Istria Holiday Planning Guide
The rocky coastline of the Adriatic meets the rolling hills and bucolic plains of continental Croatia in Istria, the heart-shaped peninsula whose complex cultural legacy includes Venetian cities and well-preserved Roman relics. In the past, Istria's towns were home to Italians, while the Croats resided in the hilltop stone villages of "Green Istria." Your trip to Istria may very well begin inland, where one of the main attractions is the view from the hills over lush meadows, vineyards, wheat fields, and olive groves, which recall the local legends about ancient giants. A trip to the area's valleys and gorges provides the chance to experience farmhouse restaurants and rural hotels, which often feature regional delicacies like white truffles and wild asparagus. Although some of the coastal mega-hotel complexes lack the charm of Dalmatia's islands and coves, "Blue Istria" still has plenty of other places to visit, like resort towns with cobbled piazzas and narrow back alleys.
Places to Visit in IstriaRovinj
: Istria's most popular coastal city, Rovinj is truly Mediterranean in nature, combining a traditional fishing port with a modern seaside getaway, plus an old town full of narrow cobbled streets and charming squares. Visitors here can sometimes overhear locals speaking the region's old Romantic language, Istriot.Pula
: A mild climate and calm seas draw visitors to this southernmost point of the Istrian peninsula, but the city's ample Roman architecture is a key reason they stay. Its impeccably preserved Roman amphitheater is the star attraction on many Istria itineraries. Porec
: With a scenic location along the Adriatic Sea, a number of historical buildings from different periods, and a 6th-century basilica listed as a World Heritage Site, the ancient town of Porec ranks among the most-visited tourist destinations on Istria holidays.Premantura
: A small town on the south of the Istrian peninsula, Premantura boasts crystal clear seawater of a rare blue-green color lapping some of the coast's most beautiful pebble and rocky beaches.Motovun
: Perched on top of a steep hill that overlooks a river, vineyards, and the Motovun forest, this small town in central Istria is well-known for its medieval flair and a popular film festival.Barban
: Enjoy riding sports, quad safari, or a peaceful farm stay in Barban. This medieval village surrounded by woods and a lush valley draws visitors with its agritourism and numerous wine cellars.Novigrad
: One of the smallest resorts in Istria and often overlooked by tourists, this charming fishing town features a lovely pebble beach, an open-air gourmet festival, as well as live music and street performances.Buzet
: A small, sleepy town at the epicenter of the truffle-growing region, Buzet features a labyrinth of narrow streets and squares and makes a perfect stop on any gastronomic tour of Istria.Groznjan
: The narrow streets of this charming town turn into an artistic beehive during the summer months, featuring dance, drama, and peace activism workshops, while jazz and classical music come from every corner.Umag
: Take a Segway tour and discover the allure of this small town featuring fortification walls, a gated drawbridge, a charming 16th-century church, and a number of restaurants serving local agricultural specialties.
Things to Do in Istria
Popular Istria Tourist AttractionsRovinj Old Town
: As the keeper of Illyrian, Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian heritage, Rovinj Old Town features narrow, cobbled alleyways; small squares full of medieval, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque buildings and terraces; plus small churches, monuments, and old doors tucked behind every corner. Pula Arena
: Sit on the stone tiers of this star tourist attraction in Istria--built at the same time as the Roman Colosseum--and imagine how gladiators fought wild animals, or walk the underground passages and check out the reconstructions of ancient mills and presses for making olive oil and wine.Porec Old Town
: See how a variety of cultural influences shaped Porec Old Town over the course of nearly 2,000 years, and explore the town's rich heritage in museums and galleries, hosted in private houses and palaces.Saint Euphemia Cathedral
: This 18th-century Baroque church treasures the painted sarcophagus and relics of St. Euphemia, the patron saint of the town, and offers a great panorama view from its bell tower, which resembles the tower of St. Mark's Basilica in Venice.Port of Rovinj
: Stroll through the narrow lanes and soak up the atmosphere of one of the last true Mediterranean fishing ports, featuring historical and natural marvels, including the Lemme Channel, a Mediterranean fiord. Euphrasius Basilica
: Visit this World Heritage Site on your tour of Istria to see one of the best-preserved early Christian cathedral complexes in the world and admire the only surviving depiction of the Mother of God in an early-Christian western basilica.Kamenjak National Park
: Enjoy some downtime from city life in this national park, where you can discover many rare and native species of Istrian plants and animals while walking the path of fossilized dinosaur footsteps.Jama - Grotta Baredine
: Due to millennia of complete darkness and seclusion, this underground cave has developed a world of its own, complete with with sculptures, lakes, and odd little creatures called "human fish"--found only in this part of the planet.Brijuni Islands
: Once a lavish residence of Yugoslavian president Tito, Brijuni Islands offer nature trails with exotic imported plants, archeological finds, and lots of history such as Bronze Age settlements and former Byzantine, Roman, and Templar structures.Glavani Park
: Alongside a dense forest, look for a complex of treetop ropes and suspension bridges designed for outdoor adventure, where you can climb to 11 m (36 ft) and drop down on a giant swing, or soar 20 m (66 ft) above the earth on a zipline.
Planning an Istria Vacation with Kids
Places to Visit in Istria with Kids
With a balanced offering of natural and cultural attractions, including many ancient Roman architectural remains and a World Heritage Site, there are plenty of Istria vacation ideas for your family to choose from. You may well begin your trip with a fun history lesson in coastal Pula
, which boasts a well-preserved Roman amphitheater, an Austro-Hungarian fortress, and a Venetian castle--all attractions likely to impress visitors of all ages. Porec
, also both coastal, will interest young ones with their picturesque old towns and aquariums hosting an array of local aquatic life. Barban
, and Medulin
offer a range of outdoor things to do, from adventure parks and water activities to windsurfing and ziplining. Another thing your kids will love is discovering the small town of Umag
on a Segway tour. Other stops to consider adding to your family's Istria itinerary include Svetvincenat
, which hosts a medieval theme park in a 15th-century castle, and Funtana
--home to Dinopark
, where the life-size dinosaurs are the major topic.
Things to Do in Istria with Kids
The lovely and diverse natural setting of Istria calls for a spectrum of outdoor activities the whole family will enjoy on your Istria holiday. At Brijuni Islands
follow the nature trails with exotic plants, visit a safari park, and marvel at dinosaur footprints and a 2,000-year-old olive tree. For an outdoor adventure go to Glavani Park
or slide on a zipline over cliffs and a medieval castle at Pazinska Jama
. Meet a quirky little amphibian called "human fish" or "dragon offspring" at Jama - Grotta Baredine
, an underground cave rich in cave sculptures and lakes. Visit the sea turtle rescue center at Aquarium Pula
or discover a vivid world through the glass windows of the underwater cabin in Semisubmarine Medulin
. Among several water parks you may consider visiting, Aquapark Istralandia
features the largest wave pool in the Mediterranean.
Tips for a Family Vacation in Istria
Though the sea in Istria is crystal clear and great for snorkeling, it is colder than elsewhere in the Mediterranean and sandy beaches are rare. Most are pebbly and rocky, and your toddlers will probably need to wear plastic water shoes if your Istria vacation includes some beach time. If your children are still learning to swim, you may consider using the sheltered seawater pools or the pools at the resort hotels, apartment complexes, and campsites. On the southern coast in Medulin
is the most child-friendly sandy strand.
Dining and Shopping on Holiday in Istria
Cuisine of Istria
Istrian cuisine has gained international recognition for its culinary delights: precious, pungent black and white truffles abound, and its olive oil is said to be among the finest in the world. While enjoying your tour of Istria, try typical products of the region, such as truffle-flavored olive oil and cured ham or prosciutto ("pršut"), which is often served as a starter. Those on a mission for truffles should consider a stop in Motovun
, the truffle center of the peninsula. Grilled fish and shellfish are common dishes on the coast; scampi are a traditional favorite, together with calamari. In the interior, the accent is on meat, mainly the richly flavored beef of Boskarin cattle. The Italian influence can be seen on almost every restaurant menu, where pizza, pasta, gnocchi, and risotto are listed without fail. Rovinj
offers an authentic fishing experience after which the guests can enjoy a typical angler’s dinner. Even the most modest “konobas” (taverns) provide good-quality meals accompanied by a wide variety of regional wines served in decanters. Visit a local winery to taste some varieties you won't find at home, such as Malvazija of Buje
Shopping in Istria
While not known as a shopping destination, Istria nevertheless offers very good bargains when it comes to local products, especially foods like dried figs, fish, mussels and crabs, sausages and cheese, and the highly acclaimed olive oil. Some locals swear that the daily market on Narodni Trg in Pula
is the finest and cheapest in all of Istria. If you're looking for truffles, at zigante tartufi shop
you can choose from nearly 50 products made from the expensive gourmet fungus. If you feel like bringing home a souvenir from your trip to Istria, your best options might be cosmetics and natural soaps made from olive oil and scented with aromatic herbs, such as the ubiquitous lavender. For hidden treasures try to hit some of the local flea markets, like the one on the outskirts of the city park in Pazin
. Arts and crafts fans can buy fine artisan work, such as unique hand-painted scarves and jewelry, at Groznjan Hilltop village of artists, Istria, Croatia
Know Before You Go on a Trip to Istria
History of Istria
They don't call Istria "Croatia’s Tuscany" without good reason: the region was part of the Venetian Republic for centuries, and later belonged to Italy from 1918 to 1947. Still, while sightseeing in Istria you will notice that the peninsula's cultural heritage extends far beyond those periods, with traces of the many other powers to have ruled this land including Romans, Byzantines, Austro-Hungarians, and French. The Croatian population, which settled here around the 7th century CE, had to constantly fight for autonomy.
The main historical tourist attractions in Istria belong to the Roman legacy. Romans defeated the Illyrian Histri tribe (for which, incidentally, the peninsula is named), and established Pula
as a vital administrative center. Pula Arena
, a Roman amphitheatre, serves as one of the symbols of the region and is the highlight on many Istria itineraries.
After the fall of the Roman Empire and throughout the Middle Ages, the coast was mainly under the rule of Venetians, while the inland predominantly felt the German influence of Franks, Holy Roman emperors, and finally the Habsburgs. Rovinj
, the Istrian Venice with a fascinating STARI GRAD
, is keeper of the region's Illyrian, Roman, Byzantine, and Venetian heritage. Other historical sites you may consider visiting on your tour of Istria are Dvigrad
, which features the ruins of two adjacent medieval towns, and the Byzantine Euphrasius Basilica
, a World Heritage Site.
The 19th century was a time of revolution and of the awakening of national sentiment all over Europe, and Istria was no exception. Croatian nationalists were divided between those who wanted to unite with other Southern Slavs and those who dreamed of Great Croatia. Meanwhile, the Austro-Hungarian repression and influence strengthened. Learn more about this period and others at Kastel
, a Baroque fortification that houses the Historical and Maritime Museum of Istria, where you can view arms, coins, and photographs of urban and suburban life on the peninsula.
Between the two world wars Istria was part of Italy, and after World War II it joined the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, Istria became a county in the Republic of Croatia.
Landscape of Istria
The largest peninsula in the Adriatic, Istria offers sharp contrasts: the wooded hills, lush valleys, and picturesque hilltop villages of the unspoiled mountainous interior, and a coast of pebbly beaches against the backdrop of rocky walls plunging into the sea. As you move further inland on your Istria tour, the scrubby vegetation and olive groves gradually give way to pine forests, fertile fields, and vineyards. Probably the most attractive way to see the Istrian landscape is from a plane; Aeropark Vrsar - Tours
offers panorama flights over the peninsula and the Lemme Channel, a protected natural phenomenon that resembles a fjord. If you prefer exploring the countryside by land, take a tour with Parenzana train
, which runs from Motovun
through tunnels and viaducts. The small hill town of Vizinada offers one of the most stunning views of the both Green and Blue Istria.
Holidays & Festivals in Istria
Istria celebrates the same public holidays as the rest of Croatia, including Christmas, New Year's Day, Easter, and Labor Day (May 1). Expect many attractions and banks to be closed on these days. If you are planning your Istria itinerary with local festivals in mind, the best time to visit is in the middle of summer. Novigrad
hosts a variety of events ranging from traditional "klapas" (a capella vocal ensembles), to contemporary festivities including performances by street artists. Porec
also showcases all kinds of street performances, from dance to theatre. Pula
host the major film festivals in this part of the country, while Rovinj
is well-known for its music festivals. Over the second weekend in September, a traditional festival takes place in Buzet
, with much historical pageantry that marks the start of the white truffle season.
Istria Travel Tips
Climate of Istria
Mild winters and warm summers with plenty of clear days are typical for the Mediterranean climate along the coast of Istria. Though the temperatures may reach over 38 C (100 F), even the hottest months of July and August are relatively pleasant thanks to the maestral--the Adriatic's gentle, refreshing sea breeze. As you move towards the inland the climate gradually changes into continental, which is very favorable for travelers interested in outdoor activities. The interior of the peninsula is known as Green Istria, thanks to the frequent rainfall that does wonders for its vast pine forests. Plan your Istria vacation between the months of April and October and you will get the best of weather.
Transportation in Istria
The heart-shaped Istrian peninsula is small enough to be traveled by car from one end to another in just over an hour. Renting a car or traveling with your own vehicle is the best option for sightseeing in Istria, especially if you wish to explore its lovely inland villages, rolling hills, and bucolic plains. The bus network is limited in the interior, but along the coast it is fairly regular. The only railway line runs from Pula to Pazin, continuing north into Slovenia. Visitors staying in one of the hotels along the coast can take advantage of the "tourist trains" (effectively mini-trains) which shuttle guests from their hotels to the beaches and into the local towns. Another option for moving around quickly is to take a taxi or a water taxi along the coast.
Language of Istria
The official language in Istria is Croatian. However, since the territory of the peninsula was long ruled by Italians, the Italian language is understood, if not spoken, almost everywhere. Street signs and addresses are often written in both languages. Groznjan
has an ethnic Italian majority and many coastal towns have ethnic Italian communities. German- and English-speakers on holiday in Istria should have no problem communicating, since these languages are widely spoken by restaurant staff and market sellers. In the southwestern part of the peninsula, in the towns of Rovinj
, the endangered Romance language Istriot is still spoken.