Why Plitvice Lakes National Park should be on your bucket list

Acres of greenery for as far as the eye can travel, scores of diminutive white flowers that belong in an ethereal wonderland, the blurry outline of mountains in a distance and a languorous sunset that goes from pale yellow to tangerine, and finally nightfall, that comes slowly and then all at once.

My reality was finally dreamier than anything my imagination could have cooked up … except for the incessant rumbling of my stomach. I was in the village of Mukinje, Croatia, known for its proximity to Plitvice Lakes National Park (official website), nestled in the gorgeous mountainous Lika region—and as I had just discovered, this sleepy hamlet’s closest supermarket was 4kms away from my home stay, and public transport within the town is sparse. So if you’re going to be visiting Plitvice, make sure to hire a car (rentals here) to make your life easier — it’s an easy drive from Zagreb, Split or Zadar, the park’s lot has plenty of parking, you can reach as early as you please to avoid the crowds and you make sure you’re on a full stomach post a day (or two) of exploring (unlike us, the silly kids who had to rely on the kindness of strangers for rides, and milk and cereal for dinner).

Being well connected, day-trips are possible but we spent two nights and took the evening bus (bus tickets here) from Zagreb, and our hosts not only received us at the bus stop, they drove us to the park in the am. The things you hear about small towns filled with the warmest hearts? Totally true. And with a bag full of as many snacks as we could save, water, a rain jacket (it did in fact pour for a brief period during a sunny day in August), we got our early start at Plitvice. Read on to follow our day out.

Lake lovin’
Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the single most visited sites in Croatia and as of 1979 is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—with great reason. Sixteen lakes, inter-connected by a series of waterfalls, set across 300sqkm of lush woodland come together to create a landscape that no camera can really do justice to.

With two entrances and a range of trails you can follow (about eight routes, named as trails A, B, C, E, F, H K– between 3 to 18km) and well-marked routes, meandering through the park is as easy as can be, as long as you catch the boats and trains on time. We began at Entrance 1, caught the first train out, and followed Trail C – that took us through a train and boat ride, across an 8km route that covered some of the upper and lower level lakes and the famed Veliki Slap waterfall.

What followed was a kaleidoscope of colours—azure, turquoise and sea green waters that you can gaze into the depths of, buttery-white clouds, trees and bushes resplendent in greens—soft lime, muted sage, dazzling emerald and the occasional deep jade—a happy palette courtesy summer. And of course, the crowning glory of the park, its layout of lakes, unimaginably still, with a delicate breeze creating minuscule waves—and waterfalls—some soft and rippling, others loud and gushing, drowning out the chaos of the crowds. The water is crystal clear because being high mountain runoff, the water calcifies everything it touches and there’s no mud or algae, leaving it pristine (but alas, swimming is forbidden).

Visiting in the heart of summer means you’ll be queuing a lot—for tickets, for the train and bus, for food, walking on trails frequented by camera-bearing crowds, and waiting patiently for your turn at a photo spot. Since we began at about 7am, we were able to finish our trail by 4pm, which is when we saw hordes of late-comers crowding the park, and thanked our lucky stars for the small pockets of tranquil time we got in the park. (There are fast food restaurants within, but preferably pack a picnic)

Home in the hamlet
Our trek wasn’t quite over yet—after a meal at one of the few restaurants nearby, and a quick (over-enthusiastic) stop at the supermarket, we walked a few more kms back to our home stay— Guest house Attico Viva. There are three hotels right by the park, and a couple of camps but the wide selection of utterly adorable (and budget-friendly) private accommodation (rooms, apartments in guesthouses/homes) were our choice for a more personalised experience.

And with a breakfast spread of the ‘best eggs we’ve ever eaten’, the warmest home owner, and a beautiful little sit-out to enjoy the sunset post our day at Plitvice Lakes National Park, Attico Viva was a perfect, secluded little spot to rest our weary bones on our second and last night. As we sat and enjoyed the silence in the air, the languorous mountain sunset turning from pale yellow to deep orange, and finally a velvety blue, I couldn’t help but be grateful for the chance to see one of the most naturally beautiful spots I’ve ever visited in my life—and the country’s oldest and largest national park. The summer colours, the summer breeze and the tenuous (eternal) chill of the mountain region made it a perfect party in the park. But my visions of seeing it bathed in Autumn colours and the soft coat of snow in the Winter remain vivid. A girl can dream right? Especially since sometimes they’re far greater than reality.

Fact file
Location: 
Croatia, Europe
Getting there: 
Connecting flights to the capital city of Zagreb, buses and trains connect directly to Plitvice from Zagreb or Split (book prior) but renting a car is more convenient/recommended
Best time to visit: 
April-May, September-October (open 365 days a year)
Park timings:
Winter: 8am-4pm (Oct-March approx.)
Spring: 8am-7pm ( End of March onwards approx.)
Summer: 7am – 8pm (June-August approx.)
Autumn: 7am – 7pm (August end onwards approx.)
Entrance fee: Different packages based on number of days/season that cover train/bus rides. Guided tours are also available. (Starting at 130 kuna up to 400 kuna)

For fairytale destinations to visit in Croatia, read our hidden hotspots story here:

Uncovering hidden gems in Croatia

A 14th century, virginal white castle-like structure resting on a carpet of manicured grass—a vision both alluring and awe-inspiring. The majestic ruins of a 13th  century castle on a hill—a living relic of the past. A cascade of angels in a clandestine alley, slowly descending to Earth—ethereal, and yet, a little un-earthly. The European nation of Croatia may be better known for its Game of Throne sets in Dubrovnik, and lure of natural wonders, like Krka and Plitvice Lakes National Park—but on my recent trip, I unearthed these hidden gems nestled in smaller, story tale towns.

For an escapist like me, there’s no better joy than getting lost in old towns with magical stories, that urge you to travel back in time and speak of both mythology and mystery. And as any good philosopher knows, myths are nothing but true accounts of a remote past. Read on for the hidden gems I stumbled upon in Croatia, to find and live out your own, very real fairy tale.

Ruins of a castle in Samobor
A 30-minute drive west from the city of Zagreb lies the small quiet town of Samobor—known for its historic architecture, natural wonders, laidback vibe and un-real kremšnita. Fairly quiet even in the tourist-heavy month of August, it’s small enough to comfortably walk around on foot—and perhaps this is the best way, to make the most of its well-maintained architecture. The town square is filled with open-air cafes and little bars—where you must try the traditional kremšnita, a decadent dessert made from puff pastry and custard cream, that Samobor is well-known for. (I recommend Slasticarnica U Prolazu).

But the crown jewel of the town, and the sight I lost my romantic heart to is the Samobor Castle, a ruined castle atop Tepec Hill. A ten-minute walk from the town center, through a pretty public park takes you to the start of a hiking point. A quick 20-minute uphill walk takes you to the ruins of the castle that was erected back in the 13th century and sit at an elevation of 220m. I had the serendipitous pleasure of reaching the top just as the sun settled into a glorious sunset sky and the old castle moat, the massive entrance and most of the still-standing walls came to life against the fiery colours of the sky. And all I could think about was clandestine meetings with a Prince Charming as we soaked in the sights, with the stone castle protecting us.
Things to see: Samobor Museum, St Anastasia Church, Grgos Cave
Stay: Plenty of quaint apartments, but also ideal for a day trip from Zagreb

The angel alley of Varazdin
An hour north from Zagreb, lies a town from a different time. The former capital of Croatia, its cobbled streets, well-preserved baroque buildings and old town charm hark back to a simpler time and as you walk through Varazdin, you can’t help but be taken in by its medieval feel. One of the major tourist attractions strangely enough is the Varazdin cemetery—and one breezy, quiet evening took me through the immense space, created in the 20th century, filled with glorious, intricate garden architecture. While it is unsettling, walking around through the eternal homes of the deceased—deceased you don’t even know, the beautifully designed graves and regal air of the space are enough to keep you captivated as you digest the oddness of it all.

But it is the prevailing presence of angels, littered through the city that reinforce the magical energy—and the Angel Museum, set up by local artist Zeljko Prsetc is worth a fly-by (geddit?). Or just wing it, and wander down to Varazdin Andelinjak, where a tiny gate opens up to a cluster of angels descending towards Earth. Creepy, or cute? Have a look and decide for yourself… and keep your eyes (and heart) open for your guardian angel. I spent three days in Varazdin, and would have been happy to be there longer, spending evenings on benches beside the old fountain in the town square, because in addition to its architecture, the food deserves a special mention—the pizza at restaurant Angelus, and Domenico was the best I’ve eaten this side of the border, best followed by desserts and ice cream at Fontana.
Things to see: Varazdin Castle/Stari Grad (home to the Museum); Baroque palaces
Stay: Park Boutique Hotel; B&B Garestin

A centuries-old cave in Istria
Dating back to 1770, is an ancient cave that still stands today—rich in myriad-coloured dripstones, and gigantic stalagmites, the moment you enter, the temperature drops by 5 degrees, and you find yourself in a space better suited to the adventures of Indiana Jones. From microscopic little creatures that inhabit the caves, to the bats that you almost always miss, and the graffiti that cave-intruders left as little souvenirs of their adventure, the Mramornica marble cave is a cool (pun intended) hidden-gem on the Istrian coast, near Brtonigla, ideal to live out your Lara Croft-esque fantasies. Just don’t get left behind!

Istria, in the far north west of Croatia is dotted with pretty seaside towns and offers a little bit of respite from the international tourist-heavy stops of Dubrovnik, Split and the like. My home base was Porec, a 3-hour drive from Zagreb and providing easy accessibility to towns like Rovinj, Motovun and Novigrad. (Stay tuned for our Istrian road trip itinerary)
Things to see: Church of Euphemia, Park Forest Zlatni, Rovinj
Stay:
 Apartment Viva Molindrio, PorecApartments Casa Garibaldi, Brtonigla 

Fact file
Location:
Croatia, Europe
Getting there:
Connecting flights to the capital city of Zagreb
Best time to visit: 
May-June, Sept-Oct