Is Croatia overrated?

It has been great to see the positive reception to the ­tweets we posted while on our Croatian holidays, our summary “Top 10” photos that we post on Facebook and Google+, and the photo essay of our trip. It seems like everyone wants to visit Croatia (Hrvatska) and its Dalmatian Coast.

 

“Get there while it’s still undiscovered. The euro is coming soon, and the golden days will be over.”

 

I’ve been listening to urgent exhortations about Croatia for nearly a decade. “What Italy used to be,” “won’t last long,” “unspoilt Mediterranean.” How could I not be chomping at the bit to visit nearly 2500 miles of coastline and 1185 islands situated between Italy and Greece? After all, wasn’t this a favorite dive spot of Jacques Cousteau himself because of its gorgeous, clear waters?

 

Clear water near Dubrovnik, Croatia

 

As friend after friend either went or knew somebody traveling to Croatia, I seemed to stumble repeatedly upon gushing articles like this which made me feel like I was missing out on the last unspoiled place in the northern Mediterranean.

 

This month we finally made it there, road-tripping to the Plitvice Lakes National Park and then down along the Dalmatian Coast. (On a map of Croatia, roughly the area south of Zadar is Dalmatia. We toured Plitvice, Vodice, Zaton, Split, Dubrovnik, Cavtat, Korcula and the Peljesac Peninsula.)

 

My straight-up, honest opinion? Croatia was a let-down. Yes, my expectations were sky-high. Even so, if I had only one more chance to revisit favorite European destinations (which has some validity since we move to Asia in less than a year), the Dalmatian Coast wouldn’t make it onto my bucket list. And since so many people have limited time to explore Europe, I can’t recommend Croatia travel.

 

Stop. First things first. Visit the Mediterranean in July?! Unless you enjoy 100° weather and the claustrophobic press of August tourism (or unless you’re a die-hard club fanatic looking for the summer scene), you won’t be happy in ever-so-slightly-less-packed July. Each year we swear we won’t repeat the mistake, but schedules invariably get the best of us. (Our second mistake? Visiting the country’s most popular destinations at the busiest time of year.)

 

Two major disclaimers aside and moving straight to the point, several myths about Croatia are blatantly untrue:

 

It’s undiscovered

This is one myth about which I suffered no illusions prior to visiting, but I know that other people still believe it to be true. Friends from Spain have lamented that fewer Italian tourists visit, heading to their eastern neighbor instead; I had heard that the island of Hvar was an “it” spot and always seemed full of Australians, and that Americans on cruise stopovers in Dubrovnik clogged the city streets.

What I didn’t realize is that Croatia is and long has been a top holiday destination for people of Eastern Europe and the Balkans, seemingly more to avoid the inland heat than for cultural tourism reasons. You’ll see them in droves, lingering by the sea morning to night to avoid stuffy vacation apartments, letting it all hang out as they walk through towns in speedos and bikinis, nary a cover-up in sight.

(I could have added a photo here, but I’ll spare you!)

Want to really get to know Bosnians, Slovenians or Poles (up close and very personal)? Head to Croatia.

It’s cheap

Is it cheaper than Venice? Yes. But so is Verona. We didn’t find any noticeable savings over the majority of Western Europe.

It’s unspoiled

No: coastal monstrosities and soulless tourism abound.

We all have ire-inducers, and these are mine: communities that don’t act to responsibly manage tourism and the tourists that indiscriminately support them. I blame them for block after block of gray concrete buildings that stretch along the coast, ready to house people looking for the cheapest way to get near the beach.

 

Towering concrete in Ploce, Croatia

Seemingly endless apartment blocks south of Split, Croatia

 

Several of the old towns are completely given over to tourism, rather than integrating an active community into a tourism-based economy. Take Korcula, which has been described as a “mini-Dubrovnik without the crowds,” and is nothing more than (admittedly gorgeous) old buildings housing a latticework of tourist shops and tourist restaurants. (Locals in Split couldn’t recommend one single worthwhile restaurant in the Old City!) Compare this to places like Barcelona or Paris, whose oldest districts are heavily frequented by tourists but still incubate fantastic tiny eateries and thriving art galleries.

Who knows? Maybe what we saw was a holdover from the Tito era, and they’re doing their best to recover and renew. We’d like to give them the benefit of the doubt, and tried to mitigate our impact by staying in private homes, historical buildings, or hotels with character. If we’re going to get preachy, we better put it into practice.

 

Last but not least, the biggest disappointment about Croatia was that it didn’t transmit a distinctive character.

 

Think about Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Morocco: instant recognition of a strong cultural identity. I couldn’t wait to discover Croatia’s, which I imagined would be another distinct facet of the gem that is the Mediterranean. But it eluded discovery.

 

Maybe theirs is more understated and was covered up by the strong personality of the tourists, or maybe my perceptions of other Mediterranean countries are in fact based on what I knew (or thought I knew) about them before ever stepping foot there. Then again, maybe Croatia is a small country that has been fractured and absorbed by so many other strong cultures throughout the years that its identity shifts based on the eye of the beholder.

 

One last word to the wise: Croatia hotels are not up to par with those of Western European countries. They tend to be Spartan and air conditioning is rare (if it’s not mentioned – even with rental cars – it’s not there). That’s not the kind of thing that would deter me from visiting, but I mention it here in the interests of full disclosure.

 

If you have the time, by all means go and check it out for yourself. But us? We plan to make our way to Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula, in the north of the country, which is reportedly less touristy, more bohemian, and home to the best gastronomical traditions that we came across on our trip (think aromatic truffles and smooth, delicate wines).

 

Time for the third and final disclaimer: we did manage to find some incredible spots during our trip (As always! We like to think of it as great travel karma.), and we look forward to sharing them with you. What’s ahead in the following weeks? We’ll tell you about what we liked most, the hotel that knocked our socks off (it now ranks as our favorite hotel), plus two amazing, hidden Croatian seaside towns.


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Where is Croatia?

Croatia is a coastal Mediterranean country located across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. It is bordered by Slovenia, Hungary, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Montenegro.

Comments

  1. Great Post, I’m surprised to be honest, with all the great things ive been reading on Nomadic Matt’s website. I imagine your portrayal of Croatia is more realistic with its over developed tourist hot spots. I’ll have to take croatia off my “where to go” list and add somwhere more off the beaten track like Bugaria (Maybe) or Georgia.

  2. Sounds like our three-day San Francisco visit for our wedding anniversary — hordes of tourists. We may have to move our anniversary date to January! Hopefully, you can get back there when it’s not the height of tourist season. Also, we did visit some small fishing villages on our trip there and really enjoyed them.

  3. Thanks, Sammy. I couldn’t find what Nomadic Matt wrote, but if it had to do with pretty coastline and friendly people, he’s absolutely right (more on that next week).

    Montenegro and Albania are just a stone’s throw away along the coast, so those might be worth considering, too.

  4. If you happen to remember the names of those villages, please share! We went to Cavtat, which isn’t small but is often described as the “cute fishing village outside Dubrovnik.” Unfortunately, only one of the shops/restaurants appeared NOT to be developed specifically for tourists: the pharmacy!

    It would be interesting to hear your opinion if you returned. I wonder how much the country has changed since you were there…

  5. Can’t remember the names of the villages but they were very laid back, located along pristine shores. Of course, that was mid-May so there were less tourists. As this part of the world has experienced such turbulent times, both economically and politically, they are no doubt chomping at the bit to infuse their economy with tourists and their money!

  6. That concrete complex is so ugly it’s kind of beautiful haha

  7. It’s refreshing to get a truly honest opinion about a travel spot. Looking forward to reading your next installment and learning about your all-time favorite hotel-that’s high praise!

  8. Thanks. In this case, a picture isn’t really worth a thousand words! It’s tempting to only highlight the most romantic aspects of each destination, but that doesn’t do much to help people make educated decisions.

  9. >Grin< I see what you mean!

  10. This saddens me a bit. I remember hearing about Croatia about ten years ago from a friend from the Ukraine. He said how wonderful it was and that I needed to get there ASAP.

    I guess I’ll move it down on my bucket list, but I’m not going to eliminate it completely. {Psst…I thought the same thing about Ireland. But then again, I was comparing it to New Zealand. NOTHING compares to New Zealand, so it’s not really fair.}

  11. Very interesting read, and how sorry we are that you didn’t enjoy your Croatian holiday to Dalmatia. You’re so right about timing too! You were there in the height of the summer season, a dismal time if you are not into crowds and package tours. Yes, Istria is a very different region of Croatia although it too has its tourists that fill the little streets of Rovinj or Motovun jostling to take the best photos of a sunset or a washing line. Try Istria in April or in October (if you’re not wanting the heat) for a gastronomic feast. Try Slavonia too (not to be confused with Slovenia!). Off the beaten track and little tourism. And it sounds like you’ll definitely enjoy those northern Croatian wines (not that we’re biased…)!

  12. Ah ha! Now I know exactly where to head for tips when I go there. Thanks so much for dropping by with these nuggets, and also for tempering my expectations about Rovinj. Will keep my eye on your blog for more goodies.

  13. Definitely don’t eliminate it completely (especially since there’s over half the country that I didn’t even explore). My principal aim here was to dispel the misconception that Croatia is the quaint, inexpensive reflection of what the Mediterranean used to be. Saddens me, too!

  14. As someone who is a citizen of the country, it’s not surprising to hear this take on it. Truly, the “golden era” to visit was from 1995 to 2005 or maybe a bit less. There have been tourists there consistently for nearly 150 years though. Beach tourism (which is scarcely better than sex tourism) basically started there with the Austrians “healing” themselves in the 19th century along the shores of the Adriatic.

    You also have to understand that a lot of the rather ugly buildings weren’t built to handle an influx of tourists. They were actually small beach homes bought or build by people from Zagreb.

    There is a Croatian character, but it’s tough to see in the peak travel months. Actually, there are three characters. There are the two coastal ones of Istrian and Dalmatia which seem like their just mimicking Italy, but are their own thing when you scratch the surface. Then there’s the interior one which is vastly different and almost like it’s not the same country. Again, they’re not easy to see in summer when the Red Bull party tent is pouring shots along the waterfront in Split.

    This isn’t some push for you to revisit. I would actually encourage most people to stay away for a bit as Croatia needs a bit of a bitch slap to stop focusing so much on crappy beach tourists. The tourism of neighboring Slovenia and Bosnia is much stronger, year round, and attracts a higher quality of tourists as they’re specifically going to the country to see it, not just because there’s sand to park their ass for a month and get drunk.

    But, as to a place like Barcelona developing tourism better, I would disagree. Yes, there is the illusion of a thriving community, but really, the center is just full of expatriates who have driven most of the Barcelonins to the outer areas because the rents are too high and countless apartments have been converted in to short term rentals. Again, it’s due in a large degree to the proximity of the beach.

    But, to get back to Croatia, yes, avoid it in the peak of summer. But, you are completely right in that it’s not cheap (the Kuna is pegged to the Euro) nor is it undiscovered–Marco Polo would be shocked to find people saying that in the 21st century.

  15. We saw several Austrian license plates during our trip, but it didn’t occur to us that they might be vacationing in the same places as their great-grandparents. Europeans might have a more realistic perception of what they will find in neighboring countries, but in the United States there is a marked perception that Croatia is drastically less crowded and developed. I felt compelled to give an honest account of what we witnessed since the readers of this site tend to look for something other than beach parties and tourist stores when they travel.

    I really thank you for this candid first-hand perspective – nothing like a local to tell it how it is. I probably wouldn’t have recommended a bitch slap (haha), but now that it’s out there, I’ll say that there are quite a few communities globally where it might be helpful in inspiring the kind of leadership we need for an increasingly small planet.

  16. Like I tweeted, my bank account thanks you for your honesty. Regardless, the gorgeous pics in the album feed my soul as I go through my travel famine. C’est la vie! 🙂

  17. Sad to hear about Croatia…

    The ‘undiscovered’, ‘unspolt’ and ‘cheap’ (that’s the hype around Burma/Myanmar this year which was on my list). That’s the kind of words that sell many of us travelers who don’t want to be squeezed among the tourist crowds. But personally, I don’t think those words actually exist. The moment they’re spoken, the place is dead.

  18. The scenery is a visual feast, no doubt. I have a feeling I’ll be revisiting those photos once winter comes…

  19. Hi Christine – I hope not, because I use those words myself. Sometimes we seem to stumble into a time warp (we just posted about some of our favorite sleepy towns in Croatia), and I’d hate to think that by talking about it, I contribute to the destruction. It’s an issue I take to heart and think about frequently.

  20. It was easy to realize you are American since you had these “illusions” about Croatia 🙂 But you soon realized this little country is a well-known tourist destination all over Europe. I agree with all the points you raise, especially about serving everything to tourism, but on the other hand, how much time did you spend there? Apart from Plitvice, Split, Dubrovnik and Korcula you haven’t visited any other major (or underrated) destinations. Coming in July was a huuuuge mistake if you wanted quiet, unspoilt Mediterranean. What I’m trying to say is that I find your assessment of finding Croatia overrated a little unfair.

    If you decide to come back to Croatia, definitely head to Istria,you could easily spend a week there. I am surprised you skipped Sibenik, Zadar, Trogir, Kornati or Krka NP with Skradin, Mali Ston, even Velebit mountain… If you want “the Mediterreanean that it once was”, you must head to some of the islands. Vis is the most beautiful I have visited. Dugi Otok is goorgeous with few visitors except in the high season. Brac and Hvar should not be missed, not only because of the beaches and nightlife. And here I am talking about coastal part only.
    You obviously came with different expectations and there is nothing wrong with that. However, I don’t like it when people bring down a destination because it didn’t meet their expectations and it was different from what they imagined it to be.

    Great blog, btw!

  21. Hi Mixal,

    What I want to avoid at all costs is presenting glowing accounts of every place I visit. Too many travel writers fall into this habit, perhaps because they’re used to seeing it in guide books or because they’re working for tourist bureaus. I tried to be honest about how much expectations and the time of year influenced my perspective, but still couldn’t recommend it in good conscience.

    We spent about five days on the Peljesac Peninsula precisely because we heard it was one of the least developed and least visited parts of the coast, so definitely visited Mali Ston, and even made stops in other cities you mention as well as the towns in our post about hidden villages of Dalmatia. Unfortunately, those areas sill felt hollow to me. I’d like to hope that visiting during a different time of year would change my opinion, but I have doubts. I’ve lived year-round in several tourist destinations so am intimately familiar with the huge differences between on- and off-season, and know from experience that when towns are too fully given over to tourism, everything shuts down completely in the off-season and it feels like a ghost town.

    That said, I completely appreciate your critique about using blanket statements for areas I’ve only just “met.” In a perfect world, I would have titled this piece something like, “Why the Dalmatian Coast is overrated for a two-week holiday (in my humble opinion), and especially for a two-week holiday in the Mediterranean in high summer.”

    Thank you for your great tips about Vis and Dugi Otok! If the readers of this post get there before me, I hope they’ll come back and comment about their experience.

  22. Oh, ok then. I completely agree that you shouldn’t marvel at every place you visit. I just thought you missed some nice places, but you actually didn’t. You just found Croatia to be overrated which is perfectly acceptable. The comment about shutting down after tourist season is partially true in this case: the islands do become deserted in the off-season. Very few people live there actually because of much better economic conditions on the mainland. However, when it comes to major cities, there are very few things that work in the tourist season only.

    Btw, I am surprised you didn’t mention the lack of sandy beaches. That is usually tourists’ main complaint when coming to Croatia! They are either overrun by tourists or on remote locations on islands.

    P.S. If concrete along the coast disgusts you as much as me, don’t ever think of going to Albania! Many parts of Montenegro too. Montenegro is stunning though, especially the mountains, albeit your feelings about Montenegrin coast wouldn’t differ much from Croatian I guess 🙂

  23. I don’t think there’s anything nicer than diving off the rocks into deep, crystal water. Sandy beaches are also “overrated” in my opinion, lol 🙂

    Can’t thank you enough for forewarning about the coastlines of Albania and (partially) Montenegro – both are high on my list. Now I know to seek out inland destinations…

  24. Wow, I had a completely different experience. I was in Croatia for 15 magical days the end of last May. The scenery was stunning. There were a number of tourists in the most popular tourist spots such as Plitvice, Split, and Dubrovnik, but otherwise I wound up in places where I was one of a handful of tourists. It is a great time to travel as long as you don’t mind cooler climate and ocean temperatures.

    Did you not do any research before you went? Lonely Planet’s Welcome to Croatia on page 13 starts out by saying “Despite its reputation as Europe’s vacation hotspot…” and “more popular Adriatic locales come with hefty price tags in the summer months…”. Or know that Split is the second largest city in all of Croatia? The old town is beautiful, but doable in a few hours. I took an evening ferry over to Brac and left the madding crowds behind.

    It seems a shame to not recommend Croatia travel as you have so strongly done. Choosing the right time of year to visit, and remembering that this is a country still recovering from a horrific civil war might have made quite a difference to your visit.

    Croatia has some of the most beautiful coastline I’ve seen in Europe, and some great national parks. I hope that your readers will reconsider and put Croatia back on their lists of places to visit. The people were friendly and helpful, private rooms were very clean and inexpensive, and the food was good. Above all, the scenery was spectacular.

  25. Hi Vicki, I’m so thankful people like you take the time to share your positive experience so that readers here see multiple opinions. I made sure to offer a couple of disclaimers because I visited in high-summer, but in the end had to be honest with my opinion. I’ve been to many places in the Mediterranean in the summer that didn’t leave me with such a negative impression. Hopefully it will help the readers whose opinions tend to coincide with mine, while the readers who don’t always agree will weigh this as one of many opinions they come across.

  26. We’re planning a trip to Croatia this spring. Perhaps by ship, though we’re still not sure. It’s helpful to have a different perspective on the area than what is found in most guide books, and appreciate your honest observations about the tourist issues in Dubrovnik and Split. I’ve been fascinated with the area for some time for the history, having read a bit about Diocletian (palace in Dubrovnik??) and Marco Polo (Korcula’s claims have angered the Venetians). Any thoughts you guys would care to share on the historical attributes of Croatia?
    Your photos are beautiful, the scenery is amazing. Reminiscent of our time in Italy and the South of France…

  27. I cannot believe what I’m reading! Croatia is awesome! Ha, but I guess it was only a matter of time before people started saying that it is overrated. You’re right in that for years now people have been saying it’s the next big thing. Truth is, travel bloggers like myself are part of the problem because we say how awesome it is (see my blog post below, for example) and then people like yourself are disappointed when it’s not what you expected. I’ve felt that way about a lot of places – read that it was amazing and then been disappointed.

  28. Hi Si, I know – it’s definitely a Catch 22! In the post on Golfo di Orosei I wrote about how hard it was to publicly disclose a great “hidden” location for fear of forever changing it.

    Thanks for sharing your post here so that people can easily hop over and get a different perspective. So much of it is timing, right? If I had visited in the off season, I might have felt differently.

  29. You’re itinerary was completely wrong, given you like to avoid tourist. There are plenty of quaint villages and towns but u chose thriving tourist destinations. It’s like expecting mykanos or Santorini to be quiet. I have gravelly all of Europe on two ocxassions and live in Australia. Aussirs love Croatia and everyone I meet ranks it as one of their favourite countries. I too would have to agree. It has history and culture but for Americans or the uneducated traveler possibly not the trademark sites we have all heard of ie Big Ben, Eifel Tower etc but it’s more about the total atmosphere, beautiful towns, coastline and mountains. It is one place where I feel speechless by the beauty and long to return. Sorry you didn’t feel same

  30. Sorry for typo errors, sent msg from my phone

  31. Hi Dani, I’m glad you had such a favorable experience and can share it with our readers. We traveled through 3/4 of the length of the country, stretching from the Plitvice lakes to Dubrovnik, so it would have been difficult to make our itinerary much broader. If you mean that we should have focused on the upper quarter of the country (Istria) instead, I have heard that from many sources and plan to investigate someday for myself. Or, like I said at the beginning, visiting at any time other than August might have left a better overall impression (though frankly I’m doubtful). Luckily we did manage to uncover a few towns that gave us a positive vibe, which we wrote about here:

  32. My husband and I spent over a month in Croatia in June / July 2013, and I completely agree with you. We spent time all along the coast, as well as inland, visited islands, spent weeks in small villages and towns and got out on the water. It’s a stunning country, but I also never felt like I had a good sense of its identify and that gave me an unbalanced feeling. Crossing the border into Bosnia and spending some time there really emphasised that for me – it was so easy to find the depth in Bosnia that I just couldn’t seem to catch in Croatia.

    Compared to the rest of the Mediterranean, we also found it expensive and very consumed by tourism. For the prices, the quality just wasn’t there – we paid similar prices in Italy, but the accommodation, food, service etc. was infinitely better. In Dalmatia, I saw more drunk Australians than I’d ever seen before in my life – and I live in New Zealand. I think it’ll be easier to see how tourism develops in Croatia over the next few years, especially as it’s now part of the EU.

  33. What troubles me when people talk about Croatia and it “lacking identity” is that they come with certain preconceptions of what Croatia should be like. When you visit for example Austria, you can do that pretty easily. You are in an Alpine country where the architecture, culture, customs etc have a certain common…uum let’s call it theme. And therein lies the problem because Croatia is a VERY diverse country for its size. That makes it hard for some, especially if they want to peg Croatia neatly in a certain place.
    Croatia, in that regard, is unpeggable (is that even a word? lol).
    When you visit Bosnia, what you see is what you get. it is a Balkan country with culture rooted in the Balkans, influenced and ruled in its entirety by Ottomans for 500 years. A tolerant place for all three religions which exist there but still a majority of the population is Muslim. A dash of Middle East a few hours drive from Vienna.
    On the other hand, Croatia was never ruled by the Ottomans, never ruled in its entirety by Italians, Hungarians, Austrians etc. So you have a place where even as close as 50 or 60 miles from where you spent a few days, you get a whole different feel and vibe. A lot of people say that they have a feeling they visited three or four countries, especially if they e.g. include in their trip Istra, Gorski kotar, Dalmatia, Zagreb and northern Croatia, the islands and Slavonia in the east, all in the same go. Three different climates, totally different architecture, customs, manners, even the local language can be different if you learned some Croatian in, say, Split and you managed picked up some language there. Well, you will have some major problems understanding people in Čakovec if you came to visit the castle there and they don’t know you’re a tourist. That diversity on such a relatively small acreage is what makes us interesting IMO, I would encourage people who visit to try and understand that Croatia is an amalgamation of all those things, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts 🙂

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