To me, Split, Croatia had always been a ferry terminal, a place to catch a boat over to one of the gorgeous Croatian islands: Hvar, Brač, Vis. But this year I decided to stay for a week, to actually slow down and stop, look around so that when people said: Have you been to Split? I could honestly say yes.

The short story is that I came for a week and I stayed for three.

The longer version is the coffee, the beaches, and the people.

Split is centered around the Diocletian Palace which was built around 300AD as a retirement villa for the Roman emperor Diocletian. Some believe he came here because he was born nearby, others think it was for the health giving sulphur in the waters that Croatian doctors still prescribe as a cure for elderly patients. Whatever the reason, he built an incredible palace and the remains of it are now the center of Split.

Diocletian Palace

The thing I love most about the Diocletian Palace, aside from the gorgeous white stone ruins of the gates, the carved ceiled inside Jupiter’s Temple, the Cathedral, the Bell Tower, and the narrow stone streets and high walls, is the way it has been absorbed into centuries of normal city life. This is not a museum or reconstruction of how a Roman emperor lived, but a place where people live and work right now. Sure, you go into the central Peristil outside the Cathedral and there are sometimes fake Roman soldiers selling a tour, and the underneath vaults are full of stalls selling tourist knickknacks.

See history and modernity collide at the Diocletian Palace

But once you head upstairs into the area that was the site of Diocletian’s own apartments, you’ll see washing hanging outside apartments built into the walls, you’ll see cats, gardens, crazy purple flowers climbing up millennia-old walls, and women sweeping their front steps while pushing the dust towards the remains of the palace cellars. This is not lack of respect, this is being part of an evolving city. These apartments would have been built in the palace structure centuries ago – they are as much a part of history as the Cathedral which incorporates many historic periods inside. The museum associated with the Cathedral is only one room but it’s worth visiting – there are the 304AD relics of martyred Saint Anastasia – Sveta Štaša – and a Bible dating from 500AD. Very few parts of the palace have an entrance price – only the Cathedral, the Bell Tower, the museum, Jupiter’s Temple, and the crypt (not much to see), but they are all very cheap. You can pick up a free map of the palace anywhere in town or take a walking tour.

Coffee on the Riva

Then you’ll need a coffee while you think about the beauty and age of where you’ve just been. The most popular place for this is the Riva, the long promenade stretched on the waterfront beside the palace walls. In summer it is lined by outdoor tables and chairs under awnings and umbrellas. Most places don’t sell food so they don’t mind if you bring your own sandwich or piece of pizza to have with your coffee. Many of them do serve ice cream, though, and Croatian ice cream (sladoled) is very yummy.

Coffee, coffee, coffee!

Definitely have a coffee on the Riva sometime during your visit and watch the people, the ferries, the Adriatic Sea and islands. And don’t be surprised by the size of the cup – coffees here are small but perfect. You can get a larger size latte style, but don’t expect any Starbucks supersizing; things here are still owner-run and traditional (bravo!).  Coffee on the Riva is more expensive, and I found a few slightly hidden favourites.

One was a little way off the Riva towards Marjan, the wooded hill promontory. Called Caffe Bar Teraza Bamba, it’s in a narrow street called Solurat, and it has a lovely hillside position overlooking the water. At the bottom of the street is a great little restaurant called Buffet Fife where we endured rain, hail, and flooding that stopped the whole city for about an hour but didn’t take away the sense of humour of the owner. Even as people climbed on top of tables to avoid the rising water and huge sharp-edge hailstones cut through his canvas awning roof, he served our food before hurrying to turn off the electricity. It was extremely dramatic all across town, but within hours it was like it had never happened; the sun was back out and as hot as ever, the broken branches and dirt the flood had left on the Riva had been hosed and swept away, and everyone was back drinking coffee and planning their nights out.

…And more coffee!

My other favourite coffee place is along the beach in the other direction. Around the headland at the end of the train tracks, there is a popular beach called Bačvice. It’s got some sand, not just pebbles, and the water is shallow well out so it’s great for kids and games. Along here there are cafés, bars, restaurants, and a gym. The idea is to sun, swim, then retire under the shade of a café for coffee before doing it all again.

I ate a couple of great meals here at Pizzeria Karaka. By day there are men playing chess by the waterside while others watch and sagely nod, and up under the trees others play boules. At night, this is a nightclubbing strip. Walking further along there are a few other beaches; the third one, Firule is my favourite. And just above it, on the cliff under the trees is a small café called Grand Slam. The view is great and the name is no lie – behind here are the tennis courts where Goran Ivanišević began his glorious career, and the next few generations are out on the courts trying to do the same.

Marjan

Heading the other way from the old town, there’s Marjan. On top of a high hill proudly flies a Croatian flag and a wealthy businessman has recently offered to pay for an enormous open-armed Christ statue to rival that of Rio. It’s currently being debated. Marjan has some lovely beaches too. The one just below the Mestrović Gallery is a favourite of mine, though it is pebbles and not sand. It’s called Ježinac on the maps but the locals call it by a new name (O Boja – literally meaning “of color”).

Take a break from all the caffeine on one of Split's beaches

While you’re there, visit the Mestrović Gallery. He was Croatia’s leading sculptor in the early 20th century and made monumental figures with flowing lines – really beautiful. A couple of his pieces are in the old town; there is one outside the Golden Gate, the other in a square of the father of Croatian literature Marko Marulić. To explore the beaches further around Marjan, you can take a taxi or the number 12 bus.

Split specialties

My top recommendations of things to buy, eat, drink: the local company Kraš make chocolates called Bajadera – they are heavenly. I have a fondness for a local liquor called Medinica – buy a good one and it’s smooth and honey-like (it’s a honey rakija), alternately try a homemade version… much stronger. And there are lovely peppery biscuits called Paprenjak. Also the olive oils and wines are famous. So is the lavender – a dollar spent on a lavender bag from an old lady outside the cathedral will make your luggage smell good and seriously help her financial survival. In restaurants ordering fish usually brings you delicious fresh whole fish, and the local sausages čevapči are hugely popular. Another useful local tip is to try cedevita, a powder of vitamins and minerals you mix with water – some cafes even offer a coffee and cedevita morning deal, which is perfect after a long night.

Croatia is a place where you don’t make plans. When a Croatian rings you they say, “Where are you?” This means, “Shall we meet for coffee right now?” If you try to organise to meet for drinks tomorrow night, you’ll end up spending the night drinking alone. If you plan a quiet night home with a DVD, you’ll end up in a club beside the beach until dawn having the best night of your life. Hence, planning to come for one week was naïve; I now know the people on the Croatia Airlines rebooking line very well.

For all of you who stop by on your yachts, cruise ships, or even by ferry, I say consider Split as a place to stop for a few days. You might never leave.  See you for coffee on the Riva.

Philippa Burne

Planning a trip? Browse Viator’s Croatia tours and things to do, Croatia attractions, and Croatia travel recommendations, or book a private tour guide in Croatia for a customized tour!