As local experts in travelling to Croatia and other Balkan countries, we have great tips on what to see, do and taste in one of Europe’s most diverse and exciting regions. Welcome to our Istria Travel Guide! Learn all about the gorgeous coastal towns and the picturesque inland villages, about the amazing gastronomy of the Istrian peninsula and its incredible history.
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If you are thinking about visiting this magical peninsula in the shape of a heart, you can start by checking out our popular pre-prepared itinerary to Istira which also includes parts of Slovenia and even Trieste in Italy. As you will find out, the region has a fascinating history where numerous nations were intertwining with each other for centuries, creating a unique cultural environment.
HISTORY OF ISTRIA
To get an idea of the complexity of the region, lets start our travel guide to Istria with a short introduction to its amazing history. Despite being named after the Illyrian tribe of Histri, it was the Romans who truly put Istria on the world map. They were the ones that constructed roads, started cultivating the land and turned Pula (Polensium) on the very southern tip of Istria into an important town with an amazing amphitheater that sill stands today. With the arrival of the Slavs in the 7th century, Istria entered a never-ending period of coexistence of Slavic and Latin cultures. Later on, the Habsburgs also started to intertwine and took control of Istria’s interior, while the coastline was dominated by the Venetians. After the fall of Austro-Hungarian Empire, a large part of today’s Croatia – including the whole peninsula of Istria – was given to Italy for standing on the right side of the WWI conflict. Between both world wars this region was heavily Italianized by the fascist regime which led to a strong kickback after Italy’s defeat in WWII when Yugoslavia reclaimed most of the territory. Nowadays, due to the processes of European integration their cultures seem to be more intertwined than ever before. You will notice there’s still a fair-sized Italian community in Istira, and Italian is very much its second language.
Visit magical coastal towns with our Istria travel guide
This colorful town situated on the oval peninsula (which used to be an island until 1763) is the star attraction of Istria. Elegant Venetian-style villas and vivid piazzas made Rovinj (Rovigno in Italian) a popular tourist destination and probably the most up-scale place in the whole region. There are numerous heritage hotels you can choose from in the old center or you can opt for arguably the most luxurious hotel of all Croatia with amazing architecture and even better views of the historic town. In addition to its gorgeous layout, Rovinj is also famous for being a town of artists, who started to immigrate here in the 1950s. As you stroll along the narrow streets you will pass many artist studios and galleries where you can buy magnificent souvenirs from your trip to Istria.
The long history of Pula started with the arrival of Romans, who constructed a magnificent town with all the necessary infrastructure including forum, temples, triumphal arches and of course the iconic amphitheater. With a capacity of more than 22.000 seats, Pula’s arena is the sixth largest still-standing Roman amphitheater in the world and a must-see attraction in Istria. Even 2000 years after completion it still serves its original purpose – entertaining the masses, hosting concerts, theatre performances and even a popular summer film festival. If you take a guided tour of Pula, local expert will also show you other important remains from that period, such are the Arch of the Sergii (old town gate) and the temple of Augustus (destroyed during WWII and rebuilt after).
Another must-see place in Istria is the historic Poreč, mostly known for its UNESCO-listed Euphrasian Basilica. More than the buildings itself, the episcopal complex in this Istrian town is famous for its amazing mosaics dating back to the 6th century. They are considered one of the best examples of early Byzantine art and architecture in the world. Beside that, Poreč has a lovely old town, full of stone houses that are now turned into ice-cream shops, seafood restaurants or tacky souvenir stores. It’s a pleasant place to visit especially out of the main season. Since biking trips in Istria are very popular with active tourists, Poreč is an important stop between north and south, not to mention that a well-known Parenzana bike trail connects this town with Trieste in Italy.
Often referred to as “the Nice of the Adriatic”, Opatija is a charming historic town on the eastern coast of Istria. Usually it is more connected to the geographical term of Kvarner Gulf, rather than the peninsula of Istira, but it is definitely a place you must-see if visiting this region. This thin and long settlement squeezed between the Adriatic Sea and Mount Učka has come to prominence at the end of the 19th century when the nobility of the Austro-Hungarian Empire started flocking to Opatija’s gorgeous beaches. The remains of those days are still visible in numerous grandiose buildings that are now turned into up-scale hotels. There are no major tourist attractions here, but it makes a nice stop when traveling between Croatia & Slovenia or boarding a small ship cruise.
Above are just four of the coastal towns we think you must-see when visiting Istria, but this would not be a proper Istria travel guide, if we wouldn’t add a few alternatives. Equally charming, but maybe not so touristy as Poreč, is the town of Novigrad (Cittanova in Italian) centered around the Venetian-style church with many colorful houses where you can enjoy your gelato in peace.
Another Venetian town you can visit in Istria and avoid huge masses is Umag on the north-west, just south of the border with Slovenia. Founded by the Roman nobility who chose it as the site of their summer residence, Umag later prospered for its vital position by the road that led to Aquilea, one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire.
Before moving on to the inland towns and villages of Istria you must-see, lets also mention the tiny fishing village of Volosko just outside Opatija, which has surprisingly became one of the most important gastronomy destinations of Istria. Dining in one of the local restaurants is highly recommended. We will talk more about the unique Istrian cuisine below.
Among the must-see places in Istria are also its interior villages
One of the most well-known inland gems of Istria is of course the pretty hilltop village of Motovun. The Venetian walls and historic Romanesque and Gothic buildings overlooking the vast vineyards and deep forests full of truffles, resemble a fray-tale place you are bound to fall in love with. Like many Istrian towns, Motovun was predominantly Italian-speaking until after WWII when most of the inhabitants left for Italy. The problem of depopulation was partly solved by turning the town into an artists’ colony as many of the its properties were offered to artists to use them as their studios. The result of this wise maneuver is still visible today. One of its outcomes is also the popular film festival which takes place under Motovun’s starry sky every summer.
Perhaps not as famous as Motovun to the south, Grožnjan has also been known as an artist colony since the Italian exodus after WWII. You might find it even more charming as its narrow streets are less crowded and therefore even more authentic. Every August Grožnjan hosts a summer school for young musicians resulting in numerous outdoor concerts that can be enjoyed with a glass of local malvasia. Add a great number of local restaurants that offer amazing gastronomy delights and you got yourself a unique travel experience you will remember long after you get back home. Surly a must-see in Istria, Grožnjan can easily be added to your personalized trip to Croatia. Your professional private travel guide to Istria will make sure you get the most of it.
As you probably already put together, the inland Istria is an area of rare and disarming beauty, characterized by medieval hilltop towns and stone-built villages. Alongside Motovun and Grožnjan, which surely stand out as the most popular ones according to every Istria Travel Guide, lets mention a few other that should not be left out as well.
Hum is the the self-proclaimed smallest town in the world. According to the legend, after finishing all other towns, the huge creatures who built Istria, had only a few stones left and they used it for Hum. If you visit this charming place, you will notice that there is basically just one street and it will take you no more than a few minutes to pass through.
Another important town in the Istrian interior is Buzet, the capital of truffle hunting. If you are keen on trying out new things, we can organize an expedition with an experienced hunter and their trained dogs in the forests around Buzet. We are sure you will have a great time searching for this precious gastronomy delight. Of course you can skip the hunt and go right to truffle tasting – there are numerous restaurants not just in Buzet, but other towns in Istria where you can try them. For true fans of truffles, we recommend visiting truffle festival which is held here every year, usually the second weekend of September.
We realize that this Istria travel guide is mainly focusing on the western part of Istria, but there are also towns in the eastern corner that should not be left out. One of them is Labin, a charming hilltop settlement intertwined with narrow cobbled streets. It used to be a mining town, but since 1999 it shifted to tourism and agriculture.
Taste the flavors of Istria: truffles, malvasia & asparagus
GASTRONOMY OF ISTRIA
As already mentioned several times above, the peninsula of Istria offers unique gastronomy which combines influences from the Adriatic and inland Croatia. In recent decades this region has taken advantage of its distinct cuisine and took it to the next level as numerous high-end restaurants started to offer exceptional plates of local products accompanied by world-renown wines.
Probably the most famous local products are white and black truffles, considered a culinary delicacy all over the world. Our travel experts already wrote about these “diamonds of the kitchen” in the special post dedicated to truffle hunting in Istria where you can read all about the origins and different varieties of this “special mushroom”. At this point lets just say that truffles are widely available through Istria and most often served with local homemade pasta called fuži.
You will find fuži on the menu of basically every restaurant in Istria. This traditional pasta is prepared from a simple dough made of flour and eggs with a pinch of oil and white wine. Today it is common to be covered with truffles, but traditionally fuži was served with a mild red veal sauce (boškarin, autochthonous Istrian breed of domestic cattle), with addition of onions, tomato paste, white wine and broth.
Nowadays fuži are usually offered as a starter, following the cold appetizer – pršut. This traditional air-cured ham is dried by the chilling bora wind that blows across the entire peninsula and has influenced the region’s traditional lifestyle and architecture. As a great Istrian specialty, pršut is best enjoyed with home-made bread and local olives.
Since Istria is a peninsula and therefore surrounded by the Adriatic Sea, seafood takes an important part of the menu. Especially popular are seashells (mussels and oysters). Fresh mussels are delivered daily to all local restaurants and prepared in buzara souce (white wine, olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs). There is also a tomato-based version you might consider trying.
Oyster fans will love Croatian variety which is said to have more intense flavor than their Atlantic counterpart. They are very popular in Dalmatia (especially around the historic town of Ston), but apparently the most renowned sort comes from the Lim channel, a peculiar geographic feature found on the western coast of Istria, between Rovinj and Poreč. You can take a day trip along this 9 kilometers-long sea inlet (which is in fact a drowned valley) and try fresh oysters sold by vendors on the side of the road. They say the best way to swallow them is with a dash of lemon.
Another Istrian specialty are wild asparagus, typically harvested between March and June. Regarded primarily a delicacy, some also appreciate asparagus for their effect on water excretion and beneficial effects on digestion, as they contain a lot of fiber. There are many ways of preparing and serving asparagus, but probably the most common way in Istria is mixing them with scrambled eggs into a dish called fritaja. It is simple but delicious and you should definitely try it if you are visiting Istria in spring.
Before we end our Istria Travel Guide, let’s not forget about desserts. The ones you truly must try are fritule – little battered doughnut balls dusted with powdered sugar and filled with rum and raisins. Different households may add a touch of lemon zest or grated orange peel. Others also add top-quality Istrian honey, a specialty around Motovun and Livade.
Did we get you excited about visiting Istria, admiring all its must-see places and tasting all its amazing flavors? We invite you to send us an email at ➨ firstname.lastname@example.org and our friendly agents will be happy to prepare a personalized itinerary according to your wishes, interests and budget. We will be glad to welcome you to Croatia or any other Balkan country. As local experts we know all the secrets and you can be sure to get the most of your trip.
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