A First-Timer’s Guide to Visiting Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia

The biggest mistake a traveler can make? Attempting to tackle Croatia’s oldest—and largest—park too quickly. Here’s what to know before you go.

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Walking across the turquoise pond at Plitvice Lakes National Park, which covers nearly 74,000 acres.

Few of Croatia’s natural attractions enchant so utterly as the Plitvice Lakes National Park, a sequence of turquoise lakes, rushing rapids, and emerald hills that has been a national park since 1949. Despite its size—today, more than 115 square miles—it’s nonetheless a superbly well-organized attraction, with wooden walkways taking you close to the foaming cataracts and a fleet of electric boats and tourist trains ferrying visitors from one part of the park to another. Located well inland from the coast of Croatia, however, Plitvice is not the kind of sight you can fit in between trips to the beach. Advance planning is essential, but the lakes’ spellbinding beauty means that you’ll be more than glad you made the effort.

The biggest mistake is attempting to see the Plitvice Lakes too quickly. You can’t rush around the best bits in a couple of hours. You’ll need a full day to get the most out of the park’s unique ambience, and the range of accommodation in neighboring villages makes an overnight stay here more than worthwhile. Here’s what to know before you go.

What to do

Nearly everything in the park is spectacular, and you will have some powerful impressions to take home with you, however long or short your visit.

There are two entrances to the park: Entrance 1 at the northern end of the system and Entrance 2, some two miles to the south. Both have cafés, cash machines, and huge, forest-shrouded car parks. If time is limited, you probably should aim for Entrance 2 because it is directly connected to the park’s internal network of electric bus-trains and boats. If you are here for a whole day, start at Entrance 1 and explore at leisure.

The concentration of rushing, burbling falls and the lakes in the middle of the system—Gradinsko, Galovac, and Okrugljak—are accessible via boardwalk trail from Entrance 2. The park’s biggest and most impressive single waterfall is Veliki Slap (Grand Fall) at the northern end of the park, which bathes close-up visitors in spray. It’s roughly 20 minutes on foot from Entrance 1.

For those with more time and energy, Lake Prošćansko, right at the park’s southern end, is the largest and most tranquil of the lakes, with its serene waterside trails stretching away from the parts of the park most frequently swamped by day-trippers.

Swimming tips

Wild swimming in Croatia’s rivers is another of the joys of venturing this far inland. Swimming is not allowed in the park itself, but there is a popular riverside beach at Slunj, 18 miles north of the park, with a grassy waterside meadow and a kiosk selling drinks.

Walking routes

There are eight designated walking routes within the park, four from Entrance 1 and four from Entrance 2. The routes—also called “tours” or “programs"—vary in length and distance, with the shortest taking around two hours and the longest coming in at around eight.

From Entrance 1

Expect a boat ride across the lake on routes that include Lake Kozjak.

Route

Time

Distance

What to expect

A Program

2–3 hours

2.17 miles

Veliki Slap; the lower lakes waterfalls

B Program

3–4 hours

2.5 miles

Lower lakes waterfalls and Lake Kozjak

C Program4–5 hours4.9 milesC Program plus upper lakes and waterfalls
K Program6–8 hours11.3 milesThe whole lakes section of the park (upper and lower)

From Entrance 2

RouteTimeDistanceWhat to expect
E Program2–3 hours3.1 milesLake Kozjak; upper lakes and waterfalls walk
F Program3–4 hours2.8 miles

Lake Kozjak; lower lake trails

H Program4–6 hours5.5 milesTrain ride; upper and lower lake walk; Lake Kozjak
K Program6–8 hours11.3 milesThe whole lakes section of the park (upper and lower)

Best time to visit

The best time to visit Plitvice Lakes National Park is from spring to September, when the park luxuriates in sunlight, lush vegetation, and an ever-changing palette of lake-water shades. Things get busy in July and August when everything within a walk of one to two hours from the main entrances will be crowded with sightseers. (Attempting to take photographs without getting strangers in the shot will require seriously acrobatic contortions.) If you want to be more at one with nature, plan a longer visit and branch out toward the park’s more distant paths. Expect high temperatures from June through August, and take appropriate headgear and plenty of water.

During the fall, the park’s mixture of deciduous and evergreen trees produces a stunning backdrop of autumnal greens and golds.

These colors are more subdued in winter, although really cold spells can transform the park into a fairy-tale landscape of frozen waterfalls and frost-encrusted trees.

Tickets and prices

Entrance prices slide up and down according to season. From July to September, tickets costs 300Kn/€40/$40 (200Kn/€27/$27 if you enter the park after 4 p.m.) per day. This falls to 180Kn/€24/$24 in spring and autumn, 80Kn/€10.60/$11 in winter. Children get a 60 percent discount; the under-sevens go free. If you opt for a two-day ticket, there’s a 50 percent discount on your second day. The park’s car lots charge 10Kn/€1.30/$1.30 per hour (motorbikes are free), so costs can add up significantly if you’re spending the whole day here.

Visitor numbers are limited in summer, and you are strongly advised to book your tickets online in advance rather than simply turning up. Visitors are given a time slot for entrance (although once inside you can stay until closing time) and staff are strict about timings—arrive 30 minutes early and they’ll make you wait.

Where to stay

Hotels and B&Bs

Most conveniently placed is the cluster of hotels run by the national park authorities right beside Entrance 2. Although not exactly in the luxury league, they have a relaxing resort-like feel. The three-star Hotel Jezero is best in terms of comfort, although if you’ve always dreamed of staying in a socialist-era modernist masterpiece, then choose the two-star, 1958-vintage Hotel Plitvice.

Otherwise, the wealth of family-run accommodations in the region (ranging from farmhouse stays to modern villas with apartments) offers a fine opportunity for a relaxing stay in rustic surrounds. Coming by public transport, you’ll need to choose a place within easy walking distance of bus stops and park entrances: The village of Rastovača, near Entrance 1, is a good place to look. Only a 10-minute walk from Entrance 1, House Marko Špehar offers neat and cosy double rooms and studio apartments, plus mood-enhancing flowerbeds in its well-kept garden.

If you are coming by car, there are many choices in nearby villages, with apartments and B&Bs strung out along the road from Rakovica, 8 miles north of the park, to Korenica, 12 miles south. Guesthouse Pavličić in the village of Drežnik Grad offers large neat rooms and a range of additional strolling destinations right on its doorstep (including a medieval tower and the boulder-strewn gorge of the Korana River).

Wherever you stay, bear in mind that you are unlikely to be near corner shops or supermarkets: The park-run hotels and many of the family-run places provide breakfast, and there are snack bars within the park; otherwise, bring your own supplies.

Camping

Characterized by rolling meadows and scenic woodland, the Plitvice area is one of the most unspoiled parts of Croatia—and camping here is a joy. There are few sites within walking distance of the camp entrances, and you’ll need your own transport or the patience to wait for rare buses to get the full benefit. Nearest is Camping Plitvice 2.5 miles north of Entrance 1, an orderly place with café-restaurant, kids playground, and a hillside semicircle of self-catering bungalows. Six miles further north, Plitvice Holiday Resort offers shaded tent pitches as well as lakeside bungalows, tepees, and tree houses lodged between soaring pines.

How to get there

The Plitvice Lakes are midway between the Croatian capital of Zagreb and the coast. The A1 highway runs some 18 miles west of the lakes; the Plitvice exits are clearly marked. If driving from Zagreb (2.5 hours), Split (3 hours), or Zadar (1.5 hours), you can just about do the park as a day trip, although you’ll probably want to overnight here to fully enjoy the lakes.

Day trips offered by travel agents in coastal towns are also an option, though be sure to read the fine print and check how much time you will be spending in the park and what exactly is included in the day-trip ticket.

The park is more than 250 miles north of Dubrovnik and will require a whole day’s travel to get there.

Getting to the park by bus is relatively easy, with 5-6 Split–Zagreb or Zadar–Zagreb services stopping there every day. Tickets are available online at the Zagreb bus station’s website or from booking platforms such as FlixBus. Be aware, however, that Plitvice doesn’t have a bus station, only a pair of roadside stops (one at each of the national park’s entrances). Catching buses out of Plitvice for your onward journey can be equally tricky, with buses speeding round the corner and failing to stop unless you stick your arm out with unambiguous intent.

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