I have a passion for visiting places where I can stroll through centuries of history. Hence my fascination with Croatia’s second largest city, Split, a marvel of architectural preservation with the added bonus of a gorgeous Adriatic backdrop. Split is essentially one large UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The historic center of Split, together with Diocletian’s Palace, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Whichever way you turn, once you pass through the four gates of the city center, you are surrounded by antiquity, beautifully preserved, with every corner telling a story of the city’s years under the rule of different nations. Originally founded by the Greeks, Split was the chosen location of the Roman Emperor Diocletian for his summer palace. Brought to the forefront of international tourism by a music festival held there in 2013, Split is accessible not by chariot but by a variety of cruises and a convenient airport with connections to major European cities.
There is so much to discover and love about this beautiful city, which is located on the so-called central Dalmatian coast. Here are the reasons why I am already planning my return visit.
1. A walkable city from the third century
A city within a palace, or perhaps it is a palace within a city, Split is characterized by its old town and maze of cobbled streets and squares dating back to Roman times. Designed by the Romans, the peristyle is a rectangular open courtyard that remains a central meeting place to this day. Here you can enter the basement of Diocletian’s 4th-century palace (tickets are required). Sit on the steps for a while, sipping an espresso and marveling at the beautifully intact marble columns, the 3,500-year-old Sphinx from Egypt and the grandeur of the Emperor’s ‘Retirement Home’.
You can plan a stroll through the 1,700-year-old lanes that meander through the area that once comprised the fortress surrounding the palace, or simply wander and discover the different eras and styles that blend seamlessly with today’s shops, bistros and coffee bars. Be sure to look up as you stroll and notice the residential dwellings above the walls and near the gates; They take the concept of life in the midst of history to its most literal expression.
It’s wise to book a tour with one of the knowledgeable guides, who will point out things you probably wouldn’t notice on your own, such as stone carvings, examples of Roman architecture and areas that were important to Diocletian and his court. A tour of Diocletian’s Palace is recommended for early morning or just before nightfall when the crowds subside, and the porch and exterior areas offer dramatic views of the sunset and the bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Domnius.
Pro tip: If you are a fan of game of Thronesdon’t miss the Palace basement where scenes were filmed in seasons four and five – you will surely recognize the Dragon Chamber. If that whets your appetite, there is one game of Thrones Museum and gift shop just a short walk away.
2. Even more history
Split’s complicated history from its earliest beginnings under the rule of Venice, Byzantium, Croatia, Hungary, Austria and Napoleonic France is documented in several fascinating museums. Just behind the cathedral, consisting of a church, an octagonal mausoleum and a bell tower, the Split Ethnographic Museum houses an interesting collection of costumes and furnishings that illustrate customs and traditions through the years. Split City Museum combines art with history in a late Gothic palace worthy of medieval Split. Visit the Archaeological Museum of Split to get a glimpse of the original structure of Diocletian’s Palace and see earlier artifacts from the area. The remains of the Jewish ghetto, now indicated only by faint wall markings and artifacts saved from fascist destruction in 1942, can be seen in Split’s remarkable synagogue, a testament to survival and community. It’s worth walking up the stairs to ask to enter the third oldest synagogue in Europe.
Pro tip: The synagogue is not always open. It is best to come by beforehand to arrange a tour. In addition, if you stay for several days, you will receive a free SPLIT card for free entry to the city’s museums.
3. A base for a cruise to the islands, a day at the beach or a walk in the woods
You can sit along the beautiful Riva, a stretch of coast lined with cafes and restaurants, and watch the parade of people, yachts and ferries while sipping a coffee or a glass of bubbly. Then, with a day pack and swimsuit, hop aboard a taxi boat or catamaran for a day trip to the neighboring islands of Brač, Hvar, Vis, and Šolta to enjoy the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea and refreshing sea breezes. Too complicated? Visit Split’s own Bačvice beach, where the unusual, traditional ball game is famous Picigin being played (the game consists of players preventing a small ball from touching the water).
If instead of the blue of the sea you’d rather seek out the green of the city, beautiful Marjan Hill is a short walk from the promenade, which is rewarded with panoramic viewpoints, hiking and biking trails, and a Jewish cemetery dating back to the 1500s.
Pro tip: If you go to Brač, pay attention to the buildings there. The same white limestone from the island was used in the construction of Diocletian’s Palace and the White House.
4. Daily markets instead of InstaCart deliveries
Local early risers know that early morning shopping is best at Pazar, the massive open-air green market just outside the palace walls. Rows of fruit and vegetable sellers, cheese makers, lavender sellers and clothing craftsmen offer all sorts of articles there. The market is open daily until 2 p.m. Don’t miss it – it offers a glimpse into the colors and spirit of Croatia.
At the opposite end of the palace, the daily fish market is a boisterous, smelly indoor-outdoor venue for fishmongers selling their local catch. Interestingly, the market is known as the “place without flies” due to its location, as flies are said to be repelled by the smell of the nearby ancient sulfur baths.
5. Farm and sea-to-table dining with a Mediterranean accent
Restaurants in Split make use of the local lamb and beef, cheese, olive oil and of course fresh fish from the Adriatic Sea. Choose from tiny Konobas (Home cooking) like Villa Spiza that feels like you’re dining in someone’s kitchen where you can watch pasticada, pasta puttanesca or stuffed cabbage cooked in front of you. Or experience the other end of the culinary spectrum at ZOI, a fine dining experience with dishes elegantly presented and served. Request a table on the outdoor terrace next to Diocletian’s Palace for dramatic views of the sunset and the Adriatic Sea.
Ice cream and pizza are just as ubiquitous in Split as they are in Italy. Pizza makers go out of their way by adding pineapple, Croatian mushrooms, tuna and shrimp alongside the usual pepperoni and ham. You’ll also find that ice cream parlors seem to pop up on every corner. Split gelati, shaped as beautifully as you might expect in Italy, is creamy with imaginative flavors. You can also try a happy holdover from Austrian rule over Split with a flaky strudel in many pekaras (Bakeries).
6. Wine, spirits and cafe life
Slurping, chatting and chilling is a way of life in Split. Not only does the city have a vibrant spirits and wine scene, but it also has a rich coffee culture that was shaped by the Ottomans, Venetians, and Austro-Hungarians.
The Riva by the sea has many open-air cafes alongside the non-stop Passeggiata for adults and skateboarders. Spend a few hours among the palm trees like the locals, sipping a coffee or a cocktail and socializing. In the center of town, the aptly named NoStress Bistro is the place for music and lively company. Hip bottle bars like Noor and Bar Sistema are also tucked away in the corners and basements along the town’s small streets.
Wine lovers have numerous opportunities to taste Croatia’s celebrated grape varieties. Malvazija, a white wine from Istria, Pošip and Grk from Korčula, and Zinfandel (Primitivo) from Hvar and Vis feature on many menus with the widest selection at trendy Bokeria Kitchen and Wine Bar. Bokeria’s knowledgeable waiters will arrange tastings of red and white Dalmatian wines that pair perfectly with the restaurant’s menu of small dishes and truffle-dusted main courses. Top off your meal with a cherry brandy or a relaxing finish travaricaa strong yet gentle herbal-infused rakiya this is Croatia’s version of grappa.
Pro tip: To reverse the effects of alcohol (and catch up on email thanks to free Wi-Fi), stop at D16, a charming little coffee bar in Old Town’s labyrinthine “Get” district.
7. Sleeping with history
Split offers a range of accommodation, from charming boutique hotels to Airbnbs set within Split’s historic buildings, some even among the remains of the palace. For a truly unusual stay that involves climbing a whole series of stairs, the four-star Vestibul Palace Hotel is literally inside Diocletian’s Palace, with original walls and bricks incorporated into its rooms and public areas.
Located on Split’s Pjaca, ‘People’s Square’, Central Hotel has been renamed Heritage Hotel Santa Lucia. I was invited to be one of the first guests at the ‘new’ hotel which re-opened after an extensive 2 year refurbishment along with its prestigious restaurant and bar, Central, the first Kavana (cafe) in Split, which dates back to 1776. A lovely addition, the La Luce rooftop terrace, offers dining with a view of the cathedral’s bell tower. There is also a secret garden perfect for an afternoon refreshment.
Pro tip: Ask the Santa Lucia receptionist to see the archeological find unearthed during the hotel’s renovation. Part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site, the ruins remain in their original condition alongside the hotel kitchen and are still a mystery as to their original function.
One final note: for the easiest tour and hotel bookings, visit Split in spring and autumn, when the weather is still nice and crowds are at their lowest. November is quite rainy and can present challenges walking the cobbled streets or climbing the stairs around Diocletian’s Palace.