When two separate close friends* rave about a country you’ve never been to and said friends are the type of people you like holidaying with, you make that country next on your must-see list.
From the moment we touched down … well, maybe not the airport bit … but definitely the moment we arrived in the old town of Split, Croatia, it was love. (We flew to Split from Rome on Croatian Airlines)
Our Airbnb host met us on the fringe of the old town, the sea was to our left, the promenade or Riva in front of us. The European summer holiday vibe was immediate.
We wheeled our suitcases down a maze of cobblestone streets, past throngs of people out enjoying dinner or shopping. The heat of the day was gone but it was still light enough to take in just how incredible our home for the next three nights was going to be.
Three nights is not a long time to spend in one location but it was long enough for us to get a good feel for Split, to give us a delicious taste and leave us wanting to come back for more.
The centre of the old town of Split is the ancient Diocletian’s Palace, built at the turn of the fourth century AD as a place where the Roman Emperor of the same name spent his retirement years. His palace has lived on for centuries, with layer upon layer of ancient and modern history embedded in its buildings.
The local currency is the Kuna. (At the time of writing) one Australian dollar gets you about five Croatian Kuna. Dining out, drinks, activities and accommodation is all cheaper than similar offerings than on our Amalfi Coast, Italy, stay the week before.
9 things to do and see on a short stay in Split
1. Stay in the Diocletian’s Palace
Our good friends have taught us to stay in the old town when looking for accommodation in European towns and cities. It’s definitely something I recommend for a short stay in Split, as you’ll be immediately among the action.
Our Airbnb apartment was a small, modern and beautifully appointed apartment in the Diocletian’s Palace. It was a tight fit for the three of us (our 11-year-old son was on the sofa bed) but worked fine for a short stay. If you’re travelling as a couple, it’s perfect for any length of stay.
Location-wise, it really couldn’t be topped. The apartment is in the Iron Gate of the Palace – what would have originally been Roman soldiers’ rooms. The terrace would have been the military lookout post. Now, it offers a fantastic vista into the piazza outside the palace below.
We ate our breakfast on the terrace (for supplies, the local supermarket – Billa – is about 50 metres away from the apartment) and spent each night sipping Limoncello or a local red wine, watching the passing parade below.
There are 39 steps to reach the apartment from the street – nothing compared with Praiano – but I’ve noted as it wouldn’t suit everyone to manage these steps, particularly with lots of luggage. Cars cannot enter the palace area either, so a small amount of walking through the cobblestone streets is required.
Once down the steps, you have a tonne of dining options available to you within just a few metres. It’s also only a five-minute walk to the waterfront, the Riva. Our host was just fabulous, leaving us with a welcome bottle of wine, pastries and drinks.
2. Do a walking tour
The information centre is in the middle of the Palace right next to the oldest Catholic Church in the world (by default as they took over an existing mausoleum built by the Romans). It’s impossible to miss because, no matter what time of day, there will be groups of people gathered to join a walking tour. We booked with the “yellow” tour for some Game of Throne’s scene spotting and had a great history lesson thrown in for good measure. Our group was small – about eight of us – so not crazy getting around. A number of scenes in the Game of Throne’s City of Merreen were filmed here, including the memorable scene where Khalessi takes her dragons downstairs to a basement to be locked up in season 4. Those stairs actually lead down to the Palace basement, home to souvenir stalls. Still, with a bit of a sun flare, you get the picture.
We learned about the historical, layer-upon-layer nature of the Palace. The Greeks had arrived first and built the first wells, which were preserved by the Romans, who built the original Palace and an aquaduct, which still stands and brings water to the city. The red columns around the square were brought to Split from Egypt, as were two black sphinxes and a random stone Egyptian head carving, randomly found in parts of the palace. In latter times, the Venetians played their part in the architecture, extending the old town beyond the Palace walls. The French we have to thank for the Riva, or Riviera. The mix makes for an exciting, living, breathing, historical time capsule.
4. Enjoy cocktail hour Lvxor
Sit on the red cushions on the steps of the Imperial Square after the sting has disappeared from the sun. The price of a drink is worth it for the people watching and sitting surrounded by so much history – and we’re not just talking about the two young Croatian men dressed up as Roman soldiers. The square opens on to the Diocletian’s Mausoleum, now the Cathedral of St Dujam.
5. Dine out at amazing restaurants
There are all levels of eating to be enjoyed in Split, from self-catering (the Billa supermarket, and local seafood and fruit and vegetable markets have all that you need), to grabbing a sandwich or pastry from Bobis, to numerous restaurants on the waterfront, down tiny streets in the Palace and in the main Piazza. The local speciality is seafood – you cannot go wrong ordering anything that includes fish, prawns, octopus and scampi. I’ve also loved each of the Croatian wines we’ve enjoyed – from white, to rose, to reds – they’ve been inexpensive and very good.
We chose for two of our evenings to dine at more high-end restaurants – I highly recommend them both, for the experience but also the service and mind-blowing food. Book at least the evening before to secure a seat during the busy season.
Bokeria: This restaurant had been recommended to us by the young English couple we met at Franco’s Bar in Positano. It very much lived up to the recommendation and its tagline: “cookery is not chemistry. It is an art”. And art it was for all three courses. The menu is a fusion of Italian and Croatian influences, with an emphasis on fresh produce. For those with allergens, the menu is exacting in its explanation of what’s included in each dish. Highlights for us were the smoked swordfish carpaccio; homemade ravioli with smoked ravioli (massive pillows of fluffiness), the Bokeria gourmet burger and dessert. We asked for the dessert menu and our waiter showed us instead a board with all three jars of deliciousness available that evening. We said we’d take one of each and he promptly placed the board on our table and returned with three spoons!
Mazzgoon: Our host recommended this restaurant, which is situated at the bottom of the stairs to our apartment. When we saw it busy pretty much the whole day every day we were in Split, we booked for our final dinner. There are tables inside, seats on the stairs and down the laneway to its outside terrace. The food here was unbelievable with gastronomic twists and turns through a menu that had a strong seafood focus but also inclusions of lamb, veal and goat dishes. We marvelled when others had the smoked veal shoulder delivered to their table. The dish was encased in a high dome, which, when lifted, released the smoke. Talk about sensory overload. Our highlights were the Adriatic yellow fin tuna sashimi, organic tomatoes sorbetto with fresh goat cheese and Tecada (local fish) with home made pasta in Dalmation sweet wine. A note on this restaurant if dining with kids: Master SY is pretty good at trying new things and we can generally find something on the menu to suit. He gave a couple of dishes a go but they weren’t really suitable for his young tastebuds.
6. Wander the Riva
After both evenings out we really did feel the need to take a stroll and walk off the excesses before retiring to bed. How very regal! The atmosphere on the Riva is fun and vibrant. We didn’t dine there this time but others have said you can’t go wrong with any of the restaurants and bars on the waterfront.
7. Walk to a beach
When travelling in summer with our youngest, the best thing we can do is “just add water”. He’s happiest jumping into – and swimming in – water. Take a stroll left or right from the Riva and you’ll find yourself at a local beach. We chose right, walked for about 30 minutes and found a beach club and several coves, perfect for a swim on a hot day.
8. Shop for sunglasses
The first night we arrived in Split, as we wandered the old town streets, I clocked about six sunglasses shops. Was this a thing in Split? Apparently yes it is. I asked in two shops and they said, “it’s because we have so much sun … everyone wants the latest styles”. Right. Got it. So, OF COURSE I bought a new pair. The prices were good too, with many heavily discounted.
9. Do a trip to Dubrovnik
When putting together this trip, I looked at the map and realised that we’d probably kick ourselves for coming this far and not doing a little side detour to Dubrovnik. It didn’t fit to work in a stay there but it was feasible to do a private day tour. It’s three hours each way and we had about four hours on the ground but it was worth it. It gave us a taste of this fabulous city and we’ll definitely stay on a future trip. We did more Game of Thrones scene spotting (King’s Landing external scenes are filmed here) and took the cable car up to the top of the hill for a birds-eye view of the old town and surrounds. We booked the private tour through Sugaman Tours.
So tell me, have you visited Croatia before? Recommendations for people visiting Split for the first time?
*A big, big thank-you to our friends, the Macdonalds and the Merlos, for planting the Croatian travel seed three and two years ago respectively.
What to pack
Travelling to this area in the warmer months? Check out this post and get my tips on how pack for any destination from my e-book, Confessions of a Reformed Packer.
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