While the majority of tourists who visit Croatia focus on beautiful towns and the seaside destination, the country has also some of the most unique places in the Balkans. One of them is the abandoned Željava Air Base.
It was once one of the largest underground air bases in Europe and the top secret place on the map of the former Yugoslavia. But just like with the famous bay of abandoned hotels in Kupari near Dubrovnik, Željava Air Base was another victim of the cruel Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s when it was destroyed and eventually fell into disrepair.
Today you can visit the abandoned complex and explore some of its impressive spots, including the underground parts. If you are nearby (and there are some Balkan highlights in the area) be sure to visit Željava Air Base, Croatia too, even if it’s not the usual kind of place you travel for. I bet you will be as impressed with it as I was.
Where is Željava Air Base
The now-abandoned Željava Air Base is located in the central part of Croatia, right on the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, is 150 km away. The site is not far from Plitvice Lakes National Park as well as from the city of Bihac in Bosnia and Herzegovina (9km in a straight line).
A brief history of Željava Air Base
In the times of Yugoslavia, numerous military bases were constructed all over the country, often in secluded places. One of those places was Željava Air Base (code-named “Objekat 505”), hidden on the slopes of Plješevica Mountain which is now the border between Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Its project was inspired by the Swedish Göta Wing, the works started in 1948 and took twenty years to complete, until 1968. It was one of the largest and most expensive military construction projects in Europe, with a total cost of approximately $6 billion USD (the equivalent of the current 42,3 billion USD, three times the combined current annual military budgets of Serbia and Croatia).
Željava Air Base has been operating until the Yugoslav War at the beginning of the 1990s and in its peak time it was one of the largest underground air bases in Europe and a crucial part of the Yugoslav defense system. Besides the airport with five runways (2,780 m, 2,500 m, and 2,050 m long) there was an underground base that could hide up to 58 airplanes, as well as numerous radar stations protecting basically the entire country.
The place was the engineering masterpiece of its times. The underground bunker tunnels were 3,5km long and besides almost 60 airplanes they could also fit up to a thousand people of military personnel. There were four entrances to the underground part of the base, each of them protected by massive gates with the weight of 100 tons (three of them in the shape of airplanes based here).
The whole underground complex was also protected from a possible nuclear attack. The place was stocked with food for 30 days, it had its own water source, and was equipped with its own fuel pipeline connected with Bihac.
For years, Željava Air Base was a secret (its secluded location definitely helped to keep it that way). In 1991, at the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars, the planes based here were used in the fights by the Yugoslav People’s Army. While withdrawing, the army destroyed a big part of the complex (both the underground part and the runways) as well as mined the area.
After the collapse of Yugoslavia, Željava Air Base was left to decay and today it’s one of the best places in the Balkans for fans of urbex and probably the most unique place to visit in Croatia.
How to get to Željava Air Base in Croatia
The only way to reach Željava Air Base is by car. The place is a 15-minute drive away from the border crossing between Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia (Izacic – Licko Petrovo Selo). Just follow the navigation in your car to reach the place. This is the exact location of Željava Air Base.
If you don’t have a car there is no need to worry as you still can visit Željava Air Base. There are a few tours (from Zagreb or Plitvice Lakes National Park) that cover the place, as well as a few other interesting locations in Croatia. Here are the highly-rated ones:
- Full Day Private Tour of Plitvice National Park and Željava Airbase with a Yugo
- Željava airbase – abandoned underground military complex
- Underground airbase Željava – full exploration
Visiting Željava Air Base
I visited Željava Air Base during a road trip in the Balkans with my two friends in September 2021. We arrived fairly late to the place, around 4-5 p.m., so we didn’t have all that much time to explore the area but we still spend around 2 hours there and used every single minute. During our visit, there were two other cars at the site so no one really interrupted each other when wandering around.
First, just after Željava village, you arrive at a small square with the remnants of the abandoned plane Douglas C-47 that you can climb into and see inside. It’s in a rather poor condition, to be honest, but still, such a cool place to see! After all, not every day you can explore an abandoned plane.
When I saw pictures of Željava Air Base from a few years back there were more abandoned planes around, but we could only find this one.
Just after the square, instead of turning left, we went straight and by accident, we discovered the administrative complex of the air base, also abandoned. I wish we had more time to properly see this part of Željava Air Base, it looked like it had good urbex potential, but we only had time for a quick look around and the biggest highlight of the place was the destroyed and overturned bus.
Once at the actual airport you can either go (or drive) along on the runways or go to see the underground complex. Obviously, we started with the latter.
From the outside, the place doesn’t look very impressive (probably because it’s largely taken over by nature) but once you get inside the tunnels it’s kind of mindblowing. The place is huge, you truly can appreciate what a genius idea and a masterpiece of engineering Željava Air Base was!
When going inside, at first you can still get a bit of daylight but the further you go in, the darker the place gets. We only had small flashlights from our phones so they didn’t do a very good job (hence no pictures from deep inside the tunnel, although we could see a bit of details).
I must admit that even if I’m always a huge fan of exploring abandoned places and even if I was there with two male friends (unlike most of my urban explorations where I go solo), I felt really uneasy and anxious inside the tunnels and didn’t push to go further. I blame it on a really pitch darkness around, it must have played some tricks with my mind there. That’s why I was fine with exploring only one tunnel, whereas my friends went to others as well.
When wandering around the tunnels be careful as there are still many destroyed parts on the ground or hanging from above and it’s easy to get hurt. Be also sure to have some decent flashlights with you. And don’t let your mind play tricks with you as I experienced.
The entrance to one of the tunnels is super easy, you basically keep walking on the concrete road and you are there, while the others are a bit more challenging (but not impossible) to get into.
Once you are done with visiting the underground part of Željava Air Base, you can continue on the runways. It’s good to go to the end of the most decent one so you can see how huge this complex is and how impressively it is hidden in the mountain.
But be sure to stick to the runways only as the area still might be dangerous with landmines (although the last accident happened in 2000, but still).
Some internet sources say that it is forbidden to visit Željava Air Base (although there are very new Google opinions popping up).
When we went there the place was open and on the runway, there was a Croatian police car driving around. But when they saw our Polish license plate they didn’t even stop to talk to us, they were there to monitor the area since this is the main route of refugees trying to get to the EU (we’ve seen many of them on the Bosnian side of the border). They also didn’t bother other tourists who visited the place at the same time, clearly not interested in random explorers.
Where to go next
The biggest attraction of the area is Plitcive Lakes National Park with its stunning landscape and pristine nature. It’s 20 km by road from Željava Air Base to Plitvice Lakes National Park so you can easily visit both places even on the same day.
Across the border, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, you can first go to Ostrozac to see the impressive castle, part of which is abandoned and open to exploration. Then you can continue to Bihac, a pleasant town that is a getaway to the beautiful Una National Park with some impressive waterfalls, perfect for rafting.
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