Croatia’s pretty Dalmatian Coast draws the crowds. Here’s how to avoid them
(CNN) — Like Venice, Barcelona and Prague, Dubrovnik is a victim of its own success.
More than three million tourists flocked to the fabled walled city on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast in 2019, and local authorities expect the number to reach that point again in the years to come as global tourism recovers from Covid-19.
Such was the pre-pandemic crowds and their impact on the historic city that at one point UNESCO threatened to withdraw Dubrovnik’s World Heritage status.
The surge in visitor numbers was largely fueled by the opening of a new cruise terminal that could handle five ships at a time and disembark up to 10,000 passengers a day, and an expanded international airport that could ferry those passengers to and from their boats.
As if that wasn’t enough, along came a globally hit television show that lured a whole new breed of tourist.
“Before Game of Thrones, most of the people I guided were interested in art and architecture and stuff like that,” says veteran Dubrovnik guide Ivan Vukovic. “But then more and more people just wanted selfies in places where they were doing the show — like Pile Gate and Fort Lovrijenac.
“And we had a big, big problem with naked Instagramers doing their own ‘walk of shame’ on the Jesuit stairs.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Dubrovnik – it remains one of the coolest urban places on planet earth. But for those who like their history, art, and architecture with far fewer people, these seven alternative Croatian coastal towns offer a similar vibe with far fewer people.
Just an hour’s drive from Dubrovnik lies Ston, one of Dalmatia’s best kept secrets. Founded by the ancient Illyrians, this laid-back coastal village is known for its stone walls and incredible seafood.
Like a Croatian version of the Great Wall of China, the 14th-century battlements creep up and over a mountain behind the village. It takes a few hours to hike Europe’s longest fortified structure (5.5km) and even less to walk the city walls during the annual Ston Walls Marathon.
A car-free pedestrian street in Ston’s Old Town is filled with sidewalk cafes like Konoba Bakus, serving seafood specialties like Adriatic oysters, black squid risotto, and buzara mussels. Feel free to linger all afternoon; the locals do.
The town of Trogir feels more like Venice than any other place on the Dalmatian coast.
Half an hour up the coast from Split, this tiny island town is like a miniature Dubrovnik, shaped by almost four centuries of Venetian rule and completely unspoilt. Surrounded by water, Trogir feels more like Venice than any other outpost on the Dalmatian coast.
When Trogir was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the citation described the town as “an outstanding example of a medieval town… which has preserved its urban fabric to an exceptional degree and with a minimum of modern intervention… every aspect of the townscape.”
Even if you don’t like quaint cobblestone streets and palm-lined waterfront promenades, St. Lawrence’s Cathedral, with its iconic Venetian-style bell tower and extravagant Radovan Portal, should put Trogir on your Dalmatian bucket list.
Known for its summer folk festival and donkey races, Primošten is almost another old island town. During the Renaissance, residents built a narrow causeway connecting their island home to the mainland.
The town’s narrow streets are home to handicraft shops, fashion boutiques and traditional konoba restaurants. St. George’s Church rises high above its red-tiled roofs and dominates a hillside with breathtaking views of the Adriatic Sea.
On the other side of the dam are sandy Mala Raduča and other beaches, as well as an inland full of vineyards that produce some of Croatia’s finest wines.
Biograd na Moru
Spread over a small peninsula, Biograd has another medieval old town, heavily influenced by centuries of Venetian rule. But its real strength is its access to the Adriatic Sea.
As one of the nautical centers of the Dalmatian coast, Biograd offers numerous opportunities to get on the water. Diving and snorkelling day trips depart daily to the Kornati National Park and its countless unspoiled islands.
Back in town, Marina Šangulin is the home base of several yacht charter companies offering a variety of motor and sail boats. You can also rent paddleboards and dart between the picturesque bays south of the old town.
Zadar is only a few hours away from the Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Leonid Tit/Adobe Stock
Nestled between a photogenic harbor teeming with yachts and the island-strewn Adriatic Sea, Zadar’s Old Town offers a backdrop just as magical as Dubrovnik.
From a ruined Roman forum and Romanesque churches to its sturdy Venetian walls and the occasional communist-era building that looks almost dated, the Old Town’s architecture is a mix of the various people who have ruled Zadar over the years.
Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that Zadar has the most beautiful sunset he has ever seen. And there’s something special about the city at dusk, when lights twinkle around the harbour, the waterfront Sea Organ plays a wave-generated tune and the cafes and bars of the Old Town come alive.
Aside from its own attractions, Zadar is a great base for visiting medieval Nin (Croatia’s first royal capital), bungee jumping from the towering Maslenički Bridge, or hiking and rock climbing in the Paklenica Gorge. And it’s just a two-hour drive from the turquoise pools and numerous waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Surrounded by factories and sprawling suburbs, Split is not the most attractive destination in Dalmatia. But the second largest city in Croatia offers a lot to think about.
The pride and joy of the city is Diocletian’s Palace, built in the 4th century AD by a paranoid Roman emperor who was sure he would be assassinated unless he resettled the imperial capital and dealt with impregnable forces would be surrounded by walls.
The palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site alone, is like a small town. More than 3,000 people still live within the massive outer walls today. Don’t miss the massive basements, particularly the coarse-grained interface with parts yet to be excavated – a cross-section of municipal waste deposited over 1,700 years.
Ferries bustle along Split’s waterfront to popular Adriatic islands such as Brač, Hvar and the extraordinarily beautiful Vis, where Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” was filmed on location (and not in real Greece).
Set in a park-like setting on the outskirts of the city, the ancient Roman city of Salona preserves a large amphitheatre, baths, a basilica and many other structures. Rising atop a nearby mountaintop is Klis Fortress, an imposing medieval castle once occupied by the Knights Templar and the mythical city of Meereen in Game of Thrones.
The Roman Arena in Pula.
One of the northernmost cities on the Croatian coast, Pula is located on the western edge of the Istrian peninsula, not far from Venice. A star-shaped Renaissance castle crowns the old town. But Pula’s claims to fame are Roman relics.
Almost 2,000 years after it was built, the Pula Arena is still one of the best preserved Roman structures in the world. Today, the colossal stadium provides a venue for plays, concerts and the annual outdoor Pula Film Festival.
Set in the communist era, the intriguing Memo Museum Pula offers a walk down memory lane to everyday life in Tito’s Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was once a part. Pula is also the gateway to the islands of Brijuni National Park with its beaches, hiking trails, golf course and safari park.
If you can’t resist the lure of Dubrovnik, there are a few things that can make your visit easier.
While staying in a short-term rental or small hotel within the city walls may seem like the ultimate in romance (and it is), it often means lugging your luggage up hundreds of stone steps. Meanwhile, those who have a rental car will find that the most convenient parking costs around $100 per day.
The alternative is to stay just outside the walls in a rental or a hotel (like the Hilton Imperial) that offers free parking. Or you just don’t have a vehicle; Local bus services are fast, frequent and efficient, as are taxis and ride-sharing services. At less than $1 per kilometer, Uber fares to Old Town cost about $8 from the cruise port and $27 from the international airport.
Given the mild Mediterranean climate on the Dalmatian coast, you don’t need a lot of clothing. So keep your luggage to a minimum, especially if you are inside the walls.
Avoid the biggest crowds by exploring Old Town before and after the daily tide of cruise passengers. Strolling the polished limestone streets is particularly pleasant at dawn or late in the evening.
Hire a guide for a hike. Not just for the local history and architecture, but also for the facts on how Dubrovnik survived the civil war after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and what life is like today for those still living within the walls.