As a result of its chequered history of domination by neighbouring empires, Croatia is one of the most diverse holiday destinations in Europe. Its chief glory is its seemingly endless Adriatic coast, a Mediterranean vision of louring karst mountains, dazzling coastal towns, azure seas and unspoilt islands, laced with echoes of its previous rulers the Romans, the Franks, the Venetians, the Turks and the Napoleonic French. Stir in a terrific holiday infrastructure and an enviably enthusiastic attitude to children, and you have a recipe for unforgettable family holidays.
In the north-west, Istria, with its inland hill villages, red-tiled coastal towns, pasta and truffles, provides a taste of Italy. The capital Zagreb has more than a dash of Austro-Hungarian city-planning – all massive public buildings and formal parks, leavened by a flourishing café society – while its hinterland has Austro-Hungarian rural resonances, with tree-draped mountains and fairy-tale castles.
|Flying Time||2.25 hours|
|Carbon Footprint||1.22 tonnes CO2|
Walk the massive medieval walls of Dubrovnik, try to stand on the gargoyle within the main gate, or swim off the rocks upon which the city is built. Called ‘the pearl of the Adriatic’ by Lord Byron, Dubrovnik earns its iconic status not only because of its spectacularly beautiful Old Town, but also for the family holiday delights of the suburbs of Lapad, Babin kuk and Gruz, whose hotels and beaches are only minutes away using its efficient bus service.
Explore the centre of Split, fascinatingly built on and through the ruins of Roman Emperor Diocletian’s gigantic retirement palace, and rub the toe of the huge statue of Grgur Ninski for good luck.
Wander around the bijou medieval Trogir, stunningly sited on an island attached to the mainland by a bridge, or the alleys and squares and churches of Sibenik (take a look at the city’s cathedral, with its unflattering medieval carvings of the heads of locals who refused to contribute to its upkeep) and Primosten.
Trawl the Markarska Riviera (hotbed of Croatian rugby!), ride the white water of the Cetina Gorge, or drive inland to the other-worldly landscape of Imotski.
Listen to the strange flutings of Zadar’s extraordinary sea organ, or swim in the lowest pool of the waterfalls of Skradinski Buk, in the Krka National Park.
Enjoy the Roman remains at Pula, dominated by its spectacular amphitheatre, now used as a venue for opera and pop concerts, or have a drink with James Joyce (or at least his statue) sitting at a table in the café/bar Uliks (it means ‘Ulysses’). Press up the coast to beautiful Rovinj (yet another town-on-an-island topped by an elegant campanile) famous for art and its House of Batana, a museum devoted to the local fishing boat. Yet further north are Porec, with its early Christian Basilica of Euphrasius, and sporty Umag.
Leave the busy holiday coast and within minutes you’re in a different world of meandering country lanes and pretty hill towns, where the Croatian government are making a concerted effort to counteract rural depopulation by attracting artists and encouraging agritourism. Look out for delightful Motovun, birthplace of motor racing’s Mario Andretti, Buzet, the truffle capital of Croatia, and Pazin, famous for a gorge used, it’s said, by Dante in ‘The Inferno’ as a model for the entrance to hell. Visit, too, the tiny village of Roc, renowned for its inhabitants’ attachment to folk music, the even smaller but atmospheric Hum, and the gorgeously rural Glagolitic Alley in-between, a 7km country road lined with inventive modern monuments to a 9th-century Croatian ecclesiastic script.
Finally, head north to Croatia’s large, cosmopolitan capital city, Zagreb. Though approaching a million souls, much of the city is easily manageable, on foot or using its excellent public transport. The city has some splendid museums, acres of public parks arranged in a U-shape (Lenuci’s Horseshoe, named after its architect), a busy central market at Dolac, the picturesque Upper Town of Gronji Grad (made up of religious Kaptol, around the cathedral, and secular Gradec, home of the seat of government), and all the shops, restaurants, bars and cafés you’d expect in a large city. For swimming, fresh air and exercise, the open spaces of Jarun Lake and Bundek are a short tram ride from the centre, as are the extensive Maksimir Park, with a zoo and Dynamo Zagreb’s football stadium, and the tamed almost-wilds of Mount Medvednica, accessible by bus, tram and/or cable car. And if the city palls, during the stifling continental summer, the green hills and pretty villages of the Zagorje are less than an hour away.
In line with the country's fragmented history, Croatian food varies from region to region. Istria is heavily Italian influenced – indeed, Italians flock across the Adriatic to enjoy their own cuisine at a fraction of the price they’d pay at home – and is famous particularly for its truffles. So for stress-free family holidays, it's perfect.
The Dalmatian coast has the usual Mediterranean emphasis on fresh fish, vegetables and salads, with extensive use of olive oil. Inland Croatia, as you’d expect, is more central European in its food, going for heavy meat dishes and stews (often with dumplings), cheese and a range of sausages.
However, Croatia has become a culinary melting pot, and most regional meals are available in most parts of the country. Look out for a variety of types of prsut, a smoked ham often offered as a starter, the burek, a stick-to-your-ribs cheesy pastry often sold as street food from specialist shops, and meat-and-vegetable dishes cooked ispod peke (‘under the lid’). For picky eaters, though, the ubiquitous ‘international cuisine’ of pizzas, burgers and so on are generally available throughout the main holiday areas.By Jos Simon
For the best weather and most colourful festivals along the Adriatic coast, it has to be July and August, but expect crowds and top prices, especially in Dubrovnik.
Spring and autumn can be a better alternatives for family holidays in Croatia, school holidays permitting, but the more out of season, the fewer attractions, hotels and restaurants are open. Istria is pleasantly warm in summer, mild in winter, and in the autumn puts on lots of truffle and wine festivals.
Zagreb is a year-round city, with swimming and outdoor activities in summer, skiing in winter (are there any other capital cities a half-hour trip from the slopes?) and a variety of festivals all year.
Whilst most holiday flights head for Dubrovnik, increasingly popular destinations, especially with no-frills airlines flying from the UK’s regional airports, are Pula, in Istria, and Split in central Dalmatia.
If you’ve got the time, you could even get to Croatia in your own car – it’s a couple of days' hard motorway driving from the Channel ports.
Croatia is a great-value family-holiday destination, being accessible by low-cost airline and offering more reasonably priced accommodation and eating out than much of the rest of Europe.
Croatia has got it covered when it comes to family holiday accommodation, whether you want a family-friendly hotel with lots of facilities, a self-catering villa or apartment such as those offered by our partner James Villas, or a budget-friendly campsite. Croatia is also a popular spot for family activity holidays; see Trips tab.
From sea-kayaking to whiter-water rafting, an organised family activity can help you make the most of the great outdoors in Croatia.
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