The Dalmatian Islands feel like the Mediterranean before it was overrun by tourist masses – an unspoilt paradise of pine-scented breezes, crystal-clear waters, wild nature and centuries-old Venetian-era harbour towns. For travellers who love the sea and mountains, adventure sports and medieval buildings, the Dalmatian archipelago is a great find. Most of the islands in this sprawling archipelago are uninhabited and protected as national park, and the few populated ones are remarkably well preserved, with picturesque architecture and historical traces of Eastern Europe.
Dalmatia is a historical region that forms the southern part of Croatia – once an important province within the Roman Empire. The region stretches along the Adriatic coast and includes the thousand-plus islands within the Dalmatian archipelago.
Delicious, wonderfully fresh seafood
Sailing among pristine, pine-scented islands
Sublime seascapes and cobalt-blue water
Backed by the rugged Dinaric Alps, the Dalmatian coastline is lapped by the deep blue Adriatic Sea, dotted with rocky, pine-scented islands that stretch out along the coast between Split and Dubrovnik. Architecturally, the area is indebted to Venice, which ruled most of the region from 1420 to 1797 and left behind many magnificent fortified harbour towns packed with beautifully preserved stone buildings. Split and Dubrovnik are the major access points to the islands.
A strong Italian influence is apparent in the architecture, food and dialect, thanks to centuries under Venetian rule. Traditionally, the islanders have made their living from seafaring, fishing, and wine and olive oil production. Fortunately, unlike other Med hotspots, their way of life has yet to be destroyed by tourism, lending the place a rare sense of authenticity. Listen out for klapa, traditional plainsong, usually sung by groups of men.
Closed for lunch
Many shops and some businesses in the area close from 2pm to 5pm. Few people actually take a siesta, but many opt for a long, leisurely lunch. Remember too that many businesses close down between November and April.
Expect high-quality shellfish, and fresh fish barbecued and served whole, plus quality local wines. Traditional Dalmatian dishes are served in family-run konobas – rustic taverns with wooden tables and benches.
A drop of Dalmatia’s finest
Dalmatia offers great wines and plenty of tasting opportunities. The best whites are Pošip from Korčula and Vugava from Vis, while the best reds are Plavac from Hvar and Vis.
What to try
Try Hvarska gregada (mixed fish stewed with potato, onion and fresh herbs) on Hvar, janjetina (roast lamb) on Brač, and Viška pogača (pizza with tomato, onion and anchovies) on Vis.
Where to eat & drink
Hvar Town is undoubtedly Dalmatia’s most happening island destination, having earned plenty of comparisons to Ibiza. In peak season (July-August), its lovely cobbled streets and trendy bars and restaurants are packed with glamorous suntanned visitors. Korčula is worth a mention for its excellent agriturismo-style restaurants in the hill villages out of town, where everything is prepared from local seasonal produce. Vis is known for its authentic seafood restaurants and locally produced organic wine.
Where to stay
A fine choice for a first visit to Dalmatia, Hvar Town on Hvar island is home to the region’s most modern and luxurious hotels. There are also plenty of beaches, and the car-free historic centre offers sophisticated seafood eateries and glamorous nightlife. Bol, on Brač, is more geared towards package tours and has several vast modern hotels – its main draw is Zlatni Rat beach, with excellent watersports facilities. Korčula Town on Korčula offers plenty of historic interest, but many of its hotels are rather dated.
Where to shop
The islands are hardly great shopping venues, with only Hvar Town standing out as somewhere you might buy a piece of clothing or some jewellery. However, wine-tasting at a local vineyard will probably culminate in buying a few bottles to bring home, and will prove to be a far more memorable experience than choosing wine in a shop. Open-air markets are fun too, though pricier and with less choice on the islands than on the mainland.
What to buy
Locally produced wine and rakija (a potent spirit, often flavoured with fruit or herbs); natural cosmetics (soaps, body creams) made from olive oil; lavender (dried or distilled).
Health & safety
Crime rates are low by Western European standards and visitors can feel safe here, even walking around at night or wearing valuables. Petty crime is virtually non-existent. The islands are generally disease-free and the tap water is fine to drink. The roads are relatively safe, but can be narrow, twisty and poorly surfaced.
When to go
June and September are the best times to go, offering great weather and warm water for swimming, without any crowds. If you’re sailing, there are fewer boats – more chance of privacy in those secret coves and beaches – and better winds. High season (July and August) is perfect for visitors who want to mingle with the crowds and enjoy a buzzing nightlife. Many hotels, restaurants and activities are closed between November and April, and the water is too cold for swimming.
From either Split or Dubrovnik international airports, take a taxi to the harbour and catch a local Jadrolinija ferry or catamaran to the island of your choice. There are regular departures; see the Jadrolinija website for schedules.
The best way to explore the Dalmatian Islands (and the mainland coast) is by private yacht. Most charter companies are based in Split and offer one-week rentals (skipper optional) – enough time to complete a circuit that takes in Brač, Hvar, Korčula and Vis. Public transport on the islands is cheap and efficient: the islands are served by regular ferries and catamarans, and most towns and even villages are connected by buses. Taxis are scarce. Hiring a car, while not strictly necessary, will nevertheless give you more freedom to explore the islands.
Crossing with a car
If you plan to take a vehicle on a ferry to the islands during peak season (July-August), you should book well in advance. Foot passengers rarely need to make reservations. www.jadrolinija.hr.
- Type Region
- Notoriety Somewhat known
- Price guide $$$$$
- Time zone GMT / UTC +00:00 - +01:00
- Currency HRK
- Climate Warm temperate
- Environment Mediterranean scrub
- Politics Somewhat conservative
- Best time Jun-Sep
Get in the mood
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca WestRecounts the tales of an English lady’s travels through the countries of former Yugoslavia in 1937, with several chapters focusing on Dalmatia.
Vela Luka by Oliver DragojevićDalmatia’s favourite singer-songwriter sings about Vela Luka, his home town, on the island of Korčula.
Francesco’s Mediterranean Voyage (2008)In this BBC series, Italian architect and historian Francesco da Mosto sails from Venice to Istanbul, stopping at Split, Hvar, Korčula and Dubrovnik along the way.
The Mediterranean As It Once Was‘The Mediterranean As It Once Was’ is a Croatian National Tourist Board promotional video showing the area’s many highlights.