The sun-drenched cities of Zagreb, Dubrovnik, and Split usually get all the glory during trips to Croatia. But we have lots of love for the country’s Dalmatian coast -- composed of 79 islands and about five times as many islets -- for a picturesque, historic retreat in the Adriatic Sea. We suggest starting in Hvar, arguably Dalmatia's crown jewel. Here’s how to experience it on a budget.
From Split, Hvar can be reached by catamaran or several daily flights -- though the ferry operated by Jadrolinija is the most affordable option at 39 HRK ($5.50) for a two-hour journey across the sea. Tickets can be purchased online or at a booth in the port next to the ship. The ferry docks on the island's north side at Stari Grad, from which a coach bus will transport visitors to the other side of the island.
Though conventional wisdom suggests booking a hotel in advance, in Hvar, waiting until you get off the bus is the most economical option. Many local families own second homes for the sole purpose of renting them out to visitors, and you'll find a group of women offering reduced rates for their apartments by the bus stop. Most are $15-$50 per night. Pro Tip: There's a large map on the bus stop sign. Ask the women to point out their apartment's location and opt for one in the center of town or near the picturesque bay.
With a private apartment at your disposal, you can visit the grocery store and prepare your own meals, but if you feel like eating out, treat yourself to Bistro Marinero near the bay. The restaurant not only offers tasty traditional Croatian meals and fresh catches at perhaps the best prices in town, but it also boasts a light-strung back terrace that provides a dreamy atmosphere. Pro Tip: Restaurants featuring tables of freshly caught fish outside their establishments tend to be more expensive than those that don't.
Sights in Hvar abound -- including the island’s fortress. This is a great trip for several reasons: the excursion is free, it gets you acquainted with the island’s history, and offers views from atop that can’t be beat. In the heart of the historical town center, explore stone buildings and the monastery and bell tower. Away from the town center, find sprawling vineyards, fields of lavender, and olive oil orchards. Want to explore neighboring islands? Consider renting a boat, which you'll find for less than $100 per day.
For the night owls, there are several nightclubs and bars scattered across the island. But there’s always the more economical but just as memorable option of purchasing beverages at the grocery store to enjoy along the waterfront.