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We have a joke that during the World Wars, the opposing forces said to Croatia: We will bomb you once we find you on a map.
Maybe you haven’t heard of the country either. Or maybe you know of its famous seaside full of a thousand islands and islets. Still, I doubt Croatia makes the cut when you think of climbing hotspots. I’m here to persuade you otherwise.
Climbing and Croatia Are Very Old Friends
Pop quiz. When was the first international climbing competition?
‘85 in Bardonecchia, Italy.
It was filled with a who’s who at the time: Lynn Hill, Patrick Edlinger, Didier Raboutou, Wolfgang Güllich, Catherine Destivelle, et al.
Now a harder one: when was the first climbing competition in Croatia?
‘86 in Marjan, Split!
That was followed by ‘87 in Pokojec, my home crag!
As you can see, Croats were keeping up with the climbing trends back then, however, the war in the 1990s disrupted development. By the time I started in the early 2000s, the Croatian climbing scene was picking up again, yet there were still only two routes graded 8b+ (5.14a) or harder.
The development has continued, and today we have several 9a and 9a+ (5.14d and 5.15a), some thanks to Adam Ondra himself. (Another fun fact, Adam did his first 8a (5.13a/b) in Paklenica.)
Today, new crags are being developed left and right, owing to a coastline which is basically one giant stretch of limestone.
Believe me: Small country but big adventure
Not only am I an avid climber, but I am also a genuine climbing nerd. When I visit a place, I want to know their stories, to meet the “behind-the-scenes” locals who made climbing possible, to do the weirdest, gnarliest routes, and to visit the shittiest crags, as well as the best.
Through almost two decades, I’ve visited nearly all the crags Croatia has to offer, bolted many new lines, climbed competitively, and together with my brother, Perica, organized the biggest indoor bouldering league going on ten years.
In that time, I’ve also had the privilege of making my home in Spain, perhaps the number one country for climbing, and have sampled many other of the world’s best crags. That’s all to say, Croatia has some of the best climbing in Europe. Believe me!
The Six Best Climbing Areas in Croatia
This tiny speck on the globe packs more climbing than you could imagine. While you won’t find Spain-like mega spots with thousands of routes in one condensed area, you will rarely have to drive more than half an hour to hop from one amazing wall to another. Moreover, since Croatia is still under-the-radar, you never have to worry about queuing for routes.
To help you get the lay of our fair land, read on for my selection of the best climbing spots from each part of Croatia. We’ll start with the big one—Paklenica—then move our way generally from the North through Istria, Northern Dalmatia, Southern Dalmatia, and the Islands.
1. Paklenica, Northern Dalmatia
I vividly remember my first visit to Paklenica: 17-year-old-me, a climbing newbie armed with obsessive motivation, marching into the canyon clueless to what I was about to face. The impeccable limestone walls soared 350 meters into the air giving me chills and a special sense of respect. To this day, nearly 20 years later, that feeling still gets me every time—even though I’ve walked in there on hundreds of occasions.
Climb in the heart of a national park
Paklenica is one of eight national parks in Croatia, a surprisingly high number for a country this size (Slovenia only has one, for comparison). Among the parks, Paklenica is alone in being intertwined with climbing—bolting is not allowed in the others.
What you’ll find is hundreds of high-quality multi-pitch routes, ranging from the easiest pitches imaginable to some of the hardest big wall undertakings in Europe. If multi-pitch is not your cup of tea, Paklenica will also treat you with equally great sport routes. No matter how you get to the top, you’ll enjoy stellar views and can even scout your beach spot for when the climbing day is done—the Adriatic is just at the canyon’s doorstep.
Note that this is a popular place for tourists too, so expect a busier place than most other crags in Croatia.
A historical arena of alpinists
Paklenica has a history of big wall quests going back to the 1930s. For years, it was a stomping ground for Croatian, Slovenian, and Italian alpinists who used the walls to hone their skills for bigger exploits climbing in the Dolomites and beyond. This alpine mensch rivalry gave birth to a unique competition in Paklenica: big wall speed climbing.
The course is a dedicated 5-pitch, 160m route graded 6c+ (5.11c), with the annual event taking place during the labor day holidays for the past 22 years. There are strict rules: free climbing is obligatory and simul-climbing is forbidden.
Did you know that a 57hours Co-Founder is the fastest Croatian?
It was inevitable for two motivated young guns (one of which later became the Co-Founder of 57hours!) to jump on the competition train. My brother Perica and I debuted in 2007 and meticulously competed until 6 years later when we outran our alpine mentors claiming the record in 20 minutes and 49 seconds.
Could it go below 20? The Croatian climbing public was anxious to know.
Perica and I opted not to leave them wondering. The following year, we devised a training plan with a ridiculous amount of pull ups, interval sprint running, and comp simulations until we memorized every single move of the route.
The result? We cruised it in 15:16! Just to put things in perspective, that’s 1 min. 30 sec. per pitch per person. The record still holds today—if you are after some instant climbing fame in Croatia, here’s your chance!
Paklenica is the cradle of Croatian climbing. What Yosemite is for the US, Paklenica is for Croatia.
– Jurica Levatić
1. Paklenica, Northern Dalmatia - Good to Know
Beginner to Pro, sport routes from the easiest grades up to 9a (5.14d), and multi-pitches up to 8c (5.14b)
Compact gray limestone with an amazing friction and some unique features: the famous “radiators”. Easier routes tend to be slabby and vertical, while harder ones usually go through orange overhangs
National Park Paklenica is a mere 40 min. drive from Zadar airport. In the off-season, flights to Zadar are limited, so Zagreb airport (2.5 hr away) is a better option
While having a car will definitely make your life easier, it is possible to rent a bike in the town or hitch a ride to the Paklenica canyon
The entrance to the National Park is about 1km from the town of Starigrad Paklenica. You have to pay a fee to enter. From the gates, another 2km leads to the parking where the climbing sectors start. The closest are right at the parking, while a 45 min. hike is needed to reach the farthest
There is a dedicated guidebook for Paklenica authored by Boris Čujić
The touristic town of Starigrad Paklenica offers a plethora of camping sites, apartments and hotels. Note: during summer season it is good to book in advance
Spring and Autumn are the best for climbing. Summers are generally too hot, however it is perfect for some leisurely climbing-and-beach holidays. Winters can get too windy and cold for big walls, but there are some south facing crags that are good even in during the coldest days
The town of Starigrad Paklenica hosts many bars and restaurants, however, there is one and only meeting point for climbers: the Dinko restaurant. Named after its charismatic owner, the restaurant is conveniently positioned at the entrance to the National Park. Dinko’s son, Marin, is an avid climber himself and can provide you with all the possible beta you can imagine
The climbing spot is inside the National Park Paklenica, therefore, there is no shortage of rest day activities, from numerous breathtaking hikes on Velebit Mountain, to visiting the Manita Peć cave, or just lazing around on the beaches that are right next to park
The famously huge Vranjača cave (about a 30 min. drive from Paklenica) provides superb summer climbing conditions
2. Pokojec, Northern Croatia
Admittedly, if somebody else was in charge of this article, Pokojec likely wouldn’t make the cut. Due to its specific style of climbing, there are not that many fans of the crag.
However, it’s your lucky day! I am the biggest fan there is.
Located a mere 25-minute drive from my home, this is where I spend a good part of my life—from my first “climbing steps” to sending everything the crag has to offer.
Ready for some pocket-pulling?
Ever since my brother and I—two teenagers who just discovered the sport—saw the video of Iker Pou doing that opening move of Action Directe, I religiously believed that pulling on monos is the epitome of climbing. There is something special about being connected to the rock only with the tip of a finger, don’t you think?
Thankfully, pockets are a trademark of Pokojec so I was able to test my faith (and tendons) culminating with an ascent of the crag’s hardest route: an 8b+ (5.14a) pocket-fest where for several moves in a row you hold nothing but monos.
Routes with character
If you are brave enough to give Pokojec a try, you will be rewarded by beautiful smooth rock which would be mostly unclimbable if nature didn’t sprinkle it with pockets of all sizes. Holds and footholds are scarce and so are the ways to climb a route. This precious know-how is passed from one generation to the next, and when some outsider cracks our beta, eyebrows are raised and the elders of the crag debate about the validity of an ascent. However, once you master the style, you will be able to trust any foothold anywhere.
While the meat of the crag is in the 7s and 8s (5.12 to 5.13), there are some brilliant 4s and 5s (5.7 to 5.9) that tackle the typical slopey horizontal ramps and cracks. No two routes are alike, each with particular intricacies and tricks to help you expand your repertoire of moves.
Even if the Croatian seaside steals the spotlight, there are many hidden gems in Northern Croatia, with Pokojec being the crown jewel.
– Jurica Levatić
2. Pokojec, Northern Croatia - Good to Know
Intermediate to Advanced, from 4a to 8b+ (5.4 to 5.14a)
Vertical to slightly overhanging on smooth pocketed limestone
If coming from abroad, it’s best to fly to Zagreb, rent a car, and drive 1 hr north to Pokojec
While there is a train station in the nearby village of Podrute (45 min. hike from the crag), having a car is highly recommended
A casual 10 min. hike
While it is possible to find accommodation via Airbnb in surrounding villages, the safest bet is to stay 25 min. away in the city of Varaždin, where you can find a plenty of apartments, hostels, and hotels
From Spring to Autumn. Summers are climbable, but the best sending conditions are in April/May and September/October
The local bar Z3 is an obligatory after-climbing meeting place. My car literally stops there on its own! Friendly owner will always takes care for a good mood while delicious grill and pizzas will take care to feed your sore muscles
Hiking the surrounding hills, visiting Trakoščan lake and castle, strolling and sightseeing in the baroque city of Varaždin
The other crag in northern Croatia well-worth a visit is Kalnik, some 45 min. east of Pokojec
2. Kompanj, Istria Peninsula
A huge stretch of limestone above the village of Roč just begs to be climbed. Yet, it was untouched until some 10 years ago. While there is a very active, if small, Istrian climbing scene, they were focused on developing smaller nearby crags first.
Then one day during an asparagus hunt, my Istrian friends noticed shiny new bolts on the wall. Upon closer inspection, they found the bolter too: an eager Austrian climber on holiday who couldn’t resist. Kompanj was born and the rest is history.
Limestone for everyone
Kompanj quickly became a go-to place in Istria owing to its universal appeal: no matter what grade you climb you will enjoy limestone at its best.
Technical crimp fests? Check. Tufa wrestling trickery? Check. Easy slabs for beginners? Check. Endurance monsters? Check. Bouldery shorties? Check. New route potential? Check, check, check! Pair that with the marvelous Istrian towns, mouth-watering cuisine, famous wines, even more famous olive oils, and you’ve got yourself a climbing destination destined to bloom.
There is more to Istria climbing than Kompanj
Kompanj kicked-off intense climbing development on the peninsula. Adjoining Italy and Slovenia, the international community joined forces to create the highest concentration of crags there is in Croatia—today Istria is loaded with epic spots. To name a few, Pandora is a 45-degree out-of-this-world tufa-blob overhang with a pass-through waterfall, and Buzet canyon is a summer heaven.
I need to give a honorary mention to Dvigrad, even if its climbing style is out of fashion. This historical Istrian crag has nothing but slabs but holds a piece of world climbing history. In 1988, the slab king, Maurizio Manolo Zanolla, put up a legendary route, Malvazija, grading it 8b+ (5.14a). We waited 29 years for the first repeat by Cody Roth who proposed an upgrade to 8c+ (5.14c)! Another 12 have passed since then and we are eager for the 2nd repeat. Another chance for climbing fame in Croatia up for the grabs! I already tried my luck.
Kompanj is the centerpiece of incredible climbing development Istria has undergone in recent years.
– Jurica Levatić
2. Kompanj, Istria Peninsula - Good to Know
Beginner to advanced, sport routes from grade 4 up to 8c+ (5.0 to 5.14)
Superb vertical to slightly overhanging limestone
The closest airport in Pula (1 hr driving away) serves some international flight, however, better chances to score a flight are in Zagreb (2.5 hr away), Trieste (1.5 hr away) or Venice (1.5 hr away)
Getting to Kompanj will be troublesome without a car
Some 15-20 min. slightly uphill hiking takes you to the bottom of the wall
There are a plenty of apartments available via Airbnb or booking.com in the nearby villages of Roć, Lupoglav, or Buzet. If you wish to stay at the seaside, the Opatian Riviera is the best choice, some 40 min. away
Winter, spring and autumn
Out of the many bars and restaurants in the surrounding villages, the Alba restaurant is my personal favorite. Don’t miss the Istrian speciality, pasta with local truffles
Istria is full of hidden gems! I would warmly recommend a tour of the adorable Istrian “hill towns”, Motovun, Hum, and Višnjan, as well as wine tasting and olive oil tasting. Apparently, Istrian olive oil is exceptional—one of the best money can buy!
4. Čikola, Middle Dalmatia
Čikola is one of the newest and hottest additions to Croatian climbing. Serious development started only a few years ago and we just recently celebrated the crag’s 200th route—this is just a beginning!
The Croatian Chulilla
The Čikola canyon is full of uninterrupted walls reminiscent of the limestone paradise near Valencia, Spain. Hence, its nickname: the Croatian Chulilla.
A mere 20 minutes from Šibenik, a major seaside city in Middle Dalmatia, it has a middle-of-nowhere feel to it. When you descend into the canyon, it will embrace you with a sense of wilderness and serenity—something I love the most about this place.
After spending a month in Čikola this winter on a bolting trip, I can testify that I was often the only human inhabitant; somewhat unnerving when you are dangling on a rope high above the deck searching for placements. But, this makes it a great alternative to nearby Paklenica, which can be bursting with tourists.
All year climbing conditions
Čikola is one of the rare crags that is climbable year-round. The south-facing side of the canyon will keep you warm during even the coldest winter months with its marathon pitches, be it beginner-friendly technical slabs or gently overhanging endurance monsters.
The north-facing side is, on the other hand, a perfect hideaway for all of you friction-fixated sun-haters (I feel you my friends!). This side offers somewhat shorter but more overhanging routes tackling some amazing tufas lines and roofs. Last but not least, Krka, another breathtaking Croatian National Park, is just around the corner.
We call it Croatian Chulilla for a reason.
– Jurica Levatić
4. Čikola, Middle Dalmatia - Good to Know
Beginner to advanced, routes from easy 4s, up to 8b (5.0 to 5.13+)
Mostly vertical to slightly overhanging limestone, with some very overhanging caves
The place is between Zadar and Split airports (both 1 hr driving) which offer good connectivity during the summer season, while in off-season Zagreb airport (3.5 hr) is a better option
There is no public transport, therefore, having a car is a must
Park at the edge of the canyon and then descend to sectors, anywhere from 10 to 30 min. hiking. Crossing a small via ferrata is necessary to access some sectors
Plenty of apartments are available in the surrounding villages via Airbnb or booking.com. Marina is an excellent camping site 20 min. driving
The canyon has a sunny side and a shady side, making it possible to climb all year long. However, during the hottest months of July and August, climbing even in shade can be challenging
There is a zip line zig-zagging through the canyon as well as a fun via ferrata. Krka, one of the most beautiful Croatian National Parks is just a few kilometers away, as well as Burnum, an well-preserved relict from the Roman empire. The city of Šibenik on the sea-side is also worth a visit
5. Omiš, Southern Dalmatia
Moving further south gets us to Split, an epicenter of Croatian climbing with a very special community. They are such an easy-going charismatic bunch, and their coffee-drinking abilities are unparalleled.
When I visit, my nervousness rises exponentially as our obligatory pre-climbing coffees regularly stretch beyond the two-hour mark. How can they just sit there while we are surrounded by miles of the best rock? It’s taken me years to (somewhat) learn their relaxed southern tempo, though, to truly live it you have to have it in your blood.
Admittedly, it is very hard to choose a representative spot amongst all the climbing areas. I went with Omiš due to its unique combination of sport climbing, multi-pitches, the Adriatic Sea, and pristine nature of the Cetina River. However, other spots, such as the city-crag of Marjan or the mother-of-all-crags, Markezina Greda, are top-notch as well.
Holiday climbing at its best
The trademark of Omiš is great quality limestone crags right next to the road (luckily, not a very busy one), and just outside of town. You could literally belay from your car if you wanted. This is a true vacation destination in line with the laid-back southern mentality—except you can get 300m off the pitch.
Simply follow the Cetina River, the longest in Dalmatia, and choose your favorite sector. Planovo offers world-class 5s (5.7 to 5.9) and 6s (5.10 to 5.11), while others further down the road have harder climbs. Some sectors do require a more challenging approach, such as Perivoj and Gospinica, with up to 30 minutes of gnarly hiking, however, the trouble is worth it. You can also simply be a spectator, and observe climbers from one of the town’s pleasant bars or beaches.
An amazing active holiday venue at the crossroads of the Cetina River, unspoiled nature, and the Adriatic Sea.
– Jurica Levatić
5. Omiš, Southern Dalmatia - Good to Know
Beginner to Advanced, routes from the easiest grades up to 8b+ (5.14a)
Excellent limestone, with everything from slabs to mega “Chilam Balam” overhangs
Omiš is 1 hr driving, south of Split’s airport. It is easily accessible from Split either by car or public transport
While car can be handy, most of the crags are accessible from Omiš by foot
Approaches range from 0 min. (you can literally belay from your car) to 30 min. hikes
The city of Omiš offers everything from apartments, hotels, to camping sites. Remember to book in advance if you are coming during the summer
Spring to Autumn
As a true touristic venue, the city of Omiš has plenty of bars and restaurants to satisfy anyone’s taste buds, especially if you’re into Mediterranean food
Omiš packs a bunch! It is a true active holiday destination. The beautiful Cetina Canyon has rafting and kayaking, one of the biggest zip lines in Croatia, and numerous hiking trails. The city itself is full of history as well. For centuries, the mouth of the Cetina River was a hiding place of pirates of Omiš which harassed the Adriatic seaborne trades
6. The Islands, Brač and Hvar
Our final stop is among the famous Croatian islands. Did you know that the Croatian archipelago is the largest in the Adriatic Sea and the second largest in the Mediterranean, after Greece?
Many of the islands hide climbing paradises, sometimes known, but more often waiting to be discovered. Among them are the two obvious hotspots: Brač and Hvar, where the rock climbing is best reached by sailboat.
Get impressed by Brač…
Let’s start with Brač. The climbing was moderately interesting until the discovery of Smrka in 2014 pinned the island right to the top of Croatian charts. Hands down, this is one of the most impressive pieces of rock I have ever seen. The tufa-littered lines on this 50m wall are on par with the best climbing routes Rodellar has to offer, with one important distinction: good luck encountering crowds or finding polished footholds.
Here you will find some of the best 8as (5.13b) in the country. On the flip side, you will have trouble finding something that’s not a spectacular 8a—more than half of the 30 routes are this grade or harder, making it tricky for parties with mixed levels. Luckily, there is another recently developed crag nearby, Smokovlje, with easier routes.
…and charmed by Hvar
Hvar is the more versatile island for climbing as the many crags can accommodate a range of skill levels.
I have to single out the remote bay of Vela Stiniva, one of my favorite places on Earth. Here I spent some unforgettable Robinson Crusoe-style holidays during my early hitchhiking trips. A tent, the sea, and amazing climbing all within a 50m radius. What more could you ask for?
The most famous place is the Cliffbase laguna. This little limestone lagoon features a cottage with charming accommodation just 10 seconds from the cliff. A further 10 seconds away is the pristine Adriatic and a massive 300m-wide deep water solo wall! Please note that Cliffbase is a private property, therefore, arrangements need to be made prior to the visit.
Croatia’s islands are full of hidden climbing spots waiting to be discovered.
– Jurica Levatić
6. The Islands, Brač and Hvar - Good to Know
Beginner to Advanced, sport climbing routes from grade 5 up to 8c (5.7 to 5.14b)
Excellent limestone, from vertical crimpy walls to overhanging tufa littered caves
The best is to fly to Split. From there catch a ferry boat to one of the islands
Having a car is a must. Even though in the early days I hitch-hiked around islands, I would recommend that only if you have a plenty of patience at your disposal
The crags on islands are accessed by short to medium hikes. Important: admission to Cliffbase is limited and by reservation only! By arranging your accommodation through email@example.com you automatically reserve space for you and your entire party, and receive a 75% discount on your entrance ticket. Regular entrance is 60 kuna per person per day
Depending on where you are climbing, the islands offer a plenty of apartments, hotels, and camping sites. One of the most unique places to stay is Cliffbase on the island of Hvar
All year round, even though summer heats can make climbing arduous even in the shade if there is no wind
Both Brač and Hvar offer many bars and restaurants. I recommend searching for the ones named “Konoba”, which denotes an authentic Mediterranean restaurant. I would single out Konoba Kopačina on Brač for its unique island lamb specialty “vitalac” (note: it needs to be ordered in advance)
The typical sea-side stuff, swimming, snorkeling, fishing, chilling at the beach… In the off-season the islands get quite empty which can make rest days somewhat dull
There’s More to Croatia Than Rock Climbing
Most people know of Croatia because of its islands, and naturally, sailing holidays are a popular attraction. In recent years, outfitters are combining sailing with other active sports, such as mountain biking and sailing along the Croatian Coast. Because of the vast national park system and varying terrain, multi-sport adventures in the Dinaric Alps—including hiking, biking and kayaking—are growing in popularity as well.
And then there’s the food. Croatia has been an important gastro-destination for years due to its centuries-long culinary tradition. Taste superior wines, handmade olive oil, cheese, figs, prosciutto, and seafood.
Home Sweet Climbing Home
No, Croatia is not Spain or France, but it is uniquely its own.
Instead of crowded crags, expect to find sectors to yourself. Rather than grumbling proprietors, you’ll meet friendly locals happy to help you with everything you need. The charming villages, delicious local cuisine, and beautiful nature—well, Croatia has everything you could want in a climbing trip!
Looking for your next active holiday? Book your spot for sailing, climbing and relaxing along the Croatian Coast today.