On the edge of south-east Europe’s Balkan Peninsula, facing Italy across the deep blue Adriatic, Croatia has over 1,100 miles of meandering mainland coast, backed by rugged limestone mountains and looking out on hundreds of scattered islands and islets, of which 47 are inhabited. This land was first populated by the mountain-dwelling Illyrians. Later the Ancient Greeks and then the Romans arrived by sea, founding several early coastal settlements. Then, from 1420 to 1797, the Venetians occupied almost the entire coast, building dozens of historic harbour towns, most of which remain beautifully preserved today.

Croatia is a destination where you can combine cultural sightseeing with swimming and lazing on the beach. It’s important to remember that there is very little sand – almost all the beaches are of pebble and rock, and in some cases you swim from man-made concrete bathing platforms with steps down into the sea.

[In Framura, killer sea views and an Italian getaway off the beaten track]

On these pages we are looking specifically at Croatia’s five coastal regions: South Dalmatia, Central Dalmatia, North Dalmatia, Kvarner and Istria. Within each region, two standout towns have been highlighted, along with a nearby not-to-be-missed inland attraction, some food and wine suggestions, plus hotel recommendations. Welcome to the best of coastal Croatia.

SOUTH DALMATIA

Dubrovnik’s Unesco-listed old town was a film set for Game of Thrones
Getty

You can fly direct to South Dalmatia’s largest city, Dubrovnik, from Dubai on flydubai, from about Dh1,900.

Dubrovnik, formerly known as Ragusa, was for centuries a wealthy city-republic, which slowly expanded to include a stretch of coast and the tiny Elafiti islets. From Dubrovnik’s Gruz port, you can make day trips by boat to the Elafitis, as well as the island of Mljet, where Mljet National Park (np-mljet.hr) encompasses two stunning turquoise lakes, rimmed by dense woodland – rent a bike and cycle around the lakes, or hire a kayak and paddle across.

North-west up the coast, tiny Ston (famed for its excellent fresh oysters and mussels) is the gateway to the rugged Peljesac peninsula, which produces some of Croatia’s top red wines, notably dingac. Opposite Peljesac, verdant Korcula is South Dalmatia’s biggest island.

Visit: Dubrovnik

Dubbed the “Pearl of the Adriatic” by Lord Byron, Dubrovnik is Croatia’s most visited (and expensive) destination. In the past, its extraordinary wealth was based on seafaring and trading; today it lives on tourism. The Unesco-listed old town is protected by sturdy medieval fortifications – walk a full circuit of the ramparts, then explore the stone alleys, packed with noble baroque palazzi, elegant churches, museums, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. You might recognise it – it was a film set for Game of Thrones. tzdubrovnik.hr.

Visit: Korcula Town

Perched on a tiny fortified peninsula on the island of Korcula, this medieval settlement is based on a herringbone plan, with a series of stone stepped alleys leading up to a main pedestrian thoroughfare. On the main square, see the 16th-century cathedral with its finely carved portal, and nearby, the supposed birthplace of explorer Marco Polo (a stone cottage, open to the public). visitkorcula.eu

The best beach

Escape Dubrovnik’s summer crowds with a ferry ride to the nearby islet of Lopud, home to Sunj, one of Croatia’s rare sandy beaches. The sea is shallow, and there are beach bars hiring sunbeds.

Head inland

Green Konavle offers a glimpse of old-fashioned Dalmatian rural villages, which for centuries provided Dubrovnik with wine, olive oil, cheeses, meats and vegetables. Have lunch by the waterfalls at Konavoski Dvori (esculaprestaurants.com/restaurant-konavoski-dvori), then drive down to the 15th-century Sokol Tower at Dunave for superb views with elegant cypress trees and vineyards. visit.cavtat-konavle.com

Cavtat in Konavle, a rugged green haven that offers a glimpse of old-fashioned Dalmatian rural villages
Getty

Eat up

A rustic agritourism restaurant, the lovely Konoba Maha (konoba-maha.com) serves local specialities such as korculanski makaruni (homemade pasta with a rich meat and tomato sauce) and barbecued lamb. It lies in the hills behind Korcula Town, on the island of Korcula.

Where to stay

On a budget: south of Dubrovnik, in Cavtat, welcoming Hotel Cavtat sits on a bay with a pebble beach.

In style: on the coast, immediately outside Dubrovnik’s medieval walls, Hotel Excelsior offers understated luxury and a spa.

CENTRAL DALMATIA

Croatia’s second biggest city, Split, is a labyrinth of stone alleys and Venetian-era houses
Shutterstock

Fly direct to Central Dalmatia’s largest city, Split, from Dubai via Zagreb on Emirates, about Dh4,000.

Highlights include Split, Croatia’s second biggest city (after the capital, Zagreb); the islands of Brac Hvar and Vis; and Mount Biokovo, rising 5,781ft above the Makarska Riviera with its beaches and shimmering turquoise waters. Up the coast, Sibenik has a Unesco-listed cathedral and two renovated fortresses.

Visit: Split

Within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace, Split’s old town is Unesco-listed. A labyrinth of stone alleys, Venetian-era houses and churches, it centres on the Roman peristyle (arcaded square), overlooked by the cathedral. Immediately outside the walls, the pazar is a colourful open-air fruit and vegetable market.

West of town, the Mestrovic Gallery displays the works of Croatia’s greatest 20th-century sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic. visitsplit.com

Visit: Hvar Town

The town is set on a deep sheltered harbour, overlooked by a castle, on the island of Hvar. Summer 2019 sees the long-awaited reopening of the tiny 17th-century theatre and the Venetian arsenal. Pricey seafood restaurants and cocktail bars are much loved by yachters, who moor up along the quayside. visithvar.hr

The best beach

Zlatni Rat is a 500yd-long fine pebble spit at Bol on the island of Brac. It’s fantastic for water sports: wind surfing, kite surfing and scuba diving.

Head inland

From Sibenik, excursion boats sail up the river Krka to Krka National Park (np-krka.hr) near Skradin. Immersed in woodland, the river thunders through a gorge in a series of rapids; at Skradinski Buk you can swim beneath a waterfall, a natural Jacuzzi.

Eat up

For sophisticated, contemporary dining, book a table at Pelegrini (pelegrini.hr), opposite ibenik’s cathedral. Chef Rudolf Stefan uses seasonal Dalmatian ingredients to create dishes such as hake with Jerusalem artichokes and prosciutto, or lamb with beans. It gained a Michelin star in 2019.

Where to stay

On a budget: the Blue Sun Elaphusa in Bol on Brac has a kids’ club and outdoor pools, just a 10-minute walk from Zlatni Rat beach.

In style: overlooking the harbour in Hvar Town, Hotel Adriana has funky interiors and a lush spa with a rooftop pool.

KVARNER

The birthplace of Croatian tourism in the late 19th century is a seven-mile seafront promenade running from Volosko to Lovran
Shutterstock

Direct flights to the main city, Rijeka, are limited. Alternatively, fly to nearby Pula or Zagreb.

Backed by the pine-cad mountains of Gorski Kotar, the port city of Rijeka will be European Capital of Culture 2020 (rijeka2020.eu). From there, ferries and catamarans run to the islands of Losinj, Cres and Rab, while Krk is joined to the mainland by a bridge. Losinj has upmarket hotels with spas; Rab offers rare sandy beaches and a medieval capital.

Visit: Opatija

The birthplace of Croatian tourism in the late 19th century, a seven-mile seafront promenade, running from Volosko to Lovran, passing through Opatija, remains a joy to stroll. visitopatija.com

Visit: Rab Town

Three parallel cobbled medieval alleys are linked by stone steps, with attractions including monasteries, churches and four elegant bell towers. rab-visit.com

The best beach

On Rab’s north-east coast, near Lopar, Paradise beach (Rajska plaza) offers shallow seas, water sports and beach volleyball.

Head inland

High in the mountains of Gorski Kotar, you’ll find Risnjak National Park (np-risnjak.hr). Hike the 21/2-mile Leska educational path, an easy circular route through meadows and woodland.

Eat up

Feast on tuna tartar, homemade ravioli filled with prawns, and succulent Kvarner shrimps at Rivica (rivica.hr) on Krk.

Where to stay

On a budget: in Beli on Cres, the informal Pansion Tramontana is a fine choice for families.

In style: on Losinj, Boutique Hotel Alhambra occupies two early 20th-century villas, with classic design, great dining and a spa.

NORTH DALMATIA

Zadar’s car-free old town centres on the Forum Square, home to gorgeous churches with bell-towers you can climb for fantastic views
Shutterstock

Zadar, founded by the Romans, is North Dalmatia’s main city and a popular holiday spot. You can fly there from Abu Dhabi via Munich, on Lufthansa, about Dh3,800.

From Zadar, ferries run to nearby islands, and boats take day-trippers to Kornati National Park.

The rocky island of Pag, known for its Paski sir (Pag cheese), is connected to the mainland by a road bridge.

Visit: Zadar

Built on a small peninsula fortified by the Venetians, Zadar’s car-free old town centres on the Forum Square, home to the ninth-century Church of St Donat, and the 12th-century Cathedral of St Anastasia, with a bell-tower you can climb for fantastic views. On the seafront promenade you will find two quirky installations, Sea Organ (2005) and Greeting to the Sun (2008), both by local architect Nikola Basic. zadar.travel

Zadar’s quirky installation Greeting to the Sun
Shutterstock

Visit: Starigrad Paklenica

This seaside town is the starting point for exploring Paklenica National Park (np-paklenica.hr). Hike up the Velika Paklenica Canyon to the limestone cave of Manita Pec, which you can visit with a guide. rivijera-paklenica.hr

The best beach

A translucent turquoise bay, backed by pine woods at Sakarun beach, near Bozava on the island of Dugi Otok. dugiotok.hr/en/attractions-sakarun

Head inland

Visit the Nikola Tesla Memorial Centre (mcnikolatesla.hr) in Smiljan, near Gospic. Inventor Tesla was born here.

Eat up

In Novalja, Boskinac (boskinac.com/restaurant) reinterprets traditional Dalmatian cuisine using locally reared lamb and fresh Adriatic seafood. It received a Michelin star in spring 2019.

Where to stay

In style: on the coast, a 15-minute drive north of Zadar, Hotel & Spa Iadera offers contemporary design and a vast, luxurious spa.

On a budget: in Pag Town, Hotel Pagus has a pebble beach and a small spa.

ISTRIA

Don’t miss one of Croatia’s prettiest and most upmarket destinations, Rovinj!
Shutterstock

Istria’s main city, Pula, is served by direct flights from various UK airports, operated by British Airways (britishairways.com), easyJet (easyjet.com), Jet2.com (jet2.com) and Ryanair (ryanair.com).

On the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, Pula is a good starting point for a boat trip to Veliki Brijun, a tiny islet with pristine lawns and woodland in Brijuni National Park (np-brijuni.hr). Istria’s most popular seaside resorts, Rovinj and Porec, lie on the west coast, with pedestrian-only historic centres and modern hotels hidden by landscaping.

Visit: Pula

An industrial port with cranes and a shipyard, Pula has Ancient Roman monuments including the Forum Square, surrounded by cafes and overlooked by the first-century Temple of Augustus, a monumental Triumphal Arch; and the Arena, a well-preserved amphitheatre built to host gladiator fights but now staging open-air summer rock concerts and the Pula Film Festival. pulainfo.hr

Pula’s a well-preserved amphitheatre
Shutterstock

Visit: Rovinj

On Istria’s west coast, Rovinj is one of Croatia’s prettiest and most upmarket destinations. Pastel-coloured Venetian-era facades rim a sheltered harbour filled with fishing boats and overlooked by an 18th-century hilltop church. South of town, past the sailing marina, Zlatni Rt park is planted with pines, cypresses and cedars and rimmed by tiny coves with pebble beaches rovinj-tourism.com

The best beach

On the southernmost point of the Istrian peninsula, within the pine-scented Kamenjak Nature Park (kamenjak.hr), Mala Kolombarica is an expanse of flat rocks jutting out into the deep blue Adriatic. Come here to sunbathe, or test your courage diving or somersaulting into the sea. Complete with a beach bar, it lies just outside Pula.

Head inland

Often compared to Italy’s Tuscany, inland Istria features undulating hills planted with vineyards and olive groves, and medieval-walled hill towns such as Motovun. Foodies will love its agritourism restaurants and rustic konobe (taverns) serving authentic dishes made from locally produced olive oil, cheeses, and tartufi (truffles) unearthed in the Mirna Valley.

Eat up

With waterside tables around the fishing harbour in Rovinj, informal Konoba Kantinon (maistra.com/hotel-adriatic-rovinj/sub/kantinon-tavern) specialises in reasonably priced local fare. Try the monkfish carpaccio, followed by homemade pasta with pungent Istrian truffles.

Where to stay

On a budget: the Park Plaza Histria lies by the sea, just outside Pula.

In style: the five-star Hotel Monte Mulini in Rovinj offers sea views, infinity pools, a spa and gourmet dining.