Sunday, 26 May 2019

Croatia backpacker guide

Backpacking Croatia is all about being impulsive, right? It’s about booking your flight and being spontaneous. It’s about making new best mates from around the world in your hostel. Or swimming to a deserted Dalmatian island and fighting off black widow spiders with your bare hands. Oh, am I getting carried away?

But seriously, backpacking Croatia is about engrossing yourself in the culture, learning a little of the language and exploring as many of the picturesque terracotta villages, pebble beaches and awe-inspiring national parks as you can. It’s about making the most of your trip!

Excited yet? You should be. Here are some tips on how to make your Croatian backpacking dream a reality.

Jump straight to:

  1. Best time to visit Croatia
  2. Travelling around Croatia
  3. Hostels in Croatia
  4. Croatia travel costs
  5. Where to go and what to do in Croatia
  6. Croatian food
  7. Croatian nightlife
  8. Croatian phrases
  9. Is Croatia safe?
  10. Croatia travel advice

Best time to visit Croatia

Croatia’s temperature dial is split firmly down the middle and you’ll want to take both sides into account when planning your backpacking trip. The coastline is Mediterranean, with sizzling summers and mild winters. Inland is continental – hot in the summer but winters reach knee-knocking temperatures.

The peak time to visit Croatia’s coastline is during July and August when you can expect balmy, blissfully warm days, sparkling sapphire waters and plenty of activity. During this time locals head to the beaches, so inland towns become a little quieter. If busy beaches and al fresco dining is what you’re after, then coastal towns like Dubrovnik and Split are perfect at this time of year. Bear in mind though that temperatures can reach boiling point and sightseeing can really drain your energy, as well as turn you lobster red. Try and avoid the middle of the day, as this tends to be the hottest.

The summer is also fantastic for music lovers as Croatia comes alive with festivals. Whether you’re in the market for carnival vibes, electronic beats or a spiritually inclined alternative, you’ll find something that takes your fancy. Sonus Festival is a techno-lovers dream, whilst Obonjan is set on an eco-friendly island with holistic music, wellness talks and soul-searching workshops. If you’ve ever wanted to dance the night away in a Roman amphitheatre to the sound of dubstep then Outlook Festival is your best bet.

Remember that accommodation fills up quickly during peak season and with that comes peak price tags. It’s often worth travelling during June and September if you want to save a few pennies and avoid the stress of fully-booked hostels.

From October to May the sparkling coast is very quiet, and many bars and restaurants close shop for the winter. Make the most of the cooler weather by heading to areas of natural beauty like Plitvice Lakes or Krka National Park. If you’re visiting in late October through to November you can expect snow, which always make photos look that little bit prettier. If sightseeing is on the cards, pull on your walking boots and head to historic centres like Split or Croatia – the colder weather means less crowds and plenty of discounted rates in hostels, bars and restaurants. Win win!

backpacking croatia - lake sunset

Travelling around Croatia

Travelling Croatia can be a breeze if you plan it correctly, but if you don’t you could end up stranded and nobody wants that.

Buses are the main form of public transport and they almost always run on time. Granted, buses aren’t the most glamourous mode of transport so you probably won’t be snapchatting the journey, but they’re cheap, clean and comfortable. They travel through mountains, down quaint town streets and offer great views of a Croatian countryside you’d otherwise never see.

You can book your tickets online on websites like Autotrans, which is one of the biggest bus companies in the country. Other online booking websites include GetByBus and Vollo. If you know your travel dates are unlikely to change then it’s best to book ahead to be sure of a seat, otherwise you might find yourself squashed in the aisle and standing for the whole of your five-hour journey. Not ideal.

If you’re unsure of your travel dates, then head to the bus station the day before you want to travel and book in person or find a tisak (newsstand) where you can grab tickets at a slightly discounted price.

Some buses do travel overnight. You might think the ten-hour bus journey from Pula to Split sounds like a great way of saving accommodation money and sneaking 40 winks but in reality this may not be the case. Overnight buses in Croatia often have the lights on and the music blaring, so you probably won’t get much sleep. Also, there’s almost always a spiritually awakened chatterbox on these bus routes that can’t wait to discuss the meaning of life. Good luck snoozing through that.

There will be plenty of rest stops along the way, but try not to get left behind – these Croatian buses have been known to zap off, with or without a full house. If you do find yourself stranded, try travelling to the nearest large town and grabbing another bus from there.

A Busabout tour is an alternative to DIY travelling and gives you the freedom and flexibility to explore Croatia’s bucket list spots, whilst choosing when to hop on and off. If this is something you’re interested in you can find out more here.

Trains are another great way of travelling around Croatia and compared to the rest of Europe tickets are pretty cheap. Bear in mind that with the construction of modern motorways, trains do take longer than buses. For example, the Zagreb to Rijeka route takes only two and a half hours by bus, whilst the train takes over four. It’s also worth remembering that the popular town of Dubrovnik has no train station. Croatian train websites don’t offer an online booking facility but you can use Croatia Railways, and Die Bahn to look up routes, train times, and prices.

To travel to the islands, you’re best off catching a ferry from one of Croatia’s main ports like Split or Dubrovnik. Both the car ferries and catamarans are comfortable and clean, equipped with toilets (always good to know) and some even have snazzy bars and restaurants. Pre-booking doesn’t guarantee you a seat, so it’s best to get to the wharf early. If you’re planning on bringing your bike along you’ll need to pay an additional fee of between 13KN to 45KN. If you want to save money, you’re best travelling without a vehicle and hiring one at your destination.

If you’re only travelling through the big cities like Zagreb, Split and Dubrovnik, then chances are you won’t need a car. If you’re heading out into the countryside and want that extra freedom, you might. Websites like Rentalcars.com always have good deals. Car companies like Sixt Croatia, Fleet and Oryx also come highly recommended. Bear in mind that the minimum age for renting a car in Croatia is 21 years old. If you’re lucky enough to be a spring chicken under this age, then you will have to pay a young driver surcharge. Try and keep your eyes on the road; gawking out of the window at the incredible Dalmatian scenery is tempting, but it can also be hazardous!

backpacking croatia - boat and lake

Hostels in Croatia

Staying in a hostel will provide some of your best experiences when backpacking Croatia and you’ll find plenty that cater to all your needs.

Split is the second biggest city in Croatia and offers a hostel scene that is both varied and cheap. En Route Hostel is very popular with backpackers and is less than five minutes’ walk to the city’s main highlights and Ba?vice Beach. This hostel tends to book up in advance so give yourself plenty of time if you want to bag a room here. Backpackers Fairytale is another popular choice. They organise group sightseeing days out and stand up paddle board sessions for those brave enough. Prices start from around 10 per night for a dorm and, again, rooms fill up quickly so book in advance if you don’t want to miss out.

If you’ve set your sights on Dubrovnik, you might be paying slightly more. You’ll find swathes of die-hard Game of Thrones fans descending on the city for the chance to explore Kings Landing. You can thank the popular TV series for the recent rise in prices! There are still some moderately-priced gems so don’t lose all hope. Hostel Euroadria is one such place, with modern interiors, beautiful common areas and generously sized rooms. The Old City walls are a 10-minute bus ride away, and the station is right outside the hostel.  If it’s a central location you’re after, there are plenty of great budget options to choose from. You’ll find the historic Hostel Angelina right in the heart of the action, with cosy air-conditioned rooms, a fully-equipped kitchen and some of the best views of the city. A night here will set you back around 15 which leaves plenty of change for a cheeky tipple.

When staying in Zagreb, why not scope out Swanky Mint Hostel? You’d be hard pushed to find anyone who has a bad word to say about this buzzing spot, located in a 19th Century textile factory in the centre of the city. On arrival you’ll be treated to a traditional rakija (fruit brandy) and the next morning you can look forward to a breakfast in bed of delicious Croatian delicacies. There’s an outdoor pool, a hip and happening bar area and DJ’s spinning party tunes well into the night. What’s not to love? Shared dorm rooms start from just 10, which sounds like a bargain to me!

Hvar is one of the most popular Dalmatian islands and you’ll likely get mobbed at the ferry port with floods of private room offers. Opt for a stay in Villa Skansi, which stands out from other budget accommodation because of its serene location, nestled on the small bay of Krizna luka. It’s a 5-minute walk from the city centre but feels like a million miles. The dorm rooms are large and brightly coloured, surrounded by citrus trees, pomegranates and bougainvillea. Villa Marija is another top-rated bet. Snuggle up and watch the sun set on the hostel’s sea-view terrace. There’s also a trendy cocktail bar to help make friends, a swimming pool to keep fit and a reading lounge for those of you after a bit of zen. A room in a shared dorm here starts at 34 which is a little on the steeper side, but when you’re waking up to sweeping views of the ocean you won’t be complaining.

backpacking croatia - hostel with pool

Villa Marija in Hvar

Croatia Travel Costs

Backpacking Croatia doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg. If you’re smart about the places you choose to visit, how you get around and where you eat and drink, you can save yourself a small fortune. Here are some dos and don’ts to help you out on the road.

Even though Croatia is part of the European Union, at the moment the currency remains the Kuna. You’ll find plenty of prices written in Euros and you might still be able to pay for some items like private accommodation, taxis and meals in Euros.For everything else, you’re best paying in Kuna.

To save on bank fees I’d recommend using cash as much as you can. Don’t get Croatian Kuna in large quantities in the UK, unless you really shop around. The exchange rate in many of Croatia’s bureaux de change is very competitive, and they often offer a better rate than you’d find in the UK.

If you can, avoid getting taxis in expensive cities like Hvar. If you’ve consumed one too many Croatian cocktails and can no longer walk two steps in a straight line, then you have an excuse and a cab might be a good option. In few other circumstances is paying over 10 to go less than 5 minutes up the road recommended.

As a general wallet-friendly rule, avoid the tourist traps when choosing places to eat. Look for restaurants on the side streets, with the menu written in Croatian, where food will be cheaper and most probably tastier too.

Make the most of the free things to see and do. Paying for a guided film tour of Dubrovnik is all well and good but why not save those pennies and follow one of the guides on good ol’ Google? Stroll through the local markets and pristine town squares, explore the beaches, visit the historical churches and soak up the local flavour. Make the most of the freebies around Croatia before they all start charging.

backpacking croatia - sea and sunset

Where to go and what to do in Croatia

With so many gems to choose from for your Croatian backpacking trip, it can be hard to know where to start. Whether you want sparkling beaches, awe-inspiring national parks, charming villages or historic cities, Croatia has it all.

Why not start your backpacking trip in Croatia’s underrated capital, Zagreb? It’s a typical European hotspot, combining charming nineteenth-century buildings with plenty of bars, restaurants and a vibrant café scene. Make time to see St Mark’s Church and Zagreb Cathedral before heading into the Contemporary Art Museum for a chin-stroking experience with the Croatian avant-garde. Take a selfie in the wonderfully quirky Museum of Broken Relationships before sipping coffee in one of the traditional Croatian coffeehouses. Zagreb is also a good base if you want to explore the surrounding hills and villages of Zagorje region to the north, or the charming pastel-coloured town of Varaždin which makes for a perfect day trip.

Nestled between Zagreb and the sparkling coast (and easily visited from either) are the insta-famous Plitvice Lakes. Inside the lush national park you’ll find 16 crystalline lakes which tumble into each other via a series of stunning natural waterfalls. It’ll take you around 6 hours to explore the park on foot or you can make use of the park’s many boats and buses that are all free of charge. No brainer.

If you head further North you’ll find the charming city of Zadar, which is full of Roman ruins, medieval churches and bustling central alleys. If you use this as your base, you can catch a series of ferries to the small islands of Silba, Olib and Dugi Otok. They’re each stunningly beautiful and relatively untouched by tourism, so a great option for those of you who want an authentic snapshot of the Balkans.

Next, strike south to Split, which is Croatia’s second largest city and your portal to more of the beautiful islands. Take some time to soak up the buzzy atmosphere, pop into a local bar for a tipple or three (or four) and then head to the impressive Diocletian’s Palace. Not necessarily in that order.

Leave some time to jump off the mainland and explore the islands. The closest of these is Bra?, where you’ll find bustling fishing villages and beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see. You can choose to sip away the afternoon in the town of Bol or explore the island’s countryside where donkeys still work rugged farmland and grandpas sit on village steps, sipping tea and playing boules.

Across the water, Hvar is one of the most popular spots for backpackers and sun-worshippers alike. This is the place to go for a real party. You’ll find hundreds of young partygoers, hands in the air, dancing on tables at the town’s legendary beach bars. Drinks range from sky-high to dirt cheap, so whether you’re the most budget-conscious couch surfer or a full on glam-packer, there’s something for everyone. Once you’ve sobered up, take some time to explore the sun-drenched vineyards, craggy peaks and wonderfully scented lavender fields that the island is famous for.

No list of places to see in Croatia would be complete without a mention of the D word. Steady on, that’s D for Dubrovnik. This walled medieval city has so much to offer besides just Game of Thrones. Take a wander down the city’s cobbled streets, pop into the many local shops and bazaars, catch a boat to Lokrum island or leave the old town behind completely with a swim session at Banje beach.

backpacking croatia - girl in hat

Croatian Food

The food in Croatia is, in a word, delicious. You’ve got the salty sweet seafood influences of the Med teamed with the gooey cheesy moreish schnitzel and strudel style treats of central Europe. The cuisine is diverse and there are some dishes you simply cannot leave Croatia without trying. After sampling some of the most delicious eats that the country has to offer, we’ve narrowed it down to a select few. It’s a hard job, but someone’s got to do it.

Breakfast

Plenty of hostels in Croatia include breakfast in the price of boarding. At its simplest it’ll be a couple of bread rolls, a few slices of cheese and/or ham and a dollop of jam. Croatian cafés serve strong coffee and don’t mind if you want to sneak in a few croissants from the local bakery. Traditional English breakfasts are hard to come by so if you’re nursing a hangover, you’ll have to cook it up yourself.

If you want to grab something quick for breakfast then head to a local pekara (bakery) and order a freshly made sandwich of either cheese, ham or pršut (cured ham). Most bakeries also sell traditional Balkan pastries such as burek, which are stuffed full of mincemeat, spinach or gooey cheese.

Main meals

Restaurants typically open for ru?ak (lunch) around midday and serve until past midnight, which is handy for those late-night munchies.

For starters, you have to sample some local pršut; Croatia’s famous home-cured ham. It’s often served on a platter, along with paški cheese from the island of Pag. Think a moreish mixture of Parmesan and mature cheddar. Kulen, which is a piquant paprika-laced pork sausage from the east, is another local delicacy and one that tastes as delicious as it sounds.

When in Zagreb, štrukli is a starter that has ‘comfort food’ written all over it. They’re large dough balls filled with cheesy goodness and then boiled or baked. Either way, they’re devilishly addictive.

Meat dishes

Think grilled or pan-fried chops and ribs. Think perfectly sizzled pork loin, accompanied by a tangy red aubergine and pepper relish called ajvar. The lamb dishes are usually spit-roasted, and as you’re travelling around the country it’ll be quite common to see roadside restaurants where the entire animal is being traditionally roasted over an open fire. Stop by, tuck in, and rub shoulders with the locals whilst you do it.

Seafood dishes

On the sparking Croatian coast your seafood dreams will become reality. Tuck into a tangy and delicious octopus salad, drizzled with lashings of olive oil and fresh herbs. Fish is either grilled, baked or boiled – although grilling is the way the locals like it. Osli? (hake) is one of the cheapest kinds of fish and it’s often served sliced and pan-fried in breadcrumbs, with a side of soft potatoes and fresh salad. Don’t leave without sampling the crni rižot, which is black risotto made from slices of squid and squid ink. Sampling this is a Croatia backpacker’s rite of passage!

Vegans and Veggies

Learning the phrase ‘Ja ne jedem meso’ will help you out in many a meaty situation. Realistically you might still be served a salad with bacon bits sprinkled on top, but at least you tried. Croatian food is very meat heavy, but things are slowly changing. Zagreb, Osijek, Pore? and Split now offer up a sprinkling of vegetarian restaurants, while Dubrovnik has a vegan one. If you ask, you’ll find a handful of restaurants offering vegetarian menus, or at the very least, veggie options. If you’re heading north or east then you can look forward to meat-free specialities like štrukli, which are cheesy oozing dumplings. Along the coast you’ll find a heap of mouth-watering vegetarian pizza, pasta and risotto dishes that even carnivores can enjoy.

backpacking croatia - city

Croatia nightlife

From mental dance parties to chilled out music fests and boat bashes that you won’t forget in a hurry, Croatia comes alive after dark. There’s everything you could need for a top-notch night out; glorious beaches, booze sold by the bucketful and bumping beats spun by expert DJ’s. Just try your best not to end up in a taxi at three in the morning texting your ex – save the tragic drunken messages for the Museum of Broken Relationships. Here’s some of the very best Croatian shindigs for you to try.

Noa Beach Club, Pag Island

Everyone and their nan knows about Zr?e and its crazy beach parties. During the summer months the space comes alive with festivals like Croatia Rocks, Electro Beat and Hideout. Located on an idyllic pebble beach and open until six in the morning, Noa Beach Club is where it’s at. The drinks are cheap too, which always helps.

Carpe Diem, Hvar

Once you’ve had your fill of the elegant restaurants and winding cobbled streets, it’s time to explore the island once the sun goes down. Make your way down to the harbour and jump on a water taxi to the island of Stipanska. Here you’ll find an all-out bash, complete with a rowdy crowd and top DJ’s spinning the latest tunes. In the peak summer months this place is packed to the brim, so if sardine style isn’t for you, try Carpe Diem in the quieter months. Make sure you catch the last water taxi back to Hvar in the morning, or you might be in for a longer trip than you bargained for.

Boogie Jungle, Korcula

With a name like Boogie Jungle you know you’re in for a good time. There’s a shuttle bus from the club to the town centre so you don’t need to worry about getting ripped off on your ride. This is the place to go for themed party nights and their 80’s events have revellers coming back time and again.

Klub Quasimodo, Split

Quasimodo is where it’s at if you’re after a cheap and indie night out in the city. Located on the suspect-looking second floor of an office block, the bare-bones space serves up good vibes and strong drinks into the wee hours. If local bands from ex-Yugoslavia are on tour, this is where they’ll play. There’s spoken word nights, quiz evenings and most importantly, cheap booze.

Santos Beach Club, Rab

Let’s just put it out there – this place is popular amongst nudists so if you want to add a little va va voom to your backpacking trip, here’s where to go. The tunes start after dark, so spend your daytime catching some rays or flirting with the naked beach goers before firing yourself up for a fiesta. Santos Beach Club is open in summer only.

Revelin Culture Club, Dubrovnik

Revelin Culture Club is set in an angular 16th-century fortress, at the very end of Dubrovnik’s old town. You’ll find a huge bar, a dancefloor the size of a football pitch and plenty of all-round good vibes. Meanwhile, DJs serve up current and throwback tunes to keep you bumpin’ and grindin’ long into the night. It’s the perfect place to party, whip out some dad-dancing and strike up a conversation with the attractive stranger at the bar. To make things even better, drinks are cheap – which gives you no excuse not to buy your new ‘friend’ a cocktail or three.

backpacking croatia - city centre

Croatian phrases

Nothing bridges those cultural differences like making the effort to speak a little of the local language. And yes, whilst it’s all so tempting to just learn how to say the f-word and nothing else, that’s not going to help you much when you’re stranded with a hefty bill that you don’t understand.

Here’s a list of some of the most useful words and phrases that you might need to use when backpacking Croatia. A basic grasp of mime may also help. 

Bok – Hello

Dovi?enja! – Goodbye

Kako si (ti)?  – How are you?

Ja sam dobro. – I’m fine.

Kako se (ti) zoveš? – What’s your name?

Ja se zovem… – My name is…

Govorite li engleski? – Do you speak English?

Žao mi je, ne govorim hrvatski. – I’m sorry, I don’t speak Croatian.

Imam rezervaciju za danas na ime Sam Bella. – I have a reservation for today in the name Sam Bella.

Oprostite, gdje je WC? – Excuse me, where’s the toilet?

Mogu li dobiti jelovnik? – Can I get the menu?

Želim platiti. Mogu li dobiti ra?un? – I want to pay. Can I get the bill?

Hvala – Thankyou.

As mentioned earlier, ‘Ja ne jedem meso’ will also come in handy for the veggies amongst you. It means ‘I don’t eat meat.’

Is Croatia safe?

Croatia is a safe country but there are a couple of things you should be aware of before setting out for your backpacking adventure of a lifetime. Nothing ruins a trip like having your bag stolen, getting run over or standing on a landmine.

Driving is notoriously hazardous in Croatia. Perhaps it’s the sparkling scenery that makes it that much harder to focus on not ramming into the car in front, but in 2016 there were 7.3 road deaths per 100,000 of the population, compared with the average 2.8 road deaths in the UK. Take precautions when hitching a lift.

Where you can, take public transport rather than hiring a car. If you’re boarding a night train keep an eye on your bag at all times; thieves and pickpockets have been known to target tourists on busy routes. Perhaps keep that glitzy watch off your wrist and in your pocket until you arrive at your destination.

Croatia is known for miles and miles of sparkling blue water along the Adriatic Sea, but you need to ditch the idea of powder white sand and palm trees. Most beaches are covered in large pebbles which have caused a few accidents over the years. You’d be well advised to throw a good pair of beach shoes into your suitcase so you’re not slipping and sliding all over the show. Sea urchins are also very common, and very uncomfortable if you stand on one.

The last piece of safety advice refers to land mines which were scattered by the army during the Homeland War from 1991 – 1995. While the capital and the shore are free of land mines, the countryside and smaller areas are still affected. The road from Karlovac to Plitvitce still has problems with mines so it’s best to give it a miss. Ask locals about specific routes and keep an eye out for the red triangle sign that says “ne prilazite.” This means “no entry” and you should probably pay attention.  

backpacking croatia -sea and island

Croatia travel advice

It goes without saying that you must have a valid passport to visit Croatia. Before you set off on your trip, make sure you double check it’s renewed and well within date. If your passport becomes out of date while you’re travelling, contact your embassy as soon as you can. It’s also a good idea to bring photocopies of all your travel documents in case they get lost or stolen.

Citizens of the U.K, EU, the U.S, Canada, Australia and New Zealand do not need visas to visit Croatia. If you’re from any of those places you can visit happily for up to 90 days in any 180-day period. If you’re from anywhere else you might require a visa and you can check the full list of countries and requirements here.

You should always take out decent travel insurance. If you’re an EU resident, remember to pack a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). You can apply for one for free here. If something happens whilst you’re backpacking, this gem entitles you to the basic level of health care in Croatia. It won’t cover you for ongoing medical treatment and non-urgent treatment though, so you should always invest in some good travel insurance. The emergency ambulance number in Croatia is 112.

It might seem obvious but wearing 6-inch heels or the most expensive trainers is the absolute best way to put a barrier between you and your surroundings. Try to keep bling down to a minimum. Take your headphones out of your ears so you can talk to locals and appreciate the sounds of the city – or notice if a car is about to run you over.

When you order tap water and chow down on the bread basket in a Croatian restaurant, don’t expect them both to be free. Water is often chargeable, and the bread basket is charged to your receipt even if you only munch on one tiny morsel. The extra couple of Kuna probably won’t break the bank, but it could be a stressful scenario if you’re nearing the end of your cash stash.

Make the effort of speaking a few words in Croatian when you can; the effort is always appreciated and it can open the door to a whole new local experience. Find out about cool places not listed in the guidebooks. Start conversations with the people you meet in your hostels – they might just become friends for life. It’s also handy asking the people who run your hostels if any street or neighbourhood is a no-go zone. If they say yes, then avoid.

When you’re in the city alone, try and drink responsibly. You’re a hindrance to yourself when you’re so inebriated that you don’t know your own name, never mind where you’re staying, and you’ll become a prime target for pickpockets. In your hometown, would you really go out and get intoxicated all by yourself? Oh, you would? Well just don’t do it when you’re backpacking Croatia.

There you have it. You’ve made it through the ultimate guide to backpacking Croatia. Now all that’s left to do if for you to quit making excuses and figure out how to make it happen. Do you really need to pay that Netflix subscription fee every month? Maybe it’s also time to swap the daily skinny caramel frappuccino for a good old black coffee and before you know it, you’ll have saved up and be on your way.

backpacking croatia - girl looking into sunset

Keep reading ?? 

⭐ Croatian food

⭐ The best hostels in Dubrovnik, Croatia

⭐ The best hostels in Split, Croatia

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