The Balkans – Croatia with Kids – The Itinerary Roundup
Here is the full “Croatia with kids” itinerary roundup. But it is so much more than Croatia, it is a sweep through the Balkans. We name names and link links.
We covered a lot of ground on this illuminating trip that highlighted thousands of years of history, delicious food, and cultural diversity. It was satisfying for seven year old Beija because there was lots of room for castles, horses, and sladoled (ice cream). You can see Beija’s Ode to Dubrovnik (Croatia) here. She still identifies Dubrovnik as her favorite city. Also, make sure to check out our Croatia reading list. There are some riveting books in this list for the whole family.
We rented a car, through the rental company Sixt, which allowed us to see lots of back roads and start and stop as it felt right. Another thing that made it easy is that although we always do our best to learn the basics of new languages, most people we met on this trip spoke English fluently.
Croatia with kids is an ideal trip. We started in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, then looped north through Slovenia. Our next step was to head south, hugging the Croatian coastline (the Dalmatian Coast). Finally, we did a series of day trips to some islands off the coast, into Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Montenegro. To get home, we flew from the airport just south of Dubrovnik. We suffered terribly because we had to spend a couple of days in Paris on the way home. I will document that torture in another post.
Summary of all the good stuff
Car rental: Sixt
Guidebook: Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia was the clear winner of the guidebook options
Ljubljana: City tour with Minka Kahrič, have lunch at the pricey but fabulous Zlata Ribica, and top it off with indulgent chocolate at Rustika
Lake Bled: Stay at Penzion Mayer. Beautiful walk around the lake and boat to the island, Blejski Otok. Hike up to Bled castle, Blejski Grad. Eat at the amazing Okarina.
Postojna: Predjama Castle
Divaca: Škocjan Caves
Lipica: Check out the stud farm for Lipizzaner stallions and watch a performance
Rovinj: Stay at Casa Garzotto. Have dinner in their delicious restaurant Barba Zuane. Also try the wonderful Sidro.
Split: Lodging at Villa Ana. Go to Galerija Meštrović and Diocletian’s Palace.
Dubrovnik: Stay at Villa Ragusa. The top floor room has inspiring views of the city. Several excellent restaurants: Cafe Royal, Nishta, Sesame.
Mostar: City tour with Alma Elezović. Have dinner at Restoran Babilon with a view of the bridge.
Korčula: Ferry to the island
Montenegro: Bay of Kotor
We landed in the Capital Zagreb and spent the night at a hotel. We got up early and drove to Ljubljana, about 2 hours from Zagreb. The drive across the Croatian and Slovenian landscape was filled with picturesque farms and rolling emerald greens.
The first thing we did in Ljubljana was eat (we do love our food) at Zlata Ribica which was delicious (but expensive). Then we ran off to meet Minka Kahric for a tour of the city. Minka is an amazing woman with a deep love for her country and of adventure. She was the first Slovenian woman to travel solo to the North Pole. We felt confident in her hands and enjoyed the architecture, stories, and local crafts.
One of the things that we learned about before we went on our trip was the story of poet France Prešeren so it was fun to see his statue in the square.
After we wander around a chilly city for a couple of hours it is usually time for hot chocolate. We were a little stunned by the texture of this hot cocoa at Rustika. It seemed more like pudding and it came with a side of more chocolate. You can imagine the buzz, but it warmed us right up.
Lake Bled is about an hour from Ljubljana to Bled. We arrived at Penzion Mayer around dinner time and felt like we entered a European storybook. Fair haired smiley people, window boxes full of bright flowers, and an abundance of delicious food and wine. The Penzion was just a short walk to the lake and an extension of the storybook experience.
A view from the Penzion. The castle, Bledjski Grad, was stunning from across the lake as it was up close.
It was a very reasonable climb up the back side of the hill through the woods. It felt like we stumbled upon a secret and it was a little shocking when we rounded the corner and a group of tourists at the entrance.
Bledjski Otok, the island in the center of Lake Bled is worth the boat trip. You can see it from the castle in the pic above. The pletna ride over is quite short and the boats are beautiful in themselves. The only problem is that you may be asked to carry your kid up the insanely steep 99 steps to get to the church at the top.
The drive to Postojna to see the Predjama Castle is a short hop and is definitely worth the trip just to see the fortress hanging from the side of the cliff.
Just a few minutes away are the Škocjan Caves. This is a kid paradise of soaring caverns, dripping stalactites, and underground rivers.
As we’ve noted here, here, and here, Beija loves horses. I am sure she is not alone in this love, and the bright white Lipizzaner horses are so stately and gentle that it was fun for all of us. We watched a horse dancing show which was entertaining, but heading to the stables proved the be the most fun.
We passed right by the border of Italy on the way to the cozy and picturesque town of Rovinj on the western coast of the Istrian Peninsula. A place that feels Italian and yet…not. Official languages are both Croatian and Italian and the town is also known as Rovigno. Our host at Casa Garzotto came out to our car to help us get to the center of the medieval town – without him we would have wandered lost for hours.
The food in Rovinj is amazing and we enjoyed some of our first tastes of Croatian wines and food. We delighted in pošip, cevapcici, pljeskavica, and kajmak. Jay was so delighted by the food that he asked the server at Sidro to write down everything we ate in our notebook, so I am referring back to it here.
I really could have stayed several more days on the Istrian peninsula. It was one of those places that you plan into your itinerary and then ditch the rest of your plan since it feels so good to be there.
We did drive through the countryside and up to the mountain town of Motovun (above), listening to the truffle-finding dogs baying over the valley.
The scenery driving down the Dalmatian Coast was stunning in its variety of blues and red-roofed cottages on the water. It was a fairly long day from Rovinj to Split, around 6 hours.
Split felt a little over-touristed to me. It is a major stop on the cruise ship circuit. But there were two elements that we wouldn’t have missed for anything. First, the hodge podge of architecture from thousands of years of building to meet the community’s needs in Diocletian’s Palace was pretty cool. Unless you are 7 and grumpy, and then it is booorring.
Second, I felt a visceral connection to the emotional work of Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović. Check out his work here. Beija and Jay enjoyed it too. We walked along the ocean near Park Šuma Marjan to get to the gallery.
Things really started getting interesting when we reached the UNESCO world heritage site of Dubrovnik (a short 4 hour hop). The walled city is breathtaking against the backdrop of the bright blue sea and ever-changing sky, but as you begin to talk to people you hear their vulnerability and pain that remains from the war more than 20 years ago. Dubrovnik was under siege and bombed and there was a dramatic evacuation. There’s a worthwhile museum that outlines the history and siege. You take a gondola up the hill and get fabulous views too. You can also get a taste of the history from some of the books in our reading list.
We stayed inside the city walls at Villa Ragusa. Pero, the owner welcomed us with stories of the war, offered us a sharp tasting walnut liquor, and we toasted to peace. The Stradun, the main street shown below, was one of our favorite places to sit for coffee, a meal, or just to people watch. There were many amazing restaurants mentioned above. Our biggest challenge was to find them in the narrow, twisting walkways through the city. Once we did though, we were treated to culinary delights from the sea and some of the best wine I’ve ever had.
Pro tip: Check the cruise ship schedule to determine when tourists will be ashore and plan your day trips when it will be the most crowded. Here is the port website. Check the month you’re going (it’s in Croatian, but you can just use the numbers) and it will give you a PDF of the schedule.
Our day trip to Mostar (about 3 hours from Dubrovnik) deepened our connection to the war. In Dubrovnik, people talked about the war, but they had rebuilt most of the damage. In Bosnia the evidence of the war was more physical – for example, there were bullet holes in many buildings. We met with Alma Elezović, a Bosnian woman who walked with us through Mostar, giving us the history of the conflicts and telling personal stories about what it was like to raise a child there during the fighting. She was a woman who clearly articulated her deep passion for her city and for peace.
We had a bountiful lunch at Restoran Babilon and enjoyed the opportunity to be completely befuddled by the Cyrillic alphabet.
And face puckeringly bitter and sweet Bosnian coffee that both made me want more and made me think that if I had more my head would explode.
We took a second day trip from Dubrovnik to the island of Korčula, where Marco Polo is rumored (but not verified) to have been born. It was a beautiful drive 2 hours up the coast to Orebić where we parked the car and took the ferry to the island with a bunch of high school kids who were pretty much exactly like high schoolers at home, they just spoke Croatian. You can find the ferry timetable here. It was a perfect, clear day on the island to wander around and leap from random high things.
Our last day trip out of Dubrovnik was a drive south into Montenegro around the Bay of Kotor. The trip was about 2 hours.
The walls around the city climbed way up the mountain and would have been fun to walk, but the child nixed that plan after she fell into the Adriatic.
Croatia with kids is the perfect trip if you love food and wine and your kids love castles and the ocean. Slovenia, Bosnia Herzegovina, and Montenegro are the perfect bite-sized day trips that add mystery and historical depth.