Set off on easy forest hikes right outside the capital or walk across rugged mountain wilderness on multiday treks. Roam through wooded national parks for close-up views of splendid waterfalls and multicolored lakes. Or, ascend colossal mountains for sublime views of the coastline.
Croatia’s diverse hiking options are the country’s best-kept secret. Here are five of the best.
1. Plitvice Lakes
Best hike in a national park
8km (5 miles) round trip, 4–5 hours, easy to moderate
The verdant water wonderland of Plitvice Lakes is continental Croatia’s showcase. With its dazzling series of 16 crystalline lakes, cascading waterfalls, limestone cliffs, deep canyons and shady forests, Croatia’s oldest and largest national park is a delightful place to roam.
Though only 1% of the park’s surface consists of lakes, they steal the show. Plitvice’s lesser-known highlights are its forests of beech-fir, silver pine, spruce and hop hornbeam. You can choose between eight different hiking routes that take in the forests and the lakes; four from the northern entrance to the park (Entrance 1), which are marked in green, and four from the southern entrance (Entrance 2), marked in orange.
For a full lake and forest experience, go for Program C, a circular loop that starts from Entrance 1. Along the way, you’ll take in both the lower and upper lakes and their magnificent waterfalls. The route also involves a short jaunt on an electric boat and a panoramic train ride back to the start.
Hiking tips: It’s virtually impossible to avoid the crowds at Plitvice Lakes, a bucket-list item on most circuits of Croatia. If you start the lake tour loop first thing in the morning, you may win a chance to see the spectacular beauty before the hordes descend. The forest trails and boardwalks get slippery, so wear sturdy shoes.
2. The Premužić trail, Velebit
Croatia’s best multiday hike
57km (35.5 miles), 3–4 days, moderate to difficult
The mighty Velebit mountain range is a hiker’s dream: a pristine wilderness of alpine grasslands, deep canyons and old-growth forests where bears, wolves, deer and lynx roam. The Premužić trail, starting from the Zavižan mountain refuge and ending in the village of Baške Oštarije, winds its way through this stunning scenery with no big ascents or descents, all along paired with glorious coastal views.
Named after the forestry engineer and mountaineer Ante Premužić, who designed and marked this stone trail, it’s an incredible piece of craft, completed in 1933 without the use of mortar. The first 16km (10 miles) take you through Northern Velebit National Park, with its karst terrain of round peaks and sinkholes, and run straight through Rožanski Kukovi, a landscape of white limestone cliffs, towers and domes. The trail continues on to Velebit Nature Park, a biosphere reserve with 2000 plant species, including some rare ones such as the window bellflower and Croatian grassy bells.
You can’t camp in the wild on Velebit, but there are several mountain huts and shelters along the way. Some are staffed, quite comfy and serve meals (like Alan and Zavižan), while others are unstaffed (Skorpovac). If you want a more comfortable option, book ahead; Velebit gets quite busy with hikers.
For a full-on multiday adventure along this Croatian section of the Via Dinarica mega trail, you can continue on from Baške Oštarije to Starigrad Paklenica on the Adriatic state road and complete the entire Velebit hiking trail (circa 100km or 62 miles, nine days total). Another option is to sign up for Highlander, a long-distance group trek across Velebit in five days, through Northern Velebit and Paklenica national parks.
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3. Vidova Gora, Brač
Best island hike
10.6km (6.6 miles) round trip, 3–5 hours, moderate
The Golden Cape (Zlatni Rat) beach on Brač island is Croatia’s most photographed. It’s an exquisite natural wonder of fine pebbles that spit out into the Adriatic in a triangular shape. Seeing this stunner from the highest point on all of Croatia’s Adriatic islands, Vidova Gora (at 778m/2552ft), is worth every hot minute of the trek.
The trail up to the top starts in Bol, the charming seaside town on the island’s southern coast. Start your way up along a road that leads to the quarry above town. (Brač is known for its white limestone, which has been used to build many illustrious edifices around the world, including parts of the White House in Washington, D.C.) The road gradually turns into a marked rocky trail through karst terrain and patches of pine forest, with a slow and steady incline and some switchbacks as you approach the ridge at the top.
The payoff for the ascent is the panorama from Vidova Gora. And it’s a treat: you’ll see Zlatni Rat protruding out into the sea below, as well as the island of Hvar and the Biokovo mountain on the mainland. Once you’ve descended back to Bol, a dip in the crystal-clear Adriatic is a fitting finale. To avoid the harsh midday sun, consider hiking either early in the morning or late afternoon.
4. Mount Srđ, Dubrovnik
Best hike for spectacular city views
4.7km (2.9 miles), 1 hour, easy
You can’t beat the picture-postcard view of Dubrovnik’s walled old town from the top of Mount Srđ (pronounced “surge”), which rises sharply from the coast at 412m (1352ft). While you can hop on the cable car and get whisked up within seconds, hiking to Srđ adds a whole new dimension to the experience, as you work for the view.
To give the hike that extra oomph, head out in the late afternoon or early evening so you can catch the sunset from the top. The light makes the view astonishing: golden hues bathe the terracotta rooftops of the old town while the sun drops down into the sea far out on the horizon.
You can kick off from Dubrovnik’s old town, which adds about 30 minutes to the hike; otherwise, take Bus 17 from the Pile stop to the trailhead (get off at Bosanka). The trail is well-marked, starting as a dirt track through shady pine forests and then turning into a switchback route up the mountain, on rocky terrain. Along the way, check out the brass relief artwork placed at the hairpins, representing the 14 Stations of the Cross; this is a popular pilgrimage on Easter.
Hiking tips: As you zigzag up the hill, all the way admiring the vistas, look out for tricky loose stones. If you do go for sunset, bring a head torch or a flashlight for the hike back down. Otherwise, get a one-way ticket and ride the cable car back down.
5. Medvednica mountain, Zagreb
3.4km (2.1 miles), 2–3 hours round trip, easy
Looming over Zagreb from the north like a verdant frame, Medvednica mountain is the locals’ beloved escape from the hubbub of Croatia’s capital. Its highest peak is Sljeme, at 1035m (3396ft) above sea level, affording wow views of the city below. The entire western part of Medvednica is protected as a nature park, covering nearly 180 sq km (69 sq miles) of dense forests, home to Pannonian beech, silver fir and sessile oak, and 1205 plant species. Bears once rambled through these woods, which is how the mountain got its name (“medvedi” is Croatian for “bears”); today you’ll find wild cats and boar, 70 species of nesting birds and 24 bat species.
Medvednica Nature Park has 70 mountain trails, for all levels of fitness and hiking styles. The Miroslavec educational trail, also known as Trail 13, is among the best easy hikes in the area. It was built in the late 19th century by a count named Miroslav for his wife who loved to wander these woods.
The trail starts from Šestinski Lagvić restaurant in the neighborhood of Šestine, winding its way up along the Kraljevec stream all the way to the Queen’s Well. Along the way, check out the informative displays that explain the area’s unique geology, such as green rocks and clay schist. Medvednica is teeming with hikers on weekends; weekdays tend to be blissfully empty.