Croatia continues to grow as a popular holiday destination, with images of its ancient coastal cities and crystal clear Adriatic waters littering the pages of travel blogs and magazines and enchanting us in our Instagram feeds. And while most of Croatia is no longer considered an “off the beaten path” travel destination with its exponential growth in tourism over the past few years, there are a few places that retain the charm and beauty despite increasing popularity.
Most international tourists, however, set their sites on Croatia’s coastal Dalmatia region and ignore other parts of this beautiful country entirely. However, there is a lot more to see of Croatia and if you want all of the charms of Dubrovnik and Dalmatia, then Istria is the answer! Located in the northwestern part of Croatia, Istria is filled with charming coastal cities and medieval hill towns. So if you want to know the best Istria itinerary, look no further!
Getting To and Around Istria
If you are travelling to Istria as a stand-alone trip and not as part of a longer Croatia itinerary, your best bet when arriving in Istria is to fly into the Pula Airport. Though seemingly small in size, the Pula airport serves a number of airlines — including British Airways, Ryanair, Norwegian, and EasyJet — from a multitude of European cities.
If you are arriving from elsewhere in the country to begin your Istria itinerary, there are frequent bus connections from most major Croatian cities, including Zagreb, to Pula, Rovinj, and Poreč. It is worth knowing that if you are planning on relying on public transport in Istria or Croatia in general, that the bus reigns supreme. There are very few long-distance trains in Croatia and those that do exist are generally infrequent and unreliable. There are also connections to Istria from Slovenian and Italian cities like Ljubljana, Koper, and Trieste.
The other option for arriving and getting around Istria is to hire your own car. While it is definitely possible to get everywhere you need to go relying on public transport alone, having your own vehicle gives you a lot more flexibility. If you are trying to cut costs on your Croatia travel budget, we recommend renting a car just for a day or two in order to explore more off the path places on the Istrian peninsula.
If you don’t have a car, the bus system within cities (particularly in Pula) is very easy to navigate, frequent, and reliable and often times might work out to be more practical (and certainly more cost-effective) than having a rental car. You can buy bus tickets online through GetByBus.
Though it may seem like a small area, there are a surprising amount of things to do in Istria which is why we recommend spending at least a week in the area. If you are keen to have some relaxation time by the warm Adriatic waters while also being able to get the most out of all the activities and sites that Istria has to offer, one week is the perfect amount of time.
Istria Itinerary: Pula — 3 Nights
The most logical place to begin your Istria itinerary is in Pula, the largest city in the region and also home to the international airport. Pula has a fascinating history dating back thousands of years and it is a city that is very worth exploring. Plan to spend three nights here in order to get a good feel for the city, appreciate its history, and also explore some of the surrounding areas. These are our suggestions for things to do in Pula:
Perhaps the most iconic site in Pula is its imposing Roman amphitheatre, located right in the centre of town. Constructed between 27 BCE and 68 CE, it was originally used for gladiator games and had a capacity for 23,000 spectators. Still excellently preserved today, it operates as a tourist attraction and a venue for concerts and cultural events like the Pula Film Festival.
Though smaller in size to the Coliseum in Rome, there is an undeniable grandeur to the Pula Arena and its distinct lack of tourist crowds only amplifies this. Entry to the amphitheatre costs 50 HRK for adults and 25 HRK for students, seniors, and children.
If you want to see how locals shop outside of the international supermarket chains, then head to the Pula market. Though there are some stalls that are catered toward tourists hawking kitschy souvenirs that could be found anywhere, there are also booths selling authentic local produce at great prices and fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables.
There is also an indoor area selling meat and fish, along with an area with a number of great restaurants more catered toward locals than tourists. It is worth noting, however, that the majority of these restaurants are not open for dinner. All in all, a visit to the Pula market is a great way to stock up on some unique mementoes from your trip to Istria.
House of Istrian Olive Oil
A unique museum in the city centre, the House of Istrian Olive Oil is a great place to visit in Pula. Outlining the history of olive oil in Istria throughout the centuries, this museum gives great insight into the significance that olive oil has had on Istria from the ancient Romans to the present day.
There is also an opportunity to include a guided tasting of some great Istrian olive oils and we highly recommend it. There are three tiers of tickets available, one is for museum entry only, one is for the “Green” olive oil tasting which gives a basic presentation about how to taste the oil and a couple of samples, and the last is for the “Gold” tasting which includes everything in the “Green” option plus five more oils to taste and a dessert. We recommend doing the “Gold” tasting if you are really interested in the qualities of Istrian olive oil.
Winding underneath central Pula is a series of tunnels that were originally commissioned to be built by Tito to serve as a bunker. Now it is possible to wander through these tunnels, called Zerostrasse, and see them for yourselves. In the present day, the tunnels serve as an art and photo exhibition where you can see photos of Pula past, mostly from the days when it was still part of Yugoslavia and it was a favourite destination of Tito. Entry is 15HRK for adults and 10HRK for students and seniors.
The Brijuni Islands are a fantastic day trip to take from Pula. Located just off the coast from the city, these islands were once served as the summer home for the Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito and today are a nature reserve.
While you can opt to take a day excursion around the islands directly from Pula, the only boat that has permission to actually land on the islands leaves from the nearby town of Fazana. Ferry tickets cost 210HRK for a return journey and leave frequently — they also include a tour of the island on a motorised train.
Rather than taking the packed train, however, we recommend hiring a bicycle and going around the island at your own pace. There you can see the wildlife park — including ostrich, zebras, llamas, and Shetland ponies — that Tito established, maybe hit the golf course, or find a stony beach virtually all to yourself.
Pula is becoming more and more popular amongst tourist and it is increasingly difficult to find a good, affordable, and local meal to eat there. Our advice to finding the best restaurants in Pula is to venture a bit further from the main tourist centre. There you will notice more affordable prices with local fare. If you’re stuck trying to find a great place to eat, check out these suggestions:
If you want another casual eatery with a great outdoor seating area, look no further than Jupiter Pizza. Located close to the arena, this place not only serves fantastic pizza but also some Balkan strongholds like cevapi and plijescavica along with freshly caught, local seafood.
Hook and Cook
Located on the main drag in Pula, Hook and Cook is a popular casual seafood joint. They have a small menu, however, the quality of the fish is fantastic and they have some unique ingredients and presentation.
Located close to the Pula market, Kantina is a great option if you’re keen to sample some of the best seafood Istria has to offer. Prices are affordable and the menu is extensive, serving up a lot of local favourites.
Where to Stay in Pula
Pula is increasing in popularity as a tourist destination and, because of that, there are a number of great accommodation options. Here are some of our suggestions:
Crazy House Hostel – located in the centre of the Old Town, this hostel is the perfect place for solo travellers on a budget and there is a fantastic outdoor terrace to relax on. Click here to see their latest prices
Boutique Hotel Oasi — this small hotel is located very close to the beach and a short distance from central Pula. They have a number of rooms on offer, a restaurant on site, and breakfast is included in the room rate. Click here to see their latest prices
Airbnb — Airbnb is another fantastic option for where to stay in Pula. There are a number of properties available, from private rooms to whole apartments that are suitable no matter your budget. If you’re new to airbnb, you can click here to get up to $40 off your first stay!
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other places in Pula!
Istria Itinerary: Umag — 2 Nights
After enjoying the lively atmosphere and many activities that Pula has to offer, the next stop on your Istria itinerary should be the northwestern Istrian town of Umag. Umag is much smaller and much more laid-back than Pula and is very popular amongst German tourists. Its compact old town, many great restaurants, and great swimming areas make it a fantastic addition to any Istria itinerary.
Though very small, the Old Town in Umag is incredibly quaint and very much worth exploring. There are a number of cafes and restaurants lining the water and a few pretty, cobblestoned streets to get lost in. There aren’t many breathtaking “sites” to see here, however, the atmosphere is one that lends Umag to be explored.
Stella Maria Swimming Area
One of the best reasons to visit Umag is to spend some time soaking up the sun and swimming in the warm Adriatic sea. Luckily, Umag has a number of great swimming areas absolutely perfect for this, however, the one we would recommend is the Stella Maria Swimming Area.
Located close to the Hotel Sol, this isn’t a sandy beach, however, it is still a fantastic area to lay in the sun and take a dip in the crystal clear water. There are also a couple of cafes and snack bars around should you need a bite to eat or an ice cream to take the edge off of a warm day.
Croatian wine is not well-known internationally, however, it’s prime wine-growing region happens to be located in Istria. While there are seemingly hundreds of vineyards scattered all across the Istrian region, some of the best lie within very easy reach of Umag.
We recommend stopping by for a tasting at Cuj Winery, which is only a few kilometres inland from Umag. This small, family-run vineyard produces some fantastic wines and their own olive oil as well. They use the native Istrian Malvasia and Teran grape varieties in their white and reds respectively, and they blend them with some more commonly found grapes for their rosé and dessert wines.
Hill Towns: Buje, Groznjan & Motovun
Another benefit to spending a couple of days in Umag is its proximity to some of the most charming hill towns in Istria. While it might be hard to draw yourself away from the stunning seaside, heading inland will let you see a side of Istria that you would never have known existed.
The towns of Buje, Groznjan, and Motovun are all within easy reach of Umag, however, it is a lot easier to get to them if you have your own car. Buje is closest to Umag and is the least visited of the three towns, however, it’s lack of tourists only add to its charm.
Groznjan was our favourite town of the three, it is known for its arts and music scene. There are a number of great restaurants to have lunch — we ate at Cafe Bar Vero and highly recommend it — and some art galleries and Istrian produce shops to browse.
Make sure to stop at Agro-Millo Olive Oil just outside of Groznjan if you want to sample some of the best Istrian olive oil direct from the producer!
Motovun is probably the most popular and busy hill town in Istria. This beautiful medieval town is located high above the peninsula and offers exquisite views of the surrounding area from its city walls. Be aware that it does get very popular and if the car park is full at the town — and it often it — you will have to park at the base of the hill and hike up.
When leaving Motovun, make sure to head to the nearby town of Livade and go to the Medea-Jankovic honey shop. This family-run shop sells high-quality honey in a number of varieties from their own bees. They also have their own honey rakija along with hand creams and lip balms from the beeswax. The owners are incredibly friendly and will let you sample everything and offer helpful explanations.
There are a number of restaurants in Umag, however, much like in Pula, the best eateries lie away from the main tourist area in the old town. Here are some of our top suggestions:
A small restaurant in a residential area, Punta has an extensive seafood menu with freshly caught local seafood. The prices are affordable and the atmosphere and service are also very good.
Located in the Old Town of Umag, Restoran Mani has a massive menu with fresh seafood, pasta, and everything else you can imagine. The service is incredibly friendly and the food is fantastic.
Considered one of the best restaurants in Istria, Konoba Buščina is located a little bit inland of Umag proper. They serve traditional Istrian cuisine and while it might seem like a fine dining establishment, the atmosphere is very laid back and casual. This is one of the best places to eat in Umag, but as it is quite well-known, it is recommended that you book a table in advance.
Located very close to Punta, Konoba Istra is another great place to eat at in Umag. They serve fresh seafood along with other Istrian classics, such as pljukanci pasta with truffles and buzzara-style mussels.
Where to Stay in Umag
Though not as popular a destination as Pula or Rovinj, there are a number of great accommodation options in Umag. Here are the ones we recommend:
Vilola — a small boutique hotel located close to some of the best swimming areas in Umag, Vilola offers air-conditioned rooms with their own balcony and breakfast included in the room rate. Click here to see their latest prices
Hotel Arte Casa — another boutique hotel in Umag, this one also has a great breakfast included in the nightly rate, air-conditioned rooms, and free parking on the premises. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other places in Umag!
Istria Itinerary: Rovinj — 2 Nights
Rovinj is easily the most notable and popular town to visit on any Istria itinerary. This beautiful seaside town is enough to make anyone fall in love. We recommend spending two nights here in order to get the most out of Rovinj while also being able to enjoy some sun and sea.
Rovinj’s Old Town is one of the most magical in Croatia. It is just small enough to be able to see the whole thing in one day, but large enough to be able to get wonderfully lost and find some narrow, cobbled lanes all to yourself.
Take the time when you first arrive in Rovinj to wander around the Old Town without any sort of agenda and see where your feet might take you…it is sure to charm you around every corner! The Old Town is also a pedestrian-only zone, so you do not need to be on the lookout for cars!
Much like in Pula, there is a lovely market just at the entrance of the Old Town selling fresh fruits and vegetables and also local Istrian produce. Here you can browse stalls selling olive oil, truffles and truffle products, Croatian lavender, and many varieties of rakija. Most sellers will also offer you samples of their goods.
It is worth noting that there really isn’t much at the Rovinj market that you can’t find at the one in Pula, except that the prices here are noticeably higher. Therefore, we would recommend buying any Istrian gastronomic souvenirs in Pula rather than in Rovinj in order to save some money and to cut down on your total Croatia trip cost.
There are a number of stone and pebble beaches surrounding Rovinj, however, Monte Beach is the only one that is in the Old Town. Located directly below St Euphemia’s church, this is more of a rocky swimming area than a beach, but it is perfect for those who want to take the edge off of a hot day with a dip in the Adriatic.
There are a number of ladders to help you get in and out of the water. It is worth noting that if you’re not a strong swimmer, this may not be the best beach for you as the water is deep and can sometimes get rough.
St Euphemia’s Church
Probably the most iconic landmark of Rovinj in St Euphemia’s Church and its bell tower overlooking the picturesque seaside town. This Catholic church is situated on the top of the highest hill in Rovinj’s Old Town and offers great views of the sea and Monte Beach below.
If you want the best view as possible, however, then you need to brave the climb up the bell tower. While entry into the church is free, the bell town costs 20HRK per person to go up. There are a number of very rickety stairs to climb (some of the worst we have encountered, so it’s not for the faint of heart — especially if you’re afraid of heights), but the views from the top are absolutely spectacular. The strenuous and harrowing climb is always worth it for views like this!
If you’re exhausted after all of the sightseeing that has been included on this Istria itinerary, then there is no better time to hit the beach. Luckily, Rovinj has a number of beautiful beaches in its surrounding areas. Our favourite, however, was Amarin Beach.
Part of a resort, this beach can be reached from a convenient ferry ride that leaves every half hour near the Rovinj market. The ride costs 30HRK each way and takes about fifteen minutes.
The beach itself is pebbly, which makes it comfortable to lay on, and the swimming area is a lot calmer than at Monte Beach making is a better solution for families or those who aren’t as strong of swimmers. There are also snack bars and cafes where you can get drinks, food, and ice cream!
Suffice it to say, the best restaurants in most places (Istria included) lie outside of the main tourist drag, and Rovinj is no different. There are a lot of restaurants to choose from in Rovinj, but not all are the same. So if you’re wondering where to eat in Rovinj, check out these suggestions.
Though not a restaurant, this cocktail bar is one of the best places to get a pre- or post-dinner drink in Rovinj. Located directly on the rocky seaside near Monte Beach, Mediterraneo has an extensive cocktail, wine, and beer list and it is the perfect place to watch the sunset or for a romantic evening.
If you’re after something quick, tasty, and casual, then look no further than Da Sergio. This pizzeria is incredibly popular, so you may have to wait a bit during peak hours, however, the pizzas are fantastic and the service is quick.
An inventive Istrian restaurant, Kantinon uses local produce and traditional recipes and gives them a modern spin. The results are absolutely delicious. Also located on the harbour, this restaurant is the perfect place for a romantic dinner at an agreeable price.
If you’re looking for a more local haunt within easy reach of Rovinj’s old town, then look no further than Torkolo. Serving up traditional Istrian specialities, this is a great place for a casual meal and affordable prices.
Snack Bar Rio
Don’t let the name fool you, Snack Bar Rio is one of the best places if you want a more upmarket seafood meal in Rovinj. They have a great menu with freshly-caught seafood in a beautiful location on the harbour with phenomenal views of St Euphemia’s church. The service is very friendly and they also have an extensive wine list.
Where to stay in Rovinj
Rovinj is one of the most popular towns to stay in Istra and, therefore, there are a lot of accommodation options to choose from. While there are a number of high-end resorts nearby, we would recommend finding a nice boutique hotel in the old town in order to really get a feel for Rovinj. Here are our top picks:
Hotel Angelo d’Oro — a small hotel in the middle of old town Rovinj, this place has a number of rooms on offer and comes very highly rated. Breakfast is also included in the nightly rate. Click here to see their latest prices
Bed & Breakfast Villa Squero — located only five minutes from the old town, this charming hotel is a great option for a place to stay in Rovinj. The rooms are large and comfortable and it also includes breakfast in the room rate. Click here to see their latest prices
Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse other places in Rovinj!
Istria is an absolutely beautiful corner of Croatia and it deserves to be explored! There are so many wonderful things to do in Istria that it is close to impossible to get bored!
When visiting Istria, it’s always a good idea to make sure you have a travel insurance policy so you’re covered for any unfortunate events! We like WorldNomads and always use them for our trips – click here to get a quote from WorldNomads
Are you planning an Istria itinerary? Have you been? Let us know in the comments!