Nestled at the northern edge of the Adriatic Sea, Istria in Croatia is a hidden gem waiting to be discovered. Whether you’re a history buff, a foodie, an adventure seeker or just a beach-loving holiday maker, the Istria peninsula beckons with open arms.
Picture charming coastal towns bathed in the warm glow of the Mediterranean sun, rolling vineyards, vibrant cities and diverse landscapes – there really is something in Istria, Croatia, for every traveller. Add to all of that a rich tapestry of traditions to enjoy that have been woven into the fabric of the enchanting Istrian peninsula.
Plus, it’s a food-lovers paradise with a farm-to-table philosophy, a thriving wine culture, and some of the finest seafood, olive oil and truffles in the world. You certainly won’t go hungry on your tour of Istria, Croatia.
In our comprehensive guide, we’ll unveil the secrets of Istria, help you figure out where to stay, and provide you with all of the essential information to make your time in Istria, Croatia, unforgettable.
Everything You Need To Know About Istria, Croatia
THE HISTORY OF ISTRIA
Ancient history has Istria beginning with a tribe called the Histri’s, which of course is where the name Istria originated. But come the 2nd century the Istrian peninsula was conquered by the Roman Empire leaving the most indelible heritage that survives to this day.
Istria’s location on the Adriatic Sea made it a strategically important hub with strong trade routes and a massive contribution to the Roman Empire’s prosperity. This lasting heritage continues to be a prominent part of the region’s identity, from the poker straight roads, towns built out of Roman wealth, a proper Italian vibe, and impressive Roman structures like the well-preserved amphitheater in Pula.
More recently in the history books of Istria, the Habsburg Dynasty, specifically the Austro-Hungarian Empire, left golden threads of cultural evidence in the opulent Istrian Riviera town of Opatija. And, of course, its unfortunate involvement with the war in Yugoslavia has left a few scars that the region is only just recovering from in some respects.
That said, if you have ever visited other parts of Croatia further South and noticed the ghost towns and half-built hotels that were reverberations of the war in Croatia, the region of Istria is not like that at all. Istria wasn’t affected as badly by the war and you won’t find overgrown shelled-out buildings or the ugly remnants of former Yugoslavia. The Venetian-style towns and villages still stand, and being an area that has always relied economically on small-scale tourism rather than industry, Istria has emerged relatively unscathed.
The Istrian peninsula is a distinctive triangular shape jutting out from the Northern end of the Croatian coastline. And, whilst the interior is a lush combination of vineyards, olive groves, and ancient hilltop towns, the fringes of Istria are made up with beach towns, fishing villages and important Venetian cities.
It’s quick and easy to cross the Istrian peninsula by car as the roads are well-maintained and quiet. But if you want to visit Istria and not hire a car, you may be limited to the coastline and larger towns if you are relying on public transport.
Where To Stay In Istria, Croatia
The Croatian peninsula of Istria is abundant with places to stay, it really does just depend on what kind of holiday you are after. We have visited several times and also broken our holiday up into sections before, so we really do have some fantastic experiences to share with you. Honestly though, it would be difficult to go wrong with where to stay in Istria – all of the towns are wonderful and unique in their own way.
RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF ISTRIA
Our first holiday in Istria was two weeks of road-tripping with a pretty packed itinerary and a desire to really get to know the area. So, we chose a central location, and really lucked out! We booked Villa Borgo in the ancient hilltop town of Motovun and had no regrets. We received the warmest welcome, ate our breakfasts with the most incredible view, and appreciated that nowhere was too far away for day trips. The town of Motovun itself was a delight too and we had no idea before our trip how much great food there is in this area, especially Motovun. We would definitely recommend Villa Borgo, or anywhere in Motovun, if you were visiting Istria to explore and make day trips. The town is laden with great places to eat too, so you’d never run out of choice.
Breakfast on the terrace at Villa Borgo in Motovun
FAZANA – A QUIET RESORT IN AN OLD FISHING VILLAGE WITH GREAT ACCESS TO ISTRIA
The second time we were visiting Istria, with kids and grandparents, we were seeking a beach town for relaxing days and a location that worked for day trips. It was also important the town had enough going on so that evenings would be fun and there were plenty of restaurant options. We had already scoped out Fazana on a previous tour of Istria and knew this was the perfect spot!
We stayed at this 5 bedroom holiday home and could not fault it. It was close enough to the beach to let the teenagers off on their own and just a short walk for us adults back from the local restaurants at night. But in Fazana you are spoiled for choice with accommodation, covering every budget too. Check out the best deals on hotels, villas and apartments in Fazana here.
Fazana would also be a good option if you were visiting Istria without a car as you are not too far from Pula airport and a taxi would not be too expensive.
A LUXURY EXPERIENCE IN ISTRIA
We have plans to return to the Istrian coast soon for a short romantic break and have our eye on a beautiful hotel that is part of the Small Luxury Hotel Collection. The Palazzo Rains Hotel is for adults only and has a spa and the most luxuriously dressed rooms. And with not many plans to actually do anything, except maybe a short trip out to one of our favourite romantic villages in Istria, Groznjan, we would be quite happy to let the staff at the Palazzo take care of us for a few days. There’s also the Moreno Ivancic Winery within walking distance and the local town of Novigrad is really cute too.
Alternatively, book yourself a stay in the town of Opatija, the Istrian riviera town on the northeast coast. Opatija has long been known as the Saint Tropez of Istria and is teeming with Oligarchs, luxury chocolate shops, and boutique shopping opportunities. There are plenty of luxury hotels and most of them with incredible views over the Kvarner Gulf.
Stay at the beautiful, yet very reasonable, beachfront Grand Hotel Adriatic and take advantage of their breakfast and dinner package for a really relaxed holiday in Istria.
OTHER POPULAR PLACES TO STAY IN ISTRIA
Some other popular choices of places to stay in Istria would be the picture-perfect coastal city of Rovinj and the well-equipped resort town of Porec.
Not too unlike Dubrovnik, the enchanting city of Rovinj is an old Venetian fortified city right on the water’s edge. Complete with terracotta rooftop views, narrow cobbled streets, and hidden bars that cling to the city walls, Rovinj is a popular spot for aesthetics! And whilst it can get a little crowded, it’s nothing like its Southern sister Dubrovnik, and the buzz of the place just adds to the charm. The downside – expect a cobbled-climb with your bags to your hotel, and by nature of the architecture hotel rooms can be a little cramped.
Porec, on the other hand, has a lot of purpose-built hotels and has been catering to the tourism industry since the mid-80s. Expect a much livelier nightlife in Porec and popular cuisine choices along the water’s edge, but it’s by no means a Benidorm or Magaluf. Porec has a well-preserved old town with historical UNESCO sites, and a beautiful coastline with scenic landscapes and some of the best beaches in Istria.
Istria Must-See Attractions…
There are so many things to do in Istria, you are never going to run out of day trip ideas. But here are some of Istria’s must-see attractions…
- The Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč – a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Pula Arena – a well-preserved Roman amphitheater, one of the largest in the world.
- Pula Aquarium – showcasing marine life from the Adriatic, perfect for families
- Brijuni National Park – Only reachable by boat, a group of paradise islands for nature lovers.
- Rovinj – A picture-postcard coastal town including the iconic St Euphemia Church Tower and Grisia Street, known for its art celebrations and galleries.
- Motovun – A medieval hilltop town famous for its truffles, scenic views and fortifications.
- Pazin Castle – an imposing medieval castle perched on a chasm.
- Grotta Baredine – a fascinating underground cave system with stalactites and stalagmites.
- Wine tasting and truffle hunting tours.
- Labin – a charming old town full of galleries.
- Grožnjan – a relaxed-vibe hilltop town of artists and jazz musicians.
- Opatija – the ‘Pearl of the Adriatic’, an elegant and classy seaside town on the east coast of Istria.
What Is The Best Time To Visit Istria?
The best time to visit Istria, Croatia, largely depends on your preferences. Here is a brief rundown of the seasons and what they are best for…
SUMMER (June to August) – This is ‘High Season’, when Istria experiences its hottest temperatures (average 24 – 32 degrees during the day, with cooler evenings (15-21 degrees). Perfect for beachgoers and water sports enthusiasts, but expect larger crowds and higher prices.
LATE SPRING AND EARLY AUTUMN (May, September – October) – The shoulder seasons are often considered the best times to visit Istria. The weather is still pleasant, the crowds are thinner and its a great time for exploring historical sites and doing a bit of hiking. It is still warm enough to enjoy outdoor dining too. Expect average temperatures between 18 and 26 degrees, with chilly evenings (10-14) in May and October.
WINTER (November to February) – Istria experiences a mild Mediterranean climate in winter. While coastal areas are quieter and some resorts close altogether, some towns like Rovinj and Opatija remain active. Winter is an excellent time for truffle hunting. Expect temperatures of 8 – 13 degrees in the day (November can be considerably warmer) and lows of 2 – 7 degrees at night.
SPRING (March to April) – Spring in Istria brings blooming landscapes and milder temperatures. It’s a lovely time for nature enthusiasts and hikers and there are many festivals and cultural events to kick off the spring. Expect daytime temperatures between 12 – 19 degrees and night-time temperatures of 5 – 11.
In summary, late Spring and early Autumn offer a well-balanced experience with pleasant weather, fewer crowds, and reasonable prices. However, if you’re primarily interested in swimming and sunbathing, the summer months are the best choice. Conversely, winter and early spring are ideal for those seeking a quieter, more intimate experience with Istria’s culture and culinary delights.
Do You Need To Rent A Car In Istria?
Whether you need to hire a car in Istria much depends on your travel preferences, plans and the places you intend to visit. Istria has a well-developed road network and having a car can provide you with the flexibility to visit remote areas and smaller towns.
However, if you plan to stay primarily along the Istrian coast and in larger towns like Pula, Rovinj, and Poreč, you can rely on public buses and taxis to get around. These towns have good local transportation options and are walkable. You will also avoid the problem of limited car parking places and parking costs.
However, if you intend to explore more remote or rural parts of Istria, like the natural attractions, wineries and hilltop towns, you may struggle to reach them via public transport. We found a lot of wonderful local restaurants, or Konoba’s, in the countryside areas too.
What Are Some Recommended Day Trips From Istria?
Making Istria a base for a longer holiday is a great idea for exploring enthusiasts. There are several day trips from Istria that we would highly recommend and are only a short distance away…
- Visit the island of Krk further down the coast of Croatia for more natural beauty and charming towns.
- Take a boat trip to Venice for the day from Pula, between the months of April and October.
- Explore the gem of Slovenia, Lake Bled, only 3 hours by car.
- Visit the famous Plitvice Lakes in under 3 hours.
- See the fascinatingly diverse and colourful Italian city of Trieste with its numerous historical sites.
How To Get To Istria
There are several options of how to reach Istria by plane. The most convenient route is to flu to Pula Airport, which has links from many European cities and several UK airports too. Ryanair and Easyjet are connected all year round, for holidays to Istria, whereas Jet2 and TUI operate seasonal flights.
Rijeka and Trieste airports are two other options, especially if you plan on hiring a car.
We once visited Istria by flying to Venice airport, hiring a car and taking the long way there via Austria and Lake Bled in Slovenia. It is only a 3 hour drive from Venice to the top of Istria in Croatia.
We hope you are now more equipped to start planning your holiday in Istria, and that we have whet your appetite for this Croatian gem. We have another post about our personal favourite places in Istria with a few insider tips if you would like to learn more about this incredible region of Croatia…