My favorite part about traveling is falling in love with places that, just a short time ago, I never knew existed. And nowhere was this more true than in Istria, Croatia.
It’s funny, looking back now, that our three-month adventure in Croatia was totally on a whim. Croatia was barely on our radar when we initially were initially planning this trip, so HUGE shout-out to the Schengen Agreement and EU Visa rules for quickly moving Croatia up on our priority list.
We spent our first month exploring Dubrovnik, Split and Croatia’s National Parks. Between sailing the central Dalmatian islands and road tripping through the rolling hills of inland Croatia, it was becoming increasingly apparent that this country we knew nothing about was more spectacular than we could have ever imagined.
Then we got to Istria, and it became our favorite place in the world.
So, first of all, where is Istria?
Istria is the heart-shaped peninsula in northwest Croatia, just south of Trieste in Italy. Typically referred to as ‘the Tuscany of Croatia,’ Istria is a region made up of stunning natural beauty and acclaimed gastronomy. From house-made pasta, fresh seafood and truffles to top-rated olive oils and award-winning wines, I probably don’t need to explain any further as to how we were perfectly happy to lose track of time and spend six weeks here, right?
How much time do you need to visit Istria?
Istria isn’t the easiest place to get to, so you should allow a minimum of two weeks for your visit. If you’re coming from the U.S., I’d factor in at least two travel days each way if you’re flying direct into Pula or Zagreb, or more if you’re coming through Venice and taking the ferry.
Similar to Tuscany or Cinque Terre, Istria is made up of several small towns and villages. When I was planning our trip, I read a lot of articles suggesting to ‘home base’ in one town, and do day trips to the others. I couldn’t disagree more, and I’m SO glad we didn’t do that. These towns are small, but they are each unique with their own little personalities. You can’t experience that in a day. I highly recommend picking out three or four places and spending a few days (or more) in each one.
Not to mention, the pace here is slow. You don’t go to Istria to rush around and sight-see like a maniac (although there is a lot to see, which furthers my point that you need a lot of time to do it properly). You go to Istria to be indulgent. To waste hours away with good food, good wine, and taking in the incredible beauty of the place that you’re in.
So, my honest opinion? However long you can possibly stay is how long you should spend there. We were there for six weeks, and could have easily stayed several months.
It takes a lot to be depressed when you’re on a ferry bound for Venice, but leaving Istria was that bittersweet.
Getting Around in Istria
There is a bus system in Istria, but I don’t think it actually exists. We tried this phantom bus twice, and both times we ended up taking a cab because it was so delayed. It’d be nice if we could be a little more selective about that ‘slow pace’ I was talking about…
You’ll definitely want to either rent a car or hire a car to get from town to town. Most accommodations are set up well in terms of parking for your own car, and the hired cars aren’t exorbitant. Figure $40-$60 one-way between each town.
First up is Pula, the largest town in Istria located on the southern tip of the peninsula.
A lively Roman outpost, the superstar of Pula is its remarkably well-preserved Roman amphitheater. As one of the bigger shipping ports, Pula is largely a commercial shipbuilding city, but it hasn’t lost any of its small-town Italian charm. A walk through Old Town, and you’ll pass by hole-in-the-wall eateries, more than a few pick-up soccer games among neighborhood kids, and several ancient Roman ruins.
- Wander through Old Town and the Colosseum (try to catch a concert at the Colosseum!)
- Walk along Lungomare, a 4km boardwalk along the waterfront.
- Go to the beach (of course). There are three beaches connected to Lungomare, in addition to more secluded ‘Adriatic Beaches’ (rocks and slabs of concrete) all along the seawall.
- Visit the ACI marina in the center of town. We always love the energy of a busy marina and checking out all the different boats, but if that’s not your thing, it’s still worth it to go for a drink and an ‘Istrian Plate’ (charcuterie) at the restaurant there, especially around sunset.
Rovinj (Patrick’s favorite)
Rovinj is Istria’s star attraction. To many, it’s the nicest town in Istria, if not all of Croatia.
The ‘Old Town’ is contained within a peninsula, and is made up of colorful old buildings and posh hotels that seem to rise straight up out of the sea.
As one of the last true Mediterranean fishing ports, you’ll know you’ve finally ‘relaxed’ when you start telling time by the fishing boats that come and go like clockwork every day.
- Go to the market and make a seaside picnic. There is a great little farmer’s market near the entrance of town where vendors sell local produce, meats, cheeses, truffles, and oils– everything you need for a delicious seaside picnic.
- Head to Forest Park Golden Cape for walking, jogging or whatever helps you feel better about all that delicious food you’re eating. It’s a 20-minute walk from the center of town– go all the way past the Rovinj Hotel Monte Mulini, and you’ll see the path.
- Head to the beach! Yes, again. The beach at Lone Bay (which is right at the start of the walking path at Forest Park Golden Cape) was a perfect spot to spend the afternoon. Keep walking for a few minutes past all the chairs and umbrellas to find it.
- EAT YOUR HEART OUT. The food here is incredible. Seafood and shellfish to-die-for, homemade pastas…you name it, we ate it. Although Rovinj is the most expensive place in Istria, you can still get a great dinner (with wine) for $50 or less.
Novigrad (Sarah’s favorite)
Novigrad is a small town located in northern Istria, closest to Italy. Since it’s situated in between two bigger resort towns, it’s often overlooked by tourists.
With a community of less than 4,000 people, Novigrad’s small size is exactly what I loved most about it. It’s not nearly as fancy as Rovinj nor as busy as Pula, but it’s certainly not lacking whatsoever in terms of things to do and great places to eat.
The center of town is compact, stretching less than one kilometer to the bus station and a small hotel complex. Definitely a humble resort town by Istrian standards.
- Head to the pool at Aminess Maestral Hotel. We were shocked to find out that the chairs were open to everyone, not just hotel guests, and spent 90 percent of our time there. With good wifi and piña coladas by the liter, why would we ever leave?
- There are SO many open green spaces to enjoy in Novigrad. There are beautiful parks and squares in the center of town, but if you head north around the marina, you’ll find a spectacular shaded park and jogging trail. It goes on for miles, and you’ll pass by olive groves, vineyards and several beaches along the way.
- Eat. Obviously. Novigrad is one of the least expensive places in Istria ($1 wine by the glass!) so go on and treat yourself.
The last stop on our trip through Istria was Poreč (poor-ich). Poreč is an ancient Roman town that is almost entirely devoted to summer tourism. There is a vast system of resorts and hotels stretching out in all directions, which tells me this probably wouldn’t be somewhere I’d want to go for a quiet getaway between June and September.
We were there in mid-May, though, and it wasn’t too touristy at all. We never had to wait at a restaurant, there was plenty of room to walk in the narrow streets and we found no shortage of empty beaches.
- To the north of the city, take the walking path north around the harbor. The waterfront trail will pass through shaded pine forests, beaches, and plenty of restaurants.
- Head south around the town marina for a dip in Poreč’s lagoons.
- Eat at Hrast Restaurant – best meal of our entire trip so far. We ate sea bass that was caught four hours before it was on our plate. Incredible.
- Cocktails at Torre Rotonda. The tower was built in 1474 under the Venetian government, and today it has been turned into a great café bar where you can either sit in booths that once held its cannons, or head to the rooftop terrace for great views over the city.
I know to many Central Europeans, Istria is by no means a ‘secret,’ but to us, it certainly felt like one. We didn’t hear a single American accent for the entire six weeks we were there!
Although this video hardly does it justice (the hardest part about shooting video seems to be just remembering to BRING the GoPro out with us), but hopefully it’ll give you a sense of how just how special this place is. We’re excited to continue our journey through Europe, but Croatia, and Istria in particular, will always hold a special place in our hearts.
Until next time, Živjeli!