Croatia's coastal cities have become a firm favourite with sun-seeking Brits looking to explore on and offshore.
Split, the largest of them all, attracts travellers with its charming historic buildings, budding gastronomic scene and lively night life. It is also the perfect hub to explore other islands in the Adriatic sea, like the popular party island of Hvar. Here’s our guide on how to enjoy the best of both places in a week.
What to see
The Old Town of Split is a mystical place where minutes turn to hours, and for keen historians (or architecture lovers), it could be days. Cobblestone nooks and crannies in Croatia's second-largest city have a tale to tell - and interesting ones too. The most prominent monument within the walled town is Diocletian's Palace — a Roman structure built in the 4th century by the then ruler, emperor Diocletian. Venture down into the cellar to get a true sense of what architecture looked like back in the day.
Most tourists may crowd around the palace, but Split's old town is also home to several historic buildings, including one of the oldest European synagogues hidden in the then Jewish Ghetto. Take some time to appreciate and learn about the iconic sundial tower and the Iron Gate, a military gate from which troops entered the complex and the only one still in use.
Where to eat and drink
For most tourists, the gastronomic journey starts and ends on the Riva, a pedestrian street lined with cafes, bars and restaurants dishing out everything from seafood to sushi. It is truly the beating heart of Split, buzzing with young party people and families wanting to enjoy uninterrupted sea views.
If you're looking for good fish dishes with a waterfront view to match, head to Zrno Soli, a Michelin Guide fine dining restaurant renowned for integrating local and indigenous ingredients in its cooking. Get your tastebuds dancing with Best of the Best, a taster plate incorporating octopus, tuna, caviar, shrimps and sea bream, all topped with a different dressing. Dig into the freshest white fish or lobster for mains, and end your meal with a flaky cannoli Madagascar or a strudel.
One doesn't immediately think of wines when they think of Croatia but visiting Zrno Soli will change that. The restaurant takes pride in what grows on its soils and will happily pair your meal with the perfect Dalmatian wines.
Right in the hustle and bustle of the Old Town, on the square of Pjaca, is restaurant Kavana Central which is part of the Santa Lucia Heritage Hotel. This elegant all-white dining space next to the famous sundial tower is an optimal spot for people-watching. The menu consists of classic Dalmatian dishes like pašticada, a braised beef dish cooked in a fragrant sweet and sour sauce, and Italian influenced black squid ravioli and homemade pasta. For those with a sweet tooth, you must try their homemade cakes and cookies.
You haven’t experienced Split unless you've tried some freshly made ice cream and waffles - there is a shop on every street, but Luka is one of the best. Croatians also love their bakeries, so be adventurous and try some pastries stuffed with cheese, meat and spinach.
Wandering down unknown alleyways and getting lost while doing so is part of the experience of being in Split. On the upside, you discover fantastic artists, jewellers and local artisans. I stumbled upon KRUG, a clothing brand run by two Croatian sisters and designers. All of their vibrant and stylish linen garments are made locally with 90 per cent natural materials. Another cute store worth exploring is Bag & Co, where Ana Gjivoje's range of bright and patterned handbags are guaranteed to tempt you.
You'll also find famous brands like Croata known for its rich selection of ties and scarves, all made from the finest silks. Croatia has an abundance of lavender and rosemary fields, so brace yourself to be overloaded with soaps, oils and cosmetics made from them. There are plenty of family-run farms that make small-batch products. Ask where the produce comes from, and there is often a lovely story behind it.
Where to stay
Every other building in the centre of town is either a boutique hotel or a serviced apartment. Live life emperor Diocletian-style in some of the more luxurious pads within the walled town, with high ceilings, antique furniture, long draped red velvet curtains and decades-old stone walls. Homes and Villas Marriott have a catalogue to suit every style and budget, from majestic palace-like homes to ultramodern villas. We stayed at Penthouse Bajamonti, a two-bedroom bright and airy property located on the fourth floor of Deskovic Palace. The UNESCO building has a distinct red façade and sits on the end of the Riva, a minute's walk from the beautiful Prokurative, also known as the Republic Square. As far as views go, there is no better apartment in all of Split. I could sit by the window all day watching life go by: the rushed commuters making their way first thing in the morning, the ferry boats docking and leaving and eventually disappearing into the Adriatic Sea and the many tourists enjoying the promenade into the night.
If you're in Croatia for to party, then the island of Hvar is for you - and it’s only an hour’s ferry ride from Split.
What to see
The beauty of Hvar's white stone buildings with terracotta-coloured roofs is undeniable, and it's this picturesque landscape that draws people in. At the centre of the Old Town is St. Stephen's Cathedral and square, a triple-aisled church influenced by the Renaissance and Baroque style of architecture, which sits next to a 17th-century bell tower. You can also visit the newly restored clock tower and one of the world's oldest public theatres, established in 1612 - both sit opposite each other. Towering high above Hvar is a 13th-century fortress well-worth a visit for its history and magnificent views of the town and Pakleni islands. You can stroll your way up through a flight of stairs or get a taxi to the entrance for 100KN (£13).
Old Town of Hvar may seem very small, especially if you compare it to Split. Venture north to Stari Grad, one of Croatia's oldest towns and ports, where you'll find lovely beaches and local restaurants and cafes. UNESCO protected Stari Grad Plain is ideal for travellers wanting to go biking or hiking and for all wine enthusiasts wishing to spend a day in one of the island's many vineyards.
On a sunny morning - which is most days- there is nothing better than to go island hopping. Spend the afternoon swimming and snorkelling in the crystal-clear waters of the Paklinski Islands archipelago of Hvar and discover its hidden coves.
Where to eat and drink
Enjoy breakfast in the most idyllic setting at hotel Adriana. They serve a wholesome a la carte breakfast for 180KN (£20) with a range of smoothies, pancakes, eggs and other healthy options. Beach Club Hvar is ideal for some lunchtime relaxation and reading. Book a sunbed or a cabana at this chic and private location and enjoy uninterrupted sea views while sipping your favourite tipple (try the lemon beer and cocktails) and nibble on some light lunch bowls from salads to sushi.
When in Dalmatia, also try their traditional dish called peka. It's made by placing the pan on a bed of red-hot coal and covering the lid with some more coal to create an oven-like environment where meats and vegetables are slow-roasted. A piece of lamb takes three hours to cook, so make sure to place your orders a day in advance. Dine under the stars at Grande Luna, a traditional restaurant built over four floors. It has a lovely rooftop dining space to slurp on some fresh mussels.
For something more elegant, make your way to San Marco at Palace Elisabeth, where a display of royal artefacts, crystal chandeliers and regal cutlery await. Head chef Serdal Altun has curated an eclectic menu with culinary influences from the Middle East, South America and Asia and seamlessly blended them with local ingredients. The result, a gastronomic journey where tataki tuna, eggplant caviar, Adriatic shrimp and grilled octopus all tantalise your palate. The pièce de résistance of the night was the delectable vera cake with a cookie crust, hazelnut, millet, dark chocolate and dates.
Where to stay
Hotel Adriana, opposite St Stephen's square, boasts the best views in all of Hvar; and with a variety of rooms from deluxe to penthouse suites, there is something for everyone. Stone's throw from Adriana is its sister property Palace Elisabeth, a five-star hotel located in a historic building next to the iconic clock tower. Venetian monuments and classic interiors complete with frescos and long drop chandeliers are all designed to wow.
For a more private affair, The Luxury Travel Book manage a portfolio of high-end traditional and modern villas and apartments across the island. Get a taste of 15th-century living in a Baroque-style home with a pool, sauna and a wine cellar or relax the Mediterranean way in a secluded home with direct access to the Adriatic sea.
For more information and ideas, visit Croatia.hr