“Croatia is definitely on the map,” says Mutic, the coordinating author of the 6th edition of Lonely Planet Croatia.
But the good news is you can still get away from the throngs on the coast by avoiding over-touristed destinations like Dubrovnik, and can experience Croatia’s urban side by visiting its lesser known Continental cities.
Here, Mutic, who also has written for The Washington Post and ShermansTravel, offers tips for finding the real Croatia.
Bargain Days Are Over Although Croatia is not the priciest destination in Europe, it isn’t the budget spot many people think, either.
One of Mutic’s favorite ways to save is to rent an apartment –– ideally with a sea view –– instead of booking a hotel.
“It’s not necessarily an exclusive, pricey destination, but often I find myself sitting down for a cup of coffee along the coast, and I pay as much as I would in New York,” Mutic says. “There are deals to be found, but you have to know where to find them.”
Be Continental Before or after heading to the beach, check out Mutic’s hometown of Zagreb, the country’s capital, or another inland city, for a much different vibe.
“Zagreb is like Vienna –– it’s very compact and very Austro-Hungarian,” Mutic says. “It’s a real central European city. It’s great.”
Dubrovnik vs. Split The walled city of Dubrovnik may be your idea of the perfect Mediterranean seaport, but unless your trip is way off-season, consider the earthier Split as an alternative.
“Dubrovnik is a beautiful city, but starting in spring until pretty late in the fall, it’s just overrun,” Mutic says. “It’s great for people who need to check it off their bucket list. But if you want to see a city that’s a little different and not as overrun, I would say go to Split, which is a real Mediterranean city.”
Find your island in the stream The city of Rijeka makes for a convenient jumping off point to a series of islands in the Kvarner Bay on the northern Adriatic coast.
“The region is great: It has islands that are off the beaten path and a foodie mecca that’s close to the city, a fishing village called Volosko with amazing restaurants,” Mutic says.
“My favorite island is called Cres –– it’s a magical place, where you have almost semi-abandoned hamlets on hilltops. You can trek down to beaches that are totally isolated, and it has primeval forests, where you expect an elf to jump out.
Go off the tourist map If you’re looking to pair Zagreb and Split with a less-visited site, consider the Istrian capital of Pula, which has a Roman amphitheater and many examples of ancient architecture.
Istria’s interior, meanwhile, features medieval towns, such as Motovun and Groznjan, that are less than a half hour from the coast and comprise a kind of “mini-Tuscany” of Croatia.
Or you might want to check out Slavonia, a region in Eastern Croatia, where you can stay on a farm, visit grand castles and go wine tasting –– all while experiencing the country’s Hungarian-influenced food and culture.
“It’s just a whole different world there,” Mutic says. “It’s interesting to see something people don’t associate with Croatia.”