Traveling during a pandemic can be problematic to say the least. Traveling to more than one country with the world’s ever-changing Covid restrictions lifting and tightening on any given day, takes a certain amount of patience and fortitude.
Croatia required a negative Covid test within 72 hours of arrival. Taking into account a long plane flight where a day is added in transit, we decided to get our test at the SFO airport the day prior to departing. The website said “free test” with results in one hour. Waiting in a line just to get to the counter took over an hour. The young lady took our test and presented a bill for $199 each with instructions to file a claim with our insurance. After another hour of waiting, we had our negative results.
TIP: For those that plan to drive and park for flights out of SFO, we found that Way.com had great rates for Park and Fly at the Courtyard by Marriott. It was only $147 for 18 days of travel, plus the Courtyard is clean, comfortable and has free shuttle service to the airport. We have a 2-hour drive (minimum/no traffic) to the SF Airport and we've found it is a great stress reducer to get a hotel room one day prior, regardless of what time the flight departs.
Forms needed for check in to KLM Airlines: Passport, Vaccination Card, Negative Covid certification, and Passenger Locator Form. Entry into Croatia also required evidence of our paid accommodations. Our flight time to Zagreb, Croatia, including a 2-hour layover in Amsterdam was 12 hrs and 20 min; followed by a 1 hr 50 min flight to Zagreb. It's a long time to wear a N95 mask!
Our KLM flight from SFO to Amsterdam was on time and mostly empty but our Amsterdam/Zagreb leg was on a much smaller plane and fairly packed. On both flights I felt that people were respectful and mask compliant.
Tip: Click on the photos to enlarge them (recommended!) All photos taken by Seguras.
Not so rapid in the Rapid Antigen Test line; lots of room on KLM; airplane food - it is what it is!
General Croatia Information
While the majority of Europe uses the Euro, Croatia's currency is the Kuna and we arrived with both currencies to cover any vendors that did not accept credit cards. I made a point of paying (with lenient cancellation policies) for hotels, rental car, tours etc. in advance. I kept the confirmations in my email and carried paper copies as a back up. We used cash for small eateries, gift stores, gasoline and tips. Exchange rates vary daily and during the time we traveled $100 USD converted to 638 Kuna and 87 Euro. It was advised that if you need more cash be sure to use the ATMs at one of their main banks, i.e. Zagrebacka, Privredna OTP, Erste or Adikko.
Driving was easy - Motorists drive on the right and pass on the left, just like the US. Roads were excellent. GPS worked fine.
We used Auto Europe, a broker that works with travel agents and rented our car with Unirent. I specifically used a car rental agency that let me pay the drop charge (Pick up Zagreb/Drop off Dubrovnik) in advance. They attempted to charge us the drop charge when we returned the car (a frequent problem), but I had the paperwork showing the prepayment. Note that automatic transmissions are hard to come by and are far more expensive to rent if you can get one.
We did not have any issues communicating as most store and restaurant personnel spoke at least some English and everyone is good at pointing. Everyone we met was friendly.
We traveled during mid to late September and had great weather with fewer crowds.
Downtown Zagreb was only 20 minutes from the airport and an easy drive. Our Airbnb flat, a two-story, walk-up, was just a 10-minute jaunt to the historical center.
Easy to navigate highways; tight squeeze into apartment parking lot; nicely appointed flat; three floors up, but Dario met us on arrival and helped carry our luggage; afternoon walk into town on a Sunday.
We like to start our travels in new places with a comprehensive city tour by a knowledgeable local guide. Our Airbnb host, Dario, turned out to be a certified guide and he only charged $50 pp for a private, two-hour tour. He turned out to be excellent – friendly, personable and very knowledgeable about the history of Croatia and the city of Zagreb. Clearly wanting to share as much as he could about his prized city, our tour stretched from 2 to 4 hours (6 miles/15,500 steps). Zagreb, Croatia’s capitol and one of the oldest cities in Europe, dates back to 1094. Its architecture is Astro-Hungarian. “Lower Town” is divided from “Upper Town” by one of the shortest funiculars in the world, a mere 66 meters and 60 second ride between the two. We saw all the main attractions (except museums) on our 4- hour tour and returned the next day to wander about at leisure.
3-D Metal Map of Zagreb; the historic Grič Tunnels built in 1943 to protect citizens from the bombings; 13th Century St. Mark's Church in Upper Town and the twin spirals of Zagreb Cathedral (the 2nd tallest building in Croatia) from Upper Town.
From left to right: The main square in Zagreb, Ban Jelačić Square, floral deliveries; tram from Lower Town to Upper Town and view of the city; resting man rock formation - Upper Town; golden angel on St. Mary's column, Zagreb Square; the Art Pavilion and gardens; Zrinjevac Park and the colorful fountains in the evening at the Art Pavilion.
Tip: Zagreb is a natural entry point to Croatia. We felt that we saw most of what there was to see in a day, and probably didn’t need the second day. Given what was to come, I think we would have left Zagreb one day earlier and spent the night outside of Plivice Lakes.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice National Park was on the way to our next destination, Split, and about a 2 -hour drive from Zagreb. I booked our park reservations in advance for 9 am, 1 hour after the park opened. Bloggers suggested getting to the park early to avoid the massive crowds that clog the trails by 10:00 am.
We did not want THIS.
To be on the safe-side, we left Zagreb at 6:30 am. It’s an easy drive but were slowed by a wrong turn exiting Zagreb (be sure to turn off the ‘no toll roads’ from your GPS) and then by slower traffic on the two-way highway. By purchasing our tickets online, we avoided the line to pay, but there is a timeframe by which you have to enter the park. For an 8 :00 am ticket, you need to enter no more than 15 minutes prior or up to 1 hour after your reservation time. We arrived at 8:55 am, lucked out with a close parking spot and hoofed it to the check-in, arriving at 9:05 am. Luckily, there was a grace period!
Tip: There are three hotels in Plitvice National Park – The Jezero, Hotel Bellevue and Plitvice Hotel. Other accommodations can be found just outside the park in Plitvica Selo. Staying this close would allow for a more leisurely morning and being able to arrive at the park at opening.
If you go anywhere in Croatia, this is the one place that should be on your not-to-be-missed list. As it was off-season (and Covid), we didn’t encounter the crowds that most complain about. We’ve been to many beautiful places in the world, but nothing to compare with the miles of beauty we found at Plitvice. There are several trails throughout the park and 2 entrances. Advice was mixed on which entrance was the best, but we opted for Entrance 1 which worked out best for following trail, "C," which takes you in a wide circle past all of the major waterfalls. The admission (500 kuna/$78 USD for 2) includes a ferry across the lake and the tram between the parking lots. It took us about 4 1/2 hours from start to finish with little breaks and clocked over 5 miles (14,400 steps) through pools of turquoise water, stunning waterfalls, and lush greenery.
Note: The lakes continuously change color according to the amount of minerals or organisms, as well as the angle of sunlight. The ingredient causing the water to turn blue or green is calcium carbonate from limestone rocks.
If our feet and time would have allowed, we could have stayed longer, but from Plitvice Lakes to Split was about a 3-hour drive and we wanted to be sure to arrive before dark. The highway between Plitvice and Split was in good shape with beautiful vistas and numerous tunnels. We encountered virtually no traffic along the way.
Our Split accommodation was at the base of Marjan Hill. I had read the sunset from Marjan Hill was a not-to-be-missed, so we strode uphill about a quarter mile and encountered the restaurant where we would eat all of our dinners during our stay. Teraca Vidilica is only open between May – October and the view, spectacular. The food was good and we enjoyed getting to know our waiter, Alan.
Watching the sun go down from the terrace at Teraca Vidilica with a glass of wine in hand was a great way to end a very long day.
A quaint, narrow walkway and less than a mile, connected our AirBnb to Old Town and Diocletian’s Palace. We stopped for breakfast along the way at Ćiri Biri Bela Restaurant, a cute outdoor eatery with delicious Croatian and American food. Ćiri Biri Bela is also a hostel, should you be so inclined.
Early morning stroll down narrow lanes, past a local theater to our breakfast location at Ćiri Biri Bela, which served breakfast, lunch and vegan friendly options.
We met our AirBnB guide, Filip, at 10am for a 1 1/2-hour private tour of Diocletian’s Palace. The Palace was built about 305 AD and is one of the best-preserved monuments of Roman architecture in the world. Filip turned out to be an excellent guide – friendly, knowledgeable and passionate about history. We toured the palace, Peristil Square, Cardo, Vestibul, Pjaca and much more, plus several sites used in the filming of Game of Thrones. 3 miles and 13,000 steps later, our tour turned from two to three before we knew it.
The following morning, we decided to take an early drive to Klis Fortress. Just under 8 miles from Split, this turned out to be an unexpected highlight as the Fortress was deserted and the view of Split, spectacular.
Klis Fortress is a 2000 year-old, medieval fortress situated between two mountains, the Kozjak and Mosor. Game of Throne fans will recognize this location as the city of Meereen. They are currently building a museum that will house the 1000-year-old artifacts as well as paraphernalia from the Game of Thrones movie set.
The royal seat of many Dalmatian, Roman and Croatian Kings starting from the 9th Century, Klis Fortress was a major source of defense in Dalmatia, especially against the Ottoman advance. We couldn't have asked for a nicer day to explore the ruins on our own. I wonder if those early soldiers appreciated the million-dollar view!
From Klis we drove the short distance to Trogir. I used an online suggestion that turned out to be a great place to park, just outside the bridge that crosses to Trogir Island. A UNESCO World Heritage site, expectations were high based on what I’d read. It's very tiny, you can cross end-to-end in about 15 minutes, but I found it to be a little bit of a disappointment, mostly due to the massive amount of commercialism for tourists that permeated every nook and alley. We had lunch and stayed just long enough to traverse the island and take a few pictures.
Tip: If driving and parking near Trogir, park here (use GPS): Put Muline 1, 21220, Trogir, Croatia – A little farther walk but cheaper/hr and not that much farther to town – 5 kuna/hr (.78) or 80 kuna ($12.50 for day) NOTE: Pay at the paybox and note that it only takes kuna coins.
The cobblestone, narrow alleys in Old Town; fortress Kamerlengo (the view from the top is supposed to be very nice, but we did not go up); lots of vendor stalls; walking along the waterfront and the cool interior of Restoran Tragos.
After spending so much time at Plitvice Lakes, we opted to not visit Krka National Park which is only about 1 ½ drive from Split. Split could have easily used an extra day to visit Krka or the island of Hvar, another popular island.
It was another beautiful drive on pristine highways from Split to Dubrovnik; about 3 ½ hours. Currently you pass through the country of Bosnia/Hergovnia as their country’s border splits Croatia, giving them access to the sea. We had no delay and were not asked to show excessive paperwork at the border crossings, although we heard that at certain times of the day the traffic can back up causing hour-long delays. Croatia is building a bridge, due to be completed by June 2022, that will connect Croatia and bypass the border crossing.
Lots of tunnels, state-of-the-art highway and beautiful scenery between Split and Dubrovnik. Travel time about 3 1/2 hours with few stops.
Although we planned to keep our car throughout our 4-day stay in Dubrovnik, we decided to return it on arrival at the advice of our Airbnb host. Parking is problematic at best and he assured us that public transportation would take us anywhere we wanted to go. We had a very nice, 2-bedroom, 2 bath with a spectacular view of the harbor from our private balcony in Gruz. The apartment was up a hill and 4 flights up, making coming and going a challenge after a long day of walking. The majority of things to see in Dubrovnik were in Old City, about a 2-mile walk. After walking it the first day, we opted to take the city bus both directions which was convenient and very affordable.
Arrival into Dubrovnik; our apartment in Gruz with a beautiful view of the harbor; an overview map of Dubrovnik showing where we stayed and where we might want to stay next time; map of Old Town; morning view from our balcony; walking along the harbor and how we got to Old Town after walking it the first time.
Pictures from our 2-mile walk from Gruz to Old Town. It's a lovely walk, but since you need to spend your day walking once you get to Old Town, we felt it best to save our feet on the coming and going!
We had 4 days to spend in Dubrovnik rather than the 3 we had in Zagreb and Split. After spending time in Old Town on our own, we decided to take the bus back, rest our feet and do our guided city tour of Old City late in the day which turned out to be a great time to go. Less crowds, cooler weather and watching the lights of the city come on in the early evening made for a very enjoyable tour. We met our third great Airbnb guide, Krisimer, outside the city walls at 5:00 pm and again, enjoyed more time than we paid for.
Scenes from our unescorted time in Old Town. It was not crowded during the day, we expect, due to being off-season and again, Covid. Old Town is a haven for cats. They are rescued, spayed and neutered, then returned to the streets where they seem quite content to make themselves at home.
Dubrovnik's Old Town is known as one of the world’s finest and most perfectly preserved medieval cities in the world. Its massive stone walls, built between the 11th and 17th centuries, surround Dubrovnik’s city center. Dubrovnik’s Baroque churches, monasteries, palaces and Renaissance fountains and facades, are all networked with wide marble-paved squares, cobble stone streets and houses, all of which have remained unchanged for centuries. After more than 3 hours of fact-filled history, Krisimer left us at the city gates and we found an outdoor eatery to enjoy before taking the bus back to our apartment.
A professional guide like Krisimer can really bring history to life and show you things you never would have noticed. I've included pictures of stairs because they are frequent and often steep. We got quite a work out wandering through 1000 years of history.
A few more random photos of Old Town, Dubrovnik
N95 masks are a must in crowded areas; just another Dubrovnik cat making itself at home, the water from Onifrio's fountain was some of the best we've ever tasted; relief on a monument from 1893 of poet Ivan Gundulic; close-up of the Dubrovnik Bell Tower and one of two bronze automatons that strike the bell on the hour; dinner on the plaza.
The next day, I chartered a small boat to take us on an excursion to some of the Elaphiti Islands. We could see the pick-up point from our balcony across the harbor, but the only way to get there without a boat was to walk a mile around the harbor to the other side. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an overcast with light rain kind of day, but undaunted we set out with our boat captain, a nice young man named, Maroje. Our first stop was the island of Koločep, a small inhabited island (just under 160 residents) with a rugged coastline. Maroje let us off at the dock and stayed on the boat while we explored. The entire island is just 1.1 sq. miles and there are no roads. A daily ferry connects the residents and tourists with the mainland.
Our tour continued around the island, stopping at Three Caves and the Blue Cave for snorkeling. Again, cooler weather and overcast skies made it chilly for snorkeling and the water was COLD (very). I didn't want to miss this opportunity so I did go in twice, but couldn't stay in very long. My husband braved the cold for longer and was able to get a few underwater pictures, but even he had to get out after just a short time.
Our final stop was on Lopud Island. We had some miscommunication with our host as we’d hoped to wander and have lunch at leisure but were talked into accepting a ‘reserved’ table at what we were told was a “mom and pop” restaurant. Because we were given a set time for lunch, we were not able to visit Šunj Bay (apparently a highlight of the island) and mom and pop must be doing well because our meal ran $95 US! Although we had the boat for 8 hours, we opted to return early. That aside, it was fun to have the boat to ourselves and I would recommend this excursion but maybe earlier in the summer season and with a different tour operator.
Map of Lopud Island. Unfortunately we only had time to eat and walk around the southern portion of the island. There is a bike/walkway that connects to Šunj Bay which hosts a shallow, warm swimming area but we'll have to see that on our next trip. Restoran Dubrovnik was good and my husband enjoyed his Calamari (tentacles and all) but it was a little pricey. Great view of the Franjo Tuđman Bridge on our return to port.
We spent our final day walking through Old City and getting our Covid test for entry into Italy. We used Marin Med. Very easy to register and book an appointment online for approximately $23.50 pp for an Antigen test. We arrived earlier than our appointed time, but we did not have to wait and received our negative paperwork by email just 20 minutes later.
Our flight, via Croatia Airlines, departed at 8:30 am and we were advised to get their 2 hours in advance. The airlines counters did not open until 7:00 am and at 6:30 in the morning we could not find anyone who spoke English and consequently we waited our 1/2 hour in the wrong line. That said, Dubrovnik airport is very small and easy to navigate. The flight to our next stop, Rome, was on a prop plane and took about 1 ½ hours.
Croatia by the numbers
4 cities, Zagreb, Split, Trogir and Dubrovnik
3 guided tours and 1 boat charter
5 UNESCO World Heritage sites (plus 1 that should be): Plitvice Lakes, Old City Dubrovnik, Diocletian's Palace, Historical Complex - Split, Historical city of Trogir, Klis Fortress
Missed Opportunity - Krka National Park from Split
Least favorite excursion - Elaphiti three-island boat tour
Averaged 14, 333 steps per day (Approximate 6 miles per day)
Inordinate amount of stairs climbed!
Looking back on information I'd read about the length of time in each city was accurate, however it doesn't take into account any down time. Having 1 extra day to rest or revisit a favorite place would have been opportune.
Jet lag is real, so starting a city tour in the morning on our 1st day after traveling probably wasn't ideal.
You can see most of the major sites in Zagreb in one day, unless you like to visit museums. They have a lot of them; several art and historic museums, plus the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Zagreb 80s museum and the Tesla Technical Museum, just to name a few.
The roads are great and easy to navigate so I would not hesitate driving from Zagreb to Dubrovnik. Most of them are Toll Roads so it's best to be prepared.
The distance from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes is only about 2 hours, but I highly recommend getting there when they open (8 or 9 am). That means leaving Zagreb quite early. Spending 1 extra night at a Plitvice Lakes hotel would have been a great idea.
It's an easy but long drive to Split from Plitvice and I recommend arriving before it gets dark. You can actually stay inside the city walls, but you have to park your car outside the walls and walk in. It's also fairly noisy to all hours. That said, it's a unique place to stay with a lively nightlife right outside your doorstep.
With no downtime to speak of, we were already bit tired by the time we got to Split and decided not to go to Krka National Park which was a missed opportunity. We also didn't ferry to any of the outer islands. Hvar comes highly rated but we didn't have a chance to get out there.
We had 4 days in Dubrovnik, but we probably could have stayed 5. We wanted to get out to Lokrum Island where Peacocks rule, and visit the botanical garden and the ruins of an old Benedictine Monastery.
Bottom line: Croatia is a lovely, easily navigable country with some truly, not-to-be-missed sites to explore. Allow a minimum of 9 - 10 days if driving from Zagreb to Dubrovnik or the reverse. You can also visit the seaside cities by boat or private yacht. Highly recommend!
I can take you there! Email me at the address noted, here!