The Istrian peninsula is among the most popular tourist destinations in Croatia. However, its central part is still largely undiscovered. With its dreamy hilly landscape, numerous small towns located on top of the hills, exciting legends, beautiful castles and small medieval churches, that region is a wonderful place to visit for all the cultural tourists. If you’re wondering what to see in Central Istria, here is your guide to visiting that beautiful part of Croatia.
What to see in Central Istria
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Istria is famous for its lovely coastline and numerous beautiful towns alongside it, such as Rovinj or Pula. However, its central part is much more rural and tranquil. It’s a peaceful green area filled with vast wooded hills, vineyards and olive groves.
The legend says numerous small towns located on the hills were built by the giants who placed them in those strategically safe locations. Central Istria is home to countless cultural spots, castles, medieval churches, and charming small villages, making it an exciting place to visit.
Central Istria is often compared to Tuscany in Italy. However, this region has quite a unique atmosphere. The main word and vibe there is pomalo. This term is difficult to explain but simple to experience. It means take it easy and contain a no-stress lifestyle, the need to chilling in a cafe for at least an hour per day and the feeling you get while admiring beautiful Istrian nature and small towns full of history.
⤷ Read more: The best places to see in Istria
Located right in the centre of Istria, you’ll find the charming old town of Pazin. Because of its location, it is often called the heart of Istria. Filled with small narrow streets and numerous old houses, in Pazin, you feel the town hasn’t changed for centuries. Probably because of that, it inspired the famous writer Jules Verne for his novel Mathias Sandorf.
The place you shouldn’t miss in Pazin is its castle (or Pazinski Kaštel), situated just above the massive Pazin pit (Pazinska jama). Besides enjoying the fascinating architecture, you can also visit its interior. Nowadays, the castle is home to two museums, the Ethnographic Museum of Istria and the Pazin City Museum.
If you don’t mind a little bit of mud and dirt, don’t skip the Pazin pit after visiting the castle. It offers a unique way of experiencing the beautiful nature that inspired Jules Verne. If you’re a bit of an adrenaline junkie, you can enjoy it from the zip line. Can there be a better way to admire the town than flying above it? I tried zip lining in Pazin a few times and loved it each time. It’s a perfect mix of the adrenalin rush and appreciating the landscape around you.
⤷ TIP: If you’d like to experience Pazin as a local, pay a visit to its main square in the morning at around 11 am. It is when many locals get outside to drink their coffee with colleagues and friends during a work break. It’s a great way to feel the vibe of the city and Central Istria. If you are a sweet tooth, you must try a traditional Central Istrian cookie called Pazinski cukerančić. It’s listed on UNESCO’s list of the Intangible cultural heritage! You’ll find some of the best cookies at the patisserie Antica, just a minute away from the main square.
Located on the top of the hill, the medieval town of Motovun is one of the most famous places in Central Istria. Surrounded by solid walls and filled with colourful houses, it’s a place filled with history. Motovun is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list. The best way to explore it is by just wandering its cobbled streets, strolling around its city walls and enjoying a fantastic view of Central Istria. After that, just sit at one of its cafes or restaurants and get immersed in the magical atmosphere of that town.
Each July, this town hosts the famous Motovun Film Festival. If you’d like to enjoy watching the movies under the stars in the centuries-old town, it could be the right time to visit it.
⤷ Read more: 8 Places in Istria for Archaeology Enthusiasts
Located a few hills away from Motovun is another town that shouldn’t be missed in Central Istria. The tiny town of Grožnjan is a must-see place for all art lovers. It was almost completely abandoned in the mid-20th century. However, to keep that place alive, the government offered its houses to serve as studios and accommodations for artists. That’s why today, Grožnjan is filled with art shops, studios and galleries.
Besides that, you can also enjoy its charming architecture and some great foodie locations. Central Istria is famous for truffles, and in Grožnjan, you’ll find a few spots where you can buy them with some other Istrian delicacies.
However, art, cute buildings and food are not all this Istrian city is about. Since Grožnjan is located on a hill, it offers a magnificent view of nature, nearby villages and a significant part of Central Istria.
⤷ TIP: After your visit to Grožnjan, be sure to stop at Završje, as well. That small village is a famous filming location and one of the most underrated hidden gems of Central Istria. Even though the winding road to Završje could be a bit challenging, that place is definitely worth visiting.
Savičenta (or Svetvinčenat) is another charming place in Central Istria that looks like it didn’t change at all over time. Its main square is where you’ll find some of the most interesting cultural sites in that small town. The Renaissance Parish Church of Annunciation, the old loggia and some residential houses are some of them.
However, the most fascinating building there is the Morosini – Grimani Castle. Built back in the 13th century, it was named after the past owners of the building. The castle got completely restored and revitalised just a few years ago. So now, visitors can explore it on some of the guided tours through the multimedia exhibition, escape room experience, and many more activities.
I had a chance to visit Morosini – Grimani Castle twice and loved it. It’s such an enjoyable and friendly place! All the exhibitions include interactive activities, games and some interesting photo sessions. The guides working there were extremely kind and helpful. Because of all of that, it’s absolutely an unmissable place to put on your list of things to see in Central Istria.
⤷ TIP: If you’ll visit Savičenta by car, the best way is to park around the green area outside the Morosini – Grimani Castle. It is also the centre of this small town and all the cafes, restaurants and parks are nearby.
Pićan & Gračišće
Pićan and Gračišće are two cute small towns located close to Pazin. You’ll pass through them if you travel between Pazin to the Eastern coast of Istria and the town of Labin. They are both situated on the hilltops and offer beautiful views of the Central Istria countryside. Both towns are filled with medieval architecture, a mysterious atmosphere and charming hidden streets.
Central Istria is filled with hiking trails, and one of them is located between Pićan and Gračišće. It’s called St. Roch’s trail, and you can find some instructions about it on a link here. If you decide to hike the St. Roch’s trail, don’t miss one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Central Istria – the Sopot waterfall, located in the village of Floričići.
The picturesque village of Draguć is one of the hidden gems of Central Istria and home to some fantastic art and architecture. The small village has four churches, and it’s well-known for some fantastic wall paintings. Draguć is also home to the House of Istrian Frescoes. In that exhibition space you can learn about the medieval art of wall paintings and why it was so crucial in Istria. The most well-known church in Draguć is dedicated to Saint Roch (Sveti Rok). It was decorated by the famous painter Anton from Padua.
Draguć has the nickname Istrian Hollywood because it’s a popular filming location. Some famous Croatian but also foreign movies were filmed there. You can see some scenes from Draguć in one of them on a link here.
Sveti Lovreč Pazenatički
As you can see by now, Central Istria is home to numerous picturesque small towns. And Sveti Lovreč is one of them.
The town is still partially surrounded by medieval walls, which you can see in many locations. Entering through its old gates, you’ll find yourself at its main historic town square. It’s marked by the Church of Saint Martin. It’s a three-nave Romanesque building decorated with beautiful frescoes. At its loggia, you’ll see some stone artefacts dating all the way to Roman times. Quite interesting is its bell tower, as well.
Central Istria’s medieval frescoes
I already mentioned a few destinations in Central Istria where you can find wonderful frescoes from the medieval period. However, this part of the peninsula is home to many of them.
During the Middle Ages, most people living in Istria (as in the rest of Europe) couldn’t read. They learned about the saints they worshipped by observing the frescoes depicted on the walls of medieval churches.
Most of the wall paintings were made between the 11th and 16th centuries. You can find some of the most beautiful wall paintings at Beram, the Church of Saint Nicholas in Pazin and Saint Martin in Sveti Lovreč.
⤷ Read more: Medieval Frescoes in Istria
Tips for visiting Central Istria
How to get to Central Istria?
The three airports closest to Istria are Pula (in Istria), Rijeka and Venice. You can also fly to the capital of Croatia, Zagreb, and drive (around two and a half hours) from there.
How to travel around Central Istria?
The best way to get around Central Istria is by car. The locals use the car all the time since it’s the easiest (and often the only) way of travelling in this part of the peninsula.
Guided tours around Central Istria
If you won’t be visiting Istria by car or simply want to visit some of these places with a guide, then this is a selection of some great guided tours around Central Istria:
- Guided tour of Central Istria with food tasting
- Istria highlights tour from Rijeka or Pula
- Istria in one day with lunch and tastings
- Parenzana: Guided old railway bike tour with lunch
What to eat in Central Istria
Central Istria is famous for its delicious food and wine. Truffles are one of its symbols, and you can find truffle shops and restaurants serving them all over Central Istria. While travelling around it, you’ll see many vineyards. Istria is home to some great wines like Malvasia and Teran, so be sure to try some during your stay. Besides that, Central Istria is well known for some great pasta dishes. Local pasta varieties are called pljukanci, trganci and fuži.
⤷ TIP: If you’d like to explore and learn more about the Istrian cuisine, check out this Istrian food tour.
Central Istria is a hidden gem of one of the most touristic regions in Croatia. It’s home to fantastic sceneries, fairytale towns, charming architecture and numerous cultural spots. I hope this Central Istria travel guide will encourage you to visit that beautiful part of Croatia.
Have you been to Central Istria? What were your favourite places there?
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