Split sits on the Adriatic coast in the Dalmatian region of Croatia. We tried to explore most of this beautiful seaside destination on foot. Winding our way through its narrow streets, we gazed at the massive limestone rocks that were installed by slave labor as early as 284 AD.
On foot we could explore the corners where countless battles were fought, both real and made for TV (hint: Game of Thrones). And of course the best restaurants hide in obscure little corners, not discovered by the lesser motivated visitor.
We spent a month exploring Split. Then we sketched out our favorite path to the best sights in the city, including one with a stunning panoramic view that guarantees the best picture of your day in Split, Croatia. But to get started, let’s all buy ourselves a little luck.
Rub Toes with the Statue of Gregory of Nin
Tours and tourists alike meet at the Gregory of Nin (Grgur Ninski) statue. Partially, that’s due to its location in front of the northern walls of Diocletian Palace that dominates the old city. But mostly because every tourist who enters Split is determined rub the statue’s toe for luck. Why not give it a try, you’re here anyway!
The sandal-wearing Gregory was a Bishop who insisted that religious services be given in the national language rather than Latin, bringing religion closer to the people. The fact that this occurred in the year 926 AD gives a small idea of the rich history here. After rubbing the toe, you must be hungry – it’s time for a small snack.
Go Shopping at Split Outdoor Market
Walking through the North Gate, head left and you’ll bump into the outdoor market or pazar (the Green Market). Plenty of vendors serve snacks such as warm burek (a chewy flaky pastry often with a savory filling like cheese or spinach). Other vendors hawk fresh seasonal vegetables along with locally made olive oil, honey, cheese and meats.
Make sure to grab a sample of the Dalmatian prosciutto ham. Different from Italian prosciutto, ham producers cure the pork by smoking it for over 40 days. They use no preservatives, except sea salt, in the process, resulting in smoky and unique flavor. We can highly recommend taking a food tour of Split, where you can taste many Croatian delicacies with a local.
Throughout the market, garlic vendors sell garlic woven into garlands and hung around their necks. Venetians ruled this area of Croatia for years, and the locals share the Italian’s love of garlic, olive oil, and wine. In fact, many locals also speak Italian. All of which makes for an unforgettable culinary and cultural experience.
Meet the Emperor at Diocletian’s Palace
After exploring the market, back track to the Diocletian’s Palace, to the center of the walled city. It’s hard to miss. Note: the changing of the guard ceremony takes place here at noon each day. While you might find it a little hokey, it’s free and the costumed actors are entertaining.
From the center of the square, the surrounding massive buildings and ruins tell the story of Split through time. Roman architecture stands out the most, with massive stones that fit together without the use of mortar. Despite the Roman structures being the oldest, they are also the best preserved.
Construction of the palace began here in 284 AD and was completed in 305 AD. The Emperor Diocletian, the only Roman emperor to abdicate his throne, built the palace as his retirement home. Over 15,000 slaves constructed massive structure in less about 10 years. And, they built it very well – even the underground sewage system continues functioning today.
Uncover the Conflicting Architectural Styles
Venetian architecture is characterized by a more ornate style. Medieval structures (erected without the use of slaves). It is characterized by the use of smaller stones and “sloppier” work than their predecessors. This is partly explained by the fact that unlike the Romans, they did not use slaves in the process. And in this century the communists also left their mark. Can you guess which building was constructed under communist times?
If you guessed the utilitarian building on the center right, you are correct. While communism may be good for providing for the masses, it lacks in its support of gourmet products or decorations.
After viewing the main square in the center of the palace, have a wander through the narrow streets and find many structures that make up the palace grounds. Game of Thrones fans will find plenty of settings where battles were filmed, such as the above street. Find the passage way under the palace and visit the place where Daenerys Targaryen chained her dragons and walked away in tears.
Surviving the Pagan Purge: Jupiter’s Temple
Stand in the People’s Square with your back to the north gate and face the underground caverns beneath the ruins. A narrow passageway is on your right. This street leads to Jupiter’s temple. The temple was built as part of the original palace but has had many uses over the centuries. Of note is one of many headless sphinxes that were part of the palace’s original ornamentations. During the rise of Christianity, the religious defaced most of these pagan statues in an attempt to rid the structure of its pagan relics.
First a Mausoleum, then a Cathedral
Dedicated in the 7th century, the Cathedral of Saint Domnius is considered the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world. Of course, it was not built as a cathedral, originally. The central structure is a Roman mausoleum, built to hold the emperor’s remains in the center of his palace.
Ironically, Diocletian was responsible for some of the most severe persecutions of Christians through the Roman Empire’s history. I wonder how he’d feel knowing that is mausoleum is now a church?
The bell tower that fronts the cathedral is much newer, dating to 12th Century. It actually took many centuries to complete the tower, due to changes in city rulers and conflicts over the years. It is possible to enter and climb to the top of the tower for about 35 KN (or $5 US).
Find Diocletian’s Spa and Baths
Circle behind the Cathedral are the remains of the emperor’s personal baths. Romans are known for loving their bath houses, and Emperor Diocletian was not an exception. The emperor actually chose to build his retirement home in Split specifically because it was known to be a good source of sulfur.
He, as many wealthy men during his time, suffered from arthritis and gout. And apparently soaking in the sulfurous water soothed his ailments. The fact that some of the mosaics from the bath are still visible is amazing. And the bushes on the wall are actually wild producers of capers (the unopened flower), which are very popular in Croatian cuisine. Caper bushes can be found clinging to walls throughout the city.
Enjoy the Fly-free Fish Market
After finishing up at the palace, it’s time to head to the fish market. Be sure to get there before it closes at 2:00 p.m. The fish market, or ribarnica, sits in the city center in the square off of Marmontova Street. While it is most active first thing in the morning, you can still stop by in the early afternoon to watch the action or grab a fresh oyster. And while there are plenty of people and fish of all sorts in the market, there are absolutely no flies. What? A fish market with no flies? Apparently, the sulfur baths located next door keep the insects away.
Experience Dalmatian Specialties in the Konobas
If you want to snack on more than an oyster or two at the fish market, there are many “kanobas” throughout the city. Kanobas were originally just small wine cellars, where locals filled their jugs then lugged them home.
There has always been a huge cafe culture in Split. Many cafes just serve coffee or drinks. Locals will sit for hours enjoying coffee, smoking cigarettes and catching up on gossip. So it is perfectly natural that the wine shoppers would also sip some wine and catch up on the news of the day before heading home.
Over time some of the small bars also started serving food. And their popularity and number has increased significantly with the onslaught of tourists. The good news is that you can find a good cafe, or kanoba, to sample local Dalmatian dishes. Or just do as the locals and sit and watch the parade of people pass by.
Stroll along the Split Promenade
Head south toward the water, and the narrow streets surrounding the palace open up to a large promenade. Grab a quick gelato or lunch with a water view. Along the waterfront there are also plenty of vendors selling tours to nearby islands or the popular blue cave. Keep an eye out for semi-submerged red submarine the putters around the harbor.
The promenade area is growing more and more popular, particularly with the cruise set. Large cruise ships pull in each day. Passengers descend on the city like a giant wave. And, as you can imagine, the tourist trade has grown up to meet them. One local friend referred to it the “Giant Circle of Asia”. Trinkets are produced cheaply and shipped from Asia, then spilled onto the shelves of the tourist shops and stands. Cruise ships full of visitors from Asia buy the souvenirs and transport them back to their origin.
Climb for a Panoramic View of Split
To get the very best view of Split, it’s necessary to do a little bit of climbing. The Split Suma-Marjan forest encompasses the eastern part of the city. There are plenty of hiking trails, but for today, I recommend passing by the marina at the end of the promenade.
From here you’ll find the stairs to the top of Marjan Hill.
The picturesque stairway winds past local neighborhoods. Depending on the time of day, you’ll often encounter children practicing their soccer on the stairs. There are also a few small restaurants along the street that are worth visiting.
The restaurant Vidilica at the starting point of the park offers one of the best views of Split and is a great spot for lunch. I can vouch for the pasta with truffles and prosciutto, but there’s plenty more to choose from.
Reward yourself for climbing a little further up the hill with a visit to this small church.
And, for those with more inspiration to see Split from above, continue along the trail and descend to one of Split’s beautiful beaches. After the long hike, pick a chair and enjoy a swim in the crystal clear water.
Planning a trip to Split? Come back for our upcoming articles about things to eat, visiting a Croatian Winery, taking a Split Food Tour, visiting Solta Island, spending the day at the Krka and Plitvice Lakes national parks. And check here for some great hotel options.
Here are a few additional articles to inspire or help you plan your visit to Croatia (including enjoying some amazing Croatian Cuisine to sample during your visit).