Istria to Dubrovink: Croatia on the Road

From lush forests to turquoise bays, decadent truffle polentas to seafood carpaccio, Croatia is a destination with plenty to explore. A road trip is one way to experience the country’s culinary diversity and grand landscapes. Pack light and follow this itinerary for a week-long Croatian adventure.

 

 

Medieval decadence in Motovun

Day 1: Zagreb to Motovun

Driving time: 3 hours

With a mere 300 full-time residents the walled, Venetian village of Motovun is in the center of Istria — a peninsula famed for slow food, local wines and truffles. Arrive and spend the afternoon wandering the town’s ancient cobblestone streets, with vistas overlooking the fig and olive farms below. (Don’t forget to take a quick stroll past the childhood home of racing legend Mario Andretti.) For the adventurous, paragliding is possible with cooperative thermals, and a number of outdoor companies offer mountain biking through the area. There are only a handful of restaurants in town, the most famous of which, Konoba Mondo, received a glowing review in the NY Times. The beef carpaccio and creamy tagliatelle with black truffles are both musts, as is homemade duck pâté (also with black truffles). Konoba Mondo’s wine selection is dominated by bottles of Teran, the regional grape, produced by Istrian vineyards that rarely export outside the peninsula.

 

Duck pâté at Konoba Mondo and cobbled alleys of Motovun.

 

 

Truffle hunting and brandy in Buzet

Day 2: Motovun and Buzet

Driving time: 20 minutes

A quick drive from Motovun, Buzet is the heart of Croatian truffle country. A number of companies offer truffle hunting tours and tasting in, and around, the town of Buzet including the family-run Natura Tartufi and Karlić Tartufi. A truffle hunt lasts anywhere from one to three hours, depending on the season and type of truffle. Consider adding a tartufi degustation (truffle tasting) after the hunt for a well-rounded tuber experience.

 

Truffle hunting with Natura Tartufi in Buzet.

 

See Truffle Hunting in Croatia for more.

 

Continue the culinary tour through Buzet with a sampling of Croatian brandy at the Aura Distillery. Open daily, tours are free and bookings are not required for small groups. Return to Motovun, shift to Buzet or continue onto Zadar for the night.

 

 

To the Dalmatian coast

Day 3: Motovun to Zadar

Driving time (fastest): 3 hours 45 minutes

Driving time (scenic, coastal route): 5 hours 15 minutes

Swap the verdant Croatian mountains for the crystalline waters of Dalmatia. Dating back to the 9th century BCE, the seaside city of Zadar is as picturesque as it is rich in history. Stretch your legs after the long drive by walking Zadar’s ancient marbled streets. (Consider your footwear carefully as thousands of years of pedestrian traffic have worn many a passageway down to dangerously slippery when wet.) The Old City is walled and can be easily explored within a few hours. City maps are widely available and ruins are well marked, including the art installations Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun.

 

The Sea Organ along the obala in Zadar.

 

Celebrate your arrival to the Adriatic with dinner at Zadar’s most well-known (and most expensive) restaurant, Foša Zadar. The all white indoor/outdoor space is nestled off the Riva (waterfront) and has extensive menu of local seafood dishes. Be sure to inquire about the specials; a freshly caught John Dory is among the local’s choice. Other dining favorites include Bon Appetit, Pet Bunara and Bruschetta. Or, forego the restaurant reservation entirely and head to the main street through the Old City, Široka Ulica Kalelarga (Kalelarga Street), in search of a bite to eat.

 

Octopus carpaccio, fish pâté and the harbor at Restaurant Foša.

 

Island hopping and sunset cocktails

Day 4: Zadar

Park the car for the day and let someone else do the driving. The islands off the Zadar’s coast can be reached by ferry or day sail. Kornati, Ugljan and Dugi otoki (islands) are among the most frequented with passenger ferries leaving regularly from the Zadar peninsula and Zadar Ferry Port. Ferries arrive along different parts of the islands and full schedules and destinations can be found here or here. Once on-island, bikes can be rented from most harbor side tourist shops, and small cafés and gelaterías are typically located around the harbor. Day sails around the islands are also possible, with locally-run Zvizda Mora and Mikado Tours among the best rated.

 

Swimming in the waters of Ugljan Island, exploring Ošljak and Franciscan Monastery of St. Paul The Hermit.

 

Looking for something a bit more active? Single and multi-day kayak tours are also possible to neighboring islands.

 

Finish off a perfect day on the water with cocktails at The Garden Lounge. Built atop the walls of the Zadar’s Old City, the Garden is a Miami-esque, outdoor lounge and nightclub overlooking the eastern waters around the peninsula. The lounge opens in late May and stays open through tourist season.

 

 

Waterfalls and Diocletian’s Palace

Day 5: Zadar to Skradinski Buk to Split

Driving time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with stop in Skradin)

No trip to Croatia would be complete without a visit to a national park, and Skradinski Buk (waterfall) in Krka National Park is among Croatia’s most famous natural wonders. Only an hour’s drive from Zadar, the Skradin entrance of Krka is a short detour en route to Split. Park in the ancient Roman town of Skradin and access Skradinski Buk by boat or on foot. Boats run hourly, just follow the crowds (or signs) to the ticket office. Tickets are “free” with purchase of entrance into Krka. By foot it is a 4 km (~2.5 mi) scenic walk along a flattened, dirt park service road overlooking the Krka River. The gated entrance is a 10-15 minute walk east of Skradin along highway 56 (to the left before the bridge). Be clever and try to time your arrival before the next boat arrives on the hour. If walking, tickets to access Skradinski Buk can be purchased upon arrival at the park gate. (Inclusive of return by boat if the 4k walk seems displeasing.)

 

Swimmers at Skradinski Buk.

 

The entirety of the Skradinski Buk can be toured within 30 minutes. Swimming is allowed in the lower part of the falls so remember to pack a bathing suit and water shoes to navigate the moss covered rocks. Snacks and gelato (surprise!) are available for purchase during tourist season. Consider purchasing a bag of sour cherries or dried figs if you have yet to try either.

 

For more time in Krka National Park stay additional nights in the town of Šibenik.

 

From Skradin the Adriatic town of Split is another hour’s ride away. Spend the afternoon in Croatia’s second largest city. Dress to impress and people watch from a café along Split’s Riva, or head to Bačvice Beach (one of the few, sandy beaches in the entire country) for some more sun, cocktails or a game of picigin (an icon in Split involving a small ball, a beach, and acrobatic wonders). If you have a bit more energy a number of companies offer an afternoon tours (in season).

 

See Tips and Useful Tidbits more tours in Split.

 

For dinner, enjoy a bite while perusing an extensive wine selection at Bokeria Kitchen & Wine. Reservations are strongly suggestions (especially in season) at this beautifully decorated, Spanish-inspired restaurant. The more laid-back, but no less atmospheric, Wine & Cheese Bar Paradox is another popular favorite. The wine bar delivers as it promises so if you’re hankering for something more than cheese plan on eating before or after. For more traditional Croatian-Mediterranean cuisine, Restaurant Apetit is in the center of old Split within the 15th century walls of a Papalićeva Palace. Located under the Golden Gate at the entrance to Diocletian’s Palace O’Zalata Restaurant also has live music during the summer. (Be sure not to overlook dishes with wild, Croatian asparagus when in season.) Villa Spiza, with its daily menu written by hand, is considered the place to have a Dalmatian-style home cooked meal. Time Out Croatia has more on Split’s burgeoning gastronomy scene.

 

Bačvice Beach, the Riva and Bokeria Kitchen & Wine in Split.

 

Sail away

Day 6: Split

There are more boat races than days in the year in Split, so partaking in the city’s maritime tradition is a given when in town. As in Zadar, ferry services run regularly from Split to popular islands like Hvar and Brac. Day sails are possible, with Day Sailing Split and Sunburst Sailing among the top rated companies. Also check out Splitlicious for more single-day excursions and sailing options.

 

Sailing towards Šolta with Split Sailing.

 

 

Oysters and ancient fortifications

Day 7: Zadar to Mali Ston to Dubrovnik

Driving time (fastest): 3 hours and 30 minutes (with stop in Mali Ston)

Driving time (scenic, coastal route): 4 hours and 15 minutes

Depart Split slightly hungry in anticipation of an oyster lunch en route to Dubrovnik. With pontoons of ostrea edulis patterning the Pelješac coastline, Mali Ston is synonymous with Croatian bivalves. (The town is also home to “Europe’s Great Wall,” a 7 km/4.3 miles man-made structure second only to the Great Wall of China.) Partake in an hour-long oyster safari or head directly to a restaurant along the tiny harbor for lunch. Excursions to the oyster beds can be organized upon arrival with Bota Šare Restaurant or one of the oyster boats along the harbor. (The Tourist Board of Ston has more booking options.) Oyster enthusiasts should mark their calendars for St. Joseph’s Day (19 March) when Mali Ston celebrates oysters at their prime with the annual Festival of the Oysters (Festa od Kamenica).

 

Before hitting the road get your passports in order (and turn your data roaming off) for Neum, the short slip of Bosnian coast that intersects Croatia. Passage through is fairly straightforward. Just remember to stop at both immigration windows (Croatian the Bosnian) when entering and leaving the border check.

 

Arrive in Dubrovnik and head straight for a late afternoon stroll atop the city’s ancient fortifications. Climbing the Gradske Zidine (City Walls) is not free but well worth the trip, particularly later in the day when the crowds (and sun) have subsided. If hitting one of the buza bars is one your to-do list, use the walk to spot their entrances along the southern portion of the wall. Walking the entirety of the wall will take at least 1 hour, more if you plan of filling up your camera’s SD card. End the evening with a piece of culinary pride in Dubrovnik… Pizza! Portion sizes are not for the timid, so bring a serious appetite if Mea Culpa is the pizzeria of choice.

 

Buza bar tanning, Onofrio’s Fountain, giant-sized pizzas at Mea Culpa and the walls of Dubrovnik.

 

Day in the Dubs

Day 8: Dubrovnik

You will regret not giving yourself at least one full day to explore the gorgeous city of Dubrovnik. See the city by kayak, take refuge in the natural, quiet beauty of Lokrum Island, or sun-worship (with a few beers) alongside the ancient fortress in a buza bar. Walking tours are aplenty, ranging from the usual historical tours to Game of Thrones-themed jaunts. If you have yet to sample the full range of Croatian wines, try a wine tasting at D’vino Wine Bar, Malvasija Wine Bar or Razonoda Wine & Tapas Bar (the last of which also stocks Croatian craft beers). Cap off the trip with one last indulgence in Dalmatian cuisine. The Culture Trip, Telegraph and Time Out all weigh in on their top picks. Return to Zagreb via highway (5 hours) or depart directly from Dubrovnik.

 

Sunbathers along the Lokrum Island’s southern stijene (rocks).

 

 

 

Tips and useful tidbits

When to visit

The blistering summer months of July and August are the height of tourist season in Croatia with the “shoulder” months of May and June, and September and October seeing more and more tourists annually (at slightly lower prices). Visiting is possible all year round with some considerations outside high season. Popular venues along the major coastal towns may be closed outside the summer months (like the Garden Lounge in Zadar). Boating is possible all year round, but with water temperatures ranging from pleasant to downright frigid. Truffle hunting on the Istrian peninsula is also possible year round. However, trips may take longer in the colder winter months when the coveted white truffles are deeper in the forest. The bottom line: be prepared for large crowds in high season and consult with tour operators on what’s feasible when planning a trip outside the typical tourist months.

 

Driving

Thanks to newly constructed, well-kept infrastructure driving to the major cities in Croatia is both easy and straightforward.

 

Tolls

Are occasional along the major highways but are not too bad considering the maintenance of the highways. Tickets are distributed at the first toll stop and paid at the next. All major credit cards and cash are accepted.

 

Parking

Can be difficult, but not impossible, to find in the major cities. Ease of parking depends on the city so it is best to contact your accommodation in advance for recommendations on where to park. In general, parking is not allowed within fortified cities (Zadar is an exception), keep an eye on street signs and bring Croatian Kuna (small bills and coins) for the parking meters.

 

Speed

The speed limit on the highway ranges from 110 to 130 kph. While the absolute limit is 130 kph, many drivers tend to cruise hassle free around 150 kph.

 

 

Is the water drinkable?

Absolutely. In fact, ancient Roman aqueducts still serve cities like Split.

 

 

Slippery when dry

Thousands of years of pedestrian traffic have made for some seriously slick marble passageways in the old cities of Zadar, Split and Dubrovnik. Don’t be the traveler who falls in fancy shoes. Pack a pair of sensible, gripped shoes for walking city streets.

 

 

Extra charge on your dinner bill?

It may be a couvert or “cover charge.” This additional charge typically includes bread and is not uniformly used across all restaurants. Inquire before you sit down if there is a charge and how much. Croatia Times has more on couvert (and tipping).

 

 

Useful resources

Motovun

 

Zadar

 

Split

 

Dubrovnik

 

… And a few more