It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that in Europe, everyone and their mother has been to Croatia at least once in their life. Chances are, they actually visit each year. It’s one of the most accessible holiday destinations in Europe, with basically everybody from the Northern countries heading here to get their fill of beaches, cocktails, and island hopping.
While I’ve visited Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, on multiple occasions (and loved it!), I have never been to the coast. This year, I thought I’d finally cross Croatia’s beaches off my bucket list, so I packed my bags, bicycle, and boyfriend, and pedaled down South. The plan was to avoid the crowds by biking through the country, stopping only in off-the-beaten-path places, and enjoying the beautiful nature of the Western Balkans in intimate togetherness with my other half.
Well, let me tell you, that didn’t happen. At all. But while I was shocked at the amount of tourists occupying Croatia’s coast during the summer, I still absolutely fell in love with the pretty places we got to see on the way, despite the masses. So here you go – these are the 10 places I think you should totally visit when touring the Northern coast of Croatia.
1 – Umag
Granted, there are more beautiful towns along Croatia’s coast. But if you are looking for a quiet little place to escape the crowds, this quaint fishing village might just be for you. Just make sure to avoid the resorts north of town and you’ll be good to go.
Hot tip: Rent a bike (if you didn’t already bring one with you) and make your way up to neighboring Slovenia. The bicycle path between here and Koper is arguably the prettiest on all of Istria’s coast (I would know, I cycled every bit of it).
2 – Rovinj
Rovinj is one of Istria’s main attractions, so prepare for busy streets and lots of sunburnt tourists on the hunt for the tackiest souvenir. If you’re looking for “authentic Croatia”, this is maybe not the best place to find it, but Rovinj sure deserves its status as pearl of Istria.
The little town sits on what once was an island but has since been joined to the mainland. The narrow streets seem to go in circles around Saint Euphemia Church, clearly visible from almost any point in and around the city. The colorful houses, slightly crooked, only add to the city’s charm. Rovinj definitely is a must-see on Croatia’s coast – even if the whole world agrees and is already waiting to meet you there.
3 – Lim canal (Limski Kanal)
A little bit north of Rovinj lies Limski Kanal, often referred to as “Croatia’s fjord”. While it is not technically a fjord, the coastal inlet sure looks a lot like one. With its turquoise waters and rough cliffs, the Limski Kanal is one of the most spectacular sights in all of Istria. The best way to explore it is probably via boat (you can book tours in numerous coastal towns around the canal, including Rovinj), but even if you happen to ride your bike alongside it like we did, it’s a stunning sight.
4 – Bale
Only a little way from busy Rovinj, Bale is a quiet inland village perfect for a little day trip. It might not have the impressive setting of Rovinj or the breathtaking nature of Limski Kanal, but the peace and quiet you can find up here are special in their own way. I treasured the moments we got to spend here, knowing that by evening, I’d be back in the epicenter of Croatia’s summer tourism onslaught.
5 – Pula
Istria’s largest city, Pula, sits right on the Southern edge of the peninsula. We only came here to catch an early-morning boat the next day to Croatia’s islands, but ended up enjoying the city quite a bit. Besides the large amphitheater and the Venetian fortress (from which you have a nice view over Pula’s industrial harbor), the many cafés and bars are its biggest selling point. Well, at least to me.
6 – Kap Kamenjak
By far my favorite place in Istria, Kap Kamenjak is a protected natural area on the southernmost tip of Istria. The white cliffs, the wild shrubbery and the beautiful little bays turn Kap Kamenjak into one of the prettiest places you can find on Croatia’s coast. There is a hiking path which takes you around the area, but you can also rent a bike to cycle to your favorite bathing spot. The nearest town is Premantura, which is a good place to grab a coffee and a burek before heading on.
7 – Cres Island
Island-hopping is always a good idea. Luckily, Croatia has an entire bay full of them, the Kvarner Gulf (well, amongst other places, because really, Croatia’s coastline has islands no matter where you go). Cres Island is refreshingly quiet and, as we soon found out, mostly empty. There are a few great hiking spots in the North of the island which are definitely worth all the sweating in the heat, and Cres Town is a laid-back place to spend a few days in and relax. When it was time for us to leave again, I almost didn’t want to leave – and only 10% of it was not looking forward to biking again, the other 90% were due to Cres’s charm. I swear!
8 – Rab Island
Even though Rab island is comparatively small, it is definitely worth a visit. Especially Rab town – the old city walls, its famous four towers and the charming beaches surrounding it made me fall in love almost instantly. Plus, I loved the views when snorkeling! Rab, I’m coming back for you.
9 – Pag Island
Initially, we really didn’t understand why Pag is often thought of as a desert island, or a “moon island”. We arrived at the northernmost tip of the island, where one of the world’s largest populations of wild olive trees grows and prospers. The moon thing made more sense as we rode on: Soon after the olive groves, plants stop growing altogether because of the strong winds that frequently hit the island. Once you reach Pag Town, it really does look like a moonscape – wildly beautiful!
10 – Zadar
The city of Zadar is often disregarded by tourists, which of course made us want to visit even more. We were not disappointed: the narrow streets are as cute as anywhere, but there is a true sense of “Yes, Croatians really do live here, too” throughout the city, if that makes sense. Plus, the sea organ is really something – but you’ll have to go there yourself to find out…
So there you have it, these are the top places to see along Northern Croatia’s coast. As beautiful as Croatia is, I’m sure I’ve missed quite a few – so have you been to Croatia and discovered something amazing? Then let me know in the comments, I’m happy to learn more!