If any country has played a role as a crossroad of history, it’s present-day Croatia. Because of its key location spanning Eastern and Western cultures, this West Virginia-size nation, along with neighbors which comprised the former Yugoslavia, provided a bridge and melting pot of peoples over the centuries. Among those who came, went and left their influences were ancient Greeks, Romans and Venetians.
This rich kaleidoscope of cultures, ethnicities and religions, along with its storied history, natural beauty and other attractions, has elevated Croatia into a major magnet for travelers seeking an authentic experience. The result: While the country ranks only 127th in size, it’s the world’s 18th most popular tourist destination.
Croatia’s cities, towns and villages serve as living history museums that immerse visitors in centuries past.
Dubrovnik, “Pearl of the Adriatic”
Dubrovnik, a World Heritage Site, was a major city-state and maritime trade center from the 14th through 18th centuries. Its reach and power throughout the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas rivaled that of Venice.
The intact fortress walls that surround the old city, its wealth of stunning architecture, historic monuments and maze of narrow streets transport visitors back to those heady times -- one of the main reasons it has served as a shooting location for the HBO TV series Game of Thrones.
Dubrovnik suffered heavy damage in the early 1990s, when Croatia sought to become a sovereign country following the breakup of Yugoslavia but was opposed and attacked by local Serb forces and the Serb-controlled Yugoslav People's Army.
Since then, the historic core of the city has been restored to its former splendor. The city walls, accentuated by three forts, 16 towers and other fortifications, are among the best-preserved and most beautiful in Europe. Built over a span of 600 years beginning in the 12th century, they create a 1-1/4-mile long defensive ring around the old city, and a “walk on the walls” is a favorite activity for visitors.
Zagreb, Split, and Beyond
Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, claims architectural treasures that echo the charms of Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and other great European cities. Many historic monuments grace the Lower Town and Baroque Upper Town. More contemporary touches include the seemingly wall-to-wall cafes and coffee houses that are packed with people throughout the days and evenings.
Split boasts Roman ruins – the 4th century Emperor Diocletian’s Palace -- built right into the center of the city. (Remnants of Roman structures are grouped along the coastline, dotted throughout the countryside and preserved in cities.) A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Split also contains medieval and Renaissance architecture. Tiny Trogir, another World Heritage Site along with coast, is a medieval gem.
The defensive walls that encircle the medieval hill hamlet of Hum (pronounced Hoom) are distinctive because houses were built into them. Tiny Hum consists of just two short streets, has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the smallest town in the world, and locals claim a current population of 17, 18 or “about 20.”
The adjacent seaside resorts of Lovran and Opatija (oh-pah-tee-uh) have a history of tourism dating back to Roman times, when both were popular with patrician families who built impressive villas. At the end of the 19th century, the towns once again became fashionable vacation destinations for aristocratic families, whose elegant homes still grace the setting.
Mother Nature at Her Best
The main natural attraction is Plitvice Lakes National Park, which encompasses a series of 16 lakes linked by waterfalls and rivulets that cascade from one to another. The lakes themselves reflect the colors of their surroundings, from emerald green and turquoise to blue and gray.
Another popular setting is the line of beaches strung out along Croatia’s long coastline on the Adriatic Sea. While most are pebble beaches, there also are inviting sandy stretches – and 97 of them have Blue Flag status, an international award based upon water quality and other standards.
The Croatian coast is also lined with a thousand little islands like Korcula and Hvar, which combine medieval architecture and natural beauty. Small ship cruises often stop there.