Let’s Go Exploring! Plitvice and Split: Croatian History More Epic Than Game of Thrones

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It’s hard to be in a bad mood when you’re surrounded by a wonderland of pure joy that looks like this:

But somehow, I managed to do it. The cause? I’ll get to that in a minute.

We ended up in this slice of paradise that Wanderer affectionately refers to as “Banff on steroids,” due to unrelenting peer pressure. We were told by every Croatian we spoke to (including the immigration officer) that “you MUST go to Plitvice (pronounced “plit-vitz-eh”). You can’t leave Croatia without visiting it, so drop everything and go NOW!” Okay, okay, we’re going. Yeesh. Isn’t it just a big ass park with a bunch of blue-ish green lakes? What’s the big deal? (Spoiler alert: It is a big deal, as I will soon find out)

Also, Wanderer wanted to test out his brand spanking new stick-shift driving skills, so what better time to do it? My anxious brain worried about the 3-hour roundtrip drive from Zadar, mapping out every conceivable worse-case scenario, so to placate it, we proceeded to buy every auto insurance known to man just in case.

Turns out I didn’t need to worry. Even though we stalled 3 times, the Croatians were super patient each time, never honking or rushing us even once, despite stalling at a green light right before an intersection. If that had happened in Toronto, there would be so much road rage, profanity, and honking it would’ve shattered every eardrum within a 10-mile radius and made us swear off ever getting in a car again. So, if you ever want to learn how to drive stick, Zadar is the place to try it out. Plus, how can you stress when the views on the freeway look like this:

Surprisingly, the drive was stress-free but when we got to Plitvice, that’s when the real stress started. First, the parking (which costs extra, despite having already paid a queen’s ransom for entrance) isn’t so much of a parking lot as a forest where you find a random spot on a clump of dirt. And for the privilege of parking in such a well maintained and paved area, you get to pay by the hour! YAY!

PROTIP: If you end up visiting Plitvice, make sure you route Google Maps to “Plitvice ticket office entrance 1”, not just “Plitvice”. Otherwise, it’ll just pick a random spot in the massive park and cost you precious time (which you will desperately need, as I’ll explain later) as you drive around confused. Oh, did I mention the parking lot is still about a 10-15 min walk from the entrance? So, park in the forest, walk to the parking ticket booth, pay, then walk another 10 mins, go over a bridge across the street, and then finally get to the actual park entrance. Forget about it if you have mobility issues.

Just to make things even more confusing, there are 2 entrances to Plitvice.  The North entrance is Entrance 1 and the South entrance is Entrance 2. You’ll be able to see the whole park regardless of which entrance you start at. Some people prefer entrance 2 to avoid the crowds but I picked entrance 1 since you’re walking towards the waterfalls in the lower lakes. If you take entrance 2, you’ll have to—gasp—strain your neck by constantly turning your head around to look at the same waterfalls. Oh the horror!

To add to this skill-testing gauntlet, you’ll also need to also pick the right tour programs. There are 7 routes you can take to explore the park, as explained on the Plitvice website.

Here’s the thing about the Plitvice. It’s so big that it takes 5-6 hours to walk around the whole thing (with a free ferry ride thrown in). 8 if you end up choosing the most extensive route that covers every nook and cranny and skip the ferry.

So, if you pick the A, B, E, or F, you’ll explore only half of entire park and miss out on a lot of breathtaking scenery. This might be ideal for those with families though as it’s only a 2-3 hour trek instead of the 5-6 hours required to see the entire park.

Which brings me to why I was a growing an angry little pulsating vein in my forehead despite the exceptional beauty of my surroundings.

Because of all the different options, I needed to optimize. To the surprise of no one, my OCD optimizer brain decided to study the options like I was prepping for the SATs so I could maximize my viewpoints while minimizing walking distance.

That winning route turned to be C. For those who start at entrance 2, H is an acceptable alternative.

Source: https://np-plitvicka-jezera.hr/en/plan-your-visit/istrazite-jezera/activities/lake-tour-programmes/

Turns out none of my efforts mattered because 4 hours into route C, we found out that part of the path was blocked off, and the shuttle which was supposed to take us the rest of the way back was “unavailable.” We would have to backtrack and walk for an extra 1.5 hours. We literally found this out from another traveller ahead of us, as there were no signs indicating this change anywhere along the trail. If they had mentioned it at the entrance, we could’ve picked a different route and it would’ve saved us a lot of time and exhaustion. Even though we were tired from walking 4 hours, it was near closing time, so we had no choice but to rush back rather than walk at a leisurely pace.  

Since I had spent so much time researching, I’d also planned to visit a special off-the-beaten-path photo spot, but there wasn’t enough time.

Despite the less-than-ideal communication, we still had a wonderful time in Plitvice and would recommend visiting it. Just make sure you arrive early enough (before noon) to avoid the crowds and give yourself ample time to get through any random gauntlets they might throw your way, just to keep you on your toes.

Now, let me leave you with some of the unbelievable scenery that we couldn’t believe wasn’t photo-shopped. Wanderer has been to Banff before, and he said this was better. The water was so clear you could see the scales on a fish at the bottom of the lake from the top of a hill. At one point I thought I was staring at liquified glass being poured over the ground…

After Plitvice, we went to Split, which coincidentally was also where a lot of Game of Thrones scenes were filmed.

Our first stop was Diocletian’s palace, which is 1700 years old and built as a retirement residence by one of Rome’s Greatest Emperor, but let’s be honest, most people just come here to see the dungeon where Daenerys kept her dragons:

I tried to avoid capturing all the people walking around now that it’s been turned into a touristy underground mall

Next up was the Kliss Fortress, also with fascinating history, but again, skipped in favour of fangirling over its role as the City of Meereen from—you guess it— Game of Thrones!

GOT city of Meereen scene
Exact spot where scene was filmed on Kliss fortress

Even if you’re not a GOT fan, going to the fortress and marvelling over the incredible views is well worth your time. Entrance is only 60KN ($7.80 USD) per person.

And if you’re interested, make sure you read the plaques on the wall, telling the brutal history of the fortress and the Uskok guerrilla fighters protecting the fortress, whose badass-idy would put even the Dothraki to shame. Their children threw stones at each other as soon as they could walk, spilling blood, and later joined their fathers in navigating dangerous traps at the ripe old age of 12 to educate themselves in the art of war. If you don’t think you could get your ass kicked by a newborn baby, the Uskok would be eager to prove you wrong.  

Armour is for wimps. Real warriors wear tights

PROTIP: To get to Kliss fortress, simply take Bus #22 from downtown Split. Wait at the bus stop near the National theatre and you can buy tickets on the bus. You can ask the kiosk attendant at the bus stop for the schedule. A round trip ticket costs only 13KN/person each way ($1.70 USD)

Even though Game of Thrones put Split on the map for most travellers, I was more fascinated by its real history and the 3500-year-old Sphinx (twice as old as the palace itself!) that just happened to be casually placed outside in open air, naked and unprotected from the elements and any idiot tourist who tries to sit on it. Which is why I’m shocked at how intact and well preserved it is.

I learned about this from the Split free walking tour, and our guide, Nelson, also told us that even though Croatians don’t earn high salaries by American or Canadian standards, they have a much better work life balance, and 90% even own property at a young age, which they inherited from family, and pay 0% property tax. Nelson’s own grandmother frequently complains about not having enough money for coffee but owns her own private island, which the family goes to on summer holidays. This explains why so many Croatians we met were so chill, happy, and friendly. They work to live rather than live to work.

Our guide showing us an aerial view of Diocletian’s palace
I’d be chilled too if I lived in a city that looks like this.

Nelson also told us the story of King Diocletian, one of the few Roman Emperors who wasn’t assassinated while in office and retired from his throne (usually the only way to retire from a job like that is in a wooden box). He was especially hated by Christians for ferociously persecuting them to the point of throwing them to the lions. But in an ironic twist of fate, after his death, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire and as a final FU to Diocletian, Christians smashed the relics in his mausoleum, removed his body, and turned his tomb into the world’s first Christian church.

The octagonal shaped building is Diocletian’s tomb with a Christian bell tower built right next to it. Take that, Diocletian!

Lesson learned: Preach about “turning the other cheek” but then sledgehammer your enemies into dust when no one’s looking.

And you thought Game of Thrones was intense!

If you’re curious, here’s how much we spent in Plitvice and Split:

CategoryCost in USD/couple per dayCost in CAD/couple per dayNotes
Accomodations$0$0Since Zadar was within easy driving and busing distance from Plitvice and Split, we didn’t have to get another Airbnb. We just stayed in our Zadar Home Exchange for free. Generally, Airbnbs in Split will cost you around $50-$70 USD/night.
Food$22$30We spent very little on food for the 2 days because we knew we were going to be walking for 5 hours in the park with no restaurants except at the entrance so we brought leftovers from the previous day’s dinner. In Split, we just grabbed a sandwich at the bus station. You will likely spend way more than we did on food in Split. It might be a good idea to pack a lunch and snacks when you’re in Plitvice.
Transportation$78$108Transportation was the most expensive because renting the car cost us $54 USD (including insurance) for 1 day, $22 USD for gas, $3 USD for tolls (highly recommend as it cuts your drive by 30 mins each way, saving you money on gas and time), $5 USD for parking at Plitvice, and $4 USD for an Uber to go pick up the car in downtown Zadar.

On the 2nd day to Split, it cost us $28/person round trip to take the bus from Zadar to Split, $4 USD for the Uber to the bus station and $7 round trip for 2 by bus to go to the Kliss Fortress from downtown Split.
Entertainment$40 $56Over the two days, entrance tickets to Plitvice cost us $23 USD each because it was shoulder season. The price doubles during high season. We tipped $9 USD/person for the walking tour and paid $8/ USD person for the Kliss fortress entrance.
Total$140/couple$194/coupleGoing to main attractions in Croatia isn’t cheap. The biggest cost is car rental, as there aren’t a lot of public transportation unless it’s high season, but then entrance ticket prices for Plitvice double and the crowds are insane. Luckily, since we stayed in Croatia for nearly a month and were able to use Home Exchange for free accommodations those costs were able to be amortized over a long period.

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26 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! Plitvice and Split: Croatian History More Epic Than Game of Thrones”

  1. Did I miss something? How did you use Home Exchange? I didn’t think you owned a home? Croatia is fabulous and very affordable! Thanks for sharing your knowledge of Plitvice. I will be visiting on my next trip to Croatia.

    1. Since I had to be in Canada during pandemic to support multiple family health emergencies, I signed a long term lease. You don’t need to own a home to use Home Exchange, you can do it as a renter too (just make sure you read your lease terms).

      Yes, definitely visit Plitvice! It’s unbelievably beautiful! Hope you enjoy Croatia in your future trip!

      1. Still grinding away. 🙂 I have added all your google locations to my map. After looking at the website, it sounds like a long day, but hopefully it was eventful. 🙂

    1. Thanks, Joe! I also hope it’ll still be pristine and affordable in 5 years. Given that “House of Dragons” (prequel to GOT) is now out, who knows? *fingers crossed*

  2. Croatia is a beautiful country indeed. And I agree with your comments about the lakes. Mesmerizing.

    Re transportation, there are public buses from Zadar to Plitvicka Jezera, as well as from other big cities like Zagreb. Google says Flixbus.hr will take 1.5-2hrs direct one way and costs about $14-15 Euro. So that is one way to save more on this visit.

    1. Yeah, unfortunately they only run during high season (summer months) and maybe a few during shoulder season, so when I was there none were available. The annoying thing is high season has way more buses and public transport options but also higher entrance fees and more people. So it’s a trade off.

  3. We loved Plitvice Lakes. We decided to take it nice and slow and spend 4 nights near Plitvice park so we could have 2 full days to explore the lakes and then a rest day before adventures and our onward journey. Even during peak season, accommodations weren’t horribly expensive.

    The park was fairly busy peak season and as I recall we spent $200 USD for family of 5 for admission. Not a super cheap deal but pretty reasonable given the free bus ride and free ferry ride inside the park, plus the amazing nature of the park. Highly recommended, and I’d encourage others to spend a night or two around Plitvice if you want a slower pace and can fit it in your travel schedule.

    We had a rental car the whole time so it was super easy getting around (once you figure out to bookmark and navigate to Parking Lot 1 or 2). And parking didn’t feel too bad. I think it was $1 or $1.50 per hour and I think we parked for 6-7 hrs each day. That’s about average for Croatia and that part of eastern Europe.

    1. That’s a good idea. If I weren’t saving so much money staying in the Home Exchange in Croatia, I probably would’ve booked a hotel near the lakes too. Would’ve saved money on transport. You guys did it right!

  4. Hello, Can you elaborate on how you were able to use the home exchange program? I thought you didn’t have a home. Sorry if I missed a post about it!
    We are nomadic post fire in mid 30s And looking to reduce our accomodations expenses considering that the markets are not currently cooperating 🙂
    Love all your posts!

    1. I signed a long term lease since I have to stay in Canada for family reasons. So, it’s best for people who are semi-nomadic.

      If you’re fully nomadic, hotels and Airbnb are still your best bet. Just need to be strategic about where you live to reduce costs (ie picking SE Asia, Mexico, South America, Poland, Portugal or Eastern Europe)

    1. No one asked us for an international driver’s license. Just Canadian license was fine. At one point, we got one for a year but never ended up being asked for it anywhere in the world.

  5. Funny, Google maps did the exact same thing to me when I went from Split to Krka Falls. Sent me to the wrong side on a dirt road. By the time I got to the park I only had about 2 hours to tour it. I’m sure its much smaller than Plitvice though so it was somewhat achievable.

    I went to that Kliss Fortress as well but at that time I was GOT oblivious and had no idea it was used as a shoot location.

    1. Yeah, that’s annoying. Glad you were still able to explore the whole park though. Krka was on our list too but we prioritized Plitvice because it was bigger.

  6. Wow, Plitvice is something else! I’ve never been to this part of the world, but have heard good things about it. It’s sort of ‘up and coming’ from what i’ve heard, lots of digital nomads? Anyway, safe travels, thanks for sharing and inspiring!

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  8. I missed out on going to Plitvice when my spouse went there in August 2016. I think I was in Italy or something at the time. She took the bus. August is definitely high season! Though maybe there were fewer people back then.

    Croatia. Maybe almost as good as the Atlantic provinces for learning to drive stick? There are hills in those Atlantic towns though. It can get dicey! But they’re OK with it even if you might be rolling backwards into them slowly.

    Also I used to have a colleague who was from Split. She worked pretty hard. Pretty sure you never took any classes from her.

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