Travel Croatia and Slovenia for Less Than $30/day

Traveling Europe on a budget seems impossible – until you move east. Sprinkled with boutique towns and budget excursions, it can be yours for less than $30/day.

Throughout my travels, I’ve never been more impressed than visiting Eastern Europe. I spent 3 months traveling the Balkans and saw some of the most beautiful sites to date. This spurred a spontaneous Facebook post calling all travelers to join a road trip up the Croatian/Slovenian coast. That call was answered, and my friend Nikki was on a plane in just a few weeks!

How did we succeed on $30/day? The key was flexibility. Being able to adjust our travel dates, accommodations and activities as needed. It takes a lot of effort and research to travel on a budget, but we’ve done a lot of the work for you. Here’s our (ultimate!) budget-friendly travel guide so you can do the same.

Disclaimer: Our trip duration was 6 weeks, but you can adjust the itinerary per your interests/needs. All recommendations I’ve been to personally, or, were highly recommended by locals. Costs are estimated as of Aug-Oct 2016, and don’t include food or flights. I’ll also note that churches/cathedrals are plentiful everywhere, so I’ve focused more on other sites in my recommendations.

Keep reading for a detailed itinerary, cost breakdown, and travel tips!

ROAD TRIP ITINERARY


Starting Destination #1: Dubrovnik, Croatia

At the southernmost tip of Croatia, you’ll find Dubrovnik (which you may recognize from Game of Thrones). It’s arguably the most expensive tourist city on the journey, but the pristine waters and misty islands can’t be missed.

Where to stay: Old Town

Dubrovnik’s central hub is Old Town. You could stay outside the city, if you wish, but driving back is time-consuming and burdensome with the amount of traffic.

What to see:

  • Mount Srd at sunset: Nothing beats a sunset in Croatia. One of the best is from the top of Mount Srd where you’ll find unobstructed views of the fiery horizon.
  • City Walls: One of the most trafficked attractions in Dubrovnik, so get there when the gates open!
  • Stradun: The polished main street of Old Town. Packed like a sardine can during the day, but surprisingly peaceful early morning/late night when the shops are closed.
  • War Photo Limited: One of the most important things to learn in this region is the history (and end) of Yugoslavia. War Photo Limited is a good place to start.
  • Private beach (42°38’27.2″N 18°06’04.0″E): Go at night when the cityscape reflects off the sea and stars scatter the sky.

dubrovnik_croatia

Destination #2: Mljet Island, Croatia

Distance from last destination: ~50 miles

Mljet Island is, without question, one of my favorite destinations I’ve been to. Period. It’s less trafficked than the popular Hvar and offers a peaceful retreat from the bustling Dubrovnik. Plan to bring your car as the island is 1-hour end-to-end (though buses are available between certain ports).

Where to stay: Pomena, Polace, Sobra or Saplunara

Sobra and Polace are the major ports of Mljet Island (this is where you’ll arrive by ferry). But all four have sufficient accommodations for your stay. There are more apartments inland, but roads/parking can be a challenge.

What to see:

  • Odysseus Cave: This place literally took my breath away. Imagine open waters that glow blue with the sun. An oasis after the long, sweaty hike to get there.
  • Blace Beach: Follow a windy trail to Blace Beach, 1km of sand encircling a small lagoon. Waters are shallow, allowing for lots of lounging and warm currents.
  • Mljet National Park: A little underwhelming as it’s more of a walking trail. The path takes you sea level around two lakes, which can last a few minutes or a few hours. I found there to be better views (for free) elsewhere on the island.
  • Posta Beach Bar: I’m putting this on here! Our home away from home. Posta has a small, open bar on the beach with drinks and free wifi.

mljet_croatia

Destination #3: Split, Croatia

Distance from last destination: ~130 miles

I’ll admit… this was the city I was least excited about after hearing its “young, party” reputation. However, we were pleasantly surprised as it offered more social opportunities than other cities we visited. Bars were full, and CouchSurfing Events were plentiful. Worth a stop if you want to mingle.

Where to stay: Anywhere away from the ferry and bus terminals.

Split has an enormous port for ferries, cruise ships, and buses. Unless you want to be trampled by a stampede (and surrounded by trash and cheap food), steer clear. Go a little inland where you’re walking distance to everything you’ll need.

What to see:

  • Eastern Beaches: Savor a quieter coast on beaches like Bene or Kasjuni.
  • Klis Fortress: Located just outside the city, Klis offers panoramic views of the city. Beat the heat by going early/late in the day, and watch the weather.
  • Marjan Hill: You could spend a whole afternoon hiking Marijan! There’s a fantastic guide for it here.
  • Fife Restaurant: Recommended by all the locals we met, Fife did not disappoint. Go with their specialty dish, pasticada.

split_croatia

Destination #4: Šibenik, Croatia

Distance from last destination: ~55 miles

Šibenik is located just 20 minutes from the renowned Krka National Park. It’s a coastal town with rich history, food, and charming architecture. In the end, one of our favorite cities on the tour.

Where to stay: City Center

This is the perfect city to get lost in; plenty of boutique shops and restaurants to explore. But if you’re feeling outdoorsy, Krka National Park is right next door. So camping is a second option.

What to see:

  • Krka National Park: Like Mljet, you can expect more walking trails from Krka. Paved paths and tourist shops wrap the park. But the falls are beautiful, and accompanying museum/exhibits are cool to walk through.
  • Medieval Monastery Garden: A reconstruction by award-winning landscape artist, Dragutin Kiš. An educational piece that gives a glimpse into medieval garden design.
  • Turtle Fountain: Literally a fountain with turtles covering a moss-covered rock. When will you have another opportunity to see that?!
  • Restaurants: Šibenik was home to some of our favorite eateries. Nikki wrote a whole post on the best spots!

krka_national_park_croatia

Destination #5: Zadar, Croatia

Distance from last destination: ~60 miles

Zadar has seen significant growth these last few years, making it one of the more sought-after cities in Croatia. It’s positioned near many islands and National Parks, and a good pivot point as we move north.

Where to stay: City Center

Zadar is larger than it looks! The city’s center is located on a small peninsula which takes some time to walk around; something to consider when booking accommodations.

What to see:

  • Paklenica National Park: More of what you’d expect from a National Park: mountains, hiking trails, and the largest climbing destination in Croatia!
  • Sea Organ at sunset: This reminded me of the sea organ in San Francisco, but the notes were more clear and melodic.
  • Greeting to the Sun monument: An ode to “the most beautiful sunset in the world”, this monument works with the sea organ to produce solar-powered light shows at night.
  • Events galore: Zadar is packed with live music and events year-round. View their calendar here.

zadar_croatia-2

Destination #6: Senj, Croatia

Distance from last destination: ~110 miles

One of the smaller towns we visited was Senj. It’s roughly 1-hour from the other must-see park in Croatia, Plitvice. There are gems in the city itself, but it takes some finesse to navigate the obvious tourist traps.

Where to stay: City Center

Senj is surrounded by tall hills, making it less walkable and more time-consuming by car. Staying near the center resolves both issues.

What to see:

  • Plitvice National Park: Similar to Krka, Plitvice is a walking path encircled with beautiful waterfalls. Though here, the lakes are the main attraction!
  • Tito’s Abandoned Villa “Izvor”: Nestled near Plitvice is Tito’s villa, also called “Object 99”. It’s mostly broken down today, but that doesn’t keep curious visitors from exploring its rooms and secret tunnels.
  • Nehaj Fortress: Translated to “Don’t Care” or “Don’t Worry”. A message to Senj citizens that they were safe while under the protection of the fortress.
  • Viewpoint (44°58’52.5″N 14°54’43.1″E): I found this viewpoint by accident. It overlooks the Adriatic, and is particularly impressive at sunset or just before a cloudy storm.

senj_croatia-2

Destination #7: Istria Wine Country, Croatia

Distance from last destination: ~85 miles

Please take me back to Istria!! Truffles and vineyards galore. We shared some of our favorite memories here: harvesting grapes, drinking wine, and attending festivals. Istria surely will be a highlight of your trip.

Where to stay: Northern Istria

Most of Istria’s wineries are gathered in the northern region. They’re relatively spread out, so you’ll need a car to get there. Look for a place within reasonable driving distance of where you’d like to taste.

What to see:

  • Wineries: This is why you’re here! Check out my favorite tasting rooms.
  • Food and Wine Festivals: Aside from the wines, Istria is also known for their truffles, cheeses, prosciutto and olive oil. You can find a full list of their festivals here.
  • Biking in Kamenjak National Park: Recommended by a friend, biking in Kamenjak is the way to go. Coastal views, cafes and beaches await!
  • Pula, Croatia: One of the largest ports (and most popular) cities in Croatia. Pula is a moderate 1-hour drive to Pula, making for a good day-trip or overnight stay.

istria_wine_country_croatia

PIT STOP: Miramare Castle, Italy

Situated on the gulf is Miramare Castle, a 19th century structure surrounded by botanic gardens and panoramic views. (Don’t forget to grab a gelato before you leave Italy!)

Destination #8: Kobarid, Slovenia

Distance from last destination: ~130 miles

On to Slovenia! Home to some of the most awe-inspiring landscapes in the world. Set aside some time because there’s plenty to see; you’ll also want some resting days from the long, steep hikes.

Where to stay: Kobarid Municipality

Kobarid is about 30-minutes from (the awesome) Triglav National Park. We stayed in Drežniške Ravne, a secluded neighboring town that adds about 30 minutes to the trip. Is it worth it? Absolutely! There are waterfalls nearby…

Recommended B&B: Apartment Ravne, managed by a sweet family who spoiled us with desserts, cheeses, and farm eggs during our one-week stay.

What to see:

  • Triglav National Park: You could spend days hiking Triglav National Park. We chose “Pogacnikov Dom Na Kriških Podih”, a 2050m climb to Kriški podi (roughly 13 miles and 8-hour round trip). The “Black Lake” was also a treat; 1300m straight up the cliff side!
  • Lake Bled / Lake Bohinj: Bled is more populous with people and buildings, while Bohinj is more secluded and nature-focused. Both are beautiful.
  • Vintgar Gorge: A highlight of the trip! One mile of suspended bridges hug the walls and end at Šum Waterfall.
  • Skocjan Caves: As one of the longest underground caves in the world, Skocjan is a treasure. Guided tour guides accompany you through the dimly lit caverns.
  • Pericnik Waterfall / Savica Waterfall: There are over 300 waterfalls in Slovenia. These two are incredibly near and easy to get to.

triglav_slovenia

Destination #9: Ljubljana, Slovenia

Distance from last destination: ~75 miles

Some say you can see Ljubljana in a day. I argue you could stay a week! Peppered with open-air markets, historical sites, and an up-and-coming beer scene, you’ll have plenty to keep you busy. There are also some beautiful parks nearby for day-hikes.

Where to stay: City Center

Ljubljana is a bustling city, so save yourself a headache and avoid driving. Stay within walking distance of the city center, and research public transportation if necessary.

What to see:

  • Central Market and Kitchen: One of the coolest things we saw was the open-air market. Food vendors lined the square with local and international cuisine. It’s street food on a whole new level.
  • Ljubljana Castle: If anything, you should go for the views! Ljubljana castle is actually more modernized with art installations and a café. Get the extended ticket that gains you access to all points on the property.
  • Horror House: Horror movies meet virtual reality. Need I say more?
  • Gostilna Pr Kopac: Treat yourself to a fine dinner at Gostilna Pr Kopac, made famous by their fried chicken and pražen krompir.
  • Beer Tasting: Slovenia is better known for their wine, but breweries are making an appearance. Try Sir William’s Pub for good flights and a laid-back atmosphere.

ljubljana_slovenia

PIT STOP: Trojane Donuts

Recommended by tourists and locals alike, Trojane offers some of the most popular donuts in Slovenia. They’re large, fluffy, and stuffed with a variety of fillings. Perfect to accompany a long road trip!

Ending Destination #10: Zagreb, Croatia

Distance from last destination: ~90 miles

Zagreb, the country’s capital and largest city in Croatia – and a good stopping point logistically. From here, you’ll find some of the cheapest outbound flights (as with Dubrovnik), and can ensure the car’s returned in the same country it was rented (avoiding outrageous foreign drop-off fees).

Where to stay: City Center

With any metropolitan city comes traffic. Focusing on local accommodations, walking, and pubic transportation are your best bet.

What to see:

  • Museums, Museums, Museums: There’s only one place to go in Zagreb, and that’s museums. Topics span from art and history to more “unconventional” subjects…

zagreb_croatia


COST BREAKDOWN (43 nights, 2 people)

$1,037 in Accommodations
$930 in Car Rental
$213 in Gas
$61 in Tolls
$60 in Ferries
$199 in Entry Fees
$2,500 Total Cost
$29 Average cost/day per person

PLANNING TIPS

Accommodations: This is your opportunity to save money. We only paid accommodations for half our trip by balancing (free) CouchSurfing stays, Booking.com and AirBnB reservations (get your credit here).

Car Rental: (a) After our initial quote of over $2,000 for a 6-week rental, we stumbled upon Auto Europe (Enterprise) who gave us a car for half the price including alternative city drop-off and additional driver. (b) Research your insurance options as your credit card may cover what they’ll push you to buy. (c) Consider all-terrain, as many roads are unpaved. (d) Get used to shifting because manuals are the norm here. (e) Note you’ll need a “vignette” to drive in Slovenia, which you should purchase at the first gas station you see (police are stationed almost immediately after crossing the border).

Season: We started our journey in late August. This skipped peak-tourist season but still upheld beautiful temperatures. If you don’t mind the crowds and peak pricing, go June-August where you can overlap Croatia’s musical festivals.

Sites: Free walking tours are your best friend. You can find them quickly through Google or CouchSurfing Events (tipping suggested).

Food and Entertainment: Practice self-control! Cook often, socialize responsibly, and avoid high-priced tourist restaurants.

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