. Markus, to the Museum of Broken Relationships. This was absolutely as weird as it sounds. For the equivalent of about £3 you can view a collection of items donated by the public that are symbolic of a past “broken relationship”, accompanied with a short description. Highlights included a single stiletto heel belonging to a prostitute, whose client turned out to be a childhood sweetheart reunited for one wild night, and a blue baseball jersey accompanied by the simple description: “he was a player”. Although rather niche, this museum has toured the world, and its witty and uplifting tales make it definitely worth a visit if you are ever in Zagreb.
After some misadventures involving incorrect bus timetables and one very friendly miniature Schnauzer, we ended up on the correct bus to Korenica – a small town a few hours south of Zagreb. Although there isn’t much in the town itself, our hostel (Falling Lakes- £20 a night for a 6 bed dorm) provided a convenient shuttle bus service to our next target: the Plitvice Lakes National Park. This UNESCO world heritage site is easily one of the most astoundingly beautiful places I have ever visited. Day tickets for the park cost about £20 (with a valid student card), and for that you get to experience totally unspoiled freshwater lakes so clear that their depth is impossible to tell, towering waterfalls and staggering mountainous scenery. Boat travel across the lakes is included, so it is easy to get from point to point and make your hike as difficult or easy as you like.
Another cheap and cheerful bus from Korenica took us to our first coastal destination, Zadar. A small but beautiful town, Zadar is the first place we visited where the Eastern European feel of Zagreb starts to merge into the more historic, Venetian atmosphere of Southern Croatia. It was also the first chance we got to submerge our weary bodies in the Adriatic, and we definitely made the most of it. We spent a day lounging off the sea walls, returning covered in a crust of sea salt to our hostel in the middle of the Old Town (Hostel Home Zadar, £16 a night for an 8 bed dorm) before heading out for evenings exploring the extensive night market and watching some of the Dalmatian coast’s best sunsets whilst listening to the Sea Organ, one of Zadar’s most famous landmarks. Wind generated by the waves splashing against holes cut into the sea wall make eerie, rhythmic sounds which often resembles music. We found 2 nights more than enough time to soak up the relaxed atmosphere here.
From Zadar we travelled 140km along the coast (again by bus) to one of the most highly anticipated stops on our list; the vibrant, bustling, ancient port city of Split. A city as famous for its nightlife as its rich history; we were keen to experience as much as possible. We found that best way to see Split’s labyrinthine Old Town was to let yourself get lost in the narrow streets. This way we came across a wonderful travellers’ bar called Charlies, a perfect place to get chatting to fellow backpackers while sampling the cheapest drinks in the city. Split is one of the only places we visited with sandy beaches, although these tend to be crowded with overpriced sunbeds and the sea is much less clean. By walking a short way in the opposite direction along the coast, we discovered a large rocky headland with cliffs perfect for sunbathing on, until you get so hot you have no option but to jump into the deep blue water below. This is a much more refreshing and exciting option than the beaches, but it’s important to leave early enough to get a good spot on the rocks, and also to remember to pack watershoes – you won’t be complaining of how ugly they are after your feet have been spared from the millions of sea urchins lurking on the sea floor.
Staying in CroParadise Pink hostel (£26 for a 6 bed dorm- slightly more expensive as we head further down the coast) we found it quite easy to ignore our budget and go out partying every night, quickly drawn in by the vibrant party atmosphere. The best night we had is owed to the good people at the Tower Pub Crawl- we chose to go on a night where Split’s main beach was hosting a beach festival, featuring DJ’s Rudimental among others. For the equivalent of about £35 we got 100 minutes of open bar including beer pong, entry to the festival, and most importantly a t-shirt – let’s just say their slogan “the best night you will never remember” is not entirely unrealistic. A slightly cheaper way to spend an evening is at the main Old Town square, where from about 8-12pm every night the decadent bar “Luxor” puts on live music out of their front door in the shadow of the ancient bell tower. We found sitting under the stars with hundreds of strangers singing along to the likes of “Hey Jude” and “Brown Eyed Girl” to be a refreshingly simple yet life affirming experience.
With slightly sore heads we decided to tackle the vast underground remains of the palace cellars, once belonging to the founder of modern day Split, Roman Emperor Diocletian. Parts of these remains are around 1,700 years old, but timbers that have been found and preserved date back to before the birth of Jesus. We learned on our visit that in Roman times, what is currently the walled Old Town of Split was actually all Diocletian’s enormous palace, which explains why when walking around Split you’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve been transported back in time. Today, having been shaped by the Byzantines, Venetians and Austrians, Split is a beautiful metropolis which you should definitely allow 2 or 3 days to fully absorb on your trip to Dalmatia.
Our next destination was our first island, which meant boarding a short ferry (ferries from split are very regular and cheap in peak season) to the port of Stari Grad, followed by a quick bus through the mountains to the ancient town of Hvar. Hvar has gained a reputation in recent years for being the favoured mooring spot for luxury superyachts, who’s owners disembark to sample the exclusive nightlife, local cuisine and pristine beaches. This may be partly due to the infamous Carpe Diem Beach Club, which is essentially a nightclub on its own private island (to which taxi boats are regular and quick). We felt that, though expensive, a trip to Hvar would not be complete without a visit to Carpe Diem, and luckily our hostel felt the same – Villa Skansi (a pricey but justified £33 per night for an 8 bed dorm) provide nightly bar crawls which often end at Carpe. We were not disappointed by the club. A canopy of trees have been woven together to form a roof over the forest floor, fully equipped with strobe lighting, dancers, and a booming sound system. But I would stress that for the price you pay (about £30 just for entry- we didn’t buy any drinks…), one visit per trip to Hvar is probably enough.
The bay which forms the port of Hvar looks out over the beautiful Pakleni islands, a small archipelago which we could not resist exploring. For about £10 each (for 4 people) we were able to hire a boat and make our own way around the islands. Granted, this boat wasn’t much more than a glorified bathtub with a motor attached to the back, but driving it was easy to pick up and for that price we were not complaining. This way we were able to visit unspoiled beaches and bays that are otherwise inaccessible, and although we felt fairly insignificant next to the many yachts and catamarans, this day was definitely a highlight of the whole trip and a must-do when in Hvar. After our day in the sun we couldn’t face cooking and so had one of the only restaurant meals of the whole trip, choosing a small local taverna in which to sample the traditional Croatian dish of Ćevapi. This is a meaty, sausage-like dish served with a distinctive red pepper and onion relish, which is very popular with the locals. During our stay we experienced one of the few days of bad weather we had over the month. However, this meant we could make the climb up to the historic Fortica Spanjola which overlooks the town- entry costs about £3, and that price is worth it just for the views. The fortress started building in the 1200s, but there are hillfort remains on the site dating back to 1000 BC, and has survived many sieges and even a lightning strike to the gunpowder store. If you can face the climb, the fortress is definitely worth a visit if you get tired of Hvars hedonism. Our final day on Hvar was spent at the very cool Hula Hula Beach Bar. Open all day until 10pm, this bar offers a very unique atmosphere, where visitors can choose to take a dip in the sea, heat up on sunbeds, grab a cocktail, or all of the above! Although drinks are a little pricey, the bar is definitely worth a visit for the beautiful sunset views accompanied by a soundtrack of gentle waves and the latest tunes.
Our second island stop was another short ferry away, and in my opinion is one of the most beautiful places we visited. Korcula, a small town on an island of the same name, is most famous for being the supposed birthplace of the explorer Marco Polo (although tenuous, as this hasn’t actually been proven) but we thought it should be most famous for holding the title of “most photogenic town in Croatia”. It possesses beautifully winding narrow streets hung with many a washing line to rival those found in Split, and you only have to climb one of the several towers to notice the beautiful terracotta rooftops strikingly clashing with the azure sea and mountainous horizon. As it is only a tiny town, there isn’t a huge amount to do in Korcula. We naturally spent a day on the beach, and rather too long at the top of the ancient Marco Polo Tower; this had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that it was so close to our hostel that we were able to access the wifi… Hostel Caenazzo (£22 a night for a 6 bed dorm) was pretty and clean, however, it did lack a kitchen, which meant preparing our signature dish of budget pesto pasta was sadly impossible. Luckily, the hostel sits above a pizzeria of the same name (where hostel guests get 10% off), so we were forced to treat ourselves to pizza, and even some fresh local tuna steak- Pizzeria Caenazzo is a definite perk of staying in the hostel.
A third ferry took us to the town of Bol on the island of Brač, and then a short bus through the mountains dropped us at our last island town- Supetar. A small but pretty town (with some of the best sunsets we saw), Supetar served as more of a base over the 4 days we were there from which we intended to explore as much of scenic Brač island as possible. By hiring some fairly cheap bikes (£6 for the day) we were able to go slightly off the beaten track and find deserted coves which we had completely to ourselves, with some of the clearest water I’d ever seen. Stocking up on sandwiches at the bakery in the morning is crucial as getting lost is a definite risk! Our hostel (Funky Donkey- £22 a night for a 6 bed dorm), although possibly holding the title of weirdest place I’ve ever stayed (with the most mosquitos), had some really lovely staff and guests who made the evenings very memorable- it’s worth staying there just for that, and for the free shots of gag inducing home-made liquor “rakia”. Wanting to venture even further afield, we also rented a pair of slightly dodgy mopeds and spent the next day whizzing along the islands mountain roads. Although we had to stop several times to fill up, and spent a good half an hour trying to rescue my key which somehow got locked inside my own boot, this was one of the most memorable and fun experiences we had. A definite highlight was reaching Vidova Gora, the highest point not just of Brač island, but of all islands in the Adriatic; that view definitely justified the £25 we paid for the scooters. It is definielty the best way to see the island.
After two days of some of the worst facial sunburn of the month and regularly driving on the wrong side of the road, we decided to calm down a bit and took a short bus ride back to the port town of Bol which boasts the unbelievably picturesque Zlatni Rat beach, a naturally occurring pebble spit beach which extends far into the sea. Having spied this beach, which changes its shape constantly due to the action of the sea, from the top of Vidova Gora, we were super keen to get down and catch some rays on the bright white pebbles. Although Zlatni Rat is quite far out of Bol town, there are plenty of places to buy cheap food and souvenirs and a myriad of water sports on offer if you’re in the mood for some adrenaline; it’s definitely worth setting a day aside for one of the most iconic natural symbols of the Adriatic.
Our final destination, Dubrovnik, saw the group turn from a duo to a trio with the addition of my companion’s boyfriend. This prompted us to decide to push the boat out and live the life of (relative) luxury in an Airbnb rather than a hostel- our apartment (about £30 a night) was a 30-minute walk out of the Old Town, but was worth it for the spotless kitchen and comfy double beds. We sadly didn’t have that long in Dubrovnik; the charming ancient citadel is packed with things to do and we could easily have spent 5 days there rather than 2. As a massive self-confessed nerd I was very excited to get into the city for one slightly lame reason; Dubrovnik is the location for much of the filming of HBO’s hugely successful show “Game of Thrones”, where the fictional Kings Landing (including Flea Bottom, Littlefinger’s brothel and the steps to the great Sept of Baelor), the Red Keep, Blackwater Bay, the island of Qarth, the House of the Undying and the location of the Purple Wedding can all be found. If you’re a fan of the show, this should be enough to get a sense of the feel of the Old Towns architecture and vibe; if you’re not, the city is a compact maze of narrow streets paved with stone polished slick by thousands of years of walking, and high buildings teetering above topped with classic terracotta tiles. By paying about £20 you can choose from a number of guided tours of all these locations, but with a small amount of research online it is definitely possible and much cheaper to do the walk yourself.
The great thing about Dubrovnik is that no matter how sweaty and dusty you get exploring the Old Town, you are always close enough to the sea to strip off and jump in. Although the actual beaches are a bit further, tourists and locals alike can be found lounging on the sea walls and rocks near the city, where conveniently placed showers can be utilised to wash off the salt before heading back into the city. Dubrovnik Old Town is completely enclosed by the original citadel walls, and for a small fee (less with a student card) you can make the climb and walk the whole way around the edge. It is definitely best to save this until the early evening, just before sunset, to avoid the blazing midday sun but also to get the best view of the changing evening skies over the rooftops. The views over the city, whilst breath-taking, reveal some unexpected surprises; rooftop bars, inexplicably derelict buildings and even a full size rooftop basketball court were some of the treats we spied on our walk. Evenings in Dubrovnik are wonderfully unique; while the city surprisingly does not have much of a nightclub scene, a bit of hunting uncovers a couple of incredibly well positioned beach bars clinging to the base of the city walls overlooking the sea where you can sip an Aperol spritz while watching the sunset. Our packed few days in Dubrovnik ended with an absolute must do activity- the vertigo-inducing cable car which ascends 412 metres to a plateau where exclusive bars and restaurants can be found. For a relatively low price (which is, you guessed it, reduced with a student card) you can get some seriously impressive photos of the mind-blowing views over the Old Town and Elaphiti Islands.
Now at the end of our journey, we had to endure a final 4-hour bus back up to Split to catch a flight home. We found Croatia, as expected, to be beautifully scenic with a relaxed and laid back atmosphere perfect for the fun loving holidaymaker. However, we were also pleasantly surprised by the rich cultural history found in even the smallest town, and by the unwavering good spirits of the local people who, clearly and justifiably, are incredibly proud to be Croatian.
All hostels can be found on www.hostelworld.com or www.hostelbookers.com. All prices correct at time of booking (NB: these were booked during peak time, and often at very short notice).