Many would say that the Opatija Riviera initiated Croatian tourism as a whole. Ever since the aristocracy of the Austro-Hungarian upper class saw this coastal town as a top quality resort 120 years ago, the string of settlements on the Kvarner Bay has never really looked back. At its center is Opatija, a belle-époque seaside resort clinging to the slopes of Mount Učka. To the north is the fishing village of Volosko, a picturesque huddle of houses gathered round a dainty port, while to the south lies Lovran, with its appealing mixture of medieval alleyways and art-nouveau holiday villas. As all three are situated within a mere 20-30 minute drive from Rijeka, getting around is a piece of cake.
Initially Opatija was a winter resort, catering for landlocked central Europeans in need of Mediterranean warmth and maritime air. Nowadays it is very much an all-season destination, offering neatly manicured parks, stylish cafes crammed with delicious mouth-watering sweets, traditional souvenir boutiques and Croatia’s densest concentration of top-class restaurants.
They say that location is the key – and it is evident that the key to Opatija’s success is its position at the foot of Mount Učka, which protects Opatija from the North and West with the intruding cold air, whilst the islands of Krk, Cres and Lošinj protect Opatija from the East and South as they deviate the winds that come in from the open sea.
Over the years Opatija has been labelled as the perfect getaway, a place to relax and seek leisure through its natural surroundings and tourist attractions. These days this gorgeous coastal village is undergoing something of a boom in spa and wellness tourism, with almost every hotel in the 4-to-5 star bracket now offering indoor pools, saunas, steam-baths, massage rooms, and a full range of state-of-the-art beauty treatments. With major European centers such as Munich, Vienna and Milan located within a 500 kilometer radius, Opatija is one of the most accessible year-round health-and-lifestyle resorts in Europe.
The business sector hasn’t been forgotten as there are a multiple facilities to cater for congress tourism: the Grand Hotel Adriatic’s 600-seat auditorium has been hosting top international meetings for several decades while the Hotel Kvarner’s Kristalna dvorana (crystal room) is a near-legendary venue for high-level receptions and showbiz events. The Ambasador, Grand Hotel 4 Opatijska Cvijeta and other local hotels are also endowed with amenities to accommodate business meetings and seminars of all numbers and sizes. Everything to suit the customers' needs.
Volosko is the oldest of the settlements along the Opatija Riviera and it still retains its sleepy fishing-village charm, with a cluster of stone houses scrambling up the hillside above a sheltered little port. Volosko’s strong fishing tradition may help to explain why it boasts some of the best seafood restaurants in the country. A fistful of high-class eateries are clustered around the Mandrač, the sheltered inner harbour which provides moorings for small boats.
Sitting in a tiny little pocket six kilometers south of Opatija is Lovran, the most picturesque of the Riviera’s resorts, with a historic centre of medieval stone houses grouped around the fourteenth century Church of St George, and a surrounding girdle of Italianate nineteenth century villas – many of which have been renovated and now serve as guesthouses or boutique hotels. A short walk south of Lovran is the lovely cove of Medveja, the site of a crescent pebbly beach.
There’s no better way to see the entire Opatija Riviera then from Kastav, a hilltop town northwest of Rijeka. The view from the battlements of this fortified town is simply breathtaking, with Mount Učka to the right, the islands of the Kvarner Bay to the left and the coastal settlements of Volosko and Opatija in the middle distance.
Opatija gets its rightful name from an abbey that was established here in the late Middle Ages by Benedictine monks. The Croatian word for abbey is opatija, and this same abbey was abandoned by the early nineteenth century, although its centre-point, St James’s Church (Crkva svetog Jakova), still stands by the seashore today. As people sort shelter across Europe, a civilian settlement grew-up around the abbey some time in the sixteenth century - although it wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Opatija was discovered as a potential health resort, and it was then that its development and infrastructure really began to expand.
Opatija’s history as a tourist destination begins in the 1840’s when a merchant from the nearby city of Rijeka, Iginio Scarpa built the Villa Angiolina which served as both a family retreat and a venue for high-society gatherings. With members of the Austro-Hungarian aristocracy included on Scarpa’s guest list, the appeal of Opatija as a holiday destination rapidly spread. Tourists back in the nineteenth-century were not interested in sunbathing, bungee-jumping, and drinking themselves silly. They saw travel as a health-improving activity which took them away from smoky cities and provided them with a dose of fresh sea air. Opatija, with its warm climate and mild sea breezes, was the ideal destination.
Opatija had got its major breakthrough under the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire which was expanding its railway networks. Urged on by the advice of top doctors; notably the Austrian laryngologist Leopold Schrötter, who found the local sea air to be an excellent cure for throat complaints, the Southern Railway Company or Südbahn had built a direct line from Vienna to Rijeka. The construction of hotels was next on the agenda which was seen as a major requirement in order to meet the needs of a growing tourist industry. In 1884, the Südbahn had opened Opatija’s first sanatorium, the Kvarner which continues to operate today under the name Kvarner Hotel.
Since its early days, Opatija was always seen as an exclusive resort for the horse-and-carriage set and it had soon become popular amongst the Austro-Hungarian royal family. Emperor Franz Josef himself was a regular visitor, and was joined here by his German counterpart Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1894. Franz Ferdinand (the Archduke, not the 80’s pop rock band) would venture down to Opatija to indulge in a spot of bird-shooting at nearby Preluk.
OPATIJA'S PARKS AND PROMENADES
Nature lovers will be pleased to know that Opatija’s Mediterranean climate has fittingly helped in the growth and protection of the lush vegetation of its parks and promenades. The close proximity of Mount Učka ensures fresh nights whilst spring tends to be the most pleasant part of the year. Opatija gets its fair share of rain which is vital in maintaining its vegetation. In winter, there is usually no frost whilst snow is very rare and short-termed. As Opatija is protected from the cold and strong winds, this also helps the vitality of its flora.
- Franz-Jozef Promenade
- Opatija Tourist Information Center
- Park Angiolina and Saint James
- Park Margarita
- The Carmen Sylva Forest Promenade
- The Croatian Walk of Fame
- The Girl with a Seagull
- The Juraj Šporer Art Pavillion
- Villa Angiolina
PrimorjeSouth of Rijeka, on coastline there are places worth of mentioning...
Candy-coloured buildings line the promenade along the seashore - a mix of 50s, art nouveau and imperial architecture. There’s a feeling common to seaside towns around the world: a little commercial, perhaps seen better days. Crikvenica developed on the heels of the rising star of Opatija as tourists travelled and discovered the rest of the coast. Crikvenica was also declared a health resort: the former monastery where Hotel Kaštel now stands (and which gave the town its name – crikva means “church” in local dialect) was at one time a childrens’ convalescent home. A thalassotherapy centre specialising in rheumatic and respiratory disorders was established here in 1895. However, Crikvenica never become as fashionable – nor as expensive – as Opatija. The reasonably priced hotels combined with the large pebble and shingle beaches have made this a hugely popular resort today, and a great destination for families with kids. One beach close to the centre includes an enclosed play area with all kinds of bouncy attractions for children (there is a small charge for entry).
Crikvenica’s old centre makes for a pleasant stroll. See the monument made from an old olive mill stone in use until 1893, take a walk along the stream and through the gardens surrounding the monastery. The Aquarium (Vinodolska 8, tel. +385 51 24 10 06, Open 09:00 - 19:00. July - August 31 Open 09:00 - 22:00. Admission 20 - 35kn) is beautifully laid out and really fascinating.
Nearby Selce is a small port a little further south, rather similar in character as a resort, with good beaches and plenty of sports and entertainment opportunities. Both resorts are just a short hop from the highway from Rijeka.
This ancient town lies at the southern end of the Vinodol valley – literally “Wine Valley” – a fertile rural area dotted with fortified settlements founded in prehistoric times, protecting the coastal strip from barbarian invasion. The towns of Drivenik, Grižane and Bribir which lie along the valley were once important centres during feudal times, and all have incredible castles. If you drive, bike or hike through the Wine Valley, you’ll be well rewarded.
You can see Novi Vinodolski’s spindly bell tower crowning the hilltop from miles around. Wandering through the tight and sometimes dank muddle of streets, you feel how it must have been to shelter from the harsh north winds and the marauders that threatened from inland. The bell tower belongs to the Parish Church of St Philip and Jacob –a country-style church with a lovely square where you can look out over the islands. The town was protected by a Frankopan fortress, where the Vinodol code was written – an important legal document protecting the rights of commoners from feudal lords, written in the Glagolitic script and dating back to 1288. Though it has charm, Novi could do with a bit of sprucing up, but the rather special people compensate for this. Somewhat coarse, but definitely spirited, they’re the type you can have a good drink and a good laugh with – maybe that’s why Vinodol’s summer carnival is so popular. Novi is a simple place, ideal if you don’t like commercialised resorts.
Why wouldn't you hop to one of these while in Rijeka?
So close to the mainland and so easy to get to thanks to the bridge, Krk is not only the second largest Croatian island but also has one of the most developed tourist industries. Its western seaboard, along which the main artery runs from north to south, is where most larger resorts are located. Omišalj, despite the closeness of an important terminal for the shipping of oil, has a very attractive old cliffside centre, while Malinska and Njivice are much newer settlements mainly centred on tourism. It’s quite possible to spend your holidays here without realising exactly how much the island has to offer.
Krk is rich in both human and natural history. The island was once the seat of the Frankopan family – a powerful dynasty of Croatian counts and nobles who built many of the forts, churches and monasteries you'll come across on your travels through Kvarner. Christianity arrived here in the 5th century, and has remained exceptionally strong, so the island is dotted with churches, some early Christian, others with a characteristic onion dome topping the bell tower. The Glagolitic script brought to the Slav lands by Saints Cyril and Methodius took very firm root here, and many inscriptions of great historical significance have been unearthed, or can be seen on buildings, lending an air of the exotic with lettering which resembles a secret code written in the shape of mushrooms and cherries!
Krk Town is the island’s capital, and inside its walls is a lovely little maze of stone streets. Since there’s quite a lot to see, it’s a place to stay in or visit for a day, but be prepared for crowds in the height of summer. There’s a little beach just under the city walls, a pleasant spot to bathe.
Krk’s Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary is built on a site where a church has stood ever since the 5th century. Adjoining it is the early Romanesque Church of St Quirinus, protector of Krk. This simple church, formerly the chapel of the bishops of Krk, has an unusual clover-leaf shape on two storeys. Inside, the sacral art museum includes an impressive 14th century painting by Paolo Veneziano and a collection of silver and gold. When the cathedral’s not open, you can peep into its interior from here. The cathedral backs onto a square with a distinctive 12th century fortress with blunt forms typical of Frankopan constructions. This is the venue for summertime cultural happenings.
Close to Krk town, Punat has a large marina and the islet of Košljun lies in the sheltered bay. On the islet, the Franciscan monastery has a museum with an excellent ethnographic collection, sacral art, a library and a natural history section with some stuffed animals with too many appendages that are sure to thrill the kids. The monks run retreats, and cultural performances are also held here. It’s well worth taking a taxi boat over.
Of course, many of us head to the sea for… well, swimming! Drive through the green valley to Baška in the east, and you’ll come to a modern resort on a beautiful 2km sweep of clean shingle and turquoise sea. The view over the mainland is stunning, and it’s a great place to swim if you don’t mind the crowds at high season.
For gastronomy, we recommend you head for Vrbnik, topping a steep hillock on the northern coast, with a tiny emerald-green harbour at its feet. In the maze of narrow streets and stairways, locals say, is the narrowest street in the world. The town is surrounded by vineyards where žlahtina, a type of wine unique to Krk, has been made for generations. Wandering through Vrbnik you have the overwhelming impression that old wine barrels lie abandoned everywhere, and the smell of wine permeates everything. Vrbnik is blessed with a couple of very famous restaurants.
If you’re already in Vrbnik, we recommend you take a detour to the small village of Dobrinj. The vineyards soon give way to cool deciduous forests. The road winds uphill, and when you come to the village you start to think of Tuscany. The view from the lovely Church of St Stephen with its wide, stone-flagged, roofed porch encompasses the lush forests of the island interior, hillsides punctuated by dry stone walls, and the entire Kvarner Gulf. A little further north of Dobrinj is the Biserujka Cave, the only one of fifty on the island open to the public. As its roof is so close to the surface, rain water seeps through the rock and has formed incredible stalactites.
The moment you arrive on Cres, your troubles back at home melt into the distant past. Scrub and olives contrast with white rock and give way to azure seas and blue skies. Somehow, Cres island has been relatively unscathed by the ravages of the tourist industry, leaving both its natural environment and its towns and villages just as they should be.
Cres town is today’s capital of the island. The gothic architecture you’ll find here owes much to the island’s long connection with Venice – it was annexed to the Venetian Republic for much of the period between the year 1000 and 1797. There are a number of fine churches and palaces, one of which houses the Cres museum (Ribarska 7, tel. +385 51 57 11 27) with its collection of sculptures, icons and prehistoric and Roman artefacts. The town’s main square has been renovated, and the atmosphere there is supremely relaxing. Cres town has a large marina and a string of shingle beaches, and although it’s largely unspoilt, retains an unpretentious feel.
A short drive or boat ride to the far side of the bay of Valun brings you to the hamlet of the same name, a collection of picturesque red-roofed houses straggling up the hillside away from the water, with a wide shingle beach that’s an absolute delight to bathe from. It was here that the Valun Tablet was found - thought to be the oldest Glagolitic inscription in Croatia. There’s a simple campsite and a couple of pleasant restaurants.
If you have the opportunity to tour at all (Cres is difficult to negotiate if you don’t have your own wheels), the town of Lubenice is something you should definitely not miss. This old village’s setting on a high cliff against the backdrop of the sea is absolutely spectacular. Hundreds of metres below you, the colour of the sea against the yellow shingle beach is incredibly inviting, but the idea of the climb back up the hillside is equally off-putting for all but the most determined pleasure-seekers. Lubenice is known for hosting exhibitions of photography and for its musical evenings.
Moving south again towards the point where a short road bridge connects Cres with the island of Lošinj, you pass by beautiful freshwater Lake Vransko. It’s fenced off since it ensures the islanders’ supply of drinking water. Finally, Osor town, which once used to be the administrative centre of the island, is now a quiet stone village basking in the sunlight and its reputation as an artists’ colony. You’ll see modern sculptures adorning the streets and squares, and if you’re lucky enough will catch the summertime Osor Music Evenings. The former town hall on the main square now houses the Archeological Collection of Osor.
You’ll hardly notice crossing the bridge to Lošinj, but after a while you’ll arrive in Mali Lošinj, a port of some size and the largest island settlement on the Adriatic. It has some fine villas and a lively atmosphere. The crystal waters around are excellent for diving, and from here (or indeed anywhere around Cres and Lošinj) you have a good chance of spotting a dolphin. From Mali Lošinj you can catch a passenger boat to Susak, a tiny island made entirely of sand and with an unusual culture that includes a folk costume featuring possibly the world’s first miniskirt, or to Susak’s larger neighbour Unije. Though Unije is small, and – like Susak – carless, and is for sure a good choice if you’re looking for a relaxing retreat, it has a surprising amount going on, including a festival of olive oil.
Although mali means “little” and veli means “big”, Mali Lošinj is bigger than Veli Lošinj. Veli Lošinj has a delightful fishing harbour and is lent warmth by the colourful villas built by the island’s wealthy sea captains, who imported exotic plants from their travels as gifts for their loved ones. The villa gardens are a sight for sore eyes, and the park is an arboretum with massive tree specimens from around the world. The town was proclaimed a health resort at around the same time as Opatija, and there is still a medicinal thalassotherapy facility there today.
Sometimes stereotypes are stereotypes because they are just true. You can’t pick up a guide to Croatia without reading about how Rab is a paradise of medieval beauty set amid lush forests, with acres of wild sandy beaches to wander along hand in hand whilst wearing loose clothing that flaps around in the breeze. We tried hard to avoid the stereotypes, but Rab really is that pretty.
OK, we don’t agree so much with the sandy beach thing. One: sand sticks on you when you put sun cream on. Two: it gets in your eyes. Three: it gets between your teeth. Four: it gets bloody everywhere. Five: it makes the water look icky.
Sandy beaches are great for non-swimmers and small children. And that’s why so many people go to them. So be prepared for the large sandy beaches around Lopar in the northern part of Rab to be crowded with slowly basting humanity. But if you’re prepared to tuck your beach towel under your arm and go for a bit of a hike, you may just come across your own personal paradise. On Rab, there’s a beach to suit everyone.
Whether you’re a fan of fine grains of silicon or not, the journey to Lopar in itself is time well spent. You’ll pass through scenery of green rolling hills that is much gentler than you generally find on Adriatic islands. On the way is a family hotel, Zlatni Zalaz (“Golden Sunset”), beautifully positioned amidst forest and conveniently facing west. Zlatni Zalaz is very active on the gastronomic scene on the island, and we highly recommend it for the chance to try local specialities at excellent prices. Lopar itself, though a perfectly pleasant resort, has rather little to offer in terms of history or sightseeing or other dining opportunities.
Rab town is quite a different matter. This is where the superlatives come in. Spectacularly occupying a narrow peninsula, it’s a lovely old stone town dating back to the Middle Ages, with a fine small cathedral in pink and cream stone and a chain of four bell towers piercing the skyline. The summer season is punctuated with historical displays of archery and knightly tournaments. In the evenings, there’s a lively social scene with a handful of good bars and a couple of clubs.