Plitvice Lakes is Croatia’s mountain paradise, postcard-pretty national park and one of Europe’s most visited places. We very nearly didn’t go there but then… we did. If you don’t have a car, it can be hard to get there. Here’s how to get from Zadar to Plitvice Lakes with Tinggly, an amazing travel company offering ace experiences all over the world!
I remembered the first time I heard about Plitvice. I was a teenager. A friend of ours who owns a VW Kombi had spent the summer driving around the Balkans with his family, and mentioned Plitvice as his personal highlight. When I saw the pics, I couldn’t believe my eyes. One deep-blue lake after the other, surrounded by waterfalls, mountains and trees. The wooden walkways between one lake and another were completely empty – if there ever was a place that looked like heaven, that was it.
This was probably close to 20 years ago. The Balkan War was a recent memory, and tourist visits to Croatia had slumped. I visited the country for the first time in 1999, and since then, numbers have been increasing year after year.
Plitvice is one of the most popular sights in the country, and it is visited by up to 1.2 million people every year. Several friends have been the park in more recent times – no one said they didn’t like it, but every single person I asked (especially those who visited in summer) said Plitvice was incredibly crowded, with busloads of tourists arriving one after the other, spoiling the natural beauty of the place.
When we planned the Croatia section of our Eurail/Interrail trip, we thought of basing ourselves in Zadar and taking day trips from there. We considered visiting Plitvice, but the idea of squeezing our way past mobs of tourists taking selfies in front of the lakes or waterfalls didn’t really appeal to us.
Yet, we wanted to see the place. The idea of being so close to such an amazing, spellbinding place and not going to see it, was – you know – a shame.
How to get from Zadar to Plitvice
And that’s where trouble number two began. Plitvice is best visited with a car. To avoid crowds, it’s recommended to get to the park entrance at 7am, when the gates open. If you need to take public transport, there is a bus at 8.45 am from Zadar, getting to the park around 11.30 – pretty much when tour buses start arriving in droves.
The bus then returns at 4.30 pm, leaving you just over 4 hours in the park – and considering that there are often queues at the entrance to buy tickets and that it takes a minimum of 4 hours to walk around the park, doing a day-trip by bus from Zadar doesn’t sound like a wise option to visit Plitvice.
So, what happens if you don’t drive (like us), but still want to see Plitvice from Zadar? Look for a good tour. Not all tours take 50+ people at a time, making you feel like you’re on a high street. There are some excellent small group tours, leading visitors on in-depth tours of the park, taking in all the best that Plitvice has to offer.
What is Tinggly?
One of such tours is Tinggly’s Plitvice National Park experience for two from Zadar. Tinggly is a new concept, offering a ‘virtual gift box voucher’ that can be used to enjoy one of 350 experiences in over 80 countries around the world.
The voucher is priced at €99 – and can be used to redeem experiences as diverse as thresher shark diving in the Philippines, a food tour in Kuala Lumpur or ice diving in the French Alps. Some of the experiences are for one person, some are for two, but the price is always €99.
A Tinggly experiences voucher is a great idea for a gift to a travel-loving friend – with so many experiences listed on the site, there’s something for everyone. Or you can also get a Tinggly voucher for yourself if you fancy a treat!
Our Plitvice Experience
But back to our Zadar to Plitvice experience. Wanting to minimise the risk of crowds, we booked our trip for Monday August 31st – a great idea, as it turned out, because tourist numbers decrease dramatically after the last August weekend.
Our group was made up of only 12 people. Having left Zadar at 8 am, we were among the first to arrive at the park entrance, and within 15 minutes or so we had our tickets and were ready to explore the park.
Another advantage of going with a tour is that it allowed us to start our exploration from one entrance, and be collected at another, meaning no backtracking. We started at Entrance 2 and walked to Kozjak Lake, the largest of all the Plitvice lakes, from where we hopped on an electrical boat that took us across the lake, at the start of our hike.
Plitvice Lakes National Park is made up of 16 lakes, linked by waterfalls. The park is divided in two sections – the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ lakes. The water is very high in minerals, making the lakes change colour – from emerald green to aquamarine, from cobalt blue to azure, depending on the light and on mineral content. Waterfalls surrounding the lakes and shining sun, turning spray into golden mist and painting the surface of the lakes golden completed the magical scene.
We followed hiking trail H, circling the ‘upper’ lakes from across Kozjak Lake, then resuming the tour of the ‘lower’ lakes after crossing the lake once again on a boat. The bus would pick us up at Entrance number 1 after approximately 5 hours.
The ‘upper’ section of the park was perhaps the most spectacular. We passed one lake after the other, walking on rickety wooden platforms. The sound of water rushing from the top of the rocks was soothing, and the scenery was so peaceful and tranquil that not even the dozens of other tourists sharing (and sometimes blocking) the path could spoil the atmosphere.
It was blue and green, green and blue everywhere. Swimming is forbidden, so the water is pristine and crystal clear. Schools of fish zip across the lakes, chased by placid-looking waterfowl. We walked up to Galovac and Veliko lake, both half green and half a blue that was so deep it almost hurt my eyes.
Ribbons of water fell from the rocks above – it had been a hot summer, and the waterfalls weren’t at full capacity. Yet, the rivulets fell at full speed, shimmering silver, like a beautiful tiara.
The ‘lower’ lakes were perhaps less amazing in terms of waterfalls, but there were far fewer people. We walked past the cliffs of Gavanovac lake and its aquamarine waters, where we spotted a water snake slithering in the depths. Between one lake and another we walked along rushing streams and spotted frogs hopping on the rocks. The last sight of the tour was Veliki Slap waterfall, the highest in Croatia with its 78 meter drop.
On the way back up to the bus, we learnt that not all of Plitvice can be visited by tourists. The park measures 300 square km in total, but only about 10% of that is open to visits. Beyond that lies a deep forest, where bears, lynxes and wild cats live, more rivers and waterfalls, all surrounded by mountains offering stunning views. So stunning, in fact, that Tito himself had a villa built in a secluded section of the park. The villa is now in ruins, with trees and bushes creeping back onto roof beams and stone walls.
Zadar to Plitvice tour – Adventages and disadvantages
All in all, we were very satisfied with the Tinggly tour of Plitvice Lakes. The organization and logistics were spotless, the guide was excellent and everything went smoothly. Having someone take care of transport and lead us around the park was also a good help – Plitvice Lakes National Park is BIG, the trails are not always well signposted and I’m pretty sure that if we had visited the park on a day trip from Zadar by public bus we would’ve ended up just rushing around.
However, you can’t just take your own sweet time on a tour. Part of the guide’s duty is making sure that the group moves along smoothly, especially in the upper lakes section where walkways are very narrow and the path gets crowded very quickly. Also, if you want to photograph the waterfalls early in the morning or at sunset, perhaps a tour is not a good option for you, as you’d be in the park from 10.30 to 3.30 pm, when the light is not exactly at its best.
In terms of crowds, they’re to be expected if you’re visiting in high season. During the June/Sept holiday period, you won’t be alone for sure – most of the trails follow tiny walkways, which get crowded in no time.
But I must say, the day we visited wasn’t too bad. We didn’t have to stand in line and wait for the boat across Kozjak Lake for ages. That’s probably because we visited on a Monday right at the end of August? I don’t know. The place was amazing nonetheless.
Final verdict? Definitely visit Plitvice. Plan a trip in low season if you can, but even if you’re there in summer, don’t miss it. There’s a reason why many people go, because it’s stunning. And if you’re looking of a hassle-free way to get from zadar to Plitvice, definitely get in touch with Tinggly. The tour was great and at €99 for two, it’s great value!
We were guests of Tinggly during this tour. All opinions are our own.
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