Places We Visit in Croatia & Slovenia
ZADARPacked with Croatia’s largest Byzantine church, ruins of ancient Roman temples and a forum commissioned by the first Roman Emperor, Zadar has history and culture to spare. Moving at an easy pace that characterizes beach towns everywhere, enjoy chic cafes and epic sunsets while exploring the old town and the waterfront.
On the Riva promenade are a pair of art installations that make any trip here an experience for the senses. The Sea Organ is a series of chutes along the water that ‘sing’ with the action of the tides and waves. Alongside it is the Sun Salutation, a flat solar sphere that collects sunlight by day and converts it into a brilliant waterfront light show after the sun goes down.
To see a different side to the city, try the Arsenal, a 16th-century ship foundry converted into an indoor town square and community center. Art shows, concerts, events and a bar and eatery draw the city’s urban explorers and hipsters to the waterfront weekly.
PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARKPlitvice Lakes National Park will likely rank as one of the most otherworldly landscapes you have ever seen. Frequently featured on tourism posters for Croatia, this national park–the largest in the country–is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Contained by natural limestone dams, 16 turquoise lakes are linked by crystalline streams, 90 cascading waterfalls and terraced pools—a dynamic environment with a soundscape as enchanting as its visual beauty. And what you see from above is only part of the value of this place. Due to the way limestone dissolves to create a karst landscape, there are waterways below ground that are protected as well and that are important connectors from pool to pool.
Park wildlife includes native trout, wolf, deer, wild boar, Eurasian lynx and 168 bird species. The park is especially noted for its 321 butterfly species, and we’ll hope to identify some as we follow the boardwalk trails that wind among the lakes and lush forest. The park also shelters some 50 highly endangered European brown bears, but they stay far away from paths and people.
PAKLENICA NATIONAL PARKThe limestone mountains of Paklenica National Park on the Adriatic coast offer some of the most rugged and sweeping views anywhere in Croatia. The Velebit Mountains, the centerpiece of the park, rise from the ocean to Vaganski Peak at 5,764 feet. This is the Balkans at their wildest, with populations of lynx, brown bear and wolf still roaming the steep hillsides and canyons.
Among the park's most prominent geological features are two canyons—Mala (Small) and Velika (Big) Paklenica. These canyons are known for their steep cliffs, deep gorges, and limestone pavements that offer a range of hikes of varying difficulties. At its most dramatic, Velika Paklenica is only 150 feet wide, but its walls rise 2,000 feet on either side. The park also contains a variety of karstic formations, including caves, pits, and sinkholes, which have formed due to the dissolution of soluble rocks such as limestone and dolomite by rainwater and groundwater over millions of years. Nearly 80 of these caves and sinkholes have been explored to date, and hundreds of climbing routes have been officially established, making this an exciting destination for spelunkers and rock climbers.
What is most fascinating about this national park is the range of habitats that support some of the richest biodiversity in southern Europe. One thousand species of plants are found here, with 79 of them endemic, in addition to 53 species of mammals and more than 260 species of birds.
Bare, rocky slopes facing the Dalmatian Coast give way to cool, shady trails through lush beech and black pine forests. The beech forests are so significant that UNESCO added them to a collective World Heritage Site of Ancient and Primeval Beech Forests recognizing their continuity and ecological significance since the last Ice Age.
NORTHERN VELEBIT NATIONAL PARKNorthern Velebit National Park is Croatia’s newest national park. It is also the most remote and least visited, making it a prime destination to experience untamed European wilderness and to search for the wildlife that thrive in this protected habitat.
The park’s main trail, Premužic's Trail, is part of the Via Dinarica, an alpine trek that runs the length of the Dinaric Alps through Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Kosovo and Albania. The route combines war ruins, open fields, alpine lakes and paths used by shepherds for centuries. Views from the trail look out over the Croatian coast to the islands in the distance.
Approximately one hundred species of birds call this park home, with the eagle owl and the golden eagle being particular highlights. Although rare to see, wild boar and hundreds of brown bears can also be found here, along with wolves, lynx and chamois.
OPATIJA RIVIERAThe Opatija Rivera is credited as being the birthplace of tourism in Croatia. Connected to Venice by train and a favorite vacation spot of Emperors, kings and queens, the small fishing village became the height of haute culture when a merchant by the name of Higinio von Scarpa built the first lavish villa in the mid-20th century. This led to years of aristocratic competition, as wealthy Europeans raced to build their own villas, each more sumptuous than the last. This region is also the epicenter of Mediterranean coastal cuisine, featuring some of the best seafood restaurants in the country.
CRES ISLANDThis wild island only has 3,000 people living on it today, but its human history reaches far into the past. Visitors can walk on cobblestone paths laid down by the Romans 2,000 years ago and visit Byzantine landmarks in the Town of Cres. Ancient olive trees shade the roads, along with chestnut, beech and elm trees. But the most significant natural aspect of this island soars in the skies above—the endangered griffon vulture.
The Island of Cres is home to one of the largest remaining breeding colonies of these magnificent birds whose 9-foot-wingspans carry them throughout Europe, Africa and the Middle East. The Beli Visitor and Rescue Center provides hope for this population by protecting the young fledglings until they are able to survive on their own. With a 75% mortality rate in the wild for young griffon vultures, and only 100 breeding pairs of this population remaining on Cres, the work of this center is critical to the survival of the species.
GLAGOLITIC ALLEY AND THE CITY OF HUMLife along the coast moves at a different pace on the Istrian Peninsula. Centuries-old olive trees give rise to tales that olive oil from Istria graced Caesar’s table in Rome, honey farms have their own lineage dating back to the Venetians, and truffle hunting is a tradition that is alive and well.
The Glagolitic Alley crosses the Istrian Peninsula to the medieval hamlet of Hum, reputedly the smallest town in the world, with fewer than 25 residents. This route features stone monuments erected in the late 20th century that represent letters of the medieval Glagolitic alphabet, an archaic Slavic script that survived in Croatia until the late 19th century.
The truffles that grow on the Istrian Peninsula make their way to chef’s tables around the Adriatic Sea. Three kinds of black truffles and a large type of white grow here. Harvested by families using dogs trained from a few months old, the fruits of the hunt are ubiquitous ingredients in the restaurants along the coast and in towns like Buzet, the hub for truffle aficionados in Croatia.
POKLJUKA PLATEAUThe Pokljuka Glacier carved this rounded karst mountain in Triglav National Park, leaving behind a series of peat bogs. The importance of bogs such as these has only recently begun to be understood. Bogs are fed only by rainfall and snowmelt, and they have no outflow. This means that the water does not get “flushed out” and, over time, the murky water becomes highly acidic due to the mosses that dominate these bogs. The bacteria that help to break down decaying vegetation are not able to survive in these conditions, so 10,000-years-worth of carbon survives below the surface. In many places around the world peat bogs are being mined for fuel or for garden soil supplements, releasing that carbon into the atmosphere. Bogs that exist in protected areas like this are critical for mitigating climate change.
This ecosystem also supports abundant wildlife, including western Bonelli's warbler, white-throated dipper, red-backed shrike and gray-headed woodpecker, numerous butterflies, and reptiles like the yellow-belied toad and eastern green lizard. The summit of the plateau also offers a stunning view over Lake Bled.
BLEDThe small lakeside town of Bled is an experience in authenticity. Bled Castle is the oldest in Slovenia, the views from its walls over the lake and church below are worth the trip, as is the castle wine cellar. Sample some of the twenty local wines and learn about the history of the castle’s varietals while trying your hand at bottling a bottle of your own.
Lake Bled is home to Bled Island and the Pilgrimage Church of the Assumption of Mary. A stunning sight, visitors climb 99 steep steps to reach the building. Ringing a bell commissioned by Pope Clement VII three times is said to grant wishes by Papal decree. An edict set in motion by a series of tragic events in the 16th century that made their way to the Pope’s ear.
TRIGLAV NATIONAL PARKProtecting the wonders of the Julian Alps, Triglav National Park is Slovenia’s only national park. It is named after Mt. Triglav, the range’s highest peak at 9,396 ft. Ernest Hemingway visited present-day Slovenia’s Julian Alps while serving as a volunteer ambulance driver during World War I, and this “picturesque front” featured in his novel A Farewell to Arms.
One of the most popular hikes in the park is to Mt. Vogel. Easily accessed by cable cars at Mt. Vogel Ski Area, the views of the stunning Lake Bohinj below and the Alps in the background reward those who take the journey.
Herons, swans, peregrine falcons and golden eagles are among the 159 bird species found here, 84 of which nest in the park.
On land, brown bears, red foxes and chamois roam the inclines and alpine forests along mountain rivers and streams. White limestone lines the bottom of Slovenia’s waterways, reflecting shades of brilliant blue and green hues in the sunlight.
A Slovenian myth tells of a hunter who sets out to claim the horns of Zlatorag, a famed chamois with golden horns, for his beloved. While the hunter succeeded in his mission, he was killed in the battle. The blood of the mythical creature spilled into the valley and gave birth to the Triglav rose; a symbol of unrequited love seen throughout the park. Fields of orchids, lilies, edelweiss and the Bohinj iris also make an appearance. The latter paint landscapes a vibrant purple when in bloom.
LAKE BOHINJGlacial Lake Bohinj is Slovenia’s largest permanent lake and is considered by many to be the country’s most beautiful. In fact, the power of this valley between the Bohinj Mountains and the Triglav Mountains is captured in its name: “Boh” is the Slovenian word for God.
Less crowded than Lake Bled, kayaking or swimming here is an exercise in tranquility. The crystal-clear waters are irresistible, but there is plenty to do on land as well. Biking, hiking into gorges, viewing abundant waterfalls and visiting the Church of St. John the Baptist round out any trip to Bohinj.