death by kava

coffee culture in croatia

Whenever I travel, one of the first things I do is look up a coffee shop near where I’m staying. I also map out coffee shops and weave them into my itinerary. I’m more than willing to take a detour for a cute one.

Cafés are the perfect way to pause for the day. You don’t have to commit as much as a meal, but you can still sit down, take a break, catch a breath, and figure out what’s next. Coffee, in so much of the world, is a part of daily life. And going to a local coffee shop and experiencing the local coffee culture is for me an intimate way of getting to know “real” life in that place.

When in Croatia, caffeinate as the locals do. There’s no shortage of cafes in Split, from the Riva to the depths of the palace, so sit down and get comfortable.

Every place has a different coffee culture. Some places have ritualized it to be a morning start, while others flourish as an afternoon pick me up. Some places have more of an emphasis on the way the coffee is roasted. Others, on the way one should take their coffee. 

In Croatia, I quickly learned that it was less about the time of day, and quite frankly, less about the drink itself, but more of coffee as a verb. Coffee as an activity. A mindset. A lifestyle. 

what i thought coffee would look like

what it actually looks like

Before coming to Croatia, I did my due diligence, looking up the cafés around Split and checking out their menus. Google pointed me to some places and I was pleased to see that coffee, even in what seemed to be (and I would soon figure out most definitely are) very touristy parts of town, is pretty cheap. About a dollar for espresso, maybe two for a latte. Significantly cheaper than what I was used to in LA.

Upon landing, I was picked up from the airport and taken straight to a café to meet up with local grad students and my fellow international volunteers. And that was when I began to see that coffee was not as I expected it would be.

Even though cafes are abundant throughout the city, there are gems to discover… if you can find them.

Never in a million years would I have thought I would be annoyed when someone asked if I would be down for coffee. But after two and a half days and six cafés, I was coffee’d out. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want the drink itself, but that I would happily give it up if I could skirt out of the baggage that “getting coffee” comes with. 

You see, for locals, “getting coffee” is not just a thing to do. It’s the thing to do. It’s how you hang out with friends. Imagine like hanging out at a bar with friends – it’s casual, it’s fun, you can have people come and go. You can just sit and chat for hours on end. Except this happens from morning to night as these cafebars just allow you to sit there as the only thing on your itinerary for the day. So it isn’t so much the coffee, and not so much the cafés, but the Split lifestyle that was a difficult adjustment for those of us accustomed to being constantly on the go. 

Coffee in Croatia means a tiny espresso, 3 hours and a pack of cigarettes

Coffee in Croatia, from what I’ve experienced, means a tiny espresso, 3 hours and a pack of cigarettes. Coffee culture in Croatia isn’t really about the coffee (in Croatian, kava) at all. It’s about the social aspect. The foundation of society here is probably kava. Kava is consumed at any time of the day. But morning, afternoon, evening or night, going for coffee here means you should plan on at least a couple hours chatting at a local café. While to-go coffee can be found, you almost never see someone walking around with a coffee in hand. Coffee = chatting time. Without the social aspect, there really isn’t a point here. Groups small and large can get together and catch up on life for a few hours while only having to commit 7-15kn ($1-2). And it is normal to do this 2-3 times a day. We found that out early on. 1 day. 3 cafés. 9 hours. Idk how many cigarettes. And that was just day 2.

The coffee itself usually takes form of a small espresso drink. Though every place does have a menu, most people already know what they want as soon as they sit down and a waiter stops by. After all, you take your coffee the way you take your coffee.

Coffee with milk, cream, large, small (though both sizes are smaller than a Starbucks tall), always served with sugar; the occassional tea (čaj) served with lemon, honey and sugar. Some people prefer Nescaffe (scary, I know) for iced drinks that seem to be more milk than coffee. The “regular” coffee is whatever brand they have (Illy, Lavazza, etc) – they aren’t stuck up about their local roasts here. You definitely will not be able to find an iced vanilla latte here, and much less a variety of alternative milks. But again, the emphasis is not on the coffee. After visiting my fair share of cafés here, there is hardly a distinction between different places. You choose based on atmosphere preference and location convenience rather than coffee preference.

Cafés here are definitely not coffee shops. They are café bars. Meaning it exclusively sells drinks, whether the caffeinated kind or the alcoholic kind, and have a lounge-y atmosphere. During the day, everyone sits outside, a half empty espresso cup and ashtray on the table, leisurely conversing with friends. At night, same deal, but sometimes swapped for a beer and moved indoors. One does not dare work at a café bar, even though they all offer wifi. One will not find food at a café bar, though they don’t seem to care if you munch on a granola bar as you commence hour three of “kava”-ing (yes, that would be yours truly – apparently second-hand smoke doesn’t curb an appetite). 

Coffee culture is social culture. When people initially mentioned that they love drinking coffee as a part of their self-introductions, I thought I had found a society of coffee snobs. I didn’t realize that they don’t really have too many opinions of the drink itself, and simply enjoyed the activity. It was an unexpected culture shock, or perhaps… culture surprise that I had not anticipated in my first visit to the Balkans. And while I did for a few days truly despise the word coffee, it was a lesson learned in understanding more about this place and these people and how to embrace a Croatian lifestyle so different from my own. 

Even if you’re all cafe’d out, you can’t deny a table by the waterfront on a sunny day.

My fast-paced mindset had to slow down several notches to match the pace of life here. Not to mention everyone here runs on “Split time” which is compatible for lingering café sessions. But if you really want to get to know the people and the society here, you have to give in to their coffee-drinking style. Even I, someone who has to study to remember names and faces, was able to meet and remember a dozen new Croatian friends within the first couple days over these long coffee sessions.

People asked me what my first impression of Split/Croatia was. Kava, I would answer. But literally. It was the first thing I did here. And the second, and the third. But here more than anywhere else, coffee culture is an effective way of assimilating into the culture and society.

How to become Croatian in one hour? (1) Sit down at a café (2) Order kava & make use of that ash tray (3) Stay for longer than an hour.

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