Dalmatia encompasses Croatia’s western border with the Adriatic Sea, running roughly from the island of Rab just below the Istrian peninsula to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro. From historic cities and quaint mountain towns to tucked-away beaches and sprawling vineyards, there's a lot to do and see on the many islands that dot the coast. Here’s a guide to the region's top five islands to get you started—Hvar, Brač, Korčula, Vis, and Mljet.

Discover the Dalmatian Islands 

Most visitors will probably touch down on one of the five main islands: Hvar, Brač, Korčula, Vis, and Mljet, each with a very different vibe and varied attractions. Ferries run regularly in the high season along the coast between Split and Dubrovnik, with ports of call at nearly all of them. You can also take separate smaller boats between Split and the islands of Vis, Brač, and Hvar, or from Dubrovnik to the islands of Korčula and Mljet. 

That said, plan ahead so you can spend at least an overnight if not more on the island or islands of your choice, and so you don’t have to double back or buy more ferry tickets than you need. If you have a rental car, take it with you on the ferry so you can drive right onto the island and begin your adventure. 

Korčula: Little Dubrovnik and Vineyard Tours

A view of Korčula Town

Korčula is beloved for its main town, often referred to as “Little Dubrovnik” for its resemblance to that tourist hotspot, with 14th-century walls and well-preserved gates and towers. Perhaps its biggest claim to fame, however, is as the birthplace of Marco Polo (although that fact is still somewhat disputed). Still, the 17th-century Kuća Marka Pola is a worthwhile addition to your tour and contributes another layer of mystery to the story of the fascinating explorer.

The island's small, charming towns worth a visit include Vela Luka, a village with 19th-century architecture. Although not as picturesque as Korčula Town, it’s the place where most ferries dock. It also serves as a gateway to the Vela Spila cave, a major archaeological site inhabited by humans since the stone age, and Hum Hill, a lookout point surrounded by olive groves topped with a Habsburg-era fortress.

On the island’s eastern end is the town of Lumbarda, a bit less traveled but no less worth a visit. Surrounded by vineyards, including many offering wines like Grk that are only grown here, it’s become a destination for oenophiles looking for unique tours and tastings.

Interested in Korčula? Read more here.

Hvar: Glamorous Nightlife and Pristine Beaches

Hvar island's glamorous harbor

Perhaps the best-known and most-visited of the Dalmatian Islands, Hvar is Korčula’s glamorous, partying cousin, known for its raucous nightlife, glamorous beaches, and four UNESCO world heritage sights. Its main town, also named Hvar, has a ritzy harbor where the royal and famous park their yachts, often referred to as the "French Riviera of the East." Its second city, Stari Grad, offers a compelling antidote, with intimate squares, narrow streets, and old stone houses that make for a tranquil retreat.

Get out of town, though, and you’ll immediately be overcome by sights and scents. With an exceptional amount of sunlight each year, Hvar is perpetually covered in fields of wild herbs including sage, rosemary, lavender, and thyme, plus well-tended vineyards that yield underappreciated but complex Croatian wines. Better yet, visitors don’t have to rent a car or book a tour to appreciate this lush island; even locals seem quite happy to get around by bike and scooter, cruising along slowly as the sights pass them by.

Finally, Hvar’s beaches are among Croatia’s best, some of them shadowed by picturesque church towers or serviced by stellar local seafood restaurants, and all of them guaranteed to be less crowded than beaches on the mainland. If you’re in for an adventure, take a taxi boat to the Pakleni Islands just offshore, where hidden beaches and lagoons make for a truly magical day trip.

Brač: Famous Beaches and Storied Stone

Boats in Supetar Harbor on Brač

This large island just next to Split may be popular thanks to its accessibility, but it also boasts some of the best beaches in the country, architectural gems, and a storied local stone that has achieved global fame. 

No discussion of this island’s beaches would be complete without Bol, a resort area home to one of the Adriatic’s most famous beaches, Zlatni Rat or Golden Horn, which changes shape according to the tides and essentially acts as an Insta-perfect advertisement for the island. But if you find that one too full of daytrippers living the glamorous life, there are plenty of others–like Supetar, Sutivan, and Milna–within an easy drive.

If history and architecture are more your style, head to Bol’s eastern end to visit a 15th-century Dominican monastery that also includes a museum with ancient coins and a painting by the Venetian master Tintoretto. If natural wonders crossed with mystery make you swoon, then you can book a tour of the Dragon’s Cave near the village of Murvica, where dragon reliefs are thought to have been created by a monk in the 15th century.

But perhaps Brač's most important export is also its hardest to experience simply because it lies all around you: the white stone that has traveled all over the world, to be constructed into some of history’s most famous buildings including the White House in Washington, D.C. and the Reichstag in Berlin, as well as Split’s own Diocletian’s Palace. To get a sense of this ancient trade and buy souvenirs, visit the Stonemason’s School near the village of Pucisca on a tour.

For more, see our Ultimate Guide to Brač

Vis: Illuminated Caves and Rebel Hideaways

Tranquil island town on Vis

Comparatively smaller and farther from the coast than its sister islands, Vis has two big claims to fame: one that kept it remote for decades, the other now drawing new visitors in droves. First, Vis was a military base from the 1950s until 1989, which kept both the human population and the scale of development low, making space for wildlife and lush landscapes. Second, it was used in the filming of the recent movie sequel to “Mamma Mia!”, which means you’ll encounter a lot of tourists looking to recreate the romance of the Greek Isles.

The island’s greatest draw is perhaps the Blue Cave, actually on the tiny island of Biševo at Vis’s tip. The cave got its name from the ethereal blue tone that results when the sun’s rays illuminate it through an underwater passage and is only accessible by boat tour from Vis, or as far away as Split. If it’s culture you’re after, a stop at the Issa Archaeological Museum is a must: this Austrian fortress houses one of the largest collection of Hellenistic objects in Croatia–a reminder once again that Croatia and Greece are really not that far off. You can also take a tour of Titova spilja or "Tito’s Cave," where Yugoslavian rebels plotted in secret against the Axis powers during WWII.

If you just want to take advantage of a low-key island holiday, Vis has plenty of sunny beaches and hidden coves to explore, reachable by foot or by chartered boat. Regardless of what you choose, at the end of the day, you’ll have a wide range of seafood dishes to try at the island's many restaurants, along with a glass of Vugava, the local white wine.

Mljet: Natural Beauty with an Island Monastery

12th-century monastery on Mljet's Sv Marija Island

If your idea of a great vacation destination is a dense, mysterious forest, you may think you’re out of luck on the sunny, beach-dotted Dalmatian Coast. But Mljet this is the one island where the main draw is a national park, and a relatively old one at that, established in 1960. Two deep bays within the park—the Great Lake and the Small Lake—make for romantic views that mix woods and water. But the Great Lake has an even better surprise: the ruins of a 12th-century monastery on an Sv Marija Island at its center, which been a spiritual retreat for writers, thinkers, and mystics throughout the ages.

No great party capital or center for industry and commerce, Mljet instead promises tranquility and calm—perhaps a place to write, create, or contemplate like so many have done there before them. On the other side of the island, the village of Pomena is where most visitors to the national park spend their overnights, with a harbor where yachts come in, and plenty of shops, bars, and seafood restaurants serving the day’s freshest catch.

If you do want to take advantage of the beach (you are still on an island, after all), there are plenty, including the simple, uncrowded Limoni Beach, and the beach around Odysseus Cave, which is kept fairly empty since it's an hour’s hike from any road. Either way, expect this to be the calmest of the islands, where you can see the sights relatively unencumbered, have conversations with real locals, and get a great reminder of why you came to Croatia in the first place.

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