Photo by Shutterstock
Photo by Aleksandar Todovoric/Shutterstock
Saplunara beach, on Croatia’s Mljet island, known for its saltwater lakes and juniper forests
Croatia has some of the top beaches in the world. Here’s how to figure out where to go, whether you’re looking for fun on the mainland or want to explore one of the many islands.
With its indented coastline and over 1,000 islands, Croatia is the gift that keeps giving—especially when it comes to beaches. From sun-kissed coves and pinewood-backed bays to pretty crescents of shoreline, there are plenty to choose from. While most won’t woo you with silky golden sands, Croatia’s beaches—mostly soft pebbles and fine shingle—have a different kind of lure. The wild hues of the Adriatic Sea change according to how the wind blows—think a palette of cobalt, azure, and cyan—and translucent shallow water lets you wade in and see the sea bed in all its colorful glory.
There aren’t big waves here, so Croatia is ideal for leisurely swims and snorkeling. Plus, the sea is delightfully warm, with summer temperatures ranging from 72 to 86 degrees. The downside? Croatia’s popularity shows no signs of abating, and during peak season, particularly in July and August, there’s often towel-to-towel beach traffic, especially on the more well-known beaches. The upside? There’s always another, more hidden beach to escape to. We’ve highlighted Croatia’s iconic beaches on both the mainland and the islands, as well as some lesser-known ones, heading from north to south down the Adriatic coastline.
Rab island in the Kvarner archipelago, along the northern Adriatic, holds its own against the popular beaches in the south of Croatia. Paradise Beach (Rajska Plaža) is one of the most gorgeous shallow beaches, with turquoise waters and the mainland’s massive Velebit mountain as the backdrop. It can get crowded here: Families love this beach because it has activities for all ages—an amusement park, a spectrum of sports, and various spa options for pampering. Rent Jet Skis, parasail, join a beach volleyball tournament, challenge a friend to a round of mini golf, or explore by canoe.
The bay of Saharun might be named after the Sahara, but its smooth pebbles are far in softness from the Saharan sands. It’s still a fantastic beach: Located on the northwestern tip of Dugi Otok (Long Island) in the Zadar archipelago, it has shallow crystal-clear water, the ever-changing hues of the sea, and dense pinewoods providing shelter from the sun. Two beach shacks dish out snacks and rent sun beds and umbrellas. Head to Amarcord at the far end for tasty bites like fresh fish salad or pizza; the team also runs a boutique hostel in a converted school nearby. During the peak season, a miniature train runs from the tourist settlement of Božava every two hours.
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Not many beaches in the world can claim to have invented their very own sport, but Bačvice can. Lined with café-bars and clubs, this buzzy strip of sand, pebble, and concrete is not only a perennially packed party central of Dalmatia’s capital, it’s also where picigin was born a century ago. The goal of this local game of volleyball, played in shallow water, is to keep the small peeled tennis ball (called balun) in the air as long as possible. Played with some serious acrobatics, this quirky sport of central Dalmatia is a spectacle to watch, especially if you happen to be in Split on New Year’s Day, when Bačvice hosts a traditional game of picigin that draws local crowds.Punta Rata, Brela
The Punta Rata beach on the Makarska riviera is a showstopper. The Biokovo Nature Park, located on a limestone mountain, rises sharply behind it and protected forests of Aleppo pines, bearberry, myrtle and juniper provide the beach with welcome shade. For some activity before you hit the beach, hike one of the nature park’s many trails; from the tiny town of Brela, the easiest trek is via Kričak to Sv. Nikola, an easy 2.5 hours. Come back to the beach, which sits southwest of Brela, for snorkeling in the transparent waters, a banana boat ride, parasailing, or renting a deck chair for a lounge in the sun. Make sure to swim out to the Brela Stone, a pine-covered rock just offshore.Zlatni Rat, Brač island
Perhaps the most beloved and photographed of all Croatia’s beaches, Zlatni Rat (Golden Horn) on Brač island shows up on many tourism brochures. It’s a 20-minute stroll from the seaside town of Bol and is ideal for water sports, especially windsurfing. The distinctive tongue-like tip that protrudes into the Adriatic can shift in shape, as air and sea currents move the smooth pebbles. Look for the elusive stone of happiness, a shell-like snail-shaped pebble that according to local lore brings luck to those who find it. It’s best to skip the food kiosks that line the beach; instead head to Mali Raj (Little Paradise), a family-run tavern in a shady pine forest, for its sea bass tartare and seafood skewers.Stiniva, Vis island
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Some say selfie sticks, Instagram, speedboats, and a starring role in the Mamma Mia! sequel have “ruined” this iconic little beach on the south end of Vis island. But none of that actually takes away from Stiniva’s downright dazzling beauty. To reach the white pebbles of this enchanting cove flanked by colossal limestone cliffs, you must either swim in from where excursion boats (departing from Split as well as the island towns of Vis and Komiža) drop anchor or put on shoes to walk down the steep rocky path. The trick to having the beach practically to yourself? Come before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. to avoid the hordes, and paddle in by kayak.
Live out your Robinson Crusoe fantasies on Proizd, a tiny maquis-shrub-covered islet off the southern island of Korčula. It’s super easy to get to in summer months, with boats shuttling beachgoers back and forth from the main island port of Vela Luka. Proizd’s trio of beaches showcase giant stone slabs that slope down gently into the sea. Beware that it’s a wild isle with only one seasonal beach restaurant and without much shade, so bring plenty of sunscreen and water and ideally a sun umbrella or tent. Pack a picnic, too (as the food at the restaurant is meagre) but be prepared for bees that want to share it; they tend to get greedy in summer months.
Snag a stretch of sand on Saplunara beach on Mljet, Croatia’s greenest isle, and you may understand how the setting famously captivated Odysseus. Legend claims he shipwrecked on Mljet on his way back from the Trojan Wars, found shelter in a cave, and fell for Calypso, the sea nymph who kept him spellbound for seven years. Saplunara is located on the southeastern tip of Mljet, with a national park known for its pair of scenic saltwater lakes, and it has a verdant backdrop of stone pine and juniper forests. You won’t find much in terms of facilities, except a café-bar that also rents beach chairs. For a beachside feast, call the Stermasi restaurant two hours ahead to order the octopus under peka (a traditional baking bell that slow roasts the octopus), and then make the five-minute trek up to the hilltop to the stellar restaurant.Sveti Jakov, Dubrovnik
Although it’s a slight detour from Dubrovnik, Sveti Jakov is worth the journey for prime views of the Old Town and the uniquely local vibe. Skip the hubbub of Banje, the main city beach, and take a bus (#8, get off by Hotel Argentina) or a taxi to the namesake church above the beach and then wind your way down the 163 steps—or walk all the way from Ploče Gate, which takes about half an hour. Alternatively, the easiest way to arrive is to grab a water taxi from the Old Town to the beach and back. Packing a picnic is the way to go; the restaurant and bar on the beach are expensive. Two items worth bringing: a padded mat to lie on and water shoes (the beach stones aren’t made for sensitive feet).
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>> Next: Plan Your Trip With AFAR’s Guide to Croatia
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