Picturesque villages, beautiful sunsets, ancient history, turquoise waters, Italian flair and excellent wining and dining. For a region so small in size, Croatia’s Istria sure packs a lot of holiday punch. In a relatively short span of time there’s a lot you can do and see in Istria.
And that’s just what we did. As part of a three month road trip through the Balkans, starting off one year of traveling, we spent several days exploring this beautiful region of Croatia. You really can’t go wrong with any of the places dotting the Adriatic coast or Istria’s green hilly interior, but according to us there really are 8 places you must see in Istria.
Best towns to see in Istria
In our humble opinion Rovinj is the prettiest and most picturesque of the seaside towns and a real must see in Istria. Judging by the number of visitors this view seems to be shared by many others. Even in May it was already very busy. Just like us they were drawn here by the Mediterranean vibe of this old fishing port located on a drop-shaped peninsula (which was once an island).
Much of Rovinj’s attraction is the result of it being part of Venice from the 13th until the 18th century (it’s also called Rovigno). Colorful houses, countless ateliers (mainly along Grisia street), seaside terraces, harbors full of boats, cozy piazzas and (sometimes steep) cobblestone streets leading up to the baroque Saint Euphemia Cathedral (1736) made for some very pleasant hours of aimless wandering.
Located near the southern tip of Istria, Pula is famous for its large well preserved Roman amphitheater that was built between 27 BC and 68 AD. Measuring 133 by 105 meters it could host up to 20.000 spectators in the old days. The former gladiator arena is now used as a venue for the Pula Film Festival and concerts.
The amphitheater is one of the best preserved of its kind in the world and was great place to visit, but we were not the only ones. About 400.000 visitors come here each year. We saw some other Roman structures in Pula as well, the Temple of August, the oldest preserved building in Croatia, being one of them.
Like many other old towns along Istria’s coast, the small city of Poreč was influenced by ancient Romans and Venetian traders. Its cobblestone streets and street layout date back to Roman times, while many of the notable buildings in the old town are Venetian in origin.
The most interesting sight, however, was the Euphrasian Basalica, a Unesco World Heritage site, that dates back to the fourth century, although the Basilica was built in the sixth century. It was interesting to see the different layers of the building as it was extended and rebuilt over the centuries.
Završje was the first of three hill towns in the northern part of Istria that we visited. We drove there by mistake after taking a wrong turn. It was a hamlet that seemed to be forgotten by the rest of the world. Only a few dozen people still live there, their homes standing next to buildings that had fallen into ruin.
We found tiny Završje the most authentic of the hill towns we visited. Where Grožnjan and Motovun had loads of tourists walking around, we were the only ones in Završje.
From Zaversje we drove to Grožnjan, one of the most famous hill towns to see in Istria. The village was completely depopulated after WWII, but after the local municipality decided to offer houses for low prices to artists it developed into some kind of artist colony.
Most of the medieval buildings were restored and now you can find galleries, shops and restaurants in them. It’s all quite touristy, but some of the original beauty can still be seen through the preserved old walls, forts, churches and monuments. Lying on a hill top it also offers great views of the surrounding valleys.
Our last stop along the northern hill towns in Istria was Motovun. Sitting atop a hill in central Istria it also commands panoramic views of the surrounding area. We had to park the car at the bottom of the hill and take the shuttle bus or walk up to the old fortified town.
Our first impression was that of a huge open air restaurant. The place was swarming with people having lunch which made it difficult to get a feel for Motovun’s almost 700 years of Venetian and Austro-Hungarian history. Only when we walked down the back side of the fortified hill top our interest was raised a little. Probably because hardly any other tourist bothered to venture out here. Noteworthy: Truffles apparently are a big thing here too.
Another hilltop village to see in Istria, but more in the southeast of the peninsula, is colorful Labin. We passed through Labin on our way to Plitvice Lakes. The drive was great, following some amazingly quiet roads through rolling countryside. We passed small villages that time seemed to have forgotten.
We couldn’t have wished for a better last stop in Istria. Located on a 320 meters high hill Labin seemed like a serene little town. It was just big enough to wander around for an hour. There are supposed to be several ateliers but they all seemed closed when we visited, which was on a Saturday. Maybe that explains why there were so surprisingly few other visitors around.