This heart-shaped peninsula was the birthplace of modern Croatian tourism, and it’s easy to see why. Its history has bestowed it with Italian sophistication, most obviously seen in pastel-painted coastal towns, like romantic Rovinj. But, tear yourself away from the Istrian coast, through the vineyards, olive groves, and dense forests, and you will discover brilliantly preserved medieval towns and villages, where cobbled streets reveal quaint galleries, sweet squares and sea-views.
These small rural communities supply the coast’s fancy restaurants with some of the world’s finest ingredients. From the wild asparagus and rich white truffles which adorn their menus, to the unmistakable smell of roasting chestnuts which waft around the region in winter. It’s Istria’s heady mix of world-class gastronomy, rich history and superb scenery which make it one of our favourite destinations for year-round adventures.
When to visit Istria
Like a lot of destinations in Europe, the best time to visit is just outside of the peak summer months. Aim to visit Istria in June or September – where the average temperature is between 24° and 26°, the evenings are balmy, and the tourists are back at home (or at least, a lot of them are). But if you don’t mind the tourists, you enjoy lying by the pool soaking up the sun – and let’s be real here, the only time the kids can go on holiday is in those busy summer months – then you’ve got to visit between July and August. It’s 29° on average, and it’s still just as beautiful.
How to get there
In summer, British Airways, easyJet and Ryanair (plus a handful of other airlines) run regular flights between the UK and Pula Airport. If you haven’t arranged car hire from Pula, you can catch a taxi or bus to the main coastal resorts.
Trieste and Venice are also relatively close, and make good alternative airports out of season, with buses connecting them to Pula and some Istrian resorts. It’s also possible to travel from Venice to Istria’s main coastal resorts by ferry from April – October.
Why visit Istria?
Istria’s history is complex and bloody. History buffs will appreciate the Roman legacy, particularly visible in Pula, one of the best towns in Istria for sightseeing. The city’s impressively preserved 1st-Century amphitheatre, The Arena, is a must-see. The main square and the port also feature Roman temples and glorious arches. Many of the region’s smaller towns house splendid churches; Poreč’s 6th-Century basilica is our favourite, showcasing Byzantine architecture and a mosaic-covered apse.
Food and wine
Inland, Istria is Croatia’s pantry, and visitors are spoilt for choice when it comes to authentic Istrian food, with forests hiding highly sought-after white truffles, olive groves carpeting its slopes and rural farms producing superb cured meats. Undulating hills, a moderate and balmy climate have also helped the region scoop plenty of international wine awards in recent years. Our Istrian wineries and food guide reveal some of the best vineyards Istria has to offer, as well as alternative spots to sample the best Istrian wines.
Locals love a festival, celebrating everything from food and wine to art, film and dance. And as summer descends on Istria, so do the world’s best DJs. Pula’s 19th-Century defence fortress, Fort Punta Christo, is the top venue for big gigs and music events, but it’s local food festivals which dominate Istria’s calendar – honouring everything from wild asparagus and olive oil to chestnuts and those famous Istrian truffles.
Many of the best Istrian beaches are actually pebbly coves or rocky bathing areas. The lack of sand is a big bonus for snorkellers, providing crystal clear waters. However, if you’re after a sandy beach, Istria has a handful to choose from – one of the most popular is well-equipped Bijeca, near family-friendly Medulin.
- Zlatni Rt, Rovinj’s ‘Golden Cape’, is a lush peninsula with a string of sheltered bays. Great for families and outdoorsy types, the forest itself lends itself to hiking, cycling and rock climbing.
- Visit the Lim Valley’s abandoned town, Dvigrad. Everything from pirates to the plague ravaged the unfortunate medieval town; stroll through its empty streets and admire the derelict house, ruined walls and various defence towers.
- Istria’s remote east coast doesn’t feature much in travel guides – and what better reason to visit? Start in the hilltop town of Labin or the colourful coastal town of Rabac – it has some of the best beaches in Istria, including busy Girandella.
- Located on Istria’s most southernly point, the uninhabited national park of Cape Kamenjak is sprinkled with coves and beaches just waiting to be discovered – sometimes you can even spot dolphins and seals!
Where to visit
- Whether you are after adrenaline-fuelled adventures or utter relaxation, there are so many things to do in Istria, you’re spoilt for choice… whatever time of year you visit! No trip is complete without experiencing the west coast’s riviera-style coastal towns. Our favourite is bohemian Rovinj, home to the area’s best-preserved Venetian port. Its cobbled streets showcase Renaissance and Baroque architecture, with pastel-painted houses, boutiques and galleries winding their way up to pretty St. Euphemia’s Church. Alternatively, Novigrad has a laidback vibe, and in low season, touristy Poreč has lots to offer.
- Pula’s Roman ruins are a sight to behold. Its most famous attraction is its 2,000-year-old amphitheatre, which has evolved from staging gladiatorial battles to open-air concerts and festivals. While in the city, seek out the Arch of the Sergii and the Temple of Augustus.
- Venture inland to Istria’s medieval hilltop towns, such as Motovun. The Venetian-fortified town commands spectacular views of the Mirna River Valley. Wander ancient ramparts, snoop in galleries and enjoy a drink in the main square. Ancient Pazin, arty Grožnjan and Hum, said to be the smallest town in the world, are also lovely.
- Despite having less islands than neighbouring regions, Istria is a magnet for sailors, so hop aboard and explore the islands. Whilst a private jet charter is an option along the coast to visit every island, Veliki Brijuni, the Brijuni National Park’s largest island, is an easy and affordable day trip. Just a 15-minute crossing from Fažana, it boasts golf courses, restaurants, a safari park and even real dinosaur footprints! Alternatively, catch a boat from Rovinj to Red Island and find an empty beach.