By Rick Steves and Cameron Hewitt
So much to see, so little time. How to choose? To help you get started, I've listed my top picks for where to go in Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Montenegro, as well as my plan for your best two-week trip, and tips on when to go.
Depending on the length of your trip, and taking geographic proximity into account, here are my recommended priorities.
- 3 days: Dubrovnik
- 5 days, add: Mostar, Split
- 7 days, add: Korčula or Hvar (for a relaxing island experience); Montenegro's Bay of Kotor (for dramatic scenery); or Sarajevo (for a more in-depth look at Bosnia)
- 8 days, add: Plitvice Lakes
- 10 days, add: Lake Bled and the Julian Alps
- 12 days, add: Ljubljana, more time for Dalmatian islands
- 14 days, add: Istria
- 16 days, add: Whatever you skipped on day 7 (Korčula/Hvar, Montenegro, or Sarajevo)
- 18 days, add: The Karst, Zagreb
- 21 days, add: More mountains (Logarska Dolina) or coastal villages (Piran, Mljet)
- More time, add: Ptuj, Opatija, and even more islands and coastal villages
As you plan your trip, don’t underestimate the long distances. People tell me, “I’ve got four days, and I want to see Lake Bled and Dubrovnik” — not realizing they’ll waste at least a full day driving nonstop to connect those two sights. If you have a week or less, choose to focus on one area or the other: either the south (Dalmatian Coast — Dubrovnik, Split, and the islands — plus Mostar and Montenegro) or the north (Slovenia, Istria, and maybe Zagreb). The worth-a-detour Plitvice Lakes are stranded in no-man’s land between these two areas, but reachable from either one (easiest by car, possible by bus). Sarajevo also requires a detour, but those who make the trek won’t regret it (about 2.5 hours beyond Mostar, and not “on the way” to anything else in this book — though frequent and affordable flights between Sarajevo and Zagreb make it more convenient than it seems).
Slovenia and Croatia: Best Two-Week Trip (by Car)
Day 1: Arrive Ljubljana's airport and take a taxi to Lake Bled (sleep in Lake Bled)
Day 2: Relax at Lake Bled (sleep in Lake Bled)
Day 3: Pick up car, drive through Julian Alps, end in Ljubljana (sleep in Ljubljana)
Day 4: Ljubljana (sleep in Ljubljana)
Day 5: Drive through the Karst and Piran to Rovinj* (sleep in Rovinj)
Day 6: Tour Istria (sleep in Rovinj)
Day 7: Drive to Plitvice Lakes via Istria's hill towns (sleep in Plitvice)
Day 8: Hike the lakes, then drive to Split and drop car (sleep in Split)
Day 9: Split (sleep in Split)
Day 10: To Hvar or Korčula (sleep in Hvar/Korčula)
Day 11: Relax on Hvar or Korčula (sleep in Hvar/Korčula)
Day 12: To Dubrovnik (sleep in Dubrovnik)
Day 13: Dubrovnik (sleep in Dubrovnik)
Day 14: Rent a car or hire a driver to day-trip to Mostar or to Montenegro's Bay of Kotor (sleep in Dubrovnik)
* To save the substantial extra cost of picking up your car in one country and then dropping it off in another, come up with a strategy for turning in your rental car in Slovenia and then taking public transportation to Croatia, where you can pick up a different rental car for your time there. For example, you could take the bus from Ljubljana or Portorož (near Piran) to Rovinj, then pick up a rental car in Pula; or take the train from Ljubljana to Zagreb or Rijeka, then pick up your rental car in one of those cities.
By Public Transportation
This itinerary can be done entirely by public transportation, with a few modifications. Skip (or hire a driver for) the Julian Alps, and take the bus from Lake Bled to Ljubljana. Skip Istria; instead, take the train from Ljubljana to Zagreb, see that city, then take a bus to Plitvice. The bus connects Plitvice to Split, and from there, you'll continue down the Dalmatian Coast by boat or bus. Even if you're using public transportation, seriously consider periodically renting a car for the day to see the Julian Alps, Istria, Mostar, or Montenegro's Bay of Kotor.
Where to Go in Croatia: A Few More Tips
The perfect Croatian vacation is like a carefully refined recipe — a dash of this, a pinch of that, a slow simmer...and before long, you've got a delicious feast. Overwhelmed with options, people often ask me how to prioritize their time. Here's my tried-and-true recipe:
Begin with the biggies. Dubrovnik is a must, period. If you like big cities, Split is entertaining. Plitvice Lakes National Park, while difficult to reach, rarely disappoints. The bustling capital city, Zagreb — while far from Croatia's famed beaches — is vastly underrated, and much appreciated by urbanites.
Fold in one or two seafront villages. Adriatic coastal towns are all variations on the same theme: A warm stone Old Town with a Venetian bell tower, a tidy boat-speckled harbor, ample seafood restaurants, a few hulking communist-era resort hotels on the edge of town, and sobe and apartman signs by every other doorbell. Of course, each town has its own personality and claims to fame. Beach bums, sightseers, yachters, historians, partiers — everyone you'll talk to has their own favorite town. Don't trust this advice blindly. Try out a few and choose your own top town. Or just pick one; if a beach vacation is your goal, you can barely go wrong.
Sprinkle liberally with Slovenia. You won't regret splicing Slovenia into your itinerary. Its spectacular mountain scenery, colorful capital (Ljubljana), Germanic efficiency, and extremely friendly natives are a pleasant contrast to Croatia. In hindsight, most travelers cite Slovenia as the biggest pleasant surprise of their itinerary — and wish they’d budgeted more time there.
Add some spice. This is my secret ingredient. After you've been to one or two of the coastal resorts, you could head for another one...or you could use that time for something completely different. Some of these options are easy and convenient — the Roman ruins of Pula, the hilltop hamlets of the Istrian interior, the imported-Austrian-resort feel of Opatija. But my favorites involve crossing borders and broadening horizons: the cities of Mostar and Sarajevo, in Bosnia-Herzegovina; and Montenegro's spectacular Bay of Kotor. A year after your trip, you'll barely remember the difference between all those little seaside towns you toured. But you'll never forget the mosques of Mostar.
When to Go
Tourist traffic in this part of Europe (especially the coastal towns) is extremely seasonal. The peak season hits suddenly and floods the towns like a tidal wave, only to recede a couple months later — leaving empty streets and dazed locals. In general, the tourist season runs roughly from mid-May through early October, reaching a peak in early August. (If you're staying in bigger cities or landlocked towns, the seasonal influence is much less pronounced.)
Peak Season: July and especially August are peak season, when just about everything is likely to be open very long hours daily (with occasional closures for a midafternoon siesta). It's also the busiest time of year — boats, buses, and budget accommodations are packed to the gills. Visiting Croatia in July or August is like spending spring break in Florida — fun, but miserably crowded and hot. Hotels charge top dollar, and you'll miss out on the "undiscovered" quality that pervades most of the region the rest of the year.
Shoulder Season: Early May through June and September through early October are shoulder seasons. Within these time spans, late June and early September are nearly as crowded as peak season, but the rush subsides substantially in May and October; by the second week of October, restaurants are already starting to close down for the winter. Shoulder season is my favorite time to visit — I enjoy the smaller crowds, milder weather, and less-frenzied locals.
Off-Season: Mid-October through early May are dead as a doornail. Many small coastal towns close down entirely, with only one hotel and one restaurant remaining open during the lean winter months; many residents move to the interior to hibernate. Anything that's open keeps very limited hours (weekday mornings only). The weather can be cool and dreary, and night will draw the shades on your sightseeing before dinnertime.
Seasonal Changes: Because of this region's extreme seasonality, specifics such as opening times and prices are especially flexible. It's not unusual for a hotel to charge six different rates for the same room, depending on the time of year. (A hotel receptionist once showed me an entire book with literally hundreds of potential rates they could charge, based on room size, type, views, season, and length of stay.) With every visit, I dutifully hike around these towns trying to pin down hours for tourist offices, travel agencies, and museums. And every time, they change. If you're here anytime outside of midsummer, don't rely on my hours — call a day or two ahead to double-check that the place you need (like a room-booking agency) will actually be open when you arrive. It's always smart to call ahead to double-check opening times.
Cameron Hewitt is the co-author of the Rick Steves' Croatia & Slovenia guidebook.