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Five overlooked corners of Croatia to discover in 2024

Avoid Croatia's more touristy cities and instead head for its hidden gems
Avoid Croatia's more touristy cities and instead head for its hidden gems - Alamy Stock Photo

At least 20 million tourists descended on Croatia in 2023, with British holidaymakers coming in eighth place in the league table. Numbers have just about surpassed pre-Covid levels, and that’s even with price increases after Croatia joined the eurozone last year, coupled with rising inflation. People can’t seem to get enough of Croatia’s beach-studded Adriatic coast and historic cities.

But while Dubrovnik, Split and Rovinj have more tourists than they know what to do with, there are so many parts of Croatia – even those within range of the big-hitters – that have slipped under the radar.

You might go beyond Dubrovnik for a rural stay in the Konavle region, or bypass Istria for the towns and villages of the Kvarner Gulf. Inland Croatia offers an enticing blend of active adventures in its many nature parks along with cultured cities ripe for weekend breaks.

Whether you want to hike in pine-covered mountains, swim in the Adriatic, lose yourself in the baroque beauty of elegant Habsburg towns or combine all three, you’ll find inspiration for 2024 right here.

Osijek

Just before Croatia’s border nudges against Hungary and Serbia, you reach the stately capital of Slavonia. Osijek’s history as an Austro-Hungarian stronghold is easy to spot as you wander round the cobbled baroque streets of Tvrda, the 18th-century Habsburg fortress. As many of the old military buildings are now used by the university, there’s a pleasant buzz in the café terraces.

A floating bar on the River Drava
A floating bar on the River Drava - Alamy Stock Photo

Things get even livelier along the River Drava, where the last 100 yards of a seven-and-a-half-mile riverside promenade – the longest in Europe – will be finished this year. It’s already a favourite spot for cycling, jogging, strolling and swimming.

For a taste of the countryside, drive 15 minutes to Kopački Rit Nature Park and explore this tranquil world of wetlands and marshes.

Where to stay

Boutique Hotel Tvrda is in the heart of the Austrian fort, with lovely views from its rooftop pool and stylish rooms within a handsome building. B&B doubles from £91.

When to go

Osijek is a year-round city, with events happening every month including antiques fairs, sporting competitions and food festivals. In July and August, catch live music, theatre and open-air film screenings during the Osijek Summer of Culture. The riverside Pannonian Challenge every June is a massive draw for fans of BMX and skateboarding.

Konavle

From April 2, you’ll be able to fly to Dubrovnik with Ryanair from Stansted, making it easier to reach the hinterland and coastal region of Konavle. Wedged between the Dinaric Alps and the Adriatic, Konavle is the bucolic antidote to Dubrovnik’s busy streets. As Konavle’s biggest town, the immensely pretty Cavtat, grows in popularity, escape to the inland villages for a flavour of rural Dalmatia, amid vineyards and olive groves.

Get involved in some traditional Croatian folk dancing in Konavle
Get involved in some traditional Croatian folk dancing in Konavle - Alamy Stock Photo

Head to the hills above the hamlet of Dunave to reach Sokol Grad, a medieval fortress that’s been sympathetically restored and offers spectacular views from its ramparts. If you fancy a swim, follow the narrow winding road down to the unpretentious village of Molunat, which curves round a rocky bay.

Where to stay

Take in sea views from the rooftop infinity pool at Hotel Cavtat, which is just a few minutes’ walk from Cavtat Beach. B&B doubles from £100.

When to go

Konavle’s season runs from April to October, with June and September being the prime months to visit. In July and August things can get busy, especially around Cavtat. The weather stays pleasant in October and even into November.

The Žumberak and Samobor Mountains

Day-trippers and weekenders from nearby Zagreb regularly head southwest towards the Slovenian border and the forested peaks and waterfalls of the Žumberak and Samobor Mountains for a spot of hiking, cycling or just filling their lungs with clean mountain air. Along the way they’ll pop into fairy-tale Samobor for a stroll round its cobbled baroque streets.

The Žumberak mountains make for the perfect hiking spot
The Žumberak mountains make for the perfect hiking spot - Alamy Stock Photo

Wine connoisseurs meander along the Plešivica wine route in the gentle hills surrounding the town of Jastrebarkso – especially the restaurant and wine estate at Korak Winery, which last year picked up a Michelin star for its refined yet sustainable take on local cuisine.

Where to stay

You’ll have hiking trails and wine routes on your doorstep at Kuća za Odmor Čarolija, a four-bedroom log cottage with a large garden and barbecue facilities. It’s in the foothills of the Samobor Mountains and about 10 minutes’ drive from Jastrebarsko. Rental from £101 a night.

When to go

Unless you’re into winter walking and snowshoeing, come hiking in the spring and early summer when the meadows are carpeted with wild flowers. Samobor hosts a carnival in February, and in June both a popular jazz festival and a mountain-biking weekend.

The Gacka Valley

Croatia’s hinterland region of Lika offers much more than its most popular attraction, Plitvice Lakes National Park. Escape the crowds by following the course of the River Gacka, near the town of Otočac, to discover how this serene valley surrounded by karst mountains has become one of Croatia’s biggest adventure playgrounds.

Clear kayaks show off the River Gacka’s sparkling waters
Clear kayaks show off the River Gacka’s sparkling waters - Alamy Stock Photo

There’s everything you need for an active holiday – kayaking (including clear kayaks to show off the Gacka’s sparkling waters), cycling, fishing, quad biking and hiking. It’s certainly one of Croatia’s most affordable regions, with beautifully fresh river trout on most restaurant menus for less than what you’d pay for a starter in London.

Where to stay

Riverside Apartments, five miles south of Otočac, overlooks the Gacka in a peaceful, tree-shaded spot with a large garden, barbecue and children’s play area. Choose one of four apartments in two wooden houses, or rent a whole lot. The owners also offer kayaking, bike rental and quad biking. Rooms from £83 a night, minimum two-night stay.

When to go

You would think Lika goes into hibernation over winter, but its snow-covered landscapes attract visitors looking for a rustic, frozen wonderland. For most outdoor activities – kayaking, cycling, hiking – come from April to October.

The Opatija Riviera

Croatian tourism kicked off in the Habsburgs’ favourite holiday hotspot in the 19th century, and the old-world elegance of towns like Opatija and Lovran is as appealing as ever. This part of the Kvarner Gulf even stood in for Italy for the period drama series Hotel Portofino, which is returning to ITV for a third series later this year.

The old-world elegance of towns like Opatija is as appealing as ever
The old-world elegance of towns like Opatija is as appealing as ever - Getty

One of its chief pleasures is the eight-mile Lungomare promenade, which runs from Lovran to the fishing village of Volosko. Along the way, stop for seafood at Lučica café in Ičići before you reach the wedding-cake architecture of Opatija. Walk through Angiolina Park and past the Wall of Fame, commemorating famous guests including Einstein, Mahler, James Joyce and Isadora Duncan.

Where to stay

Until the new Keight Hotel Opatija, Curio Collection by Hilton opens in May, stay in Lovran’s Hotel Excelsior, which has fabulous sea views from its rooms, an outdoor pool and spa. B&B doubles from £111.

When to go

Most of the Opatija Riviera stays open all year. Lovran is in carnival mood in February, and Opatija’s Liburnia Jazz Festival in July is Croatia’s largest.

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