Croatia has become a real hotspot for tourism in recent years. Its dramatic coastline, crystal waters and a relatively cheap economy has pushed Croatia to be one of the most popular countries to visit in Europe. In spite of that though, Croatia is still comparatively undiscovered. Here’s what to expect.
Christina and I have been on the road now for almost 3 months. The reason we’ve been on the road so long this trip is because we’d planned a holiday to Croatia with my family to celebrate a few big birthdays together.
We travelled through Northern Italy and Slovenia to get to Istria – the western peninsula of Croatia. It sounds like a long way, but in reality, it’s only an hour and half drive from Trieste to Pula!
Here are a few photos from our time in this beautiful part of Europe and what we got up to.
We found flying into Croatia quite expensive, so Christina and I decided to fly to Trieste in north-eastern Italy then drive to Croatia from there. Flights to Trieste from London Stansted are ten a penny, whereas flights to Pula in Croatia are expensive, go from Gatwick and aren’t nearly as regular.
But going to Trieste presented a number of bonuses apart from saving us money on flights.
Christina’s dad was from Trieste, so we have a connection with this beautiful harbour town. It’s also the first time my mum and dad have been here, so we’re really excited about showing them round.
We also have a couple of friends who live in Trieste, so it’ll be awesome to meet up with them (and get some great local tips to share) while we’re here.
Like a lot of this area, Trieste has its very own Roman ruins. We came across this beautiful little amphitheatre, from the 1st Century, right in the middle of town. Mum and Dad are having a great time in the early summer sun of northern Italy.
There are so many places around town to eat in Trieste, but our friends have recommended we at least have a look at Eataly. Christina and I love the one in New York, so we’re keen to see what Trieste’s is like. It doesn’t disappoint, with perfect views out over the harbour through enormous floor-to-ceiling windows and delicious platters of meats and cheese.
The other awesome tip from our friend is where to get the best gelato in Trieste. She’s not wrong with this one either. Gelato Zampolli has some amazing flavours and is popular all day long with locals coming in for their fix. Everyone – from school kids to suits – comes here.
One of the most beautiful landmarks in Trieste is Castello Miramare. This gleaming white castle hangs onto the cliff, leaning over the crystal waters of the Adriatic. Christina’s dad used to come here as a boy and swim off the rocks of the nearby beaches. It’s such a lovely spot – we’re so happy to be able to share it with my mum and dad.
After an hour or so walking around the grounds and enjoying the peaceful air Miramare has about it, we decide it’s time to hit the road and make our way to Croatia. It’s a pretty quick drive from Trieste through Slovenia to Croatia. Our villa is in the town of Žminj in the middle of the Croatian peninsula is only an hour and a half.
You do have to go through 3 countries though, so border control slows you down a bit.
We arrive at our villa and we’re so impressed. Mum and Dad’s friend owns this place and it was only built 3 years ago. It’s quite a contrast to the rest of the town though, which is exactly what you’d expect to see in the heart of the Croatian countryside. Single-level cottages, stone walls and little hedge-lined lanes.
While we wait for my brother and sister to arrive – they’re flying in to Pula Airport – Mum and Dad have a nap, and Christina and I relax by one of the pools in the sunshine. I also take the opportunity to light up one of the cigars I brought over from Cuba. This is the life!
My brother and sister arrived exhausted late last night. After a quick dinner and a catch-up everyone went to bed. This morning though, we’re out and about – this is the stunning town of Porec (“poretch”) on the west of the Istrian Peninsula. It’s popular with tourists – especially in the summer. And it’s easy to see why.
As we walk up to town from the carpark, the family decides to pull a catalogue pose. I don’t think any of us should be looking at giving up our day jobs!
Much more comfortable! We realise it’s lunchtime. What a shame. We scout out a nearby restaurant (they’re often called ‘konoba’ – Croatian for ‘tavern’) and discover it has a rooftop terrace.
The food is excellent, the chat is fun and the views are flawless.
After our meal, we hit the streets of Porec. It’s a charming little cobbled town with plenty to offer. Thankfully we’re here pre-high season. July and August see hoards of tourists filling these narrow lanes and inundating its shops and restaurants.
May and September are the best months to come here – or so all the locals are telling us.
After a long day exploring, we’re all happy to see the big green wall of our villa as we pull back into Žminj. Christina’s got her spritz Aperol and the pool – life’s good.
For dinner tonight we’re staying local. My dad’s been excited about the agro-dining scene they have here in Istria. Instead of going to restaurants for traditional Croatian meals, people have set up rooms in their homes. You can sit down in someone’s front room (it’s usually set up more like a restaurant of course) and eat food from the local area that’s also grown locally too.
It’s quite a strange to walk into what’s clearly someone’s house (they have the TV on) and see it all set up like a little diner. Konoba Puli Pineta in Žminj is adorable and the food is excellent.
This is a typical dish for Istrian Croatia – a local cheese called paški sir – fried until golden. It’s a bit like halloumi, but somehow better!
Truffle pasta, steak, gnocchi… everything we eat here is delicious and homely. And affordable.
Today, we’ve come to the region’s capital Pula. The biggest and most populous town in Istria, Pula is home to the main airport of the peninsula and also the biggest and most complete Roman amphitheatre outside Rome itself. It’s also the only remaining one to have all four sides intact.
It’s so good to have all my family together. It’s the first time it’s happened since our wedding in 2009, so it’s an important moment for us all. And best of all I get to share this lovely time with Christina, who is as much part of the family as I am.
Although the amphitheatre is the most impressive part of the ruins in Pula, it’s not necessarily the most important. The Temple of Augustus in the middle of town and closer to the water has been here for much longer. Built around 20BC, this temple is well worth coming to look at.
It’s mind blowing to think that this building has stood here so long and still looks so good.
Our next excursion is to the west coast of the peninsula again but this time we’re in Rovinj. Another town on the edge of the Adriatic, we were expecting similar things to Porec, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. What we find here though knocks Porec out of the park.
Rovinj is such a beautiful town. It’s made for Instagram. Even my dad is getting into it. In fact, you should check out his IG account – @fisheken52 – especially if you like seeing photos of fishing!
Rovinj is absolutely picture perfect, though we’re told it turns into bedlam in July and August. Again, it’s best to stay away in those months. May and September is much better.
The shiny cobbles of the town’s streets lead you through some of the most picturesque parts of Croatia. Check out the following next few shots and you’ll see what I mean.
We stop in at a konoba along the way for a bite to eat. Everywhere’s kind of touristy here, but the food quality is still very high. In fact my dad and I started a game called ‘Let’s see if we can have a bad meal here’. So far: no winners.
Squid and calamari (two different animals by the way) is the order of the day in Istrian Croatia. They serve it in so many different ways and each one is delicious. This calamari fritti is outstanding.
Back at the villa, Christina’s put together another of her spectacular platters for dinner. Finding blue cheese in Croatia is surprisingly difficult, but there’s plenty of excellent options for cut meat, goat cheese and curd. And the fruit and fresh produce here is excellent.
This afternoon, we’ve decided to have a go at ziplining! The nearby town of Pazin has a 200m deep ravine that they’ve stretched cables across. There are 2 runs you can do (plus a bridge swing that they open in the summer). One is 220m long and you can go up to 40kph on.
The other zipline is 280m long and you get up to 50kph. Pretty cool.
Zipline Pazinska jama is incredibly safe, the staff are fun and very professional, and it’s pretty good value at about AU$20 per person – you get both ziplines for that too by the way.
It’s so much fun in fact, we come back on our last day for another go!
After our time zipping over Pazin’s gorge, we’re hungry, so we take ourselves off to Motovun – this little hilltop town nestled in the central Istrian countryside. Unfortunately though, the unusual landscape of the area creates microclimates, and a stormy one seems to be hanging around exactly where we want to be.
Still, we venture forth and keep our fingers crossed the storm will pass us by.
The storm has not passed us by.
In fact, the storm struck exactly as we pulled up to the carpark in the upper reaches of the public road to the town. We only just make it into the nearest little konoba before the heavens open. It’s kind of a shame we won’t get to see the sun on the streets of this pretty little town, but the thunder booming overhead as we bunker down in Motovun’s Restauran Pod Napun.
Amidst the torrential hail, zapping lightning and roaring thunder, we watch through the windows as the valleys around us disappear.
The absolute bonus of being forced into Restauran Pod Napun is that the food is incredible. It looks like Dad and I are in a scoreless game here in Croatia. This gnocchi and meat dish is so simple, but exactly what I feel like when the weather’s like this.
Eventually the rain stops long enough for us to escape Motovun. The next hilltop town, which weirdly has had no rain at all, is Grožnjan. This town has become something of an artist’s playground, so we’re keen to see the creative element of Croatia. Plus, how pretty does it look from here?
I don’t know what’s cuter: this little town of Grožnjan or my mum and dad!
After walking round the whole town (it took about half an hour) we stop in for a quick refresher before we get back on the road. The front of this little cafe bar is full of people, but out the back is a terrace with this view. I don’t know why, but we’re the only people out here.
Dinner tonight is playing to this part of Croatia’s connection to Italy. Istria’s so close to Trieste and Venice that Italian is the region’s second language. Also, pizza is everywhere. And my goodness it’s good.
This is from a little local pizzeria in Žminj called Pizzeria Ulika. It’s a bright restaurant with simple decor, but the pizzas here are anything but basic. My calzone is absolutely spot on.
This morning we decide to try and find the ‘fjord’ that’s marked on maps and guidebooks here. We start off confidently down an unsealed road that looks like this. Pretty, right? Even when you’re about to get lost in Croatia it’s beautiful.
That’s right, we got lost.
Well, maybe not lost. We know the fjord is somewhere along this track, but our little hire car loaded with 5 adults doesn’t seem too happy with the driving conditions. We eventually decide to turn around (Austin Powers style) and head back to the blacktop. Not that that’s any safer – Croatian drivers are… assertive.
To calm our nerves, we look for somewhere to have lunch. We find it nearby in a town called Bale. It is indeed a beautiful little walled town and billed as Croatia’s best kept secret (though Christina also found this place on Trip Advisor).
Konoba Bembo – right near the town’s carpark – is surprisingly good too. Stuffed calamari, truffle gnocchi, crumbed hake… the food in Croatia really has been superb.
It’s our last day in Croatia and we’re so sad to be leaving.
Ater our second go on the zipline in Pazin, we take one of the guides’ recommendation and head to a nearby town of Beram and a restaurant called Konoba Vela Vrata. This place is absolutely beautiful and though we don’t get a chance to look round town too much, we can tell Beram is another place we’ll have to come back to a pay it the attention it deserves.
At this point, we leave my brother to drive back down to Pula to catch his return flight while we make our way back to Trieste for ours.
Well done, Croatia. You’ve proved your point and we can’t wait to come back.
If you’re ever in any doubt whether Croatia is a good option for a holiday, you can take our guarantee that you’ll have an incredible time here.
Have you ever been to Croatia? Where did you go? Tell us all about it!