Croatia Guide Part III: The Southern Dalmatian Coast

This is continued from the following blog posts: Croatia Part I: Zagreb and Croatia Part II: The Istrian Peninsula Adventure

From Motovun, our road trip continued for one more day where we drove the five hours to the Southern Dalmatian Coast jumping-off point, Split. On the way, we stopped for a quick lunch in the coastal town of Zadar. If we had more time, we would’ve stopped for at least a night in Zadar and check out the sea organ. The walled in part of the city was really cute and would’ve been fun to spend some time in. (See below in General thoughts and recommendations about planning your trip)

Many people who visit Croatia start in Split and concentrate on the southern coast. There are quite a few companies that offer small-boat cruises – “small” meaning approx. 10-20 passengers. They aren’t terribly expensive and they offer you the opportunity to island hop and explore nooks and crannies of the Dalmatian islands that you might not otherwise. Most people I know who’ve traveled to Croatia (not everyone, though), has gone this route and it can be really fun.

However, we decided that instead of island-hopping, we wanted to spend a bit more time on one island. We debated between the more resort-y, Hvar, and the more low-key island of Korcula and landed on Korcula. We’re pretty glad we did. In order to get to Korcula, we took ferries.

Thus, our southern coast trip began after dropping our car off at the rental place at the Split airport and taking the airport shuttle into the city.

 

Split

Split, like Zagreb, is a real city. What I mean by this is that it’s not like places like Dubrovnik that are more living museums filled with tourists (which have their place for sure), but a city that has maintained its Roman architectural history that acts as the backdrop to everyday life. You can find this at full tilt within the Unesco World Heritage site, Diocletian’s Palace. Essentially this palace isn’t just a preserved museum, but it’s the entire old town city where people live, shop, eat, and or course, just wander within the labyrinthine cobblestoned streets. While you’ll find many tourists within, you’ll also be shopping alongside locals at the upscale shops.

Make sure to grab a coffee in one of the outdoor tables on the tropical promenade just outside the main entrance to the Dioclesian Palace. It’s a great place to people watch and just chill.

On our one evening in Split, we stopped in to To Je To Split as a last-minute recommendation from a Facebook friend (the owners are apparently from Baltimore). They carry some great local craft beers for beer lovers.

Because our ferry wasn’t leaving until the evening, we were able to leave our bags stored at our Airbnb a few blocks away and explore the town before we headed out. This was plenty of time for us to get a good feel for Split. It was a gorgeous, warm day. We spent a lot of time wandering, drinking coffee, and sipping beer along sidewalk tables. Can’t get better than that.

After a lovely day, we boarded our 3-hour ferry to Korčula. See the end of this post for ferry tips and recommendations.

 

Korčula

We arrived in Korčula (pronounced Core-Chu-La) when it was already dark, but you could tell it was beautiful with the lights shining on the walls around old town. Our Airbnb host met us as we got off the boat and walked us the five or so minutes to our apartment for the next three nights. When I was looking at Airbnb locations while planning, it was hard to get a sense of how big Korčula is. It is not big at all. They have some great options that are outside the old town in more seaside places. Those are great options if you want a more retreat-y place. We were extremely happy with our apartment within the old town walls for its location and convenience.

One thing we noticed immediately about Korčula in September is that it’s very quiet. Even during the day when many tourists from the small boat tours come to land to check it out, it’s not overrun with people. It was lovely.

Day One: Korčula Beach Day

On our first day in Korčula, my goal was to sit on a beach. That was pretty much it. So we rented a car for the day (you can find car rentals, bike rentals, and other tourist such just outside of old town on the main road – believe me, it’s not hard to find). So we headed out to Zitna Beach based on a map that the rental company gave us. I have to admit, it was a bit tricky to find the beach based on maps themselves. Basically, there’s a main road that runs across all the way across the small island which seems to be one big hill. Then all the roads run down the hills on either side on quite narrow roads. We came across quite a few bikers on these roads which looks like a fun way to explore Korčula (many of those boat tours we noted also focus on outdoor activities, so you can probably find something that suits your fancy).

Eventually after a lot of drives through a small seaside town, we ended up finding Zitna Beach and spent a couple lovely hours hanging out on a little alcove-y beach. At any given time there was only us and one other group at a time. We topped off the day at a very leisurely lunch at Konoba Maslina just outside of Korčula. Like in the town of Vrh in Istria, it was just us and a large group of Croatian men eating family style. It was awesome.

If you’re only in Korčula for a short time, I might just recommend a beach trip to Lumbarda, which is pretty close to Korcula town (and also bikable if you want to avoid the car rental) as it’s easier to get to. It’s not as remote if that’s what you’re looking for, but it’s a bit more straightforward. We definitely recommend the Konoba.

Day Two: Wine and Biking

The second day was our best day in Korčula where we had pre-booked a biking wine tour from Korčula Explorer. I cannot recommend them more highly! Seriously, if you go to Korcula, you need to book a tour with them. It’s run by an expat couple from the UK, John and Rachael. They’ve spent the last few years designing really great tours that are also pretty reasonable. I corresponded mostly with Rachael beforehand and John led the trip. Because we were pretty much at the end of the season, it was just us and another couple. Note that bike rentals aren’t included in the price, you’ll rent those from the tour company next to where you’ll meet. But they’ll let you know all that before heading out.

The first couple hours were spent biking through the hills between Korcula Town and Lumbarda. Because Korcula and Lumbarda are pretty close by the main road, this roundabout way gave John the opportunity to talk to us about the wine-growing process and history as well as insight into the agricultural community in the area. It was lovely.

Through their connections with local growers, there were already wine and snacks waiting for us at both the wineries we checked out. They were pretty close to one another but gave us a good sense of the different types of wine. One of the wines I did decide to bring home was a Grk, which is pretty much only grown on Korcula. Because our little group got along so well, we ended up lingering over the wine and tasty treats for some time. With a fresh breeze and vineyard/seaside views, you really can’t beat a tour like this. Before twilight hit, we made the very quick bike ride home on the main road.

Later that night, the other couple met up with us for a delicious dinner at one of the waterfront restaurants on the terrace of the old town. Wherever you eat, just make sure to get the seafood. We then decided to check out the Moreška Sword Dance show they have in the evenings. It was admittedly a little hokey, but in a way kind of cool to see something they’ve been perfomring since the 15th century.

And then we capped the night off at one of the alley side wine bars where we chatted with a bunch of Aussies (it seems like we met a lot of Aussies on this trip!) and took in the beautiful sea breeze.

 

Dubrovnik

The next morning, we set off on another ferry to Dubrovnik. This is likely the image of Croatia you’ve seen – orange clay rooftops tightly packed into a fortified, closed in city. You also may have seen some of Dubrovnik in Game of Thrones. Its medieval-ness is pretty captivating, so you can see why so many people descend upon the town.

18_Dubrovnik

Unlike Zagreb and Split, Old Town Dubrovnik feels a bit like an enormous museum. Very few locals live within the walls. This hasn’t always been true, but it makes sense that this main attraction to Croatia has become a tourists haven. I’m not knocking that at all because it was an incredible place to wander for three days. However, because the days it feels quite overrun by tourists. Literally boatloads – cruise boats, that is – unload their passengers on Dubrovnik during the day. So when we arrived, we could barely walk through the streets as we dodged swarms of guided tours from said cruises. The evenings are a different story. While there are still plenty of people staying in Old Town, it’s much quieter. Thus, my main recommendation for Dubrovnik is: Get out of the walls or plan for off-the-beaten track activities between 10/11am and 4pm when the cruises come in. A friend of mine recommended not to “walk the walls” until 4pm because of this.

To organize this section, I’m going to go activity-by-activity/topic-by-topic as that’s the easiest way to do it. We didn’t get out of Old Town during our time there because had already done the beach/island thing and we were happy exploring the quieter corners of the alleys during the day. But if you’re planning on making Dubrovnik your jumping-off point (which many people do), there are many options for day trips and excursions to get the feel of those places.

Lodging

Definitely stay within the city walls! There are many Airbnb options just outside the walls and some along the beach areas north and south of Dubrovnik. However, if you want to get the most of your experience, I recommend to stay with all the other tourists. There are a ton of great apartment rentals throughout the city.

Dubrovnik Card

We debated whether we should buy the Dubrovnik Card or not. In the end, the one-day card turned out to be worth it because it gave access to a number of the museums in the city as well as free access to the city walls as well as free public transportation around the rest of the city. Note that if you’re planning on staying within the walls most of the time, you’ll be walking everywhere because it’s not terribly big and there aren’t any vehicles inside. The buses all drop off just outside the main entrance.

Walking the Walls

This is one of the main attractions to Dubrovnik and probably from where all the pictures you’ve seen of the orange clay rooftops were taken. The city was fortified around the 7th century, which was essential as a seaside town with not much else to protect it if attacked by sea. The outer walls are wide and walkable and are one of the main attractions. There are a couple of places that you can climb down some steep stairs from the walls, but I recommend setting aside a couple hours just to get the feel of it.

As a logistical note (see recommendation re: cruise-goers above), go when they open around 9:00am or after 4:00pm. Because once the cruisers come to the city, the leisurely walk will turn into a crowded elbow-flinging adventure. We ended up going when they opened based on what we wanted to do that day. By the end, we could feel the crowds quite a bit more. The 4:00pm or later time would’ve also given away to some beautiful afternoon light. It was pretty toasty up there in the beating sun at 10am.

War Photo Limited Museum

This museum deserves mention by itself because it was incredible. We spent quite a long time walking around this small museum. Not only does it include amazing photos, background, and insight into Dubrovnik during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but it includes the same for many other wars.

It’s powerful and emotional and should not be missed. It was incredibly impactful to see scenes from such recent wars in a place that now looks so idyllic, pristine, and dare-I-say touristy. During that time, residents of Dubrovnik were not tourists, but Croatians who were fleeing for their lives during that time.

This isn’t included in the museums from the Dubrovnik card, but the modest entry fee is completely worth it. Seriously, do not miss this museum. We even bought a couple posters to bring back with us.

Cable Car

This was more my scene than Cory’s because I can’t pass up a good view. However, I did manage to twist his arm to wait in the incredibly long cable car line that eventually would whoosh us up the mountainside for a unique viewpoint of Dubrovnik from above.

The view was incredible. Also, they have a little café at the top. It might be worth staying up there for a little bit, drinking some wine or coffee as you gaze out over the Adriatic and the orange-tinted fortified city.

Food and Drink

There are plenty of places in Dubrovnik to eat at. Because there are so many restaurants catering to tourists, you can easily happen upon something not-so-delicious. In our case, the Lonely Planet guide had some pretty good recommendations. The ones that stand out are Konoba Ribar (I mean, we always love anywhere that has Konoba in the name), the higher-end bistro for one of our splurges, Zuzori (although when I was just looking it up, it looks like it may be closed, bummer), and the delicious Bosnian restaurant (get the Turkish coffee!), Taj Mahal.

 

For drinks, you cannot beat either of the two Buža Bars. They are literal holes in the city walls that are fashioned out of the cliffs overlooking the Adriatic Sea. There you can buy the basic bar fare drinks (no food). It’s a great way to spend some of your day as well looking out on the sea.

That is All

In the end, Dubrovnik was lovely for a few days. Being a museum in and of itself, you could spend your days there just wandering the maze-like alleys or sip wine or coffee on the street-side tables as you people watch. While I don’t know if I have a need to go back to Dubrovnik after a couple days, I’m so glad we capped off the trip that way.

Note that you can fly in and out of Dubrovnik. It was pretty easy to catch the bus to the airport and head out early in the morning back to the States. It was bittersweet, but around 13 days was a really good amount of time to explore Croatia.

 

General Thoughts and Recommendations about Croatia Trip-Planning

Ferries

As noted above, instead of taking the guided small-boat cruises, we decided to go the public ferry route. And it was pretty easy. Generally, it was pretty much like any ferry I’ve taken in the waters of northwestern Washington, except, of course, for the tropical warmth and scenery…and well, the Croatian.

We bought our tickets online ahead of time, which made me feel better knowing we had reservations. I think you can probably pick up tickets from the companies on the pier in person. But that’s up to you.

One thing to note is that each ferry company has a different daily schedule and there’s usually only one ferry a day to/from most of the islands. Pay attention to that schedule and the company that runs those days. During the high season in the summer, I think ferries are more frequent. But we were there in late-September and early-October, so it was a bit more limited.

That said, from Split to Korcula, we took the Ladrolinija Line that took about 3 hours. From Korcula to Dubrovnik, we took the Krilo Star Catamaran. Note that the ferry to Dubrovnik will let you off a couple miles from Old Town. You’ll need to buy a bus pass before grabbing either a bus to the Pile Gates. Our Airbnb host gave us directions on how to get there.

Route-Planning and Traveling Logistics

One of the things to keep in mind when you’re planning is your likes and dislikes. Do you like guided tours? Are you a beach or country person? Do you mind driving on unfamiliar roads? Are you a gourmand? Do you prefer to see as many places as you can or do you prefer to explore a place more deeply?

Cory and I aren’t huge beach people, but we are game and enjoy a tropical setting for a short time. So we weren’t as keen on the small-boat cruises. That said, I’ve heard amazing things and it can be a great way to let someone take the reins for a few days and you can just relax and be led around. I wouldn’t mind doing that sometime in the future.

Regarding a route, again, ask those questions I mentioned above. We were trying to find a good balance of seeing as much as the country as we could and having some slow days of exploring a place more deeply. All of this in 13 days. What that resulted in is allowing ~3 nights for the main attractions (Motovun, Korcula and Dubrvonik) with 1-2 nights of in-between launching off points (Zagreb and Split). This worked really well for us as we felt like we got a lot out of the main attractions.

If we had more time, we would’ve stopped for at least a night in Zadar. Another recommendation if you have more time, you may want to stop by Plitvice National Park. I’ve heard wonderful things. We had about two weeks total and decided to skip a longer stay in Zadar and a trip to Plitvice in lieu of longer stays in the highlights. I highly recommend this as opposed to quick stops in more places, as you’ll have more of an opportunity to explore.

Food-wise, if you’re looking to have a culinary adventure, do not miss Istria! And go in September when white truffles are in season. While the food and wine all over Croatia was fantastic, it was a gourmand’s paradise in Istria.

Because I feel like I could spend even more time there, if we do end up going back to Croatia in the future, I’d like to spend at least a week just in Istria so that we could take advantage of the outdoor opportunities there. If I went without Cory and maybe with a group of girlfriends, I’d like to do one of the small-boat cruises with some outdoor adventures as part of that. That said, there are endless opportunities for all types of travelers.

Road-Tripping

And last but not least, here are some thoughts on road-tripping Croatia.

If renting a car and driving unknown streets scares you away from a road trip, don’t be afraid. Seriously. Croatia was incredibly easy to get around. The roads are impeccable and the rules of the road are essentially the same as they are in the U.S. The GPS device was a must-have, though, especially in Istria. If you are planning on renting a car, there are all the regular U.S. rental companies. We went with Europcar. If you’re like me and don’t drive a stick (Cory gives me crap about that all the time), I highly recommend booking an automatic car in advance. It’s a bit more expensive, but then both of us could actually drive it.

If we didn’t have to fast-track the trip between Motovun and Split, I probably would’ve opted for a night or two along the coast with a more leisurely drive on the coast. I’ve heard amazing things about the views and stops along the way. If you’re driving all the way to Dubrovnik, note that there’s a strange little place where you cross out of Croatia and into Bosnia, then back into Croatia. I’ve heard that can get a little tricky. We skipped over that because we ferried it during that part. You can, however, find car ferries as well if you plan to take the rental all the way to Dubrovnik. However, Dubrovnik has not vehicles inside the wall, so I would not recommend having a car there.

 

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