Croatia is no longer a hidden gem. Thanks to Game of Thrones, there has been an exponential growth in tourism over the last few years. Most tourists visit Croatia’s Dalmatian region and the national parks and tend to ignore the other parts of this beautiful country. Istria is one such region which is not yet on the tourist radar but is full of charming little towns.
Located in the northwest part of Croatia and bordering Slovenia, Istrian region is full of coastal towns, historical sites, rustic countryside and beautiful wineries. If you are planning to visit this part of Croatia, I recommend renting a car.
We visited Istria as part of our two week trip to the Balkans. If you need a detailed itinerary of our Balkans trip, click here.
Where to Stay
Pula and Rovinj are the most popular Istrian towns with plenty of hotels and airbnbs to choose from. Since Rovinj is centrally located, we decided to make our base here and make day trips to the other cities.
You should spend at least 2-3 days here to be able to visit the beautiful Istrian towns and engage in the activities the towns offer.
Things to do and places to visit
Rovinj is one of the most picturesque cities in the Mediterranean. Rovinj is a maze of narrow little streets, archways and courtyards, and losing yourself here is the best way to enjoy the magic. You will come across numerous colourful facades, where rows of laundry are hung out to dry from windows, and where you can feel the influence of Venetian style (Rovinj was once part of the Venetian Empire). Grab a chair at one of the restaurants overlooking the water and spend your evening watching the stunning views.
The old town is situated by the sea, on a hilly peninsula, with the tower of St. Euphemia Church marking its highest point. The bell tower is a smaller replica of St. Mark’s bell tower in Venice. This church also offers great views of the sea and the beach below. 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, but the views from the top are absolutely spectacular.
Rovinj is romantic, historic, and looks and feels more Italian than Croatian. With twisting city streets, a bustling, photogenic harbor, and some of the best seafood restaurants in Croatia, this is a town that is not to be missed. The streets are full of lively bars, restaurants and art galleries. Its harbour is busy with small pleasure and fishing boats. The town is charming, and full of hidden gems at every corner.
Rovinj is one of those towns where you never feel bored. Every corner of this town is so beautiful that you will love walking its narrow cobbled streets . Rovinj’s most popular street, La Grisia is hard to miss. It is full of art, jewelry, and souvenir shops, as well as a couple of restaurants.
I would have definitely liked to stay back for longer and linger in! The only downside was that it was insanely hot when we visited so couldn’t be outdoors for long.
Rovinj has a laid-back feel, but it also has lots of restaurants, cafes and gelato shops to fill your day once you’ve seen the sights.
The number one reason why people visit Pula is the amphitheater. There are tons of Roman amphitheaters scattered across Europe but this is one of the best preserved. Pula’s amphitheater is also the sixth largest in the world. It was built in the 1st century A.D. and was an arena of gladiator fights as the famous Colosseum in Rome. You can simply walk around the monument or go inside it and see the grand structure from inside. The entry fee is around 50 kuna.
Pula’s Roman Amphitheater is arguably the best place in Croatia to feel as if you’re in Ancient Rome. In summer, this amphitheater also doubles as a venue for concerts, film festivals, sporting events, and performing arts for local as well as international artists.
Beside this amphiteatre, while strolling through the city’s centre, you’ll see other Roman monuments, like Hercules’ gates, the Augustus’ temple and the Sergius Arch. All of these impressive monuments give Pula its unique antique charm. Wander around Sergijevaca Street, where you will find all the small boutiques, bars, and tons of souvenir shops.
Visit a winery
If you have been following me for a while, you know I love exploring wineries. Croatia’s Istria region is home to several wineries so if wine is your drink of choice, then highly recommend booking yourself on a wine tasting tour. I zeroed in on two wineries – Meneghetti and Kozlovic but finally settled on Meneghetti (the gorgeous property lured me in). For all you teetotalers, they have you covered – they offer olive oil tastings too!
The luxurious Villa Meneghetti is one of the most spectacular wine hotel properties I have visited so far and is located in the countryside just outside of Bale (reachable only via an unpaved, dirt road). In addition to their expansive vineyards and olive groves on property, they have a couple guest rooms, and a restaurant where you can expect “a gastronomic delight!” They typically have a fixed menu and we could barely find one vegetarian item on the menu so had to give this one a miss. If you intend to dine here, you need to make reservations in advance.
Visit the countryside
Istrian countryside is beautiful. Its rolling hills, medieval hilltop towns, vineyards and olive groves, will make you feel as if you are in Tuscany. Take a day out to explore towns of Motovun, Groznjan, Zavrsje, Hum, Oprtalj.
Since we were short on time, we decided to visit just one town, Groznjan aka the city of artists. The well-preserved medieval town is full of rough stonewalls, narrow alleyways, colorfully painted doors, and will make you feel as if you are in a fairytale. Wander around the winding streets and you’re sure to stumble across an art gallery, studio, or workshop. The town really comes alive during the summer months, when music and art teachers and students flock to the local academies, and creative minds gather to enjoy the open galleries and musical performances.
This region is also the hub of truffles, black and white. Many shops specialize in truffle oils and spreads. The restaurants, of course, offer sumptuous dishes with truffle sauces. Enjoy a gastronomic truffle experience as you gaze over the Istrian plains. We picked up various truffle creams, olive oils, flavored brandy from a local shop. Also, had the best truffle pasta at Restoran Amodomio.
If you have additional time, add Motuvun to your list. Motovun is located on top of a steep hill and a staircase of 1052 steps. This medieval town is surrounded by a walkable wall, and from the top there’s a view over vineyards and forests.
Go truffle hunting
If you are looking for a unique activity – go truffle hunting! Istria region is home to a variety of delicate truffles, including white truffles. These truffles grow deep in the soil under oak, poplar, lime, and wild hazelnut trees and are the most expensive and of the highest quality in the world. You get to hunt for your own truffles – accompanied by adorable truffle hunting dogs.
Soak up the sun at a lovely beach
Like most of Croatia, the beaches here are mostly rocky. Head over to the small town of Bale (located between Rovinj and Pula) where you will find the beautiful San Polo beach.
Rabac is another famous tourist resort with beautiful beaches. The Maslinica Beach is a 500 m long pebble beach where you can go for a variety of water sports.
Since we had limited time in Istria, we had to skip this activity. But did you know you could go kayaking inside a cave, here?