Croatia’s pretty Dalmatian coast draws the crowds. Here’s how to avoid them
(CNN) — Like Venice, Barcelona and Prague, Dubrovnik is a victim of its own success.
In 2019, more than three million tourists flocked to the legendary walled city along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast and local authorities expect the number to rise to that point again in the next few years as the world tourism recovering from Covid-19.
The pre-pandemic crowds and their impact on the historic city were such that UNESCO at one point threatened to revoke Dubrovnik’s World Heritage status.
The increase in visitor numbers was largely fueled by the launch of a new cruise ship terminal that could accommodate five ships at a time and disembark up to 10,000 passengers daily and an expanded international airport that could route these passengers to and from their ships.
As if that weren’t enough, a global hit TV show has attracted a whole new breed of tourists.
« Before ‘Game of Thrones,’ most of the people I guided were interested in art and architecture, that sort of thing, » says veteran Dubrovnik guide Ivan Vukovic. « But more and more people just wanted selfies at the places where they had done the show, like Pile Gate and Fort Lovrijenac.
« And we had a big, big problem with naked Instagramers doing their own ‘walk of shame’ down the Jesuit Stairs. »
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Dubrovnik – it’s still one of the coolest urban spaces on planet Earth. But for those who enjoy their history, art, and architecture with far fewer crowds, these seven alternative Croatian coastal towns offer a similar vibe with far fewer crowds.
Just an hour’s drive from Dubrovnik on the coast, Ston is one of Dalmatia’s best-kept secrets. Founded by the ancient Illyrians, this laid-back seaside village is renowned for its stone walls and incredible seafood.
Like a Croatian version of the Great Wall of China, the 14th century ramparts creep up a mountain behind the village. It takes a few hours to walk the longest fortified structure in Europe (3.5 miles/5.5 km), let alone run the ramparts in the annual Ston Walls Marathon.
A pedestrianized pedestrian street in Ston’s old town is lined with open-air cafes like Konoba Bakus that serve seafood specialties like Adriatic oysters, black cuttlefish risotto and buzara mussels. Feel free to linger all afternoon; the locals do.
The town of Trogir is more like Venice than any other place on the Dalmatian coast.
Half an hour from Split on the coast, this small island town looks like a miniature Dubrovnik, shaped by nearly four centuries of Venetian rule and perfectly preserved. Surrounded by water, Trogir looks more like Venice than any other outpost along the Dalmatian coast.
When Trogir was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the citation described the town as « an excellent example of a medieval town…which has retained its urban fabric to an exceptional degree and with the minimum of modern interventions … in all aspects of the urban landscape. »
Even if you don’t like quaint cobbled streets and palm-lined waterfront promenades, St. Lawrence’s Cathedral – with its iconic Venetian-style bell tower and extravagant Radovan portal – should put Trogir on your bucket list. of Dalmatian buckets.
Famous for its summer folk festival and donkey races, Primošten is almost another ancient island town. During the Renaissance, the inhabitants built a narrow causeway that connects their island home to the mainland.
The town’s narrow streets are home to craft shops, unique clothing boutiques and traditional Konoba restaurants. Rising above their red-tiled roofs, St. George’s Church dominates a hill with sweeping views of the Adriatic.
Across the causeway are Mala Raduča and other sandy beaches and a hinterland filled with vineyards that produce some of Croatia’s best wine.
Biograd na Moru
Spreading over a small peninsula, Biograd has another medieval old town heavily influenced by centuries of Venetian rule. But its real strength is access to the Adriatic.
As one of the nautical hubs of the Dalmatian coast, Biograd offers many opportunities for outings on the water. Diving and snorkeling day trips depart daily for Kornati National Park and its myriad of unspoilt islands.
Back in town, Marina Šangulin is the base for several yacht charter companies offering a variety of motor and canvas boats. You can also rent paddle boards and fly between the scenic coves south of the old town.
Zadar is located just a few hours from the Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Leonid Tit/Adobe Stock
Located between a photogenic harbor filled with yachts and the Adriatic dotted with islands, the old town of Zadar offers a setting every bit as magical as Dubrovnik.
From a crumbling Roman forum and Romanesque churches to its sturdy Venetian walls and an occasional communist-era structure that looks almost vintage, the architecture of the old town is a mix of the different people who ruled Zadar over the years. years.
Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that Zadar had the most beautiful sunset he had ever seen. And there’s something special about the city at dusk when the lights twinkle around the harbour, the waterside sea organ plays a tune generated by the waves and the cafes and bars of the old town come to life. .
Beyond its own attractions, Zadar is an ideal base for visiting medieval Nin (Croatia’s first royal capital), bungee jumping from the imposing Maslenički Bridge, or hiking and climbing in the Zadar Gorge. Paklenica. And it’s only a two-hour drive to the turquoise pools and bountiful waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Surrounded by factories and sprawling suburbs, Split isn’t the most attractive Dalmatian destination. However, the second largest city in Croatia offers something to meditate on.
The pride and joy of the city is Diocletian’s Palace, erected in the 4th century AD by a paranoid Roman emperor who was certain he would be murdered if he did not leave the imperial capital and surround himself with impregnable walls.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site all on its own, the palace is like a small town. Even today, more than 3,000 people live inside its massive outer walls. Don’t miss the massive cellars, especially the gravelly interface with parts that have yet to be excavated – a cross-section of residential waste deposited over 1,700 years.
Split’s waterfront is teeming with ferries to popular Adriatic islands like Brač, Hvar and extravagantly beautiful Vis, where « Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again » was filmed on location (rather than in the real Greece).
Set in a park-like setting on the outskirts of town, the ancient Roman city of Salona retains a large amphitheater, baths, basilica, and many other structures. Atop a nearby mountain stands the Fortress of Klis, an imposing medieval castle once occupied by the Knights Templar and the mythical city of Meereen in Game of Thrones.
The Roman Arena in Pula.
One of the northernmost towns on the Croatian coast, Pula sits along the western edge of the Istrian peninsula, not far from Venice. A star-shaped Renaissance castle crowns the old town. But the fame of Pula lies in the Roman relics.
Almost 2,000 years after its construction, Pula Arena remains one of the best preserved Roman structures in the world. Nowadays, the colossal stadium hosts plays, concerts and the annual outdoor Pula Film Festival.
Fast forward to the communist era, the intriguing Memo Museum Pula offers a walk through the past of everyday life in Tito’s Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was once a part. Pula is also the gateway to the islands of Brijuni National Park with its beaches, hiking trails, golf course and safari park.
If you can’t resist the allure of Dubrovnik, there are a few things that can make your visit easier.
While staying in a short-term rental or small hotel inside the city walls may seem like the height of romance (and it is), it often involves carrying your luggage over hundreds stone stairs. Meanwhile, those with rental cars will find that the most convenient parking is around $100 per day.
The alternative is to stay just outside the walls in a rental or hotel (like the Hilton Imperial) that offers free parking. Or simply don’t have a vehicle; local bus services are fast, frequent and efficient, as are taxis and carpools. At under $1 per kilometer, Uber fares to the Old Town are around $8 from the cruise port and $27 from the international airport.
Given the mild Mediterranean climate of the Dalmatian coast, you don’t need a lot of clothes. So keep your luggage to a minimum, especially if you are staying inside the walls.
Avoid the densest crowds as you explore Old Town before and after the daily high tide for cruise ship passengers. Strolling the polished limestone streets is particularly enjoyable at dawn or late evening.
Hire a guide for a walking tour. Not just for the local history and architecture, but also to learn how Dubrovnik withstood the civil war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and what life is like today for those living still inside the walls.