Travel to Croatia: 5 Ways Croatia Defies Expectations

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Croatia has been getting a lot of hype in the travel realm lately, which is great. Some of the common misconceptions among Americans (and by “American” I am referring to my United States brethren) are finally beginning to be overshadowed by the country’s truly stunning qualities.

It wasn’t long ago, though, that the country was victim to a number of negative preconceptions.

This was no more obvious than in the days leading up to my trip there. While some of the people I told seemed excited, a surprising number of concerned friends, family members, and even complete strangers seemed aghast at our destination choice.

Their shock was quickly followed by slew of advice about how to “survive”. This struck me as odd, particularly because the people offering up this advice had never been to Croatia.

If they had, surely they would have been singing a different tune (by contrast, all of my U.S. friends who did have experience with the country were delighted to discover we were going).

Well, I’m pleased to say that not only did Tara and I survive our journey, but Croatia has quickly become one of my favorite destinations. Already I’m looking for opportunities to return.

Hopefully our experience will give worried well-wishers a new perspective on what we consider a stunning, culturally-rich country. Maybe even some will eventually find themselves planning to travel to Croatia.

5 Ways Croatia Defies Expectations

Croatians speak English

Okay, there was that one incident on the public bus, where I was forced to fumble desperately through my broken Croatian in order to convey my urgent need for a restroom.

And a second time, when another non-English speaking bus driver (what is it with bus drivers?) pantomimed losing our luggage, nearly giving us a heart attack, before revealing that it had been stowed on the opposite side of the luggage compartment (smartass).

Beautiful Dubrovnik, home of stunning sunsets and sarcastic bus drivers.
Beautiful Dubrovnik, home of stunning sunsets and sarcastic bus drivers.

Harmless, minor incidents aside, the vast majority of people we met in Croatia were fluent in English. I went intending to practice Croatian, but if I was stuck for a word, or my meaning was unclear, I could switch to my mother tongue and be understood easily.

In fact, I was much more likely to stumble across locals fluent in English when I was in Croatia than when I was in Italy or France. Small countries like Croatia do not have a wide base of native speakers, so to communicate with the outside world they are forced to learn two, three, or even four languages.

Disclaimer: I firmly believe that when you visit a foreign country you should make every effort to speak the language when possible. It’s a part of the experience and, even though it can be scary, it’s worth the attempt!

Croatia is affordable

Coming from the United States, the exchange rate between the Croatian kuna and the USD definitely worked in my favor. This was great for us, because we really, really loved the food. On one occasion, Tara and I sat down for dinner in Zagreb. We shared an appetizer, ordered two main courses, dessert, several beers, and some rakija (brandy). The grand total, once converted to USD, was about $35.

Grilled octopus salad with smoky blue cheese and vegetables
Grilled octopus salad with smoky blue cheese and vegetables.

Of course, this was in Zagreb, which is far inland. The coastal cities are notorious for being more expensive, but a smart shopper can still come out ahead. Taking the simple step of avoiding the most tourist-ridden areas of the city, or renting an apartment and cooking from there, can make a huge difference.

Croatia is safe

The most common concern addressed when I was preparing for my trip was safety. More than one person went so far as to e-mail me a map of active land mines remaining in the country, remnants of the Homeland War of the 1990s.

I understand their concern. The war is still a recent memory for many Croatians, and battle scars are visible around the country, if you know where to look.

For many Americans (including myself), their first brush with the word “Croatia” came from the news networks during the breakup of former Yugoslavia. The countries that resulted from the split, Croatia included, are still regarded suspiciously, the memory of ethnic cleansing and endless warfare still fresh in many American minds.

That said, I never once felt unsafe in the country. The people I met there were among the kindest I have ever known: hard-working, dedicated people who are proud of their country and even more proud of their families. I spent time in cities and in the countryside, and never questioned my safety. Even when taking a short day trip over the border to Bosnia and Herzegovina we felt safe.

The streets of Zagreb, where I felt perfectly safe walking at night.
The streets of Zagreb, where I felt perfectly safe walking at night.

Croatia is accessible

Bordering Italy, one of the more popular countries for American travelers, it is not difficult to find your way to Croatia. By car, train, bus, or boat, you can find your way to its coastline with relative ease.

Boat, bus or cable car! Take your pick!
Boat, bus or cable car! Take your pick!

Once you are in the country, getting around isn’t difficult either. In Zagreb a tram system connects the city, many of the coastal cities are accessible via boat, and the highway system has been renovated in recent years. We took a public bus the two and a half hour drive from Zagreb to Plitvice National Park, a painless procedure. If we wanted to, we could have taken a similar bus overnight, all the way to the southern island of Korcula. Instead, we opted to fly from Zagreb to Dubrovnik via Croatia Airlines, which we were incredibly impressed with.

The facilities in Croatia are great too. Be prepared to pay for the occasional restroom, but expect clean, well-kept toilets. The recent spike in tourism has led to a refurbishment of much of Croatia.

Croatia is beautiful

The most common question I fielded before my trip was “Why are you going to Croatia?” Many people simply could not understand why I would choose this little Slavic country in lieu of Spain or Germany or the other, more common, options for Americans.

My response was always the same. I opened up my computer, clicked on the image search option, and typed in the word “Croatia”. The resulting pictures of crystal blue waters, rolling mountains, and medieval cities shut them up quickly.

Tara enjoys sunset in Dubrovnik.
Tara enjoys sunset in Dubrovnik.

I have been many beautiful places in my life. From Lake Bled, Slovenia to the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland to the beautiful national parks in my home country, I have been incredibly lucky to witness some of the best the world has to offer.

Croatia definitely is high on the list of gorgeous places I have seen, and places I wish to see again.

Have you ever gone on a trip friends and family were wary of? What stories and revelations did you bring back to them?

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  • I’ve only heard amazing things about visiting Croatia and it’s on my bucket list! 🙂 Can’t wait to go sometime!

    • You’ll love it! It’s a great country. 🙂

  • Holly Robertson

    Hey Jessi! Thanks for the insight. We went to Croatia back in 2010 but we had no idea about the stigmas! All of your pictures make me want to go back though! 🙂

  • Before I started reading recent travel blogs about Croatia, I also thought it would be a dangerous place to visit. I’ve come to realize that it’s an underrated place full of gorgeous nature and incredible, medieval towns. It’s great to hear that so many Croatians speak English as not being able to communicate stops so many people from traveling (not me, though). I hope you’ll be sharing more about your trip there.

  • Gemma

    Interesting that some Americans are a little wary of Croatia. It really is such a beautiful and culturally rich place. Some of our expectations were completely opposite of yours which is so interesting! By the time we visited in 2011 we had heard so much about how Croatia was stunningly beautiful (‘the new Italy’) and how cheap it was. We found expenses to be not that far from that of other Western European countries (note that we did travel mostly on the coast) BUT the other part was so true! On the other side of things, we were surprised at some of the damage to buildings along the coast and in Dubrovik from the conflict in the 1990s. We learned so much and had an awesome time even if was more expensive than we expected. Great post Jessi!