The coastal city of Sibenik served as a filming location for “Game of Thrones.” // © 2016 Megan Leader
Feature image (above): The historic town of Trogir, near Split, offers a beautiful old town and a slower pace. // © 2016 iStock
“I can’t believe we have this whole place to ourselves.”
In Croatia, I found myself speaking these words time and time again — while walking through a castle deep within the forest; while sampling extraordinary wines at a family-owned vineyard; while standing at the top of a tower overlooking an ancient limestone city; and while dining in the one-table restaurant of a renowned chef.
Solitude isn’t something you experience much when traveling in Europe — a continent full of charming, historic places that teem with thousands of travelers every day. But unlike many of its European neighbors, Croatia feels refreshingly undiscovered.
Certainly, there are parts of the country that are not secret. The beautiful coastal city of Dubrovnik, for example, is a favorite among cruise ship passengers, and Plitvice Lakes National Park — a gorgeous natural wonder with emerald-green waters and limestone cliff faces — sees its share of selfie sticks.
But if you know where to look in Croatia, you’ll be met with a multitude of offbeat experiences to savor. On a recent trip with tour operator Secret Dalmatia, I found myself marveling, day after day, at this country’s picturesque architecture, rich flavors and bold wines, paired with plenty of quiet moments to pause and take it all in.
Croatia’s capital and cultural hub, Zagreb has a bustling atmosphere that feels much like Prague, with cobblestone streets and stately neo-Renaissance buildings paired with the occasional blocky, concrete communist-era structure.
This is a city for leisurely walks through leafy squares, taking time to stop in cafes, bakeries and cathedrals. Don’t miss the Croatian Museum of Naive Art, a stunning and whimsical exhibition of 20th-century pieces by untrained artists. Their styles are varied — you’ll find delicate brushstrokes, bold graphics, cartoonish figures and intricate patterns.
Set aside a day to explore northern Croatia’s castles and forests. Trakoscan, a castle in the hills overlooking neighboring Slovenia, is notable for its art and verdant grounds. A bit farther east is Varazdin, a quiet, family-friendly city with pastel-colored baroque cathedrals, outdoor cafes and a medieval castle that looks like the setting for a fairy tale. Its tagline is “the city where angels sleep,” a fitting name for a peaceful place that sees so few tourists.
Zagreb was once a stop on the Orient Express, and Esplanade Zagreb Hotel was built in 1925 to accommodate its passengers. Esplanade Zagreb, steeped in comfort, serves as the perfect introduction to Croatian style and elegance. Its convenient location by the train station is within an easy walk of the city center, and its restaurant terrace is perfectly situated for an evening aperitif.
After a couple of days of immersion in the city, clients will be ready to continue onward to the Dalmatian Coast. Be sure they stop by Plitvice Lakes National Park en route: Its dramatic cliffs emerge from sparkling waters, and dozens of waterfalls can be found throughout the area. It’s usually quite crowded, so suggest they go first thing in the morning to fully enjoy some of the pristine corners of the park.
When I stepped into the walled seaside city of Zadar, I felt like I’d walked into someone’s home. The city’s limestone streets have been polished smooth by countless footsteps over the course of centuries. It’s a well-cared-for city, but if you look closely at the buildings’ facades, you’ll find occasional bullet holes from the Croatian War of Independence in the 1990s — battle scars from a tragic time. The recent conflict has embedded a strong, proud spirit in the residents of Croatia.
Zadar’s Museum of Ancient Glass is a unique find, with its exhibits of delicate vessels and decorations from as early as the first and second centuries. Watch demonstrations of glass artists at work — some of their creations replicate the style of pieces displayed in the museum.
On the nearby island of Pag, the Gligora cheese factory is perched on the side of a hill, overlooking sheep pastures. Some of its cheeses — made from the milk of sheep, cows and goats — are infused with lavender, olive, aromatic truffles or the region’s iconic Marasca sour cherries (from which maraschino liqueur is made). After touring the factory, sit down for a bountiful tasting of a variety of Gligora’s cheeses, as well as fruits and vegetables, crusty bread and wine.
Farther down the Adriatic Coast, Sibenik is a city by the people and for the people: It was built by Croats nearly 1,000 years ago (unlike many of its neighboring cities, which were built by Romans or Greeks). Today, its citizens take pride in having defended the city against the Yugoslav National Army and Serbian paramilitary troops during a weeklong battle in 1991, despite being under-armed.
Visitors will find that Sibenik is full of winding alleys and secret courtyards — each captivating and unique — and should set aside ample time to explore every charming corner of this town. Don’t worry about getting lost: The city edges up to the water, which will help clients get their bearings easily. A highlight is the charming St. Lawrence Monastery garden, secreted away up a flight of stone steps behind St. Lawrence’s Church and brimming with medicinal herbs and flowers.
Overlooking Sibenik’s cathedral and main square, Pelegrini Tavern was voted the best restaurant in Dalmatia and best restaurant in Croatia in 2016. It serves elevated local cuisine in a historic setting. Book ahead to enjoy a meal at an outdoor table or at the coveted indoor table set on a glass-topped stone cellar stacked full of wine bottles: The wine was created specifically for the young daughter of chef and owner Rudi Stefan, and it is being saved for her 18th birthday celebration. Until then, visitors can admire the bottles below their feet.
The wine was produced by the famous Bibich winery nearby. Open in the warmer seasons, Bibich has been creating some of Croatia’s finest wines since 1472. Its avant-garde tasting menus — some with more than a dozen courses — are spectacular. Not only does the chef make unique use of color (midnight-black dishes prepared with cuttlefish ink might grace the menu), but she also plates her food creatively: Each dish is paired with a different Bibich wine to taste, and each wine is uniquely exquisite.
After a meal, take some time to enjoy the restaurant’s terrace, with its vine-wrapped pergolas, rose bushes and apple trees, before returning to charming Sibenik or continuing south along the coast.
Once the home of Roman emperor Diocletian, the city of Split is ideal for history or architecture buffs. At the heart of the city is Diocletian’s Palace, much of which is open-air and now serves as space for cafes, craft stalls and live music. Musicians often take advantage of the acoustics in the palace’s rotunda; its dome collapsed many years ago, so the lofty stone structure opens up to the sky. Visitors should be sure to climb to the top of the rotunda for amazing 360-degree views of the city and to hear the music echoing below.
The neighboring town of Trogir is smaller and quieter. It has a slower pace than Split and is a perfect place to spend a leisurely day or two. Trogir is also the home of renowned local chef Tatjana Ciciliani, who has created an intimate, one-table restaurant in her own home — a table that can only be reserved through tour company Secret Dalmatia.
Ciciliani’s humor, approachability and bohemian sense of style will make guests want to linger at the table for hours, chatting over wine. But it’s her mastery of cuisine — with bold flavors, light textures and elegant plating — that will make them want to move in permanently. Of the dishes she served, a highlight was shark topped with a delicious and mild salsa verde made with nettles, and a paper-thin, fried celery chip.
Ciciliani chatted with us from her open kitchen while she prepared course after delicious course, and we shared wonderful wine and conversation. After dinner, she took us on a walk through her town at night, sharing historical highlights and peeking into shops, saying hello to friends passing by and pointing out notable architecture.
We ended our walk along Trogir’s waterfront promenade, watching the city lights glitter on the dark water.
We practically had the whole place to ourselves.
Other Offbeat Experiences in Croatia
Sip a glass of sparkling rose and take an “oath to wine” at Zlatne Gorice winery in Varazdin Breg.
See the pre-Romanesque chapel hidden in the back of a coffee bar at Kavana Lovre in Zadar.
Get a unique perspective on love (lost) at the Museum of Broken Relationships in Zagreb.