Istria still includes small parts of both Italy and Slovenia, though by far the largest section (and the main feature of this guide) is Croatian Istria: a triangle jutting into the Adriatic sea just west of the rest of the country. Its location has given it a special place in history: it’s hosted many tribes and civilizations over more than 2,000 years, and each has left marks on the area that can still be seen and felt today.
If you love Roman history, there are ruins here to rival Italy’s, including Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheater, Hercules Gate, and the Temple of Augustus. You can also track the Napoleonic regime and the Austro-Hungarian empire through architecture: both the French general and the Habsburgs had a hand in shaping Istria over the past 200 years.
If you love getting off the beaten path, there are plenty of breezy coastal villages and tranquil hilltowns separated only by vineyards, all connected by a network of roads that are best experienced by bicycle. Finally, if you one of those fanatical foodies who travels just to eat, you’ll be more than satisfied with the amounts of wine, pasta, and truffles available here.
Planning Your Visit
Many visitors to Croatia tack on a couple of days in Istria towards the end of a visit to more popular destinations like Dubrovnik and Split, or simply begin or end a cruise there after taking in the length of the Dalmatian Coast. But Istria deserves its own moment in the sun, and a week in this part of the country will leave you with unforgettable experiences that – even better – don’t include dodging thousands of tourists.
If you make one city your home base, make it Pula, but if you truly want to explore the peninsula, plan on spending the night in Rovinj and Opatija as well. Each has its own set of historic sights, museums, restaurants, bars, and beaches, and each puts a different part of the inner peninsula at your fingertips. With just a bit of advanced planning, you can really get to know this part of Croatia and really begin to feel at home here. Luckily, the relative accessibility of the different areas and the friendliness of the locals makes it easy to do just that.
When to Go
Like most of Croatia, Istria has a warm Mediterranean climate, with balmy temperatures that can spike to 100 degrees in summer. Milder temperatures in spring and fall mean fewer crowds and cheaper hotel rates. You may find the water temperature too cold for a dip, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the sun and everything the beach has to offer.
Summer is when Europeans of all nationalities descend upon Croatia during school and work holidays, and visitors from farther afield tend to show up on cruise ship excursions to Istria. Hotel prices, though reasonable when compared to the rest of Europe and especially Greece and Italy, will rise accordingly. If you come in summer, book hotels and anything that requires tickets (including boat excursions to nearby islands) in advance.
Time your visit to catch (or avoid) major events. These include Easter with its egg decorating, baked goods, games, and festivals in spring, and Christmas, where many towns and villages, from coastal spots to inland areas, put on festivals or outdoor food and craft markets in the comparatively mild winter weather. The International Regatta in Rovinj sees the town come alive with boats, from slick catamarans and sailboats with colorful sail patterns to traditional guca, gajetas, and stele. and the Pula Film Festival in July turns this Croatian destination into a mini-Cannes, with screenings of Croatian and international films at the Pula Arena as well as other popular locations around town.
Here’s more on the Best Time of Year to Visit Croatia.
Getting There & Around
If you’re coming by plane, you can expect to land in Pula, at the peninsula’s only airport, serviced by British Airways as well as popular budget carriers like RyanAir and Easyjet. Croatia Airlines operates flights from the capital of Zagreb or Zadar to Pula as well, and you can also fly into Trieste, Italy, and take a train, bus, or private transfer from there.
Most likely, Pula will also be your first stop if you’re traveling by train from elsewhere in Croatia, from Italy, or from Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. From here, you can take regional train lines to other parts of the country, but the best way to explore the region, especially less accessible mountain areas and hill towns, is with a private rental car that will allow you to plan your own itinerary and go at your own pace.
If you’re in particularly good shape and enjoy the challenge, consider taking a multi-day bike trip to see the peninsula. Here’s one sample 7-day cycling itinerary.
Highlights & Activities
Istria is known for its truly epic Roman ruins and delicious food. If you’re like most visitors, you’ll want to tour Pula Arena, the intact, 2,000-year-old Roman amphitheater that rivals Rome’s Colosseum. You’ll also want to take in the nearby Temple of Augustus, full of ancient bronze and stone statues, and the Arch of Sergius, which used to mark the entrance to the Roman town situated where Pula now stands today. You can delve even further into Istria’s Ancient Roman past with a trip up the coast to the town of Poreč, where you can walk Roman streets to visit the Great Temple, the remains of a 1st-century Roman structure, and fragments of the Temple of Neptune, or the 6th-century, Byzantine Euphrasian Basilica.
Istria also has a lot to offer food lovers, with local wine and truffles the true standouts from a veritable smorgasbord of offerings. Take a look at this guide to Cycling the Wine Roads of Istria to get the best of Istrian hill towns – both views and vines. You can also take a hike with both guides and dogs to participate in one of the peninsula’s truffle hunts, then follow it up with a truly decadent truffle meal cooked from your finds. Skirting the coast will bring you to tiny waterfront villages that make the most of their culinary prowess and the bounty of the sea with fish dishes and pastas to rival their neighbor to the north.
If you want to get away from the coast and journey up into the hills, Istria’s charming medieval hilltowns offer cobblestone streets, medieval walls, and very often, some hidden gems when it come to food markets, specialty shops selling olive oils or spirits, and restaurants serving Michelin-worthy meals without the price tag. Don’t miss the town of Grožnjan in the north, an artists' mecca since the 1960s and ‘70s, its streets lined with independent galleries and shops.
Where to Stay
Istria has rooms for every price point and style, from grand coastal hotels with adjoining beaches to tiny, privately owned inns up in the mountains, from city boutique hotels to sprawling wine estates that happen to offer a few rooms with vineyard views.
If you want to be close to Roman ruins, museums, and cultural sights, or to have access to the peninsula’s many craggy, pebbled beaches, you’d do best to look close to the coast, where cities like Pula, Poreč, and Rovinj offer boutique hotels in charming old buildings and family-friendly coastal resorts with amenities.
For those who require a little adventure sprinkled over their travels, the hilltowns may do the trick, with stone farmhouses and elegant vineyards that offer a perfect base for your hiking, cycling, or driving tours. If you’re into exploring the countryside, check out Opatija for its access to the nearby Učka Nature Park, or Novigrad, close to the Slovenian border.
As with the rest of Croatia, room rates tend to be at their lowest in the winter months and start to rise in April, peaking in the summer months when European families have school holidays and both families and young weekend revelers start coming in. Book early if you plan to travel from June to August.
Where to Eat
Much like their neighbors and cultural brethren the Italians, residents of Istria take pride in what they put on their plates, where it comes from, and how it got there. Its markets overflow with delicacies from land and sea, and many of its chefs take advantage of that, with a few Istrian restaurants now earning Michelin stars. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to eat well in this part of the world, but if you want to, Istria doesn’t disappoint.
The peninsula has a wealth of greenmarkets where you can buy local produce, the most famous of which is probably Pula’s central market, with separate areas for meat, fish, wine, and cheese and outdoor stalls piled high with vegetables and flowers. What’s more, almost every town, no matter how small, will have a farmers’ market at least once a month if not once a week.
Inland, some of the country’s best meals are to be had at wine estates and in tiny villages that may have barely seen a single non-Croatian before a restaurant put them on the map. One of the most well-known is the Meneghetti Wine Hotel, a vineyard, hotel, and gourmet restaurant all rolled into one, where creative, flower-bedecked dishes include squid ink pasta, black truffle risotto, and Istrian ricotta ravioli.
The tiny Toklarija, in a centuries-old one-time olive mill on a remote mountain road between Opatija and Novigrad, serves up artistic interpretations of Istrian countryside cuisine to only a handful of people a night. In Rovinj, Monte restaurant serves Michelin-starred courses of local seafood in a sleek, modernist room with outdoor seating on a leafy patio.
If your tastes lean more casual, you’ll be able to find seaside taverns close to the fishermen’s wharf in almost any coastal town, serving grilled sardines and seafood fresh out of the Adriatic, along with a cold beer from a nearby brewery or a glass of wine from a local vineyard. In Istria, you’re truly never more than a 10-minute drive from your next great meal.
Where to Drink
If you’re drinking on the Istrian peninsula, you’re most likely drinking wine, and if you’re strategic about it, that wine probably comes from a vineyard not far from where you are sitting. Among the most well-known beyond its borders are Malvasia Istriana, a subtle white that is also produced in parts of Italy and Slovenia, but the robust Teran and more widely known merlots, muscats, and cabernets also grown well in its rich soil and sunny, Mediterranean climate.
If wine isn’t your thing, though, you’ll find breweries and beer bars as well. Among the best new craft breweries are San Servolo and Bura Brew, each of them opened in the last ten years, no doubt in response to new numbers of travelers to Istria and increasing demand for microbrews with flavor profiles every bit as complex as its wines. Beyond that, you can almost always find a low-key beach bar serving cocktails with a view, and that’s partially why you came to Istria in the first place, right?
Learn more about Istria’s viniculture with this guide to the Secrets of Croatian Wine Culture.