World-famous for its 16 interconnected lakes, Croatia’s Plitvice Lakes National Park is also home to dramatic waterfalls, natural dams, and diverse species of flora and fauna (many of which are endemic), all contributing to its breathtaking beauty.
The photo below encapsulates so much of this beauty: the crystal clear turquoise water, the trees that seems to grow directly out of it, and the modest wooden pathway following the contours of the forest…
There’s only one problem with this photo: there are people everywhere! Take another look. Don’t get us wrong: we love people, but this is not the place to be surrounded by them!
Imagine walking this pathway…and having it all to yourself. Five hours before this picture was taken, we walked across that very same boardwalk, and there were no other people in sight. By the time this picture was taken — around 1:00pm on a Thursday in late July — we had seen everything we wanted to see, and we were on our way out.
Every year, more than one million tourists visit Plitvice Lakes National Park, making it the most visited destination in mainland Croatia. It’s absolutely packed every day during the high season (June – September), yet at certain times during our visit, we felt completely alone with nature. Much of that had to do with how we planned and executed our trip.
Follow this guide, and you’ll have the experience of a lifetime in the Plitvice Lakes National Park: one of the world’s most exquisite & extraordinary inland aquatic environments.
Know before you go
Here are a few basic facts about Plitvice Lakes National Park:
- Plitvice Lakes National Park is one of the oldest national parks in Croatia, and has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Registry since 1979.
- It’s also the largest national park in Croatia with a total protected area of 115 square miles (297 square kilometers).
- The 16 lakes — grouped into the 12 Upper Lakes and the 4 Lower Lakes — cover an area of less than 1 square mile (2 square kilometers). This 1% of the park is the area you will explore!
travelhelix tip: although you cannot swim in any of the lakes, you do have an opportunity to explore one of the lakes – on your own – by paddleboat! (walrus not included)
And here are some very important words to memorize before your trip!
- Entrance → Ulaz
- Trail → Trag
- Upper Lakes → Gornja jezera
- Lower Lakes → Donja jezera
- Waterfall → Slap
- Beer → Pivo
- Cheers! → Živjeli!
- Thank you! → Hvala!
Where to stay
The park has 2 main entrances, located near the villages of Rastovača and Plitvička Jezera:
- Entrance 1 → North Entrance → near Rastovača
- Entrance 2 → South Entrance → near Plitvička Jezera
Both villages offer accommodation ranging from the more affordable hostels and guest houses to higher-priced hotels. We booked a room at Guest House Ljubica, which was extremely well-located, only a 5-minute walk to the North Entrance of the park. The owner, Ljubica, was extremely warm and welcoming. She and her husband live in the main house, and we had a lovely private room in her separate guest house.
reflections from DnA: choosing to stay in a guest house adds a “local” feel and enhances the overall experience!
Our recommendation is to rent a car from one of the main cities and drive to the park. From the Split airport, the 143-mile (231 km) drive to the North Entrance took us about 3 hours. From the Zagreb airport, it’s a slightly shorter 90-mile (144 km) drive. Here’s some more detailed driving & parking info from the park’s official website.
Beating the crowds
The best way to experience the park in its most undisturbed form is to get there early — hours before the crowds arrive. Your goal should be to arrive at the North or South entrance before the park opens, so that you’re one of the first people in line to get in. The easiest way to do this, is to sleep close to the park the night before, by booking a room in either Rastovača or Plitvička Jezera.
travelhelix tip: double-check the park’s hours of operation before you arrive. We arrived 15 minutes before the park opened, and there were 40 people waiting in line in front of us!
If you prefer not to spend a night in the area, it’s still possible to beat the crowds, but be prepared for a very long day of driving! Leave no later than 5:00am if you’re driving from Split, or 6:00am if you’re driving from Zagreb. You could also make it work by taking the earliest possible public bus from Zagreb (here you can see an option that gets you to the park just after 8:00am).
What to avoid
Many people visit the Plitvice Lakes as a day-trip from Split or Zagreb. The only way to truly beat the crowds is to arrive before the park opens, and this is not possible when taking a day-trip on a tour bus with a large group.
Since we drove from Split, let’s compare our do-it-yourself, “beat the crowds” experience with a common day-trip itinerary from Split:
|TRAVELHELIX “BEAT THE CROWDS” ITINERARY||ORGANIZED DAY-TRIP FROM SPLIT ITINERARY|
|Mode of transportation||Rental car||Tour Bus|
|Travel time: Split to Plitvice Lakes||3 hours||4 hours|
|Arrival at Plitvice Lakes||7:30am (30 minutes before park opens)||11:30am (3.5 hours after park opens)|
|Total time spent in the park||5.5 hours (completed all of Program C)||4 hours (maybe enough time to complete Program A or B, but not enough time for Program C)|
|Crowds||Minimal (sometimes none!)||Hundreds/thousands of people surrounding you at all times!|
|Lunch||1:30pm at Lička Kuća, across the street from the North Entrance||4:00pm|
Choose your program
When it comes to deciding how to explore the park, you have your choice of 8 circular routes, which the park refers to as Programs. We chose Program C because it starts from the North Entrance (5 minutes from where we slept) and includes essentially everything we wanted to see: the Lower and Upper Lakes area, the “Big Waterfall” (Veliki slap), and many smaller waterfalls.
Program C covers a total distance of 5 miles (8 kilometers), but maybe only half that distance is walking, and most of the walking is flat. The other half of the route includes a combination of electric ferryboat rides, and a return to the North Entrance by panoramic train.
Here’s a snapshot of Program C:
Tips for exploring the park
- what to wear: comfortable walking shoes are most important!
- what to bring: we brought a couple liters of water & some basic snacks (crackers, nuts, dried fruit) which came in handy after a few hours of walking. Although a lot of the park is shaded, we recommend sunscreen as well. And you may consider bringing bug spray / insect repellent.
- electric ferryboat — how to beat the crowds: the ferry carries about 100 people. The moment the ferry let us off on the other side of the lake was the most “congested” part of the day because there were 98 other people getting off with us. Rather than continue walking, we simply stopped and took some photos on the dock for 5-10 minutes, which was plenty of time for those 98 people to disappear. We again had the park to ourselves, and explored at our own pace!
- same-day re-entry is OK! if you want to visit the park multiple times in the same day, this is perfectly acceptable! Visit in the morning, go home for lunch and a nap, then come back in the evening for some different perspectives…
Dining & imbibing
We were fortunate enough to have 2 great meals in 2 nights, both located just down the street from where we stayed, near the North Entrance.
1. House Katarina
For an authentic local experience, head to House Katarina. We sat in the backyard with about 20 other happy travelers and enjoyed a delicious home-cooked meal, courtesy of Lidya (who took care of the guests!) and her husband Marko (who took care of the barbeque!). The multi-course meal included an appetizer plate of local cheeses & sliced meats, a main course of grilled beef, grilled trout & vegetables, and a dessert of homemade cake & homemade plum brandy!
2. Pansion Danica
Another great option is Pansion Danica, located right across the street from House Katarina. Here we enjoyed another great home-cooked meal which included seafood risotto, pork medallions and grilled trout. More importantly, we received our first introduction to Plivičko Pivo: the official beer of the Plitvice Lakes!
Following this plan as closely as possible really will make a world of difference, and you’ll be rewarded with priceless memories and gorgeous photographs to share with your loved ones.
Photos…like these. Enjoy!
WE WENT CHASING WATERFALLS 🎶
Now, these are the types of creatures we were happy to share our day with…