The first time I traveled to Istria, Croatia, it was on a bit of a whim. I was desperate to finally visit the Balkans in general and Croatia in particular; when researching, I found out it was cheapest to fly into Pula. Well. If it was that much cheaper, why not?
I did book that flight to Pula, deciding to spend a few days exploring the surroundings. And I fell for Istria — hard. The Italian flavor, the hill towns that rose out of the green landscape, the way that roses seemed to burst out of the pavement. This place was so special. I can’t believe I almost didn’t visit it!
Istria hadn’t been in my original Croatia plan — but it ended up being one of the highlights of my trip. So much that I returned to see more. I’ve been recommending it nonstop to my friends for years. On my last trip to Istria, I even met up with a reader!
The Dalmatian Coast may get most of the attention in Croatia — but you might be even more enchanted by the northwest heart-shaped peninsula.
Here’s why you should travel to Istria.
Here is a map of Istria, with the most popular destinations highlighted. As you can see, it’s well-connected within Croatia, and right on the border of Slovenia, and with easy access via ferry or driving to Italy.
The nice thing about Istria is that pretty much any two points are within a two-hour drive of each other. And most journeys are shorter than that. If you rent a car in Istria (and you should), literally everywhere is day-trippable!
A narrow cobblestoned street in Rovinj. The buildings have green and red shutters and laundry hangs out of some buildings. It looks a lot like Italy.
Istria looks SO much like Italy!
Italian Flavor in Croatia
As soon as you arrive in Istria, you’ll be struck by how much Istria feels like Italy. The vineyards, the olive groves, seaside villages painted the colors of Liguria, hill towns that look straight out of Tuscany. And you’ll notice that places here have Italian names as well as Croatian names — Rovinj is Rovigno, Bale is Valle, Grožnjan is Grisignana.
Look at that picture above. If someone asked you what country that was, you’d say Italy, wouldn’t you? It’s actually Rovinj!
Istria has a long history of being conquered and reconquered by different cultures: the Franks in 788, the Venetians in 1145, the Hapsburg Empire in 1348, Napoleon in 1797. Between World War I and World War II, Istria was part of Italy; following the war, it became part of Yugoslavia, before Croatia became independent in 1991.
As a result, Istria is a mélange of different cultures and has a very different feel from the Dalmatian Coast. Food is the center of life; locals paint their homes bright colors. And the Italian influence remains steady — from the many kinds of olive oil to the wild, animated conversations of locals.
A stone staircase leading up into the pastel colored buildings of the town of Labin, Croatia.
Labin is one of my favorite small towns in Istria. Image via Shutterstock.
Picture-Perfect Small Towns
If you love charming small towns, Istria is the best place in Italy to explore them! Each town has its own character, and each town’s residents will claim it’s the best town in Istria!
A perfect day in Istria would be setting out early and visiting four or five towns over the course of a day, stopping in one for a leisurely lunch.
So which small towns are best to explore? I recommend you explore Motovun and Grožnjan at the absolute minimum. (They’re also a 20-minute drive apart, so you can visit both in a single day.)
But there are plenty of other good ones: Vodnjan and Bale pair well together. Labin makes a nice getaway from Pula. Umag and Novigrad are beautiful coastal small towns. Plus, there’s Hum — which claims to be the smallest town in the world.
Ah, truffles. One of the most expensive and luxurious foods on the planet. One of the most enchantingly recognizable tastes in the world.
Did I mention that Istria is rich in truffles? Truffle dishes are so common here that it’s almost an embarrassment of riches.
One of my favorite Istria experiences is ordering traditional fuži pasta with truffles and a glass of white Malvasia wine at one of the restaurants on the edge of the hilltop of Motovun, overlooking the landscape. These truffles are shaved thin enough to be translucent but thick enough to make a satisfying chew.
In New York, a plate of pasta with that many shaved truffles could run you around $50. Here in Istria? Maybe $11 or so.
With prices like those, why not get them for every meal?
The ancient stone arena in Pula, Croatia, close to the sea. The photo is an aerial one and you see lots of terra cotta roofs and church steeples surrounding the arena.
Pula is the largest city in Istria, home to the peninsula’s airport. If you’re a fan of ruins in the least, you’ll need to stop in Pula to see its enormous Roman Arena!
Constructed between 27 BC and 67 AD, Pula’s arena is one of the six largest Roman amphitheaters in the world. It’s the only amphitheater to have all four side towers intact. It’s well worth exploring as an ancient monument — but if you play your timing right, you might even get to see a concert here!
Pula isn’t my first choice of where to stay in Istria — it’s a decent city, but I think other towns have more to offer. But Pula is a nice place to spend an afternoon or evening. Check out the Arena; stroll through the old town; get some pizza at Jupiter Pizzeria.
The mountaintop town of Motovun, perched on top of a hill, underneath a blue and white sky.
Where else looks like Motovun?
Motovun will take your breath away the first time you see it. You turn a corner and there it is, bursting out of the earth, a city improbably built on top of a hill. How can a place like this exist today? How do people actually live here?!
It’s a long, steep walk uphill to get to the top of Motovun. (If you have mobility difficulties, you may want to skip Motovun — there’s no way around the steep, slippery cobblestones.) Once you get to the top, you’re rewarded with views all over the countryside.
Definitely stop here for lunch overlooking the surrounding hills. Take a walk around the city walls, peering into corners. And if you’re here in late July or early August, you might get to experience the Motovun Film Festival!
(Tip: this photo was taken at a fast food restaurant called Fast Food Vidik. Stop there for photos! It’s the best view of the city.)
Jagged cliffs jutting into the bright teal ocean in Kamenjak, Croatia
You don’t come to Croatia for sandy beaches — and that’s true for Istria as well. (Yes, there are some sandy beaches here and there, but the vast majority of Croatia’s beaches are slabs of rock or pebble beaches.) But you end up with absolutely beautiful beaches and clear turquoise Adriatic water.
One of my favorite places to enjoy the beach in Istria is Cape Kamenjak, just south of the town of Premantura. This protected area, at the bottom tip of Istria’s heart-shaped peninsula, is home to more than 30 km of beaches. You can swim, cliff dive, rent boats, or just drive around until you find your own perfect beach.
There are some nice beaches on the edges of Rovinj, Rabac, and Umag as well if you want easier access to town.
Keep in mind that Istria’s summer isn’t as long as Dalmatia’s — if you’re looking for hot days and swimming, I’d recommend visiting Istria from mid-June to mid-September, with the warmest water in September. More on that below.
The brightly colored town of Vodnjan: yellow, peach, and blood-red buildings on an open square, underneath a bright blue sky.
Come to Vodnjan for the street art, stay for the mummies.
Vodnjan and its Mummies
Vodnjan is one of the coolest small towns in Istria, easily situated between Rovinj and Pula. Vodnjan is a pretty cool place to hang out, with dramatic colors and tons of street art. That bright red building is one of the symbols of the town.
But what puts Vodnjan over the edge? Mummies. Actual mummies.
The Church of St. Blaise is home to the mummified remains of six saints: St. Leon Bembo, St. John Olini, and St. Nicolosa Bursa, as well as parts of St. Sebastian, St. Mary of Egypt, and St. Barbara. You go into the back of the church and they light up, one by one, telling you their stories.
Photography is absolutely not allowed, but just standing there, experiencing them on your own, is a creepy experience. The church is also home to a collection of sacral art.
The town of Rovinj, lit up in pink just before sunset. You see the peninsula of the Old Town jutting into the sea, where a church tower pokes straight up from the center. Boats circle the water around the old town.
What other place is as delectable as Rovinj?
Rovinj is the showstopper of Istria, and one of the most popular spots in the country. Dubrovnik may be more famous overall, but I think Rovinj is the most beautiful city in Croatia!
Rovinj is a photographer’s dream. It’s worth exploring Rovinj’s old city at different times of day, from different angles, and catching the sunset as well. One of the loveliest things to do in Rovinj is simply sit on the edge of the water with a drink, enjoying the scenery around you!
Rovinj also has some nice beaches, fun boat trips, and an interesting selection of shops. Honestly, I wouldn’t plan a trip to Istria without spending at least one day in Rovinj!
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