Croatia – with its impressive old towns full of history, stunning riviera, countless hiking trails and turquoise sea – has a lot to offer to any kind of traveller. Have you ever considered visiting this relatively young country on the Adriatic Coast? If so, you will most likely have come across photos of the unique, crystal-clear lakes and waterfalls at Plitviče. Let us assure you now that this place is even more gorgeous than any photograph could ever convey. Nevertheless, our experience was rather frustrating and if we ever considered returning, we would probably change a thing or two. These are our main conclusions after our day of NEARLY seeing the park’s big waterfalls. Depending on your schedule and your family, you might not be able to follow all of these tips. Don’t worry about that. Any one of these in isolation will make your experience a little more pleasurable.
1.) Don’t go in peak season (i.e. July or August)
We were forced to come in August and we were very realistic about the fact that this place would be crowded. We knew that coming this time of year would mean goodbye to stress free photography and filming and we fully expected to be queuing. We are talking about much bigger issues here. The main problem with Croatia’s main tourist attraction is that the park really is not laid out to support the thousands and thousands of visitors it gets in peak season.
If you can, avoid these busiest months at all costs. While you might not be able to completely avoid standing in line, you will hopefully not be queuing for 5 out of your 8 hours in the park (like we did). The lines are not just limited to the entrance. As soon as you have your ticket, you will move on to queuing for your bus and other transport links. Additionally, visitors are largely directed around the park on beautiful wooden walkways that are built across the lakes to allow for the best view of the falls. While these paths tastefully blend into the gorgeous nature that surrounds them, they are also very narrow. Add to that the fact that the park’s layout encourages people to walk in the same direction and you end up with bottlenecks at every beauty spot. A lot of the time we ended up in line not even knowing what we were queuing for … adds to the excitement we guess.
2.) Don’t come with young children
Martha was 5 months pregnant at the time of our visit and less than pleased about the amount of time we had to spend standing in line (let’s remind ourselves … it was about 5 hours in total). But whilst going pregnant was not ideal, we would not have wanted to leave it much longer. We felt terribly sorry for those visitors with young children and – possibly worse – strollers. First of all, there was lots of climbing involved, which is never fun with a stroller in tow. Second of all, the narrow pathways and the way that all visitors were encouraged to take the same route meant that you were NEVER alone on the wooden paths. Saying ‘not alone’ is probably the understatement of the century. A good proportion of the time we were stuck between dozens of people (and that was when we were not queuing). Navigating a stroller through these crowds really didn’t look like a fun task.
The problem with young children big enough to walk on their own is the safety aspect. These narrow pathways are built ACROSS the lakes without any kind of barrier around them. With the amount of people that surrounded us at all times while we made our way through the park, we were surprised to hear only of a dog falling into the water that day.
3.) Be an early bird
You are well advised to arrive at Plitviče as soon as the gates open at 7am. Also take note of which tree you parked your car under. Rather than conventional car parks, the areas’ forests are used for parking and once the crowds have arrived, finding your vehicle can turn into quite the challenge. Remember to bring change, too. Most of the pay stations do not accept cards.
We spent an hour and a half queuing just to get into the park, which we could have easily avoided had we been there earlier. Boats and busses (“panoramic trains”) operate between different areas of the park to allow you to get to the most important beauty spots in one day. They start at 7 and 8am respectively. So, pack up your breakfast, and eat it enjoying an unforgettable Plitviče view before the crowds arrive.
4.) Come as part of an organised tour group
There’s something you haven’t heard us say before! One and a half hours of queuing to get into an attraction give you a lot of time to observe how it operates. And we ended up observing the reason for the long queuing times. The line we were in came to a stand still every few minutes when tour operators cut in at the very front to get … not one … not two … but about 80 tickets printed for their groups. Obviously, groups enjoy a special status, which spares them the waiting and increases everyone else’s. We would like to think of ourselves as quite patient and laid-back, but this system was very frustrating. Especially because people in the queue next to ours moved at three times the speed without the interference of tour operators.
5.) Avoid park transport where possible
Before starting your people-packed Plitviče adventure, take a couple of minutes to familiarise yourself with the park map. Once you have found out where the most impressive waterfalls are, figure out a way to take in as much of the park as possible by foot. Their buses only go every 30 minutes and in peak season people ahead of you will often fill them up immediately. This means that each bus journey will easily add another 45 minutes of queuing time to your day.
What about the boats you ask? Well, don’t get us started on the boats! According to the park’s website, they operate either as required or every 30 minutes, depending on which line you require. Our experience was much different. We had been planning to catch the boat to get from the higher to the lower lakes and as we walked through the forest, everything suddenly came to a standstill as we hit another seemingly endless queue. And this one was the mother of all queues, starting in the middle of the forest and curling all the way down the hill and out of sight. With no staff around, nobody was sure what we were actually queuing for. We had just talked about how it was surprising that everyone around us seemed to remain very calm, despite the obvious chaos and confusion, but it now became obvious that even the patience of a highly trained queuer had its limits. Tensions arose as a group of youngsters tried to sneak past everyone else. After about 45 minutes, a big group of Japanese tourists gave up and decided to leave the queue to walk back into the direction they had come from. This was met with enthusiastic applause from people behind them. We had run out of supplies at this point and we had no idea why we were queuing (we could only assume it was for the boat). We also did not know how long we would be standing here for and whether it would be possible to buy water and a snack on the other side without hitting another long line of people who had had the same idea. Without any water left and with Martha pregnant, we became increasingly nervous. When after an hour we had still barely moved and inspired by the Japanese tour group, we decided to play it safe and turn back. This meant we were missing out on the most impressive part of the park – or so we’re told – and it wasn’t an easy decision. Luckily, we managed to find two shortcuts and made it back to the main entrance in around 45 minutes.
6.) Bring lots of food and water
This cheery little anecdote segues us nicely into our next piece of unrequested advice. Do bring lots of supplies. Drink and food are provided at the entrances as well as some of the boat and bus stops. The distances between them are not long but – as our experience told us – if you do get stuck in crowds, you can end up queuing for hours.
After all this moaning and complaining we would like to clarify again that we thought Plitviče had some of the most beautiful scenery we have ever seen. We do still recommend you go if you get the chance. As long as you know what to expect and how to avoid disappointment, you will have a blast.
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