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Need a manageable itinerary for Croatia, Slovenia, Montenegro and Bosnia

We can't seem to get this trip to around 14-16 nights. We are going in August (don't mind crowds or heat), and we can't afford to go back so we want to make sure we see the highlights. We enjoy nature, hiking, walking, food, history (including Roman remains) and architecture. Not into museums, clubbing/night life or laying in the sun (but love exploring islands, but don't care to see nakedness in the summer, lol). We will be 6 active females, rent a car and stay in apartments.

Here's what we are looking at (depending on airline tickets we may choose to do this backwards). Need help eliminating 3, 4 or 5 nights but Bosnia portion is a must. My sister wanted to go to Turkey so this was our compromise. I know it's not Turkey (no need for the comments) but at least she'll get a "taste".:

Night 1: Fly into Zagreb and recover from Jet Lag (Zagreb)
Night 2: Explore the capitol (Zagreb)
Night 3: Pick up rental car and drive to Ljubljana (Ljubljana)
Night 4: Day trip to Lake Bled/Lake Bohinj (Ljubljana)
Night 5: Drive to Plitvice Lakes (stay near Plitvice Lakes)
Night 6: Drive to Pula, Istria (Pula)
Night 7: Pula (Pula)
Night 8: Drive to Zadar (Zadar)
Night 9: Zadar
Night 10: Drive to Krka National Park on way to Split (Split)
Night 11: Split
Night 12: Take ferry to Hvar/Brac/Korcula - which island? (Split)
Night 13: Take ferry to second island ? Is this possible? (Split)
Night 14: Drive to Dubrovnik (Dubrovnik)
Night 15: Day trip to Kotor, Montenegro (Dubrovnik)
Night 16: Drive to Mostar (Mostar)
Night 17: Explore Mostar countryside (Mostar)
Night 18: Drive to Sarajevo (Sarajevo)
Night 19: Explore Sarajevo (Sarajevo)
Day 20: Fly out of Sarajevo back home

Thanks in advance!

Posted by acraven
Washington DC
10367 posts

The cold, hard, brutal truth is that not every list of sights can be crammed into 14-16 days, at least not if you want to have a pleasant vacation. You have run up against that truism. Not only does your itinerary extend beyond your maximum, you really have inadequate time in some of the places on the list--specifically Ljubljana and Plitvice Lakes National Park.

I have no recent experience on Croatian islands, so I have to leave that portion of your trip to others. I just have no idea whether your timing is reasonable.

I also haven't been to Krka or Pula, though I have been elsewhere on Istria.

These would be my candidates for elimination:

  • Pula. Many people have been underwhelmed by it, but my main reason for putting it on the "Maybe Not" list is that there are so many other interesting places in Istria that you won't have time for, and you're having to detour to get to Pula. I really enjoyed Rovinj, Porec, tiny Vrsar, and a day-trip through inland Istria that took me to Motovun and Groznjan, among other places.
  • Zadar. I really like it. It's sort of a mini-Dubrovnik without so many tourists but with two artistic installations on the waterfront. But it's not as different from Dubrovnik as many of your other destinations.
  • Krka. I'm sure it's nice, but it has some similarities with Plitvice, and few if any folks will claim that Krka is better (though it is for sure less crowded).
  • Kotor. I really liked it on the day the mega-ship wasn't in port, but I wasn't visiting Dubrovnik on the same trip. In retrospect I can see that Kotor is somewhat like Dubrovnik. And Montenegro has a lot of really interesting sights you wouldn't have time for. Maybe you'll be able to return and see them.

Zadar-Dubrovnik-Kotor is probably overkill on a trip of this length.

Now, Plitvice: You absolutely must not visit Plitvice during day-tripping hours in August. I know you think you're not bothered by crowds, but you will be bothered when you're within one or two feet of three other people (front, back, beside) for essentially your entire visit as you march in lockstep along walkways with no guardrails. It is a zoo. And I was there in August 2015, three years ago; I'm sure it's worse now. You must spend the night before your visit in or very near the park so you can get inside at opening time. If you arrive by mid-afternoon the day before, it might work to see part of the park then, as the day-trippers are leaving. If you are not willing to make this adjustment, I suspect Krka would be a better choice for you. I saw Plitvice twice before it became so popular, so I know how the experience differs during day-tripping hours now. This is one of Europe's greatest natural sights. Do whatever you must to see it at its best.

Posted by Emily
Vienna, Austria
2966 posts

Have you plotted this out in a map, because it’s kinda crazy. You go up to Slovenia, down to Plitvice, back up to Pula, back down to Zadar. Makes no sense.

Posted by Paul-of-the-Frozen-North
Sioux Falls, SD, USA
1067 posts

Gosh that is a ton of driving. I would spend min of 2 days in Zagreb, Ljubljana, Pula. Basically, if you cut down the stops by 50% (you have 10 stops in 20 days. I've been to many of those places, and will return next summer. I think that as you leave each place, you will wish that you could stay an extra night.

I'd dump Sarajevo, and distribute the 3 days to other places. If Sarajevo is a "must" you need to drop something else.

I'd reconsider Rovinj/Pula, and possibly drop that. Many persons here would never stay less than 2 nights in one place - the maxim is "a travel day is a lost day". Almost every one of your days is a travel day.

One other point - you pick up the car in Croatia and drop it off in B-H. This may incur a large multi-national surcharge - in some cases as high as $500. Before you commit to this itinerary, check on that surcharge.

You are 6 people. You will be renting a minivan? Cars in Europe are small. You may find that traveling as 6 may be quite hard, and you travel at the speed of the slowest person.

Posted by acraven
Washington DC
10367 posts

I meant to mention the cross-border drop charge; that is a killer. Also, six people, especially six female people, might have rather a lot of luggage. It's essential that the luggage not be visible inside the vehicle when you stop for lunch or mid-day sightseeing.

I have no experience driving in Europe, but the common advice in situations like this is that the group consider renting two smaller vehicles rather than one large one. It's often cheaper, and it provides flexibility if everyone doesn't want to do the same thing. However, I'm not sure that such a great idea when you have an extensive road trip planned, rather than a series of day trips from a base point.

I think you can eliminate some of the lower-priority stops and reconfigure the itinerary so you can drop the car in Croatia. ViaMichelin estimates the driving time from Sarajevo to either Dubrovnik or Split at less than 5 hours, so you should be able to make it in six.

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3217 posts

I'd probably drop the car in Dubrovnik and take a bus to Mostar, then the train to Sarajevo. That would avoid the steep one-way drop fee. Alternately, I'd keep the car in Bosnia and continue on through Bosnia back to Zagreb and fly out of there. Again, you'd avoid the steep one-way fee. And as a bonus, you could stop in a few towns along the way like Travnik and Jajce. Travnik was the old Ottoman (Turkey) capital of Bosnia, and you can tour the wrecked fortress at the top of the town (I saw Turkish tourists there when I visited - must be an attraction for them). Jajce has a really pretty waterfall below the town. It would be possible to do a long day from Sarajevo in the morning with stops along the way in Travnik and Jajce and make it into Zagreb in the evening and fly out the next morning.

I'd probably drop Pula/Istria entirely. Sounds like you don't have enough time to do the area justice.

Here's what I'd probably do:

Fly into Ljubljana
Ljubljana (3 nights) - Day trip to Bled, get over jet lag, etc.
You can rent a car for just the day in Slovenia to get to Bled and maybe stop along the way. Without bags, you might squeeze into a single car.
Train to Zagreb
Zagreb (2 nights)
Pick up car/van/2 cars, drive to Plitvice
Plitvice (1 night)
Wake up early, into the park at 7am when it opens, ESSENTIAL to avoid the crowds in August. Even if you "don't mind crowds," you will not want to do that at Plitvice.
Zadar (1 night)
Split (4 nights)
(Stopped at Krka on the way down, day trip to islands, Trogir, etc.)
Dubrovnik (2 nights)
Kotor (1 night)
Drive to Mostar; stop in Trebinje on the way
Mostar (1 night)
Sarajevo (3 nights)
Zagreb (1 night)

That's 19 nights.

You could in fact ditch the car/cars when you get to Split and use catamarans to get to the islands and on to Dubrovnik. You won't want a car in Dubrovnik. Pick up the second car when you leave Durbrovnik. You are going to get hit with one-way fees in the summer for the short one-way rentals within Croatia, though, but probably nothing like the crazy fee for dropping a car rented in Croatia in Bosnia.

Posted by nipperway OP
16 posts

Thank you for all your advice! I got it to 18 days using some of your advice. I hadn't thought of the short term surcharges or the drop off fees so I think we will try to minimize our car use:

Night 1: Fly into Sarajevo (Sarajevo)
Night 2: Sarajevo (Sarajevo)
Night 3: Train (or bus) to Mostar (Mostar)
Night 4: Mostar (Mostar)
Night 5: Dubrovnik (bus) (Dubrovnik)
Night 6: Dubrovnik (Dubrovnik)
Night 7: Day trip to Kotor, Montenegro (Dubrovnik)
Night 8: Bus from Dubrovnik to Split (scenic route) (Split)
Night 9: Split (Split)
Night 10: Take ferry to island and explore island (Brac? Which?) (Split)
Night 11: Day trip to Krka National Park (Split)
Night 12: Pick up rental car in Split and drive to Plitvice Lakes (Plitvice Lakes)
Night 13: Wake up early and explore the park (Plitvice Lakes)
Night 14: Drive car and return to Zagreb (Zagreb)
Night 15: Fly out of Zagreb for those who need to leave or train/bus for those staying (Ljubljana)
Night 16: Explore the city (Ljubljana)
Night 17: Day trip (rent a car?) to Lake Bled/Lake Bohinj (Ljubljana)
Night 18: Fly out of Ljubljana (for those of us having more time)

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3217 posts

Looks like a more practical itinerary than your original plan.

One reason I liked having my own wheels to visit Kotor, though, is that for me, the stunning scenery along the Bay of Kotor was the highlight. The town of Kotor was nice, but not nearly as nice as the scenery getting there and above it (the view if you climb up the "walls" above Kotor gives you a breathtaking view down on the bay, postcard view for sure). I stopped several times as I drove along the bay for pictures. If you take an excursion day trip in August, you'll probably be stuck in a long line of traffic at the Montenegro border just to get down there, then have to view the scenery out a window.

Posted by Digbydog
Cincinnati
71 posts

I know you said Mostar is a must for your sister, but... We just returned from a trip to Croatia/Montenegro/Bosnia. Absolutely, our least favorite part of the trip was Mostar. What could have been a charming town was overrun with tourists (in September--I imagine August will be even worse) and covered in stalls selling c#ap. If you are in the market for magnets, they have you covered--at every stall! I did enjoy seeing the minarets and hearing the call to prayer and learning more about the war. If you go, you might want to take a guided tour of the town, which a friend of mine said added immensely to her appreciation of the city. Also, be aware it can be incredibly hot. Even in mid-September, it was uncomfortable. If you are seeing the countryside near Mostar, we very much enjoyed a short visit to Pocitelj, Bosnia.

Hvar will be mobbed in August with a big party scene. When do you see Dubrovnik? I would prefer Rovinj over Pula if you are visiting Istria.

Posted by Andrew H.
Portland, Oregon
3217 posts

I know you said Mostar is a must for your sister, but... We just returned from a trip to Croatia/Montenegro/Bosnia. Absolutely, our least favorite part of the trip was Mostar. What could have been a charming town was overrun with tourists

Even in the evenings? I understand that Mostar has become pretty popular for day trippers but much less so at night. I visited back in 2009 but found the town very quiet and peaceful at night. But I imagine nine years later it is more touristy there even at night.

Posted by Paul-of-the-Frozen-North
Sioux Falls, SD, USA
1067 posts

Revised itinerary much better. There are 6 stops. Generally all is OK - Mostar is as some have stated over-rated. We did a private driver from Sarajevo to Mostar. He took us to an amazing stone village whose name I no longer have, and to Mostar. We did Mostar in an afternoon.

There is a fast ferry from Dubrovnik to Split. It is not hugely expensive. It stops at Korcula and Hvar. I believe that you can stop there for a night and then board the next day or day after to finish the trip to Split. Currently many state that Hvar is party central for young people. This may be what you want, or possibly not. If not, possibly Korcula would be a better choice.

Posted by Digbydog
Cincinnati
71 posts

Andrew—we stayed overnight, and Mostar was better in the evening, but still quite crowded with tourists in mid-September. The early morning was quiet. I think the number of tour groups and tourists in general has ballooned dramatically in the last decade.

What I found most off-putting about Mostar were all the stalls selling junk and ice cream. They completely covered up the pretty town. A half day there would be plenty for me.

Posted by Paul-of-the-Frozen-North
Sioux Falls, SD, USA
1067 posts

The stone village near Mostar is Počitelj, and it is well worth a visit. If you take a guided tour of Mostar, they will sometimes include Počitelj.

Posted by jmauldinuu
New Orleans
398 posts

I just spent two nights in Mostar and three in Sarajevo in June of this year. I guess I'm in the minority, here. I really enjoyed Mostar, found it to be a lovely old town, and the people kind, warm, and welcoming. During the day, to avoid the daytrippers, I headed for small museums, cool mosques, and sat at cafes along the water. In the earlier mornings and then in the evenings, once day trippers were gone, I explored the central part of town. I also loved Sarajevo. (I also wrote a long trip report about my experiences there, a couple of months ago, which you could find by pulling up my old forum posts.) During your drive to Mostar (or even better, first thing in the morning when you leave Mostar and head for Sarajevo, so that you beat the tourist buses), be sure to stop at the Blagaj Tekke, the Dervish House, located right where a large river pours out of a mountain. Absolutely breathtaking! It's just a few miles from Mostar.

Posted by jlschandler
514 posts

We had the honor to spend one night in Mostar last month. Have to say it exceeded our expectations. Our amazing local guide gave us insight of her experience as a child living through the Croatian War. We observed her resilience. She continues to remain proactive and telling her story. This is something we will never forget. In addition we visited the inspiring mosques, walked across the bridge, and enjoyed a traditional meal at a lovely restaurant. Mostar will be a lasting memory.

Posted by derek.brianna
2 posts

This gets me so excited because planning trips like this is literally what I do now all the time since moving to Hungary. I’m in a Zadar right now and can tell you that without a doubt it’s overrated compared to the other places on your itinerary. (Also the sea organ is cool but SO not worth coming for, and the salutations to the sun is under repair...hopefully it’s fixed by next summer!) Slovenia is MY FAVORITE place (don’t skimp on Bled/Bohinj) and Croatia is 2nd. You’re smart to get Mostar and Kotor in while you’re down by Dubrovnik though! Your trip is ambitious but I think it’s doable. Here are my suggestions:

Day 1: Fly into Ljubjana, stay in Radovljica (10mins from Bled and MUCH cheaper, super cute town and perfect home base for 2 nights)
Day 2: early to Bohinj to hike Vogar (do a paraglide if you dare!) , maybe Slap Savica waterfall, and DEFINITELY swim along the Ukanc side of the lake! Bring water shoes. Head back to Bled for dinner and cream cake, and a sunset walk around the lake. Sunsets in Radovljica are awesome too. I can recommend a place to stay that will fit all of you and not break the bank!
Day 3: Early morning 10 min drive to Bled Castle (walk around, you don’t need to pay to go in, just walk behind it on the paths to see the views) then drive to Plitvice and do your best to see what you can see with the crowds! Stay in Plitvice NP area.
Day 4: Plitvice to Split (skip Zadar) - (add in an extra day if you insist on Pula)
Day 5: Split
Day 6: Morning ferry Split to Hvar - MUST GO TO Sveta Nedjelja Bay Lučišća (beach) if your rental car allows dirt road travel!
Day 7: Hvar (boat tour to Vis?)
Day 8: Hvar ferry to Drevnik (other side of Hvar Island) then drive to Mostar
Day 9: Mostar
Day 10: Mostar to Dubrovnik via Kravica Waterfalls (you can swim in it just like Krka NP)
Day 11: Dubrovnik
Day 12: Dubrovnik boat tour day (Elafiti Islands)
Day 13: Dubrovnik to Kotor day trip
Day 14: Dubrovnik to Sarajevo (if you really wanted to do this)
Day 15: Sarajevo
Fly home at some point ;)

I would say you’re not missing out if you didn’t see Ljubjana or Zagreb. However, you might be missing out if you were that close to the Alps and didn’t really get a good feel. I recommend flying into Vienna or Munich and adding a day or two at the beginning of the trip instead, driving through the amazingness of the alps and heading to Bled through Salzburg and Kranjska Gora. Sorry I am not accounting for your rental car but with 6 if you to split the cost it’s peovably worth the international change fee! Good luck - you’ll have a blast! If you’re saying you’re only coming once, then I recommend this trip!!

Posted by Tigerfan
Savannah, GA, USA
232 posts

We traveled in May 2016 and encounter some of the same issues with car rental, and complicated public bus travel. Here was our compromise and it might give you an idea about how to form a loop so that you can return your car in the country where you pick it up. Still, we did just park it in Split, Dubrovnik and Kotor which always costs money:

Day 1: Arrive Ljubljana - We came from Austria by train rather flying in. We loved it here
Day 2: Ljublijana: We toured the castle and did a great afternoon bike tour. Food is amazing!
Day 3: Rented a car from a hotel, drove to Lake Bled, castle, boat ride, drove on to Kobarid
Day 4: Kobarid: white water kayaking and WWI museum - loved it
Day 5: Drove back to Ljublijana, returned car, 3 pm train to Rijeka, rented new car, drove to Rovinj
Day 6: Drove around to hill towns etc... We loved Rovinj - lovely dinner on the harbor
Day 7: Drove to Plitvice in time to spend the afternoon touring until they closed - not crowded late
Day 8: toured Plitvice in the morning until it was so crowded we couldn't stand it, then drove to Split
Day 9: Split - did a great bike tour and went to the archeological museum and toured lower palace
Day 10: drove to Dubrovnik - afternoon bike tour with wine tasting
Day 11 : morning Kayaking outside of town, late afternoon wall walk with no crowds, evening concert
Day 12: drove to Mostar to stay overnight - very interesting stay, climbed minaret, had good food
Day 13: finished seeing Mostar, 1 stop in countryside, drove to Kotor in Montenegro, evening climb up walls - Love Kotor
Day 14: took boat to Perast, visited church on the rocks, nice lunch, boat back, climbed walls again
Day 15 - returned car to Dubrovnik Airport to fly home

There were no shocking car return fees doing it this way. We were sure to tell the rental agency which countries we would visit so we had the right papers and an international drivers permit - both carefully checked at some borders. It was a manageable walk from train station to port to pick up the car, but if you travel with tons of luggage, it might feel too long.

Since we were paying for the car, we opted to skip all islands and come back some time in the future to do a fully island-oriented trip. I know we will be back to do this, because we loved this entire trip.

Check Dubrovnik and Kotor Cruise schedules and adjust your itinerary as necessary to avoid massive ship traffic.