This is a great route for first-time travelers to Croatia. You'll cover a diverse range of highlights, from Croatia's capital to the islands of the Dalmatian Coast, ending in the medieval city of Dubrovnik. This route is great as a self-drive tour or with private transfers each day, providing you with the most flexibility to move at your own pace.

Highlights

  • Tour over 50 castles scattered across the Zagorje hillside
  • Stretch your legs and discover the many waterfalls and emerald-green lakes of Plitvice Lakes National Park
  • Listen to the sea organ of Zadar and explore its storied alleyways
  • Explore the famous Diocletian's Palace in Split, dating back to the 4th century
  • Roam marbled streets and discover baroque buildings of Croatia's most historical city, Dubrovnik

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Zagreb, Pick up your Rental Car Zagreb
Day 2 Zagreb Day Trip: The Castles of Zagorje and Varaždin Zagreb
Day 3 Drive from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes National Park Plitvice Lakes National Park
Day 4 Drive from Plitvice Lakes National Park to Zadar Zadar
Day 5 Explore Zadar Zadar
Day 6 Drive from Zadar to Split, Visit Krka National Park Split
Day 7 Explore Split Split
Day 8 Ferry from Split to Brač, Explore Brač Brač Island
Day 9 Explore Brač, Relax on Zlatni Rat Beach Brač Island
Day 10 Ferry from Brač to Hvar, Hike the Lavender Road Hvar
Day 11 Ferry from Hvar to Dubrovnik Dubrovnik
Day 12 Explore Dubrovnik Dubrovnik
Day 13 Day Trip to Montenegro Dubrovnik
Day 14 Depart Dubrovnik  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Zagreb, Pick up your Rental Car

Zagreb is Croatia's capital and largest city
Zagreb is Croatia's capital and largest city

After arriving at Zagreb's international airport, you'll pick up your rental car and head to your hotel in the center of the city (parking provided). The rest of the day is yours to spend as you like. The city center is easily walkable and the streets and parks are easy to navigate by foot. All the main attractions and restaurants are within walking distance.

From your hotel, you can opt for a walking tour that will take you through the history of the city, sharing the stories, legends, and pivotal events of its past. You will learn about the history of Zagreb starting from the Middle Ages and explore the cobblestone streets of Gornji Grad before heading over to the cathedral and Kaptol, the religious core.

Zagreb also has a number of beautiful city parks which are great for exploring and people watching, especially in the late afternoon. Maksimir is a great option, with a variety of cafés nearby to pick up a coffee for your stroll.

You may also wish to explore the bustling Ban Jelacic Square at the heart of the city. You could spend the day wandering the open-air markets—a bounty of local produce, flowers, jams, and honey. There's also an entire area of vendors selling an array of handcrafted cheeses, cured meats, pastries, and other locally-made products. This is a great time to stock up on supplies and snacks for the drive.

Recommended places to eat & drink

  • Otto & Frank (Breakfast and dinner spot; 8 AM to 12 AM)
  • Jutro (Good spot for breakfast; 9 AM to 10 PM)
  • Quahwa (Comfortable café for cover lovers; 9 AM to 10 PM)
  • Brokenships Bistro (New restaurant, great for dinner; 12 PM to 11 PM)
  • Carpaccio (Great spot for Italian food; 12 PM to 12 AM)
  • Fantastic Food and Drinks (Popular night spot with food stalls and drinks)

Day 2: Zagreb Day Trip: The Castles of Zagorje and Varaždin

Veliki Tabor castle, Zagorje region
Veliki Tabor castle, Zagorje region

Enjoy an early breakfast before driving to Trakošćan Castle in the picturesque region of Zagorje, sightseeing along the way to Varaždin.

Situated just north of Zagreb, Zagorje is a bucolic hilly region, dotted with renaissance and medieval fortresses, numerous baroque castles, and family-run vineyards and farms. It's a memorable, romantic landscape that will take you back in time to a sense of both the aristocratic past and the rural traditional way of life that still exists in Croatia today.

From Trakošćan Castle, you will continue east to Varaždin, once the capital of Croatia. This wonderfully preserved town is known for its baroque and rococo architecture and is an example of how Croatia looked during the prosperous 17th century. A stroll through the old center of town reveals the former palaces of noble families, baroque façades, parks, and palaces, the Old Castle, and the historic feudal fort are the highlight of your visit.

After visiting Varaždin, enjoy a delicious lunch of traditional specialities from the Zagorje region before returning to Zagreb in the afternoon.

Driving time (Zagreb to Varaždin): 3 hours
Driving time (Varaždin to Zagreb): 1.5 hours

Day 3: Drive from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes National Park

Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice Lakes National Park

In the morning, check out from your hotel and continue your drive south to Plitvice Lakes National Park, one of Croatia's most popular national parks.

Along the way, there are a few interesting stops, including Turanj, a war museum, and Rastoke village. Rastoke is a small village known for its old water mills and beautiful waterfalls as two rivers converge in the area. This is a nice precursor of the sights to come at Plitvice Lakes.

You'll arrive at Plitvice Lakes National Park in the early afternoon and can explore the park at your leisure. The park is home to an exquisite collection of 16 emerald green and blue travertine lakes, more than 90 waterfalls, and numerous caves, which together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage site. The lakes are surrounded by beech and pine forests and are home to extensive wildlife. 

Choose one of eight different hiking trails, ranging from three to eight hours in duration, where the upper lakes tend to be less crowded during the peak season. You may wish to bring a bought lunch (and a bottle of wine!) with you to enjoy a picnic.

Tickets are purchased at the entrance of the Park.

Driving time (Zagreb to Plitvice): 2 hours

Day 4: Drive from Plitvice Lakes National Park to Zadar

Waterfront views of Zadar
Waterfront views of Zadar

In the morning, leave Plitvice Lakes behind and continue your journey south to the ancient Roman city of Zadar.

A historical center of the Dalmatian Coast, Zadar is famous for its picturesque coastline full of islands and vibrant blue waters, as well as fresh seafood and unforgettable sunsets. Take the rest of the day to relax and explore. You may wish to stroll along Zadar's Riva, a wide ribbon of stone paths bordered by a grassy park on one side and the sea on the other. It runs along Old Town’s waterfront, where it comes alive at night with vendors and Dalmatian a capella groups called Klapa that serenade the passersby, including folks on yachts who dock there.

Take in a legendary sunset (Alfred Hitchcock is on record saying they're the best in Zadar) from Café Brazil before discovering the pretty patterned lights of the Monument to the Sun while listening to the nearby Sea Organ

Recommended places for lunch and dinner

  • Stomorica (Known for its grilled fish and simple Dalmatian cuisine)
  • Pet Bunara (A popular restaurant serving traditional Dalmatian cuisine, like homemade pasta, octopus and Zadar fig cake)
  • Kornat (Located on the harborfront, serves delicious Croatian seafood)
  • Kastel (Located in the Hotel Bastion overlooking the harbor, offers a fine-dining experience with a modern take on traditional Croatian cuisine with a mix of French and Italian)

Driving time (Plitvice to Zadar): 1.5-2 hours

Day 5: Explore Zadar

St. Anastasia's Cathedral
St. Anastasia's Cathedral

Today you will have the whole day to explore this historic coastal town at your leisure.

Set on a peninsula surrounded by the sparkling Adriatic Sea, today Zadar is home to a tidy network of polished stone streets and public squares. Explore the walled Old Town—a treasure of ancient city ruins and architecture from Roman and medieval times— and discover the 9th-century St. Donatus church, a 16th-century Venetian city wall, and the Roman forum dating back to the 1st century. Another noteworthy church to check out is the baroque St. Simeon Church for a sighting of the Queen Elizabeth-commissioned sarcophagus. 

Stop for lunch with a glass of wine in the center of town at a konoba restaurant like Stomorica. Carry on to the popular Silver and Gold Museum (held in the convent of St. Mary's) and its exhibit of bejeweled vessels in the shapes of various body parts, each containing a bone or other relic. Paintings, church artifacts, and other artwork are on display, too. From there, visit the modern Museum of Ancient Glass showcasing ancient glass artifacts and glassblowing demonstrations.

In the early evening, head to the waterfront to listen to the Sea Organ and klapa as you watch the sun set into the sea.

Day 6: Drive from Zadar to Split, Visit Krka National Park

Krka National Park
Krka National Park

After breakfast, you'll drive south toward Split, stopping at Krka National Park and the charming coastal towns of Primošten and Trogir. 

With seven waterfalls—the largest and most impressive being Skradinski BukKrka National Park is one of eight national parks in Croatia. The Krka River, another highlight of the park, carves through the limestone and creates a spectacular canyon on its 44-mile journey (70 km) from the foothills of the Dinaric Alps to Šibenik. 

Follow the winding wooden paths that traverse emerald pools to viewpoints of the majestic series of falls and enjoy a quick swim if the mood strikes. One great section to explore starts at Skradinski Buk. From there, head to Roški Slap, where you can take a short walk across the river to a small set of rapids, said to resemble a pearl necklace from above. At Roški Slap, you can stop to grab a bite to eat of locally produced prosciutto, cheese, and seasonal salads.

Continue further south to Split, settling into your accommodation before taking the rest of the afternoon to wander Split's historic center. Start at Pjaca Square for pretty views of white marble tiles, the Iron Gate (the western entrance to Diocletian's Palace), a Romanesque clock tower with the remains of a medieval sundial, and the 15th-century Town Hall. From there, visit the popular Voćni trg or Fruit Square—a square that got its name from centuries of selling fruit. Here you can enjoy renaissance architecture, influenced during Split's Venetian era. For a bit of shopping and a bite to eat head to Marmont Street, though you'll want to head to the waterfront to catch the sunset.

Recommended places for lunch and dinner 

  • Konoba Marjan (Traditional Dalmatian cuisine, offers daily specials and local wines)
  • Zoi (Elegant evening spot, upstairs features Mediterranean dishes)
  • Portofino (Delicious pasta dishes in a quiet square at the center of Diocletian's Palace)
  • Perivoj (Delicious dessert spot in one of Split's oldest pleasure gardens)
  • Dvor (Next to Bačvice Beach, this café and restaurant features contemporary Dalmatian dishes)

Recommended places for a drink

  •  Dioklecijan (Enjoy a cocktail on a terrace overlooking the waterfront and take in the sunset)

Driving time (Zadar to Krka): 1-2 hours
Driving time (Krka to Split): 1.5 hours

Day 7: Explore Split

View of Split from Diocletian's Palace
View of Split from Diocletian's Palace

Today is yours to explore Split at your own pace. An ancient coastal city founded 1,700 years ago by Roman Emperor Diocletian, its Old Town includes a number of impressive sites, including Peristyle, Cathedral of St. Dominus, the Piazza, and Diocletian's Palace, one of the best preserved Roman buildings in the world. Start in Peristyle Square, taking in the 3,500-year old sphinxes Diocletian brought back from Egypt before exploring the 4th-century Diocletian's Palace.

For stunning views over the city and Adriatic be sure to climb the Romanesque bell tower of the Cathedral of St. Dominus (St. Duje)—considered the oldest Catholic cathedral still in use. Another option for great views is to hike or bike to the top of Marjan Hill. The entire Marjan peninsula is dotted with tiny centuries-old churches, large cypress and black pine trees, and Mediterranean plants and herbs and is commonly referred to as the "lungs of the city". In addition to the stunning vistas, you'll be rewarded with attractions less visited: the Jewish cemetery and 13th and 15th-century churches, St. Nicholas and St. Jerome, respectively.  

Head to Bačvice Beach and relax on the sand warmed by the day's sun before choosing a nearby restaurant for dinner.

Day 8: Ferry from Split to Brač, Explore Brač

A pebble beach near Bol on the island of Brač
A pebble beach near Bol on the island of Brač

After breakfast, you'll check out of your accommodation and board a public ferry to the port town of Bol on Brač Island and check into your hotel. 

The largest of the central Dalmatian islands, Brač is bursting with historic sites dating back to ancient Greece and the Middle Ages. Take the day to explore the island by car and discover coastal towns and villages, and older settlements in the interior of the island. Stop in Pučišća and visit the only stone masonry school in Europe (their sculptures scattered throughout Bol). Discover the centuries-old lapidary tradition, watching the students bring Brač stone to life. Next, drive up to the highest peak on the island, Vidova Gora, for all-encompassing views of Bol, Zlatni Rat beach, and the Adriatic.

Continue the short trip west, winding your way to the UNESCO-protected site and now a museum, the Blaca Monastery (Pustinja Blaca). An impressive hermitage built around a cave by two monks fleeing persecution. 

Return to Bol for a leisurely dinner, perhaps choosing a restaurant with views of the sea, like Terasa Santo or Vendetta.

Recommended places for lunch and dinner

  • Terasa Santo (Family restaurant with great views of the port)
  • Vendetta by Vagabundo Restaurant & Bar (Traditional Croatian cuisine with a contemporary flair and incredible views)
  • Konoba Dalmatino (Local dishes served in classic konoba settings: walls are adorned with farm equipment and pictures of rural and maritime life)
  • Konoba Vallum (Enjoy a bowl of fish soup and traditional Mediterranean cuisine in this cosy konoba)
  • Konoba Tomić (Serving home-made sausages, cheeses, and prosciutto, this family house has existed since the age of the Crusades. It's located 20-minutes northeast of Bol)

Recommended places for a drink

  • Stina Winery (Sample local wines in the 1903 First Dalmatian Warehouse Co-op right along the waterfront)

Ferry time (Split to Bol): 1.25 hours

Day 9: Explore Brač, Relax on Zlatni Rat Beach

Zlatni Rat Beach
Zlatni Rat Beach

Step outside your hotel early in the morning and visit the King's Stairs, located in the heart of Bol, to mingle with the locals and buy fresh fruit and veg from the local market. Next, meet your guide and drive to Dragon's Cave (Zmajeva Spilja), just 3 miles west of Bol for a hike to explore the impressive Christian and pagan reliefs carved into the cave by a 15th-century friar. Return to your hotel to grab your swimsuit and walk along the Bol Promenade, lined with Brač stone and shaded with pine trees, to the impressive Zlatni Rat Beach.

Enjoy the rest of the afternoon relaxing on Croatia's prettiest beach or take advantage of the maestral winds and windsurf just offshore. A geographical phenomenon, Zlatni Rat beach protrudes over 1,641 feet (500 m) into the Adriatic Sea in a v-shape, surrounded by deep blue and turquoise water. The shape of the beach changes with the wind and water current, further adding to its uniqueness.

Day 10: Ferry from Brač to Hvar, Hike the Lavender Road

The old town of Stari Grad
The old town of Stari Grad

After breakfast, catch a ferry to the island of Hvar for a day of trekking the Lavender Road. 

A Croatian island in the Adriatic Sea, Hvar is a popular destination with tourists due to its natural setting, mild climate, and its historic port town of the same name. Highlights of Hvar town include its 13th-century walls, a hilltop fortress, and the main square anchored by the Renaissance-era Cathedral.  

Take the early afternoon to walk along the narrow streets of one of Europe's oldest towns, Stari Grad. Founded in the 4th century BCE, it was one of the first Greek colonies in the Adriatic. Explore its many charming squares and old stone buildings before continuing the 7.5 mile (12 km) trek to the southern coastline and Hvar town.

Along the way, you will hike through sweetly scented lavender fields and pass by gnarled olive groves before reaching the inland villages of Velo Grablje and Malo Grablje. Velo Grablje was once home to a thriving lavender industry and is slowly undergoing a revival. Today, only a few people inhabit the village throughout the year, but many gather for the annual lavender festival.  

From here, follow an old trail—the main thoroughfare in medieval times connecting the north and the south of the island—to the village of Malo Grablje. Enjoy a delicious meal at perhaps the most authentic of the island's taverns before carrying on the gravel road to discover secluded beaches as you make your way to Hvar town.

After the day's adventures, treat yourself to a drink in the ancient piazza of Hvar overlooking the Venetian loggia, 7th-century fortification walls, and the oldest municipal theater in Europe.

Ferry time (Supetar to Stari Grad): 2.5-3 hours 
Hiking time: 3-4 hours

Day 11: Ferry from Hvar to Dubrovnik

Historic Dubrovnik at sunset
Historic Dubrovnik at sunset

After breakfast, board a four-hour ferry to Dubrovnik. 

Often referred to as the "Pearl of the Adriatic", Dubrovnik is a world-renowned city of exceptional charm. Take the time to explore its 16th-century stone walls, including the Minceta, Lovrijenac and Revelin fortresses, visit Onofrio's Fountain and St. Vlaho's Church, and stroll along the limestone-paved Stradun, Dubrovnik's main street to get your bearings. Dubrovnik offers excellent nightlife and some of Croatia's best restaurants and wine bars. 

The remainder of the day will be at your leisure, allowing time for you to wander and explore this magical city. Depending on when you arrive, you may have time to hop aboard a cable car and ride to the top of Srđ Mountain for stunning views of Dubrovnik and the nearby Elafiti Islands. Stretch your legs and enjoy unobstructed views of the city as you walk back down the hill. Be sure to take the path going down for the best views and the most direct route home. 

Recommended places for lunch and dinner

  • Barba (opens at 11 am)
  • Zuzori (opens at 12 pm)
  • Lady Pi-Pi (opens at 9 am)
  • Restaurant 360 (opens at 6:30 pm)
  • Azur Dubrovnik (opens at 12:30 pm)

Recommended places for a drink

  • Buza Bar (A hidden gem outside the city walls that overlooks the sea, great for sunset)

Day 12: Explore Dubrovnik

Fort Lovrijenac
Fort Lovrijenac

Today is yours to explore this ancient medieval city. Get up early to take advantage of all that Dubrovnik has to offer, starting with a visit to the open-air Gundulić Square Market for authentic Dubrovnik wares, like dried lavender, local brandies, and dried fruits. From there, enjoy a stroll wandering the narrow streets of Old Town, the encircling city walls, Lovrijenac fortress, and Orlando Column. In the afternoon, head to Banje Beach for a swim and a bout of relaxation on the sandy stretch of beach close to Old Town.

A great way to end the day is to catch the sunset from the water on a sunset dinner cruise (2.5 hours) on a replica of a traditional karaka ship or from your own private boat. Enjoy the view of Old Town from this vantage point.

Day 13: Day Trip to Montenegro

Bay of Kotor
Bay of Kotor

Today you will take a panoramic drive south from Dubrovnik and along the coast to explore the Bay of Kotor (also referred to as Boka Bay) in Montenegro. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, Boka Bay is considered to be one of the most beautiful bays in the world. Its shoreline extends for 67 miles (107 km) and is hemmed in by two towering massifs of the Dinaric Alps. As the Bay has been inhabited since antiquity, its neighboring medieval towns offer much to discover: prehistoric fossils, remnants of the Illyrian epoch, and gothic, renaissance and baroque architecture.

Stop in Kotor's Old Town for lunch at one of their many cafés before wandering the maze of cobblestoned streets to admire the blend of historic and present-day influences. Visit the 12th-century Romanesque Cathedral of Saint Tryphon (Kotor Cathedral) to view gold and silver religious relics and frescoes. The more athletic may wish to climb the 1,350 steps up to St. John's Fortress for beautiful views of the Bay. If there's time, rent a boat to explore Boka Bay and cruise to the nearby town of Perast to visit the manmade island, Our Lady of the Rocks. 

In the late afternoon, return back to Dubrovnik the same way you came. 

Driving time: 1.75 hours
Transport: Rental car or private driver & vehicle

Day 14: Depart Dubrovnik

Old Town glows at dusk
Old Town glows at dusk

Depending on your departure details you may have time to visit one of Dubrovnik's museums, like the Franciscan Monastery and Museum. This large complex houses many treasures, including the world's third oldest pharmacy dating from 1317. Or, for a collection of 15,000 pieces of interesting works, visit the Rector's Palace and Cultural Historical Museum. Wander this well-preserved palace-turned-museum and explore its exhibits, some detailing life in the Republic of Ragusa during medieval times.

Driving time (Dubrovnik to the airport): 45 minutes