The scene is like something out of a dream: The sea stretches for miles, piercingly blue and dotted with mountainous islands hazy in the distance. The shoreline is rocky and white, and dusty-brown mountains jut into the sky behind it. At sunset, the cities along the coast take on a faint pinkish glow as the light bounces off their terracotta rooftops.
Before I arrived in Croatia, people told me that it was one of the most beautiful places in Europe. “If you love Italy, you’ll love Croatia,” they said. “After all, the Croatian coast is where the Italians go to vacation.” Most of Croatia’s coast is along the historic Dalmatian region—a place that perfectly meshes Italian and Eastern European inspirations in architecture, food, and even language.
I based myself in Split—the second-largest city in Croatia and the hub of central Dalmatia and for only $750 a month rented a small, exposed-stone studio apartment just outside the 2,000-year-old palace built by the Roman emperor Diocletian.
Despite my love affair with Split’s sunny Riva and perfectly-preserved palace, I discovered my real passion for Dalmatia along the coasts to the south of the great city. Here the mountains creep ever closer to the sea and the crowds thin.
From Split, it’s easy to rent a car—or, for the brave among us, a motorcycle—and speed down the coastal roads with their breathtaking views, stopping to take in authentic, small-town Croatia along the way.
The islands off the coast of Split are an equally beautiful place to explore—and are easily accessible by ferry.
The largest island is Brac, home of the small fishing town of Bol, which becomes a bustling tourist mecca in the summer. Just a few miles west of Brac, its sister island, Hvar, boasts one of the oldest towns in all of Europe: walkable, cobbled Stari Grad, with its waterfront cafés, UNESCO-recognized old town, and bustling sailboat harbor.
While those large islands draw the majority of the tourism, the island that most captured my own heart was tiny, green Solta. Even in the summer, this island draws relatively few tourists. Instead, retirees and families retreat to their summer homes here to walk along the natural paths that follow the coast from the port town of Rogac, and to savor authentic local food in family-owned restaurants like Konoba Momcin Dvor, located just a couple miles from the port in the village of Grohote, where I had the best meal of my entire trip.
Because there are few tourists, the people of Solta tend to welcome them with open arms, treating visitors like family. During my own visit in the off-season, the coffee-shop owner near the port closed the shop (which was empty at the time) to drive me up the hill to a local restaurant because it was windy outside and he was concerned that I would catch a cold.
But the best part is that the sunshine, Italian-inspired architecture, and natural beauty of Dalmatia costs much less than a typical European vacation. My own month cost just over $1,300, not including plane tickets, and you could easily spend less by choosing cheaper accommodations (listings on one site start around $450 per month for a private room in a family home).