While the coastal region of Dalmatia with impressive cities like Dubrovnik and Split jump continually draw hordes of tourists each year, many travellers are looking for an alternative area in Croatia to visit without the crowds and all of the implications that mass tourism can bring. This is why visiting the northwestern region of Istria is becoming an appealing option for visitors to Croatia.
Packed with much of the charming cities, ancient Roman ruins, and cerulean Adriatic waters as Dalmatia but with a fraction of the crowds, Istria is an absolutely fantastic place to visit in Croatia. However, if you’re only able to visit Istria for a short period of time, you’re probably only going to want to stay in one place to avoid moving around every other day. Pula or Rovinj are easily the most popular towns for visitors to stay when travelling to this region, but which city is best for you?
Both cities have different things going for them and it really depends on what kind of Istria holiday you’re after in order to choose if Pula or Rovinj is the best city to stay in Istria.
The largest city in the Istrian region, Pula has been an important port in Croatia. Like the entirety of Istria, Pula has a fascinating history dating back centuries and draws a number of cultural influences. Once under the rule of ancient Rome and the Venetians, more recently Pula has been part of Austria-Hungary, Italy, and Yugoslavia before Croatia became its own independent country in the 1990’s. From ancient Roman times until 1991, Pula was the administrative capital of Istria. Because of all of the influences, there are many layers of Pula that just beg to be discovered.
If you’re only planning on visiting Istria as part of your Croatia itinerary, Pula is the most logical starting point as it is home to the region’s only international airport, located only about 8 kilometres outside of the city centre. Though the airport is largely seasonal, it serves a multitude of destinations across Europe from most both major and budget airlines, such as Ryanair, EasyJet, British Airways, and Norwegian.
There is also a central bus station in Pula that has direct connections with most major Croatian cities and international cities in neighbouring countries, along with most destinations and points of interest within Istria itself.
Because it is the largest city in Istria, Pula is definitely the region’s transport hub, so it is easy to reach just about everywhere in the region. However, if you want to use Pula as a base and explore the rest of Istria by day trip, then it is worth knowing that some places of interest might be a bit of a journey. It can help to rent a car, but the main tourist attractions on the west coast are within a closer proximity to Rovinj vs Pula.
Pula is, however, closer to the lesser visited east coast of Istria with picturesque seaside villages like Opatija and Rabac or hill towns like Labin or Pazin.
Things to do in Pula
If you’re looking for a base where you can take some interesting day trips but also enjoy a number of fun things to do within the city, then Pula is the place for you!
Pula’s most iconic tourist attraction would have to be the Pula Arena, an excellently preserved Roman colosseum built between 27 BCE – 68 CE. It is easy to spend an hour or two wandering around this impressive ancient structure.
Pula also has a quite a few interesting museums, including Zerostrasse (a series of tunnels beneath the city that was originally intended for use as a bunker but is now a local art exhibition), the Istrian Museum of Contemporary Art, and the House of Istrian Olive Oil. All of these museums will give you insight on Pula and Istria as a whole from ancient times to the present day.
Another benefit to choosing to stay in Pula vs Rovinj is its proximity to the wonderful Brijuni Islands. The main island was once home to the summer residence of former Yugoslav dictator Josip Broz Tito and today it is a nature reserve and wildlife park. Spending a day riding a bicycle around the islands is one of the best things you could do on your trip to Istria.
If you’re trying to stick to a budget and you’re struggling to choose between Pula or Rovinj, then it might help you to know that Pula, on the whole, Pula is the slightly more affordable Istrian city. Maybe because it is bigger or maybe because it just doesn’t have quite the romantic charm of Rovinj (it is considerably more industrial, but this does not take away from it in the slightest!), but Pula hasn’t attracted the tourism numbers quite like Rovinj has and it’s prices match that.
There are a few more budget accommodation options, Airbnb properties (both private rooms and whole apartments) are about 10-15% cheaper, and the rooms in smaller hotels are slightly less as well.
The same goes for restaurants — while there are certainly a number of restaurants in Pula that are geared toward foreign tourists with prices to match, the upcharge isn’t quite as significant as it is in Rovinj. All in all, if you’re looking to cut a bit from your overall Croatia trip cost, then Pula might be the best option for you.
Where to Stay in Pula
Because of its many places of interest for visitors, there are numerous places to stay in Pula. Here are some of our top picks:
Crazy House Hostel – Centrally located, this hostel is a great place to stay if you’re on a tight budget or travelling solo. It has both dorm and private rooms on offer and also a nice outdoor terrace to relax on warm days. 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!
Located in the middle of the west coast of Istria, Rovinj is arguably the most beautiful town in the region. The pedestrian-only old town is situated on a small peninsula, dominated by the iconic bell tower of St Euphemia’s Church and surrounded by a rocky coastline.
The town itself is undeniably picturesque and it is sure to charm you with every turn down a narrow cobbled lane. Because of its beauty and Croatia’s increasing presence for international tourism, however, the small city can get quite crowded. Despite this, Rovinj remains a must-visit destination in Istria, be that for a just a day or for a few nights.
If you’re arriving by plane, the closest airport is Pula international. There are bus connections from the airport to Rovinj but do make sure to check the timetable before your flights to make sure they are running when you land/take off as they don’t run a frequently as you might think.
If your flight arrives too early or late, it is also possible to organise a transfer with a local company, however, these will be significantly more expensive than relying on public transport.
Another popular option is to rent a car, especially if you plan to take a number of day trips from Rovinj. While a car is certainly not necessary in Rovinj itself — the Old Town is a pedestrian-only zone as it is and everything is within easy walking distance — having a car to explore elsewhere in Istria will allow you to see the sites you want on your own time without being beholden to bus timetables or expensive tour operators.
If you’re interested in seeing some sites just outside of Rovinj’s Old Town, it is also worth knowing that the town is very cycle-friendly and you can hire a bicycle for a couple of hour or multiple days at affordable prices.
Things to do in Rovinj
Though definitely more traditionally beautiful than Pula, Rovinj is significantly smaller and doesn’t have as many activities or things to do in the city — especially if you’re more interested in the cultural and historic side of Istria.
That being said, however, Rovinj is arguably the better option if you are after a relaxing seaside holiday in a beautiful setting. The main draw of Rovinj is inarguably its postcard-perfect Old Town and many hours can be spent just strolling around the narrow cobbled streets.
Visiting St Euphemia’s Church and braving the climb up its bell tower is one of the best things to do in the town and it can provide spectacular views over Rovinj and the surrounding areas. There are also a number of rock and pebble beaches and swimming areas within very easy reach of Rovinj, including Monte Beach — which is located directly below the church in the Old Town.
Rovinj is also a great base for exploring some of the most beautiful parts of Green Istria and enjoying the unique gastronomy that the inland region has to offer. The charming hill towns of Bale, Buje, Groznjan, and Motovun are closer and easier to reach from Rovinj than from Pula and no trip to Istria is complete without marvelling at the beauty of these medieval towns.
Rovinj is also a great location to go wine tasting — Istria is Croatia’s top grape-growing region and the wines produced from hundreds of vineyards are unique and delicious.
All in all, if you’re after a more relaxing seaside holiday, then Rovinj might be the better option for where to stay in Istria.
As mentioned earlier, Rovinj is definitely the biggest tourist draw in Istria and it has prices to match. Therefore, it is noticeably more expensive to visit and stay there than Pula — with prices much more akin to those you will find in other, more popular European destinations. While the prices certainly aren’t quite as high as those in, say, Dubrovnik, it’s not exactly a budget travel destination.
There are a seemingly endless amount of restaurants in Rovinj’s old town, most catered specifically toward tourists with prices to match. You have to search hard to find a quality, local eatery and often you have to walk a significant distance outside the old town or seaside in order to get there. Drink prices as well are significantly higher, especially if you want to enjoy a cocktail directly on the water.
Because it is a popular tourist destination, there are a number of accommodation options in Rovinj, from high-end beach resorts to small guesthouses to private apartment rentals. This is much the same as most towns in Istria, however, you will notice that nightly rates are about 15% higher here than in Pula.
Where to Stay in Rovinj
Because of its popularity as the top tourist destination in Istria, there a numerous places to stay in Rovinj. While I did mention that there were a few high-end resorts in the city, we would recommend finding a smaller, locally run establishment in order to get a real feel for the culture of the region. Here are our top suggestions:
Hotel Angelo d’Oro — Located in the centre of Old Town Rovinj, this small boutique hotel has a number of clean and comfortable rooms available and also a free breakfast for its guests! Click here to see their latest prices
Bed & Breakfast Villa Squero — Though not located in the Old Town proper, this small hotel is within five minutes walking distance of the most beautiful areas 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!
Pula or Rovinj? The Verdict
Overall, there are different pros and cons to choosing to stay in either Pula or Rovinj. Both are wonderful places and well worth a visit even if you are staying in one or the other.
If you’re still struggling, we would recommend staying in Pula if you are travelling on a smaller budget and want to save money on potentially expensive airport transfers and accommodation options. Pula might also be the better option if you want a wider wealth of cultural opportunities, including numerous museums and historical sites to explore, as well as a more local feel that is less geared toward foreign tourists.
Rovinj is a great option if you’re after a more quintessential Croatian seaside escape. Its stunning, romantic Old Town and proximity to some of the best beaches and swimming areas in the region make Rovinj an appealing choice for where to stay in Istria as well. While there aren’t as many cultural activities as there are in Pula, Rovinj makes up for it in its undeniable charm. It is also a good option if your budget is more flexible and not as fixed.
You really can’t go wrong with a choice between staying in Pula or Rovinj, however, each city has its own set of advantages. Wherever you choose to stay on your Istrian adventure, there is no denying that this is one of the most underrated regions of Croatia and you’re sure to have a fabulous time!
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 recommend WorldNomads and always use them for our trips – click here to get a quote from WorldNomads
Are you struggling to choose between Pula or Rovinj? Have you been to either place? Let us know in the comments below!