Photo: Brch

August 18.2021.

Things to do in Istria: Landmarks, towns and food!

Istria was made for feasting at the table –wherever you go, you will find restaurants at farms, wineries and olive oil producers. Ancient walled cities perching on hilltops stand guard over the landscape and the coast is dotted with trendy resorts and gorgeous beaches.

Blog written by Petra Bulić Petra is an experienced journalist, travel guide, passionate hiker and Isaak Asimov fan

The gently rolling terrain is perfect for bike rides all year round and, from June until the end of September, the people of Istria are intent on entertaining and there’s at least one “fiesta“ held somewhere on weekends. These festivals are usually centred around cuisine – honey, wine, wild asparagus, tomatoes, olive oil… Open-air concerts are an integral part of the offer.

Wine connoisseurs should try the native varieties, such as the white Malvasia and red Teran or the well-adapted Merlot and Muscat. The wine routes in Istria are marked and wine exhibitions start in spring. The biggest wine festival is Vinistra in Poreč, usually held in May.

Pula Arena is the best-preserved ancient Roman landmark in Croatia, the sixth-largest of the 200 Roman amphitheatres in the world

Mistletoe brandy ’Biska’ and honey liqueur are typical local spirits. In restaurants, try Istrian prosciutto and the native longhorn beef dishes.

Poreč and Rovinj, lying on the west coast of Istria, are the largest tourist centres. The Brijuni Islands National Park is located near Pula, Istria's largest city. The east coast of the Istrian peninsula is somewhat tranquil, while the interior will bring out the foodie in you.

Pula - home of the gladiator amphitheatre

The most famous landmark of Pula, Istria’s largest city, is the Arena, a gladiator amphitheatre that used to seat up to 23,000 people. It is the best-preserved ancient Roman landmark in Croatia, the sixth-largest of the 200 Roman amphitheatres in the world and the only one with all three storeys of the outer wall intact.

A testament to the architectural prowess of the builders is the ‘crown’ on the upper rim - each of the heavy stone blocks is of a slightly different shape to form the Arena’s perfect oval. There is little room for error when elevating such heavy stone blocks to a height of 30m. The Pula Arena is still a venue for spectacular events, such as film festivals and concerts by some of the biggest names in classical and pop music.

The Arena isn't the only landmark dating back to the Roman era. Others include the Temple of Augustus, the Arch of the Sergii, the Gate of Hercules, the theatre… Until recently, Pula was an important naval and military city, owing to its large and safe port, which are fairly uncommon in the northern Adriatic. 

Rovinj historic centre is located on a hill on a small peninsula, which used to be an island

You should also visit the Venetian fortress on the hilltop overlooking the Pula centre, built on top of the remains of an even older Roman fortress.

Today, Pula is a big city and as such is the centre of urban life even off-season. As far as Pula's surrounding area is concerned, a visit to Kamenjak, a wild cape at the very south of the Istrian peninsula is definitely worth your while, especially with a bicycle, and the nearby town of Medulin is one of the more famous tourist centres in Istria.

Rovinj, town with an artistic spirit

Rovinj is widely considered the most beautiful town on the Istrian coast. Its historic centre is located on a hill on a small peninsula, which used to be an island, with the tiny strait filled in the 18th century. The artistic spirit of this town is visible at every corner, with numerous galleries, workshops and exhibitions year-round. One of the most famous events in Rovinj is the open-air exhibition on Grisia Street, which is open to everyone – academy-trained artists, amateurs, children...

Take a walk through the centre of Poreč down Cardo and Decumanus, the two main ancient Roman streets still in use today

Despite being the main route to the top of Rovinj hill, Grisia is a narrow, winding and stone-paved Mediterranean street. The waterfront is adorned with the multi-coloured façades of old buildings, and you should add an evening stroll by the town's small port to your list of things to do in Rovinj. Visit the islands of Sv. Katarina (St. Catherine) and Sv. Andrija (St. Andrew), as well as the little museum dedicated to the “batana“, a traditional wooden boat.

The summit of the hill is dominated by the baroque Church of St. Euphemia with an elegant bell tower and situated on a square. St. Euphemia became the patron saint of Rovinj thanks to a miracle: according to legend, her sarcophagus disappeared from Constantinople in 800 AD and washed ashore on the Rovinj waterfront.

Present-day Rovinj is a vibrant town that hosts a multitude of events ranging from retro rockabilly gatherings to the Weekend Media Festival, an important international marketing conference.

Poreč - town bursting with events

The town of Poreč is a major tourist centre on the Croatian coast, famous for its ‘lagoons’, the deep coves with popular beaches that surround the historic centre dating back to ancient Rome. Take a walk through the centre of Poreč down Cardo and Decumanus, the two main ancient Roman streets still in use today, that lead to the Forum, the central square typical of ancient Roman towns. Make sure you visit the Euphrasian Basilica, one of the best-preserved early Christian churches in Europe, one of Croatia’s UNESCO World Heritage sites.

Umag is famous for its ATP tennis tournament, but you really should exploring the wine routes near Višnjan, Vižinada, Grožnjan, Brtonigla...

Poreč and its surrounding area are always bursting with events, so you won't have any trouble finding a food festival or a concert during the warmer part of the year. One of the more unusual events held here is the celebration of the Chinese New Year.

As far as cyclists are concerned, Poreč is an excellent starting point for one of the most fascinating routes in Croatia – Parenzana, once a railroad track connecting Poreč to Trieste. Trains haven't run here for a long time now - the fascist government decided to recycle the tracks before World War II, leaving a beautiful, winding, and fairly flat path that takes you through the picturesque towns and villages of inland Istria.

The most popular tourist resorts with well-equipped beaches are in the Green and Blue Lagoons, the White Bay and the small island of Sv. Nikola (St. Nicholas), just across the historic centre. The centre of Poreč is located on a small peninsula and has been inhabited since prehistoric times, and the settlement had become a town with defensive walls during the rule of the Roman Emperor Augustus in the 1st century AD. The ancient streets and the main square are still an integral part of everyday life in the town.

West coast of Istria

The best Istrian wines are produced in vineyards along the northwest coast of Istria because of the excellent microclimatic conditions and the unique red soil. This is reason enough to go exploring the wine routes near Višnjan, Vižinada, Grožnjan, Brtonigla…

The towns on the coast are fantastic tourist destinations. Novigrad, for example, has a beautiful historic centre and Umag is famous for its ATP tennis tournament.

Wine connoisseurs should try the native grape varieties, such as the white Malvasia and red Teran or the well-adapted Merlot and Muscat. The climate conditions in this area are also excellent for growing olives, especially in the area surrounding Vodnjan.

Vrsar, picturesque tourist town located south of Poreč, is famous for one of the oldest naturist beaches in Europe

The town of Vodnjan, only 10 km from the coast, boasts an interesting religious attraction: the local church has amassed an impressive collection of mummified relics, which will intrigue even the people that are not religious.

Vrsar, another picturesque tourist town located south of Poreč, is famous for Koversada, one of the oldest and biggest naturist beaches in Europe, which opened more than 50 years ago. Nearby is Lim Bay, a sunken riverbed. The river that used to flow there, the Pazinčica River, disappears underground in Pazin today. The protected Lim Bay is also famous for its shellfish farms.

East coast of Istria

There are several gorgeous deep coves hidden on the otherwise mostly flat east coast of the Istrian peninsula and the most popular is the one where the tourist town of Rabac is hidden. The rest of the east coast of Istria is more peaceful, with occasional wild beaches that aren't too crowded even during the high season. One of the most attractive events in the region is the “Trka na prstenac“ (Tilting-at-the-ring), which is held in the small town of Barban, recreating an old chivalric tournament.

Rabac boasts a few white pebble beaches, with Girandella usually hailed as the most beautiful. Labin, a medieval historic town, is located just a few kilometres inland from Rabac. For centuries, it was a town of coal mines, and the last one was closed less than 20 years ago. The coal miners endured hardship, much like their colleagues from around the globe. However, a century ago they tried to take matters into their own hands: after going on strike in early March of 1921 because of poor working conditions and the initial atrocities committed by the fascists, they took control of the city and proclaimed the “Albona Republic“ (Albona is the Italian name of Labin).

Unfortunately, this short-lived self-governing republic lasted only a month, until a military intervention quelled the uprising. Today, this town has substituted coal mining with art and boasts numerous galleries and projects reviving Labin's industrial heritage.

Heart of Istria

The fortified town of Motovun rises on a hill some 200 m above the Mirna River valley and the surrounding forest. The walls, which date back to the Late Middle Ages, form a crown around the hilltop and a tour along the ramparts reveals wide vistas on all sides. You can almost imagine this area as the abode of the gentle giant “Veli Jože“ from a popular local story. The deciduous Motovun forest at the foot of the hill is one of the many truffle habitats in Istria. Besides black truffles, rare and expensive white truffles can also be found here.

Most of the towns in the interior of Istria share similar romantic features. Almost all of them are situated on hilltops and provide an excellent view of the surrounding area, they are well-fortified and built on top of the remains of prehistoric settlements. 

Motovun forest at the foot of the hill is one of the many truffle habitats in Istria.

The square and the main church are usually located at the highest point in town. Typically, there is also a loggia - a roofed porch with open sides where people used to gather, courts were convened and town elders held their meetings. Motovun, Pićan, Oprtalj, Grožnjan, Buje and Buzet are just a few of the many towns in Istria that follow this norm. Even the tiny Hum, which boasts of being the smallest town in the world, is no exception to these rules of urban design.

Motovun is the most frequently visited destination in mainland Istria. It is most entertaining in July when it hosts a very popular film festival. Tens of thousands of visitors flood the town while the meadows at the foot of the hill are transformed into a huge campsite.

In Pazin, “the heart of Istria“, visit the castle built on top of a cliff. The Pazinčica River disappears underground at the base of the cliff and a 1300m long zip line stretches over the dramatic scenery.

Visit the small 15th century Church of St. Mary of Škriljine in the small town of Beram near Pazin. Its interior is covered in frescoes, the most visually stunning of which is the Danse Macabre or “The Dance of the Dead“, which serves as a reminder that, whether rich or poor, we are all equal in death.

Brijuni National Park

Two thousand years ago, the Brijuni, a group of 14 islands along the west coast of Istria, were a luxurious ancient Roman estate. A hundred years ago, this was the location of the largest golf course in Europe at that time. Fifty years ago, Marshal Tito, the lifelong president of the former Yugoslavia, entertained celebrities here, including the actresses Sofia Loren and Elizabeth Taylor. Today the Brijuni are open to visitors, golf is still played here and the grass is kept in perfect condition by the deer that roam and graze freely.

The most interesting of the islands is Veliki Brijun (“Big Brijun“), where you can find the remains of the ancient Roman villa and an elegant thermae, as well as a Byzantine fortress dating back to the 5th and 6th centuries. Brijuni became an elite summer resort in the 19th century when the entire island group was purchased by an Austrian industrialist who built five hotels, a heated saltwater swimming pool and an array of private villas on Veliki Brijun.

Veliki Brijun is also home to a safari park with a variety of exotic animals given to ‘comrade Tito’ as a gift. The most popular animals were a pair of elephants, which were a present from Indira Gandhi – the male Sony died a few years ago, while the female still resides on Brijuni. Semi-domesticated deer and mouflons freely roam in other parts of Veliki Brijun. Another visitor favourite is the chatty 50-year-old cockatoo Koki.

Brijuni became an elite summer resort in the 19th century when the entire island group was purchased by an Austrian industrialist who built five hotels

You will also find traces of somewhat older animals on Veliki Brijun – there are some two hundred fossilized dinosaur footprints scattered across the island.

With so much to see, the best way to explore Veliki Brijun is by renting a bike on the island.

The best way to visit Mali Brijun, the second largest island in the group, is to catch one of the plays performed in the summer on the unique stage - an old fortress. Every theatre night starts with a short boat ride to the island.

Istria was known by the ancient Romans as a royal pantry. Few ingredients and a lot of imagination become gourmet assets such as fish, boškarin and truffles, paired with the globally-known Istrian wines Malvazija, Merlot and olive oils, and you will be equally amazed by the landscape full of hills, fairytale towns, vineyards and olive groves.

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