12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Istria
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Jutting out into the Adriatic Sea in the far northwestern corner of Croatia, Istria is a beautiful province that is geographically compact and easy to explore. In fact, you can base yourself in one of the three main towns, Rovinj, Pula, or Lovran, and take numerous easy day trips from here.
Istria is also home to numerous historical and natural attractions, with fun things to do, including wandering the streets of its medieval old towns and taking a swim or getting in some diving or snorkeling in the clear, blue waters of the Adriatic.
Along the northwest coast of the peninsula is Porec. This historic town is well known for the beautiful Basilica of Euphrasius, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, while farther south is the historic town of Rovinj and the archipelago of islands that make up beautiful Brijuni National Park.
Istria has also long been inhabited, with ruins and evidence of habitation left behind by both the Illyrians and the Romans. In fact, one of the world's largest remaining Roman amphitheaters is found in Pula, which is also one of the region's most popular towns.
Find more great places to visit along this picturesque peninsula with our list of the top attractions in Istria, Croatia.
See also: Where to Stay in Istria
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1. Take a Walking Tour of Medieval Rovinj
Perched on a piece of land jutting into the Adriatic that was established by the Romans, Rovinj is a beautiful medieval town and home to a number of excellent things to do. Don't miss the 18th-century Baroque Cathedral of St. Euphemia (Katedrala Sveta Eufemija) with its huge bell tower, which is at the highest point in town.
On the main square (Trg Marsala Tita), you'll find the old Town Hall, also known as the Communal Palace. It's here you'll also find Balbi's Arch (Arco dei Balbi), which opens to the harbor with its many pleasant restaurants and cafés. The Baroque 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 .
Balbi's Arch stands at the entrance to the old Venetian quarter. This is a delightful area to explore and features quaint piazzas and steep backstreets boasting a mix of architectural styles that includes Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Neoclassical influences. You can also take a guided walking tour of Rovinji to see the medieval old town.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Rovinji
2. Swim and Snorkel at Rabac's Beaches
Those wanting to spend some time at the beach should head to the small town of Rabac. Once a small fishing village on Kvarner Bay, Rabac has in recent years grown into a popular resort town, known for its pebble beaches and clear, blue sea. Girandella Beach is one of the top beaches here, as the clarity of the water beyond it is stunning.
It is a great place to go for a swim or try snorkeling or diving as the fish are plentiful. You can also book boat excursions into the surrounding bay here. While the beach is pebble and there is little shade, you can hire sun loungers and umbrellas in the summer. It can fill up quickly.
In the town itself, you'll find more of a touristy holiday vibe than a historical feel, and there is a long promenade for wandering. An electric train runs along the promenade and connects various resorts and the town center. There are also plenty of cafés, shops, and restaurants in this low-key vacation destination.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Rabac
3. Scale the Old Town Walls of Motovun
Set high on a hill in the Mirna River Valley, Motovun is a wonderful, scenic, old walled town that dates back to the 14th century when the Venetians built two sets of thick walls to fortify it. Today, it is known for hosting a popular film festival each summer and for its artistic vibe and fairy-tale good looks.
In the city center, you'll find a mix of Gothic and Romanesque buildings that host artists studios, boutiques, restaurants, and cafés. Motovun sits at the base of the Motovun Forest, which is home to Istria's famed truffles.
4. Explore the Roman Amphitheater in Pula
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 Amphitheater. One of the largest of its kind, Pula Amphitheater was built by Emperor Vespasian in the first century at around the same time as the Colosseum in .
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 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.
Address: Flavijevska ul., 52100, Pula, Croatia
5. See the Untouched Beauty of Brijuni National Park
Brijuni National Park (Nacionalni Park Brijuni) 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. The park ferry departs from here, too.
Address: Brijuni, 52100 Pula, Croatia
Official site: www.np-brijuni.hr/en
6. Spend a Day in the Resort Town of Opatija
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 Ucka from the "bura" (or bora) wind, a northerly wind that blows in off the Adriatic.
In addition to providing shelter, Mount Ucka, 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. It starts here and stretches some 12 kilometers, taking in some of the country's most spectacular coastal scenery along the way.
Accommodation: Where to Stay in Opatija
7. Visit the Museums of Pazin
One of the largest inland towns in Istria, Pazin's main draw is its superb medieval castle (Kaštel) and 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 the four wings were joined to form a courtyard. The castle now serves as home to the Ethnographic Museum of Istria (EMI) 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).
Address: Trg istarskog razvoda 1, 52000, Pazin, Croatia
8. Historic 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 water sports 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 (Eufrazijeva bazilika). This remarkable UNESCO World Heritage Site is well 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.
Address: Eufrazijeva ul. 22, 52440, Poreč, Croatia
9. Explore the Old Fortified Town of 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 Ucka 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.
10. Take a Stroll along Lungomare Promenade
The Lungomare is a lovely 12-kilometer stretch of promenade, which runs all the way along the Adriatic coast from Volosko to Lovran. Constructed in the late 19th-century when Opatija began to develop as a resort destination, today it is one of the highlights of this area.
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.
11. See the Historic Attractions 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, also known as the Bishop's Palace, and the nearby 19th-century Church of St. Martin. You'll also want to see 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.
12. The Village of Pican's Perfect Little Cathedral
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, it's a fine example of a Greek Orthodox cathedral and well worth visiting. 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.
Where to Stay in Istria for Sightseeing
Istria is geographically small, so getting around the region is quite easy. Base yourself in one of the main towns and from here, you can reach all the top things to do around the province on day trips. However, it's best to rent a car, as public transport is not great. We like these properties in Rovinj, Pula, and Lovran:
- The Hotel Monte Mulini serves up five-star luxury in Rovinj. It offers rooms and suites with beautiful bay views, stylish decor, and deep soaking tubs. The grounds host a gorgeous waterfront pool and an excellent restaurant.
- Another excellent luxury pick is the slightly less posh, four-star Hotel Adriatic, also in Rovinj. This boutique property has a fantastic location, city views, contemporary decor, and dramatic artwork.
- Also check out the Hotel Lone in Rovinj. It offers more affordable luxury, fabulous interior design, and a good location.
Mid-Range & Budget Hotels:
- In Pula try the good-value Park Plaza Arena Pula. It features a private beach, sunny terrace, outdoor pool, and Roman spa.
- Another top mid-range choice in Pula is Oasi - Boutique Hotel & Restaurant. It has a range of rooms, including apartments to accommodate families, and the on-site restaurant is quite good.
- If you're looking for a budget sleep, try the Hotel Park Lovran. The Lovran hotel comes with sea views, friendly staff, a swimming pool, and sauna.
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Croatia's Dalmatian Coast: The coastline to the south of Istria is known as the Dalmatian Coast, and it is home to some of Croatia's top attractions. Zadar anchors the northern Dalmatian Coast, which stretches all the way south to Dubrovnik, and is well worth visiting. Also on the Dalmatian Coast, Dubrovnik is perhaps Croatia's most stunningly preserved medieval town and a highlight of any visit.