Whenever someone is asking me about my favourite region of Croatia, my immediate answer is – Istria. With its numerous cute little towns, interesting history, delicious food and many exciting things to do, it’s one of the best places to visit in Croatia. I’m spending at least a week each summer there for the last ten years, so here is my travel guide with things to do and the best places to visit in Istria.
Istria Travel Guide
Where is Istria & How to get there?
Istria is located at the westernmost part of Croatia, very close to the border with Italy and Slovenia. It’s the biggest peninsula in Croatia, so the majority of the towns there are located on the Adriatic coast. However, the inland is equally impressive, so be sure to visit some of the places there, as well.
There is an airport in Pula, the biggest city in Istria, and during the summer months, there are many connections with European cities from there. You can also fly to Zagreb, and drive to Istria from there. It’s going to take you around two hours to get to Pula from there.
*TIP: Rent a car! My favourite part of staying in Istria is exploring it by a car, and going on some day trips while there. It seems like every single village there has an interesting story to be explored. Roads are very good and driving around Istria is easy and enjoyable.
What is Istria famous for?
#- Istrian Food
Istrian food is so delicious! Try some seafood, grilled fish or go to some of the ‘fishermen evenings’ organised at the city centres of many of its coastal towns during the summer. It’s also famous for its pasta (pljukanci, fuži and other types of local pasta are something you shouldn’t miss while in Istria). Istrian olive oil is fantastic, and there is even a museum in Pula dedicated to it.
#- Giants who built the small villages on the top of the hills in Istria
A popular Istrian legend says that the giants actually made all those beautiful small villages located on the top of the hills at the inland of Istria. They were giving the stones to each other and have built the houses high in the hills that way. The most famous giant among them was Veli Jože, and there are many stories about him still preserved in Croatia.
#- Medieval wall paintings in Istria
During the Middle Ages, many small churches were built in Istria. Located mostly in the inland they were painted by some great master painters. Although a bit hard to visit (you should often get to the Parish Office and ask for the key), they are wonderful to explore and to admire the colourful interiors many of them have.
#- Roman ruins in Istria
As the most of the Croatian coast, some Istrian cities were also a part of the Roman Empire 2000 years ago. And you can still find many Roman ruins in them. They are the best-preserved in Pula, where you can find the amphitheatre, triumphal arch, Roman theatre, city villas, mosaics, temple etc.
*TIP: The gladiator fights shows are organised regularly during the summer months at the Roman amphitheatre in Pula. You can read more about them on a link here.
#- Italian language in Istria
Located at the westernmost part of Croatia, very close to the border with Italy, the majority of Istria is a bilingual region. You’re going to find the signs written both in Croatian and Italian. And you’ll find there many locals speaking Italian.
#- Istrian Kažun
When driving around Istria you may stumble upon small traditional houses made of the white stone – kažun. Built in a method of dry stone, they are one of the symbols of Istria today. They were used mostly by shepherds as the shelters during the bad weather. And are part of the cultural heritage of Istria today.
#- Istrian Wine
The region of Istria is home to some of my favourite Croatian wines. Malvasia, white wine and Teran, the red one, are the ones you should try while there.
The best places to visit in Istria
Pula is the biggest city in Istria and the one which is the closest to the airport. Filled with some fantastic Roman ruins, like the well-preserved amphitheatre, triumphal arch, theatre, temple etc. It’s a great place to visit to enjoy in some of Croatia’s cultural heritage.
My favourite area to stay there is Verudela, where you can find many hotels and accommodations.
With its old city walls, the old Medieval town of Motovun looks almost like a fortress. Located at the inland of Istria on a top of the hill, having a panoramic view from it is a beautiful experience. A small town could be explored on foot, so just stroll around its narrow stone streets and enjoy in a place that looks like it haven’t changed at all throughout the history.
*TIP: Each July one of the most famous Croatian film festivals is organised in Motovun. If you would like to enjoy watching the movies at the old central square in this Istrian town, be sure to plan your visit around that time.
Rovinj is one of the most beautiful towns in Istria, and definitely one of my personal favourites. The old town is located at a small peninsula, on a top of which the church of St. Eufemia is situated. It is full of narrow streets that are becoming open-air art galleries throughout the summer. With a rich fishermen tradition, paying a visit to one of its restaurants and trying some local food is absolutely a must!
A small village located just a stone’s throw away from Motovun is definitely among the best places to visit in Istria. Almost abandoned in the 1950s, it was later on inhabited by the artists, who opened their shops and galleries there.
Porec is a town filled with history, from the Roman times until the modern days. It has a beautiful historic city centre with some lovely narrow streets and old wooden houses. It’s the most famous for its Euphrasius Basilica, one of the best-preserved late Antiquity church complexes with a strong influence of the Byzantine art.
Known as the smallest town in the world, a Medieval town of Hum is not only one of the best places to visit in Istria, but also one of its hidden gems. It’s also a great place to see some of the old Glagolitic (an old Medieval letters that used to be used in Croatia) writings at the walls of the church there. You can also see some of the Glagolitic writings at the local museum in Hum.
One of the most beautiful Croatia’s National Parks is located in Istria, and it shouldn’t be missed while there. The beautiful archipelago is home to some fantastic beaches, wild animals and cultural sights. If in Istria, then visit to Brijuni Islands is a must.
Another one of Istrian hidden gems is a small town of Vodnjan. Home to some beautiful city palaces, it’s also the first place in Istria that got the electric city lights. It’s a home to the tallest tower in Istria, the St. Blaise Church tower. The church itself is quite famous, as well, because of its mysterious mummies of the saints which are exposed in the glass coffins. Bodies are still intact after the centuries they died, and the science still can’t explain how is that possible. Need some more convincing to visit this Istrian town? I didn’t think so.
Novigrad is a small town located at the west coast of Istria. Its historical centre is surrounded with the stone walls and filled with some typical Mediterranean colourful houses. Interior of the St. Pelagius’ and St. Maximus’ Parish Church is definitely worth visiting.
Located in central Istria, Pazin is one of the best places to visit in Istria’s inland. It’s famous for its castle located right in the city centre. There is a fantastic museum located in it today, where you can learn more about this town and life in the castle back in the day. Pazinska Jama is the pit located just next to the castle. Both of them inspired Jules Verne for his novel ‘Mathias Sandorf’ in 1885.
Located at the northwest of the peninsula, the town of Umag is famous for its tennis tournament organised in that lovely Istrian town each July. It’s also home to some excellent hotel resorts and some lovely restaurants.
No matter if you’re looking for the weekend break or a place for a longer vacation, you can’t go wrong with any of these best places to visit in Istria. Have you visited any of them yet? Let me know in the comments below.