The 7 best road trips in Croatia for fans of history and epic coastlines

A woman enjoying the sea views on the Adriatic coast of Croatia
Road trips in Croatia bring plenty of history, fine food and dramatic coastal scenery © Solovyova / iStockphoto / Getty Images

With a glorious Adriatic coastline that reveals one beauty spot after another for more than 1770km (1100 miles), it’s little wonder that Croatia has become one of the most exhilarating destinations in Europe for a road trip.

Away from the coast-hugging and serpentine Adriatic Highway, scintillating back routes lead to national parks, dramatic mountains, medieval hilltop towns and seemingly endless olive groves and vineyards.

Here are some of the best road trips in Croatia to explore the country’s heart – allowing ample room for detours and exploring within the region.

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The Istrian triangle

Best road trip for food lovers

Opatija–Pula; 166km (103 miles); allow 7 days

The heart-shaped peninsula of Istria in Croatia’s northwest stashes gastronomic riches that include renowned truffles, cheeses, wine, lamb, seafood and prosciutto, to name just a few local delicacies. From the elegant town of Opatija overlooking the Kvarner Gulf, catch the two-lane highway hugging the Mirna River and drive through the truffle-laden forests surrounding the hilltop town of Motovun.

Head west to Poreč, with its Unesco-recognized 6th-century Euphrasian Basilica, before turning down the coast past the Limski Kanal, the source for mussels and oysters served by local restaurants. Carry on to Rovinj and its tangle of cobbled streets framed by pastel-colored buildings hanging above the water. The final leg rolls through the town of Vodnjan, famous for small-scale, world-class olive oil, before arriving in Pula with its well-preserved Roman amphitheater and Temple of Augustus.

A boardwalk leads past a lake at Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia
Boardwalks lead through a watery wonderland at Plitvice Lakes National Park © Shutterstock / weniliou

Croatia's national parks

Best road trip for natural wonders

Plitvice Lakes National Park–Krka National Park; 355km (220 miles); allow 7 days

Starting from Plitvice Lakes National Park, perhaps Croatia’s most famous attraction, this trip uncovers the country’s natural soul in five of its eight national parks. After strolling along the wooden walkways that connect Plitvice’s pristine lakes and hidden rivers that feed awe-inspiring waterfalls, go west for cool ridge-top breezes in Northern Velebit National Park. Here, atop the nation’s best-loved mountain range, you can admire panoramas of Adriatic sunsets reflected against the Dinaric Alps.

From mighty peaks, travel to epic gorges and canyons loved by rock climbers in Paklenica National Park before getting the island-hopping vibe (leave the car in the town of Murter) in Kornati National Park, which protects 89 of the Kornati archipelago’s 140 islets. Finish in Krka National Park, which protects a fragile ecosystem and stunning waterfalls along 73km (45 miles) of the Krka River and its estuary.

The crowded courtyard at Diocletian's Palace in Split
The remains of Diocletian's Palace in Split are just one of dozens of Roman wonders in Croatia © Jazzmany / Shutterstock

Taking in the top Roman sites

Best road trip for compelling history

Zadar–Split; 163km (101 miles); allow 6 days

This drive across the northern half of Croatia’s Dalmatia region takes in an incredible set of ancient ruins and sweeping Adriatic views. Start from Zadar, with its Unesco-listed Venetian-era defensive walls, Roman forum and millennia-old street layout. Just an hour down the road is Šibenik, a seaside treasure with its own Unesco World Heritage site, the 16th-century St James’s Cathedral.

Another hour, another Unesco-listed destination – this time the gorgeous old town in Trogir, which has many intact and beautiful buildings from its golden age between the 13th and 15th centuries. You’ll end the trip in spectacular style inside the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian in Split, Croatia’s second-largest city.

Trakošćan Castle on top of a forested ridge
Trakošćan Castle gleams atop its forested ridge © xbrchx / Shutterstock

A trip through castle country

Best road trip for sheer romance

Senj–Čakovec; 308km (191 miles); allow 5 days

The castle-littered corridor along Croatia’s northern edge was a onetime stomping ground for noble families. Start your ignition in Senj, where the 16th-century Nehaj Castle stands guard over the sea, before heading northwest to the 13th-century castle of Ozalj, perched above the Kupa River. The capital Zagreb, where a medieval Upper Town melts into a park-strewn Lower Town, is a good layover spot and one of Europe's most walkable cities.

An hour north takes you to Trakošćan Castle, a 14th-century gem combining Romanesque and gothic features. A drive of around 45 minutes to the east extends the journey to the gothic-Renaissance fortress in the baroque city of Varaždin. Onwards to the city of Čakovec, near the Slovenian border, home to the Zrinski family’s lavish 16th-century abode, which today doubles as the regional Museum of Međimurje.

intricately restored frescoes inside a darkened cathedral
The Đakovo Cathedral is a must-stop on any Slavonia road trip © Natasha Levar/Getty Images

A Slavonian exploration

Best road trip for wine lovers

Požega–Ilok; 207km (128 miles); allow 4–5 days

Bordering the Sava, Drava and Danube rivers, the rich, fertile farmland of Slavonia has been the nation’s breadbasket for generations. Today, this history-soaked region is still one of the country’s most important cultural and gastronomic quarters, serving up many chances to sample flavorsome Croatian wines.

A drive east across this lush, vineyard-cloaked landscape starts in the wine-centric towns of Požega and Kutjevo before rolling through some of Croatia’s most treasured small towns. Pause in Đakovo, with its 19th-century neo-Romanesque cathedral, and Osijek, with its 18th-century citadel. Enjoy one of Europe’s largest wetlands at Kopački Rit Nature Park, which is home to more than 290 bird species, before continuing to Vukovar and Ilok, looming over the Danube near the border with Serbia.

Woman sitting on a rock overlooking Dubrovnik's Old Town
Driving into Dubrovnik means plenty of opportunities to take in the views © Anna Lurye / Shutterstock

The Best of Southern Dalmatia

Best road trip for knockout coastal scenery

Split–Popovići; 254km (158 miles); allow 6 days

The Adriatic Highway, or Jadranska Magistrala, hugs the entire Croatian shoreline, but the Dalmatian coast between Split and Dubrovnik is the most popular stretch. Cliff-top views and white-knuckle turns will make you feel as if you’re flying over the sea, while the islands of Brač, Vis, and Korčula glitter below you on a cobalt blue horizon.

At Drvenik, take a detour via the 15-minute car ferry to the less frequented eastern tip of Hvar Island. A turn-off onto the Pelješac peninsula will give you a roadside seat for fresh Ston oysters and superb red Plavac Mali wine. From the summer of 2022, you’ll finally be able to drive across the new Pelješac Bridge and evade Bosnia’s tiny bit of coastline (and the inevitable border delays). Once you’ve explored Dubrovnik’s city walls, continue south to the rustic Konavle region, famous for its vineyards and the secluded beach of Pasjača outside tiny Popovići.

A views of sunbathers and boats at Stara Baska beach on Krk island, Croatia
The island of Krk has some of Croatia's prettiest coastal scenery © Littleaom / Shutterstock

A Kvarner island odyssey

Best road trip for mixing culture and beach life

Rijeka–Jablanac; 130km (81 miles); allow 4 days

Rijeka, Croatia’s third-largest city, is more than just a jumping-off point for coastal island-hopping in the Kvarner Gulf. Combining dignified Habsburg architecture with the streak of anarchy that’s always characterized this vibrant port city, Rijeka has enough cultural attractions to more than merit its status as 2020 European Capital of Culture.

Once you’ve checked out the hilltop Trsat Castle, follow the road that takes you over the bridge to the island of Krk. Head south to wander through the ancient walled old center of Krk Town, followed by a swim at one of the town's beaches, before taking the ferry to Rab.

Not only will you find nearly two dozen sandy beaches on this compact island, but Rab Town is also one of the most exquisite settlements in Croatia. Finally, hop back to the mainland at Stinica and stop at Jablanac, where the cliff-fringed inlet of Zavratnica is a place of astonishing beauty.

Senj old town on the upper Adriatic coast in Croatia
Take it slowly when driving on the coast of Croatia – you don't want to miss the views © Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo / Getty

Tips for driving in Croatia

Croatia is a fairly straightforward destination for visiting drivers. Here are a few things to note.

This article was first published on June 3, 2021 and updated on June 8, 2022

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