Croatia is no longer a well-kept secret. Throngs of visitors hit the Adriatic coast every year to enjoy the food, nightlife and beauty of this bountiful little country. But you can escape the growing crowds for a more enriching and authentic Croatian experience by heading straight for the best small towns in Croatia. To maximize your experience, be sure to visit at least one hilltop village and one coastal enclave.
Enjoy some authentic Italian food in this northern Croatian town. Groznjan is the only city with an Italian majority in Croatia. This town houses ancient Roman artifacts, has been ruled by the Venetians, Austrians, Italians and Yugolslavians, and has seen many wars and struggles. The whole town is a small fortified fortress that wears the scars of war and neglect. But in the 1960’s, sculptor Aleksandar Rukavina brought revitalization. Artists began to move here and the prestigious Jeunesses Musicales International soon opened up. Today, you’ll find artists and musicians colonizing this once forgotten stone town.
Sitting nine miles from Dubrovnik on the Adriatic Sea is Cavtat. Founded by the Greeks in 6th Century BC, ruled by the Romans in 228 BC, and then the Avars and Slavs in the 7th century, Cavtat has had a turbulent history. But when multiple cultures rule a city through time, they all leave an indelible stamp on the area. You can see architecture and ruins from each period of this city’s violent history. Cavtat is a great escape from the busier Dubrovnik, is situated on a harbor with beautiful beaches and crowned by a series of lush hills. Come here to escape the tourist crowds.
Less than 300 residents make Kumrovec village their home. This inland town is a village locked in time. The homes of the village, largely built around the year 1900, have been preserved to make the village a kind of living museum. The restoration began back in the 1970’s and continues today. To date, over 40 homes and farms have been restored to their antique glory. The former President of Yugoslavia, Marshal Josip Broz Tito, was born in the village. His birth house has been turned into a museum and the village has been frozen in time to reflect how it looked when he was born in 1892. You’ll find his house by locating the bronze statue of him on the front lawn.
Young partiers pour into Porec from all over Europe during the high summer months. Porec has become the center of a vast tourism hub that stretches for miles up the Istrian coast in each direction. Not exactly the place you want to go looking for an authentic Croatian experience or a quiet getaway, Porec draws throngs of jubilant travelers. There is, however, some sights to see while you’re not partying such as an ancient basilica and Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque architecture. The rest of Istria is easily accessible from here and the city has a great tourist infrastructure.
This beautiful riverside town’s biggest attraction is the nearby Krka National Park. This stunning park features a valley full of travertine rock formations that make for stunning waterfalls. The crystal clear water of the river that feeds the waterfalls invites summer travelers to cool off. Admission to the park includes a boat ride to the park’s seventh, largest and final travertine formation and its most brilliant waterfall — Skradinski Buk. After enjoying the park, return to town to explore a ruined fortress and to refuel on some local cuisine.
Moscenice is a typical hilltop medieval town sitting high above the Istrian Peninsula. The outer walls of the outer ring of houses serve as fortified walls for the enclosed town. This doesn’t leave a whole lot of space inside creating a tight-knit community, literally. The narrow streets and enclosed walkways on the inside of the castle provide the small town with charm. Get a peak above the walls as Moscenice stands 170 meters (570 feet) above sea level to give you a beautiful view of the sea and nearby islands.
Less than 2,000 residents call Purisca on the island of Brac home. This little village, with its stunning bay and beautiful white limestone buildings, is often listed as one of the prettiest towns in Europe. The island of Brac itself is pretty surreal. You’ll travel through fields of boulders to get to Pucisca due to decades of backbreaking work by the women of Brac to clear land for vineyards, figs and olives. It was once a privilege of aristocrats and artists to live here, and you can see why. The island rises quickly from the sheltering bay to make the town look as though it sits in an amphitheater.
Just off the coast, in the Adriatic Sea, sits beautiful little Primosten. The Turks threatened the city back in the 16th century so the citizens of Primosten made this little inlet and island connected to the mainland with a drawbridge. Fortified walls went up and the small city survived. The island was returned to being an inlet with a causeway but the walls remained. Unfortunately, you’ll have to visit this little tourist gem during the high season in the summer months as the place hibernates in winter. The cobblestone streets come alive during warm weather with music, festivities and local vendors.
Slow down in Veli Losinj. This tiny little community on the island of Lošinj in Primorje-Gorski Kotar County in western Croatia is a collection of authentic houses, restaurants, hotels, shops and bars on a scenic harbor. Rovenska, another beautiful bay, is just a 10-minute walk from here. The biggest attractions in Veli Losinj are the old sea captain’s houses that were adorned with exotic plants collected as prizes from long voyages. The houses line the main road to the bay. Be sure to look for dolphins playing in the harbor in April and May.
On the west coast of the Istrian peninsula juts Rovinj into the Adriatic Sea. More than 15,000 residents cram into this tiny town wedged into the edge of the peninsula. Unlike many other ancient Croatian cities, Rovinj has no fortified walls; the outer ring houses feature front doors that open right up to the sea. A popular tourist destination, the old town is sprinkled with four-star hotels and restaurants where you’ll find great sea food. Rovinj is still an authentic fishing port. Take a boat trip to the nearby Rovinj archipelago to escape the crowds for a day.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Rovinj
White buildings with salmon-color roofs seem to spiral up a hill to a double-walled castle in the town of Motovun. Sitting inland in Istria, this medieval town may remind you of scenes from Game of Thrones. Modern homes and shops lead you up to the gates of the old town. Fortified in the 14th century by the Venetians, the old town has now been turned into a cloister of artist studios, restaurants and shops. This is a popular destination where tour buses routinely drop off throngs of visitors at the base of the 275-meter (900-foot) hill.
Hvar is an island on the Adriatic Sea just off the coast of Croatia and the biggest town on the island is Hvar Town. You’ll find no cars on the marble streets of this fortified city, but you will find up to 20,000 visitors per day during the high season. Gothic palaces are penned in by formidable 13th-century walls and just outside those walls sit beautiful clear water beaches.. A short boat ride takes you to the nude beaches of the Pakleni Islands. This town has a wild side. Known for partying at all hours of the day, Hvar Town has a reputation for craziness and a younger crowd.
Rastoke looks like it came to life off the pages of a fairytale book. Old wooden bridges traverse rivers alive with waterfalls that are ripe for kayaking and rafting. About 100 permanent residents maintain over 22 mills on the thatch of rivers that criss-cross the landscape. Locals are all too happy to help you with river and waterfall adventures. For the daring, there are class-three rapids. For the sporty, there is the single kayak. And you can even link rafts for a family expedition. One hotel with about 100 rooms awaits those who stop here on their way to the Plitvice Lakes.
One of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, Trogir stands proudly on the Adriatic coast. Head down to the seaside promenade to look at the lavender covering the hills of the islands in the harbor. Run through the winding, narrow, ancient streets to find hole-in-the-wall restaurants and hidden art galleries. Gaze upon incredibly preserved buildings from the 13th through the 15th centuries. You can also find Roman ruins, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture, and the stunning Venetian Cathedral of St. Lovro. Connected by three bridges to the mainland, this walled off island’s nightlife lines the stone walkway of the promenade.
Visit Marco Polo’s birth house while in Korcula Town on the island of Korcula in the Adriatic Sea. It’s a legend that he was born in this stunning seaside fortress town, but it sure is convincing. The old town is a fortified citadel that seems to float upon the ocean. There is an open-air theater in the old town where you can take in free shows during warmer months. The fortress has been transformed into a beautiful collection of shops, galleries, bars, restaurants and boutiques, making Korcula Town a very popular destination for the locals and tourists alike.