As a late winter snowstorm marched steadily toward Washington, D.C., this week, my thoughts turned to the Mediterranean climate of Croatia, whose island residents enjoy up to 2,800 hours of sunshine each year. It may not be fair that they see the sun for nearly eight hours a day, but it certainly explains why the islands of the Dalmatian Archipelago are quickly becoming one of the world’s most desirable vacation destinations.
However, with more than one thousand islands resting near the Croatian coast—48 of which have permanent residents—planning a visit to this beautiful region can feel daunting. Each island proudly claims its own identity, character, and unique attractions, from the natural splendor of Mljet to the sportsmen’s paradise of Brac. But if your aim is to blissfully explore charming old towns and beautiful coastlines, consider splitting your time between Korčula and Hvar, two of Croatia’s largest, loveliest, and most easily-accessed islands.
Although Korčula offers a wide variety of budget accommodations—including the unforgettable views from Accommodation Drasko—Hvar has undeniably earned its reputation as a playground for the rich and famous. But budget travelers fear not: with a private apartment booked through Tri Sestrice, you’ll have an awe-inspiring view from your private balcony—and more than a few extra kuna leftover.
So if you find yourself island-hopping though the Adriatic, here are some incredible ways to spend three days.
In 1298, a Venetian galley commander was taken prisoner by the Genoese near Korčula, a long, narrow island in the Dalmatian Archipelago. During his captivity, the commander—a merchant traveler named Marco Polo—dictated stories of his travels through Asia to a fellow inmate. The eventual manuscript, The Travels of Marco Polo, soon spread throughout the continent, giving many Europeans their first glimpses of China, Japan, and much of the Far East.
It is in Marco Polo’s legendary (but unproven) birthplace, the old town of Korčula, where your long weekend begins. From the Great Land Gate, spend the morning exploring the narrow alleys and Gothic-Renaissance architecture of this beautiful fortified town. Unlike many other medieval cities, Korčula was carefully designed to resemble the skeleton of a fish, with a succession of tiny lanes branching off a central spine. As a result, the northwesterly Maestral winds often sweep through town, while the menacing Jugo winds are kept at bay.
Under The Boardwalk
Dating back to the 13th century, Korčula’s stone walls are a symbol of its historic importance as a southern holding of the Venetian Republic. Today, those same fortifications are home to a parade of shaded cafés, and just below, some of the islanders’ favorite swimming spots. But swimmers and sunbathers take note: the rocky shores to the east offer lovely views of the town, while the sandy beaches of Lumbarda, a quiet village known for its vineyards, are only 15 minutes away by bus.
Where The Sidewalk Ends
Bring the evening to a close at Pizzeria Amfora, a tiny gem nestled in one of Korčula’s narrow alleys. With a sidewalk table and a carafe of Croatian wine, spend the evening enjoying a delicious selection of pizzas, pastas, and fresh seafood in one of the island’s most atmospheric settings. But don’t stay out too late—you’ve got an early morning ferry to catch (Ulica Od Teatra 4).
Hvar, A Long Long Way To Run
Back in 384 B.C., the ancient Greeks colonized one of Dalmatia’s largest islands, a new territory north of Korčula that they called Pharos. Although Pharos has since become Hvar, and the Greeks have been replaced by the Romans, Byzantines, Slavs, Venetians, Hungarians, Habsburgs, and Croatians, this beautiful, verdant island has lost none of its international appeal.
Often called the sunniest spot in Europe, Hvar and its crystal clear waters have become magnets for the mega-yachts of the rich and famous. In 2011, Prince Harry made headlines after he jumped into a pool—fully clothed—at one of the island’s legendary nightclubs. A year later, Hvar town’s mayor granted honorary citizenship to the baby daughter of Beyoncé and Jay Z, whose name, Blue Ivy, was reportedly inspired by one of the island’s trees.
But while luxury yachts continue to fill the harbor, Hvar has managed to retain a delightfully relaxed atmosphere that even the most casual of travelers will appreciate. So hop off the morning ferry, drop off your bags, and take a short stroll west from the dock—you’ll discover that Hvar’s best spots for swimming and sunbathing are just around the bend.
Recover from a long day in the sun on the shaded terrace of Palača Paladini, a local institution for freshly-caught seafood and simple, delicious meats (Petra Hektorovića 4). Housed in a 500-year-old palace, this local favorite is also a stone’s throw from the outdoor cafés of St. Stephen’s Square, a perfect perch from which to enjoy Hvar’s evening splendor. Commonly referred to as the Pjaca, St. Stephen’s Square sits over a former cove that once divided the city into two sections. But since 1780, when the Pjaca was fully paved, it has been the largest square in all of Dalmatia.
Rise and shine with a morning stroll down to the harbor, where countless water-taxis await passengers to Palmižana, the largest of the Pakleni Islands guarding the entrance to the Hvar town port. With a picnic lunch packed, spend the morning and afternoon in Vinogradišće Cove, a small inlet on the island’s south side. Although the cove is no secret to passing sailboats, its calm, vibrant blue water is ideal for swimming—and the surrounding woods and paths perfect for exploring.
If you’d rather stay on dry land for the day, consider taking a local bus toward Stari Grad, one of the oldest towns in Europe situated on Hvar’s northern shore. Hop off at Velo Grablje to hike nearly five scenic miles back into Hvar town, passing the beach at Milna along the way.
A Room With A View
Following a period of uncertainty in the Middle Ages, the Venetians became Hvar’s protectors in 1278, commissioning the construction of various public buildings, town walls, and a hilltop fortress that remains today. To enjoy one of the island’s most commanding views, follow a series of switchbacks carved into the hillside above town—the short hike to the fortress will give you your exercise for the day and a sunset show you won’t soon forget.
Return Of The Macondo
Spilling into an alley two blocks north of the Pjaca, grab a sidewalk table at Macondo, a favorite among locals for its traditional, impeccable seafood. Choose from the grilled fresh catch of the day, or try the traditional Croatian gregada, a garlicky fish and potato stew. Either way, as the weekend draws to a close, you can be confident you’ve enjoyed the very best that Hvar has to offer.
A Few Notes
Whether you begin your journey in Dubrovnik or Split, both Hvar and Korčula are easily accessible with public transportation. From Dubrovnik, opt for the large Jadrolinija ferry to Korčula, or save a few kuna by taking the bus. Believe it or not, your travel time will be nearly the same. To travel between Korčula and Hvar, or Hvar and Split, the speedy Krilo catamaran is the surest way to go.
Budget travelers in Hvar: Meet Konzum, your dear local supermarket and deli. In a town of sky-high prices, you’ll be thankful for the ability to eat breakfast on your apartment terrace and pack picnics during the day.
TITLE: Hvar town, from Tri Sestrice | FRIDAY: The old town of Korčula, from Accommodation Drasko; the alleys of Korčula; St. Stephen’s Cathedral | SATURDAY: The harbor of Hvar town; a swimming spot west of the harbor; the sun sets over Hvar town | SUNDAY: Vinogradišće Cove; sea urchins in Vinogradišće Cove; the Pakleni Islands, from Hvar’s fortress.