With beautiful beaches, lush fields and steep mountains, Croatia has just as many different sports to keep the locals active and energized as the country’s diverse terrain. Sports have played a significant role in Croatian culture. Passionate fans enjoy rooting for their local sports clubs as well as the national teams. So we recommend tourists attend game -- soccer or another Croatian pastime -- to witness the country’s competitive spirit firsthand. From picigin to water polo, here’s a list of must-see sports in Croatia.
As in most of Europe, soccer is by far Croatia’s most popular sport, with the largest pro clubs being Dinamo and Hajduk. Catch Dinamo — Croatia’s most successful footballers — at Stadion Maksimir in the Croatian capital of Zagreb. Archrival Hajduk takes the field at Poljud Stadium in Croatia’s largest city (and super port) Split. Visit between August and May, and you might catch the Croatian version of the Yankees/Red Sox game in the form of the annual Croatian Cup tournament. And most other Croatian cities have one or more club teams; find schedules through the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA).
Croatia has a storied past and bright future in professional tennis. Worldwide, Goran Ivanišević may be Croatia’s most recognizable athlete. In his 15-year career, he challenged some of tennis’ greatest players, including Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, whom Ivanišević defeated for the Wimbledon title in 2001. Today, 24-year-old Marin Čilić is Croatia’s hope for trophies, and with good reason. He’s been ranked as high as #9, defeating top players like Andy Murray.
If tennis is your racket, consider a resort along the western Opatija Riviera. The beach region became popular in the mid-1800s and is considered Croatia’s first tourist area. The Grand Hotel Adriatic and the Hotel Opatija both offer outdoor courts and trainers, as well as spas, seawater swimming pools and pet-friendly rooms.
Think water polo is exciting? You haven’t seen the half of it — especially in Croatia, where it is wildly popular. Above the surface, 6 players and a goalie jockey full-contact with opponents to score by throwing a ball one-handed into the opposing goal. Below, their legs churn nonstop for four 7-minute quarters, and their feet aren’t allowed to touch bottom. But the Croatian men’s team is in the swim of things — the “Barracudas” won Olympic gold in 2012. Look for regional team matches when visiting Dubrovnik, Rijeka and Osijek.
Handball is another major Croatian team sport. Similar to water polo, handball also fields teams of 7 on a hard court to trade shots throwing a ball in the opposing goal. Traditionally a world contender, with the men winning gold in the 2004 Athens games, Croatia currently boasts Ivano Balić, considered the best handball player of all time. Croatia also fields men’s and women’s beach handball teams.
Picigin (pronounced “pih-tsih-gheen”) is a beach sport that began in Spilt in the early 1900s, when sunbathers wanted a shallow-water alternative to water polo. Players stand in a circle and bat a ball around until it falls. Simple and informal, there are no leagues or professionals, and it’s a great way to make friends. So feel free to join in at Croatia's best beaches, such as Zlatni Rac, Hvar Island (with popular clubs like Carpe Diem and Korzo), or even nude beach Sveti Jerolim.
With challenging runs throughout the country, it’s no wonder Croatia produced the Winter Olympics’ most successful female alpine skier in history, Janica Kostelić, who won multiple golds in the 2002 and 2006 Olympics. Croatia’s interior is particularly inviting for skiing, with slopes and villages like Velika in the Slavonia region, Platak Ski Resort in Rijeka, and popular Mount Medvednica, located north of Zagreb and home to a cable car and a medieval fortress to explore as well.
Although not yet fully competitive with other East European countries, ice hockey is also growing quickly in Croatia’s interior regions, which, like their traditional hockey counterparts, are colder.
Finally, if you visit Croatia but still miss home, the country fields an American football team, the Zagreb Thunder, which competes against Austria, Ireland, Britain and many other countries.