Croatia is well known for its party beaches, swanky nightlife and many “Game of Thrones” filming locations.
But when you step away from the tourist spots and venture to a few of the lesser-known cities, you’ll find hikes that take you to sky-blue lakes, coasts that gift you the perfect winds to cruise on and mountains that beg to be explored.
Walking the city walls that surround Old Town Dubrovnik is a must. Yes, you’ll be surrounded by tourists, but if you head in right when the walls open (8 a.m. in the summer months), you’ll miss most people and the high heat.
After checking out the walls, book a sunset kayaking tour around Lokrum Island. It’s an easy, two- to three-hour paddle that stops at a beach in a cave. Grab a provided snorkel to explore the clear blue water, or climb up one of the adjacent cliffs and jump off.
Warning: At this specific cliff-jumping area, once you climb up, there is no other way to get down other than taking the leap. If you are looking for smaller cliffs, take the ferry to the pedestrian-only Lokrum Island and head to the cliff beach on the west side for a variety of heights to get your blood pumping.
Stay in Old Town at Hostel Angelina, which has a relaxing balcony overlooking the city’s red rooftops and can help with recommendations for beaches, other areas to cliff jump and a variety of tour and kayak bookings.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
A day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park (pronounced PLEET-veet-sah) is easily accessible by public transportation from nearby cities like Zadar or Split. The trail maps provide routes depending on how many hours you plan to spend in the park.
For a full trek around both the lower and upper lakes, opt for Route C, where you can see the Great Water Fall, take the ferry across the lower lake and spend time in the quiet forest, away from the crowds. This route takes about four to six hours. Bring water, snacks, light hikers and your camera, because yes, the water really is that blue.
If you are staying in Zadar, make sure to visit the Sea Organ and the permanent art installation, The Greeting to the Sun. Stay at the Beach House Hostel for air conditioning and a quick, five-minute jaunt to the nearest beach. Bring water shoes, because most beaches in Croatia are rocky pebbles, not sand.
To avoid the infamous party islands of Croatia, head to Bol instead, which is located on the island of Brač. Here, you’ll find water where you can see 30 feet down to the bottom of the sea when you paddleboard in the calm waters of the morning, as well as plenty of beaches to find your perfect resting spot.
Plus, Bol has ideal winds for those wanting to learn to windsurf. Visit ZooStation WindSurfing School for lessons (which are recommended) and rentals (which you’ll want when you can’t conquer the sport the first hour or two and want to try again the next day). If you’ve got five or more days in Bol, check out YellowCat Ski and Surf for a multi-day kiteboarding lesson, where you’ll start on land for the first day and be cruising across the sea by the last.
On the west coast of the Istria peninsula, you’ll find the chill town of Rovinj (pronounced row-VEEN). It still gets busy in the summer, but lacks the huge tourist boom of other coastal towns or party islands.
Rent a bike from Roundabout Hostel for an easy, 7-mile ride around town that will take you through the trees on Golden Cape peninsula and forest park, around Cuve Beach for a drink and a swim and end with wine and cheese at Stancija Collis, a locally owned winery and olive oil producer.
At the end of the Golden Cape in the forest park, you’ll find an urban crag with some popular climbing routes, like the 5.11b Aquamarin. If you’d rather head down than up, visit Dive Center Rubinbsbbvuzqwcztvy for a variety of scuba diving routes for beginners and experts, including a dive to the Baron Gautsch wreck, a passenger ship that sank in 1914 (for experienced divers only).
Lake Bled, Slovenia
Although not in Croatia, getting to Lake Bled in northern Slovenia is just a four- to five-hour bus ride from two of Croatia’s northern cities, Zagreb or Rovinj. Stay at 1A Adventure Hostel, outside of Lake Bled’s city center, or Lake Bled’s campsite, right near the beach.
You could easily spend a few days in Lake Bled doing all of the activities. On the lake, swim, standup paddle and row. In the surrounding Julian Alps, paraglide, skydive, mountain bike and hike. You can even trek up the tallest peak in Slovenia, Mount Triglav, at 9,396 feet.
Other excursions include rafting the Sava river, canyoneering and exploring nearby caves by foot and kayak. Bike to Vintgar Gorge, a ravine filled with clear blue waters and raised walkways. From town, the ride will take you about 30 to 40 minutes up to the gorge, with views of the surrounding mountains and lush green valleys as you cruise back into town after.
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