Why is no one talking about the Plitvice Lakes – Croatia’s Wonder of the World?
Croatia’s incredible Plitvice Lakes are well known as a tourist destination within Croatia and the surrounding parts of southern Europe, but why are so few people elsewhere aware of them and making time to travel there? These lakes are stunningly beautiful and unlike anywhere else on the planet. The lush greenery, waterfalls, aquatic fowl, and blue, crystal clear lake water is reminiscent more of Avatar than other lakes. This UNESCO heritage site deserves your attention and a visit. Whether exploring all of Croatia, or just to see the lakes, a day dedicated to wandering the lakes is highly recommended.
The location of the lakes in the middle of the country makes it an ideal stop either in the middle of a full tour of the country, whether north to south or vice-versa, or at the beginning or end of a trip just in the north or south. The lakes are only about 2 hours from Zagreb and 3 from Split, so also make a nice break from larger towns while traversing the country. In order to really see the lakes, you’ll need an early start, so staying overnight nearby is a good idea.
When we visited, we chose the highly recommended Apartments Villa Irene, situated close to the entrance. These incredible apartments evoke log cabins (which they also have) with modern fixtures and furnishings and awesome little patios in front perfect for enjoying the sunset with some local wine. The owner and proprietor is awesome and may stop by if you want or leave you completely alone. We loved hearing his stories of how the area and country have changed as well as his recommendations for exploring the lakes and local restaurants. The prices were great for an area without a ton of selection too. With tourism to the area increasing, it’s a good idea to book very early.
Exploring the lakes takes 4-6 hours even on a whirlwind tour. The lakes are huge and there is a ton to see. To maximize time and see the majority of the lakes, utilizing the free shuttles and electric boats that cross the largest lake is a must. Most visitors choose to traverse in a north to south direction, starting at the lower lakes and making their way up to the upper ones. Don’t be a normal tourist. Beat the crowds by going the other way. This also makes the hike a bit easier as you’ll be slowly descending instead of climbing. The lower lakes are more compact and impactful with the largest waterfall, or appropriately, in Croatian, slap. The upper lakes shouldn’t be missed though as they have the most serene, clear lakes and you’re more likely to find a moment of solitary reflection away from the crowds there.
Start off at parking area #2 right at opening time. From here you can take the shuttle bus to station 4 to begin your hike. You’ll be following program H, in both our host’s opinion and our own, the best way to see the best sights of the lakes. This begins at the upper lakes and allows you to wind down through several lakes, all crystal clear to the bottom where schools of fish swim. You’ll probably run into a bunch of ducks too, completely unafraid of humans. Please do not feed them or the fish though as this upsets the delicate balance of the environment and spoils the natural untouched ecosystem for other visitors.
Traversing boardwalks over the lakes, you’ll see many of the park’s waterfalls between the lakes as well. These are less dramatically huge as those in the lower lakes, but perhaps more scenic due to the width and number of them. The largest seem planted there with hard to believe grandeur and size. They are almost more like mountains rising from the lakes. You won’t see this kind of landscape elsewhere.
Eventually you’ll end up on the shores of Lake Kozjak, the largest lake in the park at about 4k across. There are paths around it, but to maximize time, take the electric ferry across to P3. These ferries use no gas in order to minimize the impact on the environment. This means the trip across is nice and quiet but still very scenic. It’s harder to see down into the depths of this lake, but in traversing it, you’ll spot many waterfalls at the edges. Watch out for tourists with selfie sticks and gopros so you don’t get whacked in the head.
P3 makes for a nice lunch stop due to a large field sporting a bunch of picnic tables. There is a small store and restaurant as well. Due to prices and a lack of much selection, I suggest bringing in a packed picnic lunch. It does mean you’ll have to carry it all the way through the upper lakes, but it means you’ll have something a bit more interesting than what is served there. You can also even bring a beer or two to get some refreshment on a hot day. Regardless, make sure to bring plenty of water and restock if needed here as the lower lakes are a bit more exposed to the sun.
The lower lakes are more likely to be crowded with tourists. The waterfalls here are a bit more dramatic and the lakes larger. The paths are also a bit more narrow the further down you go. There are some more boardwalks here, and more steps, so take it easy and enjoy the sights as you stroll down. There are a few side trails to hike if you want to extend the trip and get a view of the lakes and waterfalls from above. At one of the lower lakes there is also a short climb to some caves overlooking the lakes. Watch out for wet and slippery rocks.
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Eventually you’ll wind up at the largest waterfall in the park, the Veliki Slap, also the tallest in Croatia at 78m high. The crowds are thick as flies at this spot, so it may take some time to make it down from the overlook to the base of the waterfall. The walk is worth it though for a view that gives proper magnitude to the immensity of the fall.
From the fall, the tour is nearly done. A short walk from the fall to shuttle station 1 offers new views of the lakes and several falls from above. From here the shuttle can take you back to station 2 where it is a short walk back to the parking lot.
After a visit, there’s more to do in the area, notably getting food. Though the lakes are the main draw here, and there isn’t much in the way of recreation, good food is available. The choices are not numerous, but a visit to Degenija, like most restaurants here, attached to a hotel, will result in some tasty grub. The majority of restaurants in the area are touristy and part of hotels, which means they are pricey and often of questionable quality, but ones like Degenija are pretty good. In an area known for pretty average, touristy food, this is among the best. The menu is meat heavy with a few other choices. The pizzas are probably the most recommended item, and the one with cream cheese, sausage, and peppers was very good with a nice crispy crust and ingredients that seemed fresh. The stuffed squid were also very delicious with a nice garlic sauce that was perfect on a warm summer day. The beer menu was also pretty good with a few local beers which go great in the sun. Service was fairly friendly and quick, even when very busy. The outside seating area is very nice on warm days though smoking is allowed which interferes with the vibe a bit. If there are two items we found consistently good on any menu in Croatia, it was pizza and squid. When in doubt, get some squid.
After dinner, head back to the apartment and relax with the sunsetting and a bottle (or more) of Croatian wine. After taking in so many sights, it’s only right to relax and reflect on a great day. It’s not every day that you encounter an area of natural beauty like this. Maybe even go back through your pictures from the day. It’s difficult to make it more than a few feet in this park without finding another picture worthy view. This enclave of natural beauty inspires those from all locales, and it’s shocking that it isn’t somehow more popular. With recent influxes in tourism to Croatia, this may soon change. Most tours are sticking to the southern coastal regions of Croatia, but it’s only a matter of time until more make it here to this incredible wonderland. It’s time to get in now.