How to get there: Flights.
Should you need to fly into the area, your nearest international airports are located in Split and in Dubrovnik. Expedia has the tickets.
How to get there: Train
Split has a very handy train station right opposite the ferry terminal. Regular services link the town with Croatia's capital Zagreb. For times, connections, and tickets check out the Trainline.
How to get there: Ferry connections to the island for cars and passengers are from Split to Stari Grad, as well as from Drvenik to Sućuraj on the far-eastern side of the island. There are also Catamaran services (passengers only) from Split and Dubrovnik to Hvar Town. You can also board an overnight ferry (cars and passengers) from Ancona in Italy to Stari Grad. Direct Ferries has the times and tickets.
How to get around: public bus
The island has a surprisingly efficient and punctual bus service with several daily departures linking the main settlements of Hvar Town, Stari Grad, Vrboska and Jelsa. Here is the link. The respective bus stations are just outside of the town centres.
To get to the towns’ more attractive beaches, however, you have to walk a little further: a good 20 minutes in Jelsa and Hvar Town, and 30 minutes in Stari Grad and Vrboska. Also, keep in mind that any attractions outside the main settlements are not served by the public bus networks. This is where Scooters come into play. There are countless rental outfits in all the four main settlements. A regular car driving license entitling you to scoot around on a 50cc.
Booking.com has comprehensive listings in all of the towns and villages mentioned in this post.
For a longer stay, and in particular in privagtely-owned holiday villas, you might want to check out Vrbo.
And for the budget-minded traveller, Hostelworld is well represented in the island's main tourist draw Hvar Town.
How to get around: public bus
The island has a surprisingly efficient and punctual bus service with several daily departures linking the main settlements of Hvar Town, Stari Grad, Vrboska and Jelsa. (see www.cazmatrans.hr). The respective bus stations are just outside of the town centres. To get to the towns’ more attractive beaches, however, you have to walk a little further: a good 20 minutes in Jelsa and Hvar Town, and 30 minutes in Stari Grad and Vrboska. Also, keep in mind that any attractions outside the main settlements are not served by the public bus networks. This is where Scooters come into play. There are countless rental outfits in all the four main settlements. A regular car driving license entitling you to scoot around on a 50cc.
In 2021, readers of Conde Nast judged Hvar to be the most beautiful European island, just ahead of the Greek islands of Mykonos and Zakynthos. The place is undoubtedly stunning: pretty villages, grand Venetian architecture, an imposing ridge topping 600 m, lavender fields, olive groves, vineyards, as well as a crystal, clear blue sea, lapping on to secluded coves. But the thing that really gets you is the intense, almost delirious scent of pine forests. As a frequent visitor to this island, I am always taken by the wonderfully three-dimensional landscape, but nothing gets my memory racing as much as that smell: sweet, strong, intoxicating …. Nature’s finest aroma therapy. Hvar: an EPIC island indeed.
Conde Nast’s travel magazine most certainly contributed to the rise of Hvar Town as one of the Mediterranean’s tourist hot spots, often rather ambitiously referred to as the St. Tropez of the Adriatic. The setting is certainly magical: a sun-kissed bay on the south side of the island, sheltered by a string of small islands (the Pakleni Otoci chain). From the 13th to the 18th century Hvar formed part of the Venetian empire and evidence of this heritage is all too present in the town’s architecture. Two fortresses, commissioned to protect Venice’s fleet were built in the 13th century are towering on top of a hill rising steeply above the town. Much of the old town and the town walls as planned by the Venetians remain to this day, chiefly among them one of Europe’s oldest theatres (built in 1612), and the Cathedral of Sveti Stjepan (dating back to the 16th century), as well as a whole range of municipal buildings.
On a warm summer evening, you can spot Europe’s finest millennials, dressed up in sharply-ironed and brightly coloured linen outfits, sipping Aperol in the numerous cafes and bars on the town’s main square, and plotting their way on how to gain entry into Carpe Diem; one of the few night clubs on the island, which offers a rather dispiriting yet expensive (500 Kuna) outlay for one’s night-time energy surplus. You might also be surprised by the abundance of North American accents. Hvar has long been on the island-hopping backpacker trail, as an attractive stopover between Croatia’s second city Split, the neighbouring island of Korcula, and Games-of-Throne-famed Dubrovnik. As a consequence of all this exposure, in the height of summer, the place can feel quite claustrophobic. No wonder, many visitors take one of numerous taxi boats (50 Kuna) to escape the crowds and head for one of the Pakleni islands for an impossibly scenic dip into the sea. But at dinner time they’re all back and ready to endure a significant mark-up in the old town’s many eateries. If you have a mode of transport, you might be advised to head out of town and 10 km east to the nearby village of Milna. Nothing much, just a collection of summer homes but with a charming restaurant called Milina which plonks its chairs and tables right next to a pebbly beach with the water lapping at your feet. At sunset, you will be hard pressed to find a more scenic dinner spot.
Given the large crowds and occasionally steep prices, many visitors have started to base themselves in nearby Stari Grad, the island’s second biggest settlement. Stari Grad is Croatian for old town, but should not be confused with Starigrad, which is a small village on the mainland, around one hour north of Zadar; Oh the joy of Google Maps, and you might just want to console the odd visitors, clutching their mobile device in a desperate search for their Air BnB accommodation, only to realise that their final destination requires a ferry ride back to Split and a 5 hour bus journey up the coast. But at least Stari Grad recently put up street signs in the warren of narrow alleyways that form its town centre, so the chances of encountering tourists, desperately short of food and water after going round in endless circles trying to find their way out of this maze, have somewhat receded.
Stari Grad is a working town and early in the morning (very early at around 6.00) you can spot returning fishermen occupying the cafes and bars along the harbour front, creating a rowdy, boisterous and noisy atmosphere. Some see no reason to leave just yet, and get stuck until lunch time, thus providing the intriguing sight of tourists checking out the numerous stalls selling lavender, olive oil or sunglasses whilst side-stepping the odd drunken sailor on his way home. It is a down-to-earth place with stores selling home supplies, furniture and building materials doing a roaring trade. There is also a noticeable tension between islanders, who just want to go about their traditional ways, and townies from the mainland or Italians, French, Brits or Germans, who over the years have renovated formerly dilapidated houses and turned them into their Mediterranean retreat. Here’s a community where not everyone embraced the influx of money and people that European integration brought about.
Yet, Stari Grad has its undeniably pretty corners. The view from the more modern part of town (on the right side of the harbour) across the bay to the old town centre is very beautiful. There is also the charming palace of 16th century writer Petar Hektorović located at the top of a picturesque village square that is lined with cafes and restaurants. In the old town, numerous artisans have opened small shops and it is a joy to stroll through the narrow streets and alleyways. Here, you will also find the hippest gastronomical establishment called Antika; its cocktail bar is an old fisherman’s house whose roof has been taken off to create an al-fresco experience. But the place to eat is undoubtedly Kod Damira (chèz Damir to you and me), right on the square at the top end of the harbour. Not the prettiest location with cars, trucks and busses zooming by at regular intervals, but Damir is a bit of a local celebrity as one of Croatia’s key protagonists of the slow food movement. And there’s no question: the man can cook.
The town administration has been very busy over recent years: a new canalisation system finally terminated the odd unpleasant whiff that drifted across the bay. A spruced-up marina now welcomes the bling brigade whose maritime vehicles are too grand to fit into the narrow parking slots at Hvar Town (although the harbour had to admit defeat when Roman Abramovic set sail for the island and anchored his super-duper yacht just outside the bay thus dwarfing the passing ferry ships). The town’s tourist authority is also remarkably progressive. Gone are the amateur folk performances by locals who wished to do anything else but performing in front of tourists, to be replaced by Jazz, classic and rock concerts, with a highlight of recent years being an Abba tribute band attracting 5000 fans; twice the size of the local population. But the town’s ultimate claim to international fame might just be its tradition of long distance swimming. Stari Grad was founded in 384 BC by Greek settlers from the island of Pharos who rather unimaginatively named the place Faros. Nowadays, the Faros Marathon – a 16 km torture swim around the Stari Grad Bay – is a major international competition and in case you would like to watch the jamboree, it tends to take place in the last week of August.
But if it is peace and tranquillity that you are after, you might want to head straight to Vrboska; the smallest of the four settlements described in this post. The tiny village is often ambitiously referred to as Little Venice, because of its three picturesque bridges that cross the end of a long bay; aerial shots of which feature prominently in the brochures of the national tourist agency. Half a dozen restaurants, two supermarkets and a couple of cafés vie for the tourist trade, but apart from these establishments, there is very little to attract your attention but fine views and the occasional boat coming to moor in the village’s compact harbour. The perfect place to exercise the skilful art of not doing much.
Look closer though, and you will notice the odd shape of the local Church of St. Mary, dating back to 1331 and whose fortifications were strengthened in the 16th century in anticipation of an attack by the Ottoman fleet that never materialised; an odd, yet intriguing looking structure. Across the bay in the (barely) modern part of town, you will spot an oversized factory which looks as if it is just about to collapse. Up until the 1960s, the building housed a tuna factory, before the logistics of an island economy made the canning of fish commercially unviable. For many years, the locals have been in a clinch with Croatia’s culture ministry. The community wanted to establish an arts centre, while the government insisted on the preservation of the factory as an industrial monument. In the meantime, the roof has caved in and will soon be followed by some of the outer walls. Public planning at its finest.
You might want to continue along the narrow paved road which hugs the coastline on the left side of the bay; easily one of my favourite walks anywhere. The sea feels more like a lake here, with the towering mainland Biokovo mountains in the distance. And the scent of the pine forest in the summer heat is just divine. After 20 minutes or so, you come across a fancy hotel resort with the frankly ridiculous name of Senses. In more straightforward times, it was simply called the Hotel Adriatic; a marvel of socialist architecture, with just that little hint of Frank Lloyd Wright about it. In the 1990s, during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia, it was temporarily off the tourist map whilst housing refugees from the Croatian war of independence but also from the conflict in Bosnia & Herzegovina. It re-opened at the turn of the century, as a very modest two-star outfit, was sold off to the hotel group Valamar, which just about kept the place afloat (a former hotel director once told me that his yearly budget would only cover repairs and pots of fresh paint). But given its spectacular location, it was only a matter of time before international investors would come knocking again. Yet some of the subsequent redevelopment plans were overly ambitious (I have seen project drawings that proposed seven outdoor and two indoor pools of truly Las Vegas style proportions) and it took years for the community and potential owners to settle on a more suitable and modest scheme. The hotel now belongs to the Spanish Labranda group which explains the prominence of Iberian accents amongst the hotel staff.
To proceed with your hike, head further along the bay. At Soline - a coarse, sandy beach with a very decent restaurant - bear right and keep walking along that trail, which nicely snakes around a peninsula, revealing wonderful views towards the town of Jelsa and across the Hrvatska channel onto the island of Brač and the fancy resort of Bol. There are many spots along the way that will invite you for a quick dip into the sea, and if the wind blows too heavily on one side of the bay, it is usually nice and calm on the other. After about 20 minutes (and after passing numerous sunbathers in care-free birthday suits), you will end up back at Soline.
View towards the island of Brač
In case you are thirsty, resist the temptation of consuming bottled drinks and go for the unglamorous tap water option. Vrboska’s pipes are fed exclusively by a natural spring, and not even Evian or Perrier can match its natural purity. It is divine. As far as dining options are concerned, you could pay a visit to the tried and trusted Skojić pizza place right on the harbour and one of the few restaurants on the island that stays open year round. The handful of members of staff have an automated, almost serene way of going about their work, as if the Dalai Lama himself has blessed the place with his karma. Walk further along the right side of the bay and you come across the first of two restaurants called Gardelin. Both are run by brothers who many years ago fell out in spectacular fashion. The commercially gifted brother stayed in the harbour, the culinary gifted one stormed off to a hillside setting. I know where I would eat: Should you agree, walk along the road on the right side of the bay for about 10 minutes until you reach the office of ACI Marina. Next to it is a steep set of stairs which takes you to the other Gardelin. Great food and especially at sunset a magical view across the village will greet you. Just don’t ask the cook to comment on the family feud.
Our final town is Jelsa; a compact cluster of old houses around a pretty church square; a couple of bigger hotels, holiday apartments and houses on the outer fringes, a tiny town beach, harbour-side restaurants, cafés, and ice-cream parlours, as well as some municipal buildings, constructed when the island formed part of the Austrian empire. The arrival of the Habsburgs in the early 19th century coincided with the gradual industrialisation of this part of the world. So, which language to use for all these new tools, processes and materials? German of course. My Croatian is very limited but is certainly not essential when listening to a bunch of Croatian builders going about their business. Varnish? Use the German term Lasur. Screed? Estrich will do.
Back to Jelsa. It is that view across the horseshoe-shaped harbour, onto Brač and the mainland that leaves the most lasting impression. Simply stunning. Walk along the right side of the harbour and opposite the ferry terminal (an ungodly early connection to Split) and you will find a café cum bike/boat rental outfit called T-Club. ‘T’ stands for Tade: The King of Jelsa, fixer extraordinaire and all-round bon vivant. Decades of smoking (he quit just like the rest of us many moons ago) have done wonders to his voice, and I quite fancy him doing a rendition of Lee Marvin’s ‘Wondering Star’. Tade knows everyone and everything, so if you are short on information or advice, here’s your one-stop-shop. Alternatively, you can rent one of his bikes and cycle back along the left side of the harbour and onto Vrboska; a beautiful ride along the meandering coastline with hardly any car traffic. Or you can continue further along the right side of the bay, past the campground until you reach a small, yet natural sandy (hooray) beach called Mina. The water is shallow here, so perfect for non-swimmers or families but be aware of some nasty and sharp rocks that might just slice open your toes if you fail to wear those fetching swim shoes. Should you get a cut, ask Tade for directions to the nearby health station where a doctor can stich you together again. You can continue your bike ride until you reach yet another beach called Grebišće, usually less frequented than Mina.
Jelsa can also be the starting point for a monumental and spectacular tour around the island by scooter. Tade might not be able to help you here, but his neighbour on the harbourfront has a broad selection of 50cc types. Head out of Jelsa on the only road there is, and at the main junction you can take a left (towards Sućuraj) and ride a number of serpentines up along the ridge with gorgeous views across the island. From the highest point, continue for a further three or so kilometres until you see a sign towards Humac. This is an abandoned (and very atmospheric) village with a handy al-fresco restaurant located on the edge of a vineyard. There is also a hidden cave around here, tucked behind some shrubbery on a steep south-facing slope, on occasion used as a highly romantic wedding venue. Ask at the restaurant if you want to visit.
Beyond Humac and back on the main road heading east, the surface gradually starts to deteriorate with the odd settlement and farm trying to carve out a non-tourist centred living until you reach dilapidated Sućuraj on the eastern edge of the island. It is a twisting and turning 40 km from Humac, which is why a lot of people tend to head back west towards the more populated part of the island. You can do the same and head for Stari Grad’s ferry terminal. Along the way, past Jelsa and the turn-off towards Vrboska, you will ride through the Stari Grad plain, a highly fertile stretch of agricultural land, fed by natural springs and cultivated since Roman times. Intriguing? UNESCO thought so.
Just before you reach the ferry terminal at Stari Grad, a turn to the left takes you up the hill ridge towards Selca and Brusje with once more truly spectacular views across the island, Brač and even Vis. You will pass numerous lavender fields for which Hvar is famous for. The road takes you down the ridge and into Hvar Town, and you can follow the coastal road and ride through a tunnel (ventilated and thus accessible for scooters) back to Stari Grad and a further 15 km to Jelsa where you can complete your loop. Total driving time for that trip is a good 3 hours, so with stopovers, you might just spend all day on the road. If you like to scoot around, it doesn’t get much better than this.
For a shorter excursion, you can once again start in Jelsa, at the main junction cross the road towards Pitve: a small, yet beautiful historic settlement in the hills above the Jelsa plain, surrounded by fields and vineyards. Not much commercial activity here, but two well-situated restaurants might take your fancy. If you continue along the road through the village, you will soon reach a tunnel. And this is where your Scooter ride ought to end. During the Cold War (and fearing yet another Italian or NATO invasion), the Yugoslav army dug a hole through the hill side that is just about wide enough for an SUV to drive through. No ventilation here, so pedestrians and scooters are banned from entering. Should you tour with a car though, on the other side you will find a small resort of holiday houses called Zavala with a chilled-out beach café next to a pebble beach. But back to our scooter trip. You can either return back to Pitve and Jelsa, or you can continue up a gravel road next to the tunnel and ride along a steep gorge (be very careful: slippery surface) before you reach the top of the ridge which takes you to Humac (see above) and from where you can make your way back to Jelsa.