split croatia

Split – Croatia’s True Coastal Gem

Majestic stone architecture dating back more than a millennium, set by the sea: When it comes to Croatia’s tourist destinations, one might assume I’m gushing about Dubrovnik.

Sure Dubrovnik is beautiful and intriguing — not to mention a major filming location for Game of Thrones and Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, the next installment in the saga, making the city visually familiar to millions.

But for me, Dubrovnik pales in comparison to its larger sibling northwest on the Adriatic, the ancient port city of Split.

Split may not be the backdrop for a medieval drama replete with dragons, or doubling as a galaxy, far, far away, but it’s a gem in its own right, and it’s gaining global popularity.

The scenery alone has attracted tourists to this stretch of the Croatian coast for centuries. The Roman Emperor Diocletian, born in a region that eventually became part of Croatia, made Split his retirement residence back in the fourth century A.D. The remains of his palace are the centerpiece of Split’s urban scene. Today, it is the largest Roman palatial ruin in the world; inside its ancient walls, there’s an entire town with about 3,000 residents.

cathedral of saint domnius tower

Climb the 187-foot-high tower in the oldest building in the city, the Cathedral of Saint Domnius

After the Roman era, the palace became home to numerous churches, museums, private small stone houses and local shops, creating a historic and eclectic mix of sights and sounds.

While exploring, you’ll hear the church bells echo off the stone edifice of the Cathedral of Saint Domnius  the highest point and oldest building in the city, once the mausoleum of Diocletian. Climb to the top of the 187-foot-high bell tower for fabulous views.

diocletian palace riva promenade

Diocletian’s Palace and the Riva promenade

From the cathedral, you can wander over to the daily farmers market, where locals and visitors buy fresh produce, cured meats and aged cheeses.

When it’s time to relax, head over to the Riva promenade outside the palace walls for a coffee or cocktail and watch the ferries shuttle travelers to and from the islands. From Split, it’s easy to catch a boat for popular island destinations like Hvar and other lesser-known, though worth visiting, islands such as Susak and Silba.

Once on the islands, there’s exquisite dining on freshly caught seafood, ample opportunities to sail and scuba dive or just relax by the seaside before retiring for the night in traditional stone cottages updated to accommodate luxury-minded travelers.

I’ve spent hours wandering the narrow stone corridors in Split that have enraptured visitors for centuries. Today’s visitors will find the locals offering advice in English because of its growing popularity the world over.

Recently, I met two San Francisco natives who are making Split their home for a month while they explore the rest of the country, its culture and cuisine.

“It’s a good jumping-off point because of its location (in Croatia). The people are friendly and it’s safe,” says Mariya Snow. Her travel partner and friend, Ligia Ishida, nods in agreement, adding, “Plus you have the mountains, the beach and their culture. And of course the English-speaking helps, too.”

As a resident of Split for the last year, raising a half-Croatian daughter with my native-born wife, I share their newfound affinity for my adopted hometown.

The sun-drenched mountains and deep, blue sea are what first attracted me to this stretch of the Dalmatian Coast. While many are drawn to Split for its beautiful and numerous beaches within the city limits, hiking and rock climbing opportunities abound. There are numerous rock climbing routes and places to hike in the forest park within the city known as Marjan, where visitors and residents alike tackle climbs of varying difficulty.

marjan-forest-park

Marjan Forest Park

Less than an hour away, near the seaside city of Ornis, more difficult routes will challenge even experienced climbers.

As for my favorite haunts in the old city, I learned from locals about the cool, new seafood bistro Zinfandel and the more traditional dining experience at Maslina, both of which are now regulars in my dining rotation.

The area offers loads more modern sites to see and experience, such as the western extension of the Riva all the way to the marina and an ever-growing list of new restaurants and nightspots, making Split the ideal locale for your Croatian coastal adventure.