Croatia: A Travel Guide

Picturesque Rovinj from the harbour

Last September, I went on holiday to Croatia. It had been on my bucket list for a numbers of years as I have known many people that have been and have come back with only good things to say about it. I was excited to be able to experience such a wonderful place for myself and it certainly did not disappoint.

Where did I go? Rovinj, on the Istrian Riviera.

When did I go? 7th – 14th September 2019.

Who did I go with? Graeme and I (it was our first holiday together).

What was the weather like? It was hot, but stormy. We just had just missed an electrical storm as we came into land. There were also many magnificent lightening storms throughout the duration of our stay, but it always cleared for glorious sunshine.

What currency is used in Croatia? Kuna

Where did we stay?

We stayed at Island Hotel Istra, which was situated just a 15 minute ferry ride from mainland Rovinji. The ferry transported us to the paradisiacal world of St. Andrews Island where nothing but the sea and wind ruffled the air. Island Hotel Istra was the perfect hideaway, surrounded by the crystal clear waters of the Adriatic Sea, for our first holiday together. We quickly left behind our belongings in our room, eager to explore what our little Island had to offer.

What did we find?

We soon stumbled upon a rustic stone bridge that joined St. Andrews Island to smaller Maškin Island. Maškin was a magical place that we later found to be seeped in history and natural beauty. The coastline of both islands were dotted with rocky coves and paths that wound through the pine trees making it a beautiful place for walking; particularly in the early morning just as the island was beginning to wake up. We found a rocky stairway that led us up to Baron George Hütterott’s mausoleum, stumbled upon ancient pagan healing stones (as we later learnt), found a cannon still protecting the vast coastline and climbed an old watch tower that stood majestically in the centre of St. Andrew’s Island and offered spectacular views of the Adriatic Sea from the top. There were also a number of restaurants across both Islands that boasted traditional Croatian Menus.

Would I recommend Island Hotel Istra?

Hotel Istra was comfortable and we settled in quickly. It was the perfect hotel with warm friendly staff and could be easily suited to everybody’s needs including couples of all descriptions and families. With our holiday provider, evening entertainment and carefully planned activities throughout the day were included and you could take advantage of three generous pools and small rocky beaches (all of which were chargeable if you were not a guest at the hotel).

We didn’t visit the mainland properly until our third day, as the weather had turned shortly after our arrival and became quite wild. I was a little scared of the ferry with the water being so choppy, so instead, we spent our first day in the Hotel spa. One of my favourite things is being pampered, so we took advantage of a great value couples massage package and spent the day exploring what the spa had to offer. It was a wonderful day, relaxing and listening to the wind and rain thrashing outside. It was also the perfect opportunity to prepare for the following day when we planned to visit mainland Rovinj for the first time.

What is Rovinj like?

We got up early the next morning and embarked on the pleasant 15 minute ferry ride from our hotel to Rovinj. As we disembarked, Rovinj was striking; it was a bright town, alive with the excitement of happy tourists and content locals. This made exploring delightful. The cobbled streets, vintage looking shops, colourful buildings and wonderful architecture were all so beautiful that you could easily get lost wandering the streets feeling contented.

What is there to do in Rovinj?

Rovinj, is made up of an intricate web of streets and it was so easy to find something new and interesting at every turn of a corner. The biggest highlight for me was Old Town, where an impressive fusion of styles, including Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque, make for an interesting walk. You are welcomed by Balbi Arch, an elaborate archway built in 1679 that acted as the main town gate. The archway takes you through to Grisia, the main street in Old Town, that is lined with galleries and souvenir shops and leads uphill to St Euphemia (an Baroque church situated in the heart historic Rovinj). This was a definite highlight for me, as it offered a commanding view of the town and surrounding waters, but also boasted a fascinating history. We lit candles and said silent prayers for our lost loved ones.

What is the food like in Rovinj?

Our holiday package was half-board, so we did not get as much opportunity to sample traditional Croatian cuisine as I had hoped we would. However, if unlike us you had a little more freedom, then you would not be short of places to eat. Restaurants, bars and coffee shops lined almost every street and as you walked around, you can feel the influence of Croatia’s Italian neighbours on the cuisine. There is a lot of truffle about too, which is unsurprising as Croatia is a large exporter of truffles. If you were looking for relaxed daytime dining, my highlights were: Istriano, a rustic steakhouse; Pizzeria Leone that offered excellent, friendly service with delicious pizza’s; Scuba, a relaxed restaurant just on the edge of the harbour where I enjoyed a grilled tuna and Mediterranean vegetable salad; and, finally Veli Jože an authentic feeling restaurant that had a wonderfully diverse menu, not to mention an astounding number of coffee shops serving delicious cakes and pastries, so there really is something for everyone!

What is the nightlife like?

Rovinj is a magical little town, but even more so in the evening. We had been dipping in and out of bars and pubs throughout the afternoon on this particular day, and stumbled upon Mediterrano. It was a quirky little cocktail bar, nestled into the side of the rocks with an incredible view of the sea. As we sipped Brambles, the sun started to dip below the waves and the night was quickly upon us. We had not planned any late evenings, but in the spirit of the moment ended up staying out.

Like coffee shops, there is an astounding number of bars etched into the side of the rocks in Rovinj that are open throughout the day and into the evening. During the day the bars are relaxed and friendly, but come evening they are magical with the moon aglow overhead and the blue waters gloriously lit up from underneath. If you are looking for relaxed places to drink and unwind after days of exploring and sunbathing I would recommend: Monte Carlo, this is was a happy little place on the edge of Old Town overlooking the sea with wonderfully friendly staff; Valentino, which was a stylish champagne cocktail bar, where the waitresses had to expertly balance themselves and the drinks along the rocks to serve you; and finally, Carera 5, which was a refreshing little place just along the harbour that offered an acoustic guitarist. For me the highlight has to be Mediterrano; it was the perfect setting and introduced me to my favourite cocktail – the Bramble (I can’t find one nearly half as good back home in the UK). I would recommend this place for everyone visiting Rovinj.

What else is there to do?

We did not hire a car for our trip, so getting around was a little tricky, but we were eager to see as much of Croatia as possible whilst we were there. On our first day, we had added the Ampitheatre in Pula to our list of things we would like to see, so we ended up taking advantage of our holiday providers excursion programme and booked onto a day trip that took us to Pula, through to Grzini and then onto Porec. For me, whilst the excursion was enjoyable and our guide was extremely knowledgeable, it was limiting due to the strict itinerary we had to follow. We were limited to a couple of hours in each location, where we could have easily spent a day in each.

Pula:

We piled onto a coach and spent the first 45 minutes, picking up travellers from other hotels. When we arrived in Pula, the amphitheatre was the first stop on our itinerary. The amphitheatre is easily Pula’s most imposing sight, standing nobly over the harbour. This magnificent sight is made even more impressive by the fact that it is the sixth largest of its kind still standing today. Whilst this was a highlight of this day trip for me, I was just as excited to visit the underground chambers. These were originally used to house wild beasts and to drag away dead gladiators back when the amphitheatre was used for gladiatorial contests. However, the chambers were now being used to display equipment used in the production of olive oil. We spent an interesting couple of hours exploring here, before being given 45 minutes ‘leisure’ time in Pula. We spent this wisely, walking the harbour on the gloriously sunny day, eating Ice Cream and visiting the house were James Joyce wrote Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But, it was time to board the coach again.

Grzini:

We were heading into the Istrian countryside for lunch at agroturizam; a family run farm restaurant. The vast countryside that flew by the coach window was a welcome break from the larger towns we had visited so far in Croatia and fuelled my excitement at visiting the little hilltop village. When we arrived we were heartily greeted and given Croatian Liquor. We were soon seated for the glorious traditional Istrian spread that followed. We indulged in a Maneštra (a hearty broth), pašticada (a traditional stew made from beef) that was accompanied with gnocchi and fuži (traditional pasta cooked in butter). This was finished off with Fritule (a Croatian pastry topped with powered sugar). I had been slightly disappointed in the food we had eaten up to this point (being mostly from the hotel), but this was the food highlight of the whole trip for me.

Porec

We departed for the final part of our trip. Porec is not dissimilar to Rovinj, but I would say that it is slightly more modernised. We had only an hour here, so we wandered around the impressive harbour before settling onto a grassy bank at the side of the harbour and played with a little one eyed cat that had approached us tentatively. We were a little tired from the day travelling and conscious that the coach would depart without us, so soon bid farewell to our new friend and headed back to the coach bobbing into some little shops that took our fancy on the way back.

Should I hire a car?

I would definitely say yes! If you want to see as much of Croatia as possible it would make getting around a lot easier and give you the freedom to plan your time how you like, without having to rely on day trips like we had to.

Is Croatia expensive?

Croatia is not too expensive. There was never a point where we paid for something and thought ‘that was expensive’. We both changed £200 into Kuna before our trip and this was plenty for us for a week. Although, if our accommodation did not include some meals we would naturally had to have taken more money with us.

What I would have liked to do if we’d had more time:

There was so much to see whilst we were in Rovinj, but I think that we barely touched the surface. One of our biggest motivators for choosing Croatia was the chance to visit Plitvice Lakes National Park. It is one of the oldest National Parks throughout Croatia and is known for its beautiful turquoise coloured lakes and stunning waterfalls. We looked into booking a day trip here, but the long journey time on a coach deterred us, and this is a big regret for me. I would have also liked to depart from the tourist locations for a day to see some of the more traditional parts of Croatia as well as making more time to visit the museums to absorb more of the interesting history and culture of Croatia. On our final night the beginnings of a wine and music festival were being set up, which would have been an excellent end to our trip as well.