Serving the classic Dalmatian cocktail of historic towns, jewel-like waters, rugged limestone mountains, sun-kissed islands, gorgeous climate and Mediterranean cuisine, this region is a holidaymaker's dream. Yet it's the cities and islands further south that hog all the limelight, leaving Northern Dalmatia, if not quite undiscovered, then certainly less overrun. Yachties can sail between unpopulated islands without a shred of development, lost in dreams of the Mediterranean of old, while hikers can wander lonely trails where bears and wolves still dwell, and explore three of Croatia's most impressive national parks, which shelter in the hinterland.
By contrast, Zadar is a cultured city rich in museums, Roman ruins, restaurants and hip bars. Summertime clubbers gravitate to Zrće Beach and Tisno, which together form the nucleus of Croatia’s premier clubbing scene.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Northern Dalmatia.
By far Croatia's top natural attraction and the absolute highlight of Croatia's Adriatic hinterland, the Plitvice Lakes National Park is a glorious expanse of forested hills and turquoise lakes. Within the boundaries of this heavily forested national park, 16 crystalline lakes tumble into each other via a series of waterfalls and cascades. The mineral-rich waters carve through the rock, depositing tufa in continually changing formations. Clouds of butterflies drift above the 11 miles (18km) of wooden footbridges and pathways that snake around the edges and across the rumbling water. It's exquisitely scenic – so much so that in 1979 Unesco proclaimed it a World Heritage Site. The name is slightly misleading though, as it's not so much the lakes that are the attraction here but the hundreds of waterfalls that link them. Exploring the park From Entrance 2, the southernmost of the two entrances, it’s an easy amble down to the shore of 2.5-mile-long (4km) Kozjak Lake and P1 (a hut and boat stop). Surrounded by steep, forested slopes, Kozjak is the park's largest lake, and forms a boundary between the upper and lower valleys. It contains a small oval island composed of travertine. A good path runs along the lake’s eastern shore: follow it to reach the spectacular lower lakes – with forests, grottoes, steep cliffs and waterfalls – or take one of the regular free boats. Next is emerald Milanovac Lake, then the path runs below cliffs beside Gavanovac Lake. Above is the open-topped cavern of Šupljara, where there’s a lovely viewpoint over Plitvice’s lower reaches. A wooden walkway cuts across to the north bank, around reed-fringed Kaluđerovac Lake and past two towering sets of waterfalls. The second, the aptly named Veliki Slap, is the tallest in Croatia, with a 255ft (78m) drop. To explore the upper section of the lakes, return to P1 and follow the trails to Gradinsko Lake, bordered by reeds that often harbor nesting wild ducks. A series of cascades links Gradinsko to beautiful Galovac Lake, where an abundance of water has formed a series of ponds and falls. A set of concrete stairs over the falls, constructed long ago, has been covered by travertine, forming even more falls in a spectacular panorama. Several smaller lakes are topped by the larger Okrugljak Lake, supplied by two powerful waterfalls. Continuing upwards, you’ll come to Ciginovac Lake and, finally, Prošćansko Lake, surrounded by thick forests. Various combinations of boat, road train (a tourist bus with carriages) and hiking are available, depending on your level of fitness and the amount of time you have. A useful map is printed on the tickets and the information booths are extremely helpful. When to visit While the park is beautiful year-round, spring and fall are the best times to visit. In spring and early summer the falls are flush with water, while in autumn the changing leaves put on a colorful display. Winter is also spectacular, although snow can limit access and the free park transport doesn't operate. Unquestionably the worst time to visit is in the peak months of July and August, when the falls reduce to a trickle, parking is problematic and the sheer volume of visitors can turn the walking tracks into a conga line and cause lengthy waits for the buses and boats that ferry people around the park. Tickets and other practicalities Tickets must be purchased online at least one day in advance of your visit. The extraordinary natural beauty of the park merits a full day's exploration, but you can still experience a lot on a half-day trip from Zadar or Zagreb. You must be able to walk a fair distance to get the most out of the place. If you've got limited time, the upper lake section can be completed in two hours. The lower section takes about three, although it's best to start with the bus ride and end with the boat to save yourself a climb. Swimming is not permitted in any of the lakes. Hotels and campsites near Plitvice National Park The four hotels operated by the national park are relatively charmless institutions, but they're conveniently positioned right on the park's borders. There are also two campsites. Otherwise, there are excellent guesthouses within walking distance in surrounding villages. For a particularly atmospheric alternative, hunt for private rooms in tiny Korana, an idyllic village set by a gurgling stream and reached by a narrow road north of the Korana bridge. Read more: croatia's -national-parks-link" href="https://www.lonelyplanet.com/articles/best-national-parks-croatia">Exploring Croatia's national parks
The crowning architectural glory of the Dalmatian coast and the undisputed masterpiece of its principal designer, Juraj Dalmatinac, this World Heritage Site is worth a detour to see. It was constructed entirely of stone quarried from the islands of Brač, Korčula, Rab and Krk, and is reputed to be the world’s largest church built completely of stone without brick or wooden supports. The structure is also unique in that the interior shape corresponds exactly to the exterior.
Covering 95 sq km of the Velebit Range that divides continental Croatia from the Adriatic coast, Paklenica National Park contains some of the country’s finest mountain scenery, giving you the opportunity to trek up gorges, climb walls of stone and meander along shady paths next to rushing streams. The park encompasses two deep gorges, Velika Paklenica (Great Paklenica) and Mala Paklenica (Small Paklenica), which scar the mountain range like giant hatchet marks, with cliffs over 400m high.
One of Northern Dalmatia's most striking natural phenomena, Dragon's Eye Lake is a 10,000-sq-metre oval encircled by 4m- to 24m-high cliffs. Connected to the ocean by underwater channels and cracks in the surrounding limestone, the lake is up to 15m deep. What makes it so unusual is its base of hydrogen sulphide – although it's safe to swim here, the water gets hotter the deeper you dive. On occasion the lake 'boils' as the salts and hot water bubble to the surface.
Another wacky and wonderful creation by Nikola Bašić (the local architect who designed the nearby Sea Organ), this 22m-wide circle set into the pavement is filled with 300 multilayered glass plates that collect the sun’s energy during the day. Together with the wave energy that makes the Sea Organ’s sound, it produces a trippy light show from sunset to sunrise that’s meant to simulate the solar system. It also collects enough energy to power the entire harbour-front lighting system.
This isn't just the most important Serbian Orthodox monastery in Croatia; it's one of the faith's most important sites full stop. Featuring a unique combination of Byzantine and Mediterranean architecture, it occupies a peaceful position above the river and a small lake. From mid-June to mid-October a national-park guide is at hand to show you around. At other times you're welcome to visit the church and wander the lakeside path.
Zadar’s incredible Sea Organ, designed by local architect Nikola Bašić, is unique. Set within the perforated stone stairs that descend into the sea is a system of pipes and whistles that exudes wistful sighs when the movement of the sea pushes air through it. The effect is hypnotic, the mellifluous tones increasing in volume when a boat or ferry passes by. You can swim from the steps off the promenade while listening to the sounds.
Composed of 89 of the Kornati's 140 islands, Kornati National Park shelters part of the largest and densest archipelago in the Adriatic. Due to the typically karstic terrain, the islands are riddled with cracks, caves, grottoes and rugged cliffs. The evergreens and holm oaks that used to be found here were long ago burned down. Far from stripping the islands of their beauty, the deforestation has highlighted startling rock formations, whose stark whiteness against the deep-blue Adriatic is an eerie and wonderful sight.
Dedicated to protecting birds of prey in Croatia, this centre performs a kind of rescue and rehab service for around 150 injured raptors each year. Visitors are treated to a highly entertaining and educational presentation from centre director Emilo Mendušić, who uses a tame eagle owl and Harris hawks to demonstrate these birds’ agility and skills. Rescued native birds aren't used for these shows; they're only kept at the centre until they're healthy enough to be released back into the wild.