There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.
― Jane Jacobs
1. Croatians are a friendly, laid-back bunch.
I would say that 99% of the Croatians I met were kind, friendly, and tolerant. As someone not from their country, I was treated warmly and with respect, especially by the bus drivers who waited patiently as I fumbled for fare money. Almost all sleeping accommodations, restaurants, and cafes are pet-friendly, and I saw many people walking around with a beer in their hand (don't worry, they weren't sloppy drunk or anything). I rarely saw a police officer but felt extremely safe in the country traveling as a female by myself. In the older parts of town, sheets billowed on the line above al fresco diners at fine restaurants. It seemed like people were free to do whatever they pleased in public spaces without the fear of being reprimanded (with the exception of wearing swimming attire in Dubrovnik's old town).
2. The old towns are living, breathing museums.
Croatia has a long, rich history, which is a huge source of national pride. Despite city centers that boast centuries of age, buildings have been carefully preserved while also modestly updated (aka, electricity). Nothing is off-limits to touch or explore, and alleyways bustle with activity just as they did hundreds of years ago. I rarely saw abandoned buildings, with the exception of Kupari. It is worth noting that this relatively unchecked freedom is having negative impacts on top Croatian tourist sites, and UNESCO has purportedly raised eyebrows at Dubrovnik's old town Christmas shacks.
3. The town center is the heart of the community.
All of the towns we visited were founded in medieval times, so having large open spaces for people to congregate was an essential element of town planning. The original parts of town were designed for people, and that is still true today: cars are mostly banned in the centers and buildings (and their functionality) have been preserved. Coming from the US, where car-oriented planning and policies ravaged smalls towns and city centers, it's refreshing to see communities that have thrived for thousands of years and may do so for thousands more. Sure, there were many tourist-y tchochke shops in the towns, but a robust variety of small restaurants, groceries, cafes, stalls, and shops more than made up for it. And of course, the best part of being in the town center is people watching and an absence of fast food joints.
4. It's easy to get around without a car.
The country's bus system was expansive and reliable, although I was disappointed that dogs weren't allowed on-board. The train was affordable with basic amenities (aka, bathrooms and seats), and smoking is surprisingly allowed in the cars (whoever thought a partition wall between smoking and non-smoking sections would work is delusional, to say the least). Biking was practically non-existent in hilly, compact Dubrovnik, but the capital city of Zagreb had a bit of biking infrastructure (protected bike lanes, bike traffic lights, bike share program, etc.). Zagreb boasted cute, narrow trolleys packed with people. For our quick day trip to the Istria region, we unfortunately had to rent a car.
5. The absence of cars in town centers makes all the difference in the world.
While on the subject of cars, the most notable difference between Dubrovnik's old town and Zagreb isn't the amount of tourists but the air and noise pollution caused by cars. In Dubrovnik, my mom and I stayed in the middle of the old town down an alley by the name of 'Miha pracata,' or 'music school.' We kept our windows open and were treated to delightful sounds of instruments and choir rehearsals, as well as typical sounds of pedestrian traffic and people hanging out the laundry. The air was clean and the white limestone buildings sparkled in the sun. Fast forward to Zagreb, a gorgeous albeit gritty city: many beautiful old buildings were covered in such thick layers of soot from car emissions (combined with lack of care during the country's communist era) that I thought there had been a fire. Fumes from newly-painted roads and diesel cars hung thickly in the air. Cars whirred by or sat idling in traffic, although drivers did treat pedestrians with more respect than what I experienced in Dubrovnik.