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 wonder of architectural preservation with the added bonus of a beautiful Adriatic setting. Split is essentially one big UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The historic center of Split, together with Diocletian’s Palace, achieved the UNESCO designation in 1979. No matter where you turn once you pass through the four gates to the city center, you’re surrounded by antiquity, beautifully maintained with each corner telling a story of the city’s years under rule by a variety of nations. Originally founded by the Greeks, Split was the chosen location of Roman emperor Diocletian for his summer palace. Brought to the forefront of international tourism by a music festival held there in 2013, Split is reachable, not by chariot, but via a variety of cruises and a convenient airport with connections through major European cities.
There’s so much to discover and love about this beautiful city that sits on what is known as the Central Coast of Dalmatia. Here are the reasons I’m already planning my return visit.
1. A Walkable City Dating From The Third Century
A city within a palace, or perhaps it’s a palace inside a city, Split is distinguished by its Old Town and warren of stone-paved streets and plazas that date from the times of the Romans. A rectangular open court, the Roman-designed Peristil remains a central gathering place to this day, and it’s where you can enter the basement of Diocletian’s fourth-century palace (tickets are required). Sit on the steps for a while, sip an espresso, and marvel at the beautifully intact marble columns, the 3,500-year-old sphinx from Egypt, and the magnitude of the Emperor’s “retirement” home.
You can map out a walk through the 1,700-year-old alleys that wind through the area that once comprised the fortress surrounding the palace, or just wander and discover the different periods and styles that seamlessly meld with present-day shops, bistros, and coffee bars. Be sure to look up as you stroll and note the residential apartments above the walls and near the gates; they take the concept of living among history to its most literal expression.
It’s wise to book a tour with one of the knowledgeable city guides who will point out things you wouldn’t likely notice on your own like engravings into stones, examples of Roman building expertise, and areas of significance to Diocletian and his court. A tour of Diocletian’s Palace is suggested for early morning or just before dusk when crowds thin out, and the vestibule and outdoor spaces afford dramatic views of the sunset and the bell tower of the Cathedral of Saint Domnius.
Pro Tip: If you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, don’t miss the palace cellars where scenes in seasons four and five were filmed — you will certainly recognize the dragons’ chamber. If that whets your appetite, there’s a Game of Thrones museum and a gift shop a short walk away.
2. Even More History
Split’s complicated history from its earliest origins under rule by Venice, Byzantium, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, and Napoleonic France is noted in several fascinating museums. Just behind the cathedral, comprised of a church, an octagonal mausoleum, and a bell tower, the Split Ethnographic Museum holds an interesting collection of costumes and furnishings that illustrate customs and traditions through the years. The Split City Museum mixes art with history in a late-Gothic palace befitting medieval Split. For a sense of the original structure of Diocletian’s Palace and to view earlier area artifacts, visit Split’s Archeological Museum. The remnants of the Jewish ghetto, now indicated only by faint wall markings and artifacts saved from the destruction of fascists in 1942, can be seen in Split’s remarkable synagogue, a testament to survival and community. It’s worth a walk up the stairs to request entry to what is the third oldest synagogue in Europe.
Pro Tip: The synagogue is not always open. It’s best to stop by in advance to arrange a tour. Additionally, you can obtain a free SPLIT Card for free admission to city museums if you stay multiple days.
3. A Jumping Off Point 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 shoreline stretch of cafés and restaurants, and watch the parade of people, yachts, and ferries while you sip a coffee or a glass of bubbly. Then, with a day pack and swimsuit, board a taxi boat or catamaran for a day trip to neighboring Brač, Hvar, Vis, and Šolta islands to enjoy the crystalline Adriatic water and refreshing sea breezes. Too complicated? Visit Split’s own Bačvice beach where the unusual, traditional ball game known as picigin is played (the game consists of players keeping a small ball from touching the water).
If you’d prefer to search out the greenery of the city instead of the blues of the sea, beautiful Marjan Hill is a short walk from the promenade with the reward of panoramic viewpoints, paths for hiking and cycling, and a Jewish cemetery that dates from the 1500s.
Pro Tip: If you go to Brač, take note of the buildings there. The same white limestone from the island was used in building Diocletian’s Palace as well as the White House.
4. Daily Markets Instead Of Deliveries From InstaCart
Local early birds know that the best shopping to be had is early morning in the Pazar, the massive open-air green market just outside the walls of the palace. There, rows and rows of fruit and vegetable vendors, cheesemakers, lavender sellers, and clothing artisans hawk all kinds of items. The market is open every day until 2 p.m. Don’t miss this — it offers a view into the color and spirit of Croatia.
At the opposite end of the palace, the daily fish market is a boisterous, smelly indoor-outdoor showplace for fishmongers selling their local catch. Interestingly, because of its location, the market is known as the “place without flies,” as flies are purportedly repelled by the odor from the nearby ancient sulfur baths.
5. Farm- And Sea-To-Table Dining With A Mediterranean Accent
Restaurants in Split take advantage of the local lamb and beef, cheeses, olive oils, and, of course, fresh fish from the Adriatic. Choose from tiny konobas (homestyle restaurants) like Villa Spiza which feel like you’re dining in someone’s kitchen where you can watch your pašticada, pasta puttanesca, or stuffed cabbage made in front of you. Or experience the other end of the culinary spectrum at ZOI, a fine dining experience with elegantly plated and served dishes. Request a table on the outdoor terrace abutting Diocletian’s Palace for dramatic views of the sunset and the Adriatic.
Ice cream and pizza are as ubiquitous in Split as they are in Italy. Pizza makers go all out in creativity adding pineapple, Croatian mushrooms, tuna, and shrimp in addition to the usual pepperoni and ham. You’ll also notice that ice cream shops seem to pop up at every turn. Split gelati, displayed as beautifully sculpted as you might expect in Italy, is creamy with inventive flavors. You can also sample a happy leftover from Austria’s dominion over Split with a flaky strudel at many pekaras (bakeries).
6. Wine, Spirits, And Café Life
Casually sipping, chatting, and chilling is a way of life in Split. Not only does the city have a lively spirits-and-wine scene, but it also has a rich coffee drinking culture shaped by the Ottomans, Venetians, and Austro-Hungarians.
The seaside Riva has many open-air cafes adjacent to the non-stop passeggiata of adults and skateboarders. Spend a few hours among the palm trees as the locals do, drinking coffee or a cocktail and catching up on conversation. In the center of town, the appropriately named NoStress Bistro is the place for music and lively company. Hip bottle bars like Noor and Bar Sistema are tucked into corners and cellars along the city’s tiny streets as well.
Wine lovers have numerous opportunities to sample Croatia’s acclaimed varietals. Malvazija, a white wine from Istria, pošip, and grk from Korčula, and zinfandel (primitivo) from Hvar and Vis feature on many menus with the largest selection at the trendy Bokeria Kitchen and Wine Bar. Bokeria’s knowledgeable servers will curate a tasting of red and white Dalmatian wines that pair perfectly with the restaurant’s menu of small plates and truffle-dusted mains. Add a relaxing finish to your meal with a cherry brandy or a travarica, a strong yet smooth herbal-infused rakija that’s Croatia’s version of grappa.
Pro Tip: To reverse the effects of the alcohol (and catch up on your emails thanks to free Wi-Fi), stop at D16, a charming small-batch coffee bar set in the labyrinthine “Get” neighborhood of Old Town.
7. Sleeping With History
Split offers a range of accommodations from charming boutique hotels to Airbnb’s fashioned within Split’s historic buildings, some even among the remains of the palace. For a truly unusual stay that requires walking up a fair number of stairs, the four-star Hotel Vestibul Palace literally sits inside Diocletian’s Palace, incorporating original walls and bricks into its rooms and public areas.
Situated on Split’s Pjaca, the “people’s square,” the Central Hotel has been renamed the Heritage Hotel Santa Lucia. I was invited to be one of the first guests at the “new” hotel which re-opened after a comprehensive 2-year renovation along with its revered restaurant and bar, Central, the first kavana (café) in Split, which dates from 1776. A lovely addition, the La Luce rooftop terrace offers dining with a view of the bell tower of the Cathedral. There is also a secret garden, perfect for an afternoon refreshment.
Pro Tip: Ask the desk manager at the Santa Lucia to see the archeological find unearthed during the hotel renovation. As part of a UNESCO World Heritage site, the ruins adjacent to the hotel’s kitchen remain in their original state and are still a mystery as to their original function.
One final note, for the easiest booking of both tours and hotels, visit Split in spring and fall when the weather is still lovely and the crowds are the smallest. November is quite rainy and can present challenges to walking on the stone-paved roads or climbing the stairs around Diocletian’s Palace.