Whether you have visited Croatia before or are considering a future trip, it’s a destination not to be missed- especially if you consider yourself to be a foodie. Croatia’s gastronomic influences are diverse and seeped in history.
Much of the 3,626 miles of glittering Dalmatian coastline stretching south to Dubrovnik (nicknamed the “Pearl of the Adriatic”) was once dominated by the Venetian Republic. Inland, just over the Dinaric Alps, which run like a spine down the Balkan Peninsula, the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires played a huge role in the development of cuisine. (Expect to find Turkish staples like goulash and sarma, meat-stuffed cabbage rolls.) And in Istria, Croatia’s northwest truffle-gem near the Slovenian border, traditional dishes boast plentiful Italian influences – after all, Istria was part of Italy for a while.
On the edge of empires for thousands of years, Croatia has long been a crossroads of cultures. Their indelible marks are visible not only in majestic monuments and architecture, but also in the country’s exciting gastronomy.
Coastal Bounty: Fresh Seafood and Historic Wines. Unsurprisingly, the sea is a pivotal influence in most kitchens along the Dalmatian Coast. Dishes such as squid-ink risotto, whole grilled fresh fish, and fried calamari tempt diners on nearly every menu from Dubrovnik to Zadar. But it’s not all seafood all the time: Paski sir, a sheep cheese from the island of Pag, and salt-air-cured prsut (prosciutto) are also ubiquitous in Dalmatian dining rooms, both at home and in restaurants.
For Michelin-starred fine dining, head to much-lauded Restaurant 360, built into Dubrovnik’s famous medieval walls, where the view is just as delicious as the fare. One standout: red prawns with pumpkin cream and hazelnut oil. To taste more Peljesac wines (don’t miss the Dingac region’s silky reds), travel an hour north and you’ll hit Ston, a town that’s also home to a legion of oyster farms: The bivalves are so good, Roman emperors and Austrian archdukes placed delivery orders for them.
Grapevines on the Peljesac Peninsula benefit from generous sunlight (and prime views of the Adriatic Sea). -Damir Fabijanić
Continuing up the coast, wine lovers shouldn’t miss the Split area, an area where they discovered the ancestor of the zinfandel grape known as crlenjak kastelanski in Croatian. It’s a stunning location with a lot of wonderful wines.
Farther north, in the medieval town of Sibenik, Pelegrini is a refined restaurant opposite the UNESCO-recognized cathedral of Saint James. Self-taught chef/owner Rudi Stefan practices sustainable gastronomy, working with small, local producers to create sophisticated fare, such as smoked tempura oxtail and truffle- and prosciutto-laced pappardelle.
Zagreb and Slavonia
Gastronomy in the Heartland: From Humble to Haute. Zagreb, Croatia’s capital city, is finally coming into its own as a center of good eating. RougeMarin, once a lightbulb factory outside the center of town, has a casual atmosphere, but takes on Croatian fare with worldly flair in dishes such as marinated pork loin on an amaranth rice cracker, and panko-encrusted monkfish. Go traditional at Kod Pere, a neighborhood spot within walking distance of Zagreb’s main square that serves up hearty central Croatian fare in large portions – think blood sausage and schnitzel. For something more stylish, one-Michelin-starred Noel’s softly lit, modern space sets the stage for chef Goran Kocis’ elevated regional fare: grapefruit-accented sea urchin risotto, say, or foie gras with Dalmatian raisins. Pair your meal with local wines, an artisan cocktail, or a recommendation from sake sommelier Ivan Jug; the restaurant also offers tea tasting menus that match teas to each course.
Ban Jelacic Square in downtown Zagreb is a ten-minute walk from Kod Pere and Noel restaurants. -Getty Images
Northeast of Zagreb is the region of Slavonia, an oft-overlooked, but fascinating part of the country, especially for food and wine. The culinary tradition here emphasizes hearty stews and fish paprikash, a paprika-laden stew made with freshwater fish slow-cooked over an open flame for hours. Osijek, the capital, is a fun, off-the-radar city to explore for a few days, but be sure to head to the wine-country town of Zmajevac, not far from where Croatia, Hungary, and Serbia meet. Josic Wine Cellar is an ideal place to sample local pours: Grasevina – a fruity, flowery, crisp white – is the most popular.
Just an hour’s drive from Dubrovnik, travelers find underwater vintages and standout seafood.
About an hour’s drive north from Dubrovnik, Peljesac Peninsula is the perfect day excursion for wine and oyster aficionados. And now it’s more accessible than ever, thanks to the new Peljesac Bridge, opened in July 2022, which connects Dubrovnik and the southernmost region of Croatia with the rest of the country; previously, travelers were required to pass through a narrow strip of Bosnian coastline with border control. The island of Korcula is also easily accessible from Peljesac via a short ferry ride from the peninsula’s tip.
Oysters fresh from Mali Ston Bay. -Richard James Taylor
This famous Dalmatian Coast wine region provides ideal growing conditions for Croatia’s plavac mali grape, most likely an indigenous descendant of ancestral zinfandel and another old Croatian variety, dobricic. In the peninsula’s premier Dingac wine-growing region, steep vineyards plummet into the Adriatic.
Aside from some of the region’s best shellfish, Ston draws travelers for salt pans that date to Roman times and for its more than three miles of snaking walls constructed over centuries, beginning in 1334. Pre- or post-oysters, visitors can walk these fortifications connecting Ston and the village of Mali Ston to take in sweeping views of Mali Ston Bay. Next is Edivo, Croatia’s first underwater winery!
“Harvesting” Edivoʼs underwater-aged wine. -Richard James Taylor
After aging for a year in Slavonian oak barrels, the plavac mali is bottled, encased in amphorae, and stored to continue aging 60 to 80 feet underwater for at least 550 days. The sea provides darkness and a constant temperature of 60 degrees, which are essential for developing the wine’s dark-berry flavors and aromas. Visitors can pick up a Navis Mysterium amphora with a bottle of wine still encased in it – a natural work of art dotted with oyster shells, which attach themselves to the exterior during the aging process.
A half hour up the peninsula, Ernest and Ivana Tolj’s family-owned Saints Hills Winery earns international acclaim for its reds – all made from plavac mali grapes (the winery produces Wine Enthusiast’s highest-rated Croatian exports). With rich plum and cherry notes and an earthy finish, vintages from its Sv. Lucia vineyard in Dingac showcase the varietal best.
Saints Hills also wins praise with its restaurant, which requires an advance reservation. The seasonal three-course, wine-paired menu rotates weekly between “the Land” and “the Sea.” Two highlights from the sea-focused lunch are brudet, a Croatian fish stew, reimagined with squid and handcrafted paccheri pasta in a slow-cooked tomato red wine sauce, and an orange-shaped dessert made with candied orange peel and white chocolate mousse that celebrated traditional Dalmatian arancini (candied orange peels).
Villa Korta Katarina. -Richard James Taylor
Travelers looking to spend more than a day exploring Peljesac can do no better than a suite at Villa Korta Katarina & Winery, located near the peninsula’s tip in the town of Orebic – the passion project of Americans Lee and Penny Anderson, who traveled to postwar Croatia in 2001 to provide humanitarian aid to the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and fell in love with Dalmatia and its wines. Situated near the shore on sprawling grounds, which include a swimming pool and a hot tub with a cascading waterfall, the villa is fit for royalty.
Korta Katarina can arrange a guided tour of its Dingac or Postup vineyards – some of the area’s steepest and rockiest – or the estate-grown zinfandel next to the villa and winery.
.A sampling of the winery’s portfolio included Reuben’s Private Reserve, named after Lee Anderson’s father. It was a standout expression of plavac mali – as full-bodied, complex, and bold as Peljesac’s wild and rugged terroir.