Sun-soaked Croatia sits at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe. Dazzling islands, picturesque national parks, and medieval history make it a dreamy vacation destination that’s bound to be on your bucket list – especially if you’re a Game of Thrones fan. Still, Croatia has a lot more to offer beyond its star-studded tourist hotspots.
Croatia might be small, but its immense geographic diversity, with a crescent shape that hugs the Adriatic, keeps visitors coming back. The walled old town of Dubrovnik and the windswept beaches of Hvar are undeniably inviting, but heaving crowds threaten the ambiance of old Croatia and it’s not all about the coastal strip, although it is a good place to start.
If it’s local culture, authentic cuisine, and untouched scenery that you’re after, some small town atmosphere might be more your style. From the hills of Istria to the Alpine settlements further inland, these most beautiful villages in Croatia won’t disappoint. Let’s get into it.
Nestled in Šibenik-Knin county between Šibenik and Trogir, Primosten is a coastal village known for its unique geography and magical sites. The tiny village was once its own islet, connected to the mainland by a wooden drawbridge. Today, the medieval bridge has been replaced by a causeway, linking the old town to a sandy stretch of beach with village views and making Primosten a peninsula.
Primosten is punctuated by traditional stone houses, narrow winding streets, and ancient sites. Check out the 15th-century Saint George Church, dip into the San Roque Chapel, and laze on the 400-meter stretch of quaint beach at the back of the old town, lapped by turquoise waters.
Primosten really is small and there aren’t tons to do, but it makes a great day trip from Šibenik, Trogir, or even Split, which is just an hour away by car.
Cavtat is Croatia’s southernmost resort, tucked away below Dubrovnik, close to the Bosnia and Montenergran borders. The small town is scenic and atmospheric, with all the ancient history of Dubrovnik, but without the crowds. The seafront promenade, on the edge of the old town, is lined with restaurants and boutiques, and evening buskers bring life to the streets once the sun starts to set.
Cavtat is flanked by mountains and swathes of cypress and pine trees, while fishing boats bob in the harbor. Still, among all the natural beauty, the UNESCO heritage is also a big pull factor to this sleepy village.
The town is dotted with Illyrian necropolises – ancient burial sites dating back to 1,000 BC. There’s also the Rector’s Palace, a Renaissance royal residence-turned-art gallery, housing more than 35,000 relics like costumes, weapons, and other ethnographic objects from the 14th to 19th centuries. The building was renovated in 1958 to serve as a tribute to Baltazar Bogišić, with a collection of the artist and scientist’s works hung on its walls.
Cavtat is a great base for exploring Dubrovnik, removed from the hustle and bustle of the tourist-choked metropolis. The distance between the two ports is just 14 kilometers and the 45-minute ferry from Cavtat allows for unmatched magic as you approach the walled city in all its grandeur from the water.
Italianate Istria is the best of both worlds when it comes to European getaways; where continental Croatia and its Balkan charm meet the Italian Adriatic on a heart-shaped peninsula. Istria is shared by Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy. Although Croatia occupies most of the Istrian headland, the region is a melting pot of different cultures and traditions, and its hilltop villages are prime examples of this.
Motovun is located in the center of Istria, less than 20 kilometers from the Slovenian border, and just one hour by car from the maritime city of Trieste in southeast Italy. Motovun sits among a collection of hilltop villages that are just as spectacular as the Adriatic coastline. With medieval walls, – an apparent requisite of Croatian villages – Motovun was used by the Celts and Illyrians as an ancient fortress.
The name Motovun is derived from the Celtic, “Montana”, meaning “town in the hills”. Motovun is sleepy and peaceful with a handful of restaurants, bars, and quaint shops, but the village comes alive in the summer months when visitors flock to its annual film festival. Be sure to pick up some truffles as a souvenir while you’re there too. The Motovun forest of the Mirna River Valley is the richest truffle region in Croatia.
The 16th-century Church of St. Stephen and its bell tower, once used as a lookout, stand proudly over Motovun. The town is also known as the birthplace of the fictional, Veli Joze, a giant farmer written by Vladimir Nazor who became a symbol of Istra’s hardship and troubles, and the strength of its locals.
Some 30 kilometers from Motovun, on Istria’s western coast, you’ll find Porec, the small summer resort with its historic old town, quaint marina, and exciting beaches. Porec’s major landmark is the Euphrasian Basilica complex, or the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, a Roman Catholic basilica dating back to the 6th century.
The cathedral complex houses an atrium, baptistery, bishop’s palace, and the remnants of sacred buildings from the 4th century. It is one of the best-preserved examples of early Christian architecture and art in the world. The large basilica is right on the edge of the water, furnished with intricate Byzantine mosaics and a bell tower that towers above the town.
The coast around Porec is also popular with campers and water sports enthusiasts, and six kilometers inland from the village you’ll find the Baredine Cave, best known for its otherworldly stalactite formations.
Porec isn’t quite as undiscovered as some of the other most beautiful villages in Croatia, but the UNESCO World Heritage in this tiny town makes the crowds less than surprising. Shop along Decumanus Street, the main strip, and dine in the central square, Trg. Slobode. Porec is also less than an hour by car from the larger resort of Rovinj.
Another hilltop Istrian gem, Labin is nestled on the eastern coast of the peninsula, but it’s much more about the surrounding hillside scenery than beach days here. Labin overlooks the seaside resort and quiet fishing village of Rabac, but the town stands at 320 meters high, three kilometers from the harbor.
Both towns are uncrowded and peaceful, but Labin has been inhabited for two thousand years. The colorful houses with their warm pink and yellow hues are punctuated by shops, galleries, terraces, and cozy cafes. The town is enclosed by medieval walls with a restored city gate. The Labin Museum is the perfect place to learn about the village’s ancient heritage and rich mining history.
Its old name, Albona, was first mentioned in writing is 285 AD. Some historians claim that the Illyrians fortified Labin in the 11th century and historical sites such as the three-nave church of Blessed Virgin Mary and the Porta Sanfior (the town doors) were built some hundreds of years later.
Labin is also known as the birthplace of Matthias Flacius Illyricus, a collaborator of Martin Luther and notable theologian who led an exciting life as a Lutheran reformer in the 16th century. Labin is a great place to stay in Croatia, but if you’re after a bit more action, you can visit the town easily by day trip from Pula, located just under an hour away on the southwest Istrian coast.
Taking a trip over to the central Kordun region of Croatia, where national parks pepper the landscape, Rastoke promises something a bit different from the Venetian walls and seaside views of Istria and Dalmatia.
Rastoke is located in the town of Slunj, best known for the Slunjčica River which flows into the Korana and connects Rastoke to the Plitvice Lakes. Often dubbed “the Small Lakes of Plitvice”, the rural settlement is crisscrossed by crystal-clear rivers and waterfalls tumble past houses onto moss-covered riverbeds. Rastoke is a place of immense ecological and ethnographic importance and what was once a preserved folkloric haven is now a base for adrenaline-fueled recreational fun.
Still, the cliff-diving, canyoning, rafting, and trout fishing tourists that descend upon the Mirjana tourist center for a holiday at a different pace, haven’t disturbed the original charm of Rastoke. Crisp, Alpine air and verdant, rolling landscapes, ancient water mills, and 17th-century heritage, Rastoke uncovers a completely different side to Croatia that you won’t find on the coast.
To top it off, Rastoke is also known as the “city of cats”, with the most felines per person of any town in Croatia. What more could you want?
Brela is a small seaside village on the Makarska Riviera, best known for its diverse nature and seven-kilometer seaside promenade that plays host to one of Croatia’s most famous beaches. Punta Rata dominates a pine-covered peninsula that juts into the Adriatic, headed by the striking Brela Rock and lapped by crystal clear waters.
Brela is the first stop on Makarska’s 60-kilometer coastline, which is flanked by nature reserves. Biokovo Mountain is some 40 kilometers from Brela and diverse flora and fauna from wolves to eagles call the nature park home. Kotišina, a small village less than 20 kilometers down the coast from Brela, also has its own botanical garden, set on the coastal slopes of Biokovo Mountain, preserving more than 300 wild plant species.
The old town of Brela is centered around the harbor, with nice bars and great restaurants. Za Punton Beach is also near the center and there are plenty of accommodation options lining the seafront promenade. The beaches in Brela, like most of Croatia, are pebbly and backed by pine-covered headland. You’ll come across beach cafés and cozy tavernas everywhere you go, and the sun shines down on Makarska for 2,750 hours a year.
Claiming to be the smallest village in the world, reaching just 100 meters long and 30 meters wide, Hum in central Istria holds much more history than its small walls can handle. The village is home to just 30 inhabitants and, as legend has it, the settlement was created by accident when the giants who built the other cities in the Mirna River valley ran out of stones and only had enough for the micro town.
Hum sits on a hilltop above the source of the Mirna River. The town is a monument in and of itself and is also known as the Town of Biska, Biska being a traditional Istrian brandy made from a 2,000-year-old recipe originating from Hum. A bottle of Biska makes the perfect souvenir to take home from the smallest town in the world, other than truffles.
Glagolitic writing can also be traced back to its oldest routes in Hum. The ancient Slavic script was used until the start of the 19th century and it can be seen inscribed on Hum’s old town gate. The village consists of a few houses, two churches, three restaurants, a couple of souvenir shops, a medieval town hall, and a cemetery. There is one hotel in Hum, and a few guest houses but the village is best visited on a day trip.
The coastal city whose walls might actually be more spectacular than Dubrovnik’s, Ston, is nestled in southern Dalmatia, just an hour away from the darling of Croatia’s tourism scene. The 14th-century fortifications are often dubbed “Europe’s Wall of China” thanks to their striking design and well-preserved grey stone, which meanders down the hillside to the harbor front.
Ston is set on the Peljesac Peninsula and its 900-meter walls served as a defensive barricade and military fort for the Ragusan Republic in the 1300s. Visitors can walk the entire length of the walls, but Ston is also well-known for its salt farming and mussels which you can learn about, and savor, all over the town.
Visit the nearby beaches, check out the salt works, and settle down for a seafood meal by the harbor, all in a day’s work.
When is the best time to visit Istria?
Istria has a temperate Mediterranean climate with long, hot summers and short, mild winters. Istria experiences the most heat from June to August, but this is when tourists crowds descend on the peninsula and hotel prices are at their highest. Istria is sunny almost all year round and spring and autumn are much better times to visit if you want to avoid the hoards of people and snap up a deal. You can expect highs of 70 degrees Fahrenheit from the end of April, and this doesn’t drop until mid-October.
Which currency should you use in Croatia?
Although Euros are widely accepted, the official currency of Croatia is the Croatian Kuna (HRK) and it is the best currency to use. Some shops, vendors, and transport providers won’t accept Euros, and if they do, you could get ripped off by bumped-up conversion rates. You can pay in Euros at big supermarkets and travel agencies, but Kuna is preferred and it is more polite to tip in Kunas if you want to leave a gratuity for the waiting staff.
Is Croatia cheap?
Croatia is neither cheap nor expensive. It isn’t a shoestring destination by any stretch, but tourists have flocked to its shores for years for a taste of Western European elegance without the prices of the French and Italian Med. Still, surges in popularity mean Croatia’s most popular cities and islands, like Split, Hvar, and Korcula, can cost a pretty penny to visit. On average, you can expect to spend €45-105 ($46-106) a day, depending on where you visit.