The Dalmatian Coast in Croatia is the kind of place people subconsciously find themselves dreaming about when they wake up at 6 am on a Monday morning.
Remember that exotic image in your head after you pressed the snooze button for the third time? You were paddling through dreamy turquoise water, past the faded greys, whites and reds of ancient castles and historical towns, near rugged cliff faces and sandy white beaches, with a world of endless blue to explore. Nice wasn’t it? You probably didn’t even realise, but that was the Dalmatian Coast. It’s on the shores of the Adriatic Sea in southern Croatia. It’s real and everything. And it’s even nicer when you’re actually there.
Dalmatia is home to some of the famous cities and towns in Croatia. Dubrovnik, Šibenik, Split and Zadar all lie on the Dalmatian Coast, as do an array of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Though the hotspots can be busy – particularly Dubrovnik, which doubled up as Westeros in Game of Thrones – they’re never a distant walk from far-flung views over the craggy Dinaric Alps, a mountain range which runs through Dalmatia, or from the meditative silence of the Adriatic water.
To answer the question on everyone’s lips, yes, Dalmatia is also the birthplace of the black and white dog breed intermittently hunted by sociopathic Disney villain Cruella de Vil. The only coincidence there is that both the dogs and the Dalmatian Coast happen to have a whole lot of great spots. Here are 10 awesome adventures to experience on the Dalmatian Coast. 101 seemed like a bit too many to fit in a list.
1. Kayak to the caverns and caves of Dugi Otok Island
Dugi Otok is an island on the north of the Dalmatian Coast. The name of the island literally translates as ‘long island’ and, true to that name, it is indeed a very long island. Dugi Otok is 45km long and never more (but often less) than 4km wide. It’s kind of like the kayak of the island world.
The island has everything you want from the Dalmatian Coast. Cliffs you can use as launch pads for leaping into the Adriatic Sea. Empty beaches. Beautiful water. Little caves and alcoves to paddle into and explore. And it’s far from a tourist trap. Dugi Otok is still very much unspoilt by the crowds, so best get there in the next few years if you want to see it that way.
Kayak out to Dugi Otok and you’ll get awesome island scenery, but our main tip is that if you get a local guide, they can lead you on a kayak expedition out to an old shipwreck which if you’re feeling particularly adventurous, you can grab a snorkel and explore. Thank us later!
2. Summit Sutvid at 1155m and earn those island views
Sutvid is the highest point on the southwest of Biokovo, which, if this is your introduction to the Dalmatian Coast, probably means very little. So let’s explain.
Biokovo is a mountain range in Croatia on the Dalmatian Coast. Sutvid is not the highest peak on that mountain range. It tops out at an altitude of 1155m. But it is one of the most picturesque. From the top of the mountain, you’ll be able to look out over the islands of Hvar and Vis, pick your next beach reading spot, look back across the green and greys of the mountains, and if it’s a particularly clear day, see the whole way over to Italy.
Sutvid is roughly halfway between Dubrovnik and Split. A return trip up and down Sutvid will cover about 11.5km, but that’s steep elevation, it’s going to be hot and there won’t be water on the hill – so come prepared with water and appropriate gear and route maps, and make sure you give yourself enough time to safely get up and down. The views are your reward!
3. Wild camp on the Zrmanja River in northern Dalmatia
Z is a cool letter, isn’t it? Yes. The answer to that is yes. So the fact that the Zrmanja River is accessed by flying to Zemunik Airport in Zadar sets this particular adventure up particularly nicely before you’ve even had the chance to pick up a GPS.
The Zrmanja River is the adventure stream of the Dalmatian Coast. A kayaking trip through the river will see you zig-zagging with zeal past high-rising rocky cliffs and through lush, intense greenery. You can stop and play/frolic/synchronised swim beneath waterfalls and natural pools along the way and you’ll pass through the canyons of the Velebit Nature Park to boot.
Arguably the highlight of all this is when you dock up for the day, though, get off the water and wild camp in the Croatian wilderness, as far from the stress of modern life as it gets.
While your mates back in the city are searching for “sounds of the jungle” to try and send them to sleep on YouTube, you’ll nod off to the sound of one of Zrmanja’s biggest waterfalls a short walk from your campsite, after dinner round a campfire and a second round of laughs at that person who capsized their kayak earlier in the day. We bet it’ll be the best night sleep you’ve had in months.
4. Cycle to the top of 1758m Sveti Jure, the highest peak in the Biokovo Massif
The Biokovo Massif boasts mountain peaks that rise over 1500m. That’s a rare sight in such close proximity to the sea. This is what makes the Dalmatian Coast that perfect compromise for those who can’t decide between travelling for hikes and peaks or for water and beach time. There’s no need to choose here.
Naturally then, the massif has a *ahem* massive array of hiking and cycling trails. It goes without saying that cycling up the 1,758m Sveti Jure is an intensely demanding cycle, of course. Just look at the picture. You’ll need all the appropriate gear, legs of steel, and a decent road bike won’t go amiss. It’s about a 30km one-way trip but it is on roads all the way. You’ll ride the highest paved road in Croatia and face steep climbs for much of the journey. The final ascent on Sveti Jure begins around 4km out, with some beautiful hairpin turns, as seen above, and a couple of sore legs almost a guarantee. A bucket list option for road cyclists heading to the Dalmatian Coast, with beautiful mountain and coastal views all the way.
5. Sail around the uninhabited islands of the Adriatic Coast
Any sailing trip on the Adriatic Coast is going to be pretty amazing. The Dalmatian Coast has hundreds of uninhabited islands to explore, the water is turquoise and warm and the coastlines are marked by dramatic cliffs in both the fore and background.
The best sailing trips make the most of all this good stuff. Setting a route round the ocean and the islands is great and all, but what’s even better is getting an experienced skipper happy to move with the wind, take you wherever the weather suits and go in the opposite direction to the crowds when they have a hunch on a new hotspot.
The Kornati Islands consist of 140 uninhabited islands covering 300 square kilometres of land, so there’s no shortage of spots out there. Jump on a boat and sail to caves, reefs and islets, past fascinating rock formations and truly exotic views. Leave enough time and you can fit some yoga and SUP in to make it a proper zen retreat, too.
This place really is a sailing paradise. Make sure you make the most of it.
6. Race the Paklenica Absolute, the only vertical race in Dalmatia
If you like your coastal adventures a little more intense than piña coladas on the beach and have a tendency to run long distances, much to the bewilderment of your friends and family, then look no further than the Paklenica Trail race, which runs each May in Paklenica National Park in North Dalmatia.
Starting in the small tourist town of Starigrad-Paklenica, the race caters for varying levels, with a 14km blue route for all, a 26km green route for the fitter and 47km red route, which involves scrambling and “is not recommended for those who are afraid of heights”. All routes are incredibly scenic, with views varying from beaches and forests to high-rising canyons.
There is also the centrepiece event – the 12.7km ‘Absolute Paklenica’. Don’t be fooled by the length of the Absolute Paklenica, the entire thing is vertical, starting at sea level and climbing 1753m up to the top of Sv. Brdo, one of the most beautiful peaks on Velebit mountain.
7. Take a night-time stand-up paddle around the Split peninsula
Split is the largest city on the Dalmatian Coast (and the second largest in Croatia), and it is almost entirely surrounded by water. The place is a paddler’s dream, whether that paddler be wielding a kayak, stand-up paddleboard (SUP), or whatever else.
On the westernmost tip of the Split peninsula, you’ll find blue seas, turquoise rivers and when the sun goes down, a whole lot of stars – thus making it the perfect place for a nighttime SUP adventure on the Dalmatian Coast.
“A nighttime SUP adventure?” we hear you ask. “But how do you… see… the sea?”
A valid question indeed, dear adventurer. It’s actually possible to get an LED-lit SUP board and set sail on the Adriatic at night. The lights of the boards attract sea life, so it’s likely you’ll meet lots of new gill-endowed friends on the water, and once the giggles from the novelty of the nightwear off and you settle into the silence, you’ll feel like some sort of stealthy James Bond-meets-LED-Aquaman (or Aquawoman or Aquaperson) out on an adventure. Now there’s a sentence you never thought you’d read.
8. Swim in the Skradinski Buk waterfall in Krka National Park
That Skradinski Buk waterfall in Krka National Park is not a secret. In fact, it’s probably the opposite. It’s well known, renowned, famous, legendary, and likely over-crowded. But, it should probably still be on the list – because, well, just look at it.
When Notorious B.I.G wrote ‘Hypnotize’, he was probably here, hypnotised. At the exact moment AC/DC came up with the riff for ‘Thunderstruck’, there’s a good chance all four of them were under the waterfall, thunderstruck. When the guy from Aerosmith wrote “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing”, he was probably waist deep in the water, refusing to close his eyes, not concerned that they were getting increasingly red because he just didn’t want to stop looking.*
Skradinski Buk waterfall genuinely looks like the kind of thing that pops up in antiquated history books when you look up the Gardens of Babylon. The key is to make a day of it. Take a bike ride there. Hike the Krka National Park. Stop for a picnic on the way. Breathe it all in when you get there. Maybe write a chart hit or two on the way.
*Absolutely none of this music history is evenly remotely true, but you get the point.
9. Ride the Ciro Trail from Dubrovnik to Bosnia
The Ciro Trail is a 200km trail that runs from Dubrovnik, on the south of the Dalmatian Coast all the way to Bosnia. If that immediately sounds like a whole lot of effort to you, then that’s because it is a whole lot of effort (200km is a long way!), but if that immediately sounds like a whole lot of fun to you, then it might just be the adventure you’ll be talking about for years.
Croatia is establishing itself as a mountain biking paradise. Higher up the country, the island of Lošinj in the Kvarner Gulf has become a stop on the UCI’s Mountain Biking World Cup. The Ciro Trail is a more accessible route and a great way to get a truly unique experience spanning two countries, starting in the Dalmatian Coast.
The trail passes through the Hutovo nature reserve, through Roman ruins, over old railways, through mountains and wide-spanning lake and ocean views. The Ciro Trail is not long established either, so there’s not a lot of chance of overcrowding out there at the moment.
10. Go rafting in the Cetina River
Look. The truth is a lot of people go to the Dalmatian Coast on holiday. And for very good reason. The place is ridiculous. It’s like one of those superfood smoothies but in adventure terms – mountains and rivers and lakes and ocean all blended into one delicious cup. But what’s great about a place like that is that just because, say, Split is super busy, that doesn’t mean there isn’t 101 unspoiled adventures waiting just outside the city limits. The Dalmatian Coast just has so much to offer.
You can go to the Skradinski Buk waterfall – and you should – and you can go to Dubrovnik and point and laugh hysterically at the spot where Joffrey from Game of Thrones died. You can do all that. But there’s such a depth of adventure it’s almost criminal not to do more.
Take the Cetina River. Ever heard of it? The river flows through jungle-like forests and limestone rock formations. From its source in the Dinara mountains, it runs 385m down in elevation and 105km in length to where it joins the sea in the town of Omis.
It’s used to power water mills. To help agriculture. And it’s a rafting and canyoning spot with views as quintessential to the Dalmatian Coast as you’ll get. Put your adventure hat on, and get on out there.