Croatia By Car: The Ultimate Road Trip Through One of Europe’s Hidden Gems

There are so many interesting countries in Europe worth visiting, but one of the countries I’m most excited about visiting is Croatia. With hundreds of kilometers of beautiful coastline and beaches, historic towns and villages dating back to as early as 384 BC (!), gorgeous national parks filled with turquoise blue lakes and rushing waterfalls, and a pretty amazing dining scene, it’s hard to believe that most travelers to the continent skip over this incredible nation. When planning a trip to Europe, most travelers automatically assume that the best (and perhaps, only) way to travel is by train. And while there is an undeniable romanticism to traveling through countries by rail, I think that for travelers with a yearning to really get off the beaten track and venture beyond the regular tourist trails, it’s hard to beat the freedom that having a car bestows upon you. Maybe it’s my North American bias coming through, but in Canada and the United States where the car is king and trains are mostly relics rather than a viable mode of transport, I’ve come to view road trips as the paragon of independent travel. Although Croatia does have a train network throughout the country, it’s quite old and in need of renovation and improvement; instead most travelers rely on buses to get around the country, which are generally faster. Still, I prefer to be master of my own schedule rather than a slave to a bus timetable, and I’d much rather be in the driver’s seat when it comes to planning my route. With your own set of wheels, the world is your oyster—anywhere the road travels is a place that you can go too. Given that Tony & I are travelers who like to escape the crowds and visit places that many other travelers skip or miss, we know that for us, hiring a car in Croatia is best. Because I’m a planner, I’ve already started plotting out the route I’d like us to take when we make it to this beautiful country. Below, I share our plans for tackling Croatia by car:
Croatia by car: it's as easy as A through I!
Croatia by car: it’s as easy as A through I!

A) We’ll fly into Zagreb and spend a few days exploring the country’s capital city, before picking up our rental car. Once we have the car, we’ll take a day trip to Samobor (just 25 km away), a medieval town famous for its Baroque architecture and the local cakes known as kremšnite, one of the country’s most famous pastries.

B) Leaving Zagreb, we’ll head north to Varaždin, whose medieval old town dates back to the 14th century but is still picture perfect. I’m sure Tony will also want to swing by the Gallery of Old and Contemporary Masters to check out their art collection, and I would like to visit nearby Trakošćan Castle perched high up on a hill.

C) We’ll pass back through Zagreb on our way to Rovinj, one of the westernmost parts of the country and located on the Istrian coast of the Adriatic Sea. This will be our taste of Italy while in Croatia, as the city features Venetian-style houses, picturesque piazzas, and Italian is widely spoken.

D) Next we’ll travel to Croatia’s most famous natural wonder, Plitvice National Park. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the park is composed of 16 beautiful lakes that are nestled in the shadow of majestic mountains. I’m hoping the weather will be nice enough that we can tackle the 5-hour path that loops you through the entire park and allows you to view the upper and lower lakes. After hiking the Himalaya in Nepal, this should be a breeze!

E) When we reach Zadar it will be like stepping back in time as we wander its old town. It’s a city crammed with history and crumbling churches. I’m also curious about its most famous attraction, the Sea Organ, which is a musical instrument that is powered and played by the movement of the waves.

F) The following day, we’ll head to Šibenik to revel in the Mediterranean architecture and check out the Cathedral of St James, before pushing on to spirited town of Primosten. I can’t think of anything nicer than unwinding at the end of the day with a nice glass (or two!) of the locally fermented wine called babić, watching the sun set across the sea.

G) Next, we’ll have to split for Split, Croatia’s second largest city where we’ll spend a few days exploring its old town and all the famous sights. With Diocletian’s Palace, two original Egyptian sphinxes, and pieces of history lurking around every corner, this is a town that is ripe for exploration.

H) We’ll take a car ferry over to the island of Hvar, where we’ll explore Stari Grad, Croatia’s oldest town (not to mention one of the oldest settlements in all of Europe), and indulge in some of the freshest seafood on the planet prepared with real Mediterranean flare.

I) Back on the mainland, we’ll relax in the Renaissance gardens of Trsteno and channel our inner 16th century aristocrats, before wrapping up our trip in Dubrovnik. We’ll spend a few days walking the city walls and looking for bullet holes in the old buildings left over from the relatively recent War of Independence. Then it will be back in the car and 600+km drive back to Zagreb to return the car.

Of course, the hallmark of any good road trip is that plans are always subject to change, so I reserve the right to change (or completely ignore) this itinerary at any time! Tell us: What do you think of our itinerary for seeing Croatia by car? Are there any “can’t miss” destinations we need to add?