After the famous TV show Game of Thrones was aired, flocks of its fans set their sights on Croatia, following the steps of their favorite heroes. And while the most famous filming site is definitely Dubrovnik (known to spectators as King's Landing), other seaside towns of Croatia are worth visiting as well, especially if you want to take a break from the sky-high prices in Dubrovnik. The second largest city in Croatia is Split, where I spent a wonderful week-long vacation with my family.
Croatia is not a part of the Schengen visa space, but US citizens do not need to have a visa to enter (as of 2018). The local currency is called "kuna" and it equals 0.15 US dollars (as of 2019). All major credit cards are accepted in Croatia, but keep in mind that there are many cash-only places. Fortunately, there are ATMs scattered pretty much everywhere near and about the center of the city.
Getting to Split from the US
As usual, when hunting for airplane tickets, it is wise to explore various routes. I first searched for a San Francisco - Split option. The results came back a hefty $1250 per ticket for a round trip. Multiplied by five for the whole family, it looked very scary! Then I checked round trip prices to the bigger European cities and found a nice deal on a San Francisco - Rome flight for $500. From Rome you can get to Split with the local air carrier for a $120 round trip. Altogether it makes for $720 per person instead of $1250. So it really pays off to engage some creativity and look for a different route!
Everything I had read about Split's airport prior to our trip was confirmed. It is very small, very crowded, and very hot in the summer because of poor air conditioning. Not a big deal when you arrive, and not really a problem if your flight is on time. However, oftentimes flights from Split run behind schedule. So pack some food in your handbag and be prepared to sit on the floor, as there are usually not enough chairs in the waiting area. Also, keep an eye on those signs over departure gates because they have a tendency to change without announcement.
When going back to Rome, we had a certain gate number on our tickets which corresponded to the sign on the gate itself. There was no space to sit down near the gate so we had to wait in the other corner. When it was our time to board, we stood in line to our gate only to discover after about ten minutes that we were actually going to board the wrong plane. Our gate number was changed without any announcement, and fellow passengers were hectically running around looking for the right gate on their own.
When we had just arrived to Split, we had to wait for our grandma's flight which was due to land about four hours later. The idea of standing in a crowd for four hours wasn't very appealing and it also did not make much sense to go to Split and then back again. Fortunately, the airport is located very close to the seashore and nearest beach is a mere fifteen minutes away by foot. After a brisk walk along a narrow road with no sidewalk (watch out for the occasional car passing by) we arrived to the small beach with its changing cabin and spacious open-air bar serving cold drinks and snacks, where we spent a pleasant few hours before heading back to airport and picking up our grandma.
Things to do in Split
In Split, you can enjoy warm Mediterranean water on five beaches, but only one of them is sandy - the others are lined with small pebbles. Pebbles have their pros and cons. Pros: water is clear, cons: it is difficult to enter the water barefoot. Water shoes might very much come in handy! The one sandy beach is called Bačvice. It is located in one of the central neighborhoods. This beach is usually crowded, small shacks are competing whose music is louder and locals love to play games in the shallow water, so watch out for those flying balls! Bačvice is still very enjoyable if you come in the morning, some time before 10 am when the water is clear and there are far less people.
Split is a very busy port, a popular stop for cruising yachts and boats. They dock along the wide and long promenade lined with numerous cafes, restaurants and snack shacks.
As sun settles down and night falls, the whole promenade bursts out with illumination and music from yacht and land parties, and festively dressed crowds walk along the waterline enjoying the break from the day's heat and fresh night breeze.
Old town and Diocletian palace
The old town in Split is worth multiple visits. Walk along the narrow winding streets lined with light gray limestone houses, take random turns here and there, discover small and cozy shops and restaurants, listen to street musicians, get lost in the stone maze and find your way to the sea again...
Before traveling to Split it did not occur to me that modern Croatia might have close ties to ancient Rome. However, as I have since learned, in the 4th century AD, Roman emperor Diocletian built near his hometown Spalatum a palace as his retirement residence, and about half of old Split (Spalato in Italian) is former palace territory. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Game of Thrones fans will definitely recognize some places in Diocletian's palace and its basement. (Hint: dragons!)
Streets in the old town are very narrow, and yet restaurant owners have somehow managed to squeeze in at least a couple tables for outdoor seating on every tiny sidewalk. So when you walk, it seems like you're moving about a huge dining hall. Food is everywhere, so rest assured you will never starve!
Croatian cuisine has a strong Italian influence, with a bit of an Eastern European twist. If I had to vote for just one amazing dish, though, I would probably choose the grilled stuffed squid that is served in many restaurants, and despite different recipes, is equally good everywhere. Otherwise, some other very popular dishes are gnocchi, spaghetti, polenta, pizza and plenty of seafood. Almost all restaurants take credit cards.
If you tired of walking around, you can ride a fun tourist train to the mountaintop vista point in Marjan Park. Or, you can walk or bike to the top as well!
Food lovers should definitely wake up early and visit the local farmers market located just outside the old town walls. Prices are decent, and you'll find a large variety of fruits, vegetables, local honey, homemade cheeses and sausages, breads and desserts, nuts and berries...
I was surprised to discover that truffles are found not only in France and Italy, but also in Croatia! So if you are up for truffles, check out the small shops with olive oil, local wines and a variety of truffle products!
There is a plaza in Old Town Split called the "fish market". The first time around, we saw it in the evening and found the square full of restaurant tables, so we thought that "fish market" is just a name. But in fact, every morning it turns out to be a real fish market full of fresh catch.
If you are more adventurous and know how to ride scooters, you may wish rent one and explore city and surroundings on your own two wheels. There are a few rental places just across the road from the old town entrance. Make sure to check the gas level before you choose a scooter, and be warned that many of the scooters are missing one or even both side mirrors. It is nice to have at least one, but preferable to have two! Also, for some strange reason, we weren't able to find a scooter with a working speedometer. That wasn't a problem for us, since we weren't planning to drive very fast in the city anyway.
Outside the city
There are plenty of interesting places around Split, and many tour agencies offer day trips, including a trip to Krka national Park with its beautiful waterfalls, or to Kliss Fortress, featured as City of Mereen in the Game of Thrones series. We decided to be even more adventurous and booked an ATV trip to the mountains. Early in the morning, out tour guides Mario and Mario (that's no mistake - it turned out to be a very common name in Croatia) picked up our family (grandma included) and drove us to the mountains where they have a garage with all-terrain vehicles. We mounted some ATVs and headed up the winding back country roads, riding along the stony paths and crossing small creeks.
The views were breathtaking and we enjoyed the ride very much. Well, at one point my husband was worried that he might lose his mother-in-law on a steep ascending climb - she was in the back seat while he was driving, but she proved to be quite strong for an 80-year-old lady (cheers, Granny!) and we arrived to the top all safe and sound.
On the way back we stopped at the countryside house for lunch. A table was set up in the garden overlooking a river, the homemade food and wine were delicious and we truly enjoyed Croatian hospitality. Thank you, Mario and Mario!
Another place close to Split worth visiting is the small town of Trogir. It is located very close to Split airport. To get there you can take a bus to airport and then another bus or taxi to Trogir. Or just take a taxi from Split straight to Trogir. Cross the bridge and enjoy the nice, clean pebble-lined Okrug Gornji Beach with changing cabins and outdoor cafes. After some swimming and sunbathing, we went to explore the old town of Trogir which is pretty similar to that of Split, and no less enjoyable. Of course, there is no Roman palace, but Trogir is proud of its Kamerlengo castle, built in the times of the Venetian Republic in the 15th century. It's now empty inside, and it hosts concerts during the annual summer music festival.