An Istria Travel Guide
A country heavily influenced by its past landlords, the Romans and Venetians, Istria is like the cleaner, calmer version of Italy. The roads are a dream to navigate, even in the middle of August, as Istria has just the right amount of tourists appreciating its beauty. Equally, the weather too is the perfect combination of not too hot and not too cold which is ideal for both Istria’s beautiful beaches and day trips to its historic towns.
Maybe down to the fact that Istria doesn’t receive hoards of tourists every year, the locals still have a kindness about them which is sometimes hard to find in busier neighbouring countries – especially at peak season. They are desperate to share the love of their country with you and eager to let you try their truffles or local wine – you will find their enthusiasm so heartwarming. Also, English is taught in schools so most of the time it’s easy to get by and the Istrian’s don’t seem affronted that they need to use it. And when you go the extra mile to learn a few phrases in Croatian they can’t be more touched!
Read our Istria travel guide to discover all the best places in Istria, which towns to visit and what to see…
The Top 7 Best Towns In Istria, Croatia
Whilst the rest of the world is visiting Dubrovnic further south in Croatia, those in the know stick with the less touristy medieval fortress, Rovinj. A little like Venice over the Adriatic Sea, Rovinj began as an island, but in time the channel was filled joining it to the mainland. Rovinj will probably be the busiest place you will encounter in Istria but it’s easy to see why! It is a must-see on our guide to Istria if only to imagine what Venice would be like if it was polished. Gleaming white cobblestones in thin little streets eventually lead you up to the top for the best views of tiny people and turquoise waters. And if your legs will allow it, the extra climb of 192 steps up the most rickety staircase in the Church of St Euphemia will deposit you on a slightly less rickety platform for even better views of Istria and tiny people.
You’ll need to regain your confidence when you’re back on terra firma so wind back down through Rovinj and grab a glass of something stiff at one of the many restaurants and bars, or mosey around several of the seemingly hundreds of art galleries. Beautiful gift shops and boutiques also make Rovinj the perfect town for a spot of shopping too.
Whilst Porec might be one of the main tourist resort areas for big hotels it needn’t put you off. This sweet little town on the Adriatic has loads going for it! Through the day you can take off on a boat trip to see whales and dolphins or even hire some jet ski’s, Porec is one of the main area’s to take water-related day trips – even a trip to Venice if you so require.
However, inside the narrow streets of Porec you will want to visit the UNESCO listed Euphrasian Basilica for its amazing mosaics and stunning Byzantine architecture. Or the remains of two Roman temples to Mars and Neptune – not that inspiring in themselves, but definitely a glimpse at what Porec would’ve been like under Roman rule. Interestingly, the gridlike structure of Porec’s streets is a nod to the Romans too.
Pre-Roman’s however, the Venetians owned Porec and the Venetian-style Gothic architecture can be admired at the Zuccato Palace and several other places as you wander around. Porec comes to life on an evening and has a reputation as a bit of a party town but honestly, it still has a relaxed vibe whilst people eat their huge pizza’s and drink their cheap local wine from restaurant terraces and pavement tables. Porec has a happy vibe and a lovely holiday feel.
If you make the trip over to Opatija in the top right corner of the Istrian triangle, you may as well have stepped into another country! When the rich and royals of western Europe were having a good old shindig in St Tropez, the Russian Oligarchs and eastern European gangsters were wining and dining their dolly-birds in the cliffside cafeterias of Opatija. The architecture becomes Austro-Hungarian, very grand and luxurious. Neatly painted stucco in soft pastel shades offset the white decorative mouldings at the edges. Preened gardens and box hedging, a jolly speaker-system attached to lamp-posts playing summer vibe songs, confectionary shops selling the prettiest Austrian pralines and bathers swimming in the lido’s: all reminiscent of a 1950’s seaside scene. Designer stores line the high street but this is no artificial paradise – the locals are present and cheery, probably because the rest of the world hasn’t discovered their little gem of a town. Yes, there are yachts in the harbour but it’s understated wealth and in no way pretentious.
Take a stroll along the Lungomare (seafront promenade) then grab a strong Austrian coffee at the famous Cafe Wagner for the ultimate people-watching opportunity. Sample another type of Istrian truffle, this time made with Austrian chocolate or grab a bit of shade in one of the towns shaded manicured gardens. Opatija was built with luxury in mind over 100 years ago but it still oozes it today and is quite a contrast to the more natural and rustic charms of the rest of Istria – a definite worthy day trip if you have hired a car in Istria.
Motovun, one of Istria’s hilltop towns, is great for foodies and has strong connections to the truffle trade of Istria. It turns up in any good guide to Istria and is one of the best towns to visit if you love your food! Hang off the walls (safely of course) and stretch your neck to see the forests below – forests of pigs searching for black and white truffles that seem to have put Istria on the (foodie) map. You can sample and buy their truffled delights in some of the little stores and gift shops or taste these local delicacies with your meal. There are a few nicely placed bars with tables on the town walls for the best view of the sunset – the perfect trip out for an hour or two in the early evening.
The little town of Groznjan is great for a wander too – not only are the house fronts made to look their best with hanging baskets and vines of Bougainvillea, but the insides of stores are a shoppers dream – tiny little stone rooms filled to the brim with local artists pieces and unique Istrian gifts – like the olive oil soaps, wrapped so beautifully in designer packaging that even your smelliest friend wouldn’t take offense at a souvenir! There are many other little hilltop towns in Istria but Motovun and Groznjan are our favourite and well worth an afternoon out, exploring and debating the merits of these neighbourhoods in the clouds.
With absolutely no intention of visiting the place, we stumbled across Fazana in desperate need of some food after a long day exploring some Istrian gems. It turned out to be the holiday destination we would rebook again and again! I don’t know if it was the euphoria of the giant slice of Pizza I shoved in my face or simply the beautiful outlook over the harbour to the islands of Brijuni, but we fell in love with Fazana instantly.
The Brijuni National Park just across the water brings in day-trippers to hire and charter boats, but once the rush is gone around early evening, the orange glow of the sun bathes one of the prettiest little fishing villages in all of Istria in the most glorious hues.
There’s not a lot to do here, except maybe meander the little market and tiny town, or sunbathe on the beach but we loved the feel of the place. There’s always action and enterprise going on in the working harbour giving Fazana a very local feel. But equally, the locals have recognized their beautiful town for what it is and there are enough restaurants and bars to accommodate a relaxed holidaymaker and their thirsty palate.
Literally a 5 minute drive from Fazana, and the main working town of Istria, Pula is as urban as it gets in this part of Croatia. It’s home to more than half of Istria’s population and also the area’s main airport. With that, of course, comes industry and high-rise housing, but if you want to see one of Istria’s gem’s and top tourist attractions then you must come to Pula to see the amphitheatre.
The most in-tact remaining Roman amphitheatre in the world, the Pula Arena is a sight to behold and there’s no way we’re leaving it off this Istria travel guide. It still has it’s four side towers preserved and dates back to AD81, finished by Emperor Titus who built Rome’s Colosseum too. Istria’s colosseum is used throughout the summer as a venue for concerts – in fact, we flew over the Adriatic recently and the bright lights of this concert venue could be seen from way up there, so make sure you check out their gig guide for when you’re visiting, it would make the best venue!
An Istria Travel Guide – What And Where To Eat
Istria stretches out like a green carpet when you stand on the walls of one of their hilltop towns – field after field of arable farms and vineyards make it easy to understand why food is such a big deal to the Istrians. It’s fair to say that their pride brings only the best and freshest ingredients to your plate and when you sit down to eat you get a sense of what it was like 50 years ago everywhere else in Europe when pretty much everything was organic and it was picked when it was good and ready.
Pizza is everywhere, and it’s good! We particularly like the harbour-front in Fazana which has a number of pizzerias with the best dinner time view. Or alternatively, you could visit Porec and eat your whole weeks’ meal in one with their seemingly famous ginormous pizza. There are a few restaurants that get the best reviews on trip advisor, but just wander around and you will see for yourself how big they are and how good they look!
If you visit Opatija for the day, you must eat at Submarine Burger in the neighbouring fishing village of Volosko – grab yourself a seat with a harbour view and order their mini triple burger plate.
Along the coast, you’re not short of fish and seafood restaurants with typical Croatian dishes like Skampi Buzzara (prawns in a tomato sauce) or Brodetto (a fisherman’s stew). Inland, you’re more likely to see more meat dishes on the menu, like Peka (or Ispod Cripnje) which is tender slow-cooked lamb or veal made in an earthenware pot, or platefuls of the local Istrian smoked ham. Try and get a booking at Konoba Mondo in Motuvun.
Istria is well famous for its truffles and thankfully they’re in good supply so it’s not too expensive to buy and you receive generous helpings when you choose a truffle dish – honestly, if you are in Istria you mustn’t miss out on the truffles! If you’re going for breakfast, start the day right and opt for the truffled scrambled eggs.
Konoba’s, or Gostionica’s, are little family ran restaurants where you can guarantee the food will be special and the setting a little more intimate. Often they use vegetables from their own gardens and wine from their own vineyards so the prices are so reasonable, if not surprisingly cheap. Basically, you can’t go wrong eating out in Istria.
An Istria Travel Guide – Where To Stay In Istria
Where better to position yourself for a few days exploring in Istria than right in the middle of the Istrian triangular peninsula. Hotel Resort Cize is the perfect distance from all of the places you must see and in a beautiful location in the Istrian hills. The roads in Istria are excellent and nowhere is too hard to get to so this is the ideal base.
Finding modern hotels in Istria can be difficult yet Resort Cize is contemporary and immaculate. The rooms are simple but well equipped, and the bathrooms have a stylish design to them. The room which overlooks the pool has a balcony that receives the sun from late afternoon and is the best place to see the sunset over the hills. Or if you’re travelling with a family they also have a 4 and 5 person apartment, with its own little pool. Plus the option to rent bikes too.
What sets this small family ran hotel apart, however, is the level of service you will receive. Nothing is too much trouble and they are the perfect balance of friendly yet professional. You must eat here for dinner at least once in your stay because the food is all locally grown, exceptional value and can be tailored to however you prefer it. I’m going to put it out there and say this was possibly the nicest hotel we have ever stayed in, maybe not in terms of interior design but certainly in terms of comfort and home from home. I cannot recommend Resort Cize highly enough!
Alternatively, the coastal town Fazana has a lovely relaxed vibe to it and the Apartments Villa Nina is in perfect walking distance from the town and beaches and comes with breakfast too. Fazana is only a stones throw from Pula for the airport and if you were thinking of kicking back for a few days and not hiring a car then Fazana would be the perfect little town to get a bit of down-time.
So there you have it, our Istria travel guide and recommendations to getting the most out of your trip to Istria. Maybe you have come across some of your own little gems in Istria, if so – do let us know, we’d love to try them on our next visit. And any questions, send us a message below – we’ll do our best to help!
Istria has been our first taste of Croatia and we liked it very much, but I am super interested to know how it compares the rest of the country: has the old Italian influence made it a unique little peninsula or has the rest of Croatia got a similar vibe? I would certainly welcome any comments or feedback on this query. Feel free to leave me some input below and for more posts on Istria to follow, make sure you sign up to my newsletter. Thanks for reading!
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