Croatia’s beautiful Dalmatian coast draws the crowds. Here’s how to avoid them

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(CNN) – Like Venice, Barcelona and Prague, Dubrovnik is a victim of its own success.

In 2019, more than three million tourists flocked to the legendary walled city on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, and local authorities expect the number to reach that point again in the coming years as global tourism recovers of Covid-19.

Such were the pre-pandemic crowds and their impact on the historic city that UNESCO at one point threatened to revoke Dubrovnik’s World Heritage status.

The increase in visits was largely driven by the launch of a new cruise terminal that could handle five ships at once and disembark up to 10,000 passengers per day and an expanded international airport that could funnel those passengers there from their ships

As if that wasn’t enough, along came a worldwide hit TV show that attracted a new generation of tourists.

“Before ‘Game of Thrones,’ most of the people I guided were interested in art and architecture, that kind of thing,” says veteran Dubrovnik guide Ivan Vukovic. “But then more and more people just wanted selfies at the places where they were doing the show, like Pile Gate and Fort Lovrijenac.

“And we had a big, big problem with naked Instagrammers doing their own ‘walk of shame’ on the Jesuit steps.”

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Dubrovnik – it’s still one of the most fantastic urban spaces on planet Earth. But for those who like their history, art, and architecture with far fewer crowds, these seven alternative coastal towns in Croatia offer a similar vibe with far fewer crowds.

stone

Just an hour’s drive up the coast from Dubrovnik, Ston is one of Dalmatia’s best-kept secrets. Founded by the ancient Illyrians, the quiet coastal town is known for its stone walls and incredible seafood.

Like a Croatian version of the Great Wall of China, the 14th-century battlements creep up and over a mountain behind the village. It takes a few hours to walk the longest fortified structure in Europe (5.5km/3.5 miles), let alone run the walls during the annual Stone Walls Marathon.

A car-free pedestrian street in Ston’s old town is lined with open-air cafes like Konoba Bakus serving seafood specialties like Adriatic oysters, black cuttlefish risotto and mussel buzara. Feel free to stay all afternoon; the locals do it.

Trogir

The town of Trogir is more like Venice than anywhere else on the Dalmatian coast.

The town of Trogir is more like Venice than anywhere else on the Dalmatian coast.

dreamer4787/Adobe Stock

Half an hour up the coast from Split, this small island town is like a miniature Dubrovnik, shaped by almost four centuries of Venetian rule and completely unspoilt. Surrounded by water, Trogir is more like Venice than any other outpost on the Dalmatian coast.

When Trogir was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the citation described the town as “an excellent example of a medieval town…which has preserved its urban fabric to an exceptional degree and with minimal of modern interventions… in all aspects of the urban landscape”.

Even if you’re not into quaint cobblestone streets and palm-lined promenades, St. Lawrence, with its iconic Venetian-style bell tower and extravagant Radovan Portal, should put Trogir on your Dalmatian bucket list.

Primošten

Known for its popular summer festival and donkey races, Primošten is almost another old island town. During the Renaissance, residents built a narrow causeway connecting their island home to the mainland.

The town’s narrow alleys are home to craft shops, unique clothing stores and traditional konoba restaurants. Rising high above its red-tiled roofs, St. The church of Sant Jordi dominates a hill with impressive views of the Adriatic.

Across the road are the sands of Mala Raduča and other beaches and an interior full of vineyards that produce some of Croatia’s best wines.

Biograd and Moru

Spread over a small peninsula, Biograd has another old medieval town heavily influenced by centuries of Venetian rule. But its real strength is its access to the Adriatic.

As one of the nautical centers on the Dalmatian coast, Biograd offers numerous ways to get out on the water. Snorkeling and diving trips depart daily to Kornati National Park and its countless unspoiled islands.

Back in town, Marina Šangulin is home to several yacht charter companies offering a variety of motor and sail boats. You can also rent paddle boards and fly between the picturesque coves south of the old town.

Zadar

Zadar is only a couple of hours away from Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Zadar is only a couple of hours away from Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Leonid Titus/Adobe Stock

Nestled between a photogenic harbor full of yachts and the Adriatic, Zadar’s Old Town offers a setting as magical as Dubrovnik.

From a ruined Roman forum and Romanesque churches to its sturdy Venetian walls and the occasional communist-era structure that almost looks vintage, the architecture of the old town is a mix of the various people who have ruled Zadar over the years.

Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that Zadar had the most beautiful sunset he had ever seen. And there’s something special about the city at dusk, as the lights twinkle around the harbor, the sea organ on the waterfront plays a melody generated by the waves, and the cafes and bars of the old town come alive.

Beyond its own attractions, Zadar is an ideal starting point for visiting medieval Nin (Croatia’s first royal capital), bungee jumping from the high Maslenički Bridge, or hiking and rock climbing in the Paklenica Gorge . And it’s only a two-hour drive from the turquoise pools and bountiful waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes National Park.

Split

Surrounded by factories and sprawling suburbs, Split is not the most attractive Dalmatian destination. However, Croatia’s second largest city offers much to ponder.

The city’s pride and joy is Diocletian’s Palace, erected in the 4th century AD by a paranoid Roman emperor who was sure he would be killed if he didn’t move from the imperial capital and surround himself with impregnable walls.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site on its own, the palace is like a small town. Even today, more than 3,000 people live within its massive outer walls. Don’t miss the massive cellars, especially the sandy interface with parts yet to be excavated: a cross-section of residential rubbish deposited over 1,700 years.

Split’s waterfront is lined with ferries bound for popular Adriatic islands like Brač, Hvar and the flamboyant Vis, where “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” was filmed (rather than the Greece of Life real).

Set in a park-like setting on the outskirts of the city, the ancient Roman city of Salona preserves a large amphitheatre, baths, basilica and many other structures. Atop a nearby mountain is Klis Fortress, an imposing medieval castle once occupied by the Knights Templar and the mythical city of Meereen in Game of Thrones.

plow

Pula Roman Arena.

Pula Roman Arena.

William/Adobe Stock

Pula, one of the northernmost towns on the Croatian coast, is located on the western edge of the Istrian peninsula, not far from Venice. A star-shaped Renaissance castle crowns the old town. But the fame of Pula is the Roman relics.

Almost 2,000 years after its construction, Pula Arena remains one of the best-preserved Roman structures in the world. Today, the colossal stadium provides a venue for plays, concerts and the annual Pula Open Air Film Festival.

Fast forward to the communist era, Pula’s intriguing Memo Museum offers a trip down memory lane to everyday life in Tito’s Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was once a part. Pula is also the gateway to the Brijuni Islands National Park with its beaches, hiking trails, golf course and safari park.

Dubrovnik

If you can’t resist the allure of Dubrovnik, a few things can make your visit easier.

While staying in a short-term rental or small hotel within the city walls may seem like the ultimate in romance (and it is), it often involves lugging your bags up hundreds of stone stairs. Meanwhile, those with rental cars will find that the most convenient parking is around $100 per day.

The alternative is to stay outside the walls in a hotel or rental (like the Hilton Imperial) that offers free parking. Or simply not having a vehicle; Local bus services are fast, frequent and efficient, as are taxis and rideshares. At less than USD 1 per kilometer, Uber fares in the Old Town are around USD 8 from the cruise port and USD 27 from the international airport.

Given the mild Mediterranean climate of the Dalmatian coast, you don’t need a lot of clothing. So keep your luggage to a minimum, especially if you’re staying within the walls.

Avoid the heaviest crowds by exploring the Old Town before and after the daily high tide of cruise passengers. Strolling the polished limestone streets is especially pleasant at dawn or dusk.

Hire a guide for a walking tour. Not only for the local history and architecture, but also for information on how Dubrovnik withstood the civil war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and what life is like today for those still living within walls

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