A brief video highlights of our Croatia trip
Would we do it the same way? No. We would do a lot of things differently: we wouldn't hit Istria in the cold winter, we would have shortened our time in Zagreb to three days, skipped Sveti Martin altogether, and we would spend a few weeks in Dubrovnik and the Dalmatian coast. I think an ideal one month stay in Croatia would be 3 days in Zagreb, two weeks in Istria, a few days driving to Dubrovnik, and 10 days in the Dalmatia region.
Best food: Truffle pizza at Pizzeria Jupiter in Pula. I insisted that we go back twice because it was so delicious.
Worst food: Ultra-creamy, overly heavy pasta. On more than one occasion, we ordered a pasta dish (pasta with seafood or pasta with truffles) and the waiter returned with pasta that felt like it had been doused in a quart of cream and nothing else. I don't know if this is simply bad cooking or a Croatian recipe, but we could barely finish a half of those meals and didn't enjoy the pasta anyhow.
Closed down restaurants and cats in Rovinj
Our favorite part of Croatia: The European-meets-American feel because while it had the cute cities, Mediterranean cuisine, and beautiful wine regions we associate with Western Europe, it also had the convenience of big box stores, fast Internet, English fluency, and uncrowded highways of the United States.
Least favorite part of Croatia: The bura. This bitterly cold wind limited the number of days we were able to sightsee in Istria. Granted, this was a particularly cold European winter and most years aren't so cold, but we were definitely not happy about the weather.
Indispensable item: GPS (SatNav). While there is public transportation in Croatia, the public transportation system isn't as speedy and efficient as in other major European countries. Like Tuscany, exploring Istria is much easier if you have a car and Zagreb is a very car-friendly city with massive parking lots underneath many of the shopping centers. However, many Zagreb streets are one-way only and there are many "new" and "old" roads in Istria which can make navigation a bit confusing. GPS to the rescue!
Sleepy cats in Rovinj (and everywhere else in Croatia)
The best deal: Oyster mushrooms. We love oyster mushrooms --- they're thick and textured but without the expense of porcinis and meatiness of portobellos. I personally think that they're the unsung hero of the mushroom family. Anyhow, in Croatia, we regularly bought a 1/2 kilo (about a pound) of oyster mushrooms for $2.00 USD. That same 1/2 kilo would have cost us $10 in the United States. Interestingly, Croatians refer to oyster mushrooms as "local mushrooms" and they're used in everything: battered, fried, grilled, served on sandwiches, and so on. Ridiculously delicious. (And, yes, I know that I've probably put half of you to sleep with all this mushroom talk and grossed out another 25% because mushroom lovers and mushroom haters tend to be strident in their approaches. You can put me firmly in the head of the line at the mushroom lover camp.)
The biggest rip off: Restaurants in Zagreb. Nobody seems to eat in Croatia because restaurants are always half-empty and hard to find, though cafes and bars proliferate like bunnies in a meadow. When we found restaurants, they were often super-expensive especially given the quality of food. In general, we weren't very impressed by the Zagreb restaurant scene (with a few notable exceptions.)
Views from Maksimir Park
Best new experience: Visiting several mini-museums in one day. We loved the Museum of Broken Relationships, a homage to all the discarded junk left once a relationship ends (whether that relationship be between a boyfriend/girlfriend/husband/wife/father/son/mother/daughter/and so on relationship). Follow up that visit to the Croation Museum of Naive Art which showcases several famous Croatian painters who established the Naive School of Art which focuses on depicting the peasant experience in the early 1900s. Both museums can be visited in about an hour and a half and leave you plenty of time to wander around the quaint Old Town of Zagreb.
Worst new experience: Getting into a car accident in a foreign country. Ice + poor visibility = fender bender. As with everyone else in Croatia, the woman who we hit spoke excellent English so we didn't have to deal with a communication barrier. Even still, the accident and its resulting resolution was very confusing. The police came within 15 minutes of us calling (even when my Atlanta apartment was robbed, it took the police an hour to get there), looked over the car, drove her vehicle to ensure that it was indeed faulty, and suggested that we settle the matter without including them. We were incredibly nerve-wracked throughout the whole thing but the officers were very nice and suggested that we pay the other car driver 250 Euros and be on our way. So we did.
Zagreb fountain and plaza
Favorite city: Motovun. This beautiful walled city should make every travelers' list in Croatia.
Least favorite city: Sveti Martin na Muri. We didn't actually go into the city but we needed somewhere to stay for a few nights because of Schengen restrictions and so we opted for this resort between Zagreb and Budapest. It was packed with German and Croatian tourists using the indoor baths and, though the baths were nice, the food was mediocre and the accommodations were only okay (though pet-friendly).
The must see attraction: Plitvice National Park. A simply stunning park filled with waterfalls, rivers, and footbridges that seem to organically hover in the water, Plitvice is more beautiful in real life than in the pictures. And, it's a gorgeous place to visit even in the middle of winter.
Most overhyped attraction: The Pula Amphitheatre. It's not that there's anything wrong with this Roman Amphitheatre. It is beautifully preserved and even used in the summers for concerts but it's certainly not worthy of mention in 1000 Places to See Before You Die where it's listed. We were expecting the awesome grandeur of the Roman Colosseum and this didn't even come close.
A cat looks at a dog in Rovinj
Best surprise: The dog-friendliness of Croatia. Every house has a dog and dogs are allowed everyone: in restaurants, malls, and even some of the museums. It was VERY easy to find vacation rentals that allow dogs because most of the home owners have their own dogs. Dogs are well-behaved and omnipresent in the huge and very nice parks, including the beautiful Maksimir Park in Zagreb. The pet stores in Croatia are also the best pet stores we've found in Europe, with lots of varieties and options.
Biggest disappointment: How grungy Zagreb looked. We liked Zagreb, we really did, because of the way it felt: safe, comfortable, easily maneuverable, and with very nice parks and a few nice things to see. But, we were put off by what we saw once we got outside the main touristy areas. The absurd amount of graffiti saddened us because I'm sure that many tourists look at the graffiti-coated buildings and decide not to spend time in Zagreb, though the city is actually very interesting with some cool things to see. I hope that the city takes the effort to clean up its streets and buildings in the future.
Tourist area in Zagreb
Language lesson: No language lesson. Everybody speaks English (and American English at that).
The big test, would we go back: Yes. We think that Croatia is an excellent affordable alternative to Italy and would love to explore more of the coast.
And next on the travel plans: Budapest, Hungary. We, unfortunately, only had a week to spend in Budapest but we loved every minute there.