In short, you should visit them all. This list is intended to help you prioritize.
Go if you like: Cable car rides
Described by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw as the pearl of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik has something to offer every kind of traveler. The storied history that took place between the city’s ancient walls and on top of its limestone streets is visible all around. Take for instance the Franciscan Church and Monastery, housing a pharmacy that was built in 1317 and still sells ointments made of ancient recipes.
There are many reasons to call Dubrovnik beautiful. The sea comes right up to the streets, and boats are docked just outside the buildings as cars would be in less exotic places. The orange roofs stand out in perfect contrast to the bright blue sea and the green trees. All this is visible simultaneously from an aerial cable car that takes you from sea level to a restaurant 405 meters (about 1,330 feet) above.
Go if you like: Partying
Hvar Town is the main city on the island of Hvar, found off the Dalmatian Coast. It has the beaches, vineyards, and sunny skies you would expect of a Mediterranean paradise. In addition to its natural beauty, Hvar Town houses Gothic palaces and other historic buildings within its thirteenth-century walls.
According to Lonely Planet, an estimated twenty thousand people visit every day during tourist season. They hang out in the main square and lose themselves in streets paved with marble and stone. And they party. From the many bars in town to the nude beaches on the nearby Pakleni Islands, Hvar Town is the place to let loose. This is even true for celebrities. Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Prince Harry are among those who have sailed their yachts to the island for fun and sun.
But there is plenty to do for the more reserved traveler as well. Hvar’s scenery and the lavender scent of its outdoors make its bike trails some of the most pleasant in the country.
Go if you like: Marco Polo
Whether or not Marco Polo was in fact born in Korcula Town, a house he lived in is still there among Renaissance buildings that were built later. One such structure is the Cathedral of St. Mark, made of limestone in the 15th century.
Korcula Town’s city center is quaint. Tiny shops and restaurants are concealed in its narrow cobblestone alleyways. Now and then it comes to life with festivals, live music, or open-air markets, and the crowds stir in the summer breeze.
The island features many attractions outside the city as well, including sandy beaches and blue waters. There are vineyards and wineries where you can taste excellent wines, and scenic trails for hiking and biking through the woods.
Go if you like: Gladiators (and dinosaurs)
Pula may be the best Croatian city for those interested in Roman history. It was a Roman port around Julius Caesar’s time, and the Romans would later destroy and rebuild it, leaving their fingerprints all over.
Pula has some of the best-preserved Roman ruins outside of Italy. Among these is the Arena, built to hold twenty thousand spectators. People flocked to it even in the days of the Roman Empire. But where they were going to see gladiator fights, you may have to settle for a hockey game. The Arena is the only Roman amphitheatre whose circular wall is still standing in its entirety. It often hosts sporting events, movies, and markets.
Not surprisingly, Pula’s cuisine is a unique blend of Italian and Croatian.
Outdoorsy types will love the beaches and the nearby Brijuni National Park, where there are over 200 dinosaur footprints from the Cretaceous Period.
Go if you like: Pastels
Rovinj became a robust fishing port during the Venetian era. While there is much more to the city now, the port is still bustling every morning. Output from the port is served in restaurants along the beautiful waterfront, as are some of the world’s best wines.
In addition to producing renowned wines, the area around Rovinj is known for its olive oil and truffles.
The surrounding area is also known for Golden Cape Park Forest, which has excellent trails for hiking and biking, rocks for climbing, and secluded beaches for adults and children to relax. There is also the Rovinj Archipelago, made up of roughly twenty scenic islands.
Another remnant of the Venetian era is the architecture. Colorful pastel buildings flank narrow cobblestone alleyways, and laundry hangs from shuttered windows. Rovinj may only have about fifteen thousand people, but it has plenty of charm.
Go if you like: Caves, lagoons, and waterfalls
For seventeen hundred years Split has been a popular place to relax. The Roman emperor Diocletian lived out his last days in a palace built there for that purpose. Those who succeeded him would often vacation in that same palace. It took a few centuries, but as the area around the palace grew, a city was born. Split is now the second-largest city in Croatia and the largest on the Adriatic coast.
Ol’ Diocletian picked a pretty timeless place. To this day the seaside promenade is alive with cafes and foot traffic. Restaurants throughout the city serve the best wines that the Dalmatian Coast has to offer. In fact many of the best bars and restaurants in town are inside Diocletian’s Palace, which you can visit on your own or as part of a tour.
As with nearly any Croatian city, there are plenty of outdoor activities. Day excursions are great for exploring nearby islands as well as hideouts such as the Blue Cave, the Blue Lagoon, the Krka Waterfalls, and Plitvice Lakes.
Go if you like: Random harmonic notes
The late filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock once visited Zadar. He watched the sun set over the Adriatic Sea and, as the story goes, said it was the most beautiful sunset in the world.
Unfortunately for Hitchcock, he never got to hear the sweet sounds that now accompany the beautiful sight. Along the city’s sea front, invisible beneath the marble steps that lead into the water, is a work of architectural sound art called the Sea Organ. Waves hitting the steps push air through a system of musical tubes, creating pleasant harmonic sounds.
Zadar was in ancient times inhabited by Greeks and then Romans. In fact, the main street cutting across the city’s Old Town, and tread upon by countless feet to this day, was originally built by the Romans. Attractions for those who enjoy Roman history include the Forum and St. Donatus’ Church, which was built upon the remnants of the temple of Juno.
Go if you like: Ghost stories
Croatia’s capital is a walkable metropolis that was established in the eleventh century. Its cobblestone streets weave between medieval buildings and are now lined with cafes that serve food and drinks day and night. It has plenty of museums, including the Zagreb City Museum, which offers a direct look at the region’s past, from prehistoric times to the Homeland War of the early 1990’s.
With a population of just under 800,000, Zagreb is Croatia’s largest city, several times larger than the other cities on this list. But what makes Zagreb truly different is that it is an inland city. You will have to go elsewhere for Croatia’s famous beaches, but Zagreb is definitely worth a detour.
Did we say ghost stories?
Yes. One of the cities many walking tours is called the Ghost Walk. It begins at night and takes you to forgotten graveyards and other supposedly haunted places. You will learn about Zagreb’s history of witches and secret societies, including one called the Brotherhood of the Croatian Dragon.
Learn more about the 5 diverse cycling tours we offer in Croatia here