Croatia surprised us in so many ways. We knew to expect good things because virtually everyone who’s ever visited has had only good things to say. But that still didn’t prepare us for what may very well be the most beautiful country we’ve ever visited.
We spent a total of four weeks in Croatia, traveling from the southern tip of Dubrovnik to the northern reaches of Istria. We ferried to a few of its more than one thousand islands and traveled overland from its western shores to as far east as its capital city Zagreb.
Along the way we discovered some of the most remarkable and well preserved medieval old towns we’ve seen anywhere. And not just one or two, but scores of them. Croatia has coastal walled cities and inland walled cities and island walled cities, too. Every one is set against a scenic backdrop of dramatically rippling mountains that tumble into a sea so beautifully blue you’d swear it’s been Photoshopped.
But none of that is what surprised us most about Croatia.
I guess it probably goes to show that even after all these years on the road we’re still U.S. travelers at heart. Because for most Americans Croatia flies well below the radar as a travel destination.
That was certainly true for us. We’ve been going to Europe for 20 years and somehow in all that time Croatia never came up for consideration. The only reason we visited this year is because our original plan had us traveling overland northward from Greece, which was our primary destination. Croatia just happened to be along the way.
And like most other Americans who had never traveled there, we assumed Croatia was a bit off the beaten path; maybe even a little exotic. As a “developing” country, we took for granted that getting around would be more challenging there than it is in Western Europe. And we fully expected to struggle to speak with people in Croatian or even comprehend things written in the traditional Gaj’s Latin alphabet.
With all of these assumed challenges it’s no wonder why Croatia isn’t a place most Americans consider for their first European trip, or even their tenth. It’s not a destination we’d have recommended to first-time travelers either, for those very reasons.
So imagine our surprise when we discovered that traveling in Croatia is as easy as almost anywhere else in Europe; easier, even, than traveling in Spain. We had no problems getting ourselves around on their simple-to-use ferry and bus systems. When we drove we did so on excellent roads. And nearly everywhere along the way we encountered people fluent in English.
Traveling in Croatia couldn’t have been easier. And that, it turns out, is because Croatia is an absolutely huge tourist destination with an incredibly robust tourism infrastructure.
We had no idea so many people travel to Croatia. We were shocked to learn that this little country, roughly the size of West Virginia, is the 24th most popular destination in the world. More people visit Croatia in a given year than go to Ireland.
But because nearly 90% of those visitors come from elsewhere in Europe, the country remains mostly a mystery to American travelers, many of whom wrongly assume that Croatia is an off-the-beaten path destination. And that was probably our biggest surprise. Croatia has definitely been found. Just not by many people from the U.S.
After spending a month in Croatia this year, these American travelers couldn’t recommend it more highly. It is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and remarkable places we’ve ever visited. And because it is also one of the easier places we’ve traveled, we wouldn’t hesitate to extend that recommendation to first-time foreign travelers as well.