My wife and I just finished a spectacular trip through Croatia, Bosnia and, on a whim, Montenegro. We rented a car online and drove through, leaving the states on June 11th and arriving back yesterday on June 21st. We found the online resources to be bountiful for some topics and scarce on many others, so hopefully this post will help some folks. Sorry if this is in depth, but I've always found those to be the most useful. First, the basics.
We flew out of Dulles, going through Heathrow to Zagreb. We flew British. Nothing to brag about, but we got there when we needed. Peak season started while we were in Croatia, so prices varied, and climbed quickly. We ended up paying about $1300 for each ticket.
We found a great deal online and found an automatic rental car. We use Europcar (through Alamo I think). I can drive manual, but my wife cant. If you can, manuals are MUCH cheaper, but remember much of the drive is hilly. We paid about $500 for the car. Gas is EXPENSIVE! roughly $8/gallon. We didn't factor that into our budget. My wallet hurts. Tolls can also be expensive. As I'll describe below in detail, tolls vary. The most expensive toll we paid (from Split to Zagreb on the main highway) was a little over $30. That's not standard, but it was expensive. And also, driving in Croatia (near the, but not during the, high season) is EASY. And if you're from DC/the DC area, it's just like dealing with Maryland drivers (yep, there it is. I said it). Of course, they actually keep to the right in Croatia (and Bosnia and Montenegro). The main highway, A-1, is like any western 2 to 3 lane highway. Speeds vary, but the posted speed limit for most of it was 85 mph (130 kph). If you drive however you are comfortable, but stay right, you'll be fine. People fly by you at times, but -- just like here-- stay right and let them go. The border crossings at Bosnia and Montenegro are easy, too. They stamped our passport in MNE, but in Bosnia, during our 3rd border crossing, we asked them to--and with a big smile, they were happy to do so. GPS is useless from main city to main city (or major attraction) but useful within a city. You pick what makes you comfortable. I got one, I'm glad I got one, but I wouldn't get one again.
We used points for the 3 nights total in Zagreb. We stayed in Hotel Esplanade the first night and Hotel Dubrovnik the last two nights. The former is about a 10 min walk from the main drag and is a VERY nice hotel. The latter is right on the main drag, incredible location, but is a disappointing hotel. For us, as long as its clean, we're happy. This was sort of clean. But what killed us was the AC. It was nearly 100 degrees outside and the coldest the room would get was a balmy 85 degrees. It's a known issue there, and they just can't do anything about it. The staff was very nice, but shy of installing a new AC, you're stuck. For the rest of our trip, we used airBnB. I'll go into more detail below, but it was unreal. We stayed in the heart of these town, away from tourists, in apartments or homes. We paid half to a quarter of hotels in similar locations (roughly 70 to 80 bucks a night with airBnB)
I won't go into do's and don'ts in a city. Really that's up to you. You know what you like to see, and should research it. But go with the flow (and if you have any specific questions, feel free to ask). Here's what I thought
Day 1--Landed in Zagreb:
We poked around the city the day we landed. The drive from the airport to Esplanade is about 10-15 mins. We loved Zagreb, despite what much of the online commentary says. Its a neat city to get lost in and full of outdoor cafe's. We didn't do the historical/old town part the first night, but mainly poked around the city and fought jet-lag. We ended up in bed by about 9:30 that first night, but it gave us a good start that morning on our way to Zadar via Plitevice Lakes.
Day 2 – Zagreb to Zadar via Plitvice Lakes:
The drive from Zagreb to the lakes is well marked. It took a little under 2 hours to get to the lakes, and we went to entrance two (the further one). We left the hotel in Zagreb around 7:30 or 8 to make sure we beat the tour buses, and I'm glad we did. When we got to the lakes, we were one of maybe 25 cars there, and no buses. There's a small fee to get in and my wife and I walked the entire lake system at the 2nd entrance. Most people only walked the first or second or took the tram to the top and walked a few down. I suggest doing what we did. The path was empty, we felt alone (in a good way) and it was calm. And absolutely beautiful. We spent a little of 2 hours doing the big hike, without rushing it, and then made our way to Zadar, which was another 2 hours away. Zadar was a last minute add for us when trying to figure out how to get from the Lakes to Mostar, Bosnia. Zadar is amazing. It hasn't been discovered by cruise ships or foreign tourists yet, thought it boasts some incredible history. Our apartment, via AirBnB, was in the heart of the old city. It was 50 feet from the old Roman Forum and 1000 feet from the water. Do anything you can there and walk and explore. Lots to see and no throngs of tourists. We easily found street parking for the night at about 4 kuna per hour until 10pm, and free from 10pm-6am. All in all, we spent $15USD to park. We spent the night in the heart of the city.
Day 3 – Zadar to Mostar, Bosnia:
We woke up, had coffee at one of the quadrillion outdoor cafe's and relaxed. We left for Bosnia and took the main highway to Metkovic, and crossed the border there. There is a stark difference between the two—optimism in Croatia versus friendly existence in Bosnia. As soon as you cross the border, you see scars from the war, a stark difference in infrastructure (though still easy to traverse and safe) and a lack of reconstruction. And in talking to people there, they're proud, friendly and extremely nice, but lack the sense of optimism to see in (parts) of Croatia. On the drive to Mostar, you pass an incredible medieval fortress city, and its worth stopping in at (which we did on the way out). Mostar is a neat city to drive through, and reminds me more of my travels east than through west, which makes sense I suppose. We stayed in the old town, at a wonderful place called Motel Emen. There are lots of options down there, too. However we did the walk and shop, and took pictures of the bridge, and then went exploring. The old town/bridge area is very touristy and you question the authenticity of it all. The area is only full of tourists, too. Walk away for just one or two blocks, and you see living, breathing Mostar. We found everyone we met to be friendly and inviting.
Day 4, Day 5 – Mostar, Bosnia to Dubrovnik:
We stopped and explored the old medieval city on the southern outskirts of Mostar and glad we did. The whole place is open—you can just walk around and explore. Yes, the tour buses stop here, but since its wide-open to explore, much of the explorable areas are never reach by tour groups. The drive to Dubrovnik is easy, too and I think took 3 or 4 hours total from Mostar. This was the first time we drove on the truly coastal road, and it was completely safe and easy. We spend that night and the next in Dubrovnik, leaving on day 6. We stayed at an AirBnB apartment, with a view of the water and a 2 min walk from the beach and 5 min walk from the southern gates of the old city. Before I get to the Old City, Dubrovnik is EXPENSIVE. Parking was anywhere from $30-$40USD a night, but its all on a hill, so if you go “up the hill” one block, you can street park for $15 a night. We didn't do this the first night, but did the second night. Plus, you get to walk off all the food and booze when you go up and down the 150 steps from one street to the next (we counted). Dubrovnik is neat, and old and all that. But frankly, for me, its a Disney world for adults. 11,000 to 12,000 cruise ship passengers arrive each day, it's all over priced and far from relaxing. I would go again, but one night was enough for us. Wake up early and beat the crowds to the wall. Its worth walking, but if you're late... In any case, the beach just south of the city is a good stop—it wasn't crowded and the water is crystal clear. This was also my first experience with Cevapi. Damn Cevapi. Addictive and delicious. And fast and cheap. Oh how I learned to hate and love Cevapi.
Having been fed up with Dubrovnik's crowds, we took a day trip to Kotor, Montenegro. If you rent a car, do this. It was a gorgeous drive, a neat old city that is open to explore and its fun to stop off at random small towns on the way. Border crossing was easy and we made the drive in 2 or so hours.
Day 6 and 7 – Split
The drive to Split can be long, and we took the ocean road for this one. It's worth it. It was, by far, some of the prettiest coastline I have ever driven. My wife found some info on a small town called Ston and Mali Ston just south of the Bosnian border, so we stopped in the morning. It's a neat old place to explore, but the seafood is delectable. And this from someone who's not the biggest seafood fan in the world. Fresh mussels and clams from the bay you're looking at, and even more should you be hungrier. From there we drove on to Split. This was one of my favorite stops. We found a great AirBnB host and stayed in the heart of the old Diocletian Palace. I felt like a local. The city is a living, breathing relic of thousands of years past. Yes, there are throngs of people, but nothing like Dubrovnik. And the city is still alive. You can explore the commercial and residential parts of the palace that are empty of tour groups (like the fish market). The actual sights, like the basement or museums are empty because everyone just seemed to take pictures and walk right on by. I could spend lots of time in this place—it, to me, was relaxing, fun and real. Granted we were not there during high season, but for when we were there, it was incredible. And the absolutely best Cevapi in the country is there and is less than $5USD. Go, get addicted. Its worth it
Day 8 and 9 – Zagreb
The drive to Zagreb is long, so we broke it up with two last minute stops – Solin and Trogir. The former is the one time Capitol of the eastern roman empire and is a ruined city that is empty of travelers and tourists, and free to explore. No ropes, barriers or “Do Not Touch” signs. Its a great one or two hour stop and only 20 mins from downtown Split. Trogir is not much further up the coast and is a very neat old, well preserved, Venetian city. From there, we went straight to Zagreb. It's a long drive, and since we took the highway A-1, most of it was fairly flat and boring, but it was EXPENSIVE as I said earlier. Still worth it 100%. In Zagreb, we stayed in the old city part and did a LP walking tour. It's a good way to see the city. AND GET THE ICE CREAM! I think it's called Vinceks, and it's the most famous place in the city—and cheap. I've never had better ice cream in my life.
Day 10 – flight home
For us, this trip was about relaxing and taking it in. My wife is a beach person, and I'm an architecture/history person, so this had the best of both worlds. We tried to get off the beaten path as much as possible, and without renting a car, that would have been impossible. You don't ever “do” sights (did you “do” the old wall)...you experience them, you walk them, you explore them and these countries are full of places to do that in. And the people were refreshingly friendly, honest and helpful.