Croatia has earned a lot of attention in recent years, and now the stretches of white sand beaches and medieval villages are bringing in more tourists than ever. However, the spectacular sites and experiences are in every nook and cranny of Croatia’s Adriatic coastline, which helps to spread out its guests – even in the summer season, you can count on a thoroughly relaxing holiday, if you plan wisely. It’s impossible to touch down on all 1185 of the country’s islands in one go, but you can sample a good swath of the white sandy coastline, and still fit in the unforgettable sites on the mainland before you have to leave this European paradise.

Dubrovnik

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This coastal city is one of the country’s undisputed highlights, both for its infrastructure and the activity that brings it to life. Dubrovnik is a stunning specimen of medieval preservation, with a beautiful old town that has remained surprisingly intact for centuries and the original defensive wall built to keep invaders out (and the majesty in). Indeed, it is a compact city with a magnetic center, but it doesn’t lose any charm as you move away from the main squares. Not only is this a top stop in Croatia, it’s one of the most revered cities across the Mediterranean.

 

Piltvice Lakes National Park

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One glance will give away its UNESCO designation: Piltvice Lakes is an astounding collection of rivers, forests, wildlife (including bears and wolves), waterfalls, and 16 interconnecting lakes of differing colors. Most would agree that this is one of the most breathtaking natural sites in all of Europe, with a fantastic system of bridges and footpaths to let you explore all the wonders it has to offer. You can even stay in the park itself if you’d like to spend a couple of days stretching your legs and soaking in the nature.

 

Zagreb

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A city with deep roots and lots to offer, Zagreb is Croatia’s capital and cultural heart. Here you’ll find exceedingly old buildings (and traditions to match) alongside a devoted café culture and excellent nightlife. The city dates back to the 2nd century, but many of the buildings can be traced to the periods of Hungarian rule and Socialist influence – they are often austere and imposing, but stately in their own way. The cultural scene is where Zagreb really shines: buzzing café-lined squares set the stage for the Croatian habit of socializing over strong coffee, and there are plenty of galleries, theatres, and of course, a host of outdoor events when the summer rolls around.

 

Brac

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Croatia’s third largest island is also one of its most popular, at least partly due to the perfect contrast of white sand beach and deep green pines. You can head to the resorts of Bol, Supetar, and Milna, which all offer a good range of accommodation and a wealth of relaxing atmosphere. If you feel like hiking a bit, make your way up to Vidova gora, the highest point on the island: here you can enjoy a lovely view  of the lovely coastline, and take in some fresh seaside air without the throngs of tourists you’d find in the mainland harbors.

 

Diocletian’s Palace

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This palatial complex in the heart of the city of Split is undoubtedly one of the most impressive historical sites you’ll come across in any European country. The network of buildings known as Diocletian’s Palace is a fully-functional Roman palace, and not only is this UNESCO site one of the most well-preserved Roman ruins on the continent, it still serves as the setting for modern city life. In fact, it’s almost a city within a city, given the number of marbled walkways, shops and cafes that line the palace walls; you’ll probably find that the rest of Split, although charming, pales in comparison.

 

Korcula

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Nestled into the Adriatic, the island of Korcula hosts the delightfully compact town of the same name. Some might describe it as a miniature Dubrovnik, but it certainly has its own unique charms, like vineyards and olive groves, pretty Venetian Renaissance architecture, and lots of color and vitality within the little streets. Korcula is the alleged birthplace of the legendary explorer Marco Polo, but why anyone would want to leave this little peninsula of Croatian tradition, we’ll never know.

 

Hvar

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A little swanky, but still traditional and naturally splendid, Hvar has developed a reputation as one of the best resort islands in the region, which means there’s plenty of upscale accommodation for visitors. With its Adriatic backdrop and a spectacular landscape of lavender and grapevines, the setting is a feast for the senses; head into the narrow streets and gothic façades of the town squares, and you can sample some of the best cuisine the nation has to offer. Hvar is well known for its particularly pleasant weather, with more hours of sun (on average) than anywhere else in Croatia.

For a relatively small country, Croatia has an incredible amount of urban treasures and unforgettable landscape, so if you can spare the time, you may want to extend your stay. If you devote a couple of weeks to your Croatian vacation, consider charting a boat to sail up the coast, or even rent a kayak and trace a trail around some of the islands yourself – you’ll get a whole different perspective of the towns from the water, and you’ll have the chance to drop into wonderful islands that you might not be able to visit otherwise.