When I was 18 years old and fresh out of high school I spent a month in Croatia. My family had taken in a foreign exchange student named Mia at the beginning of the school year and we were inseparable by the time she was ready to go home. So I bought a plane ticket at the same time she did and went home with her.
I had been out of the country several times with my family, but this was the first time I flew without them. I spent the first two weeks of the trip with Mia and her family in her home town Velika Gorica, and then the rest of my family flew in to explore Croatia and the surrounding countries for the final two weeks.
Traveling this way was incredibly immersive for me because I was living like a local in Velika Gorica while I waited for my family to arrive. I went out with Mia and her friends at night to the local bars, we rode the bus to get around, and I even frequented the town’s grocery store.
By the time my family landed in Velika Gorica I felt like I knew the town fairly well, and I was eager to explore the rest of Croatia and the surrounding countries.
Velika Gorica is a small town by Croatian standards but luckily for me and Mia it was located near the country’s capital, so there were plenty of things for us to do. We went to the Zagreb Zoo in the middle of the week when no one else was there, ate ćevapi (a grilled meat sandwich that deserves to be a national treasure) until we were stuffed full, danced the night away at night clubs in Zagreb, and watched fireworks during a summer event in the park.
Those lazy summer days stretched on blissfully during the first two weeks of my trip. When my family arrived we drove to Medvedgrad, an old castle halfway between Zagreb and the mountains. The fortress offered an amazing view of the city below and was well worth the long drive and the hike through the mountains.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
After a short respite in Velika Gorica we piled back into the busted up rental car and drove South. We stayed with a friendly couple who ran an Airbnb in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They ate with us on the back porch of the house and told us about the country’s turbulent history.
I had my eyes closed during most of my Dad’s driving through the steep and narrow streets of Sarajevo, but I can still remember looking up at the crumbled ruins of modern buildings and the splattering of bullet holes above the sidewalks. It was fascinating to stay in a city that was full of history; we walked across the bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, sparking World War I.
Despite it’s dreary past, Sarajevo is a vibrant and beautiful city. The streets are lined with vendors selling colorful trinkets and artfully decorated mosques can be found around every corner. My family and Mia’s family toured one of the mosques in the city and it was fascinating to learn about the history and culture of Muslims in Sarajevo.
After Sarajevo we travelled deeper into Bosnia and Herzegovina to a city called Mostar. One of the main attractions of this town is Stari Most: a landmark bridge where cliff diving is extremely popular. I remember scrambling across huge rocks by the blue green river and dipping my toes in the icy water as I watched people jump off of the bridge.
The view from the height of Stari Most was stunningly beautiful and so stereotypically European. I loved gazing at the riverside city with it’s towering spires and colorful houses.
In order to add another country to our ever-growing list of places we’ve been, my family charted a course for Montenegro. While there we toured Our Lady of the Rocks, a tiny man-made island in the middle of the Bay of Kotor. The island featured a 17th century Roman-Catholic church and a tiny museum. I ultimately thought the boat ride over was far more exciting, but it was still fun wandering around the island with my family.
Our travels through Southern Croatia were packed with back to back adventures and it felt like the cities flew by.
In Zadar we walked along the Adriatic Sea and listened to the sounds of a gigantic sea organ that made music with the tide. We also danced on a solar powered dance floor that overlooked the water. We visited with Mia’s grandfather in Ston, a town with the oldest salt flats in Europe, and ate and drank in his home. In Stari Grad we wandered the streets and poked our heads into various shops and stores.
In Split we took a ferry to the island Brač, where we got on a huge bus that took us through the mountains from the town Supetar at the Northern end of Brač to Bol across the island. The beaches at Bol were pristine and surrounded by clear turquoise water.
My favorite city in Southern Croatia was Dubrovnik. This lively cruise ship destination had tourists from all over the world and they didn’t hesitate to approach us and share their stories. At night Mia and I would go out and adventure, finding interesting places and people around every corner.
Old Town in Dubrovnik doubles as the backdrop to Game of Thrones so walking through its cobblestone street felt like stepping into a fairytale. I highly recommend strolling along the top of the fortified stone walls and gazing at the sea over the orange rooftops. If you want an even better view of the city you can take a cable car to the top of Srd Hill.
Another highlight of the trip was when we took a ferry from Dubrovnik to Lokrum Island. There we were able to rest in the shade of olive and cypress trees and jump into the frigid water. For whatever strange reason there were an abundance of peacocks on the island, and they often wandered past the table where my family and I sat drinking cocktails.
Lokrum was the perfect day trip from Dubrovnik because it offered a refreshing break from the hustle and bustle of the busy city.
After returning to Velika Gorica we went West to Postojna in Slovenia. We toured a 24,340m long cave deep under the mountain, and then explored the Predjama Castle. The castle was built into the side of a mountain and had connections to the extensive cave network below, making it cool and drafty despite the summer heat. Tour guides in the castle explained what life was like when people lived there and dressed up in traditional clothes.
Visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park was one of the most memorable parts of the trip and was the perfect way to say goodbye to the beautiful country of Croatia. Plitvice Lakes is a wonderland of tiered waterfalls surrounded by a never ending forest of green. The hike Mia’s family and my family went on started high up, and as we descended into the park the waterfalls got more and more magnificent.
Despite there being plenty of other people in the park, our trail was sparsely populated and at times it felt like we had the place to ourselves.
My time in Croatia during the summer of 2015 made me more independent as a traveler. Usually when my family goes on vacation we are with each other the entire time, so having time to myself in a foreign country and going out at night to explore with only Mia for company was extremely liberating for my 18 year old self. This trip gave me the confidence and experience to plan trips on my own, and sparked the idea of traveling to Utah with my three best friends a year later.
When people think about traveling in Europe a lot of other countries come to mind – Italy, Spain, France – but I hope this blog post has convinced you to give Croatia a try; once you eat some ćevapi and start exploring you certainly won’t regret it.
Was this helpful? Have feedback for me? Let me know in the comments, or shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. All photos in this post were taken by me unless otherwise specified in the caption. Header photo by Mia.