Ratings Key (0-10)
A: Choice and/or quality of drinks
B: Style and décor
C: Atmosphere and feel
D: Amenities, Events & Community
E: Value for money
F: The Pub Going Factor
Bars marked (*) will take you to our full profile write-up
|Leopold’s Delicatessen *||Split||9||7||9||8||6||8|
|Mali Medo *||Zagreb||6||7||8||7||7||8|
Croatia’s pub scene suffers from a combination of factors, some of which are typical to its location.
Of the culture in all the former Yugoslav republics, Croatia’s is arguably the most cosmopolitan, with Zagreb being one of the most Western-feeling cities in Eastern Europe, and the beautiful Dalmatian coast enjoying tourism to rival Greece and Italy. It might stand to reason then just through cross pollination and investment they would enjoy a good pub scene. Unfortunately, at the time of writing, that isn’t the case.
The economic circumstances, hot weather and café culture dictate most businesses aim for bland something-for-everyone cafés serving breakfast, lunch and dinner so the money keeps flowing in. It’s more difficult to run a specialist venue that makes money, so this is generally what you get. Certainly you can sit around for a beer on an afternoon and evening, but you could be anywhere. The beer would have to be something exceptional for such places to be considered here. It isn’t exceptional.
Croatia’s big three beers, Karlovacko, Ojuszko and Pan are all very poor lagers. The first two become wearing after the first one, and Pan starts out tasting horrible and doesn’t get any better. The best options are on the peripheries, with Northern Dalmatia and Istria having at least some local breweries, while down south you might be able to find the reasonably good lager Niksicko, from Montenegro.
However, slowly, this is an improving picture. Thankfully, the dark beer Tomislav is now doing the rounds and very much worth having as a break from the crap above. The main three are now tentatively trying to compete with craft beers by offering spinoffs like Pan Zlatni, Karlovacko Retro, though these are only mild improvements. Split and Hvar have their own breweries now, who have supplied some local bars with their goods. Split and Dubrovik have some reasonable bars, and there are one or two places in Zadar that rise above the usual cafés or drab derivative ‘modern bar’ templates. Zagreb is still sadly a bit of a shocker for bars, and it will take you some digging around to scratch together a bar crawl. Thankfully though, it is a friendly and boisterous sort of a place, so many of these locations become a lot more likeable thanks to some local interaction.
Look around anywhere you can find for terrace venues and ‘event space’ type locations as there are often bars attached that have alternative scenes going on, more interesting decor and you can occasionally strike gold, such as in Varazdin.
I’m hopeful before too long all major towns in Croatia will have local beer promoted alongside the dross mentioned above, and at the very least it will catch up with the alternative scene and stop trying to build soulless r’n’b aspirational venues that look like they’re trying to feature in pop videos.
2018 Update: Things have got even worse recently due to the closure of the atmospheric bars Oktogon and Back Door in Zadar.
Dubrovnik, pop 42.615
The old town of Dubrovnik is overrun with tourists and hollowed out by AirBnb/private apartments, meaning there is scant local life remaining within the city walls. The last few original bars clung on but are surely due to become extinct. Nevertheless, the environment remains vibrant, even if that is now due to the tourist dollar. Scenic, if expensive, drinking can be done at the bars around the southern cliffs, while the best bars are north of Stradun, in the alleyways and rat-runs up the hill. Prices in some places can be double what you can pay elsewhere in Croatia, but this is their premier destination and cash-cow.
Ploce, pop. 9,415
Only a short drive (barring the inconvenient journey across the international borders of the Neum corridor through Bosnia) from Dubrovnik, Ploce is no-one’s idea of a major tourist destination, and enjoys the benefits of that: peace and quiet in the natural surroundings, local life in the town, and far more affordable prices. However, the nightlife is as drab as it comes, solidly centred on bland and smokey caffe bars around the marina. Not much more to add than that.
Sibenik, pop. 45,300
Easily the most underrated destination on the Dalmatian cost, Sibenik has a similar population and topography to Dubrovnik, with attracting bay area, hilltop fortress and rabbit-warren old town. While it is more rough-around-the-edges, this is a chicken-and-egg situation that a little money would easily sort out. Nightlife in Sibenik however, is largely undramatic, with a mixture of bland Caffe Bars on the Riva and quasi-Irish pubs. Nothing exciting there. However, the standout exception is the Ruin Bar-inspired basement venue Azimut, a beautiful location in what used to be the water-storage for Sibenik’s population. Atmospheric and charming, you can even find one or two beers you wouldn’t find anywhere else.
Split, pop. 178,100
Split is a lot of fun, you can dip in and out of the old town and into the “real city” itself to the north, and you’ll find plenty of nightlife. It’s arguable that most of the venues could do a lot better however, as there isn’t much of distinct identity, that isn’t either a bland Caffe Bar, rock club or craft beer venue. Nevertheless, the atmosphere of the city itself tends to win people over. Keep a lookout for individual neighbourhood pubs in the suburb that retain a typical Slavic pivnica tradition going – careful searching is required, however.
Trogir, pop. 13,250
Trogir’s tiny island old town is like being in a half-scale model village version of Dubrovnik. It’s charming and enjoyable, while the marina and surrounding beaches offer a beautiful setting. Nightlife is as you’d expect, a little quiet and bland, with caffe bars either going after the middle class tourist dollar or the custom of local fisherman and layabouts.
Varazdin, pop. 46,320
One of Europe’s little known and seldom-visited towns, you’ll find a castle, moat and beautiful old town with an Austro-Hungarian past. It is one of those low-key, enjoyable towns, but nevertheless one that comes alive at night due to the young population. Don’t expect to find many great venues, or high quality drinks, but you’ll find decent value. Have a look in some of the side alleys to find some beautiful terraces, including one that is frequented by the persecuted Varazdin Cycle Club (cycles are banned in the old town) that verges on being a ruin bar.
Zadar, pop 75,350
Every time a good bar in Zadar opens, it seems to be closed next time I visit, yet all the bland venues pumping out Eurodance and offering the typical terraced seating and awful beers remain open – how unfair is that? There is certainly plenty of nightlife in Zadar, and unlike other coastal cities with an old town, the locals cling to it as a base for an evening out. That’s worthy of respect, but the city is dying out for something characterful and different to calls its own.
Zagreb, pop. 801,350
Wow, is it really that big? When in Zagreb’s historical centre, you could be forgiven for thinking you were in a small town, but it’s a big, sprawling city with lots to explore. Although the centre has a lively brewery tap and a famous street, most of the options themselves are on the bland, middle-aged side. Head out into the areas ordinary people live in (not that far away) and you’ll find a series of raucous upstairs bars that feel more like house parties than bars. It’s fair to say we’d like to go back again very soon.
Yet to visit:
Karlovac, Makarska, Osijek, Porec, Pula, Rijeka, Slavonski Brod, Vukovar