Red-roofed medieval cities huddle on Adriatic shores. A thousand emerald islands unfurl along a sparkling coast like a shining necklace. A forested mountainside is awash in a mesmerizing network of lakes and waterfalls. Croatia is overlooked by many travelers to Europe, and that’s a shame, because we think it’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world. It’s also a gateway to even more Adriatic splendor that, when combined into one sweeping trip, introduce you to a vastly diverse range of culture and beauty.
Historic Cultural Capitals Glitter on a Magical Coast
Long the capital of the Ragusa Republic, which rivaled the Venetian Empire in power and influence, the glittering city of Dubrovnik (above) has been called the “Pearl of the Adriatic.” It’s easy to see how this historic city gained the nickname. Jutting into the Adriatic on a limestone promontory and protected by a fully intact medieval wall, it is a city like no other. Brimming with Gothic and Renaissance treasures – including the splendid Rector’s Palace, Sponza Palace and Franciscan Monastery – this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a delight to explore. One sure way to get a sense of its breadth is to climb the stairs to the ramparts that surround it; Dubrovnik’s 800-year old wall completely encircles the city and affords magnificent views over medieval rooftops and the azure waters of the Adriatic Sea.
Once you witness this magnificent setting, you’ll come to understand why one of the Roman Empire’s most powerful leaders wanted to live out his days here. Emperor Diocletian chose Split as his retirement destination in 305 AD, and had a grand palace built here to accommodate his post-imperial court. Today, the ancient Roman palace – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – serves as Split’s marketplace and its city center. To be sure, the passing of the ages has taken its toll on some of its structures, but many residents of Split make their homes and run their businesses within its walls. It’s remarkable to think that 2,000 people still call the palace grounds home.
Croatia’s capital of Zagreb has long been a crossroads of culture and commerce, and remains so today. It is the nation’s most important hub, the point where Southeastern Europe and the Mediterranean are linked to Western and Northern Europe. Amidst its modern-day bustle, however, the past reigns supreme. The city’s historic Upper Town is dominated by the twin-spired Zagreb Cathedral on Kaptol Square, the most monumental ecclesiastic building southeast of the Alps. On Krvavi Most, St. Mark’s Church, with two coats of arms emblazoned on its roof, and the Jesuit St. Catherine’s Church, built when followers of that religion were invited here by the Croatian Parliament in the 17th century, are also impressive.
In the north, charming Opatija lavishly reclines along Adriatic shores near the tip of the Gulf of Kvarner. A stroll along its seaside promenade, the Lungo Mare, lets you soak in the small city’s ambiance and lovely setting. Like the Istrian Peninsula to which it leads, Opatija has held many allegiances over the centuries – Austro-Hungarian, Italian, Yugoslavian and Croatian – making for a fascinating cultural blend. A side trip along the peninsula hugs the Adriatic coast, revealing Pula’s remarkably preserved Roman amphitheater, where performances are still held today, and Rovinj with its stunning Venetian bell towers and delightful cobbled streets. The historic Old Town of Zadar, too, has its robust share of history, dotted with an old Roman forum, medieval churches, Habsburg elegance and a picture-perfect seafront.
Rustic Charms Amidst Spellbinding Beauty
The cultural and historic riches of these cities take center stage amidst Croatia’s gorgeous coast and inland mountains. But in some corners of this spectacular country, it’s the natural beauty that gets all the attention, and rightly so. There are eight national parks in Croatian, and eleven locally designated nature parks.
Inland, the Plitvice Lakes are among the world’s most magnificent natural wonders. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, these 16 lakes terrace their way down a hillside high in the Dinaric Mountains, each one connected to the last via cascading waterfalls, caves, springs and chutes. The highest falls tumble some 230 feet. All told, the string of lakes is almost five miles long, and over their lush course the waters fall a total of 430 feet. Raised wooden footpaths lead you through this spectacular wonderland.
Just off Croatia, more than 1,200 islands line the Dalmatian Coast like an emerald necklace.Korcula is one of the most stunning. There is a lot to savor here, including Renaissance palaces and the resplendent St. Mark’s Cathedral. Stonemasons, shipbuilders, and sea merchants all helped put this island on the map and injected money and glory into its buildings and institutions. Aside from its rich culture of architecture and maritime endeavors, Korcula and its surrounding islands also boast a proud musical heritage. Its Klape singers, who indulge in a style of a cappella singing, carry tunes that date back to the 1800s. You have to wonder – once you lay your eyes on this magnificent Adriatic setting – why Marco Polo would have wanted to leave his home island to embark upon a quarter-century of globe-trotting. But leave it he did.
Hvar is another enchanting island outpost. The island once served as a crossroads for trade between the Adriatic and Mediterranean. Its Old Town and cozy marina are a delight to explore. Hvar has consistently been voted among the world’s Top 10 most beautiful islands in the world by the readers of Conde Nast Traveler, thanks to its pristine beaches, dramatic karst landscape, vast vineyards, rocky shores and lavender fields.
Explore More of the Adriatic – from Slovenia to Albania – with Gate 1 Travel!
The beauty of traveling to the Adriatic with Gate 1 is the variety of itineraries you can choose from – all at the unmatched value you’d expect. With alpine Slovenia to the north and the rich traditional cultures of Albania to the south, this is one of the most diverse corners of Europe.
Beyond the Tuscan-like landscapes of the Istrian Peninsula, Croatia’s terrain rises into Slovenia. Here, the intimately sized capital of Ljubljana offers endless architectural splendor from its Austro-Hungarian era and an open-air market selling huckleberry syrup and flavored honeys. Its famed Triple Bridge, three side-by-side spans, arches across the Ljubljanica River, connecting the medieval city to its more modern half.
Nearby, the dramatic heights of the magnificent, snow-capped Julian Alps pierce the skies. Here lies what is perhaps Slovenia’s most splendid vista: Lake Bled. This alpine lake with a glass-like, azure surface enchants. A tiny island rests at its center, crowned by the lovely Assumption of Mary church with its wonderful collection of frescoes and its belfry tower. On the lake’s shores, the 11th-century Bled Castle overlooks the waters from a dramatic rocky perch, as moody and stunning as any fairytale abode.
To the south, historic Albania and Montenegro beg to be explored. The crowds are thin and the history is rich in these fascinating countries.
Albania’s capital, Tirana, is a treasure trove of culture and monuments. Its Et’hem Bey Mosque is a symbol of the people’s courage; closed during communist rule, it reopened in 1991 without endorsement from the government. Ten thousand worshippers attended services that day … with no interference. With its fresco-like depictions of trees, waterfalls and nature, it is a rarity in Islamic art. The Palace of Culture, a gathering place for the community, and the National History Museum, which traces Albania’s past, are also proud emblems.
A different vibe pulses in the Adriatic country of Montenegro. Here, legend says that the Moraca Monastery was built in 1252 using a mysterious yellow stone from some faraway place. But there’s no mystery to the beauty that unfolds in Durmitor National Park. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the deep gorges, babbling rivers, dense pine forests and pristine lakes are among the most breathtaking sites you’ll see. Podgorica, Montenegro’s capital, boasts gracious green spaces and modern, post-war buildings, and Cetinje is a gem of culture and heritage with beautiful architecture dating to the 1700s. And no visit to Montenegro is complete without witnessing the spectacle of medieval Kotor, tucked between mountains and its glorious bay. The UNESCO World Heritage Site at the end of southern Europe’s only fjord is surrounded by remarkably walls that date back to the Venetian Republic.
Throughout your Gate 1 trip to the Adriatic, local guides introduce you to the countries they love so much. And we work hard to ensure that you’ll end each discovery-rich day in accommodations whose comfort far surpasses our price tag.
We invite you to put Croatia and the Adriatic on your “must-see” list! Call or click to reserve your space today!