Backpacking Croatia: Travel Tips and Tricks
Croatia: A Quick Introduction
Croatia, officially the Republic of Croatia, has long been a popular destination for tourists from all over Europe. However, the country's recent joining of the European Union (2013) coupled with the ever-increasing popularity of the television series Game of Thrones has resulted in Croatia quickly becoming a world-renowned tourist destination.
Geographically, Croatia shares land borders with Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro. The Adriatic Sea borders the country to the west and contains over a thousand Croatian-owned islands, many of which are extremely popular tourist destinations.
Croatia is highly deserving of this growing popularity. To put it simply, the country is absolutely stunning (there's a very good reason that HBO chose Dubrovnik to be the location for the capital of the Seven Kingdoms). The orange rooftops and pebble beaches along the seemingly impossibly blue Adriatic have become the stuff of dreams for backpackers and tourists alike.
In recent history, Croatia was one of the six republics which constituted the former Yugoslavia. Consequentially, the country has experienced some turmoil in the past twenty years, although bloodshed on Croatian soil during the breakup of Yugoslavia was relatively low compared to its neighbour, Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, the turmoil that was experienced in the country is not to be overlooked. Croatia declared independence in 1991, and in the beginning months of the war in Croatia, heavy shelling by Serb forces affected both Dubrovnik and Split, as well as some surrounding villages. The war in Croatia lasted until the ceasefire in January 1992, with a Croatian victory (although at the loss of around 20,000 lives). The war in Croatia is today referred to as the Homeland War by locals. At the time, the media gave immense attention to the attacks on Dubrovnik, the City Walls of which are recognized world-wide as a UNESCO world heritage site. Evidence of these attacks are still visible on the City Walls, although largely, Croatia's infrastructure has been impressively restored and recovered.
People visiting Croatia today might find it difficult to imagine that the country has been so recently affected by war. As previously stated, the country is beautiful, and it is the perfect spot to unwind with good food and good wine in hand. Whether you are visiting as a tourist for a week or backpacking for a month, there is something in Croatia for everyone, However, as someone who recently spent a month backpacking the country, there are a few things that I wish I had known before going to Croatia, which I will discuss in detail in this article.
Known alternatively as the "Pearl of the Adriatic" by the wider public and by "King's Landing" by Game of Thrones fans, Dubrovnik is a city that most travelers dream of visiting someday. The City Walls of Dubrovnik have long since been a point of pride with the citizens of Dubrovnik. The City Walls were named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979, constituting one of Croatia's eight UNESCO sites, and they are Croatia's number one tourist attraction. Constructed largely between the 12th to 17th centuries as fortifications for the city, the walls run interrupted for nearly two kilometers around the old city as protections against possible invaders (primarily, the Venetians, according to a local guide). Today, the old city is bustling with shopping and a seemingly endless array of restaurants, cafes, and bars to suit every hour of the day.
Of course, if you are a Game of Thrones fan, signing up for a Game of Thrones tour when you are in Dubrovnik is a must. There is an endless number of companies offering this tour, and not only does the tour take visitors to different sites in the city, but the guides are extremely informative when about the history of Dubrovnik as a whole (the fact that these tours are almost a "two-in-one" tour in this respect sort of helps to offset the cost of the tours). Additionally, the population of Dubrovnik is around only 40,000 citizens, and many residents of Dubrovnik have actually been extras in the show. Thus, the tours are amazing for learning behind the scenes facts about how particular scenes were shot, and how much effort the show puts into making sure that plot developments are not leaked before an episode airs. The tour really gives visitors an added appreciation for just how much time, effort, and talent are poured into the making of the series (plus, some tours even allow you to play with prop replicas!).
Split and the Islands
Second in fame only to Dubrovnik, Split is another stunning coastal city in Croatia. Split is particularly famous for its city center, which is situated in Diocletian's Palace. The Palace was constructed by the Roman emperor Diocletian in the fourth century AD as a retirement home. The Palace today resembles a large fortress, and the Palace is very much alive today, housing Split's city center and old town, and thus drawing tourists from all over the world. It is quite easy to spend several days getting lost in the narrow, winding alleys of the Palace, or to lose an entire afternoon frequenting the cafes and restaurants that are hidden in the nooks and crannies of the Palace. Visitors should be sure to visit the massive statue of Gregory of Nin, and to rub his toe for good luck.
Split is the perfect location in Croatia to visit some of the country's most popular island destination. From Split, it is only an hour and a half by catamaran to Hvar, and just under and hour from Hvar to Vis (it is also possible to go directly from Split to Hvar). The islands are the perfect spot to unwind - a little less hectic than Dubrovnik and Split, gorgeous beaches, stunning sunsets, and unbelievable seafood. They are truly the perfect vacation destination (Hvar is also a well-renowned party destination, if you are so inclined).
Zadar and Plitvice Lakes National Park
Zadar is not a Croatian destination that is widely recognized. Most tourists elect to visit Split or Dubrovnik over Zadar, and that is totally understandable, given that those two cities receive so much worldwide acclaim. However, Zadar is truly a backpacker's (and tourist's!) dream. It is significantly cheaper to stay in Zadar than it is to stay in Split, and especially cheaper than staying in Dubrovnik. It is much smaller and easier to navigate than either Split or Dubrovnik, and still has the classic Croatian seaside charm, complete with its own Roman Forum and ruins. The seaside promenade is perfect, ending in the amazing Sea Organ - an amazing location to sit with a bottle of wine, a few friends, and watch the sunset.
Additionally, Zadar is well-situated geographically for visiting Croatia's second most visited tourist destination, the Plitvice Lakes National Park. While it is completely possible to take an organized tour from Zadar to visit Plitvice, it is not necessary. Catch the early bus at 8:30 AM from the bus station (trust me - you will need all day at the park). Take a picnic, and wander the park on your own. Soaking in this magnificent natural location on your own is equally, if not more so, beneficial than taking a tour guide. It really is something that only needs to be see to be appreciated. The last bus to Zadar leaves Plitvice at 5:00 PM. Also worth considering is staying overnight and spending two days in the park, although for backpackers, that may get pricey. Plitvice Lakes National Park has also been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Swimming is not allowed - it is nearly torture to see water so perfect and not be able to swim in it, but the exchange is a well-conserved and truly beautiful natural location in our increasingly concrete world.
Final Backpacker Tips
An alternate title for this section might have been "What I Wish I Had Known before Visiting Croatia". I read a lot about Croatia before traveling there - mostly backpacking blogs. However, I learned a few things on my own trip that I wish I had been better prepared for, and hopefully others will find these tips helpful as well.
1. Croatia is cheap, but only relative to backpacking in places such as London or Paris. Yes, you can find hostels for cheap in places like Zadar, but if you want a cheap place to stay in Dubrovnik, you are going to be well outside the Old Town. I booked five nights in Dubrovnik, not realizing that Dubrovnik is actually significantly more expensive than Zadar, where I started my trip in Croatia. In hindsight, I wish I had spent only two nights in Dubrovnik - that is really all I needed to see the things I really wanted to see, although of course, there is always something more that could be done.
2. According to most articles that I read, they advised me to travel to Croatia in the off season for better prices. However, although I traveled a month after high season, I found that prices only dropped a little from high season (for instance, the City Walls in Dubrovnik went from 150 kuna to 120 kuna), but the irregularity of public transport the places like Plitvice Lakes also made traveling during this time a little trickier. Also, a lot of hostels that I booked online stated that they included breakfast, but when I arrived, the management said that the breakfast was only during high season. Also, there was still an insane amount of tourists, especially in Dubrovnik, so I don't know that this actually made much difference in the long run.
3. Shop around, or be prepared to pay more than you expected for most things. Eating out in Croatia is a little cheaper than dining out in places like London, but it is still not cheap in backpacker terms. You may pay the equivalent of three euros for a beer in one restaurant, but at the next, the same beer might be five euros, so shop around.
4. Go on your own if you want to save money. In general, Croatia's attractions are not cheap to visit, but they are worth it. Plitvice Lakes is one such example of where this is beneficial. Entrance to the park is 100 kuna, and the bus is around 120 kuna return to Zadar (these were the prices at the end of September in 2016). This is about half the price of any organized tour that I could find. However, with something such as the Game of Thrones tours in Dubrovnik, taking an organized tour is worth it in order to hear the behind the scenes stories - however, the tours are not cheap.
5. A general rule I found to be true was that. the farther south I traveled in Croatia, the pricier everything became. A chocolate croissant in Dubrovnik was twice the price of the same croissant in Zadar from the same bakery chain. Just something to keep in mind.
6. Look up ferry schedules ahead of time and plan accordingly. I was a bit spontaneous when I went to Vis because I hadn't intended on going there, so I just hopped on a ferry and headed there from Hvar. I was there for two nights, and then planned to go back to Hvar to take the ferry to Dubrovnik (I wanted to take the ferry to avoid the border crossing into Bosnia that the bus route takes). However, the ferry only travels from Vis to Hvar one day a week, so I had to take the catamaran from Vis to Split in order to get a bus to Dubrovnik on the day I wanted to head there. It all worked out, but it would definitely have been easier had I planned that more efficiently.
These observations are not meant to discourage anyone from visiting Croatia. Please, please, please, go to Croatia! It really is an amazing country, and there is so much to see and do. However, in backpacking terms, it is not a cheap as I had been led to believe by anything I had read online, so I was a bit alarmed by the prices of everything when I arrived. Still, the trip was worth every dime I spent, and I truly believe that Croatia is a country that everyone will fall madly in love with.