UNESCO Sights in Croatia: 8 Spots You Can’t Miss
For a small country of around 4.25 million souls, Croatia is bursting with cultural heritage. From Roman palaces to antique cathedrals, from lush green national parks to entire walled cities, Croatia offers a range of stunning natural and man-made wonders for visitors to discover. And UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, agrees: they have designated eight of the country’s most spectacular locations as World Heritage monuments that warrant protection and preservation for future generations. So if you’re planning a trip soon, here are the designated UNESCO sights in Croatia; which ones will you visit?
1. Diocletian’s Palace and historical complex in Split
Originally built around 300 AD as the retirement residence for the Roman Emperor Diocletian, the palace and historical complex now dominate around half the old town and city center of Split. Diocletian was a local from Croatia’s Dalmatia region who had risen up through the ranks of the Roman military and his palatial complex certainly reflects his exalted status.
The palace fell into disrepair in the 500’s so where Diocletian once dined and his military garrison once stood guard, the locals moved in to take shelter in the ruined palace’s rooms. Some 500 years later, Split’s cathedral of Saint Domnius (Sveti Duje) was built inside the palace walls, using stones from the mausoleum while Romanesque churches and Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque palaces followed during the 13th to 17th centuries. And today the palace’s seven-foot thick walls also encircle modern bars, shops and businesses, as nearly 2,000 years worth of architecture sits cheek by jowl. Sounds like a great place to start your trip of the UNESCO sights in Croatia, doesn’t it?
2. The old walled city of Dubrovnik
Jutting out into the aquamarine Adriatic Sea, the walled city of Dubrovnik is surrounded on all sides: rugged mountains crowd in around its back while the sea splashes and crashes against the intimidating stone ramparts. For centuries, the walls protected the wealthy trading port from jealous rivals. And they did a good job, too, since today the historic center of Dubrovnik, still encircled by enormous barricades, is recognized as one of the best preserved medieval cities in the world.
Take a walk around the walls, explore the wealth, power and beauty of the old city state or paddle up to the sea walls in a kayak to get an idea of how daunted attacking marauders must have felt when faced by walls up to 16-feet thick and rising up to 25 meters (83 feet) in some places. Having survived 1,400 years already, it’s really no wonder that Dubrovnik is designated as one of the UNESCO sights in Croatia and its definitely one to add to your wish list.
3. The Plitvice Lakes National Park
Next we move to the spectacular natural beauty of the Plitvice Lakes National Park. The park is located in the forested center of the country and was designated one of the UNESCO sights in Croatia in 1979. Today it’s the most popular tourist attraction in Croatia, as visitors flock into the forests where 16 crystalline lakes rush and tumble from one into the next via a beautiful chain of cascades, rapids and waterfalls.
And the lakes are still changing since the flowing waters are continually changing the rock formations, simultaneously carving through the stone that lines the waterways and laying down new layers to redirect the current. The forests don’t just shelter these photogenic lakes, however; they are also teeming with wildlife from clouds of butterflies to birds, bears and even wolves. This is undoubtedly one of the most stunning natural beauties in the whole of eastern Europe.
4. The Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč
Christian houses of worship have stood on this site in Poreč since the 4th century but it is for the 6th century Euphrasian Basilica that visitors come. The church is without question the most stunning example of Byzantine religious architecture in the country, easily warranting classification alongside the other UNESCO sights of Croatia. From the outside it is classically and simply styled, but if you step inside, the glittering figurative mosaics that decorate the walls above the altar and around the church will dazzle you. Most detailed and beautiful are the mosaics of Christ with his apostles and a long panel showing various Christian martyrs. Definitely one for your wish list.
5. The historic city of Trogir
The city of Trogir, on a small Adriatic island off the mainland, has a history stretching back over 2,300 years that has been influenced by a succession of rulers. First came the ancient Greeks who laid out the city street plan. Then came the ancient Romans, followed several centuries later by the Venetians. All brought their own culture and traditions, each leaving their mark. From fortifications to fine Gothic palaces, from Romanesque churches to Renaissance civic buildings, Trogir grew to become a stunning Romanesque-Gothic city. Stroll through the city’s streets to savor the style and architecture that embellish this European jewel; it is definitely one of the most impressive UNESCO sights in Croatia.
6. The Cathedral of St James in Šibenik
Built entirely from gleaming white limestone and marble, with no bricks or timber, the cathedral of St James is the most important example of Renaissance religious architecture in the whole of Croatia. The church was started in 1402 and took over a century to complete, under the supervision of several Italian masters. It is an impressive sight for modern visitors who admire the 35-meter (115-foot) high dome and classic interior decoration, but spare a thought for the awe and wonder that must have overcome worshippers and pilgrims who entered the cathedral in the 1500’s.
Outside, the characteristic cupola pierces the azure Croatian sky, towering over the town’s low-level skyline. And don’t miss the slightly eerie frieze of 71 life-sized stone heads that runs around the building, the individual faces of peasants, women, fishermen, old men and soldiers staring out blankly. They’re extremely realistic and just another reason why this is one of the fabulous UNESCO sights in Croatia.
7. Stari Grad Plain on Hvar Island
The Stari Grad Plain, on the large Adriatic isle of Hvar, has remained virtually unchanged since it was first established by Ionian Greek colonizers, 24 centuries ago. Founded as an agricultural community, the Greeks introduced a geometric system to parcel up the farmland, and today, the dry stone walls that form the boundaries still stand as they have for 2,400 years. It is also a nature reserve and the rainwater to irrigate the land is collected in tanks and gutters, just as the ancient Greeks did. It’s little wonder, then, that Croatians are rightfully proud of this wonderfully preserved, environmentally sustainable community that provides a glimpse back in time. Why not add this Croatian time capsule to your wish list of UNESCO sights in Croatia?
8. Stećci medieval tombstone graveyards
And finally, we turn to the last of our locations but this isn’t a single site; it is spread over a number of spots in present-day Croatia, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Montenegro and even parts of Serbia. In fact, it’s not so much the place that makes this one of the most interesting of all the UNESCO sights in Croatia, it is what we find there.
Stećci, meaning “tall standing thing,” are a unique style of medieval tombstone found only in eastern Europe, and they were in use from the second half of the 1100’s through to the 1500’s before they stop. Over 70,000 tombstones have been identified at around 30 sites, and all stand tall and proud, marking a burial place. What makes these stones so special, however, is their shape, size and ornate decoration.
Carved out of limestone, the stećci are more like standing stones and come in several shapes, from cubes to rectangles to almost coffin-shaped tombstones. And all are decorated with religious symbols, geometric shapes and patterns and, uniquely, scenes from the lives of the dead that include dancing, hunting and personal symbols. You might think visiting a cemetery would be a little eerie but these stones are a wonderful testament to the creativity and spirituality of the people who once lived on this land — they are a beautiful memorial to their lives and well worth a visit.