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Croatia in 2021: The Ultimate 8 Day Road Trip Itinerary

Travel is back in 2021 – and it’s better than ever. Croatia recently fully re-opened (without quarantine!) to tourists and I can’t think of a better European destination to visit in 2021. You’ve been patiently waiting to travel, go ahead and make your Fall 2021 unforgettable!

Croatia, known for its pristine Mediterranean beaches, epic medieval fortresses – many of which are featured in Game of Thrones – has seen a drastic increase in tourists over the last couple years (apart from 2020 of course).

And there’s never been a better time to visit Croatia, especially considering how easy it is to visit right now.

Related: 15 Countries You Can Visit Right Now Without A Quarantine

More direct flight options to Croatia in 2021 than ever before

Have I already told you how easy it is to get to Croatia?

In summer 2021, airlines capitalized on a busy summer filled with leisure travelers trying to reclaim their lives. They’re planning to return in summer of 2022. So if you’ve been holding out on a European/Mediterranean vacation, it’s a good idea to buy your tickets before the prices go up.

Delta has introduced, for the first time in its history, direct flights from New York (JFK) to Dubrovnik, Croatia. United has also introduced direct flights to Croatia, but you’ll have to fly out of EWR – my least favorite New York area airport.

Between the summer seasons, it’s super easy to take a transiting flight through Europe to get to Croatia.

Related: What it’s Like Traveling Across Europe as an American

How do you enter Croatia in 2021? What are the travel restrictions?

Dubrovnik, Croatia. Game of Thrones time!
Downtown Dubrovnik / King’s Landing by Andi Munoz / @destinationchaser

It’s easy! All you need is a negative PCR or rapid test result within the last 48 hours and proof of paid accommodation in Croatia. Even as an American, you’re allowed to transit through an airport in the EU to get to Croatia.

Again, to enter Croatia you’ll need:

  • Documentary evidence of an accommodation paid in advance and in full, prior to arrival at the border

You’ll also need to satisfy one (1) of the following:

  • A negative PCR or rapid antigen test (list of acceptable antigen tests) not older than 48 hours (from the time of taking the test to arriving at the border crossing point).
  • A certificate of a full COVID-19 vaccination course (1 dose J&J or 2 dose mRNA) completed more than 14 days prior to crossing the border.
  • A medical certificate confirming that the traveler has recovered from COVID-19 after having a positive PCR or rapid antigen test result. The certificate is valid 11-180 days after the positive test result.

Please confirm you’ve read the most up-to-date restrictions before traveling. These do change periodically and this guide might not have the latest info

Make sure to fill out an arrival form at Enter Croatia in advance to facilitate your entry at the border.

To satisfy the rapid test requirement before returning to the US, simply pack a CDC-approved eMed at-home rapid test and take it within 3 days of heading home. Make sure to buy this ahead as these sell like hotcakes. You might be able to find one at your local pharmacy.

Now that you know that you actually CAN go to Europe, let me talk you into squeezing as much of Croatia into one short trip. Most of Croatia’s coastline is made up of islands. Does this mean you need to charter a boat to enjoy Croatia? Nope!

Related: I visited the French Riviera in July 2021. Here’s how it went.

What’s it like to drive across Croatia?

You can find these incredible mountain roads near Rijeka in northern Croatia.
You can find these incredible mountain roads near Rijeka in northern Croatia.

The roads in Croatia are some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, especially some of the lesser-well-known roads off the major highways I will mention later. Croatia has excellent, inexpensive ferry service connecting most of the islands. Street parking is available outside of most of the big cities, and inexpensive parking options are available in the big cities.

Croatia has the same great (and not-so-great) rental car companies you’re familiar with, such as Europcar and Hertz. Croatia is a narrow, long country, so I recommend a one-way-rental.

Pro Tip: Watch out for one-way rental and other fees. I almost got charged an extra 300 Euro on a 70 Euro rental, so I made a last-minute switch to a different rental car company. They may also charge for the border crossing into Bosnia, which is not necessary if you take the ferry!

Where should I start my Croatia road trip?

Check out a preview of the detailed road trip itinerary thanks to Wanderlog, a journey planner

I recommend beginning your voyage in Zagreb, Croatia’s capital. This beautiful, historic city is fun to spend a day exploring and positions you well to start your drive towards the Plitvice Lakes or the incredible Istrian peninsula.

You can fly here on Croatia Airlines from basically anywhere in Europe. There are also options on KLM, Air France, and Lufthansa, as well as low cost carriers. Alternately, turn your drive into a round trip from Dubrovnik and save some money!

The itinerary I curated based on my time in Croatia, allowing enough time to see each destination while getting the full taste of Croatia, is as follows:

Day 1 – Explore Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, then go to bed

Fly into Zagreb. You can fly here from Amsterdam, Frankfurt, London, Paris, and other major European cities.

Americans are allowed to transit via these airports to get into Croatia, even during COVID-19 travel restrictions. Just don’t leave the airport until you get to Croatia.

Old Town, Zagreb, Croatia
Yours truly in the upper old town “Kaptol” of Zagreb

I recommend spending 4-6 hours walking around Zagreb’s center/“Kaptol”. Notable sights include:

  • Cathedral of Zagreb (pictured above)
    • Tallest building in Croatia and top ten finest organs in the world
  • Mesnica NENO Dolac Market
    • Plenty of localities, including Croatian wine, featured at this beautiful market
  • Lotrscak Tower (where the picture is taken from)
    • Great area for panoramic views over the city
  • St Mark’s Church
    • Beautiful medieval-gothic church
  • Gradec
    • This is the historic upper town area
  • Museum of Broken Relationships

Parking can be tough, but there is usually cheap street parking available as well as more expensive parking garages.

Pro Tip: Don’t skimp on parking. We parked one night in a paying zone on the street and got a ticket. They don’t mess around in Croatia.

Now, get some sleep! Surely, you are tired after all that walking.

Day 2 – Fall in love with Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes

The Plitvice Lakes in Croatia are the ultimate must-see in 2021.
The Plitvice Lakes in Croatia are the ultimate must-see in 2021. Photo credit: Michael Matti

This is where you won’t believe your eyes… over, and over again. Wake up early, enjoy breakfast in Zagreb, then embark on your journey towards the Plitvice Lakes National Park.

The drive is about 2 hours, and passes through the unique, beautiful town of Slunj.

Pro Tip: This is a great place to stop and pick up snacks and drinks before you enter the park. There is ice cream and a few overpriced snacks at Plitvice, but not much else.

Plitvice Lakes National Park: The Most Beautiful Park in Croatia

Once you get to the Plitvice Lakes National Park, you’ll have to pay for parking and tickets to enter the park. The tickets are $8-26USD per person and parking is easily another $10-20 on top of that. It’s worth it.

There are two entrances during the high season, but the second one closes for winter.

You can literally spend all day walking between ninety(!) gorgeous waterfalls, caves, and cascades. Enjoy boat rides on the clear water over sixteen lakes, with endless beauty surrounding you. This park is particularly gorgeous in Fall, with the drastic orange and red colors reflecting off of the gorgeous turquoise lakes – a combination of colors that I’ve personally never seen anywhere else.

There are many options for trails, which include combinations of train and boat rides. You can also walk around freely, of course. Some parts are steep, slippery, and strenuous, but most of the trails are wooden dock-like pathways just a foot above the water.

Trail H in Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia.
Plitvice Lakes National Lakes Official Website – Trail H

My personal favorite trail is H, which gives you the opportunity to ride a boat, train, and see most of this incredible parks’ highlights.

Driving from Plitvice to Zadar, Croatia

Next up is a 1.5-hour drive to Zadar, where you will stay the night. I highly recommend driving during daylight so you don’t miss the incredible scenery the Dalmatian mountains offer as you approach the coast.

Optional: if you wish to spend the evening in the Plitvice area, plan to leave early the next morning to head to Zadar. There’s a lot to do there!

Day 3 Morning: Putting Zadar on your radar

Zadar, the oldest continuously-inhabited Croatian city, is often called Croatia’s coolest city. Why? For one, it’s filled with Roman and Venetian ruins dating back to the 11th century. There is so much to do, and so much beauty, all contained on this one little island-town.

Zadar, Croatia - a must see in 2021.
Downtown Zadar as taken by Andi Munoz / @destinationchaser

I recommend walking around for 3-5 hours, with a break or two to enjoy some of the delicious restaurants featured in the spectacular old town. Here are the sights you should see, in an order that makes sense:

  • Park just outside the Queen Jelena Madijevka Park.
  • Walk through the park towards the famous Zadar Land Gate. This is where you’ll enter this incredible island-city. Try and pass by the The Five Wells Square (Trg Pet Bunara) on the way.
  • Head to the Museum of Ancient Glass and delight yourself with ancient glass artifacts and glassblowing demonstrations.
  • Walk through the iconic People’s Square. This is a good place to stop to eat.
  • The Church of St Chrysogonus is very unique and beautiful, with an interesting design.
  • The St Donatus Church and the surrounding ruins of the Roman Forum are a must-see.
  • Walk by the Romanesque Cathedral of St. Anastasia and enter the bell tower for a panoramic (and the best) view of Zadar!
  • Next, time to hit the waterfront. Head to the Sea Organ (Morske Orgulje), a very unique part of Zadar. The sea organ actually plays music with the waves. Definitely fun for the kids (or adult-kids like me!)
  • Start walking back to the land gate along the waterfront, which you can stay on the whole length of this gorgeous walk.

Day 3 Afternoon: Start Driving from Zadar to Split, but Split the drive in half

Best drive from Hvar to Ston
This is the longer, more beautiful coastline drive

Make an afternoon stop in the ancient city of Trogir, a frequent stop for sailors in the area. Known for its rich variety of restaurants and beautiful Kamerlengo Fortress, Trogir makes for a great pit stop.

Pro Tip: Drive along the coast for a way more beautiful drive. It’s only 40 minutes longer.

Šibenik is another cute town to stop in if you get tired or hungry on the 2-hour drive to Split.

You will probably arrive in Split in the evening; perfect time to get lost in the charm of this lovely old city. Some people spend weeks here on vacation; you won’t get bored.

Plan to stay 2 nights here so you can have a full day to explore the area.

Day 4 – Discovering Split, Croatia’s treasure city:

  • Take a walk along the Riva Promenade, a boardwalk along the sea with waterfront restaurants and bars.
  • Nearby, you can find the stunning Diocletian Palace. There are plenty of street artists, little souvenir shops, and great nightlife in this area of town.
  • You’ll find yourself facing the peristyle, an ancient Roman artifact found at the center of the courtyard.
The Peristyle in Split, Croatia is one of many Roman ruins you'll find all over the city.
The Peristyle in Split, Croatia is one of many Roman ruins you’ll find all over the city.

Split is a somewhat big city. Though you can drive, parking is a hassle and I highly recommend leaving your car and using one of the many bike rental services available. You’ll find that with traffic, biking is often quicker than driving.

If you’re interested in museums, the Croatian Maritime Museum, Museum of Fine Art, and Split City Museum are open most days, even during COVID-19.

If you like shopping, the Mall of Split features 4 floors of international brands, and a food court.

At night, I recommend paying a visit to the Strossmayerova Fontana, found in the Park Josipa Jurja Strossmayera next to the Fine Arts Museum. There’s also a beer garden here, and plenty of restaurants in the area.

Best half-day excursions from Split, Croatia in 2021:

During your time in Split, plan some time to head just outside the city and enjoy these incredible half-day excursions:

A Beach, A Panorama, and Some Nature:

From the city, walk towards the Marjan Hill Stairs. This puts you on a long, but beautiful climb towards the top of the Marjan Forest Park. From here, you’ll have panoramic views on Split and its incredible surroundings. On the way down, stop and visit the Mestrovic Gallery, walk down to Obojena Beach for a quick swim and bite to eat.

Brela/Punta Rota, Croatia in 2021.
One of Croatia’s unbelievably gorgeous beaches. Photo: Andi Munoz / @destinationchaser

A more private and nicer beach (that is further down the road) is Kasjuni Beach. It features gorgeous views of the nearby mountains, clear turquoise water, and great privacy. Beach Bene is another great option, but the furthest away.

A Game of Thrones excursion in Croatia

Whether you’re into Game of Thrones or not, the Kliss Fortress features fun for everyone. With panoramic views of Split, fascinating history, and incredible architecture, the Kliss Fortress makes a good stop on the way out of Split.

There are other ruins in this area of Split, notably: an Amphitheatre, Roman city ruins, a Diocletian aqueduct, Gradina Solin garden church, St Peter and Moses church ruins, and an Art & Nature Reserve.

Best Speedboat Tours in Croatia

Another option for those addicted to the water include half-day speedboat tours! You can see some of the Croatian coast’s most popular islands and caves, find ideal snorkel and swim spots isolated from the crowds. Many of these tours hit famous spots like:

  • The Blue Cave
  • Bisevo Island
  • Komiza Village
  • Blue Lagoon

Day 5 – Hvar Are You Doing?

Addicted to the incredible Croatian beauty? Wait until you see Hvar!

Hvar, Croatia
Photo: Andi Munoz / @destinationchaser

Today, be ready to embark on your first ferry in Croatia. You will have to start your day early so you can take the ferry from Split to Stari Grad. In the low season, there are only three departures. If you miss the 830AM departure, you’re going to be waiting another 6 hours for the next one.

You’ll arrive at the gorgeous town of Hvar, pronounced Who-Are (and roll the ‘r’ if you can) – one of my absolute favorites in Croatia.

Pro Tip: The ferries have extremely limited food and beverages; I highly recommend taking your own. The ferry takes 2 hours.

Welcome to Paradise in Croatia

You’ll arrive in Stari Grad, the oldest town in Croatia, on Hvar Island around 10:30AM. This is a cute waterfront town with nice restaurants, and a Renaissance-era castle (Tvrdalj). Guess what time the castle opens? 10:30AM!

From Stari Grad, you can take highway 116 to Hvar town, or you can drive on a beautiful small road that passes through the abandoned settlements of Malo Grablje and Velo Grablje. These were evacuated in the 1960s.

A glimpse at the abandoned villages of Hvar island.

In Hvar town, you should start your walk along the waterfront from the Franciscan Monastery, a church right on a beach with some of the clearest water you’ll ever see. Continue through the hills of the old town, walking the busy streets until you reach the Spanish Fortress which overlooks the entire city.

There are plenty of public baths/beaches all around Hvar – you can’t go wrong with any of them if you’re feeling for a refreshing swim.

There are also wineries sitting all over the coast overlooking the water, which you can visit on your own or enjoy as part of a tour. Speedboat tours to Brac and the Paklinski islands are also available if you’re feeling like heading out on the water.

Enjoy a break from being on the move, you deserve it! Hvar is a great place to rest – tomorrow will be a long day.

Day 6 – You Trpanj yet?

Leaving Hvar Town towards the Trpanj peninsula

Today will be a long drive: 4-6 hours depending on which route you take.

There’s enough to see and do on Hvar island that you could spend a week here alone. If you have more than 8 days, this is where I’d spend the extra time exploring places off the beaten path.

Pro Tip: If you feel like exploring the rich coastline of Hvar island, you can stay off the main highway (116) and drive down to the town of Zavala on an unbelievably gorgeous, winding, cliffside road. On the way, pay a visit to the incredible Red Rocks of Hvar, or take a swim at beach Jagodna, one of the finest beaches in the country.

We took the coastline route and could not believe our eyes – but it did take a lot longer. If you go this route, you’ll drive along an incredible, quiet road until you reach the Tunnel Pitve – a fun, super narrow tunnel connecting you back to the main highway on the other side of the island.

The Tunnel Pitve in Hvar
The tunnel Pitve is a fun time!
This is the route described below, with two ferries ending in Orebic. If you miss or want to skip the second ferry, take the alternate route to Ston.

At the end of Hvar island, you’ll take the Sucaraj to Drvenik ferry, which runs every 3 hours until 9:30PM, and takes 35 minutes.

Next, you’ll join the incredibly gorgeous highway D8, which runs along the coast, sandwiched between huge mountains and beautiful water. Drive down to Ploce, where you will take the ferry to Trpanj.

You can reward yourself after the long drive with a nice seaside hotel or airbnb in the small town of Orebic – our final stop for the day. Or feel free to stay anywhere on the island.

  • If you’re too late for ferry #2 from Ploce, you can drive down highway 8 to Ston. The problem with this is that you’ll have to pass through the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina (one country) and back into Croatia. It can be done – even in 2021 – but is slightly annoying.

Day 7 – Get Ston’d in Croatia

From Orebic, there are a couple of half-day adventures you can take.

Option 1 – Incredible Hike:

The hike up to the mountain peak of Sveti Ilija is an incredible, but strenuous. It takes about 5 hours roundtrip for a healthy hiker. The panorama from there is amazing – you can see the whole Peljesac peninsula and most of the island of Korcula. In the distance, you can see the mainland, Mljet, and other islands. On the way you may see mouflons (running away) and horses (coming to you to lick off your sweat).

Pro Tip: You can park at the monastery (Gospa od Anđela) for an easier, less steep hike.

Option 2 – Jet Ski Rental & Aqua Park

You can rent a kayak, paddle board, or jet ski and explore the crystal-clear waters and 19 nearby islands. Alternately, take a taxi boat to some nearby islands, many of which you can end up having all to yourself!

Korcula is another gorgeous town you can spend a couple hours exploring. It’s a 25-minute taxi boat ride from Orebic.

Drive and Get Ston’d

We’ll start our journey towards our final stop of Dubrovnik – but not before visiting the spectacular walls of Ston.

Though highway 414 is beautiful, you will not regret taking the small road right on the coastline, passing through the cute towns of Podobuče and Trstenik. Both of these feature incredible beaches with ridiculously clear water and great restaurants. Grdni Do Zuljana is an incredible beach right off this road.

The magnificent Walls of Ston in Croatia, open in 2021.
I did end up hiking all the way up…

Once you reach Ston, about an hour or two down the road, you’ll reach the incredible Walls of Ston. Known as the “European wall of China”, the Walls of Ston are miles of old city walls that were built starting in 1358.  

From Ston, you’ll continue along route 414 which once again rejoins the incredibly beautiful highway 8 and make your way down to Dubrovnik, hopefully right in time for sunset!

Parking in Dubrovnik is tough, so try and book a hotel/Airbnb that has parking available. You can put a filter for “free parking” if you look for hotels on google.

Day 8 – Games of Thrones Time in Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik, Croatia
Dubrovnik, Croatia: open for tourism in 2021.

If you’re a big Game of Thrones aficionado, you’re at the right place. There are plenty of walking tours that will guide you along all the spots used for filming. King’s Landing is probably the best place to start your tour. You can visit the Magical City of Quarth, on the island of Lokrum, a nature reserve. You can take a boat there from the Old Port. From Red Keep, you’ll find a great view over King’s Landing, used during season 2 and 3. Or you can visit the St Jacob area, an atrium of an abandoned hotel used for the Trial-by-Combat scene in season 4.

Lovrijenac is an incredible 16th-century seaside fortress built right on a 100+ foot rock face. Next to it is the public beach of Šulić and the 15th-century fortress of Tvrđava Bokar. You can swim in crystal-clear water with these majestic forts surrounding you.

Most of the interesting sights are found within the city walls of Dubrovnik, which you can spend the entire day exploring by foot. Otherwise, Fort Imperial is on top of a mountain overlooking the city. Nearby, you can find the Dubrava Observation Point. Both of these are accessible by foot, car, or cable car that begins just outside the city.

Travel Insurance

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably pretty committed to your trip in Croatia this summer.

Consider travel insurance for changing travel plans. Money.com has a great article (6 Best Travel Insurance Companies of 2021) comparing plans so you can make the best decision for yourself and those traveling with you.

Flying to the USA from Croatia

I sincerely hope you had as amazing a time in Croatia as I have. It’s such an incredible country – we are so lucky that they are open for tourism. There’s so much to see – you could spend months exploring all the little islands, coves, mountains, towns, beaches, etc. This guide should give you enough of a taste that you think you saw most of Croatia, and enough of a taste so that you KNOW you want to come back.

Make sure to read about Covid testing options for your return home.

The airport is about a 30-minute drive away from downtown Dubrovnik. If you haven’t had enough, below are some additional stops you can think about for next time.

Notable Mentions:

If you have more time, I would try and include these incredible stops in your itinerary:

  • Istrian Peninsula
    • Učka Nature Park
    • Pula
    • Ferry to Cres Island then island hopping the whole way down the coast via ferry
  • Krka National Park
    • Another fantastic day trip. The river itself, surrounded by castle ruins, waterfalls, and cliffs, is over 70km (40 miles) long. You can go on your own, or go with one of plentiful tour groups.
Krka, Croatia in 2021
  • Vis Island
  • Brac Island
    • Vidova Gora Hike

Is Fall a Good Time to Visit Croatia?

Looking to make travel plans for Europe this Fall? Don’t worry – I think Croatia is actually nicer in Fall anyways.

Fall in Croatia is absolutely spectacular. The average high temperature is in the low 70s F/low 20s C, the colors of the leaves are changing in the north and on the mountains, and the sea water is still warm enough to swim. The tourist sites and restaurants are still open, but void of all the summer tourists. I actually visited at the end of October last year and would do it again.

Thanks for Reading!

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