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How To Create a Pure CSS Dropdown Menu

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With the help of some advanced selectors a dropdown menu can be easily created with CSS. Throw in some fancy CSS3 properties and you can create a design that was once only achievable with background images and Javascript. Follow this tutorial to see the step by step process of building your own pure CSS dropdown menu.

View the pure CSS dropdown menu demo

The menu we’ll be creating features two sub categories that appear once the parent link is activated by a hover. The first series of sub-links appear underneath main nav bar, then the second series of links fly out horizontally from the first dropdown. Take a look at the CSS dropdown menu demo to see it all in action.

View the pure CSS dropdown menu demo

The HTML Structure

<nav>
	<ul>
		<li><a href="#">Home</a></li>
		<li><a href="#">Tutorials</a></li>
		<li><a href="#">Articles</a></li>
		<li><a href="#">Inspiration</a></li>
	</ul>
</nav>

First up we’ll need to create the HTML structure for our CSS menu. We’ll use HTML5 to house the navigation menu in a <nav> element, then add the primary navigation links in a simple unordered list.

<nav>
	<ul>
		<li><a href="#">Home</a></li>
		<li><a href="#">Tutorials</a>
			<ul>
				<li><a href="#">Photoshop</a></li>
				<li><a href="#">Illustrator</a></li>
				<li><a href="#">Web Design</a></li>
			</ul>
		</li>
		<li><a href="#">Articles</a>
			<ul>
				<li><a href="#">Web Design</a></li>
				<li><a href="#">User Experience</a></li>
			</ul>
		</li>
		<li><a href="#">Inspiration</a></li>
	</ul>
</nav>

The first sets of sub-menus can then be added under the “Tutorials” and “Articles” links, each one being a complete unordered list inserted within the <li> of its parent menu option.

<nav>
	<ul>
		<li><a href="#">Home</a></li>
		<li><a href="#">Tutorials</a>
			<ul>
				<li><a href="#">Photoshop</a></li>
				<li><a href="#">Illustrator</a></li>
				<li><a href="#">Web Design</a>
					<ul>
						<li><a href="#">HTML</a></li>
						<li><a href="#">CSS</a></li>
					</ul>
				</li>
			</ul>
		</li>
		<li><a href="#">Articles</a>
			<ul>
				<li><a href="#">Web Design</a></li>
				<li><a href="#">User Experience</a></li>
			</ul>
		</li>
		<li><a href="#">Inspiration</a></li>
	</ul>
</nav>

The secondary sub-menu is nested under the “Web Design” option of the first sub-menu. These links are placed into another unordered list and inserted into the “Web Design” <li>.

HTML menu

So far this leaves us with a neat layout of links with the sub-menus having a clear relation to their parents.

The CSS Styling

nav ul ul {
	display: none;
}

	nav ul li:hover > ul {
		display: block;
	}

Let’s begin the CSS by getting the basic dropdown functionality working. With CSS specificity and advanced selectors we can target individual elements buried deep in the HTML structure without the need for extra IDs or classes. First hide the sub menus by targeting any UL’s within a UL with the display:none; declaration. In order to make these menus reappear they need to be converted back to block elements on hover of the LI. The > child selector makes sure only the child UL of the LI being hovered is targeted, rather than all sub menus appearing at once.

nav ul {
	background: #efefef; 
	background: linear-gradient(top, #efefef 0%, #bbbbbb 100%);  
	background: -moz-linear-gradient(top, #efefef 0%, #bbbbbb 100%); 
	background: -webkit-linear-gradient(top, #efefef 0%,#bbbbbb 100%); 
	box-shadow: 0px 0px 9px rgba(0,0,0,0.15);
	padding: 0 20px;
	border-radius: 10px;  
	list-style: none;
	position: relative;
	display: inline-table;
}
	nav ul:after {
		content: ""; clear: both; display: block;
	}

We can then start to style up the main navigation menu with the help of CSS3 properties such as gradients, box shadows and border radius. Adding position:relative; will allow us to absolutely position the sub menus according to this main nav bar, then display:inline-table will condense the width of the menu to fit. The clearfix style rule will clear the floats used on the subsequent list items without the use of overflow:hidden, which would hide the sub menus and prevent them from appearing.

HTML menu

nav ul li {
	float: left;
}
	nav ul li:hover {
		background: #4b545f;
		background: linear-gradient(top, #4f5964 0%, #5f6975 40%);
		background: -moz-linear-gradient(top, #4f5964 0%, #5f6975 40%);
		background: -webkit-linear-gradient(top, #4f5964 0%,#5f6975 40%);
	}
		nav ul li:hover a {
			color: #fff;
		}
	
	nav ul li a {
		display: block; padding: 25px 40px;
		color: #757575; text-decoration: none;
	}

The individual menu items are then styled up with CSS rules added to the <li> and the nested anchor. In the browser this will make the link change to a blue gradient background and white text.

HTML menu

nav ul ul {
	background: #5f6975; border-radius: 0px; padding: 0;
	position: absolute; top: 100%;
}
	nav ul ul li {
		float: none; 
		border-top: 1px solid #6b727c;
		border-bottom: 1px solid #575f6a;
		position: relative;
	}
		nav ul ul li a {
			padding: 15px 40px;
			color: #fff;
		}	
			nav ul ul li a:hover {
				background: #4b545f;
			}

The main navigation bar is now all styled up, but the sub menus still need some work. They are currently inheriting styles from their parent elements, so a change of background and the removal of the border-radius and padding fixes their appearance. To make sure they fly out underneath the main menu they are positioned absolutely 100% from the top of the UL (ie, the bottom).
The LI’s of each UL in the sub menu don’t need floating side by side, instead they’re listed vertically with thin borders separating each one. A quick hover effect then darkens the background to act as a visual cue.

HTML menu

nav ul ul ul {
	position: absolute; left: 100%; top:0;
}

The final step is to position the sub-sub-menus accordingly. These menus will be inheriting all the sub-menu styling already, so all they need is to be positioned absolutely to the right (left:100%) of the relative position of the parent <li>.

The Completed Pure CSS Dropdown Menu

View the pure CSS dropdown menu demo

View the pure CSS dropdown menu demo

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Written by Chris Spooner

Chris Spooner is a designer who loves experimenting with new web design techniques collating creative website designs. Check out Chris' design tutorials and articles at Blog.SpoonGraphics or follow his daily findings on Twitter.

  • http://jonnyt.me Web design Maidenhead

    Useful technique, am thinking about using it on future projects.

  • AucT

    great tutorial!!!
    will start using dropdown lists from now)

  • http://smashinghub.com/flyer-design.htm smashinghub

    amazing and easy dropdown menu tutorial
    thanks

  • Andrei

    Does it work in IE7, IE8?

    • http://jtmwebdesign.com Jason

      Nope. As is the case with nearly every CSS3 element, you'll need another solution for IE.

  • Fernanda

    Where is the downloads of arquives?

  • Greg Tarnoff

    This isn't very accessible for keyboard navigation. While the top level is focusable, no flyouts happen or even focus on those elements when hidden. I tried adding a :focus to the hover events and that still doesn't work. 1 in 5 people struggle to use the web. Using a menu like this doesn't help them.

  • http://www.wb1.pl Beata

    It's a pity it is not working with IE.

    • Alex

      it's a pity that IE sucks.

      :-)

  • http://garryconn.com/ Garry Conn

    You know, drop down menus have always been a challenge for me. For starters, there's so many other sites that provide tutorials on them, but they're really hard to follow or don't provide enough details to get me thru the snags. This has to be probably one of the best drop down menu tutorials I have read. Plus the design craftsmanship behind it is amazing. Thanks for posting this Chris. It will totally be a tutorial I will find myself coming back to often.

  • http://www.inframes.com Jon Ewing

    Not true, Beata – this menu works in IE9+ but not in IE8 and earlier.

    However, I do think one thing is missing aside from the accessibility (which I agree, Greg, is a real and important consideration) – I think it's important to have a graphical element that indicates the difference between a menu item with a drop-down or fly-out and one without. Something like an arrow or triangle to indicate that there is hidden content.

    But that's not a criticism of the tutorial. Such niceties are really for the individual designer to add. And this is a very clear and well-written tutorial.

  • FvG

    Can anyone tell me what the > means for css? nav ul li:hover > ul

    • http://idrakimuhamad.me Idraki

      The immediate child element the selector met. In this case, the first ul after the hovered li.

  • Seham Syed

    The > child selector makes sure only the child UL of the LI being hovered is targeted, rather than all sub menus appearing at once.

  • http://www.myskins.org Envira

    Thats cute and awesome.
    I love it,will use in future projects :)

  • http://profitduck.com Simon Duck

    Thanks for the tutorial. I've recently started a new project and making the mock-up and as I didn't want to produce a full blown thing, just HTML and CSS, I really needed a decent article to follow.

    Regards,
    Simon Duck

  • Carlos Campos
  • http://www.skeltonelectrical.com Brighton Electrician

    Cracking tutorial! I think I'll have to use some of these techniques on my own website.

    I designed my website using HTML and CSS only so this will work really well I'm sure!

    Thanks Chris :)

  • http://futurespassed.com/ Steve

    I've seen this technique used in a few WordPress themes; it looks great! The Internet Explorer compatibility issue makes me hesitant to use this sort of thing on my main site, though.

    I'm also wondering, does an advanced search engine crawler like Google's consider this masking or something else that could reduce the quality of the site as far as the crawler is concerned?

  • canciller

    thank you, thank you, thank you…

    nice tut.

  • http://www.techehow.com/ Osho Garg

    Hello Chris Thank You Very Much For Sharing This :)
    I Am Going To Install This Widget On My Blog. This DropMenu Really Rocks With Javascript :)

  • http://www.itoctopus.com itoctopus

    A drop down menu in CSS is much smoother that one written in JavaScript – and it won't get affected at all if the person chooses to disable JS on his browser (it'll still work).

    Thanks for sharing!

  • fjpoblam

    In the course of learning responsive design, I was inspired by a new idea. It is, the idea that the entire site need not be linked from each menu (often eliminating the need for a drop-down). Keeping links within context, with a link-back to upper levels makes the site more usable, too.

    Thus, in your example, selection of "Tutorials" might lead to a page on which the most important (e.g. "Photoshop") is featured with an across-the-top including "Home", "Illustrator", and "Web Design".

  • http://www.417marketing.com/ web design springfield mo

    Pretty cool stuff. We've been so frustrated by dropdown menus that we've started moving away from them, keeping the most important pages in the main navigation menu while relegating less important pages to footer menus. We'll give this a try. I'm optimistic that it while make dropdown menus less frustrating. Thanks for the tip!

  • http://colourkraftdesign.com/blog Arran

    Great post, the more we can step away from heavy technologies and utilise elegant CSS the better.

  • http://www.spinxwebdesign.com/ Webdesign Lover

    Hey Chris, this is really great tutorial for creating a pure css dropdown menu. As I love to design, I always prefer to use CSS for style because CSS is really much smoother than option.

  • http://www.insitedesignlab.com/blog Jon

    Awesome tutorial, that's a beautiful menu!

  • Sohail Gul

    Awesome tutorial Thank you Chris!!!!

  • http://www.marknarusson.com Mark Narusson

    Great tutorial. Looks nice and clean – love it dude.

  • abhinav singh

    it's cool tutorial….loved it :)

  • Kuldeep

    It dosent work in ie9 > Which is really sad! I think post title is misleading . it must be
    How To Create a Pure "CSS3" Dropdown Menu.

    nice code otherwise.

  • http://www.homertechnologies.ca jenny

    very well written tutorial. that is how a tutorial should be. HOwever, i see the demo, the sizes of the button and navbar are pretty big.

    Ofcourse i can tweak it.

    good work

    thanks

  • http://www.vsi-thinking.com web design south wales

    Good tutorial but does have some IE issues although who doesn't have issues with IE?

  • http://NewfoundlandDesigner.com Justin

    Where did you learn to create a pure CSS drop down menu.

  • http://www.24bizcenter.com walif

    It was so amazing post and awesome collection so that i share it my cousin and FB,Twitter friends.Great writer.Care on and write good content more beautiful pics.

  • just

    nice…

    thx and god bless you and the world…

    a sincere blessing from hong kong..

    ^___^

  • Wren

    Love :-) Simple, straightforward, and well-explained. And I really appreciate that you included the styling to make it pretty, not just functional. Thanks!

  • http://www.bobrockefeller.com/ Bob Rockefeller

    Have you updated this to handle the responsive design issues with devices not having a :hover ability?