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Istria is a region which is very popular with foreign sunseekers who flock to this peninsula to swim in the crystal clear Adriatic sea throughout summer. Towns like Rovinj and Poreč are teeming with holidaymakers sunbathing along her shores – but let us for a moment pack up the beach towels and head inland – to green Istria, where fertile lands abound, charming medieval hilltop towns keep watch and idyllic villages have maintained their character from centuries ago.
If you haven’t heard of Istria, it’s time you checked it out. This is Croatia’s little slice of heaven, with an Italian twist thrown in for good measure!
Packed with tiny towns, beautiful hidden beaches, fragrant roses, delicious wines, and some of the cheapest truffles you’ll find anywhere else in the world, Istria is a big contender for one of Croatia’s best-kept secrets.
I know, you’re also planning to head to Dubrovnik or the Dalmatian Coast in general, but take note of this. Flights into Pula Airport are becoming more and more frequent, and after summer, Istria is still open and jam-packed with things to do.
To give you a little glimpse into what you can see, do, and experience in Istria, check out this fun list of ideas.
Picturesque Bale is a small town made entirely from stone – in fact, it reminds me very much of one of the sets from Game of Thrones or Harry Potter. Located in the southwestern part of Istria, just 20km away from the city of Pula, is where you will find one of my newest favorites, Croatian towns – a town which is made up of 48% Italians and is officially bilingual.
Once in Bale, it’s hard to believe that the maze of cobblestone streets and neatly restored houses are just 7km from the Adriatic Sea.
What To Do In Bale
- Paleontologists should head to the town museum where fossils of the remains of the histriasaurus dinosaur are on display
- Wander up along the cobblestone streets to the recently restored Gothic-Renaissance style castle of the Bembo family and shoot photos of the town below
- Keep your eyes peeled for the 400-year-old olive tree
- If churches and old frescos are of interest be sure to find the key to the Holy Spirit Church built in the 15th-century
Check Out The Lighting Of The Giants
There is an age-old Croatian legend that says real-life giants used to call the Istrian region home. There are some people who believe the Giants have returned to the region but in a slightly different life.
Hit the streets of Pula at night, and you will surely see the huge cranes of the Uljanik shipyard – one of the oldest docks in the world – in many colors and special effects.
It is a work of art called “Lighting Giants” by Croatian designer Dina Skiri, who grew up in front of the shipyard’s cranes that dominate the Pula horizon. It is a spectacular light show in the heart of the city that is worth staying up late. The show goes on two or three times per night after the sun goes down depending on the season, and each display will last roughly fifteen minutes.
Smell The Roses In May
May is when the roses around Istria are in full bloom, and how fragrant they are! You will see every color imaginable, practically everywhere you look!
Despite reading (and hearing) over and over that Hum is listed as the Guinness Book of Records holder for being the smallest town, I can not find proof. Nor can I find any other town in the world so small. The Vatican City is smaller, but it’s also a country, so you decide. Either way. I introduce to you the teeny tiny town of Hum.
Located in central Istria, the walls which run around the outside of Hum are still intact and display the former defenses which once protected the town. There are now 27 people who call Hum home – including four little ones. All 27 live on one of Hum’s two streets.
What To Do In Hum
- While there isn’t a lot regarding touristic attractions in Hum town, simply due to its size, it is surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery you will set your eyes on and has a tavern which serves traditional Istrian meals
- Admire the frescos in the Romanic chapel of St. Jerolim
- Try the local Humska Biska, a brandy made from the town’s mistletoe. If you enjoy brandy, plan your visit in October when the Town of Hum holds a Grappa Festival. Local brandy producers from all over Istria come to show off their concoctions to win prizes.
Jam At Vsar’s Annual Music Festival
The main attraction of the annual live music concert in Vrsar is its location. It takes place in the abandoned seaside quarry of Montraker, on the outskirts of the city.
The cliffs offer excellent natural acoustics, and the sound of waves touching the coast is accompanied by sounds like you have never heard. The event focuses on rock, jazz, and blues performers from Croatia and also the surrounding countries.
Head Underground In Cave Baredine
If you have always been fascinated by what lies beneath the surface, then you should be heading to Cave Baredine, where you can check out amazing stalactites and some rare wildlife. Close to Porec, visitors venture 60 meters below the surface to explore the five chambers.
Explore The Underwater World Of Verudela
Istria is known all over the world for its spectacular beaches and glistening waters. However, what the eye can see is only half the magic in Croatia. If you are interested in the other half of the world to explore, you will have to explore this mystical underwater city.
Located on the Verudela peninsula, this park is as unique as it sounds. You must wear a special helmet to be able to maintain oxygen, and it will allow you to walk up to four meters below sea level and explore the 200 square meter park underwater.
A guide can accompany up to five people at a time. Meanwhile, you can hug sea urchins, feed fish, hold shrimps, and see wartime shipwrecks. And if you want, try cycling at the bottom of the sea!
Everything can be filmed with the help of a guide so you will have a memory that lasts for a lifetime and a hell of a video to make your family and friends envious. The only thing is – if you are traveling with children, you must note that kids under ten are not allowed.
Discover The Hilltop Towns Of Istria
Just as there are so many secret treasures waiting for you on the coast, the same could be said about the mountains in Istria. The spectacular landscape of the hills of central Istria is easily comparable to that of Tuscany in Italy.
Walk along the cobblestone streets of unknown gems such as the towns of Groznjan, Motovun, Oprtalj, Buje, Završje, and Labin. It is guaranteed to take you on a journey back in time and show you the side of Croatia that isn’t fancy resorts and tourist get-ups.
It is a wonder more people don’t visit this unexplored oasis. Surrounded by walls and towers, many of the old buildings of these medieval fortified cities date back to Venetian and even Roman times.
Motovun, a medieval fortified town on a hill, may be the most popular of the bunch because of its picturesque view of the surrounding countryside where you can just sit, drink, and enjoy the view.
Here are a few hilltop towns that I love:
Many of Istria’s most beautiful destinations are not large touristic towns with loud nightlife, but instead, they are small, quaint villages that are overflowing with nature and beauty. Motovun is one of these destinations.
Motovun is perched on a hill, which means you get incredible panoramic views of the surrounding areas. The village is lapped by the River Mirna, which flows at the bottom of the hill, almost creating a ‘moat’ feel, adding to its charm. One of the village’s claims to fame is that this region is home to some of the best truffles in Croatia, found in the Motovun Forest. This in itself is a beautiful destination, packed with flora and fauna to explore, as well as endemic wildlife, and is home to the black and white truffles coveted by many foodies around the globe.
What To Do In Motovun
- Take a nature walk in the Motovun forest, or try your hand at truffle hunting.
- Head into the Church of the Virgin Mary. Inside is a 16th-century wooden hand-carved Renaissance style gold-plated altar.
- Kick back and watch the killer sunsets while you enjoy a refreshment at one of the bars.
Tour A Village Home To Many Artists
The village of Groznjan dates back to the 12th Century, and the surrounding architecture shows that. Its age gives the village a character, unlike many places in Istria, and because of that, it has attracted a nice population of creative, artistic people.
Enjoy a visit to the friendly village where many artists live and sell handicrafts in their quaint, family-owned galleries and shops. If you happen to be traveling to Istria in July, the village hosts a jazz festival which you should not miss!
Paraglide In Buzet
The Istrian peninsula offers some of the most spectacular, underrated scenery in Croatia, and one of the best ways to enjoy the views is undoubtedly parachuting, paragliding, or flying.
It is a great way to spice up your vacation in Istria and admire the breathtaking beauty from a bird’s eye view. In Istria, there are several paragliding spots, most of which are located near the mountains of Ucka and Buzet.
Visit The Beaches Of Rabac
The beautiful beach, called the “pearl of the Adriatic”, has a Blue Flag (a globally recognized symbol of quality service, and cleanliness of the sea and coastline), and all the necessary equipment on the beaches for a nice relaxing day in the sun.
St. Andrea has a stony beach and is popular among all tourists but especially those who like to swim – and eat icecream. On the beach, you can rent sun loungers and umbrellas, as well as various equipment for water sports and snorkeling.
Visit James Joyce’s Former House
In Pula, you’ll find the bar where the famous writer, James Joyce drank. There’s even a life-size statue of Joyce himself!
Rock Climb In Istria
The popularity of climbing has just started to boom in Istria. Toward the end of the 20th century, climbers systematically discovered new routes across the peninsula and decided to hang out for a bit.
With the emergence of new routes, Istria attracted more and more climbers from all over the world who wanted to conquer some of the most difficult routes in Europe.
Now, the region offers about 1,200 routes to explore and is well worth the time spent on your vacation – especially for the adrenaline junkies out there.
Brijuni National Park
Here you will find 14 islands, and the most visited are Veli Brijun and Mali Brijun; both of these islands are easy to reach. The landscapes on the island differ on each one, and they are so beautiful that they were declared protected back in 1983.
Eat Truffles (No Need To Break The Bank)
Istria is one of the world’s cheapest places to enjoy this luxurious dish, and you will find them everywhere! Motovun and Livade (amongst others) are where you will find pasta dishes laced with truffles for a fraction of the price tag you would expect.
I didn’t know much about truffles until 2010 when Mr. Chasing the Donkey and I went to a white truffle festival in Alba, Italy. I will never forget walking up to the entry door of the building and being overwhelmed by the pungent aroma.
I was pulling faces and looking for an explanation of what the smell was. Initially, I was baffled. I had never smelt anything like it before, then, I soon realized it was the scent of white truffles. Now I am a total convert. I get my truffle fix any chance that I get.
For those of you that have not had the pleasure of tasting a white truffle, you’re probably wondering what is so special about them. It comes down to two things:
- The scent and taste. It really is unique. Some people describe the smell of that of dirty socks, others, newly-plowed soil, fall rain or burrowing earthworms. The fact is you can’t describe it, or, at least I can’t
- White truffles are extremely rare and can only be collected from September to January each year. Put together something unique and rare and you have a highly valuable product. So valuable in fact, that the prices range from €900 -€5000 per kilo. Now that’s more than the price of gold!
Each year you can plan to get an overdose of truffles at the ‘Zigante Truffle Days’ in Livade (close to Motovun). This event transforms Livade into the center of Istrian truffles. Each weekend you can attend the truffle fair, an international exhibition of wine and other indigenous Istrian products (such as Istrian prosciutto, sausages, cheese, olive oil, and rakija), truffle hunting and cooking demonstrations.
Go On An Adventure In The Mountains
Učka is protected as a nature park and acts as a divider between central Istria and the popular Kvarner region. In Učka there are many opportunities for spending free time, such as mountain biking, hiking, rock climbing, parachuting, caving and much more.
It is also an ideal place to visit families with children and an educational trail for children. There are 8 marked cycling trails of various difficulty levels in the Nature Park with a total length of 180 km.
Visit the highest peak of the mountain, Voyak (1402 m), where since 1911 you will find Voyaktorien with a breathtaking view of Istria, Kvarner Bay, and the islands.
Discover A Baby Dragon. . . Kind Of
In the remote waters of the Baredine Grotto, tucked away in caves there are creatures that look as if they could grow into dragons. Matter of fact, the people who first discovered these creatures thought the same because they are actually called “baby dragons”.
We are sure there is a more scientific name but we prefer to keep our imagination open to interpretation rather than learning the real scientific facts about this mysterious creature that lurks in the dark caves. You will have to hire a boat to take you there, and learn their real name!
Fly Through A Cave
Want an adrenaline rush? The Zipline Pazin Cave, will take you on four different routes through the unique landscape of the Pazin Cave, a natural phenomenon caused by the Pazincica River.
The first two lines are 80 meters long and the third is a whopping 220 meters long. However, that’s not even the longest ride. The fourth and last line is 280 meters long and has a maximum speed of over 40 miles per hour!
Through your screams and fears (see Mr. Chasing the Donkey in the video above), you can enjoy a beautiful view of the cave and the famous castle right above the cave.
The entire tour happens under watch of two professional guides and lasts anywhere from half an hour to an hour-long depending on the size of the group. This will give you enough time to spend the rest of the day at your discretion (perhaps checking out some of the other great things on this list).
Go On A Semi-Submarine Exploration
This small boat looks like a real submarine and is half-submerged while the other half remains above the surface, so it’s aptly called half-submarine.
From inside, you will have the most intense look at below sea depths you have possibly ever had. The boat travels across the water and you get the opportunity to see a lot of sea life.
Special optical glass allows you to get closer to exotic fish, protected coral, and all kinds of marine bio like you have never imagined. The submarine travels near Rovinj and all the nearby islands and offers tours in the day and night time. You would be surprised by how much life and magic happens under the sea in the dark!
Afterward, it will be worth your time to go up the deck hatch to enjoy panoramic views of the coast and the unbelievable Old Town of Rovinj. The trip under the sea lasts 45 minutes and runs every hour nearly all day long. If you are spending your day in Rovinj, you should consider it one of the top things on your list to do.
Test Some Authentic Olive Oil
There is no shortage of olive oil in Istria. In Poreč, you can head to the Agrolaguna tasting room, and not only taste some delicious olive oil but also learn about how it is made. Istrian olive oil is famous for its quality.
One experience you will enjoy is to head to the super sleek BRIST Olive Oil tasting shop in Vodnanj near Pula. I loved this experience with the Puhar family who run BRIST. They make extra virgin olive oils which are produced from traditionally grown native olive varieties from their six-hectare grove. They also hand-pick all the olives – no machines are used in the picking process. Yikes, that’s hard work.
While at BRIST, buy a bottle of the BRIST Intenso Olive Oil! And, if you want to be daring when you get home, drizzle some of the oil over premium vanilla ice-cream – I know it sounds odd, but trust me, it’s a real treat.
If neither of these olive oil suggestions are on your route, you can also look into:
- Chiavalon Olive Farm in Vodnjan
- Agrolaguna in Porec
- Ipsa Olive Oil Tasting Room in Livade
Spend An Afternoon At A Winery
Whilst we mentioned the open door policy of wineries during a weekend in May, it doesn’t matter what time of year it is to enjoy a day at a winery, learning about how they are made and testing them out too. Istria is packed with wineries, so you certainly have plenty to enjoy. Just be sure to call ahead, they are not always open, so you need to ask when to come by.
Enjoy The Open Wine Cellar Day
Oh, and if you love wine. Be sure to be in Istria during the last Sunday of May, the wineries around Istria open their doors and all visitors to check out free wine tastings, as well as learning how local wines are made.
Visit The Roman Arena In Pula
This is the 6th largest amphitheater dating back to Roman times and it is certainly breath-taking. You can check out the Colosseum and the caves under the surface, as well as checking out the audio tour, which will help you learn more about it all.
Each July you can head to the Roman Arena and enjoy the Pula Film Festival.
See One Of The Largest Truffles In The World
When you are in Istria, you have to view what was for a long time the largest truffle in the world. Well, obviously the truffle has been eaten, but Mr. Zigante who found the truffle had a cast made of it and it is now on display at his restaurant.
The legendary truffle weighed nearly five pounds and it held the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest truffle ever found for a long time.
When you visit Zigante restaurant, to see the mold, be sure to also eat lunch or dinner there – the food is ah-may-zing!
Around Pula, you will find several spots for scuba diving, as well as the Brijuni National Park. You can earn your PADI certification here also. The waters around Rovinj are also popular spots, with several shipwrecks to explore, including Baron Gautsch.
Enjoy Porec Old Town
A little like heading back in time, Porec Old Town is very well preserved and has various different types of architecture to enjoy, including Roman, gothic, baroque, and renaissance.
Head To The Sea Shore
The beaches in Istria are dramatic and beautiful, and whilst many head to the Dalmatian coast instead, they are missing out!
You’ve heard of Rovinj, no doubt, but you can also look at seaside entertainment such as Vrsar, Pula, Rabac, Poreč, Umag, and Novigrad.
We made a list of amazing beaches in Istria that have the clearest of clear waters, great food and plenty of all-year-round festivities.
Listen To Summer Music In Goznjan
During July and August, musicians flock to the small town of Goznjan for the School for Musicians. This isn’t a touristy place at all, and it’s quite hard to get to on public transport, but if you hire a car you can really enjoy the off the beaten track vibe, and the authentic way of life.
During the off-season months, you can find fabulous fall (or Spring) foliage and cafes to sit back and watch the world go by.
Enjoy The View From Rovinj Bell Tower
Rovinj is an entire blog post of it’s on – you can see all of the things to do there here. There are lots to keep you busy in this charming seaside town – though each year I do feel it becomes much more touristy.
One thing you have to try is to climb the bell tower. It is famous and you can climb to the top for amazing views over this historic town. Be warned though – it’s not for the faint-hearted (or chubby!), the stairs are narrow and rickety.
Take A Dip At Lone Bay Beach
Most Croatian beaches are not sandy (there are some), but they still have a lot to offer! The beach of Lone Bay, near Rovinj, is part of a protected forest park and one of the most popular beaches in the region. The water is filled with shades of beautiful green and blue and is a haven for photographers.
A few dozen feet from the coast, you can relax in the shade of centuries-old trees and take something to eat in the bar. You can rent paddle boats from the shore and take them out to the pristine turquoise waters whenever you want. If you like fish, there is no shortage of restaurants to choose from nearby.
Not only that, if you take the green path into town it is just a short walk from the beach so that you can find even more in Rovinj to have fun with.
Other Things To Do In Istria
- Porer Lighthouse or Savudrija Lighthouse
- Visit St. Andrew’s Island
- Mountain Biking In Motovun: There is an old railroad which runs from Trieste to Porec and is goes through Motovun, where some of the most dramatic scenery can be found. There is a very good cycling path here, and this is a popular activity to enjoy.
- Rent a bike and sightsee on four wheels: You can use ‘Next Bike’ in Poreč, ‘RM Group’ in Rovinj or in Pula contact ‘Malupe’.
- Take a foodie tour: Most are walkable which means you can also see the local sights. Start looking at these two Flavors of Istria or Pula Walking Food Tour and if they do not suit. also look up one of these.
Things To Do In Istria With Kids
I need to sit down and write a detailed post on this – but to get you started with fun things to do in Istria with kids – that you’ll all enjoy start off with one (or all) of these fun activity ideas:
Glavani Adventure Park
For those searching for local adventure in the great outdoors, Glavani Park is your place to be, especially if you’re traveling Croatia with kids.
Here you will find the largest tree rope climbing park in Croatia and a few more neat attractions. While kids can climb a few feet high, there are more advanced routes for older, more experienced climbers that reach nearly twenty feet. If you feel brave, some can even reach over thirty feet high.
After you finish, you can take on the course known as the Devil’s Causeway. There are tons of new experiences to take on including a 35-foot drop on the 3G High Swing, a climbing wall, a tall tower, and even a human catapult.
There are plenty of things to do for the whole family. And in the evening, make sure to check out the nightly shows the park hosts in the performance venue.
Other cool things to do in Istria with kids are:
- Dino Park in Funtana: If you’re with children or you’re simply interested in prehistoric creatures, check out Funtana. There is an old quarry which is covered with thick wooded areas. There are rides, paths, and plenty of dinosaur fun
- Punta Corrente Forest Park: Just 15 minutes from Rovinj you will be submerged into nature, and you can enjoy plentiful outdoor activities, such as swimming, jogging, and cycling
- Pazin Castle: The Castle of Pazin is the biggest and best-preserved fortress in Istria
- Pican: Check out the 14th Century St. Nicephorus Cathedral
These are just a few of the activities and experiences you can have in Istria, and there are plenty more besides. The region is downright beautiful and as natural as you will ever find anywhere, meaning that visitors who choose to check out the Dalmatian Coast rather than Istria are missing out in a big, big way!
Where will you go? What will you do? You’ll need to plan your visit, and you’ll need to do your research, so you don’t miss out on the good stuff!
This post is part of a series #ShareIstria. Part (but not all) of the costs of transport, accommodation, meals, and local guides required to bring you this guide were provided by the Istria Tourist Board. But, all opinions are mine. All recommendations are given wholeheartedly and without bias.