The Istrian peninsula, situated in the west of Croatia, actually belongs to three countries – Croatia, Slovenia and Italy.
This means there’s a brilliant blend of cultures, history and cuisine to be found in Istria.
In this guide, we’ll be focusing on the Croatian section, particularly Pula, Rovinj and Poreč. These three cities are the most popular places to stay in Istria, but there’s much more beyond their walls.
There are plenty of things to keep you busy – exploring nearby islands, scaling mountains, discovering historical sites or devouring the multicultural cuisine. Here, you don’t have to go to Italy to get a fantastic pizza. The seafood is also some of the best in Croatia!
How long should you spend in Istria?
Istria is pretty big, and it’s no small task to fully explore it. So we’d recommend doing your best to see as much of it as possible. It’s truly beautiful.
Not all of us have endless holidays though, so let’s be realistic with our timeframes. A week gives you a good amount of time to see the main cities of Pula, Rovinj and Poreč.
If you have more time, Istria is the perfect place to just laze around at the beach and enjoy delicious Mediterranean cuisine at night.
Home to one of the most famous landmarks in the whole of Croatia (Pula Arena), Pula is not just the largest but also the most visited destination in Istria.
Due to its history in shipbuilding, Pula has a more industrial feel than some of the other small and quaint towns in Istria. That’s not to say it’s not beautiful. It really is, but with an edge.
Here are 6 amazing things to do in Pula:
#1 Visit the famous Pula Arena
Pula Arena is the first thing that most people visit in Pula. It’s one of the most well-preserved Roman amphitheatres even though it was built in the 1st century AD.
It’s also the 6th largest amphitheatre in the world, holding around 23,000 spectators in Roman times. Nowadays, instead of vicious fights, the arena is a popular location for concerts, ballet, sports events and plenty more events.
The underground passages, once used by gladiators, now host regular exhibitions that showcase ancient olive production in Istria.
Walking around Pula Arena, you’ll be amazed by its breathtaking and imposing building structure.
How to visit Pula Arena
Pula Arena is open every day apart from the 1st of January and entrance costs 70 KN (€9).
Whilst walking through Pula, it’s hard not to notice its dramatic and rugged coastline. Filled with caves, cliffs and hidden bays, it’s a shame not to explore it from a different perspective.
The best way to explore Pula’s cave system is with a kayak. Being in a kayak allows you to be nimble and pass through smaller holes in the cliff face to enter the caves.
Once you’re inside the caves, the adventure really begins. Most caves have no light, so you’ll rely on your headlamp to guide you through.
It’s like a magical new world inside the caves, with bats flying around and bioluminescent comb jellies in the water.
On this 3-hour kayaking tour for €47, you also get to go snorkelling. The waters around Pula have great visibility, so you won’t be disappointed!
This might be one of your favourite things you’ll get to do in Pula!
Not afraid of the dark?
If darkness doesn’t scare you, why not go kayaking at night?
During this 2-hour nocturnal kayaking tour for €70, you’ll be in a transparent bottom kayak. Discover the sleeping underwater world of the Adriatic sea and keep an eye out for various types of marine life – fish, jellyfish, sea urchins and diverse corals.
Pula is a city that’s teeming with history, particularly dating back to Roman times. That makes it the perfect place to join a walking tour and really learn its history.
We recommend this 1.5-hour private walking tour for 140 KN (€18.50). The tour takes you to all of the main sites in the city, such as Pula Arena, Kastel, Pula Cathedral, Temple of Augustus and more.
Although you don’t get to enter the sites on the walking tour, your guide will create vivid images in your mind of what life used to be like back then. It’s also a private tour so you can ask as many questions as you like!
Once a traditional fishing village, Rovinj is now a fascinating mixture of tradition and a modern way of living.
Nowadays, it’s one of the most popular tourist destinations on the Istrian peninsula.
Here are the best things to do whilst in Rovinj:
#1 Join a free walking tour of Rovinj
Our favourite thing to do when we arrive in a new city is to join a walking tour. This way, you get to grips with the city faster, understand its history and get all of the best tips from a local.
Rovinj is no exception. It’s a great place to join a walking tour, particularly a free one.
Free Spirit runs a daily free walking tour at 18:00 during the summer months. Although technically called a free tour, it’s expected to tip what you think the tour was worth. The well-knowledged guides more than deserve it.
Which parts of Rovinj will you explore during the walking tour?
The Free Spirit walking tour covers all of the picturesque Old Town in Rovinj, including the touristy must-see sites and the hidden gems known only to locals.
Some highlights of the tour include Matteotti Square, Great Pier, Savicentska Street and plenty more.
The tours are done only in English and your tour can be found in front of the Boy with a Fish statue at Maršal Tito Square. Look out for the orange umbrella!
#2 Admire the stunning Lim Fjord
About 20 minutes north of Rovinj, you’ll find Lim Fjord. A dynamic landscape with the fjord as the centrepiece of the area.
Lim Fjord is part of the 35 km-long Lim Valley that stretches almost to the centre of Istria.
The fjord, which is actually a submerged karst canyon, was created when the sea penetrated the valley, completely changing the landscape.
Now the fjord is 30 metres deep, with imposing mountains rising up to 100 metres on both sides.
Lim Fjord is a popular place to take a bike trip, go hiking or try some delicious delicacies. The underwater sources of sweet water create a perfect environment for fish and oysters.
2 best things to do in Poreč
This small coastal town is most famous for Euphrasius Basilica, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Poreč’s Old Town, surrounded by ancient city walls, is the perfect place to spend a few days.
Here are the best things to do whilst in Poreč:
#1 Visit the UNESCO site of Euphrasian Basilica
The Euphrasian Basilica is the star of Poreč. Made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the early-Christian compound is the only complete landmark in the world preserved from that period.
This incredible complex includes an atrium, baptistery, bishop’s palace, mosaics and remains of sacral buildings dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries.
The preservation of the mosaics is somewhat magnificent. As a result, we can still understand the writings explaining the construction and renovation of the complex.
How to visit the Euphrasian Basilica
Visiting is possible every day except on Sundays and Catholic holidays. Tickets for the Euphrasian Basilica cost 50 KN (€6.50).
#2 Imagine what the Temple of Neptune used to be like
Something that won’t take up much of your time but is still worth a visit is the Temple of Neptune.
Dedicated to the God of the sea, Neptune, the temple was erected in the 1st century. Unlike the Euphrasian Basilica, this historical site wasn’t preserved well. Only parts of the foundation and walls remain.
7 more incredible things to do in Istria
There’s much more to Istria than just Pula, Rovinj and Poreč. Here are 7 more incredible things that you can do throughout the region:
#1 Discover the hill villages – Groznjan, Motovun, Buzet
A lot of Istria’s big cities are on the coast, meaning people often miss some hidden gems in the hills. We’re talking about Groznjan, Motovun, and Buzet.
Groznjan is a hub for all things art and culture. As soon as the sun starts to shine, signifying the start of the summer months, the town comes alive.
Music academies are open to young people. Artistic, dance, drama and even peace activism workshops start running.
The town almost feels like a set from a movie. Everyone is smiling and the streets are filled with dancers and musicians.
Named one of the prettiest hilltop towns in Istria, Motovun is the perfect place to wander around, enjoy some food and absorb the atmosphere.
With a population of just over 900 people, it’s pretty small but offers some incredible views of the surrounding landscape due to being 277 metres above sea level.
Sitting on a 151m tall hill, Buzet is famous for its stunning Venetian architecture and truffles. There’s not too much going on in this sleepy town, but it is a great place to try truffles.
The best time to visit for this is at the beginning of September when the Virgin Mary’s birthday is celebrated. At this time, the locals prepare a giant omelette filled with truffles in the town square.
#2 Escape to nature and visit Kamenjak Cape
Best visited from Pula, Kamenjak Cape is a great way to spend the day. With approximately 30 km of rugged coast, the park is ideal for swimming, sunbathing and just relaxing.
Up for a bit more adventure? The coastline boasts uninhabited islets, cliffs to jump off of, hidden caves and beautiful beaches. It sounds a bit like paradise!
That’s not all that you can do there. Kamenjak Cape has become somewhat famous due to the Safari Bar inside.
The story goes that 20 years ago, a man bought some land to escape civilisation. Eventually, friends began to visit him and slowly one of the best beach bars developed.
The best way to describe Safari Bar is it’s an adult playground. There are big slides throughout the place, swings and wheels to play on.
Here the walls and ceilings are made of live plants and bamboo canes, with tables and benches made from logs and stones. It’s rustic, exciting and unique!
The food doesn’t disappoint either. You can find a selection of sandwiches, seafood and meat dishes.
How to visit Kamenjak Cape
The easiest way to visit Kamenjak is by car. The drive takes around 30 minutes, but you will have to pay for entrance – 80 KN (€10.50).
If you’re a pedestrian, then entrance is free.
For those without a car, you can get the bus to Prematura and then walk from there. However, the walk from Prematura is a few kilometres, so it isn’t the easiest.
#3 Spend the day exploring the Brijuni islands
On the west coast of the Istrian Peninsula, you will find 14 islands that make up Brijuni National Park. Two of them are large islands, ones that you can visit, and the other 12 are small islands and islets.
The islands actually used to be the summer residence of Marshal Tito, the Yugoslavian President, until he died in 1980.
Whilst he owned the island, he introduced a number of non-native animals, such as elephants, zebras and antelope.
You can still find some of these animals in the safari park on Veliki Brijun. Other highlights on the two main islands include the remains of a 2nd-century Byzantine fortress, a Roman villa and an interesting exhibit on the ex-Yugoslavian President.
How to visit the Brijuni Islands
The Brijuni Islands are found closest to Pula, but you’ll still need to travel to the town of Fazana if you want to take the public boat there.
You can find the latest boat timetable here and the ride takes around 15 minutes. Tickets cost 250 KN (€33), there and back.
Croatia is renowned for its stunning, crystal clear beaches and Istria is not short of these paradises either.
Boasting almost 540 km of coastline there are plenty of hidden coves, intimate bays and sprawling beaches to be found in Istria.
Here are some of our favourite beaches for you to check out:
Hawaii beach – the name says it all really! Hawaii beach really is a slice of serenity in Pula. The white pebbles somehow make the sea even bluer, making it a great place to go snorkelling due to the ideal visibility.
Zambratija – if you’re eager to find a sandy beach, you’re in luck. In the town of Umag, you can find the small sandy beach that is Zambratija. Surprisingly not too many people visit this beach, so it’s nice and relaxing.
Valbandon Beach – a great spot for those with kids because it’s perfect for swimming. Valbandon beach has plenty of amenities such as sunbeds, restaurants and bars nearby. The snow-white sandbank is also the perfect place for sunbathing.
Kamenjak Cape – cliff jumps, hidden caves and beautiful beaches, it’s an adventure paradise. We dedicated a separate section to this beach.
#5 Rent a boat in Istria
Once you witness the refreshing turquoise water in Istria, many of us instantly start daydreaming about exploring the waters by boat.
If that’s what’s on your mind, we have great news for you. You can rent a boat from most places in Istria. Renting a boat for the day gives you the ultimate freedom to escape the other tourists and go wherever you want.
Depending on what you are looking for, you can rent a basic motorboat, but also one that is equipped with all kinds of watersports gear like paddleboards, rubber rings and snorkelling equipment.
How to rent a boat
Whatever town you are in, walking around the harbour is most likely the best way to find a boat rental. Talk to people with boats or head to a tourist information office to find some options.
You can find boat deals online, but this means that you can’t haggle on the price.
Online boat rental prices start at around €150 for a max of seven people for the day.
With or without a driver?
If you’re looking to rent a boat completely by yourself, at least one person on the boat will need a nautical licence. Because not many of us have a boat license, most boat rentals conveniently come with a driver.
Renting a boat with a driver also allows you to just sit back and relax (and enjoy a cold beer or glass of wine while taking in the scenery.
#6 Take a day trip to Venice
The Istrian Region has a heavy Venetian influence, but if this isn’t enough to satisfy your longing for Italy, why not take a day trip there?
Venice is an iconic Italian city famous throughout the world, known for its romantic canals, elegant gondolas and rich history.
As you drift along the waterways (a must-do in Venice), you’ll be treated to views of Venice’s stunning architecture and a number of its 200 churches.
How to visit Venice
If reading that has made you want to visit Venice, then it couldn’t be easier.
You can arrange the ferries yourself, but this actually works out more expensive than joining a tour. Tickets for the ferry can cost around €70 each way.
Tours to Venice depart from both Rovinj and Poreč, costing €69 and €64 respectively.
The speedboat crossing takes around 3 hours from both, giving you plenty of time to explore Venice and take in its stunning sights. The boats also tend to leave early in the morning too.
Kate is a writer, (ex)Management Consultant and avid traveller. She recently returned from a 2-year career break exploring the world and decided corporate life wasn’t for her. She’ll soon be testing life as a digital nomad. She’s visited over 40 countries and fell in love with Latin America in particular. Her travelling has inspired a passion for yoga, salsa, hiking and Spanish.
Based in Bali, Maarten’s passion for travel is undeniable. In 2016, he decided to quit his job as a stock analyst and started doing what he always dreamed of: travelling through South East Asia and helping other people plan their trips. When he is not working on Gecko Routes, you’ll find him surfing in the ocean or exploring the best gems of Indonesia.