Double the Charm, Half the Price in Undiscovered Croatia

A few years ago, I would’ve lumped Croatia in with Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, and Slovenia—eastern European countries with recent Soviet pasts and struggles for independence. There was a certain stony austereness that came to mind.

But I’ll happily admit I’ve never been more wrong about a place than Croatia. And the more I explore this country, the more enigmatic it becomes…

With over 1,100 miles of coastline along the eastern Adriatic, and an archipelago of thousands of islands (1,246, to be exact), Croatia feels entirely Mediterranean. Old, cobbled roads bake under the ever-glowing sun; locals ooze a sense of peace with their place in the world.

But Croatia is much more than its coastline. It slingshots around Bosnia and Herzegovina and taunts its landlocked neighbors, Hungary and Serbia, by claiming ample lush inland to complement its sweeping coast.

Sitting across the Adriatic Sea from Italy’s east coast, Croatia has historic maritime ties to colonial Venice, and even deeper roots in the Roman Empire (the Roman Emperor Diocletian retired in the Croatian city of Split).

After traveling for almost two years across the sunny parts of Europe, Croatia remains one of my top travel destinations. I’m an American, but I lived in the United Kingdom from 2012 to 2021. After COVID lockdowns, I was sure of only one thing: sunnier climes were calling.

After my partner Andrew (a lovely Scot I convinced to hang out with me for life) and I traveled to all the classics—Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy—we were running low on money and even lower on our EU visas. So we looked at a map, saw Croatia’s enormous coastline, looked up the upcoming weather forecast (warmer than Italy), and most importantly, the Airbnb prices (less than half the price of every place we had been thus far). We booked it!

Our first ventures were to the touristy centers, Dubrovnik, Spilt, and Zagreb. They were beaming and bustling in all their sunshiney glory. Evidently, we were not the only people that had woken up to the possibilities of Croatia.

It was during our third stint in Dubrovnik that we decided we needed to get out more. This is where Croatia got interesting. So much of the country that lies outside of the humming metropolises is spilling over with natural beauty (like the Plitvice lakes), good food (Istrian extra virgin olive oil is otherworldly), and the friendliest people (tied with the Greeks).

In January of this year, Croatia’s official currency became the euro. But housing, food, and transportation is still half the price of Italy and other major Mediterranean destinations—and it’s equally, if not more charming. Croatia off the beaten path is easily even less than half the price, and more than double the charm!

Get away from the crowds and you’ll discover that Croatia is one of the last bastions of authentic, unmarred southern Europe.

Below are three of my top picks for experiencing Croatia like a local.

Duga Resa: The Real Croatia

Between coastal and inland Croatia, the country narrows to a pinch. It’s here, a stone’s throw from Slovenia, that you’ll find the tiny but bustling village of Duga Resa. It’s characterized by lush rolling hills, farmhouses dotting the landscape, and the smell of blazing fireplaces. From above, you might even think you were in Switzerland. The population is made up of about 96% Croats, so if it’s bona fide Croatia you’re after, this is the place.

Duga Resa is a self-sufficient little village with all the expected mainstays, numerous restaurants, supermarkets, cafés, gas stations, and churches, though expect to do a lot of gesticulating as typically people do not speak English there. But locals are always happy to communicate with you using the three words of Croatian you memorized.

As a rule, when traveling to these outlying areas, Andrew and I always seek out Airbnb rooms in someone’s home, as it provides the opportunity to live among the locals… inside the bubble, so to speak. There’s so much magic inside that bubble—hidden spots, unwritten local lore, and constant access to friendly guidance.

For example, immediately upon our arrival to our Airbnb in Duga Resa, we were scooted back out the door in haste as our Airbnb host had it on good village authority that this would be the last proper day for swimming of the year. (We visited for a month in late August. Our Airbnb bill was about $1,200 total.)

So, off we went to swim. The beating heart of Duga Resa is the colossal, slow-moving river, the Mrežnica. We weren’t prepared for the idyllic scene that unfolded before us: families swimming, lovers rowing, ducks bathing. In the haze of the late summer sun, it all hit me like a forgotten memory; laughter, movement, new and old love, warmth, fresh air, good food, and clear skies.

This is the spot that all of Duga Resa orbits around. Whether it’s picnicking or fishing or grilling, on a warm day, this is where you’ll find locals and many folks from the surrounding villages as well. Deep in the pastoral landscapes of Croatia is a gentle, balmy peace impossible to find in the bustling, tourist centers.

After our swim, our host had prepared apple pies, smoked meat, cheese, olives, wine, and homemade bread for us all to share. It wasn’t unlike a scene straight out of the Tuscan countryside.

The chance to bask in a halcyon simplicity is but one offering of Duga Resa and the surrounding villages.

There are countless local festivals dotted throughout the year, markets bursting at the seams with fresh fruit, vegetables, famous homemade sour cream, all sorts of local delicacies, and smiling locals who are always pleasantly surprised to see a non-Croatian exploring Croatia beyond the obvious destinations.

Knežica: For Dubrovnik Days and Peaceful Nights

Knežica is overshadowed by its neighbor, the great fortified city of Dubrovnik—probably the most famous city in Croatia.

Knežica is just over the mountain range that frames Dubrovnik and it sits low and quiet in a cool, sun-drenched valley. It has a lively population of 148 people and is entirely residential, so if long walks and long naps in the sun are your idea of a good time, this place is for you.

We’re digital nomads, so Knežica gave us the opportunity to work from a big balcony overlooking a mountainside, which definitely beat the dark, cramped apartments of Dubrovnik.

I know Knežica simply as "Marija’s village." Marija was our Airbnb host and she made it her solemn and sacred duty to look after us (Knežica is brimming with the friendliest Croatians I’ve ever met). To stay in Knežica, you have no choice but to be "inside the bubble," as there are no hotels, restaurants, or shops. You must book one of the few Airbnbs.

This area is filled with romantic, crumbling farmhouses and a kaleidoscope of jungle sounds, as a dense, humid forest stretches from the valley to the mountain peak above. This village is for both the most hardcore isolationist travelers and those who want to marry peaceful nights with bustling days, as it’s only a 10-minute drive around the mountain Srđ (pronounced serg) to the hubbub of Dubrovnik.

Renting a car would be an ideal option, as there’s no bus service between Dubrovnik and Knežica. But we stayed for five weeks with no car and survived. We Ubered to and from town whenever we needed to. Ubers in Croatia are unbelievably cheap (about €5 [$5.35] or less to the center of Dubrovnik).

Mostly my days were filled with walks to the old farmhouse next door, laying on the old, abandoned veranda and watching the local, wild white horses graze in the overgrown gardens.

But on other days, we whisked into Dubrovnik, where we had champagne overlooking the marina, spent hours in the city’s museums, ate the best pasta of our life at Trattoria Carmen, and bought the ugliest Game of Thrones shirts I’ve ever seen. Life is about balance. Knežica makes it all possible.

The Kaštela Region: Croatia’s Most Beautiful Coastline

The Kaštela Riviera would be the crown jewel of most coastlines. But it sits like a forgotten lover next to the largest city on the Croatian coast, Split—a beautiful historic city with gleaming white marble everywhere; a lively port; and the feel of an open-air museum.

But you won’t find me there. You can find me sipping wine and sopping up cold-pressed olive oil with freshly baked bread along the endless seaside promenades of the neighboring Kaštela Riviera.

Kaštela is actually a region made up of seven towns, all of which are centered around either a fort or a castle built in the 15th or 16th century. Wineries, ancient churches, glittering beaches frequented by just a few locals, award-winning 24-hour bakeries, and dozens upon dozens of waterfront restaurants make these 10 miles of coastline a mecca for seaside splendor.

But, in true Croatian fashion, the coast is not all the Kaštela region has to offer. We stayed for over a month in the romantically named village of Kaštel Stari. Our apartment was just outside the center of town, perched on a mountain range that looked out over the Dalmatian Coast below. We were surrounded by abundant olive groves and spent our days reading in the sun to the sleepy chirp of the cicadas, swimming, and exploring nearby sites, such as the resting place of Croatia’s own star-crossed lovers, Miljenko and Dobrila.

As the legend goes, their young love was cut short by their warring Kaštela noble fathers in the 17th century. They chased each other all over Croatia and Italy to be reunited, escaping monasteries, breaking out of prison, and ultimately paying the eternal price to be together again. Their joint gravestone is in the church of St. John in Kaštel Rušinac.

These swashbuckling dramas are woven into the fabric of the Kaštela Riviera. It’s a place for lazing among the olive groves in the mountains, feeling the sea spray gently on your face as you watch rowboats bob to the rhythms of the sea outside your window, or getting lost down winding streets.

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