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Why Dubrovnik and Zagreb make ideal first visits to Croatia

If you are visiting the country for the first time, why not pick Dubrovnik, on the Dalmatian coast, for a seaside getaway, or head to Zagreb, Croatia’s northwestern capital, for an alternative wintry city break.

Published 27 Aug 2021, 12:39 BST
The Old Town of Dubrovnik, with its medieval walls overlooking the Adriatic, became popular as a filming location for ...

The Old Town of Dubrovnik, with its medieval walls overlooking the Adriatic, became popular as a filming location for the Game of Thrones TV series.

Photograph by HUP Zagreb

For a small country, Croatia has a strong Mediterranean appeal: mountains, pine-scented islands and turquoise waters in Dalmatia; vineyards, rural farmsteads and hilltop castles in the north. There are many corners worth exploring, but if you’re visiting for the first time, the choice is easy. From Dubrovnik, much-loved for its postcard-pretty Old Town, medieval fortifications and baroque architecture, to the inland capital, Zagreb, known for its museums, cosy cafes and enchanting Christmas Market, there's much to discover. 

A city guide to Dubrovnik, on the Dalmatian coast


When to go: Once the proud Republic of Ragusa, the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’ — as Romantic poet Lord Byron famously called Dubrovnik — is now one of Croatia’s most popular seaside destinations. Plan your trip during the warm shoulder months, such as June or September, to enjoy its sights with smaller crowds and help preserve its heritage sites.

What to do: The Old Town — a UNESCO World Heritage Site that served as a filming location for the Game of Thrones TV series — guards the city’s noble past. Visit the Cultural History Museum, housed in the 15th-century Rector's Palace, and in the nearby Dubrovnik Cathedral Treasury, admire the bejewelled Byzantine Crown, which contains the skull of Saint Blaise, the city's patron saint. Then call at the Maritime Museum, displaying paintings and models of some of the merchant ships that were key to Dubrovnik's wealth in former centuries.

Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel in Srebreno Bay, near the Old Town of Dubrovnik, has a beach out front.

Photograph by HUP Zagreb

The medieval Walls of Dubrovnik rise directly from the Adriatic, and you can walk the full circuit of the ramparts for views over terracotta rooftops and across the glittering sea. Tempted to dip in? The surrounding coastline has rocky coves and pebble-and-sand beaches. Otherwise, a 10-minute ferry ride will take you from the port of Dubrovnik to Lokrum Island, which is scattered with walking trails, pine forests and some great swimming spots.

What to eat: Refuel with Dalmatian seafood specialities at local restaurants — savour oysters from Ston, black risotto made from cuttlefish ink, and grilled fresh fish, accompanied by Pošip white wine from Korčula.

Where to stay: To combine sightseeing with swimming and sunbathing, stay at the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel in Srebreno Bay. From here, regular taxi boats head south to Cavtat: founded by the Ancient Greeks in rural region of Konavle, this village sits on a tiny peninsula dotted with Aleppo pines and pebble beaches, making for a lovely day trip.

The twin spires of 13th-century Zagreb Cathedral rise above the roofs of Zagreb's Lower Town.

Photograph by HUP Zagreb

A city guide to Zagreb, in the northeast of the country


When to go: Most Croatians agree — summer on the coast, winter in the capital. Dusted with snow and occasionally shrouded in romantic fog, Zagreb looks like a scene from a fairy tale at Christmastime.

What to do: Jelačić Square, with medieval Gornji Grad (Upper Town) above it and 19th-century Donji Grad (Lower Town) below, is the perfect place to kick-start an exploration of the compact centre. Follow the stairs to the Kaptol area, where you can stroll around Dolac Market and crane your neck to spot the twin spires of 13th-century Zagreb Cathedral (currently under restoration, following earthquake damage in 2020). Wander Gorniji Grad's steep cobbled streets, keeping an eye out for the old-fashioned street lanterns that are still hand-lit each evening.

Getting to Gornji Grad is an easy enough uphill stroll, but the short Zagreb Funicular is a fun alternative. Here, you can’t miss St Mark’s Church: the building’s colourful roof tiles — assembled to create medieval coats of arms — have become an emblem of the city. Visit the quirky Museum of Broken Relationships, which displays significant objects from love stories gone wrong, and stroll down Tkalčićeva. If you're here during Advent, visit Zagreb's Christmas Market and taste local specialities, such as strukli (cottage cheese dumplings) and sarma (cabbage leaves stuffed with meat and rice).

Christmas cookies at the Westin Zagreb, a five-star hotel in the centre of the Croatian capital.

Photograph by HUP Zagreb

What to buy: There are 17 Croatian customs and traditions enshrined on UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage list — more than any other country in Europe, except Spain —  and some of them can be easily discovered during your trip. At Zagreb's Christmas Market, look out for gingerbread hearts, decorated with red and white icing, and children's wooden toys, such as whistles, horses, birds and cars, handmade in Zagorje — two crafts recognised by UNESCO.

Where to stay: The Westin Zagreb is located in a green area next to the Mimara Museum and the Croatian National Theatre, within walking distance of all the main attractions. If you’re in the area for a few days, consider organising a day trip rural Zagorje, to see Veliki Tabor and Trakošćan Castles and go wine-tasting around Croatian hills.

Essentials

A number of airlines, including British Airways and EasyJet, fly from London to Dubrovnik in around three hours, and from the airport it’s a 30-minute drive to the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera Hotel. The 239-room, 11-suite resort has four dining options, outdoor and indoor pools, a spa and a beach out front. Renting a car is recommended if you want to explore the Riviera.

British Airways and Croatia Airlines fly from London to Zagreb in around two hours and a half. Five-star The Westin Zagreb has 340 rooms — completely renovated in 2016 — including Deluxe and Suite accommodation. Facilities include four dining options and a spa with an indoor pool and gym.

For more information, visit marriott.com/ZAGWI and marriott.com/DBVSI

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