If you’re finding this post before my first one with details on everything you need to know about a Croatia vacation, be sure to check it out! I also talk about exploring the seaside town of Zadar, which is the perfect Mediterranean vacation on the cheap.
Now let’s move on to what has become such a hot spot for Croatia and whose name I’ll surely misspell somewhere in here as I excitedly ramble on with tips and descriptions of this wonderful place.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
When I started researching Croatia, Plitvice Lakes came up time and again as a must see.
Usually I’m a little turned off by these places, but I’m 100% thrilled that we made it a part of our trip. I also figured out a few secrets that made in more enjoyable, because the truth is it can be overwhelming to take in with hundreds and hundreds of other tourists.Inside Plitvice Lakes you’ll find tons of trails, but the main entrances lead along a few pathways of boards over the water. Which means it is both stunning and spectacularly a pain if you go during peak times. It can mean hours of standing with no where to go because there are people in front of and behind you and water to both sides.
Instead, do what we did!
How to beat the crowds?
Get a hotel room which allows you to go in on day one around 4 in the afternoon. The crowds will be starting to thin out, allowing you to explore and get a lay of the land. Come back the next day at 7AM when the park opens and you’ll have the full run of the place for hours before a single tour bus arrives.Imagine that photos without throngs of people. In fact, I found it was entirely possible to enjoy a great run, which I’ve never heard anyone mention! Oh man, what a glorious morning surrounded by beauty on the trails.
That organization of our time also meant we go to see it in a number of different lights, which does change the view of the water and we still finished up around 1PM as it got hot and crowded. We hoped in a car and headed on our way to our next stop of Zagreb.
Let’s break this down:
- Go to the park after 4PM or before 9AM
- Go in the shoulder season – during peak summer times you can stand still for hours waiting for people in front of you to move
- Try not to go with a large tour bus
- Buy your tickets and try to enter from P3 instead of the main entrances
- If you enter from the main areas, head first to the ferry to go to the far part of the park and explore there before coming back to the paths near the main entrace
- See tip below about the secret path above Velki Slap
Ok tips out of the way.
What makes this place so special?
First of all it’s one of the only lakes in the world to have UNESCO designation, which basically means it’s been recognized as “as having cultural, historical, scientific or other form of significance“.
It’s a series of around 16 lakes which are connected through naturally occurring features like waterfalls. Because it’s all created by the natural flow of water, the number of lakes is actually always changing. So it’s not in fact the color that initially captivates us that puts it on the list. The color is created by the natural waters flowing over limestone, moss and algea, making it crystal clear. In that flow it also picks up calcium, which is what attaches to the rocks and continues to change the configuration of the park.
How big is the park?
Once inside the park, you can walk, hike or early morning run for hours (really for a full day easily). There are also an electric ferry and bus, which help you get from one side to the other to shave off walking time.
We did over 10 miles on the trails and all are very easy paths (minus one secret I’ll share). No need for trail shoes or hiking poles, but definitely bring in your snacks. They serve some foods in the park, but very little and cash only.
While I’d seen a ton about the gorgeous blue waters, what I didn’t fully appreciate were the never ending views that would suck us in. Around every corner was a new waterfall, a different bit of nature and something that simply made you want to soak in every bit of the place.
Velki Slap is the waterfall that gets the most airtime, but in truth, you’ll find waterfalls around every corner and many that we found every bit, if not more impressive (with less crowds).Secret views
On the map look for P3. It’s what the locals know leads to an upper pathway that provides sweeping views of the park. You can get there from a set of unmarked stairs next to the Velki Slap. A much easier path is to follow the path to P3 as noted. You’ll find it uncrowded even during peak times of day!
The one downside to all that gorgeous water is that Plitvice lakes swimming is not allowed! There’s no getting in those crystal clear waters no matter how much you might want to.
A Plitvice Lakes map is surprisingly hard to come by. You can check a large billboard when you walk in the main entrances and beside the ferry. These large maps provide letters to follow to create a certain route, which shows you in advance how much ground you’ll be covering (click here to view the map).
However, if you’re like us and end up creating your own path it would be really helpful to have a map you can carry. Apparently you could buy one in the main entrance gift shop, but we weren’t ever really there.
Where to stay near Plitvice?
In doing my research, everyone kept saying there are no hotels, but that’s non-sense. Plitvice Lakes National Park hotels are super easy to come by!
First almost right in the park is Hotel Jezero, which looked like an incredibly nice place to stay with breakfast. We opted for my more budget style and stayed on the backside of the lakes at Ethno Houses. It turned out this was a huge advantage to us because we entered the park from a different place that 99% of the people and it gave us more time to explore before seeing anyone.
I also loved that this wasn’t a traditional modern hotel. It was a number of the cute traditional buildings (but with hot water and a mini kitchen), run by an incredibly friendly group who went from working the registration desk in the morning to serving food in the restaurant at night!
I could honestly just keep sharing photos from here, but let’s keep this vacation moving along!!
Bonus Stop: RASTOKE
If we’d been spending our entire vacation in Croatia, this tiny village would have been the next stop of our trip. Instead it was a quick, stop that we made on the drive to Zagreb, which we only learned about thanks to our fabulous driver.
This town isn’t only built along the water, it’s fueled by the water to the extent that house are literally built upon waterfalls and might even have water flowing through a lower part of the house! It was just stunning to see and we heard magical in the winter when coated in snow.However, overnight guests have also reported that the non-stop flowing water wasn’t the best for their sleep. Ehh hem many bathroom trips. Nearly every small building in the village can now be rented out, so definitely a fun stop to consider!
Since you’re very likely coming from or going to Zagreb around a stop at Plitvice, I had to touch on this city as well.
Full disclosure, I only included it as an overnight stop to get us to the trains which would run to Slovenia. I assumed, we’d probably just sleep and relax. However, upon arrival we both agreed the city surprised us and we ended up walking over 10 miles to explore the highlights of the city!
While there was a striking amount of graffiti, which could initially give you the wrong impression, once you kept moving you found so much more.
The main square is filled with a local market during the day. Everything from fruits, vegetables, flowers and crafts, but on the day we attended they also happened to be having a special Vegan fair! A great reminder that healthy eating is becoming easier everywhere!
At night the stalls go away, but the square remains a hub of activity for the surrounding stores and nearby streets filled with restaurants. In fact, it lit up much like Times Square.
Those nearby streets, were literally rows and rows of incredible restaurants with a massive diversity of cuisine: Italian, Indian, Irish, curry, pho noodles, Russian – and all at ridiculously good prices.
Out from there you have a few highlights that are worth walking too and yes they mostly include churches and gardens because Europe knows how to do those things right! This one in particular I loved because it was different from so many others.
The tile roof was unlike anything I’d seen previously. And it was interesting to look around the adjacent square at the high end buildings filled with international consulates. A short walk from there reveals an overlook of the city and the more famous church seen on my Instagram.
Have you added Croatia to your travel bucket list?
As you know this was just the first country on our trip! Next up Slovenia with the famous Lake Bled.
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