(CNN) — Like Venice, Barcelona and Prague, Dubrovnik is a victim of its own success.
More than three million tourists poured into the fabled walled city along Croatia’s Dalmatian coast in 2019, and local authorities expect this number to rise again in the coming years as global tourism recovers from Covid-19.
The pre-pandemic crowds and their impact on the historic city were such that at one point UNESCO threatened to revoke Dubrovnik’s World Heritage status.
The increase in visitor numbers was largely fueled by the launch of a new cruise ship terminal that could handle five ships simultaneously and disembark as many as 10,000 passengers per day, and an expanded international airport that could direct those passengers to and from their boats.
As if that wasn’t enough, a worldwide hit television show came out that attracted a whole new breed of tourists.
“Before Game of Thrones, most of the people I mentored were interested in art and architecture, that sort of thing,” says veteran Dubrovnik guide Ivan Vukovic. “But then more and more people wanted to take selfies in places where they made the show, like Pile Gate and Fort Lovrijenac.
“And we had a big, big problem with naked Instagrammers doing their own ‘walk of shame’ on the Jesuit stairs.”
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Dubrovnik – it remains one of the coolest urban spaces on planet Earth. But for those who enjoy history, art and architecture with far fewer people, these seven alternative Croatian coastal towns offer a similar atmosphere with far fewer people.
Ston, just an hour’s drive along the coast from Dubrovnik, is one of Dalmatia’s best kept secrets. Founded by the ancient Illyrians, the laid-back coastal town is known for its stone walls and incredible seafood.
Like a Croatian version of the Great Wall of China, the 14th-century battlements creep up and over a mountain behind the village. It takes a few hours to climb Europe’s longest fortified structure (5.5km), and even less to run the ramparts at the annual Ston Walls Marathon.
A pedestrianized pedestrian street in the old town of Ston is lined with outdoor cafes such as Konoba Bakus, which serve seafood specialties such as Adriatic oysters, black squid risotto and mussel buzara. Feel free to linger all afternoon; the locals do.
The town of Trogir feels more like Venice than any other location on the Dalmatian coast.
Half an hour along the coast from Split, this small island town lies like a miniature Dubrovnik, shaped by nearly four centuries of Venetian rule and completely unspoilt. Surrounded by water, Trogir feels more like Venice than any other outpost along the Dalmatian coast.
When Trogir was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the quote described the city as “an excellent example of a medieval city…which has preserved its urban fabric to an exceptional extent and with a minimum of modern interventions…every aspect of the cityscape.”
Even if you don’t like quaint cobblestone streets and palm-lined waterfront promenades, St. Lawrence’s Cathedral—with its iconic Venetian-style bell tower and extravagant Radovan’s Portal—should put Trogir on your Dalmatian bucket list.
Known for its summer folk festival and donkey races, Primošten is almost another old island town. During the Renaissance, the residents built a narrow causeway connecting their insular home to the mainland.
The town’s narrow streets are home to handicraft shops, one-off clothing boutiques, and traditional konoba restaurants. High above their red-tiled roofs, St. George’s Church dominates a hilltop with great views of the Adriatic.
Just across the causeway you will find sandy Mala Raduča and other beaches and a hinterland filled with vineyards producing some of Croatia’s best wines.
Biograd na Moru
Spreading over a small peninsula, Biograd has another medieval old town heavily influenced by centuries of Venetian rule. But the real strength is the access to the Adriatic Sea.
As one of the nautical hubs of the Dalmatian coast, Biograd offers countless ways to get out on the water. Day trips for scuba diving and snorkeling leave daily for Kornati National Park and its numerous pristine islands.
Back in town, Marina Šangulin is home to several yacht charter companies offering a variety of motor and canvas-powered vessels. You can also rent paddle boards and flit between the scenic coves south of the old town.
Zadar is just a few hours’ drive from Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Leonid Tit/Adobe Stock
Nestled between a photogenic harbor full of yachts and the island-studded Adriatic Sea, Zadar’s Old Town offers a setting as magical as Dubrovnik.
From a ruined Roman forum and Romanesque churches to the sturdy Venetian walls and the occasional communist-era building that looks almost vintage, the architecture of the old town is a hodgepodge of the different people who have lived over the years. Zadar have ruled.
Alfred Hitchcock once remarked that Zadar had the most beautiful sunset he had ever seen. And there’s something special about the city at dusk when the lights twinkle around the harbour, the waterfront sea organ plays a wave-boosted tune and the cafes and bars of the old town come alive.
In addition to its own attractions, Zadar is a great base for visiting medieval Nin (Croatia’s first royal capital), bungee jumping from the towering Maslenički Bridge, or hiking and rock climbing in the Paklenica Gorge. And it’s just a two-hour drive from the turquoise pools and bountiful waterfalls of Plitvice Lakes National Park.
Surrounded by factories and sprawling suburbs, Split is not the most attractive Dalmatian destination. Still, Croatia’s second-largest city offers plenty to think about.
The pride and joy of the city is Diocletian’s Palace, built in the 4th century AD by a paranoid Roman emperor who was sure he would be killed if he didn’t move from the Imperial capital and surrounded himself by impregnable walls .
The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is like a small town. Even today, more than 3,000 people live within its massive outer walls. Don’t miss the massive cellars, especially the rugged interface with parts yet to be excavated – a cross-section of household waste dumped for over 1,700 years.
Split’s waterfront bustles with ferries to popular Adriatic islands such as Brač, Hvar and the extraordinarily handsome Vis, where “Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again” was filmed on location (rather than in real Greece).
Located in a park-like setting on the outskirts of the city, the ancient Roman city of Salona has preserved a large amphitheatre, baths, basilica and many other buildings. On a nearby mountaintop looms Klis Fortress, an imposing medieval castle once inhabited by the Templars and the mythical city of Meereen in Game of Thrones.
The Roman Arena in Pula.
One of the northernmost towns on the Croatian coast, Pula is located on the western edge of the Istrian peninsula, not far from Venice. A star-shaped Renaissance castle crowns the old town. But Pula’s claim to fame is Roman remains.
Nearly 2,000 years after it was built, the Pula Arena is still one of the world’s best-preserved Roman structures. Today, the colossal stadium provides a venue for plays, concerts and Pula’s annual open-air film festival.
Fast-forwarding to the communist era, the intriguing Memo Museum Pula offers a walk through the memory of everyday life in Tito’s Yugoslavia, of which Croatia was once a part. Pula is also the gateway to the islands of Brijuni National Park with its beaches, hiking trails, golf course and safari park.
If you can’t resist the temptation of Dubrovnik, a few things can make your visit easier.
While staying in a short-term rental or small hotel within the city walls may seem like the ultimate in romance (and it is), this often involves hauling your bags up hundreds of stone steps. Meanwhile, those with rental cars will find that the most convenient parking space costs about US$100 per day.
The alternative is to stay just outside the walls at a rental or hotel (like the Hilton Imperial) that offers free parking. Or do you simply not have a vehicle; local bus services are fast, frequent and efficient, as are taxis and shared rides. At less than US$1 per kilometer, Uber fares to the Old Town run around US$8 from the cruise port and US$27 from the international airport.
Given the mild Mediterranean climate of the Dalmatian coast, you don’t need much clothing. So keep your luggage to a minimum, especially if you stay within the walls.
Avoid the heaviest crowds by exploring the old town before and after the daily flood of cruise ship passengers. Walking through the polished limestone streets is especially pleasant at dawn or late at night.
Hire a guide for a walking tour. Not only for the local history and architecture, but also for the lowdown on how Dubrovnik endured the civil war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s and what life is like today for those who still live within its walls .