This Is Why a Croatia Winter Trip Is Actually Not as Crazy as It Sounds!
Why would anyone even consider a Croatia winter trip, you ask. It is true that most people associate it with images of the stunning islands, the azure waters of the Adriatic, and gorgeous sunsets on the Dalmatian coast. While most the 15 million tourists visiting the country annually indeed do so during the summer months (May – September), savvy travelers looking to beat the crowds, go off the beaten path, and experience authentic local culture should consider a Croatia winter trip.
After being there in off-season several times myself, here are some tips on why a Croatia winter trip may not be as crazy as it sounds.
You can choose your weather, kind of…
Even in winter, you may still be able to enjoy the sunshine and blue skies, walk on the beach, or relax with a glass of wine or a cup of coffee on Split’s Riva promenade or at one of Dubrovnik’s terraces or street cafes (and be surrounded by locals instead of tourists).
Croatia’s coast has typically Mediterranean winters – mild, sometimes wet, but still with a relatively high number of sunny days. A crucial aspect of Dalmatian weather at this time of year is the Bura – a cold and dry north-easterly wind which sometimes blows from the mountains towards the coastline.
Cool Fact: Did you know that the Bura is a required component for the drying and aging of the famous local prsut (cured ham)? Locals say that without Bura, their ham would not have its unique texture and taste…
In the northern and inland parts of Croatia, the continental climate means that winters can be quite cold with freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall – what better reason to enjoy a cooking class or to huddle by the fireplace with a mug of mulled wine (kuhano vino) and hot brandy (topla rakija)!?
Getting there and staying at the best hotels will cost you less
Because it is such a popular summer destination, airfares into Croatia drop in the winter, even though many airlines discontinue their seasonal flights to Split and Dubrovnik on the Dalmatian coast, so finding direct flights could be a challenge.
Staying at one of Croatia’s smaller boutique hotels (some of which have 7 – 9 rooms total) can be next to impossible in high season unless you book well in advance. On the other hand, occupancy rates are much lower in the off-season (mid-October through early May) , so a Croatia winter trip would increase your chances of getting a great room at the coveted hotel of your choice. Hotel rates are also significantly lower in winter (less so in the capital Zagreb with its year-round business travelers).
If you are self-driving in Croatia (which is one of the best ways to independently explore the country), you should know that traffic on the main roads (like the ones connecting Zagreb and Split and Split and Dubrovnik) will be much lighter in the off-season. Also, a Croatia winter trip would mean much shorter lines at the border crossings for Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro.
Sample traditional Croatian winter cuisine
Winter in Croatia is a great time to enjoy some of the traditional winter foods such as Punjene paprike, Sarma (peppers or cabbage leaves stuffed with minced meat, rice, and spices), and the various thick soups and slow-cooked stews. There is something uniquely charming and homey about enjoying a hearty meal and homemade wine near the fireplace – an experience which simply cannot be replicated in summer.
Get a uniquely different perspective of Croatia’s national parks
Winter is a great time to visit Croatia’s famous national parks. In addition to evading the crowds, you will be treated to some wonderful sights unique to the winter season.
The waterfalls at Plitvice Lakes freeze over and their massive, glistening icicles become a truly magical sight. The Krka National Park is also open year-round and boasts a network of stunning falls. As an added incentive, the admission fees at both parks in winter are less than a third of what you would normally pay in high season.
Discover less-visited parts of Croatia
Located in the north-western corner of the country (adjacent to Slovenia and Italy), the Istrian Peninsula has much to offer, regardless of the season. Rovinj, with its winding cobbled streets, scenic harbor, and top local restaurants, is gaining popularity among Europeans as a cozy winter retreat. Pula’s historic center and Roman amphitheater are perfect for a laid-back city break. In the interior of the peninsula, the tiny hilltop town of Motovun offers a pleasant blend of rolling countryside and charming old streets.
Just north of the capital Zagreb, Zagorje is a green bucolic region which receives few visitors, even in summer. It is truly an undiscovered gem – with quiet villages, small towns, roads winding through scenic hills, and superb wine, as well as some of the country’s most spectacular medieval castles like Trakoscan and Varazdin.
Experience authentic (non-touristy) cultural events
For the more culturally-minded, Croatia offers plenty to do in off-season. Every winter (usually in January), Museum Night is held all over the country with more than 200 museums and galleries opening their doors free of charge.
Usually held from November till March, the Dubrovnik Winter Festival has something for everyone – concerts, ice skating, Christmas plays, live music, and more. The Festival of St. Blaise – Dubrovnik’s patron saint (you can see his statues above the entrances to the Old Town), has been celebrated in February ever since 972 and opens with a religious procession followed by a variety of performances and exhibitions in the historic Old Town.
February is carnival season in Croatia. The Rijeka Carnival is one of the largest in Europe drawing some 20,000 performers and 600,000 guests. This year, the festivities begin on January 17th with the Carnival Queen Pageant and the ceremonial handover of the town’s keys to the Master of the Carnival and continue with concerts, and parties, all leading up to the huge international masked parade in February.
Explore top sites without the summer crowds
If you have been in Croatia in the summer, you will know that places like Dubrovnik’s Old Town, the Diocletian Palace in Split, and the Plitvice Lakes national park get miserably crowded by tourist groups and cruise ship passengers.
In winter, with the mass-tourism hordes gone, you will get a much more authentic glimpse of everyday life in Croatia. You can stroll on top Dubrovnik’s walls almost by yourself, take a ferry ride with only the locals on board, wander peacefully around the national parks, or snatch the table of your choice at that top-rated restaurant.
Warm up in Croatia’s hot springs
I bet you did not know, but there are many natural thermal springs (called Toplice) in Croatia, most of them in the Zagorje region. The mineral springs there have been known since Roman times and are popular retreats year-round, but especially so in the winter months. Just an hour’s drive north of Zagreb, Krapinske Toplice has four thermal pools with temperature ranging 102 – 106 °F, including an outdoor pool with waterfalls and water slides, a wave pool, and a kiddie pool.
Nearby, the spas at Tuheljske Toplice are also popular with families as they offer wellness packages that keep the kids busy while the parents enjoy their treatments. For a more active experience, the gorgeous surrounding countryside offers several well-marked hiking and biking trails.
All this being said, there are some drawbacks of visiting Croatia in off-season…Many of the hotels, restaurants, and sites in the small towns along the Dalmatian coast and on the islands close entirely which also means that ferry service to the islands is very limited and can get delayed or canceled if the weather and sea conditions do not cooperate.
So, if a Croatia winter trip is on your mind, I would recommend skipping the islands and focusing on the cities – Dubrovnik, Split, Zagreb, and the less-explored areas of the interior. When in doubt, you know who to call!
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