Croatia’s dramatic coastline and lush green hills are home to some of the most picturesque towns in Europe. Here are 7 iconic Istrian towns to visit in Croatia.
There are few better travel experiences than driving winding roads that reveal the spire-prickled profile of a little drystone town. Or that lead you to the blue shimmer of the Adriatic as it ends at the walls of an ancient harbour bobbing with little fishing boats.
The Istrian Peninsula, which draws so much influence and culture from Italy, is a perfect blend of coastal villages that remind you of Puglia and hilltop towns that give Tuscany a run for its money.
So when we visited Istria recently, we couldn’t wait to explore some of these little lost places.
Check out our travel video of some of these beautiful little coastal and hilltop towns:
For some reason, Istrian Croatia, which is much further north-west than the famous Dalmatian Coast and Split, has been ignored… well, maybe ‘ignored’ is harsh. Left alone might be more accurate.
Comparatively tourist light, Istria still has many of its brightest treasures still untouched by the stomping feet of the mass tourism juggernaut. In spring time, when locals recommend coming, you have the run of some of this part of Croatia’s most popular spots for visitors.
At times it felt like we were the only people walking the smooth cobbles of stunningly beautiful towns. It was at times eerie, but for the most part bliss!
Mind you, you shouldn’t wait too long before you visit. You never know how long it’s going to stay like it is.
Here’s our pick of the best towns to visit in Istrian Croatia
7 towns you must visit in Croatian Istria
Being a peninsula, Istria has more than its fair share of coast, and the brilliant blue of the Adriatic Sea, which laps at its shores, just amplifies the splendour of it all.
Possibly the most beautiful town we’ve ever been to, Rovinj is a focal point for visitors in the high season. Its narrow cobbled streets clamber up quite steeply at times. The limit of the land is easy to see here, with the town walls looming straight up from the Adriatic.
Doors open directly out over the water, reminding us of Venice.
The early 1700s Baroque church and its steeple that dominates the skyline of this town offers incredible views from the top, if you’re game for a climb.
Be sure to eat as much squid and calamari (they’re different animals by the way) as you can while you’re here. And if the menu offers local truffles with the dish, take it!
The region’s capital and hence the biggest town in Istria, Pula has a lot to offer. Most notably, the Roman amphitheatre on the northern side of town. It’s the most complete amphitheatre in Europe, and the only one with all its sides still intact.
As you head towards the sea, you’ll find the surprisingly small but very important Temple of Augustus, which is the oldest remaining building in Pula, dating back to 2BCE.
Drive south along the coast to Restoran Skuza in Pjescana Uvala for beachfront dining and the most indulgent cheese gnocchi.
Porec, a UNESCO Heritage listed town, is a popular resort town in July and August. But in May and early June, things are calm, quiet and beautiful. We were able to explore the little streets, talk to shop owners without feeling hassled and enjoy the pretty little park in the centre of town.
Walk the esplanade around the old town that follows the edge of the water. It is absolutely stunning, with the old walls of the town one side and the flat, pristine blue of the sea the other.
Restoran Rialto for excellent, reasonably-priced food, friendly service and a sea-view rooftop terrace. Go for the truffle gnocchi or the grilled seafood.
The interior of the Istrian Peninsula has as dramatic a landscape as its coast. So much like Tuscany it’s uncanny thanks to the hills and ravines of Istria, and the region’s occupants, there’s a wealth of postcard worthy towns peeping up from their high vantage points.
Sitting at 277m, Motovun is one of the highest hilltop towns and easy to spot. It’s also one of the smallest towns of Istria with about 500 residents. So it’s quite surprising how much there is to do here.
Plenty of galleries and restaurants are tucked away down its beautiful little laneways. We were caught in an horrendous storm as we got to Motovun and took shelter in the nearest restaurant. For excellent food, service and being waterproof, Restoran Pod Napun is the place to go!
When you arrive, don’t be lured by the free parking down at the bottom of the town. For a small fee, you can park right where the town proper begins and only the town’s few residents can drive beyond.
Restoran Pod Napun for incredible views of the valley from three different levels and beautiful, homely food.
Groznjan is just up the road from Motovun (you can see it from across the valley), but just like with the towns of Tuscany, Groznjan has a completely different feel to its neighbour.
It’s also known as the City of Artists and is home to many local musicians, painters and sculptors. You can see evidence of this in the decorations on the stone walls of many of the houses and in the cafés and bars that offer some amazing views out across the valleys.
Look for a café called a Modomio-caffe Vero, which has a rear terrace that looks out across the beautiful countryside.
Istrians call this town Croatia’s best-kept secret… even though it has its own website. It is, however, a beautiful hilltop town that’s really worth visiting.
Not far from the coast, this little walled town, perched up 142m on a hill just south of Rovinj, is perfect for getting the feel of what Istria is about. The little narrow cobbled streets lead you through tiny crooked passages and lanes. It’s easy to be taken back in time to Roman times when this town was founded.
Konoba Bembo, mercifully close to the town’s main carpark, does delicious fish dishes and super-charged garlic squid.
Beram and Pazin
Right in the middle of the peninsula, the hilltop town of Beram is perhaps the longest continuously inhabited town in Istria. Evidence tells us people have lived here since 800BCE – maybe longer.
Exploring Beram on foot, you’ll find all the trappings of a well-kept very pretty Istrian hilltop town.
There’s a hiking trail from Beram to its closest neighbour, Pazin, that takes about an hour. Pazin is home to a gorge you can zipline across! It’s actually awesome! Check out Zip Line Pazinska here.
Konoba Vela Vrata in Beram is a real local secret that visitors have now found out about. Try the manestra soup – an Istrian version of the classic minestrone.
Croatia’s Istria really is a beautiful part of the world. The people are welcoming, the landscapes are stunning and the food is excellent. In fact we tried hard to have a bad meal here and completely failed.
Have you been to Croatia or the Istrian Peninsula? Do you have a favourite European destination? Tell us in the comments!