My beloved Croatia. You had my heart the minute it skipped a beat when I looked out the window of our plane and saw this…
You did not disappoint.
Family travel to Croatia with kids (or without!) may or may not be on your travel radar, but I’m fairly certain it will be after reading this. Being a bit of an unconventional destination, people often ask me why we picked Croatia for our summer vacation. For us it was two fold. We had already planned a three generation trip to Ireland the week prior (you can read all about that here and here.) If you’ve been to Ireland in the summer you know that it is absolutely gorgeous, but it is not warm. Being a family who lives for beach vacations, and considering that we were already all the way in Europe, we decided to extend our trip by a week and hit the Adriatic sea. Upon lots of researching, Croatia stood out for many reasons: It’s beautiful, family friendly, and communication is easy (English is readily spoken.) It’s more economical than similar geographical destinations like the French and Italian Rivierias. There is a lot of history there (recent and old, including a war and the end of communism in my lifetime.) In my opinion, one of the best reason to visit is that it isn’t (for the most part) overrun by tourists (though they are catching on, so be sure to go ASAP while it is still a best kept secret.)
So now that you know the why, let’s get to the where, what and how!
Because we were traveling from Ireland, the best option for us was to fly in and out of Dubrovnik from Dublin via Aer Lingus. While I’m a huge fan of booking open jaw tickets (arriving in one city and departing in another) to minimize excess backtracking, it wasn’t cost effective for this trip and ended up working out just fine. By this leg of the trip, our 7 and 10 year olds were seasoned travelers. While Croatia is certainly doable for families with younger kids, I found their ages to be at the perfect sweet spot for a trip like this.
Day 1 – We arrived in Dubrovnik around lunch time. Securing our rental car was a quick and easy shuttle ride from the airport. The first thing I like to do whenever I travel internationally is to pick up a local SIM data card to slip into my iPhone. This is a tip a seasoned traveler friend of mine gave me several years ago when I went to the Netherlands and Paris, and it’s proved extremely valuable. Sometimes these cards are very easy to find (right at the Amsterdam airport, for example) and sometimes they are more harrowing (venturing far off the English-speaking beaten path on the Mayan Riviera in Mexico.) Mobile phone services in the US are catching on and it is more economical to use our home plan internationally than it used to be, but when a SIM card is an easy find, I think it is a no brainer. We picked up our Croatian SIM card at the gas station right next to the rental car agency. It cost only $20 and easily provided a week’s worth of data to navigate Google Maps, Yelp and the occasional Instagram post (you can follow me here).
Knowing that we would be exploring Dubrovnik for 3 nights at the end of our trip, we avoided stopping there for lunch and instead visited the sleepy fishing town of Cavtat. Ireland is food is a bit…how shall I say this?…repetitive, so we were beyond giddy to enjoy a new style of cuisine and some delicious wine upon our arrival. If you like fresh tuna, Croatia is your destination! My tuna steak was served with homemade squid ink pasta and delicious local veggies. I had to fight my daughter for the last bite.
After lunch we packed into the car for the drive to Split, where we would be staying for the next 3 nights. We took primary a coastal route which was filled with jaw dropping ocean views and little stands where you could taste and buy homemade liquors, honey and jams. If you do buy something, learn from my personal mistake and pack it well to avoid having a honey jar shatter in your bag while shlepping 4 suitcases, carry ons and a booster seat over a mile and a half of cobblestone streets (yes, this happened.)
While driving from Dubrovnik to Split, you have to enter into Bosnia for a brief moment. Thinking back to how devastatingly war torn that country when I was in high school, it is surreal that we can now safely enter and exit with just the quickest of passport checks.
We arrived in Split to our Airbnb apartment by evening and walked down the street to a local pizza place for dinner. The loud buzzing of the cicadas, which come around only once every 17 years, was in full force. An annoyance for some, I’m sure, but we found the sound to just add to the vibe. We weren’t in Kansas anymore. There wasn’t a tourist in sight. That’s when I knew we hit gold.
Our Airbnb was located in a wonderful residential area of Split near the Marjan National Park. If you visit, especially with children, I highly recommend that you stay in this part of town. A huge fan of Airbnbs, I have stayed in many throughout Europe and the US, and my experiences have all been positive. When traveling with a family or large group, I think they are a no brainer. We were able to rent an apartment that comfortably slept 4, had a full kitchen, washing machine, large outdoor deck (with lush plants, a hammock, and a hot water outdoor shower) for the same price as a standard hotel room. The host was wonderful and stocked our fridge with complimentary wine, beer, coffee and a bowl of fresh fruit. If you haven’t used Airbnb before, you can click through this link and save $40 off your first stay (and I’ll get $20 to use on a future trip – thank you!)
Our Airbnb host gave us several recommendations and one of them was to relax with a coffee, cocktail or sweet treat (in our case, all three) at spot just a quick walk from the apartment. Again, there was not a tourist in site. Dubrovnik might be Croatia’s shining jewel, but I found Split to give us the most accurate taste of what leisure is like for a local. Vastly different than the soft beaches we know in North America, concrete is the “sand” of Croatia. People, young and old, line the concrete walkways with coolers and towels. Moms chat in groups, beer in hand, as their toddlers run around in the buff. I was immediately taken by how laid back everyone was. Despite not a swim bubble in sight, no one seemed the least bit worried that their babies were going to fall into the ocean. The contrast between American and Croatian styles of parenting was fascinating to me.
After a week wearing sweaters in Ireland, the kids couldn’t wait another second to jump into the warm ocean. While my husband and I enjoyed a relaxing break at the cafe, our son and daughter explored the crystal clear sea. When the bill came it confirmed, yet again, that we weren’t in tourist territory. 77 kunas = $11. I could get used to this, I thought.
Another recommendation from our host was to rent bikes and explore the Park Marjan (which was a very short walk from our place.) Bikes for the 4 of us came to $10 total, which included a bike lock that I lost and offered to pay for, but they wouldn’t take my money. In comparison, a week earlier we paid around $50 to rent bikes for a day in Ireland. Also in comparison, if are hoping to rent your kids a helmet, you are either going to have to bring one from home or do as the laid back Croatians do. Helmets seem to be as popular as swim bubbles around here. 😉
The views from the bike trail are absolutely magnificent. You can park your bike just about anywhere and find an uncrowded swimming hole to explore.
Of course a vacation with kids that’s complete smooth sailing is an oxymoron, and this trip was no exception. One second my son was happily splashing around the ocean and the next he was screaming hysterically, holding his eye. We were over a half hour by bike outside of town and there was no place to get medical attention in the park. I frantically searched through google on my phone, trying to figure out what happened and if this was an emergency. The scene caught the attention of several others in the park and countless people came up to our assistance. Despite a bit of a language gap, one woman determined that he likely touched a sea anemone and then touched his eye. Google said to get to a pharmacy. She said, “Get vinegar,” and pointed my husband in the direction of the nearest restaurant. At Tour de France speeds, he peddled to the restaurant and returned with a plastic bag filled with vinegar. Sure enough, the pain dissolved. She was one of several Croatians we met that day. The most memorable being a man from Zagreb, who was in Split on vacation with his family. We talked about America, his childhood during the Communism era, jobs, politics, corruption, and food. It was a good reminder that the benefits we get from traveling run far deeper than moving from one sight in a guidebook to the next.
Once our son was feeling better, we hopped back on our bikes and found this lovely dinner spot within the park. It was family paradise. On our way to sit down, the kids spotted a bouncy house that they would later play in for an hour while my husband and I polished off the rest of our meal and a bottle of wine. While I know this is not within every family’s comfort zone, by this point we were feeling the Croatian lifestyle. Watching countless kids roam freely around the grounds, our instincts told us that it was safe to embrace it. We made our oldest promise to not leave her brother’s side and to check in often. We enjoyed our peace and quiet as we sipped white wine and gazed out into the sparking sea. They enjoyed their newfound responsibility and independence. It was a win/win.
Our alarms were set bright and early in hopes to beat the crowds at Krka National Park. Kyka is about an hour’s drive north of Split. There are a few different ways to get there, but we chose to park at the small town Skradin and take the boat, which runs once an hour, to and from the park. Once the boat docks, it is about a 5 min walk to the falls. Unlike the most famous waterfall in Croatia at Plitvice National Park, swimming is allowed at Krka. It was a very hot day and the cold water was a welcoming relief. I do want to caution that the current is stronger than you would think. The closer you get to the roped off area, the stronger it becomes. For the most part, an adult can find a rock tall enough to stand on, but I was pushed off into deep water with a 7 year old wrapped around my neck on more than one occasion. If you or your kids aren’t strong swimmers, I very much recommend distancing yourself a little further from the falls. I was nervous. Not gonna lie.
There are trails surrounding the falls as well as moss covered caves to explore. I think it is worth the trip. But go early! By the time we left, the crowds were insane.
Before heading back to Split we walked around the old, narrow streets of Skradin and discovered a lovely smoothie bar. On this hot day, it hit the spot.
One of the most fascinating sights in Split is the city center. What remains of Diocletian’s Palace, erected by the Roman emperor in the 4th century, is the heart of the city. Shops, bars, restaurants, hotels and homes are scattered throughout the ruins. I strongly suggest taking a walking tour so you can learn about what you are looking at. It was a little tough for my son to get through the hour and 20 min tour in the blazing heat, but my history-loving daughter hung on to every word that came out of the guide’s mouth.
Stray cats were a mainstay of entertainment throughout our European adventure. No cat could be passed without stopping to say hi. Needless to day, we did a lot of stopping and petting on our vacation.
The old part of town surrounding Diocletian’s Palace is chocked full of open-air bars and restaurants. We chose to dine at Adriatic Sushi, where we had the most friendly server and amazingly fresh (and tasty!) oysters and sushi. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, Croatia is for you. Since many of the scenes have been shot at various locations throughout the country, you can’t turn a corner without hearing about GoT. Each town we went to had at least one Game of Thrones-themed shop, and although my kids are definitely not allowed to watch it, they love fantasy stories and this was paradise for them. Of all the places we visited on our trip, I think Here Be Dragons was the highlight for my daughter. She is STILL talking about it. Located close to Adriatic, we let the kids check it out as we were finishing dinner (are you noticing a ‘When in Rome’ trend here? ) As we were paying the bill they came charging back, bubbling over with excitement. “You just have to come see this place, Mom and Dad!” We followed them to the shop where we were greeted by the nicest young women who works there. Despite the sign stating “do not touch,” she gave each child a sword and a shield and sat them up on the giant dragon for pictures. She and my daughter chatted back and forth about Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter until they were blue in the face. My daughter left the shop with several souvenirs but what I really wanted to take home with us was that clerk!
By this time it was quite late and time to walk the half hour home to our apartment. Even at night, I always felt very safe in Split.
Next stop: the island of Korcula!
For more information about family travel to Croatia with kids, click here for part 2 where we explore Korcula and Dubrovnik.
Kami Friday is a NH based lifestyle and portrait photographer specializing in the photography of families, children, babies, newborns, maternity and high school seniors. A lover of traveling light and not being chained to a heavy camera while on vacation, the images posted are a combination of those shot with an iPhone 6 and a Fuji Xpro2.
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