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A Guide to the Dalmatian Coast

The Dalmatian Coast is home to beautiful cities and villages, some of which still have intact medieval walls. There are also hundreds of islands, with the ideal Croatia vacation including a mix of both. On a visit to the region, you’ll be able to enjoy everything from exploring rich history, spending time on idyllic beaches, and hiking to magnificent waterfalls, to sampling some of the world’s best fresh oysters, complemented by tasty local wine. It’s a sailing paradise, perfect for a small-ship island-hopping cruise, but one can also get around by ferry and rent various types of watercraft to paddle around. No matter which you choose, this guide to the Dalmatian Coast can help you make the most of your time in this beautiful region.

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About the Dalmatian Coast

The Dalmatian Coast is the off-shore portion of the Adriatic Sea in Croatia which separates the Balkans from the Italian peninsula. Renowned for its breathtaking natural beauty, picturesque beaches framed by crystal-clear cobalt waters are backed by dramatic limestone cliffs and dense pine forests, and further north, magnificent mountain ranges. Of the country’s 3,600 miles of glistening coastline, this stretch is the most famous. The rugged Dinaric Alps parallel it, with the geology helping to create strikingly clear blue seawater and hundreds of craggy islands like Hvar and Korcula, two of Croatia’s most popular. This coastline is home to charming medieval villages and two of the most popular tourist cities, Dubrovnik and Split with its remarkably well-preserved Roman architecture.

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Where is the Dalmatian Coast?

The Dalmatian Coast is part of Croatia includes Split-Dalmatia County, its central county, Dubrovnik-Neretva, Zadar, and Sibenik-Knin, which is a narrow belt that stretches from the Bay of Kotor in the south to Rab Island in the north. The major towns along the coast heading south from Rab and the city of Zadar include Sibenik, Trogir, Split, the villages along the Makarska Riviera, and Dubrovnik. The farthest inhabited island is Vis, known as the “Mediterranean as it once was.” Some of the other notable Dalmatian islands include glamorous Hvar, Brac with its famous white limestone and one of Europe’s most photographed beaches (Zlatni Rat), Korcula and its storybook Old Town, lush Mljet with its renowned saltwater lakes, and the breathtaking Pakleni archipelago.

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When to Visit the Dalmatian Coast

The best time to visit the Dalmatian Coast depends on your interests, budget, tolerance for crowds, and what you hope to get out of your Croatia vacation. The region enjoys a rather mild climate year-round, but many feel May, June, September, and the first half of October are particularly ideal. While July and August are the warmest, they’re also the busiest. Come in mid-to-late spring or early fall and enjoy pleasant, sunny days along with thinner crowds. If you want the water to be comfortably warm for swimming, aim for September/early October. Of course, some might enjoy hot days for spending time in and on the water, and warm evenings for buzzing nightlife, making summer on the Dalmatian Coast ideal.

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Traveling Around the Dalmatian Coast

You have many options when it comes to getting around the Dalmatian Coast. A Croatia small-ship cruise typically includes many of the popular islands and towns on the mainland, along with hidden gems. That makes it easy to visit multiple destinations without having to constantly unpack and pack again. Many activities and meals are included with time to sample authentic local cuisine as well. Or, you might rent a car and take advantage of the ferry system. For those who want more of an independent trip without having to drive, yet another option is to book a luxury Croatia vacation that includes your own private driver/guide with private airport transfers, transportation between the destinations you want to visit, and private tours.

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Northern or Southern Dalmatia?

Hopefully, you’ll have time to explore both Dalmatian’s northern and southern regions, as both have lots to offer. The landmass south of Makarska and the larger islands of Brac, Hvar, Vis, Korcula, Mljet, and Lastovo, along with the Peljesac peninsula, are in southern Dalmatia. Northern Dalmatia includes Zadar, Sibenik, Krka and Kornati national parks, and the hinterland of Drnis and Knin. Southern Dalmatia is home to the mega-popular Dubrovnik, the party island of Hvar, and some of the most beautiful beaches. But the north is just as alluring with Italian-influenced cities, epic national parks, and unspoiled islands, yet the tourist influx hasn’t quite hit yet. That means you’ll find more tranquil spots providing a break from the bustle of the big cities.

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Best Places to Visit on the Dalmatian Coast

Dubrovnik

The “Pearl of the Adriatic,” Dubrovnik is renowned for its medieval Old City, surrounded by massive stone walls. Stretching for 1.2 miles, visitors can walk atop them to look out over the terracotta rooftops in the historic center on one side with the sea and nearby islands on the other. Inside the walls, marvel at everything from the oldest still active pharmacy in Europe at the Franciscan monastery to Renaissance-Gothic palaces and Onofrio’s fountains which provided drinking water to the city for nearly 500 years. Beyond the history, enjoy swimming from idyllic beaches for swimming, kayaking for a unique perspective of the walls from the water, and hopping on the Mount Srd cable car for a spectacular view over it all.

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Split

There were some Greek settlers in the area centuries before, but Split came to life when the Roman emperor Diocletian decided to build his retirement residence here. The massive complex was constructed over the late 3rd and early 4th century, covering nearly half the historic center today. It includes some of the world’s most well-preserved Roman buildings, now housing a variety of souvenir shops, art galleries, boutiques, and eateries. It will look familiar to “Game of Thrones” fans, with many filming sites like the palace cellars where Daenrys trained her dragons. The Riva, Split’s popular waterfront promenade, is a great place for people-watching, and there are several beaches just outside the city center. Head to Marjan Hill for the most unforgettable sunset.

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Hvar

The sun-soaked island of Hvar is renowned as a party destination with a harbor filled with mega-yachts in the summer. Hvar Town’s world-class dining and buzzing nightlife draw all sorts of VIPs, from royals to Hollywood celebrities in the summer. Beyond that, there’s a rich history to explore with the island’s past seen everywhere from Europe’s oldest still-in-operation community theater dating to 1612, the early 17th century St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the hilltop fortress. Visitors can climb to the top of the medieval fortress for a panoramic view of the town, harbor, and islands nearby. At the island’s north end is Stari Grad, Croatia’s oldest settlement, and in between are magnificent landscapes from postcard-perfect beaches to lavender fields and vineyard-covered hills.

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Korcula

Korcula is a densely forested island with trees so thick it appeared black from a distance to ancient Greek settlers, who named it Korkyra Melaina, or black forest. There are beautiful, sandy beaches too, but the main reason to visit may be Old Town Korcula. Looking as if it stepped out of a storybook, it’s surrounded by 13th-century defensive walls with imposing towers and gates. The maze of streets inside was laid out in a fishbone shape to help protect residents from the elements. They’re lined with buildings that reveal significant Venetian influence such as the winged lions on the 15th-century St. Mark’s Cathedral. Learn more about its past in the Korcula Town Museum and don’t miss the summertime Moreska sword dances.

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Mljet National Park

Located on what’s often referred to as Dalmatia’s greenest island, Mljet National Park makes up about a third of Mljet Island. A nature lover’s paradise, visitors can hike the scenic trails or rent bikes to explore the wooded paths on two wheels. Kayaks are available for paddling around the park’s famous saltwater lakes as well. Connected by a narrow channel, it’s easy to explore both and they boast small, idyllic beaches along the shore for sunbathing and swimming in the brilliant blue-green water. A short boat ride will bring you to little St. Mary Islet In the middle of the larger lake. It houses a 12th-century Benedictine abbey and church that can be explored, along with a cafe and gift shop.

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Sibenik

Medieval Sibenik was established over a thousand years ago, once a wealthy mercantile hub at the heart of the Adriatic salt trade. Today, this magnificent UNESCO-listed town offers a fascinating glimpse of the past that can be seen in city walls, forts like St. Michael’s with views of the bay and nearby islands, stone palaces, and one of the largest Gothic-Renaissance cathedrals, the Cathedral of St. James. It stands out with its golden globe, reflects influences from Dalmatia and Italy, and features a remarkable frieze with over 70 sculptured faces of men, women, and children you might have seen in “Game of Thrones.” Sibenik is like an open-air museum with historic churches and other centuries-old buildings around nearly every corner.

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Krka National Park

Sibenik is also a gateway to Krka National Park, with its lush scenery and abundant flora and fauna. It’s best known for its waterfalls, with the 145-feet-high and nearly 2,600-feet-wide Skradinski buk the crown jewel as one of the largest in Europe. It can be viewed by taking a boat excursion or a hike, following the boardwalks that reveal the cascades and greenery. Watch for the more than 220 different kinds of birds, from peregrine falcons to golden eagles. There are nearly 50 mammal species that can be spotted too although they’re rather elusive, including the four endangered animals that inhabit the region: otters, wild cats, wolves, and greater horseshoe bats. There’s also history to explore at the Franciscan monastery.

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Trogir

Old Town Trogir is a UNESCO World Heritage Site often called a floating museum. It sits on a small island, linked by a bridge to the mainland just a short drive from Split. Surrounded by walls, it dates back to the 3rd century BC when Greeks founded a trading port here. The architecture you see today is remarkably well-preserved with Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings. Some of the highlights include 15th-century Kamerlengo, a castle/fortress that becomes an open stage for summertime concerts, plays, and festivals, and the Romanesque-Gothic St. Lawrence Cathedral, a triple-naved basilica on the main town square. Visitors can climb the bell tower, Trogir’s tallest structure at over 154 feet, for a panoramic view of the city.

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Zadar

Dating back more than 3,000 years, Zadar is Croatia’s oldest continuously inhabited city. It offers an excellent mix of historic and modern that includes a world-famous pair of art installations along the waterfront promenade. The Sea Organ makes music with the power of the waves while The Greeting to the Sun plays a light show after dark. The historic landmarks are particularly intriguing, including Roman and Venetian ruins. The historic center is enclosed by 16th-century walls and there’s even a Roman Forum that dates to the 1st century BC, while the early 9th-century St. Donat’s Church is one of the world’s most well-preserved pre-Romaneseque buildings. Learn more at the Archaeological Museum displaying artifacts from prehistoric times to the 15th century.

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Brac

Brac is a popular day trip from Split as one of its closest islands, easily reached by ferry. It’s home to what’s often ranked among Europe’s most beautiful beaches Zlatni Rat, a popular stop on island-hopping cruises along the Dalmatian Coast. Jutting out a third of a mile into the sea, it’s surrounded by transparent turquoise water. The island is also renowned for its white limestone. Quarried since Roman times, it’s been used to build local homes and some famous buildings like ancient Diocletian’s Palace in Split, and even the White House in Washington, D.C. The stonemasonry school, aiming to preserve Brac’s reputation for masonry and craftsmanship, is open to visitors in the summer who can see the student works.

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