When I went to Croatia for the first time, I realized early on that our itinerary wouldn’t allow us to get down to the more well-known southern half of the country, but I literally didn’t know ANYTHING about the northern half. As I immersed myself in research, I quickly learned that Plitvice Lakes is one of the most amazing places that you probably haven’t ever heard of.
Plitvice (pleet-vee-chay) Lakes National Park was founded in 1949, and added as a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1979. The park is famous for its 16 lakes arranged in cascades with natural travertine dams, and the intense turquoise color of the water that flows between them.
The colors of the water constantly shift from aqua to cerulean to green, and are stunning in both sunny and cloudy weather. The intense diversity of organisms and minerals in the water provide the color, and the overall ecosystem is a delicate balance.
Despite the tranquil beauty here, Plitvice also has a darker past. The first shots in the Croatian war for independence were actually fired at Plitvice, and the nearby towns saw a ton of brutal fighting. There’s a lot of history to explore in the surrounding area if you have the time.
How to visit Plitvice Lakes, Croatia, and where to stay
I’ve visited Plitvice on two separate occasions, once with friends and once with my parents. I’ll speak to both here, though the pictures are mostly from the visit with my parents…the weather and my camera were both better 🙂
- On that occasion, my parents and I stayed in a sobe (room for rent) near the park. It was super easy, and gave us the opportunity to explore the area a bit beyond the park itself.
- The other time, my friends and I drove from Rovinj that morning—and were told to take the wrong route, so drove through two hours of forest with landmine signs everywhere, a story for another day—and then drove on to Zagreb for the night. That’s a much longer day, but both are totally doable.
- If you have longer, you also can stay IN the park.
Entering the park
This is one of the first views you see once you enter the park (from one of the entrances). AMAZING, RIGHT?! We got up early and got to the park right when they opened.
One of the crazy things about Plitvice is that it’s still relatively unknown, as major tourist attractions go. Don’t get me wrong, there are over a million visitors a year and you’ll certainly encounter crowds at certain times of year, but it’s nothing compared to other European destinations and you can still feel fairly isolated.
And if you get out early, you’ll feel like you have the park all to yourself. There are two entrances and both are totally fine (just remember which one you parked at). I’m told that Entrance 2 is a little less crowded during peak season.
Plitvice is all waterfalls, all the time. They come in all shapes and sizes, but there’s one big daddy. If crowds are light, I’d recommend heading there first (just follow the signs) and get any pictures you want.
One of the things that continually amazes me about national parks in other countries is how immersed you’re allowed to be (and how few safety measures there are). The boardwalks criss-cross all through the park, right on top of the water and right next to the waterfalls so you truly experience the colors, sounds, and smells. There aren’t many railings…they trust you to be careful or you’ll be taking a dip. For those with kids or mobility issues, this is definitely something to be aware of. And those boardwalks can be super slick at times, so choose your footwear carefully.
When my parents and I visited in May 2014, the area had been receiving a ton of rain, and it definitely made navigating parts of the park challenging. You can see how the water is over the boardwalk in some places. The paths were a muddy mess, and the park staff had laid out little ladders to try and make getting around easier. But our feet were soaked and muddy by the end of our day there. Completely worth it, but I didn’t choose my shoes wisely.
I really hate this picture, but it’s the only one of the boat ride. There’s a little electric boat that can transport you between sections of the park, as well as a panoramic sightseeing train. I don’t think we ended up taking the train, but the boat ride was really pretty. Our boat operator was, like, the most Croatian-looking guy ever (and kind of cute!).
Make sure you look up the boat and train times and where to catch them. They’re both included in the price of your ticket, and most of the food in the park is concentrated around the docks/stations.
Even without blue skies and sun, Plitvice is a stunning experience, a true natural wonder. I’ve been twice and hope to visit again in the future—I don’t believe I could ever get tired of the gorgeous turquoise waters and peaceful waterfalls. My parents still rave about this visit, it was the highlight of this trip and one of their favorite memories of all our travels.
Cheat Sheet for Visiting Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
- If possible, get to the park early so you have the place to yourself.
- Plan on 3-5 hours at the park. You can definitely spend more, and depends on the speed you walk, how many pictures you take, how long you like to just sit and stare at things.
- The park is generally open from 8:00a to 4:00p, but make sure to check the website before going because it changes based on holidays, seasonality, etc.
What to wear/bring
- Wear comfortable walking shoes with a good grip—you’ll be walking a TON, plus the boardwalks can get super slippery (and there’s often quite a bit of mud on the trails). Your feet will get damp and muddy at best, and you don’t want to end up IN the water 🙂
- Be prepared for rain and cooler temperatures. You can still visit, just have a poncho (or umbrella if that’s your style). I was here in May and late September, the latter was super chilly and the former wasn’t exactly warm).
- There is some food and drink for purchase in a few places, but you can also bring in water and snacks or sandwiches to picnic. But if you bring snacks, for the love of all that’s holy do not litter.
- See the top of the post for recommendations on where to stay and how to fit this into your itinerary.
- Trains don’t go to Plitvice, so you’ll need to rent a car (recommended) or by tour group or public bus (buy it 2-4 days in advance if it’s peak season). Renting a car is definitely preferred though, since it gives you maximum flexibility and Plitvice is not really near anything.
- There are two entrances, very clearly named Entrance 1 and Entrance 2. Either is great, though Entrance 2 can be a bit less crowded during high season, but most importantly you just need to know which one you came in so you know where to find your car.
- You can buy a map at the entrance too, or just use the big map signs that are posted every so often to make sure you cover every inch of the park.
- An adult ticket costs anywhere from $8 to $26 USD (based on the current exchange rate, December 2016). Check here for current prices, and here for a quick exchange rate calculation.
- There’s an electric boat that can transport you between sections of the park, as well as a sightseeing panoramic train. Look up the times and where to catch them when you enter the park, so you’re prepared. This is all included in your entrance ticket.
What natural wonder is your favorite travel memory so far? Have you been to Plitvice? Let me know in the comments!
Other info for planning your trip:
Motovun: Croatia’s Quintessential Hill Town