Forget the usual suspects. This summer, adventurous American travelers are coming to the Adriatic coast in record numbers to do what residents of countries like Spain, Italy, and Greece have been doing en masse every summer for decades -– taking in the sights (and beaches) at still-reasonable rates in one of Europe’s newly most desirable hotspots: Croatia.
To be sure, Croatia’s charms are not entirely new. Over 2000 years of history show that everyone from the Romans to the Austrians under the Habsburg Empire coveted a bit of Croatian coastline. More recently, it’s names such as the late Elizabeth Taylor, Robert De Niro, Kevin Spacey, and Uma Thurman (who is heading to the country this summer, per reports) that have been linked to the country, which is blessed with over 1000 islands just off the coast, many of which boast crystal clear blue water and rocky beaches blissfully devoid of tourist swarms.
So where to start? A good place to fly into is Split, which is the second largest city in the country after Zagreb and perhaps analogous in spirit to Barcelona (though smaller). The largest Croatian city on the Adriatic coast will likely be jammed near the typical tourist traps all summer, but these are tourist taps you’ll want to check out regardless. Wandering the narrow streets of Split’s historic core is thrilling, with hundreds of small shops and restaurants dotting the area.
Those seeking a more authentic experience might want to book a room just a 10-minute walk from the port (where garish cruise ships dock during summer months) at the Hotel Park, which sits just across from a beach locals like to use. At Bačvice beach, a string of nightclubs overlooks the Mediterranean, catering to all kinds of Split clubbers (you’ll hear Lady Gaga at one club, Swedish House Mafia at another, old rock music a la Gainsbourg at an adjacent and contemporary Balkan “Chalga” music at a fourth bar). It all amounts to a heady evening out, especially on weekends, when Split’s twentysomethings hit the streets, all night, seaside, in short skirts, designer T-shirts, and high heels.
But the largest tourism draw in Croatia remains the country’s crown jewel: Dubrovnik. According to the tourist board, 74,000 overnight stays by U.S. passport holders were registered within the walled city on the edge of the coast last year. That’s still a fraction of the nearly 500,000 overnight stays from French visitors to the tiny yet stunning city, which juts out into the sea surrounded by islands and cliffs. This decade, expect the number of American visitors to rise significantly, thanks to a new generation of sun-seekers tiring of typical European hotspots, which are more expensive and arguably less rewarding.
Though Dubrovnik is where you’ll find the least amount of bargains in Croatia, visitors can still find reasonable accommodations that boast the same views pricier hotels sell to guests. A good example? Try adriaticonline, where you’ll find apartment rentals such as Apartment Ingrid, which can be had for around $85 a night in June (prices rise for high season later in the summer). The two-floor unit, just steps from the action, is awash in sun-splashed yellow and orange hues, with a small balcony where guests have a view of the sea and nearby Lokrum Island.
But the best way to do Dubrovnik is to stay at one of the city’s several stellar hotels. The best are just a 5-minute walk to the old walled city, such as the Grand Villa Argentina, which was a favorite haunt of Liz Taylor’s (and still a favorite of John Malkovich), thanks to 5-star service, or the recently remodeled Villa Dubrovnik hotel, which just re-opened last year (now with a “sky lounge” bar).
Sitting under the stars looking out over Dubrovnik across the sea at night from either hotel’s outdoor terrace will give any visitor the answer to why Dubrovnik remains one of Europe’s (and soon America’s) top dream destinations for travelers of all stripes: it’s simply magic.