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Croatia Itinerary Help - September

My husband and I will be traveling from Chicago into Zagreb Sept. 14th, and back through Dubrovnik on Sept. 27th. We currently plan on spending one night in Zagreb, then traveling to Plitivice Lakes and to Zadar afterwards for 1-2 nights. We REALLY enjoy immersing ourselves in the culture of the places we travel to; we typically use airbnb and try to stay in a central location. We traveled to Spain in 2015 and our itinerary was very busy, although we did enjoy it immensely. We would like to have a little more laid-back trip this time around, and could use some help with our itinerary. We like wine, beaches, history (but not necessarily museums), architecture, food, just walking around and people watching.

A travel agent suggested we also go to Pula, Trogir, Split, then Dubrovnik, but I feel almost like we would enjoy seeing a couple of islands as well instead of some of the cities. Does anyone have any suggestions for places that might fit our travel style? We will likely be renting a car upon leaving Zagreb.

Thank you!

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3080 posts

If you really want to "immerse yourself in local culture," spend more time in places that aren't so touristy. Zagreb might merit an extra night or two - it truly was NOT my favorite city, but some people like it much more than I did. You're more likely to absorb some Croatian culture there than in the places (e.g on the coast) that mostly live on tourism.

Split definitely has tourists but is more of a real city for sure than say Dubrovnik, which on one hand is lovely and magical (especially at night) but on the other hand mobbed with tourists, especially cruise ship tourists, during the day.

Pula didn't really charm me that much either - its chief attraction is its Roman ruins, but I had already had my fill of those in Italy. (Some people can't get enough of them.) I much preferred charming little Rovinj, a nearby fishing village (also very touristy now though).. A city to absorb more local culture might be the port city of Rijeka - not very charming from what I saw of it (enough time to pick up a rental car and that's about it), but on the other hand it's a major city in Croatia and also not especially touristy, either.

I suggest you propose a more specific itinerary and then ask for comments on it.

Posted by Jennifer
Tunbridge Wells
2228 posts

You say you want a relaxed trip, but then you are trying to cover 3 weeks worth of trip into 13 (?) nights! Is that 14 September in Europe or leaving Chicago?

If you want local culture, add a night to Zagreb. Plitvice is best if you spend the night there and get an early park entry.

Are your flights booked? Is Dubrovnik a must for you? It is geographically remote from everywhere else you want to see, particularly if you also want to visit an island.

Assuming you are tied to Dubrovnik and assuming 13 nights in Croatia, you could have 3 nights (2 days) in Zagreb, 1 at Plitvice then drive to Trogir and stay there for 3 nights, covering Split by boat for a day from here. Take the car ferry from Split to Stari Grad on Hvar and stay in one of the hill villages such as Dol or Vrbanj (plenty of Airbnb options) for a taste of local life for 3 nights or if you want to be more in the action, stay Stari Grad or Jelsa or Vrboska. Parking in Hvar town is difficult and September may still be party season there.

Take the ferry from Sucuraj on Hvar to Drvenik and drive down to Dubrovnik for the rest of your holiday.

Istria is great, but being further north, the season is shorter there and the weather should be better further south. Also, 4 days is the minimum I would want to spend in Istria to cover all the ground and this makes for a rushed trip with too much time in the car.

Posted by Emily
Vienna, Austria
2940 posts

If you really want to soak up local culture, rent a house and spend you entire trip in Istria. We come here every Easter (are here now) and have never run out of things to do. We know our neighbors, made friends with the ladies at the grocery store and spend every day visiting a notable sight (none of which are overrun with tourists). Spend a few hours completely alone in Dvigrad, for example, an abandoned medieval village. Yesterday, I spent an hour chatting with the young producer of the best prsut (prosciutto) in the country. Best food is also to be found here. Your travel agent has surely not been to this region as no one who had would recommend Pula as a base or the primary city to visit.

Posted by erintb OP
3 posts

Dubrovnik isn't a "must" for us, but for flight purposes, it is the most economical to fly back through. We haven't booked our flights yet, so we do have some flexibility there. Sept. 14th will be a travel day from Chicago, so we will be arriving the morning of the 15th into Zagreb.

We would love to book a home similar to what you do in Istria, just further south since it will be mid-to-late September and we hope to enjoy some warmer temps. If we could have a "home base" in a quaint little town and potentially do a couple of day trips from there, I think that would be ideal. We have spoken to a couple of travel agents, and they encourage us to visit the larger cities, which is fine, but I'd also like to enjoy a slower pace as well. I will continue to research options, but was hoping someone might have some suggestions through their own experience.

Posted by acraven
Washington DC
9891 posts

You have only 11 full days in Croatia. I don't count the arrival day since I, at least, am in zombieland that day. I like Istria a lot, but you'd need at least 3 (preferably 4) nights to do it justice. That's inconsistent with all of your other plans. I recommend not taking where-to-go advice from a travel agent who hasn't been on the ground in the area you want to see.

I think you'll find flights from Zagreb at least as inexpensive as those from Dubrovnik, but I realize that doesn't help since you're planning to fly into Zagreb. You're right that there would be some risk that the weather will turn fallish by the very end of September, though it might stay nice into early October.

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3080 posts

Dubrovnik is amazing - I might not recommend a lot of time there, and it is very touristy now (really better at night), but it's also well worth seeing, so flying out of there is really not a bad idea, unless you decide not to go that far south. The Dalmatian coast, while touristy, is also a part of Croatia's national character. It's too bad you don't have more time.

Posted by erintb OP
3 posts

Is Plitivice Lakes a "must-see" as far as views/hiking goes? We would really like to go there, but I have seen some pictures of the crowds there during peak season and I'm not sure if I want to deal with the volume of people in that type of area. Maybe mid-to-late September would be thinner? We could fly into Split and back through Dubrovnik, or in and out through Dubrovnik, as I believe most of what we would like to do is focused on the southern half of Croatia.

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3080 posts

Is Plitivice Lakes a "must-see" as far as views/hiking goes? We would really like to go there, but I have seen some pictures of the crowds there during peak season and I'm not sure if I want to deal with the volume of people in that type of area. Maybe mid-to-late September would be thinner? We could fly into Split and back through Dubrovnik, or in and out through Dubrovnik, as I believe most of what we would like to do is focused on the southern half of Croatia.

I have no doubt that mid-September will be less crowded than peak season, but don't expect an empty place mid-day, if your plan is to stop on the way from Zagreb to Zadar. As a few of us have said (maybe in other threads), it's really best to stay over at or near Plitvice so you can get into the park first thing when it opens so you have an hour or two without so many people. (I think it will still open at 7am in September.) FYI, you can see the gist of the park easily in 6-8 hours.

"Must-see?" That's a relative question that depends on one's perspective. Is ANYTHING in Croatia really a "must-see?" Not sure, but I found Plitvice one of the highlights for sure. (Zadar wasn't for me personally.) I found Plitvice amazing - I've been twice on two different trips. I am not an avid hiker, but I am an avid photographer, and the views were unique for me, the photo ops seemingly endless. And I live near some amazing waterfalls here in the Pacific Northwest.

As far as hikes go, I wouldn't rank Plitvice tops. It's a highly developed park with man-made boardwalks. I think my favorite hikes have been in the Italian Riviera. But the scenery at Plitvice is tops in my opinion. Still, I'd NEVER go in the summer mid-day with all the mobs of people. I'd go slightly off season (May or early October were my two visits) and try to enter the park when it opens or hike at the end of the day after tour groups have left. Mid-say in September will still not be uncrowded.

If you can't stay over, what do you really have to lose by stopping for a few hours besides the park fees? An extra night between Split and Dubrovnik because you've started in Split not in Zagreb? Dubrovnik will probably be mobbed with tourists, too, no better than Plitvice. Croatia is no longer undiscovered.

Posted by acraven
Washington DC
9891 posts

I've been to Plitvice Lakes National Park three times--thankfully two of them long ago, when most people had never heard of Croatia. It is a lovely place, but I bet it will be mobbed in September during day-tripping hours. I say you need to make time to spend the night in the area. See the park at its best -- or as close to that as can be managed with the number of people traveling these days. I made the mistake of taking a day-trip to the park from Zagreb via public in 2015, and I would hate for any first-time visitor to have an experience like that. If you arrive around mid-afternoon, you can see part of the park late that day and finish up early the next morning. I bet you can take the longest marked route through the park in a total of less than 6 hours. I think they sell a 2-day ticket, and others have said that the hotels inside the park will endorse a 1-day ticket so you can enter again the next day.

Plitvice is the last place I'd cut from a Croatian itinerary (unless you're facing a significantly rainy day). It is that special. But spend the time necessary to see it right.