While planning our month in Croatia, we had no idea how amazing the hiking was going to be. When you think of a capital city, you don’t usually associate it with mountains and lakes but lucky for us, Zagreb has access to some of the most beautiful hikes.
Our first hike up Medvednica mountain was close to Zagreb city center, we were able to reach the start of the trail exclusively with public transportation in less than an hour. Our second hike through Plitvice Lakes National Park, however, was farther away (3-hour bus ride) but so worth it!
Medvednica Mountain – Sljeme
With only a couple of transfers on the public tram, we reached the final stop of our journey. From start to finish the ride to our destination was one hour, leaving at 8:00A (rush hour traffic). It was a beautiful ride right through the center of the city and beyond, cruising through the rural areas surrounding Croatia and getting to see very charming communities along the way. We knew where we had to get off on the tram so that was a good start, but that is where our planning came to a screeching halt.
Finding the Trail
I have written about this in previous hiking posts, the hardest part of a hike in a foreign country is usually finding the hike. That was the case on this hike as well. Our research had promised well-marked trails and easy-to-follow signage so we didn’t download a maps.me map or plan out our route. This was definitely a mistake on our part but made the hike more adventurous and ultimately more fun. After circling back a few times when we realized we were getting too far off the trail, we finally figured out how to get up. We weren’t sure what trail number we actually ended up hiking but that didn’t matter in the end.
At one point in time, Medvednica (Bear) mountain was a source of water, food, and firewood for the locals. Today, the mountain provides protection from the strong winds hitting Zagreb and a place of enjoyment for locals and tourists alike. Spending time in Medvednica Nature Park is one of the favorite pastimes for the locals of Zagreb. They enjoy the fresh air, time with friends, and admire the beautiful views of Zagreb.
From the start of our hike to the top it was approximately 9 km (5.6 miles) and took 3 hours. It was a stunning hike with the trail winding around enormous beech trees, a small creek, and plenty of inclines to keep our hearts pumping. By the time we reached the top both of us were feeling our legs burn, knees shake and lungs in overdrive. It wasn’t as though we were having to climb huge rocks or maneuver through tricky terrain, it was just a steady incline for three hours straight.
Once we reached the summit, referred to as Sljeme, we both knew we didn’t have it in us to do the hike back down. I had a work call scheduled for that evening and I knew I would be cutting it close if we attempted the descent so we made the easy decision to take a bus back to the tram.
We ended up with a very interesting ride down the mountain watching a guy close his eyes, get in a semi-tuck position, and try to stay balanced for the entire 30-minute bumpy, windy ride. We were confused at what he was doing and why he was doing it but it was entertaining, to say the least! It took us about two hours to make it back to our apartment and thankfully we made it back in time for my call as it ended up being one of my successful recruits! So, all in all, it was a very wonderful and successful day, both on and off the mountain!
Plitvice Lakes National Park
The highlight of our time in Croatia was without a doubt Plitvice National Park. Apparently, this area is on the top of the travel list for most Europeans but foreigners (like us) had never even heard of it. It was not only a highlight of Croatia for me but a highlight of the trip (bold statement, I know).
To do this in a day trip was aggressive, but so worth it. With a 4:30A wake up, 30-minute tram ride to the bus station, 5:00A bus ride to the national park which took about 3 hours, we were ready for our hike. When you arrive, there is a huge sign listing the different hike options, ranging from 1-2 hours, all the way to 6-8 hours. Most people doing the day trip opted for something in the middle, 3-4 hour hike but still getting to see the main attractions of the park. Since we knew the crowds were going to be ridiculous, we decided on the 6-8 hour hike which bypasses most of the tourists.
By 8:00A we had a full (and heavy) backpack, tons of water and we were off on our hike. Knowing we had a bus already booked back, we thought we had to push the pace on the hike to finish in closer to 6 hours than 8. We were hiking fast and hardly stopping for water breaks throughout the entire hike expecting the 18 km hike to drag on forever. We switched off carrying the heavy backpack every hour and before we knew it, we were already halfway and it was lunchtime. So we found a log near a waterfall, ate our packed lunch and couldn’t stop gushing over the beauty that surrounded us.
After lunch, we knew we had another 8 km or so remaining so again we kept a quick pace, passing all the other hikers that were on the shorter hike. There were times during the hike that all the trails converged to see the main waterfalls and lakes, this was a photo taking frenzy! So many people taking selfies, GoPro’ing the whole thing, it was chaos and we tried to get out of those areas as fast as we could. I even managed to roll my ankle and fall because I was too busy getting away from the crowd and I didn’t take my sunglasses off to see the steps.
We finished the 18 km in 5 hours and when we got to the end we couldn’t believe we were already done! We took about 30 minutes for lunch and the rest of the time we were so caught up in the surroundings we lost track of time. The time flew by and we didn’t realize how tired and sore we were until we stopped at the end.
The most beautiful place I have ever seen
Devin always gives me a hard time because every new place we go I always say “this is the most beautiful place I have ever seen”. This time it truly was! Doing the long hike was the best decision we made because not only did we escape the crowd and practically have the trail to ourselves, but we saw incredible views the entire time. The shorter hikes take a boat and a bus to cut the walking time down but on the long hike, you get to walk around the entire lake. We saw the waterfalls from every angle and from a height we wouldn’t have otherwise seen.
We totally lucked out on our timing because it was the time of year that the leaves just started changing but hadn’t fallen off. There is a very small window in which you can catch the fall colors and we were so happy we did. The Plitvice Lakes National Park has 16 natural lakes and over 90 waterfalls. There are twelve upper and four lower lakes that together make up the entirety of the hike.
Made the most of time in Croatia
We felt so fortunate to even spend any time in Croatia since we didn’t think we would even be able to visit this trip. The fact that we were able to not only explore the city but see Croatia’s incredible nature was the ultimate! Hiking through Plitvice Lakes National Park was a dream I didn’t even know I had. It was a surreal experience that I can’t really put into words but one you cannot miss when visiting Croatia.
It was sad to say goodbye to the place we called home for a month but we truly took every opportunity to enjoy everything Croatia had to offer.