Half of this country is defined by what the Adriatic Sea gives it. Croatia has vast beaches and harbors to linger on, ancient cities to explore and a Mediterranean culinary spread to crack into. A fantastic sense of the history you never knew is a fixture of everyday life here. It is all present and thriving among bright blue waters. Celebratory Carnival kicks off the new year here and it is thrilling to find yourself as part of the crowd. Could this be your next favorite destination?
As the third largest city in Croatia, there is plenty to do and see in this historic port city. If you can’t miss a party, visit Rijeka during its Carnival season from January 17 to February 22. Rooted in Slavic pagan tradition and layered with Christian celebratory traditions prior to Lent, this event is full of hope for the spring of the new year. It is full of costumed parades, food, and dancing! If you plan on visiting around Carnival, be sure to book advance accommodation, as hotels, hostels and rentals in the city fill up fast. This month-long event attracts more than 150,000 spectators and 10,000 masked participants, according to carnivaland.net. With all the festivities, it is a fantastic way to glide through the cold of the winter and into spring.
Many great ancient cities leave their mark in the form of castles or cathedrals, but Trsat Castle leaves a unique architectural impression. Have you ever heard of the Illyrians? I had not before learning about this structure which has a beautiful overlook on Rijeka. While the history of this regional grouping of tribes is blurred by the successive empires of Greeks and Romans, they once dominated the Balkan and coastal Mediterranean region. One of their hill forts then became the site of a Roman fortress that oversaw trade routes. Following the collapse of that empire, a Croatian noble family built the existing Trsat Castle on the same site. It’s a good thing it has been partially restored, because with a complete dungeon and café, it is worth the trek up the hillside steps. It’s not every day that a defensive castle gives off classical vibes with Doric columns. Nestled in the center of the castle is actually a mausoleum reminiscent of a Grecian temple, which was added in the 19th century in dedication to an Austrian military general.
Stroll along the Molo Longo, or the Long Pier, which will take you past lit-up harbor cranes, fishermen with their catch, and fellow walkers out seeking a blue water view. Several reminders of Rijeka’s industrial past are dotted along the harbor, including the remnants of the first torpedo factory, first designed in the 1860s.
Zadar is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia. Romans left behind their network of forum buildings in bustling Old Town, the Byzantines their church structures, and the Venetians, beautifully sculpted gates, which are riddled throughout the city.
The terracotta tiled roofs give way to the sea, and waterfronts will likely be your best hangout after a long day of exploring. Restaurants and bars will be thriving at any time of year, and in the warmer months, beaches are filled with sun and sand seekers. At sunset, light up your dancing feet at The Greeting to the Sun monument, which plays a lightshow powered by solar panels. Don’t worry about not having music because the sea organ will play a tune for you powered by the waves and wind lapping up into pipes under the stone pavilion. It may not be a typical dancing beat, but it is something unique to experience.
Be sure to try seafood dishes, such as lobster in buzara sauce atop a tomato-filled rosy pasta, which incorporates the Mediterranean staples of olive oil, wine and garlic. Pašticada is a sweet-sour beef dish traditionally served up here, with hours of slow cooking put into its preparation, and often paired with gnocchi. When you find yourself at a market, grabbing a wheel of famous Pag Island sheep’s cheese would not hurt.
At its beginning, Split was founded as one of the many Greek colonies dotted around the sea in the 2nd century. This city’s Old Town is home to Diocletian’s Palace, a Roman emperor in the 4th century. It was not only his residence, but a military barracks as well, so it takes up a broad space. The Riva boardwalk runs along this extravagant palace, full of market stalls and local street food. Pull some Croatian Kuna out of an ATM and head out for a day of new sights, sounds and smells.
Any photographer will want to shoot some panoramic views of this storied city, so head to Marjan, a recreational mountain area full of paved walking paths with stairs upward to the summit. Surrounded by beaches and dotted with cafés and snack bars, you will even find obvious piles of ruins out here where Diocletian and his descendants used it as a leisure space a walkable distance from the city center.
A 28-minute drive from Split’s city center, the Fortress of Klis lies roped around the summit of a steep mountain. Uber is an active ride service in Croatia if you don’t wish to drive there. The location and vantage point of Klis was highly sought after amongst various invaders and owners to whom it was bequeathed, including the Illyrians, Romans, Croats, the Knights Templar, Mongols, Ottomans and more. Because of this turnstile of various cultures taking over this strategic location, there is a mishmash of different architecture built into the stonework at various times, meant to beautify, intimidate invaders or pay homage to multiple gods. This fortress was even featured in the Game of Thrones, and it’s no wonder it was chosen due to its dramatic appearance.
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