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01/11/2018

Historic sites

Pula

The most logical place to begin your Istria itinerary is in Pula, the largest city in the region and also home to the international airport. Pula has a fascinating history dating back thousands of years and it is a city that is very worth exploring. Plan to spend three nights here in order to get a good feel for the city, appreciate its history, and also explore some of the surrounding areas. These are our suggestions for things to do in Pula:

Pula Arena

Perhaps the most iconic site in Pula is its imposing Roman amphitheatre, located right in the centre of town. Constructed between 27 BCE and 68 CE, it was originally used for gladiator games and had a capacity for 23,000 spectators. Still excellently preserved today, it operates as a tourist attraction and a venue for concerts and cultural events like the Pula Film Festival.

Though smaller in size to the Coliseum in Rome, there is an undeniable grandeur to the Pula Arena and its distinct lack of tourist crowds only amplifies this. Entry to the amphitheatre costs 50 HRK for adults and 25 HRK for students, seniors, and children.

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Zerostrasse

Winding underneath central Pula is a series of tunnels that were originally commissioned to be built by Tito to serve as a bunker. Now it is possible to wander through these tunnels, called Zerostrasse, and see them for yourselves. In the present day, the tunnels serve as an art and photo exhibition where you can see photos of Pula past, mostly from the days when it was still part of Yugoslavia and it was a favourite destination of Tito. Entry is 15HRK for adults and 10HRK for students and seniors.

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The tunnels of Zerostrasse

Brijuni Islands

The Brijuni Islands are a fantastic day trip to take from Pula. Located just off the coast from the city, these islands were once served as the summer home for the Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito and today are a nature reserve.

While you can opt to take a day excursion around the islands directly from Pula, the only boat that has permission to actually land on the islands leaves from the nearby town of Fazana. Ferry tickets cost 210HRK for a return journey and leave frequently — they also include a tour of the island on a motorised train.

Rather than taking the packed train, however, we recommend hiring a bicycle and going around the island at your own pace. There you can see the wildlife park — including ostrich, zebras, llamas, and Shetland ponies — that Tito established, maybe hit the golf course, or find a stony beach virtually all to yourself.

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A lovely and deserted beach on the Brijuni Islands

Umag 

After enjoying the lively atmosphere and many activities that Pula has to offer, the next stop on your Istria itinerary should be the northwestern Istrian town of Umag. Umag is much smaller and much more laid-back than Pula and is very popular amongst German tourists. Its compact old town, many great restaurants, and great swimming areas make it a fantastic addition to any Istria itinerary.

Old Town

Though very small, the Old Town in Umag is incredibly quaint and very much worth exploring. There are a number of cafes and restaurants lining the water and a few pretty, cobblestoned streets to get lost in. There aren’t many breathtaking “sites” to see here, however, the atmosphere is one that lends Umag to be explored.

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Umag from the water
Stella Maria Swimming Area

One of the best reasons to visit Umag is to spend some time soaking up the sun and swimming in the warm Adriatic sea. Luckily, Umag has a number of great swimming areas absolutely perfect for this, however, the one we would recommend is the Stella Maria Swimming Area.

Located close to the Hotel Sol, this isn’t a sandy beach, however, it is still a fantastic area to lay in the sun and take a dip in the crystal clear water. There are also a couple of cafes and snack bars around should you need a bite to eat or an ice cream to take the edge off of a warm day.

Hill Towns: Buje, Groznjan & Motovun

Another benefit to spending a couple of days in Umag is its proximity to some of the most charming hill towns in Istria. While it might be hard to draw yourself away from the stunning seaside, heading inland will let you see a side of Istria that you would never have known existed.

The towns of Buje, Groznjan, and Motovun are all within easy reach of Umag, however, it is a lot easier to get to them if you have your own car. Buje is closest to Umag and is the least visited of the three towns, however, it’s lack of tourists only add to its charm.

Groznjan was our favourite town of the three, it is known for its arts and music scene. There are a number of great restaurants to have lunch — we ate at Cafe Bar Vero and highly recommend it — and some art galleries and Istrian produce shops to browse.

Make sure to stop at Agro-Millo Olive Oil just outside of Groznjan if you want to sample some of the best Istrian olive oil direct from the producer!

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Groznjan is filled with art galleries like this one

Motovun is probably the most popular and busy hill town in Istria. This beautiful medieval town is located high above the peninsula and offers exquisite views of the surrounding area from its city walls. Be aware that it does get very popular and if the car park is full at the town — and it often it — you will have to park at the base of the hill and hike up.

When leaving Motovun, make sure to head to the nearby town of Livade and go to the Medea-Jankovic honey shop. This family-run shop sells high-quality honey in a number of varieties from their own bees. They also have their own honey rakija along with hand creams and lip balms from the beeswax. The owners are incredibly friendly and will let you sample everything and offer helpful explanations.

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Honey from Medea-Jankovic in Livade


Rovinj

Rovinj is easily the most notable and popular town to visit on any Istria itinerary. This beautiful seaside town is enough to make anyone fall in love. We recommend spending two nights here in order to get the most out of Rovinj while also being able to enjoy some sun and sea.

Old Town

Rovinj’s Old Town is one of the most magical in Croatia. It is just small enough to be able to see the whole thing in one day, but large enough to be able to get wonderfully lost and find some narrow, cobbled lanes all to yourself.

Take the time when you first arrive in Rovinj to wander around the Old Town without any sort of agenda and see where your feet might take you…it is sure to charm you around every corner! The Old Town is also a pedestrian-only zone, so you do not need to be on the lookout for cars!

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Rovinj’s beautiful Old Town
Rovinj Market

Much like in Pula, there is a lovely market just at the entrance of the Old Town selling fresh fruits and vegetables and also local Istrian produce. Here you can browse stalls selling olive oil, truffles and truffle products, Croatian lavender, and many varieties of rakija. Most sellers will also offer you samples of their goods.

It is worth noting that there really isn’t much at the Rovinj market that you can’t find at the one in Pula, except that the prices here are noticeably higher. Therefore, we would recommend buying any Istrian gastronomic souvenirs in Pula rather than in Rovinj in order to save some money and to cut down on your total Croatia trip cost.

Monte Beach

There are a number of stone and pebble beaches surrounding Rovinj, however, Monte Beach is the only one that is in the Old Town. Located directly below St Euphemia’s church, this is more of a rocky swimming area than a beach, but it is perfect for those who want to take the edge off of a hot day with a dip in the Adriatic.

There are a number of ladders to help you get in and out of the water. It is worth noting that if you’re not a strong swimmer, this may not be the best beach for you as the water is deep and can sometimes get rough.

St Euphemia’s Church

Probably the most iconic landmark of Rovinj in St Euphemia’s Church and its bell tower overlooking the picturesque seaside town. This Catholic church is situated on the top of the highest hill in Rovinj’s Old Town and offers great views of the sea and Monte Beach below.

If you want the best view as possible, however, then you need to brave the climb up the bell tower. While entry into the church is free, the bell town costs 20HRK per person to go up. There are a number of very rickety stairs to climb (some of the worst we have encountered, so it’s not for the faint of heart — especially if you’re afraid of heights), but the views from the top are absolutely spectacular. The strenuous and harrowing climb is always worth it for views like this!

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The view of Rovinj from St Euphemia’s Church bell tower

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