Balkan Adventure Croatia Road Trip

Dream Road Trip Croatia

Beach bar near Jelsa, Hvar
Written by Kirstie

Dream Road Trip Croatia

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Fancy a road trip along a sun splashed, white washed, wave drenched coast that offers, family fun by the bucket full, value for money and lilos for all shapes and sizes? Then you’ll enjoy this Road Trip Croatia Adventure Ideas post. It’s a a brilliant mini Balkan adventure, taking in Southern Croatia’s coastal highlights of Split, Dubrovnik, an enchanting Dalmatian island and a couple of dreamy small seaside towns…

Wind down the windows

Have you ever dreamed of a sunny family road trip, blasting along a stunning coast road with windows down and wind in your hair? Hopping between scented islands, spoilt for choice when it comes to beaches and with a couple of classic family sized cities to explore? Well I think I’ve lived that dream in Southern Croatia. We went there to do some serious cycle touring but also ended up exploring a chunk of the Southern Croatian coast and islands by car and were surprised by just how much is on offer there, without long days in the car or big bills.

Croatian Beach in Gradac, Makarska Riviera

Typical Croatian Beach, Gradac, Southern Makarska Riviera

Road trip Croatia – appeal beyond the wheel

Croatia is in real life much like it is in the brochures. Unlike some European coastal destinations the Croatian coast has managed to avoid the plague of seaside drags of tower blocks and mass tourism. Instead, little picturesque bays are lined with independent villas and apartments, and while the beaches can be crowded in peak season, they don’t tend to be carved up by hotel chains. Croatia also has a great diversity of landscape, a vibrant island life, and an interesting, if shocking, recent history.

We took our own car and drove in from Slovenia as part of a much bigger European adventure, but Croatia is well served by budget airlines and you can get great deals on flights to Zadar, a great starting point for a Southern Croatia road trip. Car hire in Croatia is great value too, with plenty of low cost deals available for small and budget vehicles. If you’re going for the dream road trip you could always splash out and rent a BMW, 4WD or open top saloon.  Anyway, from Zadar it’s a couple of hours coastal driving to Split, a fine city from which to start exploring the Southern part of Croatia.

Tourist Boat arriving on Island of Hvar

One of the many tourist boats visiting the island of Hvar

Split – the Palace that’s a City

Split is famous for the UNESCO World Heritage listed Diocletian’s Palace. It’s a Roman wonder – but it’s not like a palace, so don’t go expecting Disney. It’s more like a bustling hub of tourists and locals; some hurrying by and others relaxing. Built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in the fourth century AD, the palace is pedestrianised and free to enter although individual museums levy a charge.

If you prefer shopping to culture, then you’ll be pleased to know that a whole part of the ancient building is reserved for quirky stalls and stands. You’ll probably spend most of your time in Split within the walls of the Palace but if it’s hot then you may want to cool off at the sea front. Not by diving in; it’s too busy with excursion boats and cruisers. But by having a cold drink and an ice cream with a sea view. And then, if you’ve had enough of walking you can always hop on the tourist train.

Staring at the Statue in Split Old Town

No cars in the Diocletian Palace but there’s plenty to entertain visitors.

Hvar – a Dalmatian island paradise

When you’re all done at the Diocletian’s Palace you can be at the car ferry for Hvar within minutes. The longest of the Dalmatian islands (68 kilometres in length) it is likely to rate amongst the most gorgeous island paradises you will ever visit. Perfumed with lavender and studded with pretty beaches, it is made for wheels. But if you fancy ditching the car and island hopping, you can buy a ticket for one of the party pirate boats which stop at several of the Dalmatian islands off the Croatian coast, leaving enough time in each place for a mooch around, a swim, a shop or an ice cream. You’ll be doing much of the same on a leisurely drive around Hvar. Across the island there are many roadside stalls selling honey or olive oil direct from the producer; great for souvenirs and presents.

Don’t miss Stari Grad, the oldest place on the island, with its former ‘cathedral’ St Stephens. You’ll need to leave the car to explore the town and its tiny alleys. Make sure you wander down to the harbour and grab a pizza in one of the cafes that line it. And for a night vibe move on to Jelsa where everyone goes out promenading.

Stari Grad, Hvar

Outside St Stephens in Stari Grad, on Hvar.

Back to the Makarska Riviera

If you start at the western end of Hvar and head east, you’ll eventually come to Sucuraj where you can catch a car ferry back to Drvenik on the mainland to pick up the coast road heading south towards Dubrovnik. You join the coast road at the southern end of the Makarska Riviera and heading south there are many fine places along the way to pause, chill out and take the waters or have a coffee; we found two little towns north and south of Dubrovnik that we think are particularly worth a visit; Slano and Cavtat.

Views out from the Southern Makarska Riviera

Views out from the Southern Makarska Riviera

Slano – chill zone

About 37 kilometres northwest of Dubrovnik is Slano, a pretty seaside village strangely dominated by a gated five star hotel. If you can afford to stay there then you can enter its massive gates, but we preferred to hang out with the locals in the little cafes and bars and there’s plenty of low cost private apartment style accommodation in the town too. There’s plenty to please the eye in Slano including a little Franciscan church and a series of gardens lining the prom. Bring a snorkel and relax by the crystal waters. Or rent a kayak, boat or even a jet ski from one of the local operators. There’s not very much here to take up your time but that’s part of the charm.

Looking out to the bay in Slano, Croatia

Looking out to the bay in Slano, Croatia

Cavtat – Dubrovnik in miniature?

A shorter detour from Dubrovnik, this time 17km south of the city, (about half an hours drive) is the harbour town of Cavtat. This is much bigger and buzzier than Slano. One of the joys of hanging out here is watching the super rich come in and out on their yachts. Unsurprisingly there are snazzy fish restaurants to feed them, complete with outdoor terraces, white linen and silverware, but there are also some affordable beach side cafes for the likes of you and me. But it’s not all beach life. Cavtat has a surprising amount of art and culture. So much so that some call it Dubrovnik in miniature. Galleries and the local church hold the works of local celebrated painter Bukovak and the C16th Rector’s Palace has a number of goodies too. One unmissable attraction is the Racic Mausoleum, a marble white dome on a hill. Some might call it a folly; others a grand day out.

Cavtat, Croatia Image http://www.flickr.com/photos/binderdonedat/8129585792/ by nider.donedat http://www.flickr.com/photos/binderdonedat/

Cavtat, Croatia. Some say it is Dubrovnik writ small. Image by binder.donedat

Dubrovnik – Jewel of the Adriatic

Of course the highlight of any Southern Croatia trip is a visit to Dubrovnik – one of the best walled cities in the world, the ‘pearl of the Adriatic’ and another UNESCO World Heritage Site. You can happily lose a few days in its churches and myriad museums. In fact it’s very hard to choose from the massive collection. But without a doubt you have to ‘do the wall.’ A two kilometre walk around the 13th century battlements will give you endless views both into the Old Town and out to sea. It may be sobering but we also recommend War Photo Limited; a gallery spotlighting war zones around the world and in the Balkans.

The Duvbrovnik cable car is a fun excursion; although you should go early or late to avoid huge queues. It’ll take you high above the city up to Mount Srdj for that classic photo. If there aren’t many crowds around then you could try and get a table in the outdoor terrace bar for a chilled glass of wine or a freshly squeezed lemonade. Or if that’s too busy or expensive for you, you can visit the Imperial Fortress.

Dubrovnik Cable Car

Dubrovnik Cable Car. You’ve got to go up to the “the view”

Have you ever kayaked an old town? No I don’t mean kayaked through it, although there was enough rain on the day we went to be able to do that. You can actually paddle around the whole of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, in boats rented by Adventure Dubrovnik and other operators. Nobble one of the guys and gals standing outside the Pile gate holding kayak paddles or drop down to the little beach next to the gate and you’ll find them there.

ou’ll want to ditch your car whilst in the Old Town as it is pedestrianized. Off season it’s possible to park near to the old town, though in peak time you will struggle to find a space. Leave it at your hotel or park further down the sea front near to where the cruise ships dock and grab a bus in. You can buy bus tickets at the little booths near the bus stops.

Dubrovnik at Sunset from Coast Road

Dubrovnik at Sunset from the coast road

Return via Mostar

Of course heading back you could retrace your steps, calling at some other towns or islands, but for something quite different why not consider a side trip to Mostar in Bosnia. It’s about 140 kilometres from Dubrovnik and takes about two hours by car. If you’re in a rental vehicle you’ll need to check your car hire company allows you to take it into Bosnia. If you’re in your own car you’ll need to check your insurance will cover you, although you can buy green card insurance at the border if needed. We cycled there on on quiet roads, following the banks of the Neretva river. Mostar’s Old Town is much smaller and very different to Dubrovnik but I found it quite enchanting with it’s ancient stone heart, minarets and the divers leaping from the iconic bridge.

Stari Most Mostar at night

Mostar is an interesting Bosnian diversion. Stari Most at night

Practical stuff on driving in Croatia

In July 2013 Croatia became part of the EU making things easier for EU visitors as regards insurance, entry requirements and taking vehicles in and out. Check with your insurer but we found Croatia to be part of our car insurer’s EU Green Card scheme, requiring no additional 3rd party insurance. If you are planning to visit Bosnia, you will need to check you have appropriate cover in place with your vehicle and travel insurers. Travelling through southern Croatia on the route we have described does require you to pass through a section of Bosnian territory so you will need relevant vehicle and personal paperwork, documentation and insurance for this. We were able to buy vehicle green card cover at the Bosnian border; the price depends on vehicle type and how long you are staying for. A good source for travel information for UK citizens is the FCO.

Crossing the border to Bosnia

Crossing the border to Bosnia. Make sure your papers are in order.

Some tips for driving in Croatia

  • Be prepared for heat in season; get a car with air con or rent that open top!
  • Drivers can be aggressive and risk taking, especially when overtaking  – be careful.
  • Much of Dubrovnik is one way and you may have to circle the city to get to a destination one block away.
  • There are road tolls for Croatia (and Bosnia) so have coins ready, although you can usually pay by credit card. You won’t need to buy a vignette in advance.
  • If you are hiring a car book it online before you travel as you’ll get a better deal. You need to prebook in summer as demand outstrips supply. Think about booking now if you are planning to travel this summer. If you are hiring a car in Italy then check they give you the correct rental agreement that allows for crossing into Croatia.
  • Remember to get permission from your rental firm or own car insurers if you want to detour into another country like Bosnia.
Olive oil for sale on Hvar

Honey, olive oil and lavender for sale at the roadside on Hvar

Tips for staying and eating

  • There’s lots of apartment accommodation; off season you should be able to pick and choose. We rented apartments in Mostar, Dubrovnik and Split through Airbnb.
  • Beaches are stony but the water’s lovely. In peak season they can also be very busy.
  • The tap water is drinkable.
  • We found Croatia on the whole to be good value for money but Dubrovnik expensive. Not just within the city walls but all around the perimeter. Bring your own picnic or eat at least a couple of kilometres from the Old Town. Bring water as that’s expensive too.
The route between Split and Dubrovnik

The busy main coast road runs between Split and Dubrovnik

Note: This post is brought to you thanks in part to support from CarHireMarket. The on the ground research, views, opinions, ideas and experience remain, as ever, entirely our own. 

About the author

Kirstie

Kirstie is the Editor of The Family Adventure Project. A professional writer and poet, she's the creative and journalistic force behind many of the stories and features published here. She's a co-founder and co-director of The Family Adventure Project and also works as the #poetinmotion producing and performing poetry for print, video and live performance.

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