The pictures that I’d seen of Plitvice Lakes made it look like it was too good to be true.
The pretty photos I’d seen pop up in my Instagram feed showed bright turquoise water cascading in thousands of little streams over seemingly perfect waterfalls. Surely, no place exists that is actually that pretty – it must have been some sort of Photoshop trickery. I was skeptical, but I decided to include it on our road trip through northern Croatia so that I could make that judgement myself.
As Croatia’s number one tourist attraction, the national park receives over a million visitors every year. I’d heard rumours that it teems with hoards of tourists in the summer, with so many people crowding the walking paths that you feel as though you might get bumped into the water while attempting to overtake someone.
Our visit – which happened to fall on Christmas Day – was not like that at all. Rob and I, along with handful of Japanese tour groups and a few random families, were the only people there. And I have to say, its reputable beauty lived up to expectation. The colours may not have been quite as vibrant as they would be in the summer, but the lack of crowds made up for it 1000 times over. It was a peaceful and blissfully quiet experience in the stunning natural landscape of this UNESCO World Heritage area.
If you’re planning to visit Plitvice Lakes in winter, the following guide will give you a rundown of my experience with info on exactly which parts of the park will be operating and a handy map to help you navigate the areas that are open!
How to get to Plitvice Lakes:
There aren’t any airports that are particularly close to Plitvice Lakes. The closest major city is Zagreb, which is around 2.5 hours drive. Split also has an airport and is just under 2 hours drive.
We actually rented a car from Ljubljana before driving south to the national park, which should have taken around 3.5 hours except that we tried to cross the border into Croatia on a local road and were told that we had to drive 30 minutes away to a bigger border crossing (whoops!).
Most of the drive from Ljubljana was on highways or freeways, though a fair chunk closer to the national park was on local roads. One thing to keep in mind that the Plitvice area does get snow on occasion, so the roads may be icy throughout the winter.
If you’re not comfortable with driving but still want to spend a few days exploring the area, you can book a 3-day tour from Zagreb. I think this would be a really good option as you’ll get a whole day to explore the lakes.
There’s also the option of getting a bus transfer from Zagreb main bus station. You can book tickets through a variety of operators on the bus station website. These are very cheap and would be a great option for anyone who is travelling on a budget.
If you’re short on time, then you can also book one of these day tours to Plitvice Lakes from Zagreb, Split, or Zadar:
Where to stay at Plitvice Lakes:
If you’ll be travelling to Plitvice Lakes for more than a day, you can stay at one of the hotels inside the park. We booked a room at Fenomen Plitvice, which is a fairly new resort within easy walking distance of the lower lakes.
The room had a convenient kitchenette and was beautifully decorated with modern antique-style furniture and a wall-sized photo of the waterfalls posted above the bed. The resort also had an on-site restaurant (which came in super handy as there aren’t loads of places to eat around there) and a private spa/sauna which was free to book for guests.
The best thing was that it felt like it should have been expensive, but it was very reasonably priced! I would definitely recommend staying here if you’re planning on driving to Plitvice Lakes.
How to buy entrance tickets for Plitvice Lakes:
Plitvice Lakes National Park has become insanely popular in recent years, so in an effort to ease congestion and efficiently manage the park, the government has introduced a ticketing system.
All visitors are required to buy an entrance ticket, and it’s not cheap! If you’re visiting in peak season (June to September), you’ll have to pay a whopping 300 Kuna (around 45 USD) per person. Visiting in the winter is a much more cost effective way to visit the park. The fees are heavily discounted during the off season (November to March) and cost a much more reasonable 80 Kuna (around 12 USD).
You can buy entrance tickets for Plitvice Lakes on Viator or through the official national park website. Tickets must be purchased a day or more in advance. We purchased ours online the day before we arrived, and had our hotel print them out for us.
Tickets are allocated for certain times throughout the day to spread out the arrival of visitors. There are a limited number of tickets that are available to purchase at the entrance, but if you’re visiting in peak season, there’s a high chance that these will be sold out by the time you get there.
If you’re travelling to Plitvice Lakes on an organised day tour, it’s possible that your entrance tickets are included so you won’t have to worry about purchasing them online.
Which parts of Plitvice Lakes are open in winter:
Plitvice Lakes National Park is split into two sections – the Lower Lakes on the north end, and the Upper Lakes on the south end.
In the winter months, it’s only the Lower Lakes that are open to visitors. I didn’t find this to be disappointing at all – the Lower Lakes are still quite large and very pretty with plenty of walking trails. Rob and I spent 4 hours exploring them at a relaxed pace.
Ferries operate year-round on the Lower Lakes. In the winter, two ferries run back and forth between the ferry stops that I’ve marked on the map below. They depart approximately every 20-30 mins and there are park areas at either end with picnic tables and public toilets. The one at the north end also has a coffee shop.
There are some cafes, restaurants, coffee shops, and food stalls at various spots around the lakes. In winter, these were mostly closed except for the coffee shop at the ferry stop which was open even on Christmas Day. Rob and I took our own picnic lunch into the park, and ate dinner at our hotel restaurant.
How to get into Plitvice Lakes:
I was a bit confused about how to get into Plitvice Lakes National Park – the online info that I found before I arrived was not entirely clear about which entrance to use and how to get around.
During my visit, I discovered that there are multiple entrances to the park, each with ticket booths where someone will validate your entrance ticket. Entrance 1 is said to be the only one that is open in winter, though I found this to be somewhat misleading – we could easily walk around the entire Lower Lakes area, including around Entrance 2 and through other paths leading to the lakes. I can’t confirm whether you can drive to Entrance 2 though – I believe that the parking lot is only available at Entrance 1.
If you’ll be getting a bus transfer to Plitvice Lakes from Zagreb, it’s likely to drop you off at Plitvica Jezera (Entrance 2).
Plitvice Lakes winter map:
P – Parking (Entrance 1 and 2)
H – Hotel (Fenomen Plitvice)
F – Ferry stops
1 – Secret lookout
2 – The Big Waterfall
3 – Boardwalk over a waterfall
This loop took us 4 hours in total, with two breaks of around 20 minutes each to wait for the ferry and have lunch snacks. Oh and I suppose it also included lots of short stops for photos (though I’m usually pretty quick with taking pics!).
If you’re driving to Plitvice Lakes in the winter, Entrance 1 is apparently the only one open. This is actually a great place to park as the walk down to the lakes provides some neat views. Once you get to the bottom, you can start my recommended walking route. The numbered pins are where I’ve marked my favourite parts of the hike.
Pin #1 is the secret lookout that not many people know about as it’s not on most maps, and the views are truly jaw-dropping! The location is just along the ridge from the top of The Big Waterfall. From Fenomen Plitvice it’s very easy to get to as the trailhead is just at the end of the access road.
Pin #2 is the base of The Big Waterfall, which is awesome because you get to stand at the bottom while water drops over the cliff 70 metres (230 ft) above you. The boardwalk leading to this spot is also really awesome as you walk over water that is cascading down from one lake to the next. I can’t even describe how beautiful it was – it honestly felt like it wasn’t even real.
Pin #3 is the part where you walk on a boardwalk that is literally on top of a waterfall. The water bubbles up from beneath your feet! The walkway winds around big rocks and reeds and over to the other side of the lake. So very cool.
Tips for visiting Plitvice Lakes in winter:
Wear comfortable and water-resistant hiking shoes. There were some parts of the boardwalk where water splashed through the wooden slats, and a few areas where the path was slightly muddy. I was very glad to have my winter boots for this hike!
Take snacks and plenty of water. We didn’t find any taps to refill our drink bottle inside the park. It’s also worth noting that there aren’t many food vendors inside the park during the off season, so take some snacks along to eat while you explore.
Don’t rely entirely on Google Maps. The marked pathways aren’t entirely accurate. Get a physical map from your hotel or rely on the posted maps inside the park instead.