A Perfect Northern Croatia Road Trip Itinerary
Croatia’s really having a moment right now, with all sorts of travelers flocking to the turquoise beaches and Game of Thrones-esque walls of Dubrovnik and the islands. And with the scenery, culture, and affordability, it’s easy to see why. But northern Croatia is still flying under the radar as an amazing travel destination.
In particular, the Istrian Peninsula in northern Croatia has a crazy insane amount to add to any itinerary, and it’s super compact and centrally-located.
With fragrant truffles, olive oil, medieval hill towns, colorful coastal villages, and an unmistakable Italian flair, a couple days spent in Istria are well worth your time. Add to that the beautiful turquoise waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes National Park and possibly a day in Zagreb, and you’ve got a winner.
Creating your northern Croatia itinerary
As I mentioned above, northern Croatia is really underrated, and as such it’s not nearly as crowded during the spring and summer months. It makes a great alternative to Tuscany (think: hill towns, truffles, olive oil, and wine), has great proximity to lots of other areas, and is much more affordable.
Then you’ve got the stunning Plitvice Lakes National Park waterfalls, plus interesting Balkan wars history. And it’s super centrally-located, so you can easily pair it with any number of other destinations.
It’s also super flexible depending on the time you have and how you want to arrange it. Here’s a rough guide, but it could be 5 days, a week, or two weeks depending on how long you have.
- Arrival: a lot of options (I’ve explained a couple below), but flying into Zagreb is one of the easiest
- 1-2 days: explore the hill towns (and coastal towns) of Istria by car
- 1 day: Plitvice Lakes National Park
- Consider a day in Zagreb if that appeals to you
From here, you could spend a few days in the nearby Croatian islands, go on to Slovenia (or do it in reverse), or decide to head over to Italy, down to southern Croatia, or maybe hop to one of the other Balkan countries (Montenegro and Serbia are two that look amazing). An example of how we did Slovenia:
- 1 day: Ljubljana
- 1-2 days: Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj, Triglav National Park, Vintgar Gorge
- 1 day: Piran, wineries
- 1 day: Julian Alps
We used Sixt rental car, who I’ve used on several international (and a couple domestic) trips. I’ve always been super happy with them, no matter the country.
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One of the easiest itinerary pairings is a few days in Slovenia, which gives you gorgeous mountain scenery and turquoise lakes, vibrant Ljubljana, wine, and charming pastel seaside Piran. Here’s a whole post detailing the Slovenia portion of our itinerary.
I’ll give you two different sample itineraries that I’ve done, to give you an example of how you can customize this for yourself.
Itinerary 1 – Tacking 3-4 days in Croatia onto an Italy trip
My friends and I had been in Grosseto, Italy, for 8 days at a church holy day conference, so we arranged to meet up with our other friend (who had just flown in) in Florence.
- Florence > 1 day in Venice > train to Trieste > bus to Rovinj (pick up rental car)
- There isn’t a train option straight from Italy to the Istrian peninsula, which is why the bus is necessary
- Used Rovinj as our base, spent a day driving around the hill towns of Istria
- Spent 1 day driving to Plitvice Lakes National Park and exploring, then on to Zagreb
- I headed home after this, but my friend flew to Dubrovnik, so this would be an option, or you could take the train from Zagreb to Ljubljana and spend time in Slovenia
Itinerary 2 – Croatia, Slovenia, and some northern Italy
A year later, I took my parents on a similar trip, with a few tweaks and the addition of Slovenia. While this looks like a lot, it was only about an 8-9 day trip.
- Flew into Zagreb, got rental car, spent a few hours exploring the city, then stayed near Plitvice Lakes overnight
- Saw Plitvice Lakes National Park in the morning, drove to Rovinj for the night
- Spent morning/early afternoon driving around the hill towns of Istria, then drove to Ljubljana in the afternoon
- Spent some time in Ljubljana
- 1 day in adorable Piran and doing winery visits
- 1 day exploring Triglav National Park, Vintgar Gorge, Lake Bled, and Lake Bohinj
- 1 day driving through the Julian Alps
- Our friend drove us to Trieste, where we took the train to Venice
- 1 day in Venice, then train to Cinque Terre
- 1 day in Cinque Terre, then flew out of Milan
So now that I’ve given you an idea of ways you can structure your itinerary, it’s time to dig into *where* you’re going.
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My pictures (and the overcast skies) don’t do Rovinj justice, though the sunset pic above starts to. Rovinj is so cute and charming—the perfect size for a base since it’s small enough to get around easily but big enough to have everything you need.
I’ve used it as a base twice and both times found a cute Airbnb with a great view, walked pretty much everywhere, and watched the sunset over the marina.
I’ve gone into detail about Rovinj’s charms in a separate post, but whether you just visit or stay the night, it’s a must. If you’re staying somewhere else, you can just add Rovinj onto your hill town driving itinerary instead.
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You can easily spend a few days exploring every nook and cranny of Istria if you want, but each time I’ve visited I spent just a day driving to several of the towns, and this is a great way to see a ton in a limited time.
This post on the hill towns talks through which towns are skippable and which ones were my fave, as well as some inside tips for how to structure your driving route and where to find an amazing truffle risotto and some viewpoints (Motovun is possibly my favorite, so I devoted a whole post to it).
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Spend a day at Plitvice Lakes National Park
This gets down a bit more into middle rather than truly northern Croatia, but this place is MAGICAL!!
Before I planned my first trip to Croatia, I had literally never heard of Plitvice (pleet-vee-chay), and while I’ve seen it get more attention in the travel community over the last few years, it’s still not massively well-known. My mom still raves about this place, it’s one of her favorite things we’ve done in all our travels together.
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The park is famous for its 16 lakes arranged in cascades with natural travertine dams and the waterfalls that creates, as well as the intensely turquoise color of the water.
The water is part of a fascinating ecosystem and constantly shifts from aqua to cerulean to green depending on whether it’s sunny or cloudy, and you can get up close and personal with the waterfalls in a way I’ve never seen in other parks. The wooden walkways wind under, over, and through the lakes and waterfalls, and the effect is stunning.
I’ve written a whole post rhapsodizing about Plitvice, which I *don’t* recommend if you hate waterfall pictures, but otherwise endorse wholeheartedly. You can see opening dates, times, and costs here.
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There was one fairly notable thing about one of my trips to Plitvice that still is one of my favorite travel stories. My two friends and I were staying in Rovinj, so left fairly early in the morning to drive to Plitvice (planning to go on to Zagreb for the night).
We stopped at a gas station and I decided to take the map in and ask the guy at the counter if we were planning on the right route (this was 2012 so didn’t have Google Maps access easily). He told us to go a different route than we’d planned, so we set out.
I don’t know if we took a wrong turn or what, but the road kept getting more and more narrow and bumpy, til we were eventually on a single-track, rutted-out (muddy and puddled) dirt path through the forest. We weren’t sure what to do at this point, so decided the only way out was through. We kept driving for about another hour, and kept seeing these signs.
At first we thought they were more of a “private, keep out” thing, and eventually realized that they were saying that this was an active landmine area. There wasn’t much we could do at that point (and our assumption was that the road itself was probably fine), but we were tired and stressed and started getting giggly and loopy as time went on.
Finally we made it out and found a way back to the main road (which got us to Plitvice much later than planned, and we had to really rush through the park). But one of the funniest parts was that we kind of gunned it through a giant puddle at the end of the dirt track to get back to pavement, and screeched to a stop and just kind of sat for a minute and looked at each other.
And then Brek (who had been driving like a champ the whole time) goes, “OH! *That* kind of mine…!!!” He thought that we meant like…copper mines or something! 😛 It was hysterical and we’ve never let him live it down.
We felt we’d earned our beers in Zagreb that night…
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Take a moment to soak in the recent wartime history
One of the things that really fascinated me about spending time in Croatia was how fresh and real the scars of recent war were. In many ways you wouldn’t know, as it’s a modern and thriving country.
But about halfway between Zagreb and Plitvice, my parents and I drove through towns like Karlovac and Turanj and saw a stark reminder of a conflict that’s all too fresh in Croatia’s memory. It really stuck with us, and on our drive back up to Istria we made time to stop and explore Turanj a bit.
I wasn’t very familiar with the Croatian War of Independence, part of the overall Yugoslavian breakup/Balkan wars that happened in the early 1990s. I was just a kid, so didn’t really retain much of that.
I’ve written a whole post on experiencing this part of the country, including this open-air museum about the war. It’s a quick stop, you can literally just pull off the road and spend five minutes or a half hour wandering around and learning about what happened.
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One of the things that really blew my mind was listening to Croatians talk about their experience. Of having neighbor turn on neighbor, tanks rolling up the street and shooting at houses, of atrocities committed daily—not by an outside invading force, but by the people they were used to sharing the grocery store aisle with.
Those of us in the U.S. haven’t ever experienced active war on our country’s land in really over a century, so this is incredibly hard to comprehend. I highly recommend taking a little bit of time in northern Croatia to learn more about its recent political history.
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Spend a bit of time in Zagreb
I can’t tell you tons about Zagreb, since we didn’t spend a lot of time there on either trip. But it’s an easy add to your itinerary, even just for a few hours. One of the times I flew into Zagreb, and the other I flew out of it. So when my parents and I visited, we flew into Zagreb, got the rental car, drove into the city and grabbed lunch, walked around for a bit, then hit the road toward Plitvice for the night.
The other time, we did a day trip to Plitvice and then drove to Zagreb to catch our flight in the morning (with a trip to the beer garden to calm our nerves after the landmine road trip). It’s a fun, historic, thriving city, and worth a half-day of your time if it fits neatly into your trip.
And now that I’ve hopefully convinced you that northern Croatia is worth your time, I highly suggest combining it with a few days in Slovenia! I’ve written a separate post talking about why Slovenia should be on your bucket list and outlining what to put on your itinerary, but here are a few pictures to whet your appetite…
Hopefully I’ve given you a taste of northern Croatia’s awesomeness…hit me up with any questions while you’re in your own trip planning process!
Other trip itineraries to consider:
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- An Awesome Long Weekend Itinerary in Portland and Willamette Valley
- Why Slovenia Should Be On Your Bucket List: A 4-Day Itinerary
- Two-Week New Zealand Itinerary: A First-Timer’s Detailed Planning Guide
- A Stunning 2 Days on Scotland’s Isle of Skye
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