Second cities: Destinations to add on to a trip to Dubrovnik, Croatia

Feb 29, 2020

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Welcome to TPG’s Second Cities series, where we help you find amazing places that are only a couple of hours away from your original destination. This is the way to get the most out of your itinerary by visiting places with fewer tourists that deserve your attention.

Dubrovnik, Croatia, known as the Pearl of the Adriatic, is fighting overtourism that tends to overwhelm the walled city at peak travel times including summer. UNESCO has even warned that the number of people flooding into the city (due in part to cruise ships) may be unsustainable. In response, the mayor of Dubrovnik has capped the number of visitors allowed into the city’s Old Town each day, spread out cruise ship arrivals and limited the number of souvenir stands and outdoor restaurants.

While you shouldn’t miss out on visiting one of Croatia’s most popular destinations, Dubrovnik can often feel like a theme park, especially during high season. Fighting crowds and being constantly surrounded by selfie-stick wielding tourists can make a visit to the Adriatic hub decidedly less charming than it should be.

Dubrovnik, Croatia. (Photo by FG Trade/Getty Images)
Dubrovnik, Croatia. (Photo by FG Trade/Getty Images)

Instead of adding to the tourism crush, consider quickly checking out the key attractions in Dubrovnik and then heading to other southern Slavic spots to enjoy a more local experience. Day trips to the nearby island of Lokrum and the Elafiti Islands (Koločep, Šipan and Lopud) are easy ways to escape the crowds, and you can always spend a few days relaxing in the popular Croatian seaside city of Split or party island Hvar.

But if you really want to get off-the-beaten-path and explore some beautiful, far-flung destinations, consider these alternatives to add on to your trip.

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Montenegro

The beautiful bay of Kotor in Montenegro is just a two-hour drive from Dubrovnik, easy enough for a full-day trip. But visiting Montenegro’s sprawling coastline and black mountains (get it…Monte negro?) will take much longer than a day to explore if you want to really enjoy this special Adriatic country.

Kotor, Montenegro.(Photo by Faruk Kaymak/ Unsplash)
Kotor, Montenegro. (Photo by Faruk Kaymak/ Unsplash)

Getting there

Hop on a bus or rent a car and drive south to Montenegro. While you may encounter some traffic or wait times at the border, crossing is relatively simple. To avoid long waits during high season, leave as early as possible in the morning. Make sure if you’re using a rental car that you tell the company you’ll be taking it to Montenegro in order to purchase the border insurance (often called an insurance green card) for a small fee. If you’re traveling on a budget, you could take a taxi or bus across the border and rent your car in Montenegro, which tends to be more affordable.

Where to stay

For the ultimate luxury, stay on the exclusive island of Sveti Stefan at the Aman Sveti Stefan which overlooks the Adriatic Sea, Montenegro’s stunning coastline and the village’s famous pink-sand beach. Summer rates can soar well over $1,000 per night, but booking with Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts offers perks like:

  • Room upgrade upon arrival, when available
  • Daily breakfast for two people
  • Guaranteed 4 p.m. late check-out
  • Noon check-in, when available
  • Complimentary Wi-Fi
  • $100 spa credit
The Aman Sveti Stefan. (Photo by Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts)
The Aman Sveti Stefan. (Photo by Amex Fine Hotels & Resorts)

For a more affordable stay, summer rates at the boutique Fontana Hotel, which has simple yet chic rooms (some with sea views), can run as low as just $60 per night for a double.

What to do

The Budva Riveria is an excellent place to start if you’re looking for beach charm. Although the beaches are similar to Croatia’s, they are typically less crowded, even during summer. While the town of Budva’s historic center looks like a mini-Dubrovnik, its Venetian walls and medieval sites will feel like a breath of fresh air after fighting Dubrovnik’s crowds. The historic center of Kotor, a breathtaking bay along Montenegro’s coast, is also a welcome alternative, complete with red roofs, narrow streets and fortified stone walls.

If you’re tired of walled medieval villages and beautiful stretches of sand (Montenegro has over 100 beaches), there’s plenty to do heading inland, especially for nature enthusiasts. The Durmitor National Park (formed by glaciers) is home to various hiking trails, waterfalls, gorges, lakes and the famous Tara River Canyon with Đurđevića Tara Bridge, where adventurists can bungee jump. Or try the Biogradska Gora, a park home to one of the few remaining virgin forests in Europe.

Black lake in Durmitor National Park in Montenegro. (Photo by Michal Sleczek/Getty Images)
Black lake in Durmitor National Park in Montenegro. (Photo by Michal Sleczek/Getty Images)

Lake Skadar National Park is known as a bird-watching paradise, with over 250 different bird species and, as its name suggests, a beautiful lake. The surrounding area is known for its wineries, including Ćemovsko polje, one of the largest single-complex vineyards in Europe. AvGeeks who happen to also be wine aficionados should make sure to visit the on-site winery Plantažze — its Šipčanik wine cellar was a former aircraft hanger.

Rijeka and Zagreb, Croatia

The northern Croatian cities of Rijeka and Zagreb are less than two hours apart by car, but couldn’t be more different. Rijeka, a budding port city, is the gateway to the Kvarner Islands and this year’s European Capital of Culture (along with Galway, Ireland). Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, is wildly underrated and best known for its elaborate Christmas market.

King Tomislav Square in Zagreb. (Photo by HildaWeges/Getty Images)
King Tomislav Square in Zagreb. (Photo by HildaWeges/Getty Images)

Getting there

Croatia Airlines operates a few flights daily between Dubrovnik (DBV) and Zagreb (ZAG). To get between Zagreb and Rijeka, it’s under two hours by car, or you can arrive by train or bus.

Where to stay

Bonvoy loyalists have two options in Zagreb, the Westin or the Sheraton, both Category 3 properties with rates starting around $115 or 15,000 points per night. Both properties feature pools and are within a short walking distance of each other. Design lovers should stay at the Hotel Navis, an innovative seaside structure built into the stone shores slightly north of the Rijeka city center (about $200 per night).

What to do

Start by exploring Zagreb’s historic upper town, reachable by funicular (those wanting a workout can brave the stairs). The hilly, colorful streets are dotted with bohemian cafes and shops. Make sure to check out sites like the Dolac open-air market and the Cathedral of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, famous for its two towers.

Zagreb, Croatia. (Photo by Iascic/Getty Images)
Zagreb, Croatia. (Photo by Iascic/Getty Images)

The lower city has many interesting spots as well. Make sure to enjoy some of Zagreb’s parks, such as Maskimir, the oldest park in the city, which is also home to the zoo and the green, grassy area that’s part of the King Tomislav Square. In the case of inclement weather, get your fix of modern culture at the famous Museum of Broken Relationships.

In Rijeka, make sure to check out whatever cultural exhibits and events are going on during the dates of your visit as part of the Culture Capital program. Don’t miss the beautiful hilltop Trsat Castle, a 13th-century castle that offers spectacular views of the surrounding landscape. In general, just enjoy the local feel of this diverse city.

Trsat fortress near Rijeka, Croatia. (Photo by Lsantek/Getty Images)
Trsat Castle near Rijeka, Croatia. (Photo by Lsantek/Getty Images)

Those perfect Croatian beaches you’ve been dreaming of are just moments away from Rijeka’s city center. Sablićevo, east of the city center is a short walk, and Pločce is a quick drive to the west. For a truly pristine beach experience, consider exploring the Kvarner Islands, which are easily reached by ferry from Rijeka. Krk is one of the most famous, connected to the mainland by a bridge with a number of beaches, as well as hiking and biking trails. The quieter island of Rab is known for the clear and shallow waters of its iconic Rajska Plažza, also known as Paradise Beach.

Rab Island, Croatia. (Photo by Isaac74/Getty Images)
Rab Island, Croatia. (Photo by Isaac74/Getty Images)

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina likely isn’t a destination high on your bucket list. But the country’s breathtaking natural landscape combined with its charming villages might just make you forget that this region was recently war-torn. While parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina still show evidence of its past conflicts, you’ll be amazed at what this country, truly a hidden gem, has to offer.

Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo by Michal Sleczek/Getty Images)
Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo by Michal Sleczek/Getty Images)

Getting there

While the nearest border crossing into Bosnia from Dubrovnik is a mere 20 minutes away, consider driving an hour north along the Adriatic and crossing at Neum, a seaside town that warrants a stop to enjoy the beautiful bay views. The curving roads are generally in good condition, though you may experience waits at the border crossing during peak season. You’ll need the same border crossing insurance/green card from your car rental company to take your car into Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Where to stay

Staying in Mostar may be the perfect time to score that perfect home rental. Remember — many rewards credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve code Airbnb as travel, giving you 3X per dollar spent.

For those wanting a hotel stay, the Courtyard Sarajevo has a gorgeous rooftop bar, the S One Sky Lounge, overlooking the city’s Miljacka River and beyond. The hotel is a Category 2 property, costing as little as $120 or 10,000 points per night.

What to do

Start by crossing the border at Neum — the only area of Bosnia and Herzegovina that actually touches the sea (the country has one of the shortest coastlines in the world). Wander the streets of the hilled city or hit the beach — after all, it will be the only time you’ll spot the sea here.

Next, continue on to the Kravica Waterfalls. You can spend the day here bathing in the cool, green waters, or stay overnight at nearby campgrounds. Be prepared for a short walk down (and back up afterward) to get to the falls. For those who want to keep chasing (Bosnian) waterfalls, consider a visit to the Una National Park a few hours north. A much less crowded alternative to Croatia’s Plitvice National Park, Una has some incredible cataracts like Štrbački Buk and Milancev Buk.

Kravica waterfall on the Trebižat River near Mostar. (Photo by Federica Gentile/Getty Images)
Kravica waterfalls. (Photo by Federica Gentile/Getty Images)

The picturesque town of Mostar is definitely worth a stop. While it can be done in a day trip, if you plan to spend the evening, you’ll get to experience this charming spot relatively tourist-free when all the day-trippers head home, giving you an opportunity to get to know the locals.

The highlight of Mostar is the vertigo-inducing Stari Most bridge, towering high above the Neretva River. Slip the teenage divers a coin — they’ll jump when they’ve garnered enough spectators (and coins) — and it’s no easy feat. Then, peruse the shops and restaurants on either side of the river for a unique mix of Bosniak, Croat and Serb culture. Nearby, the small village Blagaj is famous for its Dervish monastery set at the base of a cliff.

Mostar Bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo by BNBB Studio/Getty Images)
Mostar Bridge (Stari Most) in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Photo by BNBB Studio/Getty Images)

If it’s history you’re after, head two hours northeast to the nation’s capital, Sarajevo. See sites like the Tunnel Museum, which highlights the tunnels that were used to smuggle rations, food and even people in and out of the city during the war, as well as the Latin Bridge, one of the oldest Ottoman bridges in the city.

Bottom line

You shouldn’t skip the popular town of Dubrovnik, but make sure to add in some additional spots like Montenegro, Rijeka, Zagreb or Bosnia and Herzegovina to get a real feel for Slavic history and culture — and check out some seriously stunning beaches and natural landscapes too.

Featured photo of Dubrovnik by stocklapse/Getty Images.

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