10 Top-Rated Tourist Attractions in Istria
In the far northwestern corner of Croatia, the province of Istria is home to numerous historical and natural attractions. The region encompasses the Istrian Peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic, forming a large triangle at the bottom end of which is the town of Pula, one of the most popular and interesting cities in the province. Along the northwest coast of the peninsula is the town of Porec, known for the beautiful Basilica of Euphrasius, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while further south is the historic town of Rovinj and the archipelago of islands that make up beautiful Brijuni National Park. Istria has long been inhabited, with ruins and evidence of habitation left by both the Illyrians and the Romans. A number of great monuments from the Roman era are still visible, including one of the largest remaining Roman amphitheaters in the world in Pula.
See also: Where to Stay in Istria
1 Medieval Rovinj
Rovinj (Rovigno), a densely packed medieval town on a parcel of land jutting into the Adriatic that was established by the Romans, is home to a number of excellent attractions. At the highest point in the town stands the 18th-century Baroque Cathedral of St. Euphemia (Katedrala Sveta Eufemija) with its huge bell tower, while in the main square is Trg M Tita where you'll find the old Town Hall and Balbi's Arch, which opens to the harbor with its many pleasant restaurants and cafés. Well worth seeing is the 17th-century loggia on the main square, home to the Town Museum (Gradski Muzej) with its interesting mix of art from the 15th to 19th centuries, including paintings by the Old Masters and modern works by Croatian artists. The Baroque Balbi's Arch was built in the latter half of the 17th century and is notable for its elaborate decoration, including the carved head of a Turk on the outer wall, while on the inner wall is the carved head of a Venetian. Over the arch is the Balbi family coat of arms and a relief of the Lion of St. Mark, the symbol of Venice. Balbi's Arch stands at the entrance to the old Venetian quarter, a delightful area with quaint piazzas and steep back streets and a mix of architectural styles that include Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical influences.
2 Brijuni National Park
Brijuni National Park consists of two large and 12 small islands and islets and was used as a summer residence by Marshal Tito, the Yugoslavian President, from 1949 until his death in 1980. In addition to entertaining heads of state and movie stars here, Tito introduced a number of oddities to the islands, including African animals such as elephants, zebras, and antelope, along with species of plants not native to Croatia. Today, the only islands open to the public are the two main islands of Veli Brijun and Mali Brijun, although access is still restricted (the park must be visited as part of a tour unless you're staying at one of the Veli Brijun hotels - even then, visiting some parts requires a guide). The main highlights in Brijuni National Park are the remains of a second-century Byzantine fortress, a Roman villa, the Church of St. Germana, the safari park, and an interesting exhibit on Tito. Access to the islands is usually from the town of Fazana where the Brijuni National Park office is located and from where the park ferry departs.
3 Porec and the Euphrasius Basilica
Porec, one of the most popular and well-promoted tourist destinations in Istria, boasts a beautiful seafront with a string of hotels and tourist complexes stretching some six kilometers along Plava Laguna and Zelena Laguna. A popular place for watersports including water skiing, parasailing, sailing, and kayaking, this historic old town grew out of an original Roman layout when the town was known as Colonia Julia Parentium. A highlight from the town's early years is the beautiful 6th-century Euphrasius Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its beautiful mosaics on gold backgrounds. Highlights include a fourth-century sarcophagus holding the remains of St. Maurus, and a 13th-century ciborium with marble columns and gold mosaics above the steps leading to the altar. Be sure to also visit the Porec Museum housed in the Baroque Sincic Palace with its displays on the history of the town and a particular focus on the Roman and early Christian eras. Collections include archeological finds from the third century BC such as pottery fragments, religious icons and paintings, choir stalls, and furniture displays. Afterwards, stroll around the quaint harbor, where cafés stretch along the promenade, or take a water taxi to the nearby island of St. Nicholas (Sv Nikola), popular for its beaches.
4 Pula Amphitheatre
Due largely to its university town status, Pula (Pola) is known as a lively community with many great restaurants, hotels, and cultural events. A popular destination for day trippers, the city's main attractions are its Roman ruins, in particular the superb Pula Amphitheatre. One of the largest of its kind, Pula Amphitheatre was built by Emperor Vespasian in the first century at around the same time as the Colosseum in Rome. Capable of seating more than 20,000 spectators, the amphitheater's arena was used for gladiator fights and later for jousting tournaments. The subject of a great deal of restoration work, the site can still seat 5,000 people and is used in summer as a venue for festivals and performances, while its underground passages house archaeological finds and exhibits on the local olive industry.
Also of interest in Pula is the Venetian Fortress, home to the Historical Museum of Istria with its collections covering maritime history, coins, weapons, and military equipment, as well as antique maps, postcards, and photographs. Finally, check out the ancient Roman Forum, a pedestrian-only area that still functions as one of the central gathering places in the city. The best-preserved portion of the forum is the Temple of Romae and Augustus (Augustov Hram) on the north side of the piazza with its many Roman sculptures.
5 Opatija's Perfect Climate
Long one of Croatia's premier resort towns, Opatija is a wonderful vacation destination thanks to the many elegant old hotels that line its pleasant coastline and attract visitors year round. The climate here is mild even in winter as the town is protected by Mount Učka from the "bura" (or bora) wind, a northerly wind that blows in off the Adriatic. In addition to providing shelter, Mount Učka, the highest point along the Istrian Peninsula, also boasts an abundance of beautiful scenery. Thanks to its mild climate, Opatija has numerous al fresco dining opportunities, with most restaurants and hotels offering pleasant terraces and patios, many of them open year round. A particular treat is strolling along the Lungomare promenade that starts here and stretches some 12 kilometers, taking in some of the country's most spectacular coastal scenery along the way.
6 Pazin's Medieval Castle
One of the largest inland towns in Istria, Pazin's main draw is its superb medieval castle and its spectacular setting. Built in the ninth century, the castle is set dramatically high on a cliff top overlooking a gorge, with its entrance over a drawbridge. The current layout dates to the 14th century when some additions were made that saw the four wings joined to form a courtyard. The castle now serves as home to the Ethnographic Museum of Istria with its many displays of traditional costumes, textiles, farming implements, fishing equipment, musical instruments, and household items. Also at the castle is the Civic Museum with its many archaeological finds, as well as collections of bells and weapons. Other interesting attractions in Pazin are the medieval Church of St. Mary and the 15th-century church of St. Francis (Sv Frane).
7 Festival Time in Lovran
Just five kilometers from Opatija, Lovran is one of the most sought after summer resorts in Croatia. Protected from the cold winds of winter by Mount Učka and spread out along the oceanfront, Lovran enjoys a mild climate that ensures it is busy year round. Be sure to explore the old fortified part of the town, where some sections of the original wall remain. Popular attractions in this historic area include the Romanesque bell tower and the 14th-century Baroque style Church of St. George (Sv Juraj) on the main square. Popular annual events held in Lovran include St. George's Day Celebrations in April, the Fishermen's Feasts during the summer months, Marunada in October, and a Yachting Regatta in November.
8 The Picturesque Promenade of Lungomare
The Lungomare is a lovely 12-kilometer stretch of promenade that runs all the way along the Adriatic coast from Volosko to Lovran. One of the main highlights in Opatija and the surrounding area, the Lungomare was constructed in the late 19th century when Opatija began to develop itself as a resort destination. At the same time, elegant hotels began springing up, many of which still exist and have been restored and are still catering to wealthy tourists. The Lungomare is a good place to stroll or find your own piece of oceanfront to soak up the sun as it's possible to set up along the shore at any of the many rocky points jutting out into the sea.
The quaint village of Pican, known as Petena during Roman times, lies about 12 kilometers southeast of Pazin and has been of religious importance since the fifth century with a long history as a bishop's see. Today, the village boasts a variety of well-preserved medieval buildings, including the lovely town gates dating from the 14th and 15th centuries. Also of interest is St. Nicephorus Cathedral, originally built in the 14th century and completely rebuilt in the early 1700s. Highlights include the main altar with a superb painting by Valentin Metzinger entitled Annunciation. Also of interest is the Romanesque church of St. Michael (Sv Mihovil) with its splendid 15th-century frescoes.
10 The Roman Ruins of Vrsar
Vrsar (Orsera), a once fortified fishing village with origins dating back to Roman times, contains many old Roman ruins, including the remains of an old villa and the Montaker quarry, still used by sculptors and their students as a source of stone. Remnants of the old Roman fortifications can still also be seen, most notably the sea gate from that period, while highlights from later periods include the 10th-century Romanesque Church of St. Mary (Sv Marija) near the waterfront. Also of interest is the 12th-century Vergottini Castle, the nearby 19th-century Church of St. Martin, and the Dusan Dzamonja Sculpture Park just a little way out of town. To the south of Vrsar, the Limski Channel is a marine reserve popular for its many limestone caves, one of which was home to the well known hermit St. Romualdo.
Where to Stay in Istria for Sightseeing
We recommend these charming hotels near the top sights in Rovinj, Pula, and Lovran:
- Hotel Monte Mulini: 5-star luxury Rovinj resort, beautiful bay views, gorgeous waterfront pool, stylish decor, deep soaking tubs, free use of bikes.
- Hotel Adriatic: 4-star Rovinj boutique hotel, fantastic location, city views, contemporary decor, dramatic artwork.
- Park Plaza Arena Pula: mid-range Pula resort, private beach, sunny terrace, outdoor pool, Roman spa.
- Hotel Park Lovran: budget Lovran hotel, sea views, friendly staff, swimming pool, sauna.