What is Croatia

Croatia, a small country along the Adriatic coast of Southeast Europe, has obtained significant name recognition in recent years yet remains largely enigmatic to people outside the region. The country is at the intersection of Slavic and Central and Southern European cultures and offers stunning natural landscapes, significant historical ruins, and vibrant city life. Keep reading for a brief overview of some things that I feel define Croatia – coming from my perspective as a dual citizen and third generation Croatian American.

Before starting, we need to get a few things out of the way. 1) Most Northern Americans under the age of about 45 immediately associate Croatia with the Adriatic coast, primarily Dubrovnik’s walls, maybe some islands, and the sea. These are wonderful aspects of Croatia but there’s so much more. 2) Conversely, the name Croatia for those over 45 rapidly brings flashbacks to CNN war coverage in the early 1990s. Yes, there was a horrible war but Croatia fought for its independence, obtained EU membership in 2013, and is on the way to being part of both Schengen and the eurozone. While the bureaucracy is infamous and residents complain about some economic and governmental corruption, Croatia is a modern, well-developed country offering a high quality of living.


Croatia is at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, being the “last” Catholic country adjacent to both Muslim and Orthodox Europe. The country is perhaps best known for the pristine Adriatic coastline which stretches an incredible 3,600 miles when including the mainland and the 1,200 islands. Today about 50 of these islands are inhabited. About half of the country consists of karst topography and the Dinaric Alps which form the Adriatic spine of Croatia and soar as high as 6,007 feet at the summit of Dinara. The Istrian peninsula, in the northwest of the country, is comparably flatter and greener but still has deep valleys and streams. The eastern portion of Croatia, Slavonija, is the country’s breadbasket as this alluvial plain is well suited to agriculture. Other notable features are the alpine mountains of Gorski Kotor and the rolling hills of Zagorje, just north of Zagreb. The country provides an incredible variety of landscapes in a relatively small country.

Croatia has more than 400 protected natural areas including 8 national parks (including famous Plitvica and Krka), 2 reserves, and 11 nature parks. Croatian coastal waters are among the cleanest in Europe. To truly experience the Adriatic is to jump off a boat into open water and see meters down to the seafloor. Croatia is also home to some of Europe’s largest freshwater reserves. The climate varies by location but is generally more temperate than many places in North American (and especially from my home in Chicago!). Summer along the coast may stretch from April into late October whereas Zagreb has 4 clearly defined seasons.

Croatia has an estimated population of around 4.1 million people, making it one of the most sparsely populated in Europe. Zagreb, the capital city, has a metropolitan area of over 1.1 million, and is home to over a quarter of the country’s population. Split, the second largest city and de facto capital of Dalmacija, is home to about 500,000. Other large cities include Osijek in Slavonija and Rijeka in the Kvarner Gulf. Much of the inland area consists of small villages as the population is heavily concentrated in larger cities. The most populated islands include Krk (about 19,000), Korčula (around 15,000), and Brač (around 14,000). Jadrolinija, the state ferry company, provides regular services to dozens of island destinations and even offers international service to Italy.


Croatia is one of the most beautiful countries on the planet – this is fact, not opinion. From the fertile, tidy fields of Slavonija to the green mountains of Gorski Kotor to the pine covered Elafiti islands off the coast of Dubrovnik, Croatia is breathtakingly gorgeous. While there are many beautiful places across the globe, there are a few reasons why I find Croatia to be so noteworthy.

Croatians have long recognized the beauty of their country and are protective. National parks cover 9% of Croatian land and approximately 38% of the country is a protected area (ranked 12 globally as of 2018). This high level of conservation, plus a low population density, allows a level of untouched natural beauty that is increasingly rare. Croatia’s Adriatic coast is some of Europe’s cleanest sea water and Croatia’s many lakes, rivers, and streams are similarly pristine. While the Yugoslavian period was regrettable in so many ways, a benefit was that much development was frozen in time for nearly 50 years. As a result, the Croatian coast isn’t overdeveloped like so many other parts of the Mediterranean coast. A few years ago, Croatia used the marketing slogan “the Mediterranean as it used to be”. Luckily, this largely holds true even in 2021.My “happy place” is floating in a deep, secluded Adriatic cove accessible only by boat, hearing the cicadas, smelling pine trees in the afternoon sun, and seeing rocky cliffs jut out of the clear blue sea.

Croatian has expansive manmade beauty, too. The arena in Pula is one of ancient Rome’s best preserved and still used today for operas and film festivals. Split was built inside the walls of Diocletian’s Palace and getting lost in the maze-like on a leisurely evening stroll is an experience that won’t be soon forgotten. Dubrovnik has similarly captured the hearts of travelers for centuries and was coined “Pearl of the Adriatic” by Lord Byron. While the coast gets much of the attention, Zagreb is equally beautiful with lively, café-filled pedestrian streets, immense parks, stately baroque architecture, and a striking cathedral. Photographers won’t be lacking inspiration in Croatia.

Food and Drink

Croatian cuisine isn’t well known outside the diaspora but it deserves a spot on a list of the world’s great cuisines. Quality ingredients, traditional methods, and thoughtful preparation result in memorable meals – and perhaps a few extra pounds – during your travels.

It’s impossible to separate Croatia from the sea and this is true of the food, too. High quality fish and seafood is available across the country but this cuisine is especially prominent along the coast: black risotto, buzara, octopus salad, stuffed squid, and oysters from Ston are some of the most famous examples. I especially love hobotnica ispod peke – a dish where octopus is cooked with wine, olive oil, vegetables, and aromatics under a metal dome that’s covered in burning embers. Freshwater fish is readily available inland and fiš paprikaš is a well-known dish from Slavonija. Homemade cheese and hand-cured pršut, the local dried ham, are common starters to your seafood feast. I’m not the only person to believe that Croatian food surpasses that of their neighbor across the Adriatic.

The coast isn’t the only place with memorable food. Istrian truffles are known throughout the world and especially good with hand-rolled fuži pasta or sliced on rich, buttery eggs. Slavonian kulen is a delicious, paprika-spiked sausage that’s the perfect starter for stuffed peppers or sarma, a dish of meat-stuffed cabbage. Zagorski štrukli is a highlight of Zagreb – a rich, gluttonous dish of hand-rolled dough, cheese, and cream that can be sweet or savory. Speaking of desserts – mađarica is a famous dessert consisting of layer upon layer of alternating cake and chocolate covered in a glossy ganache. Fritule are sugar coated deep-fried fritters that are a favorite at Christmas markets. There are countless other examples of rich, elaborate cakes that demonstrate the Austro-Hungarian legacy. And, given Croatia’s location straddling the Slavic and Mediterranean worlds, sladoled (ice cream) and palačinke (crepes) are everyday pleasures.

I’ll just get this out of the way – Croatians like to drink and alcohol has traditionally played a significant role in the culture. Archaeological evidence suggests that grapes were cultivated by Ancient Greeks more than 2,500 years ago on the islands of Korčula and Hvar. Fantastic local wine can be found throughout the country and the diverse landscape and climate produces a variety of wines. The rich, robust red Dingač of the Pelješac Peninsula, the aromatic Grk of Korčula, the balanced Malvasija of Istria, and the zesty, briny Graševina of Slavonija each reflect the climate, landscape, and food of their respective regions. Rakija has an equally significant role in Croatian culture. It’s medicine, it’s an aperitif, it’s a digestif, it’s a way to welcome someone to your home, and it’s a way to celebrate to the good times and mourn the bad. Every non-native friend of a Croatian can share a horror story about a late night involving round after round of šljivovica (plum brandy) or loza (grappa-like grape brandy). Živjeli (cheers)!