Scattered across mainland Croatia and its 1,000-plus islands peppering the Adriatic Sea are some of Europe’s most charming small towns.
Best known for the magnificent walled city of Dubrovnik and the array of beautiful islands located just off the mainland, Croatia attracts huge numbers of visitors every year. But for those keen to avoid the well-trodden tourist trail, there are also large swathes of the country that remain blissfully free of summer crowds. In these parts, a more gentle pace of life has been preserved, with centuries-old houses, cobbled streets, medieval churches, and pretty public squares creating a delightful ambience.
Indeed, venture beyond Croatia’s most popular tourist spots and some truly magical towns await you, each with their own distinctive character and unique history, and compact enough to be explored in a day, or even as little as a couple of hours. Below, listed in alphabetical order, is our pick of 10 of the most charming towns with populations under 20,000 that Croatia has to offer.
A sleepy town on the mainland’s Makarska Riviera, situated between Split and Dubrovnik, Brela has been a popular destination for the rich and famous since the 1960s. Set in the foothills of the pine-cloaked Biokovo Mountain, it combines picture-postcard natural scenery with enticing ocean-facing taverns serving up fresh-off-the-boat seafood. Visitors can relax on long stretches of pebble beaches, backed by an attractive seaside promenade, or seek shade in a fragrant pine forest. Water sports fans can enjoy parasailing and jetskiing, or even hire a speedboat. Other places of interest include the 18th-century Lady of Karmen Church, and Kamen Brela, a small rock island considered a symbol of the town.
A dreamy harbour town perched on a small peninsula in the Dubrovnik Riviera, Cavtat is a beautiful blend of Gothic Renaissance architecture and sun-kissed beaches. Within the confines of the Old Town’s medieval walls are an ancient amphitheatre, a monastery and a 15th-century church that preserve the town’s distant past. Lined with palm trees, a picturesque waterfront is a magnet for visitors and has often been compared with Saint-Tropez on the French Riviera. Two harbours and several pebbled beaches sandwiched between clear, clean waters and a tranquil promenade add to the town’s appeal.
The photogenic medieval hilltop town of Labin on the Istrian peninsula combines the best of all geographic worlds – elevated inland attractions and easy access to the glistening waters of the Adriatic Sea just a quick drive away. Remnants of the former Roman settlement’s fortified walls provide a glimpse into Labin’s past, while winding, narrow streets, cobbled alleyways and pastel-coloured buildings make the town a positive delight to wander around at your leisure. Several art galleries and museums provide the perfect excuse to duck indoors and soak up some local culture.
With its orange-roofed buildings, cobblestone streets and white-pebble beaches, Primošten is a quintessential Central Dalmatian town. Nestled just off the Adriatic coastline, the pretty, old streets in the main part of the town make for a delightful amble, while the 15th-century white stone Church of St George and its belltower are an eye-catching beacon on the landscape. The beaches are a major draw too, with the shallow waters of Raduča beach a hit with families with young children. As for nightlife, one of the best-known clubs in Croatia – Aurora – is located here, regularly billing top DJs for its big club nights.
Located along the Istrian coast, picturesque Poreč offers a heady mix of history, nature, adventure and nightlife, all of which serve to make the town a major tourist destination. For history buffs, the 4th-century Euphrasian Basilica is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the town is also dotted with enchanting Gothic, Romanesque and Baroque architecture. Thrill-seekers, meanwhile, can get their kicks abseiling in the Baredine Cave, and during high season young partiers pour into Poreč’s pulsating clubs and buzzing bars from all over Europe.
Accessible only by ferry, Rab Island has some of the most diverse landscapes to be found anywhere in Croatia’s scenic Kvarner region. And one of the most beautiful places to visit on the island is Rab Old Town, an important historical jewel characterised by four elegant bell towers rising from the ancient stone streets. Even at the peak of the summer season, when the island is teeming with visitors, you can still get a sense of discovery wandering its old quarter and escaping to nearly deserted beaches just a quick boat ride away. Meanwhilen, the hilly greenery of neighbouring Komrčar Park provides that sought-after element in the height of a Kvarner summer – shade.
Brightly painted buildings, winding streets, and a baroque hilltop church clustered together on a small peninsula make the ancient fishing port town of Rovinj one of the jewels of Croatia’s Istrian coast. With no fortified walls, the town’s outer ring houses feature front doors that dauntingly open right up to the sea, while the cobbled streets are sprinkled with cute shops, restaurants and galleries that do their utmost to lure you inside. For epic sunsets, head to the yacht-lined Rovinj Marina, or enjoy some after-dinner chill on the bustling Big Pier.
A blissful riverside town in the Šibenik region on the Dalmatian coast, Skradin is best known for nearby Krka National Park, featuring a valley full of travertine rock formations that make for stunning waterfalls. In the town itself, a ruined fortress, ancient streets lined with shops, and a marina where sailboats bob in the water are among the alluring attractions. Some of Croatia’s best wine is also produced in the region, with one of its top wine-makers, BIBICh, boasting a tasting room in the historic Old Town. A short walk to the coast brings you to several small beaches where visitors can relax and cool off in the crystalline ocean waters.
Located on the northern side of the famous island of Hvar, Stari Grad is one of Europe’s oldest towns, winning over visitors with its alluring rustic atmosphere. Set at the end of a long, protected bay, it is a world away from the swanky hotels, elegant restaurants, luxury yachts and raucous party scene that characterise much of the island. Here, visitors can enjoy a sleepier pace of life with leisurely strolls around the maze of picturesque streets, listening to the magical sounds of folk singers, and discovering the hidden treasures of traditional taverns, galleries, courtyards and gardens – the perfect antidote to those unable to resist a night on the tiles.
One of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe, Trogir on the central Adriatic coast is rich in culture and historical significance. A UNESCO World Heritage site set within medieval walls, its handsome Romanesque churches are complemented by outstanding Renaissance and Baroque buildings from the Venetian period. Visitors flock to the seaside promenade, stopping to admire the lavender covering the hills overlooking the harbour. For cuisine and culture, the town’s winding, narrow streets are flanked by tempting hole-in-the-wall restaurants and tucked-away art galleries.