One day in Split, Alex was trying to take some photos from the top of a park overlooking the city but they weren’t turning out. Getting visibly annoyed, he said, “I feel like every time I try to take a picture, there’s something in the way ruining my shot.” I couldn’t help but laugh. To me, that felt like the perfect description of our entire time in Croatia. It looks so damn pretty, but something is just a little bit off.
It’s weird, because of all the countries we’ve been to, Croatia was probably the one we had heard the most about - we both know a lot of people who have been, and all of them rave about what an incredible place it is. Don’t get me wrong, it sure does look lovely. But I don’t know…it wasn’t bad, per se, it just felt a little sterile, a little cold, and that took away from the sheer natural beauty and made it kind of hard for us to love.
I can’t really put my finger on a particular thing or event that got us down - just a series of little things that built up into a bigger feeling of not belonging. It was kind of jarring to come back to someplace so well-trodden with tourists after being in lower-key places for a month. We avoided Dubrovnik to try to stay away from the biggest crowds, and we didn’t go to Hvar for similar reasons. Split appealed to us because although it’s a popular tourist destination, it’s large, at least compared to Dubrovnik and Makarska, and it’s lively. Plus, it seemed to be a good jumping off point for exploring other parts of the country, namely Krka National Park, which I'll get to in a bit. So we had reasonably high expectations going in, and felt confident we could find stuff to do that fit our interests without blowing our budget.
One thing we didn’t realize until we got here is that the actual downtown part of Split is quite small and can be easily explored in a couple days - not just the old town, but the surrounding downtown part. We had 5 nights booked, but no biggie, that just means more time to relax. We also assumed that because it’s larger than Makarska and Dubrovnik, there would be more affordable food and drink options. Sadly, that wasn’t true. Croatia just is not a budget friendly country - even our cheapest lunches (we stuck to the ‘$’ icon on TripAdvisor when possible) cost around 30 Euro without alcohol. We’ve had stupidly delicious, highly memorable meals in other countries for a fraction of that cost, so it felt like a slap in the face to be basically bleeding money for food that was just okay.
In addition, every street was crowded with souvenir stalls selling the same eight or nine things: lavender sachets, magnets, sunglasses, towels - you see this stuff all over the world, but they were packed like sardines along every street in Split more than I've ever seen before. The crowds were pretty awful, especially in the old town, but that didn’t really bother us after Kotor. What bothered us most was this odd sterility that seemed to pervade the town. I know the phrase ‘authentic travel experience’ gets thrown around a lot and is kind of meaningless, but I didn’t realize until we got to Split that it feels a little devoid of culture. Maybe we’re just growing weary of seeing similar places, or we just have general Europe fatigue, but Split didn’t feel uniquely Croatian the way that other places we’ve been felt uniquely representative of their country. Even in western Europe - in Berlin, for example, it’s an extremely cosmopolitan city that could, from looking at it, exist anywhere in the western world, but if you spend any time there you get the sense that it’s still distinctly German. I think that because Croatia sprung up very suddenly as a wildly popular destination, it’s possible it lost a little bit of its unique flair in the rush to accommodate tourists from around the world. That’s just speculation, of course.
So what’s a couple of stressed-out budget travelers to do when a city doesn’t meet their expectations? Quit complaining and GTFO, of course. So we scheduled a day trip to Krka National Park in order to observe Mother Nature’s mighty power in the form of some of the most beautiful waterfalls in all of Europe. We could have also gone to Plitvice, which is more famous, but we picked Krka because a) it was much closer to Split and b) you can swim in the falls.
Honestly…I think we should have picked Plitvice. In Krka, the only ‘hiking’ route in the whole park is one short loop around the waterfalls, because the main draw is a swimming area with tons of cafes and souvenir stalls (which was incredibly strange to see in the middle of a national park). The whole path is made of wooden boardwalks, it’s only a couple kilometers long, and it’s not at all difficult. That's not a bad thing, but we came in expecting to be able to find a more difficult hike, because typically in a park there are several different paths of varying length and difficulty. Plus, I had done some quick googling and the Krka official website promised ‘educational hiking trails’ so needless to say we were pretty surprised when a park ranger told us that no, that was the only path.
We saw the waterfalls of course, shuffling along behind grannies with iPads and tour bus groups clutching DSLRs worth more than my college education. The whole time we just found ourselves wishing we had done a little more research beforehand. Don’t get me wrong, it was BEAUTIFUL. The waterfalls were incredible, and while we didn’t swim, it was absolutely awesome to see people splashing around at the foot of the falls. It just wasn’t what we expected at all.
Okay. Maybe it sounds like I'm being unfair to Split, and to Croatia as a whole, and for that I'm sorry. To be honest, we have no one to blame but ourselves because we made the huge mistake of assuming we’d find stuff to do - and you know what they say about assuming. I think it’s possible to have a really great experience if you plan ahead and know what you're expecting. We did a lot of research once we were physically in Croatia, and we tried really hard to seek out hidden gems and unique activities, but we failed to do any of that beforehand, so we didn’t plan well, and our experience definitely suffered for it.
I do feel pretty bad about how negative this sounds just because it’s not like anything terrible happened. It was just not much to write home about. That’s not to say there weren’t some highlights, though. We found a tucked away bar in the heart of the old town in the back of a long alley where they served Game of Thrones themed cocktails. It was super cheesy and touristy, but hilarious, and the drinks were way cheaper than anywhere else in the city so we went there a few times. We actually got to chatting with the bartender and he was extremely friendly, educating us on Split’s nightlife scene and the many music festivals they host throughout the summer. He actually remembered us when we came back a couple days later. Getting to know locals anywhere is typically one of our favorite parts of travel, and this was no different. We also enjoyed strolling along the coast by the port - there’s a long stretch of boardwalk with beautiful views of the ocean, and the people watching is particularly good there. Hiking up to Park Marjan, the highest point of the city, was also a highlight. From the top you have panoramic views of the whole city as well as the mountains, ocean, and surrounding landscape. It’s incredibly beautiful, and we definitely recommend going up there - there are over 300 steps to the top and it looks daunting, but it’s actually not that bad at all.
So what can we learn from our experience in Split? A lot. First, have realistic expectations. Croatia turned out to be one of the most expensive countries we’ve visited on this entire trip and we were NOT prepared for that. We definitely could have been more aware of that and limited our time here in order to stick to our budget, or at least mentally prepare ourselves to spend more for less value. Second, we should have done some more research about activities and sketched out plans beyond just ‘let’s go to this park one day.’ So far in other countries we’ve had great luck making our plans up as we go, but that did not work out for us in Croatia because everything is either expensive or ridiculously crowded (or both). For example, we’d hoped to hire a boat to explore the islands, similar to what we did in Albania and Montenegro, but it would have cost us over 150 Euros (in both other countries we paid 20 each). Also, we made the mistake of thinking that because it was the tail end of season, crowds would be less extreme, but this turned out to be wildly incorrect. We were honestly pretty naive going in, and it definitely affected our experience.
The most important takeaway is that we should have considered our personal travel style and thought more about finding cities that fit our interests instead of just defaulting to the most popular places in Croatia. We’ve enjoyed ourselves the most in places that are somewhat off-the-beaten path - we love a challenge. Here, we just assumed that Split’s mass appeal would ring true with us. Same with Krka - we figured, ‘it’s a national park, what could go wrong?’ We didn't consider the chance that it might not be up our alley. Too much assuming, too little critical thinking. I think if we had worked harder to find smaller or lesser-known places more in line with our interests, we would have had a better time. And like I said, that is 100 percent our own fault, and now we know for next time!
I think Split (and the popular parts of Croatia in general) is a great place for travelers who can afford to splurge, folks who prefer the comforts of tour groups or cruises, a couple trying to have a dope honeymoon, or someone who’s never traveled before that wants to experience someplace foreign but still feel safe and travel in relative ease. It just wasn’t for us. But not every destination has to be perfect, and if we only had amazingly positive experiences we’d quickly lose our sense of perspective on this trip. I think we learned an important lesson about the value of being prepared, knowing what you seek in a destination, and setting appropriate expectations. We’re not going to let one bad week get us down, because there’s a whole hell of a lot of world out there for us to see. Plus, Croatia already gets enough love from travelers - they don't need us to add our voices to the echo. I don’t think anyone will mind if we find someplace different to gush about instead.