Istrian Peninsula – the lesser known gem of Croatia

Let me start with this – Croatia is absolutely amazing! And while the southern Dalmatian region of the country gets most of the attention (thanks to gorgeous towns and Game of Thrones), the Istrian Peninsula has a unique appeal, and was a welcome escape from throngs of GoT fans filling up cities like Dubrovnik.

The Istrian peninsula can be explored from South to North (or vice versa if you are coming in from Slovenia). Renting a car is the best way to get around the towns dotted along the west coast. We started at Pula, which has direct flights from most other cities in Croatia. Pula and Rovinj were our base for the week that we were exploring Istria. All the towns are a few hours drive from one another, so keeping one city as a base helps. Here is what our Istrian adventure looked like:

1. Pula –  The main attraction of this city is the Pula Arena – the only remaining Roman amphitheatre to have four side towers and with all three Roman architectural orders entirely preserved. The arena is now used for concerts, plays and festivals and if you time yourself well, you could catch a performance in this magical setting. Exploring Pula should not require more than a day, which is best spent walking along the Riva and hiking to the Pula Kastel. A few miles south of Pula is Cape Kamenjak – the southern most tip of Istria – a great spot for diving into the gorgeous blue Adriatic waters.

The Pula Arena


The Pula Kastel

2. Fazana – Fazana was a half-day trip from Pula. The beaches in Fazana are quite kid-friendly and that is where most locals hang out – located conveniently around camping grounds, play areas and affordable pizzerias. Fazana is also the town from where to catch a ferry bound for the Brijuni National Park.

3. Vodnjan – The gothic yet artsy town of Vodnjan is an interesting destination if you have an eye for architecture. The city has preserved its architecture (actual homes and churches which are still used by people) from different medieval periods – Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque, and relics and mummified saints in its churches. Walking the city streets take you across these different art forms which you cannot help but top to admire! Also, there are numerous Olive Oil tasting tours that start from this town. I highly recommend doing one. We toured with this super sweet and small family owned facility call Baico. Details to follow in part 2 of my Croatia blog series.

Narrow streets leading to the church in Vodnjan
One can see a lot of graffiti close to the town square in Vodnjan


Kažuns (stone houses) – traditionally used as shelters by farmers and shepherds in remote fields, and for storing tools – are popular in Istria and concentrated around Vodnjan

4. Rovinj – The city that stole my heart! I could write verses after verses about the magical and romantic city of Rovinj. Walk around the polished marble streets with pastle colored houses while admiring the Venetian architecture and licking that cold and soft gelato.  Catch the sun setting through the arches of one of many cute little restaurants atop the riva. (The sunset here is also one of the prettiest I saw in Croatia.) Sip some beautiful Croatian wine in charming medieval restaurants while listening to the local musicians – You can do all of this in Rovinj!

Sighting Rovinj from the harbour


Balbi’s Arch

For some great wine tasting, head to Piassa Granda and for an awesome sun downer, head to the Valentino bar.

Sunset in Rovinj


5. Vrsar – A cute little town north of  Rovinj. The main highlight of the city is the Casanova Fest (annual summer event). The town also has a pretty marina. On your way to Vrsar, check out the Lim Fjord, which is located between Rovinj and Vrsar. The fjord is a great place for biking, climbing and hiking, plus has a beautiful view of the mountains.

Vrsar Riva
Lim Fjord

6. Porec – used to be an ancient Roman town and now the party hub of Istria :). The town boasts some beautiful byzantine architecture – visit the The Euphrasian Basilica (UNESCO world heritage site) and some really pretty by lanes. You are about a 2-hour ferry ride away from Venice at this point, if you fancy a day trip.

Pretty Porec


7. Motovun – I saved that best for last. This captivating, hill-perched village of Istria is a small walled town that overlooks vineyards, forests and the Mirna river. Popular for the Motovun film festival and its truffles, the town is like a Shakespearean set! Lots of vineyards, truffle farms and great restaurants are dotted around the town. The town itself can be a day trip, but there is plenty to do around. (Note: You can only drive up to a certain point and then have to hop on a designated shuttle bus for getting to the town).

Motovun perched atop the hill

All of these towns have unique architecture from different eras in history which makes this peninsula charmingly diverse! Take a trip to Istria and experience its gorgeous towns and happy people.

Watch this space for a 2nd post where I will share the must-do and must-try things in the Istria region.