How to spend a weekend in Istria, Croatia's heart-shaped peninsula

Plunging into the Adriatic, Croatia’s northeastern peninsula is a quiet retreat from the region’s bustling hotspots, with secluded coastal hideaways, limestone peaks and spectacular ancient history.

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 10 Apr 2021, 08:00 BST
Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheatre that still hosts events today.

Pula Arena, a Roman amphitheatre that still hosts events today.

Photograph by Getty Images

Istria isn’t the sort of place that likes to interrupt. Stand on the shore anywhere between Fažana and Umag, as the sea laps the shingle and families chatter quietly, and you’ll understand: a 60-mile-long peninsula that juts down, like the lower half of a diamond, below Slovenia and the northeastern corner of Italy, this is Croatia at its unhurried best. True, there are towns — and one city, Pula — dotted along its west coast, where the Adriatic meets the shore under the shadow of chic hotels. But venture inland, and the region reveals its rustic heart, one where wineries and truffle farms are tucked into the landscape, mountains rising up silently on the horizon. With life moving at a gentle pace, Istria is easily explored. Thanks to excellent roads, you can drive from the bottom to the top of the peninsula in an hour, which means more time to absorb its most captivating qualities — from quiet coves to Roman ruins and restaurant terraces — without ever feeling in a rush.

Day one: seafront towns and beaches

Base yourself in Poreč, the west coast town that’s thrived on its natural harbour for the best part of three millennia. The historical highlight is the Euphrasian Basilica — a sixth-century feast of mosaics and piety that was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1997. The core of the town, squeezed onto a narrow peninsula of its own, spreads out in the shadow of this celebrated church, and the seafront promenade of Obala Maršala Tita is perfect for a leisurely wander. Don’t miss the main square, Trg Marafor, which was once the Roman Forum; the ‘Romanesque House’ on it dates to the 13th century.

Head to the beach. Generally, things are less busy the further south you go: you might not meet another sunbather if you aim for Marić Beach, just beyond the village of Barbariga. Elsewhere, Stella Maris Beach, in northerly Umag, is something of a local hotspot attracting the area’s families, who come for the calm, sheltered lagoon and loungers on the shingle. If you’re looking for a more secluded spot, go further north still, to the uppermost edge of the peninsula, where Kanegra Beach barely emerges from the trees. The view is international: Portorož, on the opposite edge of the bay, is in Slovenia.

Rovinj is arguably Istria’s postcard statement; pinned to a bluff that sticks out into the Adriatic with narrow, slanted streets and houses steeping above passersby. All routes lead upwards, to the 18th-century Church of St Euphemia, which has a baroque facade that’s so striking it competes with the wider panorama of orange rooftops and the coast stretching out in each direction. Have dinner at La Puntulina, an elegant spot serving wonderfully fresh seafood. Alternatively, if you’ve retreated to Poreč, Restaurant Marconi has an outdoor seating area in a courtyard behind the basilica.

Drinks on a terrace in Rovinj old town.

Photograph by Shutterstock

Day two: islands and mountains

Hop on a ferry and head two miles off the coast to the Brijuni Islands, a national park since 1983. Veliki Brijun is the largest of the 14 outcrops – hire a bike at the dock and pedal up to the remarkable Brijuni Cretaceous Park, at the north-west end of the island. It preserves a series of dinosaur footprints, fossilised in the rocks along the water. No less wonderful is Verige Bay, a horseshoe inlet where you can paddle in the shadows of a first-century (BC) Roman villa. Ferries depart from Fazana, five miles north of Pula, roughly every 90 minutes in daylight hours.

Once back on the mainland, delve into the Istrian interior: a gloriously mountainous backdrop to the glittering coast. In its northeast corner, the drive from Pula up through the limestone summits of the Učka range is dramatic, rising steadily through Pazin and Lupoglav past some of the region’s most spectacular scenery. Učka Nature Park was one of the first projects by the Croatia that emerged from former Yugoslavia; inaugurated in 1999, it has miles of forested slopes and hiking trails — one of which winds all the way to the top of Vojak, the highest peak at 4,580ft.

Don’t dash back west just yet; instead, follow the road as it coils down to the peninsula’s east coast, where various villages illuminate the waterline. Mošćenička Draga is one of them, with a pebbly beach and a clutch of restaurants including Konoba Zijavica, where the likes of tuna tartare are served at tables right next to the shingle. To the north, the village of Lovran is equally attractive, its maze of alleys dominated by the butter-yellow tower of the Church of St George. If time is on your side, there are plenty of good hotels, parks and bustling restaurants to visit.

Three more Pula attractions

With a population of just 58,000, the only city in Istria packs a lot into its small size and has plenty to keep visitors entertained for an afternoon.

1. Pula Arena
There’s a significant strand of Italian to Istria’s genetics — the peninsula was part of Italy from 1920 to 1947, something that’s reflected in many towns having dual names (Pula is also known as ‘Pola’). But the city’s Italianate connections go back even further. The spectacular Roman arena, which dates to the first century, is one of the best examples of an amphitheatre outside Rome and retains much of the visual power it must have had when its 23,000 seats were packed for gladiatorial fight. It still stages big events today, including summer screenings at the long-running Pula Film Festival. With a population of just 58,000, the only city in Istria packs a lot into its small size and has plenty to keep visitors entertained for an afternoon.

2. The Venetian Fortress
There are more Italian footprints all across Pula. The Kaštel fortress is the centrepiece of the city and was built by the Venetians between 1630 and 1633. It’s a distinctive shape, with a square stronghold sharpened by spear tip towers at each corner, and a stroll around the fortifications is a must. But if it’s more glimpses of the city’s Roman past you’re looking for, then head to the Trg Forum square, where, on the western edge, stand the six symmetrical Corinthian columns of the Temple of Augustus, which is the same age as the amphitheatre. Also a short walk away is the grand Arch of the Sergii.

3. Contemporary Pula
For all the richness of the city’s heritage, 21st-century Pula is easy to discover. Case in point is the Museum of Contemporary Art of Istria, with its rotating exhibitions of Croatian photography, film and sculpture. One block over, the Museum of Olive Oil burrows into the rituals of the region’s most eulogised agricultural product with tastings of the amber nectar also on offer. Round off a visit with a hearty lunch at Meating, on the harbourside strip of Riva Ulica — a welcoming restaurant that, as its name suggests, leans heavily on steaks served in a sleek, modern sitting. T: 00 385 98 182 3607

The seaside town of Rovinj, overlooking the Adriatic.

Photograph by AWL Images

Istria's best fine-dining restaurants

Plavi Podrum
Istria has a growing reputation for top-level cuisine. Its high standards are best savoured at this little spot, semi-hidden in the fishing village of Volosko, near Opatija, where sweet slivers of scampi carpaccio are paired with local wines. 

San Rocco
If you didn’t know it was here, you wouldn’t notice this chic spa-hotel. It waits in the unassuming village of Brtonigla, five miles inland from Novigrad. But as well as 14 rooms, the hotel comes with a restaurant that revels in tasting menus and seasonal ingredients.

Another rural hideaway, near Bale, southwest of Rovinj, Meneghetti spoils diners with delicacies like monkfish tail in bisque foam. It also has a private beach club, hidden at the end of a trail through its vineyards. 

High up in Rovinj’s old town, Monte made Croatian headlines in 2017 when it was hailed as ‘spectacular, almost theatrical in its presentation’ by Michelin, which awarded it the country’s first star. Run by chef Danijel Đekić, it’s feted for its suckling pig. 

Restaurant Badi
Folded into the fields on the edge of Lovrečica on the coast, Restaurant Badi speaks proudly of its wine list, which incorporates Italian and Istrian vintages, as well as its traditional Croatian buzara (seafood stew), and hearty homemade pasta with regional truffles.

Three gourmet experiences to try

1. Kozlovic
Croatia’s wine industry has been growing in stature for a number of years, with Istria playing its part. This respected producer, located up at Momjan in the north of the peninsula, is open for tasting sessions.

2. Prodan Tartufi
Istria’s fertile soil is widely known for its truffles. Prodan Tartufi is a family-run farm in idyllic Buzet, where guests can join the guides and dogs on hunts for the revered gastro gold.

3. Aura
Also in Buzet, Aura stiffens sinews by distilling a range of brandies flavoured with local fruits and herbs. Try before you buy and sample one of the blends distilled with cherries, wild apples or even olives.

How to do it

Various airlines fly direct to Pula from airports across the UK, mostly during the summer holiday season. Pula Airport hosts the usual range of hire car companies.

Published in the May 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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