The best beaches, swim spots and beyond in Croatia

Mediterranean bliss, ancient-kingdom charm and stunning national parks are just some of the things that Croatia offers, as it slithers down the continent towards Montenegro. But would any holiday here – whether a romantic weekend break or a marvellous long escape – be complete without some downtime kicking back on the beach? No matter where you visit – from Split to Zadar to Dubrovnik – you’ll find gold sands and smooth pebbles hugging the coast. Here is a hand-picked selection of the best spots and hidden treasures along Croatia’s shoreline, as well as some must-dos to make the most of the great outdoors in this captivating country.

A quiet beach with views of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. Image: iStock/agustavop

Best for captivating coastlines and culture: Dubrovnik

Starting in the sun-kissed south, Dubrovnik’s appeal has increased tenfold in recent years, and not just because of its smattering of beaches: its use as King’s Landing in HBO’s A Game of Thrones has had Westerosi fans flocking to that staircase and into the Old Town below. But when you’re done weaving in and out of cobbled alleys reminiscent of the Italian backstreets of Venice, hail a taxi from outside Ploče Gate and head east towards Sveti Jakov beach. You’ll find yourself zooming past the occasionally overcrowded Bellevue beach, towards a secluded cove sprinkled with purple umbrellas. Here, soft, grainy sand slowly blends into smooth pebbles towards the gently lapping sea.

Sveti Jakov is perfect for a quiet afternoon of bronzing, with a bar dedicated to icy drinks and snacks. You can still see the Old Town in the distance, and as the sun sets behind the city a dramatic skyline appears just before evening, when the beach is shaded. Head back to the Old Town for dinner at Taj Mahal (which, contrary to its name, serves hearty Bosnian cuisine with a Mediterranean flair), located on a sleepy road with an outdoor space for al fresco dining.

Panoramic views from the top of a cable car in Dubrovnik, with Lokrum island in the background. Image: iStock/WitR

As you walk along the city walls of the Old Town, it’ll be hard to miss Lokrum island, a verdant mass rising out of the ocean. Boats to the island are frequent, and island-exploring is a must in Croatia. Home to family-friendly beaches, it’s a fantastic swimming spot – but be aware that the outcrop is quite rocky. On the island you’ll find a botanical garden for nature-lovers, and Paradise Walk: don’t be fooled by the name – it can be sweltering during the day, with little shade from trees, but the views from the top are heavenly.

If quiet coves and island forests aren’t your thing, or you want to embrace the gentle lapping waves of the Adriatic, then the upbeat and ever-popular Copacabana beach is another enticing option. Just six kilometres north of Dubrovnik, this trendy beach has an exclusive bar, Equinox, as well as luxurious Balinese loungers complementing the chic-shack vibe. However, it’s not all about lounging around in luxury – why not splash about in the waters on a kayak, or rev out of your comfort zone with a motorised jet ski.

A tranquil beach and lagoon in Split, Croatia. Image: iStock/anshar73

Best for sunbathing and swimming: Split

Venturing north, you’ll find the harbour town of Split. Its beaches vie for attention alongside the classic bars and cosmopolitan restaurants housed inside the Diocletian’s Palace, the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world. Take a tour of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, stopping at the main gate in front of a statue of Grgur Ninskia and rubbing his toe for luck – because who doesn’t want more gold?

For many, though, the area’s golden sands will suffice. A little to the west of the central promenade, you can catch a bus to Split’s ‘second-best’ beach, Kasjuni. With Marjan Hill raising up in the background, this is a favourite amongst locals and popular with swimmers. Umbrellas and sunbeds can be rented at Joe’s Beach Lounge & Bar, meaning you can spend the day at leisure just a little away from the hustle and bustle of the main town. For those looking to perfect their head-to-toe tan, there’s a more private area at the end of the beach.

The scenic Hvar island at sunset. Image: iStock/mbbirdy

Best for high-intensity island thrills (and relaxation): Hvar and Brač

Split’s harbour is one of the most convenient if you’re looking to explore the islands just off the Dalmatian Coast. A fan favourite for its Mediterranean-esque architecture and terracotta roofs, Hvar is a paradise during the day –  and once the sun’s gone down, life’s a party. Start off with hiring a boat and cruising around the archipelago, perhaps ending up on Carpe Diem beach: another twilight favourite, you can dance into the dusk to tropical tunes, with a cocktail or two (or three) in hand, as the sunset splashes pink and orange across the sky. For rhythms all night long, Hula Hula beach bar is a must-visit for letting off a little steam, all against a backdrop of sapphire waters and rising rocky crags.

If you’re looking to indulge your adventurous streak, sail over to Brač. More naturally wild than its party-hard sister, this is the place for adrenaline-junkies: hire a buggy and bounce around the rocky island, scuba-dive around Lučice Bay and explore the underwater caves, or even scale along some of the crags around Ložišća. Finish off with a chilled stroll down the soft sands of Zlatni Rat beach – aka the Golden Horn – which extends into the sea like a finger pointing to the horizon. It’s a great place to cool off in the height of summer, but is also super-popular with tourists, so a slightly calmer (yet equally soft) spot to kick back with a book is Povlja, on the other side of the island.

The Golden Horn (Zlatni Rak): a perfect place on the island of Brac for sunbathing and dipping your toes into the sea. Image: iStock/mbbirdy

Best for diving and dancing: Zadar

Further along the Croatian coast, you’ll come across the quirky gem that is Zadar. Playful and colourful, it’s a hit with younger crowds, especially those with a passion for diving. Just a little way out of the city is Zlatna Luka diving centre, where whole-day excursions to the beautiful Kornati National Park can be arranged. Scale the underwater walls as you float weightlessly, marvelling at the soft blood-red and pearly pink corals amongst the diverse range of marine life. With experienced instructors, you’ll explore the caves cradled underneath the staggering 89 islands that make up the Park.

Back above sea level, pebbles and sand await on many a beach – as well as bamboo parasols, beating rhythms and a seemingly endless summer. Two hours’ drive from Zadar is the Blue Flag-awarded Zrće beach, which has doubled up as a party hub with a slew of pulse-raising activities for you to sink your teeth into: think jet-skiing, wake-boarding and even bungee jumping. When the sun sets, swap the safety gear for a sarong and sangria, and sway to the music well into the night.

Cascading waters and leafy surrounds: Krka’s National Park is a true gem. Image: iStock/QQ7

Best for escapes into nature: Krka National Park

If you (somehow) find yourself tiring of the coastline’s beaches, follow the mouth of the river from Šibenik, up past Prokljansko Jezero and in to Krka National Park, a sparkling nature reserve spanning 74 kilometres and boasting Croatia’s longest river. Cross one of its five main entrances to find myriad landscapes, lagoons and landmarks waiting inside this botanical treasure trove. A blanket of emerald-green forest wraps itself around azure pools, lakes and reservoirs, with plenty of trails and hiking paths to follow and find your inner Zen. For weary feet, you can hire a bike and explore land on two wheels, or take to the crystalline waters and travel by boat.

As you snake further upstream, you’ll find five ancient fortresses constructed in the Middle Ages, as well as a sanctuary in the form of Krka Monastery, the ideal spot for a little meditation and reflection. Perched on the side of the lake, you can access it via boat or car transfer. Visit the Chapel, light a candle, then descend into the Roman Catacombs for a thrill. Be sure to visit at least one of the seven waterfalls belonging to the park, the easiest to reach being Bilušića Buk, or roam into the Oziđana Pećina cave, where the remains of a Neolithic settlement had been found. Krka is a popular spot for nature-lovers, and an alternative to the busier and bigger Plitvice National Park, around two hours from the capital, Zagreb. It makes for one of the most Insta-worthy spots in Croatia, where the bluer-than-blue water creates the perfect backdrop for sun-kissed selfies and nature shots.

Words by Peter Croucher

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