Only a skip across the Adriatic from the famous waterways of Venice, Croatia has every bit of the charm of its Italian cousin but plenty secrets of its own. Complete with enough breathtaking scenery to lure HBO film crews for Game of Thrones, the gem in Southeastern Europe also has a unique culture with a rich history and traditions known to captivate visitors every bit as much as the country’s apparent beauty. The closer to capturing the life of a local in Croatia, the closer you’ll be to unraveling the mysteries of both ancient and modern culture in a country that is the rival of many of the top destinations in Europe for visitors looking for an unforgettable experience.
Experiencing modern Croatia in Zagreb.
Croatia’s capital and largest city has more than enough charm to make up for the lack of beaches and water views, which tend to be driving factors for visitors to Split and Dubrovnik. With terrific architecture, unique attractions (like the Museum of Broken Relationships), and plenty of opportunities to see both the old and new Croatia, Zagreb is a terrific place to get a feel for what everyday life is like for Croatians.
One place that is never too light on the foot traffic is Tkalciceva Street, a pedestrian-only pathway loaded with colorful buildings, outdoor restaurants/cafes, and boutique shops that draw in both locals and tourists alike. Formerly a red-light district (until WWII), Tkalciceva was once a creek before it was filled in with gravel and eventually paved, making it a city center that routinely boasts talented street musicians and families spending an afternoon on the town. It’s also a great spot for sipping coffee or locally made (and relatively inexpensive) Croatian craft beers, which have become extremely popular around the country over the last decade.
In the offseason, you’ll find plenty of locals gathering at hubs like the Zagreb 360-degree observation deck in the famous Ban Jelačić Square, where you can experience astounding, panoramic views of the red-roof dominated cityscape. The same goes for sites like Maksimir Park, where you can find a very tranquil scene of forest trails and ponds that are particularly great to explore in the early spring or late fall—when the weather is still mild, but it’s away from the peak of tourist season. For a genuine Croatian experience, slip through town in the electric tram and work on your Croatian linguistic basics, like hvala vam (thank you) and oprosti (excuse me).
Also consider: Zagreb is a very happening place for music, particularly within the indie-rock world. The midsummer INmusic Festival at Lake Juran tends to be a clear highlight of a city that has become very well-known for major concerts and festivals, and it regularly boasts famous bands/musicians like Arcade Fire, Kings of Leon, Alt-J, and more.
The international flavor of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival.
Travelers aren’t the only ones who turn up for the internationally famous Dubrovnik Summer Festival, one of the most eclectic collections of artistic expression you’ll ever find in one place. From mid-July to late-August in the gorgeous southern city on the Adriatic, Croatians relish in the opportunity to see their city transformed into a stunning collaboration of different art forms at the peak of the summer. Not every summer festival can boast legendary actors Daniel Day-Lewis and Judi Dench starring in a rendition of Hamlet, but such is the prestige of one of the most popular events in the country. More than just plays, there are world-class opera and ballet productions along with a wide range of musical concerts, which seamlessly merge with a host of other events to make it one of the most distinguished summer festivals in Europe.
But even though it’s a definite international draw that brings in artists from all over the world, the festival’s producers ensure an authentic Croatian experience that promotes longstanding ideals and traditions. Once a dominant maritime power, Dubrovnik has brought together a variety of different cultures since medieval days, and the festival continues to promote the diversity as a fundamental part of the Dubrovnik experience. Founded in the 50s, the festival has continuously grown and has become a fantastic way for visitors to mingle with Croatians from all over the country, creating a unique and lively atmosphere that is often seen as one of the fundamental experiences of visiting Croatia.
Spend a winter in Split.
The second-largest city in Croatia, Split also enjoys a reputation for being a seaside beauty, making it a natural gathering point for expats from around the world. In the spring, summer and (early fall), you can expect a massive international population as visitors enjoy the Mediterranean climate and plethora of things to do, from stunning coastal boat cruises and winery visits to inspecting the standing palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian. Once ruled by the Romans and later by the Venetian maritime empire, Split is an eternal port city that pops to life with visitors when the weather heats up, which is a tradition that goes back more than a millennium.
Then the winter comes, and any visitors remaining get a real opportunity to see how the locals do it in Split. With average highs in the low-50s (F), the winters are indeed on the mild side, which means that the city remains exceptionally active, with sidewalk cafes and pubs typically bustling with locals whenever the sunshine is out. At places like Marjan Forest Park, which hovers high above the coastline, families tend to be out walking dogs and playing with their kids—all while enjoying the limited number of international visitors that tend to pile up during the peak parts of the year. The viewing platform also yields radiant views of the city, harbor, and Adriatic coast.
Although snow isn’t all that common, a light dusting does happen every now and again, coating the rows of palm trees along the harbor to provide a photographic gift that typically isn’t seen by many tourists. Even with the cooler temperatures, the harbor remains an energetic hot spot throughout the winter, making it a great area to spend an afternoon or three wandering the waterside restaurants and shops that sit beneath the palm trees. For those who do want to enjoy some of the more popular destinations (e.g., Diocletian’s Palace or the Cathedral and Bell Tower of St. Domnius), winter visitors will also have more elbow room. Transportation and hotels in Split also tend to be considerably less expensive in the winter than the summer, which translates to more money for splurging on exceptional Croatian dining experiences and activities.
Digging into Croatian cuisine.
When you’re near the coast in places like Split or Dubrovnik, it’s not hard to see the Greek and Italian traditions that are often at the heart of the food scene – particularly when it comes to staples like seafood thanks to the prominent fishing culture. If you see any locals with (mildly) black teeth, it’s probably because they just had some crni rižot, a black risotto typically made with squid (or cuttlefish), red wine, and squid ink that is a bit of a classic in Croatia. There are plenty of other locally loved seafood favorites (e.g., buzara and brodetto), but you can also try unique pastries like a fritule, which is a version of Croatian donut that is typically served around the holidays.
Inland, you can expect flavors that more closely resemble the traditions of central European countries or other close neighbors like Hungary and Turkey, with plenty of hearty dishes featuring potatoes, cabbage, and root veggies. Cooked directly over burning embers in a terracotta, peka is a popular dish in places like Zagreb and around the rest of Croatia, with variations using lamb, octopus, chicken, or veal depending on the restaurant. For those with a sweet-tooth, the Zagorski Štrukli is a classic Croatian pastry that was even designated a dish of major cultural significance by the Ministry of Culture. A delicious combination of dough and a mostly cheese-based filling, the Zagorski Štrukli evolved from a similar Slovenian dish, but the Hrvatsko Zagorje and Zagreb regions have made it uniquely Croatian.
Fitting for a nation that has long celebrated the act of creating their versions of traditions from around the world, the food scene in Croatia is diverse and loaded with opportunities for those with a wide variety of pallets.
Also consider: The Spancirfest music and street-food festival in Varazdin can easily be reached by train or bus from Zagreb and features food from some of the best restaurants in the country as well as favorite bands from around the world.
Traveling to Croatia during the peak summer season will undoubtedly yield a fantastic experience (especially if you go for events like the Dubrovnik Summer Festival), although those who prioritize living as the locals do might want to consider the rest of the calendar as well. For coastal towns and cities, the winter can be the perfect option to allow a closer look at Croatian culture, and it never hurts that accommodations will be considerably less expensive. As for inland cities like Zagreb, the dead of winter is still an excellent option for those who don’t mind a true winter atmosphere. The slightly warmer months of March and October are also good times that can help you miss the coldest weather and biggest crowds while providing a more significant opportunity to slip into the everyday lives of Croatians.