8 beautiful national parks in Croatia

With dazzling landscapes of mountains, canyons, rivers and waterfalls, Croatia has much more on offer than just gorgeous beaches. Here, we explore 8 beautiful national parks in Croatia.
Plitvice National Park waterfalls. Photo: Mike Mareen/Shutterstock
Plitvice National Park waterfalls. Photo: Mike Mareen/Shutterstock

Think of Croatia and you’re likely to think of its blissful beaches, lapped by the turquoise waters of the Adriatic. And while some of the most extraordinary national parks in Croatia do take in coastal and island scenery, that’s forgetting the dramatic mountainscapes of the rugged interior, threaded by aqua rivers and plunging waterfalls – satisfyingly called “slap” in Croatian. Home to animals such as the brown bear, lynx and rare monk seals, and ripe for hiking, fishing, climbing and cycling, there’s something for everyone in Croatia’s national parks.

Best time of year to visit

Like the UK, Croatia has four distinct seasons. The climate on the coast is distinctly Mediterranean, with sunny summers accompanied by soaring temperatures, and wet but wild winters. Away from the coast, the climate is more temperate – meaning the inland national parks are best explored in spring and summer. April to October is traditional tourist season, and if you want to combine a visit with some of the country’s legendary nightlife, you may want to plump for the summer months. Otherwise, try to visit the coastal national parks in spring or late summer to avoid the worst of the heat.

Renting a car

Renting a car to explore Croatia’s national parks and wild landscapes will give you much more freedom than relying on public transport – and allow you to reach off-the-beaten-track spots that you’d otherwise miss. There are plenty of car-rental companies to choose from.

1. Plitvice Lakes National Park 

Endorsed as a Unesco World Heritage Site back in 1976, Plitvice Lakes is one of the most famous national parks in Croatia, and among the country’s premier tourist attractions. Defined by a series of 16 brilliant blue lakes, flanked by dense forest and punctuated by waterfalls, the scenery is to die for. A range of wildlife – including the odd bear – call this landscape home.

Best for: With plenty of transport around the park – including boats and tourist trains – as well as established tourist infrastructure, Plitvice makes a good day out for families with older children. Those travelling with toddlers may want to prioritise an excursion that doesn’t include rickety footpaths above the water’s edge.   

What to see and do: A collection of trails threads through the park, while the lakes are linked by bridges and encircled by raised wooden footpaths. If you’re keen to escape the crowds, head for the less-visited upper lakes to the south. Don’t miss Veliki slap, either, the largest waterfall in the park and a stellar one at that.

Where to stay: Camping in Croatia’s national parks can be a wonderful experience, helping you get that bit closer to nature. Make for Korana Campsite, just a few kilometres from Entrance 1. If you want a real bed, you’ll be spoilt for choice when it comes to B&B, hotel and apartment accommodation in the area. Some of our top picks include Zrinka House, B&B Plitvica Creek, Villa Ruhige Lage and – if you want a pool, gym and even ski storage – the 16 Lakes Hotel.  

Plitvice Lakes National Park. Photo: Chaiyun Damkaew/Shutterstock

2. Mljet National Park

Covering one third of the Southern Dalmatian island of Mljet, this national park is the nearest to Dubrovnik. Myth dictates that it was here that Ulysses was kept captive for seven years; it’s certainly a wild and very beautiful place, flanked by two saltwater lakes.

Best for: Adventurers keen to get off the beaten track

What to see and do: Active travellers will be spoilt in Mljet National Park; no cars are allowed inside the park, but this is perfect terrain for exploring by bike or on foot. Trails lead around the saltwater lakes (Malo jezero and Veliko jezero) and through dense pine forests, or take to the waters and swim or kayak. A small boat takes visitors to St Mary’s island, where you can dine in an old 12th-century Benedictine monastery. Slow-paced exploring doesn’t come much better than this.

Where to stay: Family-run, seafront Guesthouse Pomena has the benefit of a fine seafood restaurant on site; all rooms come with air conditioning. If you’d like an apartment to yourself – with drystone walls and a true sense of seclusion – try Apartmani Vojvoda - Pomena.

 Mljet National Park, Dubrovnik archipelago. Photo: OPIS Zagreb/Shutterstock

3. Paklenica National Park

Paklenica National Park is dominated by two mighty gorges: Velika (big) and Mala (small) Paklenica. With towering peaks, long views and deep canyons, blanketed in pine and beech forests, Paklenica is a true wilderness and any hiker’s dream. Keep a look out for buzzards and eagles – bears are occasionally sighted here, too.

Best for: Hikers, but also climbers and mountaineers

What to see and do: Mala Paklenica is truly off the beaten track, making hiking here more demanding than its sibling; there are no amenities to speak of, and trails are only loosely marked. Velika Paklenica, meanwhile, is traversed by a well-marked main trail that leads from the car park to a mountainside hostel – the starting point for a number of hikes that lead into the park’s sky-scraping peaks. It’s possible to organise mountain excursions with local experts, while climbing is popular here, too.

Where to stay: There are several apartments located near the entrance to Paklenica National Park, most of which are pretty basic, but clean and comfortable nevertheless. Try Apartments Lana, Apartmani Korina or Apartments Paklenica. For something with a little more pizzazz, opt for the Rustic Villa, a chic drystone affair with four bedrooms, BBQ facilities and a swimming pool – as well as glorious views.

 Town of Vinjerac and Paklenica National Park in the background. Photo: xbrchx/Shutterstock

4. Krka National Park

Krka National Park in northern Dalmatia is a wonderland of wetlands, with landscapes reminiscent of Plitvice Lakes National Park – and some say, even better. Traversed by the Krka River, the park is characterised by forested ravines, tumbling waterfalls and wide lakes.

Best for: Krka has enough going for it to please pretty much anyone: water babies, wildlife lovers and even history buffs.

What to see and do: There’s plenty to see and do in Croatia’s Krka National Park, from swimming in the waterfalls to spotting rare wildlife. As well as hosting more than 200 species of bird – including the golden eagle and griffon vulture – the waterways are also home to the river otter. History buffs are in luck too, free to explore a Franciscan monastery built in 1445 on the island of Visovac, as well as the remains of a Roman military camp at Burnum. All that without even mentioning Skradinski buk, the park’s most spectacular waterfall. The best part? You can cool off in the waters beneath it.

Where to stay: If you’re looking for somewhere on the park’s doorstep, with a pool to splash in and food served al-fresco, look no further than Agrotourism Galic Krka. Inside the rooms, furnishings are clean and simple, but the garden is lovely and there’s a children’s playground, too. A little further away, but just yards from Zvizda Beach, plump for Maria Apartments, with fully equipped kitchen, balcony and BBQ facilities.

 The Visovac Monastery on the island of Visovac in the Krka National Park. Photo: Dennis van de Water/Shutterstock

5. Risnjak National Park

One of the least visited national parks in Croatia, Risnjak is known for its stunning scenery, rich wildlife and expansive options for hikers, mountaineers and botanists. Dominated by the hulking Snježnik and Risnjak massifs, the karst landscape is characterised by forested slopes, sheer drops, looming caves, gurgling streams and sinkholes. Wildflowers bloom in late June and early July, with edelweiss, alpine clematis and the orange lily among the starlets of the show. Animal life is well represented too, with lynx, wolves, wild boar, brown bears and wild cats all making this their home.

Best for: Experienced hikers, mountaineers and wildlife lovers

What to see and do: Hiking is among the most obvious pastimes here. Veliki Risnajak is the highest peak at 1,528 metres/5,952ft, though there’s a strong case for the ascent up Snježnik (1,506 metres/4,940ft) being the most enjoyable of the lot. Avoid hiking in winter and early spring, when snowfall is heavy – though there is a modest ski slope if that’s more your bag.

Where to stay: Aside from the mountain huts found inside the park, there’s a good selection of chalets and apartments in the highland village of Crni Lug. Two-bedroom Chalet Olga – decked out in light wood and whites – oozes charm, while a stay at Chalets Runolist means you can make use of the sauna, hot tub and fitness centre, a welcome treat after a long day’s hiking.

 The summit of the Risnjak National Park. Photo: goran_safarek/Shutterstock

6. Brijuni National Park

Once a favourite of Yugoslavian leader Tito, the 14 Brijuni Islands have been protected as a national park since 1983. Set adrift in the Adriatic just off the Istrian coast, this is easily the most peculiar national park in Croatia. Visitors without their own boats are restricted to two of the islands, Veliki Brijun and Mali Brijum. Veliki Brijun is the most interesting by way of attractions; it was here that Tito amassed a personal zoo – many of the exotic animals gifted to him by friends in powerful places – now an idiosyncratic safari park with llamas, giraffes and zebras.

Best for: Yugoslav history fans or lovers of eccentricity 

What to see and do: Besides Brijuni Safari Park, the motley crew of other attractions here includes a little museum dedicated to Josip Tito – with an assortment of photographs chronicling the rich and famous people he mixed with – and the ruins of a Byzantine castle.

Where to stay: To stay inside the national park, try Brijuni Depandance Neptun on Veliki Brijun; it’s spick and span, and you can dine right by the pearly waters. On the other side of the island, Brijuni Exclusive Villas add a touch of luxury. Quaint shuttered villas – with full kitchen, dining area, terrace and of course sun-beds – benefit from a private beach.

 Aerial scene of coast in Brijuni National Park. Photo: goran_safarek/Shutterstock

7. Kornati National Park

Taking in the hauntingly beautiful Kornati Islands in Northern Dalmatia, this national park is best explored by boat – sailboat, yacht or canoe. The scrubby islands are mostly uninhabited, giving a true sense of escapism. Making up the largest archipelago in the Adriatic, the Kornati number 147 islands in total; the national park includes more than 100 of them. Facilities are rustic and the island group is frequently promoted as an ecotourism destination.

Best for: Getting off the beaten track by boat

What to see and do: There’s no better way to take it all in than by renting a canoe and floating around these stark and blasted islands. Beyond the boats, there are other watersports to enjoy too; this is one of the top dive sites in Croatia.

Where to stay: Accommodation on the Kornati Islands tends to be in lovely stone cottages and small houses, as opposed to large hotels. For sea views and enough space for the whole family, try Four-Bedroom Holiday Home in Kornati; for an atmospheric hideaway, with a private beach area, book the Fisherman’s house Vilma.

Kornati National Park . Photo: mrljafoto/Shutterstock

8. Northern Velebit National Park 

Croatia’s newest national park, Northern Velebit was founded in 1999 and is also protected as the country’s first Biosphere reserve. Taking in the northern Velebit Mountains, the largest range in Croatia, the park is a virgin wilderness of karst formations and rocky peaks. The park promotes sustainable tourism and plays an important role in protecting the species that live here, including a range of high-mountain plant and animal species, for instance the golden eagle, European mountain pine, ural owl and chamois.

Best for: Wildlife lovers

What to see and do: Velebit Botanical Garden is a must-see for plant lovers, home to some 300 plant species. Lubenovac is a gorgeous valley with dry-stone walls and the ruins of old shepherd huts, while the Premuzic Trail is among the best hiking routes in the park, leading up to the mountain peaks for superlative views.

Where to stay: Though there are just two mountain huts inside the park, you’ll find plenty of options nearby. B&B Pansion Zlatko is a homely place with the benefit of a swimming pool; ask for a room with a balcony or a patio. If you’d rather a place to yourself, opt for Beach house Adriana, a blue-shuttered beauty dressed to a nautical theme just minutes from the Adriatic.

Aerial view of Northern Velebit National Park. Photo: Vedrich/Shutterstock

Dreaming of your next travel experience?

When it is again safe to do so, Insight Guides can help organise and book tailor-made trips in Croatia. Simply get in touch with us to share your ideas for the trip and to let us know when you would like to travel. Local experts will then create a personalised itinerary especially, which you can amend until you are happy with every detail before booking.

This article contains affiliate links; all recommendations are editorially independent.