Exploring Ancient City of Split Croatia
Diocletian Palace is a World Heritage Site
Story and photos by Alison Gardner, Travel with a Challenge editor
In August 2019, my husband and I touched down in Split, Croatia 11 years after our last visit. While this beautiful, deeply-historical city (population 180,000) is less well-known than its sister city of Dubrovnik further south on the Adriatic Sea coast, it equally oozes a rich and colorful past from every pore and is less crowded than Dubrovnik. The only cautionary note in an otherwise unconditional endorsement of visiting Split would be to avoid July and August as altogether too hot and too crowded to count as prime visiting time. May/June and September are ideal.
As with most other cities we visit for more than an overnight visit, we started with a round trip 75-minute hop-on, hop-off bus tour run by Apodos Travel Agency in order to get oriented (or in our case reoriented!) to the Split highlights. Based on your first round trip hop-on with commentary, you may flag what you want to experience in detail later by hopping off for a longer visit. And then you may catch the next bus 75 minutes later to move on to your next chosen museum or other highlight, as the ticket lasts all day.
Here are some personal highlights of our recent multi-day visit to Split:
Pick your seafood fresh, fresh, fresh from the Adriatic Sea at Konoba Varos, a local “tavern” (konoba) restaurant for over 100 years. Who knew that sea bass, tuna, octopus, scampi (mini-lobster) and a variety of other shellfish are caught daily in the narrow sea between Croatia and Italy? P.S. the scampi soup was to die for!
Roman soldiers still patrol the main marble courtyard of a lavish summer palace built by Emperor Diocletian who just happened to be a native son of this Dalmatian coast area. He did something pretty exceptional in rising from foot soldier to head of the Roman Empire from 284 to 305 AD. Equally unlikely and amazing, he was a rare Roman emperor to retire voluntarily from the job, in Diocletian’s case to his enormous palace on the Split waterfront where he mainly pottered in his garden until his natural death in 311. An expertly-delivered Split Walking Tour with our archaeologist guide, Ina, took us inside and all around this edifice which has never been abandoned in all its long life. A sister company also offers excellent culinary explorations of Split, the most popular being the wine tasting tour.
One very contemporary reason that tourism is thriving in Split is Game of Thrones. Fans of the eight-season series (stay tuned for the prequel coming soon!) are flocking to the area from around the world to walk in the footsteps of their favorite characters and settings filmed on location in Diocletian’s Palace, the mighty Klis Fortress overlooking Split and other recognizable sites in the area. This five to six hour tour (including dinner at one Thrones location) was led by the very personable Goga, who has served as an extra for many of the Split episodes, delivering up plenty of vivid behind-the-scenes stories on our tour about the stars and the shoots. The Game of Thrones Museum is also a great fan destination in the old city.
Set back from the bustling waterfront in a serene cobbled street, Cucina Mare is a new restaurant that has risen to star status in the Croatian culinary scene very quickly. In the courtyard ruins of a traditional Croatian Stonehouse, it is difficult to get a dinner table before 9 p.m. without a reservation in this intimate outdoor setting though the eatery is also open for breakfast and lunch. Chef Ćiro Sabljić anchors a very creative kitchen where most ingredients that make it to your plate will come fresh from local villages, including cheese and sausages like your tongue has never tasted before. Ćiro wants to offer Croatian culinary half-day classes in the off-season in a special indoor/outdoor kitchen he is setting up as part of the restaurant … stay tuned for announcements!
From Split’s inner harbor nightly (7 to 9 p.m.), Captain Marin steers his classic day-cruise boat out to sea with the proven winning formula of a fabulous sunset and an unlimited supply of good quality beer, wine, champagne and soft drinks to offer guests at no extra charge. Food is not on offer on the Polaris Sunset Cruise. Reviews for this experience made no mention of passengers staggering about in an alcoholic haze, but all praised the live music trio on the upper deck as a huge asset. Everyone from late teens to seniors sang along to familiar songs in several languages, drank their fair share of various free-flowing beverages, and marched steadily down the gangplank as this classic boat docked. Captain Marin’s family has been in the boating business for 400 years … he clearly knows what he is doing!
Anyone visiting Split will be intrigued by the towering limestone cliffs that rise almost vertically in fortress-style from the land just a short distance behind the city. Opcija Tours Off-Road 4×4 tour seemed the best way to get into the surrounding countryside and explore a bit of what lay at the top, lunch in a mountain village included. It is truly as rugged as it looks! We explored mostly on rough single track roads with off-road specialists, Frane and Toni, to visit pilgrim churches and an impressively-restored ethno eco-village (click on U.S. flag for English version) that presents many aspects of life as it was for Croatian country folk before GPS and both domestic and international tourists arrived. There is also an excellent gift shop of traditional items. Our 4×4 tour concluded with a satisfying meal of Croatian foods on the terrace of a mountain home overlooking the city thousands of feet below before returning to Split five hours after we had left town. Opcija Tours also offers informative wine tasting tours to a country vineyard and winery for those not so keen on heights or off-road adventures.
A visit to Croatia is always intertwined with distinctive food and drink, so we wrapped up our time in Split overlooking the city’s poshest marina, indulging momentary imaginings of joining the rich and famous yacht culture. On the outdoor terrace of Zrno Soli Restaurant with sweeping views of hundreds of sailing and motor yachts, we indulged in delicious seafood soup and sample platters of seafood starters. Looking over to the historic Split waterfront beyond, we were once again in awe of the variety of seafood caught fresh daily for millennia in the narrow Adriatic Sea.
Follow Up Facts
For complete information on vacationing in Split, see the Visit Split website.
In addition, we recommend in our Travel Article Library collection a richly-illustrated feature article about a 7-day small ship cruise out of Split that explores the northern half of Croatia’s coastline and islands. Also in the collection is a heavily-browsed land-based tour feature about active travel for seniors in Croatia and Slovenia and one more feature article about a nine-day gulet cruise adventure visiting several southern Adriatic islands including Korcula, Hvar, Vis and Brač, all south of Split.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of Travel with a Challenge Web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com.