Like most first-time visitors to Croatia, my eyes were fixated on the cool blue Adriatic. My husband and I dreamed of gliding along the coast, from Venetian-flavored Istria to sunny southern Dalmatia. Ferry hopping from one beautiful island to another was the lone agenda.
Halfway through that journey, another abundant Croatian resource took us by surprise and altered the trajectory. In the city of Zadar, the artistry on display blew us out of the water, quite literally, inspiring us to venture beyond the beach. That was almost a decade ago and with every subsequent trip, we aim to dive deeper into both Croatia’s artistic soul and watery heart.
That’s easy to do in this small country where artistic expression flavors every area of life. Contemporary masterpieces compliment ancient treasures. Classical, rock, and folk mingle in a unique musical stew. And no place does festivals quite like Croatia. Spring events celebrating culinary arts (think: Sardine Fest!) and summer music, theater, and dance festivals are abundant.
We’ve discovered amazing experiences, but we know these only scratch the surface. With every visit, a new favorite is revealed. And, isn’t that the magic of travel? When we’re flexible and open, inspiration awaits around every corner.
If you’re looking to feel inspired, here are some of my favorite creative hotspots around the country:
Zadar’s contemporary seafront
This duo of installations opened our eyes wide to Croatia’s modern artistic spirit. Decades after Zadar’s seafront was devastated during WWII, city leaders tasked architect Nikola Bašić with re-envisioning the promenade. The work, unveiled in 2005, transformed the area and changed the narrative.
The first installation, simply known as Sea Organ, harnesses wind to produce music. Essentially, it’s a giant pipe organ built into concrete steps leading into the sea. With every boat that passes and wind that blows, air flows creates endless sound. You could spend hours on those steps, in the company of visitors and locals lounging, swimming, and staring into the sea, hypnotized.
The second installation Greeting to the Sun captures sunbeams via embedded solar-panels. All day, the work stores up sunshine while serving as a groovy metallic dance floor. As the sun sets, the energy creates a trippy light show, shining brightly through the night.
Both projects bring people together, are free, and self-perpetuating. These works made us think differently about what is possible, the epitome of successful public art.
Split’s lively treasure
No place demonstrates the concept of living art quite like this bustling city by the sea.
Ruler Diocletian went on a spending spree creating a fortress using the finest white marble and stone available to the Roman empire. Today, Diocletian’s Palace is filled from cobblestone alley to tower belfry with life. The sight of Split’s residents dining, shopping, and creating new art within the architectural masterpiece feels otherworldly.
Don’t miss the fascinating Ethnographic Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts. For a dose of modernity, go in search of Gregorius of Nin, a sculpture created by Croatia’s most famous contemporary artist Ivan Meštrović. Rub the bishop’s big toe for luck, then continue the immersion at Meštrović Gallery, where the artist once lived and worked.
Dubrovnik’s thought-provoking allure
Further south, another architectural wonder lures visitors by cruise-ship-load to Croatia’s most popular city. The medieval walls of Dubrovnik indeed warrant the attention and a walk around the circumference is an unforgettable, yet crowded, experience. (Tip: for less crowds and great light, visit an hour before closing.)
Explore more recent history at War Photo Limited, a collection of images from the world’s most prominent war photographers. Scenes of the Balkan conflict and shelling of Dubrovnik in 1991 and 1992 are startling, yet vital to understanding the region.
We let the sobering experience sink in during a long walk to tranquil, beach-dotted Lapad, once home to another Croatian sculptor. Galerija Marijan showcases the works of Marijan Kockovic in the home where his children welcome visitors by appointment. His bronze and marble sculptures of female figures seem alive and exude feminine power and mystic. The art-adorned garden offers a peaceful spot for contemplating the work.
Rijeka’s creative mix
Along the northern coast, Croatia’s most underrated city is bursting with artistic energy. Most visitors pass through the port city of Rijeka in route to popular islands, Krk and Cres, but art lovers should tap the brakes for this multi-textured spot.
The once-gritty waterfront is transforming as piers and ships are reimagined as hip restaurants, hotels, and cutting-edge art spaces. This is the place to sample the rock and punk scene. Event posters blanket the city, showcasing a spectrum of shows, along with innovative design.
Check out the music poster collection at the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and catch a live show at a famed club like Tunel, atmospherically staged under a railway. And, if there’s a show at Hartera Paper Factory, a former industrial zone turned arts hotspot, find your way there.
This may seem a crazy suggestion, but don’t miss Kantrida Aquatic Center, just outside town. The stunningly modern design is proof that Rijeka’s artsy, even in sport.
Zagreb’s capital buzz
Croatia’s capital, Zagreb, offers a dizzying array of museums, galleries, music, theater, and dance. You can dig deeper into Meštrović’s genius in his namesake atelier, where a comprehensive collection of bronze, stone, and wood pieces showcase his early work.
Nearby, you’ll find one of the country’s most evocative art collections. The Croatian Museum of Naïve Art is dedicated to works primarily associated with self-taught artists. In other words, what most of us think of as folk art. After visiting, you’ll notice giant eggs throughout town serving as canvas for the form’s characteristically vibrant colors.
And, for something completely different, visit the acclaimed Museum of Broken Relationships. The quirky space, created by local artists Olinka Vištica and Dražen Grubišić, features a crowd-sourced collection of intimate stories involving ordinary objects left behind after relationships end. You’ll never look at a favorite pair of jeans the same way.
Tap into the city’s creative energy along Marticeva Street, the epicenter of an emerging design district. With the opening of every new gallery and arts venue, Zagreb more loudly proclaims its title as Croatia’s capital of art and offers visitors like you and me another beautiful reason to visit.
Tempted to visit this beautiful, creative country? Check out our range of small group adventures to Croatia.
(Image credits from top to bottom: iStock, Jessica Simpson, iStock, Sarah Tate, Jessica Simpson, iStock, Jessica Simpson x2)