Known for its wine, olive oil, and truffles, Croatia’s Istria region is an often-overlooked destination compared to the crazy popular Dalmatian Coast (I’m looking at you, Dubrovnik). If you’re into an amazing culinary scene, beautiful seasides, hilltop wine villages, and tons of history—with less tourists than Dalmatia and cheaper prices than Italy—you can’t miss Istria.
While 90% of Istria lies in the northwestern peninsula of Croatia, the region also includes small areas of Slovenia and Italy, so it’s pretty easy to visit those countries too if you’re so inclined. Read on to see what we did in all three countries in two weeks.
When to go
Like most of Europe, September is an ideal time to visit. It’s still warm, but the crowds are getting smaller by the day as the summer holidays wind down. May to September is technically high season, so it’s still a bit crowded but we didn’t find it overwhelming. Try to avoid July and August, peak tourist time.
Where to stay
While Rovinj is the hotspot in the area, we chose to stay in neighboring Pula. Even though it’s the largest city in Istria, it’s less crowded with tourists than Rovinj, has plenty to offer in terms of sightseeing and beaches, and is a great home base for exploring the surrounding areas. It’s also where the airport is located, which makes for easy access in and out of the country.
We stayed in a lovely Airbnb with stunning sunset views over the sea (seriously some of the best I’ve ever seen). Our host, Jadranka, is also one of the kindest people I’ve ever met on my travels. We arrived late at night and were welcomed with a fresh fish dinner and wine—the best thing ever after a long journey. She was available for questions at any time and gave us a ton of great tips to make the most of our stay. If you’re traveling to Pula, I highly recommend her place!
We rented a car at the Pula airport, which was definitely worth it. Not only were we able to get around locally in Pula and Rovinj, but could easily take day trips to Slovenia, Italy and the Plitviče Lakes national park. It’s possible to get around by bus, but if you’re planning on taking outside trips, you need a car.
My boyfriend speaks the language, so we were lucky in that department. But overall, I found that young people and those working in tourism could speak a decent amount of English. There are also a lot of Italian and German-speaking visitors, so if you know a few words in those languages it could be helpful too.
What to do and see in Istria
Besides eating and drinking wine, of course…
Walk around the city center and explore the many ancient Roman ruins including the 1st-century Roman arena, which is one of only six remaining Roman arenas in the world.
Then turn your eyes to the colorful buildings, modern restaurants, and plentiful markets as you wander without a plan. Stop for amazing grilled calamari at Kantina. If you’re visiting in July, check out the Pula Film Festival.
Ready to hit the beautiful Croatian beach? Visit Premantura for stunning rock and pebble beaches and a dip in the blue Adriatic sea. While you can find public sea access in areas around the city, Premantura is a national park and you’ll have to pay a small entrance fee of about $7 per car. It’s totally worth it as you can access a number of different beaches, all with their own vibe, or head to the town for a bite to eat. Mala Kolombarica beach at the southern tip has a fun, young vibe with cliff jumping, cave swimming, and a shaded bar.
Istria Wine Tour
In my opinion, a wine tour is a must. Imagine exploring the Istrian countryside, visiting off-the-beaten-path villages and the local winemakers there, eating a traditional pasta lunch, passing through the vast olive groves and vineyards, and of course, tasting the local wine. Yeah, it’s as good as it sounds.
We did exactly that with Eat Istria and had a fantastic day exploring the small, family-owned wineries. My only wish was that our guide spent more time talking about the culture and history of winemaking in the region, though I’d still recommend them if you’re into wine.
Spend a day in nearby Medulin, know for its beaches and camping. The town itself is adorably quaint, but be warned, the population nearly doubles with tourists in July and August.
Explore the old town on foot stopping for gelato as you wander down the cobblestone streets and winding alleys. Lined with colorful townhouses and windows overflowing with flowers, it has a distinctly Venetian feel. After all, Rovinj, or Rovigno to the Italians, was a part of Italy until 1947.
There are plenty of bars and restaurants serving typical Istrian fare, which, unsurprisingly, has an Italian vibe. Think prosciutto and arugula pizza, fresh seafood, Istrian pasta, wine, and of course, truffles. Foodies should check out the first Michelin star restaurant in Croatia, Monte. When you need a break, don’t miss out on a chance to sip a glass of vino or an Aperol Spritz while overlooking the sea.
While we didn’t get a chance to hit the beaches in Rovinj, I heard they’re beautiful. If you go, let me know what it’s like!
Day trips from Pula
There are a number of worthy day trips to Slovenia, Italy, and other parts of Croatia from Pula/Rovinj. We visited the following places as day trips, coming back to Pula each night. I’d recommend spending a few days (or more) in each place if you have the time.
Lake Bled + Ljubljana, Slovenia
I’d seen the Insta-famous images of Lake Bled, so I knew it would be beautiful there. And it was. It’s very touristy, but certainly worth the 2 ½ hour drive from Pula.
But, wow, Ljubljana was a big surprise. Total heart eyes emojis, people. The city feels like a fairy tale come to life. Plus, there’s a burgeoning local food and craft beer scene and an amazing market. It’s bike friendly, clean, cheap, and did I mention, beautiful?!
My biggest regret of the entire trip was not spending more time in Ljubljana. A mere pit stop on the way back from Lake Bled was just a tease. Unfortunately, I don’t have great photos of Ljubljana, but trust me—Do. Not. Miss. It.
Plitviče Lakes National Park
Set off from Pula on a 3-hour drive through seriously winding roads and you’ll reach Plitviče Jezera in central Croatia, close to the Bosnian border. A UNESCO world heritage site, Plitviče is known for its 16 cascading lakes and waterfalls.
You have the option to walk through two different paths. The lower path puts you right among the waterfall and lakes. I felt like I was walking through the movie FernGully. Truly magical. Or you can take the upper path for better bird’s-eye views. Though it gets very crowded, it’s absolutely worth the visit. Try getting there as early as possible to beat the masses.
Trieste, Italy + Koper, Slovenia
Just a hop, skip, and a jump from the Pula/Rovinj area is the quiet, port city of Trieste, Italy. It rained most of the day during our visit, but we still had a lovely time walking through the city’s squares, admiring the architecture, and eating delicious pasta.
On the way back we stopped in the old town of Koper, Slovenia filled with shops, galleries, and restaurants. The streets were pretty quiet by the time we arrived, though we did find some interesting local craft beers to bring home…and yet another amazing sunset. Slovenia’s a hidden gem, people!
Are you planning to visit Istria? Been there and have more tips? Let me know in the comments.