Not to knock Dubrovnik, with its marble streets, 16th-century city walls, sparkling red roof tiles, and primo location—it more than earns its moniker of “Pearl of the Adriatic,” not to mention its UNESCO World Heritage status. But if you cross Croatia off your list after you’ve seen Dubrovnik, you’re missing out on a lot. Here are five other gems to discover.
When the Roman emperor Diocletian decided to retire at the beginning of the fourth century, he built himself a super-sized palace on the Dalmatian coast, a complex that was in fact equal parts personal villa and military garrison. UNESCO describes the palace—which now forms the center of modern-day Split—as “one of the most famous and integral architectural and cultural buildings on the Croatian Adriatic coast.”
Diocletian’s compound was built to last, and by the Middle Ages, a town had begun to grow within its walls. Today, visitors and locals can stroll side-by-side in this village-inside-a-palace, where shops and cafés thrive. Palm trees shade the waterfront promenade, where you can catch a ferry to many of the substantial islands off Croatia’s long coastline, including…
In midsummer it’s island madness, with party-lovers crowding the nightclubs in Hvar Town while their yachts crowd the harbor. But come shoulder season, the island reverts to its mysterious, medieval self, and you can explore the quiet squares and sandy coves in peace.
Don’t miss the shady cloisters of the Franciscan Monastery and Museum, with its mesmerizing “Last Supper,” painted by Venetian artist Matteo Ingoli around the end of the 16th century, that completely fills the back wall of the dining hall. Lavender blankets the sunny hillsides in summer, and you can buy some to take home (I keep a tiny bottle of lavender oil on my desk at Nat Geo to remind me of this fragrant island).
Everywhere you look in Plitvice Lakes National Park, spearmint green and electric blue water is tumbling, frothing, roaring, pooling, plunging, and bubbling. Wooden boardwalks snake around and through and over waterfalls, streams, caves, and interconnected lakes formed by the gradual buildup of calcium carbonate since the Cretaceous era. Surprisingly, several popular Italian and German spaghetti Westerns were filmed in Plitvice (the landscape was intended to pass for the American West, at least to European eyes).
This unique natural paradise offers abundant opportunities for canoeing, kayaking, rafting, biking, and hiking. Wildlife is also a big draw; the beech forests that dominate the area are home to deer, bears, wolves, wild boar, and a delightful array of bird species. As you wait for the ferry to take you across the lake, stop by one of the strudel stands for a delicious local specialty in a variety of flavors. Tip: Spend the night in one of the local inns so you can hit the trails early.
Croatia’s capital city feels rather like a huge college campus, maybe because it’s home to the 65,000 students at the University of Zagreb, founded by Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in 1669. Cars are banned in some areas, allowing cafés to sprawl into the streets and the creative class to take full advantage of the outdoor living spaces. Theater, farmers markets, public sculptures in tucked-away places (look for a pensive Nikola Tesla), soccer, music in the streets—it’s all here.
On an ordinary weekday evening, Jelačić Square, Zagreb’s great central plaza, reverberates with sound, but it’s human, not automotive: All you hear are people talking, children chasing each other, plates and glasses clinking, and the occasional clack of an approaching blue tram. Order a gelato and join the fun.
Enter Zadar’s Old Town at twilight through the imposing 16th-century Land Gate, a grand entryway to the city built by the Venetians and adorned with their trademark winged lion, a symbol of St. Mark. Wander a labyrinth of narrow stone alleyways packed with fashionable shops, restaurants, and people—and, happily, no cars. Suddenly the jumble of streets opens up to a large square, the remains of a Roman forum, where kids jump their skateboards over antiquities in front of the round, ninth-century church of St. Donatus.
Along the seaside promenade, just past the ferry dock, you may detect haunting sounds reminiscent of whale songs. In 2005, Croatian architect Nikola Bašić built stone steps that lead down to the Adriatic, and placed 35 organ pipes beneath them. The natural forces of the wind and the waves push air against the pipes, creating mysterious chords. When the wind and waves are strong, the music is louder, and when it’s relatively calm, the Sea Organ, as the award-winning installation has been dubbed, falls quiet. Follow my lead and sit on the steps, listening to the magical sea music as the sun sets into the ocean and the stars come out.
Marilyn Terrell is the chief researcher at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her on Twitter @Marilyn_Res.