When my son was in Kindergarten he taught himself world geography on his iPod, and a few countries captured his imagination. One was the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Nope, not traveling there with kids anytime soon. Another was Croatia. He liked that the country started with the first three letters as Crocodile and that its shape looks like a crocodile’s head (seriously, take a look).
So when we got tickets for the LEGO Inside Tour at Billund LEGOLAND in Denmark and were adding other European destinations to our trip itinerary (it’s silly to fly all the way to Europe for three days and then fly back), my son suggested Croatia. A trip to Croatia with kids sounded great to me. But where to go?
To choose a destination, we did three things: 1) We Googled “Best Places to Go in Croatia” and found a lot of Top-10 lists, which we consolidated into the must-sees; 2) We emailed SJ at chasingthedonkey.com, who’s an expert in Croatian family travel; And 3) we checked flight options from Billund, Denmark. All of that came together quickly to point us to the city of Zagreb, with a day trip to Plitvice Lakes National Park. We booked four nights at the Esplanade Hotel, giving us two full days in Zagreb and a day at Plitvice.
We loved Zagreb. But this isn’t a post about what to do in Zagreb with kids since we didn’t go out of our way to find kid-friendly activities. We walked and explored and played. And we ate…a lot. Pancakes, smoothies, kremšnita (traditional cream cake), gelato, pizza, fritule (doughnuts) – we didn’t stick to three meals a day. If we walked by a place that looked good, or stands with street food, or a bar with a swinging chair, we went for it.
Our hotel, the Esplanade, was near the train station and an ideal spot in Croatia with kids. We walked between there and the central pedestrian area (around Ban Jelačić Square) often, mainly through the parks but also zig-zagging through shopping areas. We loved Tkalciceva Street – most of our meals were at cafes along there. We also found a playground with snack vendors halfway up Tkalciceva Street near a small church – a perfect place to rest, play and munch.
Our second night a storm started rolling in as we were walking back from dinner. The fountain at King Tomislav Square was blowing sideways, practically inviting people to run through the water and get soaked. My son joined several local kids in the fun.
Where To Stay in Zagreb
I love historic hotels, especially when I’m traveling with just one child and we don’t require connecting rooms. The Esplanade was perfect – a luxury hotel built 90 years ago for passengers traveling from Paris to Istanbul on the Orient Express. The location is excellent, roughly a 15-minute walk to Tkalciceva Street, and I loved our view (below) and our very nice room – a room that would have been 400+ Euros in other European cities but was only 135 Euros in Zagreb. They didn’t do anything special for my son at check-in or during the stay, but he didn’t notice.
An alternate suggestion: we’ve been impressed with Canopy by Hilton properties in other European cities. We didn’t stay at the Canopy by Hilton Zagreb, but it’s worth checking out.
Where We Ate
We had a lot of good meals along Tkalciceva Street. Our favorite restaurant, though, was one that we passed by on the way back to the hotel from Tkalciceva Street. Bistro Fotić jumped out at us, initially because of the cute bird on their sign (my son loves birds) and then because of the menu. We dined there one night and then went back a second night. I loved the prosciutto-wrapped fillet and my son still raves about the duck breast with raspberry/peppercorn sauce – to the point where he is trying to figure out a way he can get back there this year. Seriously.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
As much as we liked the city, our day-trip from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes was the highlight of the trip. Plitvice’s the largest park in Croatia and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But don’t go for those reasons. Go because it’s one of the prettiest places you’ll ever see.
We had arranged for a private trip from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes through Kamauf Tours for 288 Euros, including park entry. A guide and driver picked us up at our hotel at 9am, took us by a grocery store to get some snacks, and then drove us from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes. We made two additional stops on the way – at the watermill village of Rastoke and the Turanj Open Air War Museum with tanks and planes from the Yugoslav civil war. We enjoyed both stops, with my son having fun climbing on the tanks at the museum. It was a good chance to teach him a little bit of the history of the region as well.
Then on to Plitvice Lakes. The park consists of a series of 16 interconnected lakes, cascading into each other via waterfalls, with wooden walkways along the lakes as well as stairs for the steeper climbs. There are also boats linking the shores of the larger lakes. The lakes are virtually all turquoise or green-colored – seriously stunning. We made it from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes at 11am and were there until 5pm. The entire time we simply walked from lake to lake. Well, I walked, but my son ran a lot of the time – there’s a reason most of the photos I took show him in front of me! We also took two boat rides and had lunch at a park restaurant.
We traveled from Zagreb to Plitvice on a Monday in mid-June. We walked past several larger tourist groups, and we saw a lot of couples and families, but it only felt crowded once – while we were waiting about 20 minutes for a boat back across the lake after lunch. There was ice cream nearby though, so that made the wait seem far shorter.
I’d recommend a day trip from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes for ages five and above. You don’t want to take a stroller along those walkways, and ideally you want your kids to walk/run on their own without needing to be carried. We saw families with kids of all ages, but it’s definitely easier if your kids are self-sufficient.
Croatia with Kids – Specifics
Kid Friendly: Very kid-friendly.
Level of Difficulty: Easy. We took taxis between the airport and hotel and otherwise, we got around by walking. The tram goes right in front of the hotel and we easily could have taken it if we didn’t feel like walking.
Airline/Routing: KLM from Billund to Zagreb via Amsterdam and Brussels Airlines from Zagreb to Brussels where we connected to United.
Hotel: Esplanade Hotel
Trip Length: 12 days total, including four in Zagreb
Days of School Missed: Zero. Summer break.
Cost Factors: Croatia is not an expensive destination. Our entire four-day/four-night stay only cost 900 Euros or so for the two of us including a very nice hotel, some excellent meals and a full-day trip from Zagreb to Plitvice Lakes. You could save money by choosing a less-expensive hotel.