There's much more to this Balkan coast than you can see from a cruise ship, writes Jane Foster.

On the edge of Europe's Balkan Peninsula, facing Italy across the deep blue Adriatic, Croatia has more than 1770km of meandering mainland coast, backed by rugged limestone mountains and looking out on hundreds of scattered islands and islets, 47 of them inhabited. This land was first populated by the mountain-dwelling Illyrians. Later the Ancient Greeks and then the Romans arrived by sea. Then, from 1420 to 1797, the Venetians occupied almost the entire coast, building dozens of harbour towns, most of which remain beautifully preserved.

Croatia is a destination where you can combine cultural sightseeing with swimming and lazing on the beach. It's important to remember that there is very little sand - almost all the beaches are of pebble and rock, and in some cases you swim from manmade concrete bathing platforms with steps down into the sea.

Here's a guide to each region's best of the five coastal regions.

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SOUTH DALMATIA

The largest city is Dubrovnik. Formerly known as Ragusa, it was for centuries a wealthy city-republic, which slowly expanded to include a stretch of coast and the tiny Elafiti islets. From Dubrovnik's Gruz port, you can make day trips by boat to the Elafitis, as well as the island of Mljet, where Mljet National Park (np-mljet.hr) encompasses two stunning turquoise lakes, rimmed by dense woodland - rent a bike and cycle around the lakes, or hire a kayak and paddle across.

Northwest up the coast, tiny Ston (famed for its excellent fresh oysters and mussels) is the gateway to the rugged Peljesac peninsula, which produces some of Croatia's top red wines, notably dingac. Opposite Peljesac, verdant Korcula is South Dalmatia's biggest island.

Dubrovnik

Dubbed the Pearl of the Adriatic by Lord Byron, Dubrovnik is Croatia's most visited (and expensive) destination. In the past, its extraordinary wealth was based on seafaring and trading; today it lives on tourism. The Unesco-listed old town is protected by sturdy medieval fortifications - walk a full circuit of the ramparts, then explore the stone alleys, packed with noble baroque palazzi, elegant churches, museums, restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops. You might recognise it - it was a film set for Game of Thrones. tzdubrovnik.hr.

Korcula is the supposed birthplace of explorer Marco Polo. Photo / Getty Images
Korcula is the supposed birthplace of explorer Marco Polo. Photo / Getty Images

Korcula Town

Perched on a tiny fortified peninsula on the island of Korcula, this medieval settlement is based on a herringbone plan, with a series of stone-stepped alleys leading up to a main pedestrian thoroughfare. On the main square, see the 16th-century cathedral with its finely carved portal and, nearby, the supposed birthplace of explorer Marco Polo (a stone cottage, open to the public). visitkorcula.eu

The best beach

Escape Dubrovnik's summer crowds with a ferry ride to the nearby islet of Lopud, home to Sunj, one of Croatia's rare sandy beaches. The sea is warm and shallow, ideal for children, and there are several beach bars hiring sunbeds.

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Head inland

Green and rugged Konavle offers a glimpse of old-fashioned Dalmatian rural villages, which for centuries provided Dubrovnik with wine, olive oil, cheeses, meats and vegetables. Have lunch by the waterfalls at Konavoski Dvori (esculaprestaurants.com/restaurant-konavoski-dvori), then drive down to the 15th-century Sokol Tower at Dunave, for superb views over the valley, with elegant cypress trees and well tended vineyards. visit.cavtat-konavle.com

Eat up

A rustic agritourism restaurant, the lovely Konoba Maha (konoba-maha.com) serves local specialities such as korculanski makaruni (homemade pasta with a rich meat and tomato sauce) and barbecued lamb. It lies in the hills behind Korcula Town, on the island of Korcula.

Drink deep

On the Peljesac peninsula, the Matusko winery (matusko-vina.hr) in Potomje runs guided tours of its vaulted cellars, followed by tasting. Be sure to try its highly esteemed ruby red, Matusko Dingac - and buy several bottles to bring home.

CENTRAL DALMATIA

The largest city is Split, Croatia's second biggest city (after the capital, Zagreb). Other highlights include the islands of Brac Hvar and Vis; and Mt Biokovo, rising 1762m above the Makarska Riviera with its beaches and shimmering turquoise waters. Up the coast, Sibenik has a Unesco-listed cathedral and two renovated fortresses.

Split

Within the walls of Diocletian's Palace, Split's old town is Unesco-listed. A labyrinth of stone alleys, Venetian-era houses and churches, it centres on the Roman peristyle (arcaded square), overlooked by the cathedral. Immediately outside the walls, the pazar is a colourful open-air fruit and vegetable market.

West of town, the Mestrovic Gallery displays the works of Croatia's greatest 20th-century sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic. visitsplit.com

Hvar Town

The town is set on a deep sheltered harbour, overlooked by a castle, on the island of Hvar. This summer has seen the long-awaited reopening of the tiny 17th-century theatre and the Venetian arsenal. Pricey seafood restaurants and cocktail bars are much loved by sailors, who moor yachts along the quayside. visithvar.hr

Zlatni rat, on the island of Brac, is the best beach in Central Dalmatia. Photo / Getty Images
Zlatni rat, on the island of Brac, is the best beach in Central Dalmatia. Photo / Getty Images

The best beach

Zlatni Rat is a 450m-long fine pebble spit at Bol on the island of Brac. It's fantastic for water sports: wind surfing, kite surfing and scuba diving.

Head inland

From Sibenik, excursion boats sail up the river Krka to Krka National Park (np-krka.hr) near Skradin. Immersed in woodland, the river thunders through a gorge in a series of rapids; at Skradinski Buk you can swim beneath a waterfall.

Eat up

For sophisticated, contemporary dining, book a table at Michelin-starred Pelegrini (pelegrini.hr), opposite Sibenik's cathedral. Chef Rudolf Stefan uses seasonal Dalmatian ingredients to create dishes such as hake with Jerusalem artichokes and prosciutto, or lamb with beans.

Drink deep

On the island of Hvar, in Jelsa, the Tomic winery (bastijana.hr) is open for tasting, showcasing three wines made from local grape varieties. Its VIP tasting includes a tour of the winery and cellars, followed by eight different wines, paired with snacks.

Rijeka, Croatia, will be European Capital of Culture 2020. Photo / Getty Images
Rijeka, Croatia, will be European Capital of Culture 2020. Photo / Getty Images

KVARNER

Backed by the pine-clad mountains of Gorski Kotar, the port city of Rijeka will be European Capital of Culture 2020 (rijeka2020.eu). From there, ferries and catamarans run to the islands of Losinj, Cres and Rab, whereas Krk is joined to the mainland by a bridge. Losinj has upmarket hotels with spas; Rab offers rare sandy beaches and a medieval capital.

Opatija

The birthplace of Croatian tourism in the late 19th century, an 11km seafront promenade, running from Volosko to Lovran, passing through Opatija, remains a joy to stroll. visitopatija.com

Rab Town

Three parallel cobbled medieval alleys are linked by stone steps, with attractions including monasteries, churches and four elegant bell towers. rab-visit.com

The best beach

On Rab's northeast coast, near Lopar, Paradise beach (Rajska plaza) offers shallow seas, water sports and beach volleyball.

Head inland

High in the mountains of Gorski Kotar, you'll find Risnjak National Park (np-risnjak.hr). Hike the 4km Leska educational path, an easy circular route through meadows and woodland.

Eat up

Feast on tuna tartare, homemade ravioli filled with prawns, and succulent Kvarner shrimps at Rivica (rivica.hr) on Krk.

Drink deep

Light, dry vrbnicka zlahtina is a superb summer wine, produced in the hill village of Vrbnik on Krk. The oldest and best known winery is Nada (nada-vrbnik.hr/en).

NORTH DALMATIA

Zadar, founded by the Romans, is North Dalmatia's main city and a popular holiday spot. From there, ferries run to nearby islands, and boats take day-trippers to Kornati National Park.

The rocky island of Pag, known for its Paski sir (Pag cheese), is connected to the mainland by a road bridge.

On Zadar's seafront promenade you will find Greeting to the Sun, an art installation by local architect Nikola Basic. Photo / Getty Images
On Zadar's seafront promenade you will find Greeting to the Sun, an art installation by local architect Nikola Basic. Photo / Getty Images

Zadar

Built on a small peninsula fortified by the Venetians, Zadar's car-free old town centres on the Forum Square, home to the ninth-century Church of St Donat, and the 12th-century Cathedral of St Anastasia, with a belltower you can climb for fantastic views. On the seafront promenade you will find two quirky installations, Sea Organ (2005) and Greeting to the Sun (2008), both by local architect Nikola Basic. zadar.travel

Starigrad Paklenica

This seaside town is the starting point for exploring Paklenica National Park (np-paklenica.hr). Hike up the Velika Paklenica Canyon to the limestone cave of Manita Pec, which you can visit with a guide. rivijera-paklenica.hr

The best beach

A wide arc of smooth white stones overlooks a translucent turquoise bay, backed by pine woods at Sakarun beach, near Bozava on the island of Dugi Otok. dugiotok.hr/en/attractions-sakarun

Head inland

Visit the Nikola Tesla Memorial Centre (mcnikolatesla.hr) in Smiljan, near Gospic. Inventor Tesla was born here in 1856 - see the cottage where he grew up, watch a film about his life and learn about his electrical discoveries.

Eat up

In Novalja, on the island of Pag, Michelin-starred Boskinac (boskinac.com/restaurant) reinterprets traditional Dalmatian cuisine using locally reared lamb and fresh Adriatic seafood to create sublime modern dishes, served with its own quality wines.

Drink deep

Maslina i Vino co-operative (masvin-polaca.hr), in Polaca, produces organic wines and olive oil. Take a tour of the winery, taste wines and oils, then buy a bottle of red crljenak to enjoy later.

ISTRIA

Istria's main city, Pula, is a good starting point for a boat trip to Veliki Brijun, a tiny islet with pristine lawns and woodland in Brijuni National Park (np-brijuni.hr). Istria's most popular seaside resorts, Rovinj and Porec, lie on the west coast, with pedestrian-only historic centres and modern hotels hidden by landscaping.

Pula's Arena, is a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre built to host gladiator fights but now staging concerts and festivals. Photo / Getty Images
Pula's Arena, is a well-preserved Roman amphitheatre built to host gladiator fights but now staging concerts and festivals. Photo / Getty Images

Pula

An industrial port with cranes and a shipyard, Pula has Ancient Roman monuments including the Forum Square, surrounded by cafes and overlooked by the first-century Temple of Augustus, a monumental Triumphal Arch; and the Arena, a well-preserved amphitheatre built to host gladiator fights but now staging open-air summer rock concerts and the Pula Film Festival. pulainfo.hr

Rovinj

On Istria's west coast, Rovinj is one of Croatia's prettiest and most upmarket destinations. Pastel-coloured Venetian facades rim a sheltered harbour filled with fishing boats and overlooked by an 18th-century hilltop church. South of town, past the sailing marina, Zlatni Rt park is planted with pines, cypresses and cedars and rimmed by tiny coves with pebble beaches. rovinj-tourism.com

The best beach

On the southernmost point of the Istrian peninsula, within the pine-scented Kamenjak Nature Park (kamenjak.hr), Mala Kolombarica is an expanse of flat rocks jutting out into the deep blue Adriatic. Come here to sunbathe, or test your courage diving or somersaulting into the sea. Complete with a beach bar, it lies just outside Pula.

Head inland

Often compared to Italy's Tuscany, inland Istria features undulating hills planted with vineyards and olive groves, and medieval-walled hill towns such as Motovun. Foodies will love its agritourism restaurants and rustic konobe (taverns) serving authentic dishes made from locally produced olive oil, cheeses, and tartufi (truffles) unearthed in the Mirna Valley.

Eat up

With waterside tables around the fishing harbour in Rovinj, informal Konoba Kantinon (maistra.com/hotel-adriatic-rovinj/sub/kantinon-tavern) specialises in reasonably priced local fare. Try the monkfish carpaccio, followed by homemade pasta with pungent Istrian truffles.

Drink deep

Set amid lush vineyards, the Meneghetti Winery (meneghetti.hr/en/winery) near Bale produces nine different wines, including the prize-winning Meneghetti Red (merlot, cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc). They do tastings by appointment, and the winery doubles as a hotel.