Split, Croatia: From Gritty Port to Posh Resort

I’m just back from my latest guidebook research trip in Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, and Greece. Along the way, I enjoyed island-hopping down Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, from Split to Dubrovnik —  hopscotching across the islands of Hvar, Korčula, and Mljet, updating my guidebook, reconnecting with old friends, and collecting new insights. This post kicks off a series of posts with my latest impressions from one of my favorite corners of Europe. My first stop: the big, coastal city of Split.

The eastern part of Europe has plenty of contenders for “most improved player.” And here in Croatia, Split easily takes the title. In the few years since my previous visit, Split —  which I’ve long lamented as the most underappreciated destination in Croatia —  has finally started getting the attention it deserves.

I first came to Split, Croatia’s gritty second city, in 2003, while writing the first edition of Rick Steves Eastern Europe guidebook. I had been primed to fall in love with Split’s glitzier little sister, Dubrovnik (and indeed I did). But back then, most travelers viewed Split as a necessary evil —  a gritty transfer point you had to endure in order to catch a boat to the Dalmatian Islands. Imagine my surprise when I found Split utterly enchanting. I liked Split immediately for many of the same reasons that some visitors don’t: It’s a real, hardworking harbor city, with more industry and urban bustle than tourism. Split has substance. To me, it’s a much-needed antidote to the pithy effervescence of Croatia’s many backwater island towns. And as a bonus, Split also owns a gorgeous setting, a fascinating historic core, and a relaxed Mediterranean ambience.

During my first visit, the Croatian Tourist Board put me up in the tallest building downtown: a high-rise hotel that rose abruptly from the harborfront a short walk from the Old Town. It was, and remains, a big black box marring the otherwise idyllic tableau of wooded hillsides, bobbing fishing boats, and terra-cotta roofs. Back then, the Hotel Marjan had tumbled precipitously from its reputation as the city’s top business-class hotel. During the Yugoslav Wars of the mid-1990s, it had housed refugees from Croatia’s war-torn interior; in the intervening decade, only a couple of its many floors had been lightly refurbished and reopened as a hotel. The Marjan had become a white elephant, barely remaining open for business, if only because that was easier than closing it.

One day I returned to my hotel room to find water dripping down through the bathroom light fixture, running down the wall, and tricking toward the drain in the middle of the floor. I reported it to the front desk, who briefly feigned surprise. “You don’t say?” the receptionist said. “Hm. Sounds like someone should look into that.” She then idly doodled on a notepad until I retreated to my soggy room. I always secretly believed that I may well have been the hotel’s final guest. (The building is still there…and it’s still closed.)

But then, very gradually, the city began to transform itself. A decade or so ago, they tore out and completely resurfaced the Riva — the glorious pedestrian strip that runs between the Old Town and the harbor. It had always been an inviting place to promenade, but now it’s also elegant. Each return visit to update my guidebook unearthed a few more appealing discoveries: boutique hotels, interesting restaurants, and formerly dilapidated areas that had been spiffed up. And every time I was able to delete a mediocre hotel or restaurant from my book (what I think of as the “well, we gotta list something” listings), and replace it with a better alternative, I breathed a sigh of relief.

After this visit, in my mind, it’s official: Split has decisively turned the page. These days, it has some of the nicest, and most expensive, hotels on the Dalmatian Coast. It has an exciting new variety of restaurants that dare to go beyond Dalmatian classics. And it has the cosmopolitan energy of a destination that has fully arrived.

What changed? For one thing, cruise ships started showing up. Several years ago, Dubrovnik began to burst at the seams, so cruise lines went looking for a nearby alternative…and there was Split, a big city with a big harbor right downtown. Spilt has also enjoyed the coattails of a general uptick in Croatian tourism…this country is red-hot, and sales are brisk. On this trip, I found myself eavesdropping on local guides lecturing not about the Emperor Diocletian, but about Daenerys Targaryen and her dragons (who briefly resided in the Roman-built cellars below town). Yes, Game of Thrones tourism — already well entrenched in Dubrovnik — is becoming big business in Split now, too.

On this trip, I did some scouting for the upcoming seventh edition of my Rick Steves Croatia & Slovenia guidebook, and I came up with some gems.

This city, which for years had only one decent hotel (Vila Ana, still a trustworthy budget standby with five rooms a short walk outside the Old Town), is now shot through with luxurious hotels charging some of the highest prices in Croatia. Palača Judita is a high-end B&B with an ideal location — right on the city’s charming, bustling People’s Square — and an attentive staff. Just across the square is Palace Suites, which is a bit simpler, but much less expensive and equally welcoming. And Marmont Hotel  — named not the for chivalrous Ser Jorah from Game of Thrones, but for the nearby pedestrian promenade — is a plush oasis with 21 top-end rooms in a quiet corner of the Old Town.

For dining, my big find this trip was the trendy Bokeria (in the Old Town at Domaldova 8). Its decor, like its name, finds inspiration in the bustling Barcelona covered market: a big, bright, boisterous interior with soaring ceilings, legs of prosciutto dangling over the bar, and a wall of Aperol bottles arranged like an art installation. While I found the service so-so, the setting offers Split’s cuisine scene the refreshing jolt it has desperately needed. The beautifully presented cuisine is a smart melding of Croatian classics with modern Mediterranean dishes, and the wine list is substantial and smartly curated. I dug into a decadent dish of handmade pasta with truffles and prosciutto, which had perfectly balanced flavors and sophisticated presentation.

For more traditional Dalmatian cooking, without the pretense, the latest hotspot is Villa Spiza — serving local dishes from a handwritten menu (hiding deep in the Old Towns’s back streets at Petra Kružića 3). It feels fresh, youthful, and energetic, crammed with foodies who’ve done their homework and don’t mind sharing counter seats under claustrophobic beams. They also have a couple of delightful sidewalk tables, out front on the tight lane. Because they don’t take reservations, everything fills up quickly — arrive early, or be ready to line up .

After a decade and a half of sipping good-enough cups of bijela kava (caffé latte-like “white coffee”), I finally discovered a burgeoning third-wave coffee scene in Split, with artfully crafted drinks up to snuff with coffee houses back home in Seattle. Two competing places, both in the Old Town, are worth seeking out for those who care about good coffee: D16 Specialty Coffee (Dominisova 16) and 4Coffee Soul Food (Hrvojeva 9). (Croatia-bound aficionados note: Dubrovnik and Zagreb both have branches of Cogito Coffee, with the best coffee I’ve had in Croatia.)

Another favorite discovery was the lively (and very local) little hangout zone tucked just a short walk beyond the tourist core, in an area nicknamed “Behind the Theater” (Iza Kazališta). From the waterfront, simply head up the broad promenade called Marmontova, then keep going — jogging left up the little covered lane between the yellow National Theater and the blocky modern church. Stepping through the passage, you leave all but the most savvy tourists behind. Locals swarm at the pastry and ice-cream shop Luka, scooping up cones of homemade gelato with some interesting local flavors, such as lavender or rosemary (Svačićeva 2). Delving deeper — into a scene that feels like one big lowbrow party, with the natives decompressing from a busy day of dealing with tourists — you’ll pass cafés, bars, “pizza cut” windows, and more. To satisfy your sweet tooth, look for Stari Plac (with dessert crêpes); just beyond is Sexy Cow, with a hip white-subway-tile interior and a tempting menu of decadent, top-end burgers (Zrinsko Frankopanska 6).

With all that’s new in Split, the city’s big draw card has remained the same for nearly 2,000 years: Its Old Town fills the former retirement palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. After the fall of Rome, locals scavenged useful bits of stone and metal, and gradually began to graft their rickety homes onto the stout palace walls. And so the hallways of Diocletian’s Palace became the narrow lanes of Split, its main entryway became the town’s main square (the Peristyle), and Diocletian’s mausoleum was transformed into a church — complete with a Venetian-style bell tower. Even after all my travels, I still haven’t found anywhere that plops you in the lap of history as impressively as Split.

After hours, the entire Old Town of Split becomes one big cocktail party. Lose yourself in the skinny black lanes, follow the convivial hubbub and the thumping bass, and find a bar or café that suits your mood. While specific places come and go, the scene as a whole is always thriving. If you can’t have fun after hours in Split, it’s time to retire your passport. Another thing that hasn’t changed is the best nightlife advice in town: Simply show up at the main square (the Peristyle) and plop down on any of the red cushions scattered along the marble stairs, which belong to Luxor Café. Eventually a waiter will show up to take your drink order. Lie back on the steps once trod by Diocletian, luxuriate in the balmy sea air, and listen to crooners belt crowd-pleasing greatest hits under the stars. Enjoy. You’re just the latest in a long line of vagabonds loitering in the halls of this glorious Roman palace.

 

20 Replies to “Split, Croatia: From Gritty Port to Posh Resort”

  1. I heartily agree with this post. My wife and I recently enjoyed a two-week trip to Croatia and Slovenia (guided by the Rick Steves-Cameron Hewitt guidebook, as well as by the insights of a Croatian-descended former colleague, who visits regularly). While we loved Dubrovnik, Hvar, Plitvice Lakes National Park, and Rovinj, we truly wish we had spent more time in Split. Indeed, it seems like a “real place,” an actual city, not given over wholly to tourism. Diocletian’s Palace is every bit as wonderful as we hoped, as was Villa Spiza. We had a wonderful meal there, and we met a friendly Croatian couple, whom we joined for drinks, a night at the theatre, and a jaunt to the after-show cast party, at an old town, open-air bar. We felt that there was so much more we could have seen in Split, and we could simply have hung around for a few days. We loved the open-air market, next to the Palace, as well. We’ll be back!

  2. Loved Split. The palace is definitely worth a visit and we sat nursing some local wine in s laid back cafe on the waterfront promenade. Great time there.

  3. We’ve now been to Croatia on 4 occasions since 2011. We visited Split on our first trip, due to its Roman heritage. We really enjoyed, since it was our first introduction to Croatia, and we did not have Dubrovnik or other cities to compare it to. Split has a lot going for it. It’s a real town. It has a wonderful antiquities museum (this was Illyria in Roman times). It has many good restaurants. You can stay in a sobe inexpensively. Since 2011, we have visited Dubrovnik, Sibenik, Trogir, Zadar, and Zagreb. We really enjoy Croatia.

  4. Loved this hotel Prima Lilfe Spalato which was on a top floor of a mall. Very comfortable and big rooms. Helpful staff and very close to the old city

  5. I was on a girl’s trip, 6 of us exploring Croatia about 7 years ago. Split was enchanting. I was surprised that you thought it once “gritty”. We used our Tick Steve’s travel book for both lodging and dining, both were excellent. I actually enjoyed Split more than Dubrovnik
    Only problem is my husband wants to go now. Geeze, guess I have to go again and soon!

  6. We have just returned home (Oct 12) from a 3 week self-drive tour of the whole area. “THE BOOK” was great for self-guided tours at every stop. The best hint that we heard was – download the cruise ship schedule and choose a “quiet” day to explore Split and Dubrovnik. We could have bowled in the streets of the walled Dubrovnik…at least until noon. And then the tour buses arrived, but no ships!

  7. We were in Split about ten years ago, arriving by overnight ferry from Ancona, Italy. What we found most memorable were the narrow alleyways in and around Diocletian’s Palace. We ended up staying in an inexpensive Sobe, a block from the walls of the Palace and enjoyed excellent food at a popular rustic and small restaurant just past the North end beyond the Riva (cannot recall the name). The amazing fish market in the Old Town was incredible. We plan to go back soon – with hopes that it hasn’t changed too much.

  8. Totally agree with this post. I’ve been to Croatia several times since 2010, both for cycling and birding trips, not to mention a little family history (my grandparents emigrated from the island of Selca, and many in my home town of San Pedro California are from one of the islands or from Split). My husband and I found Split very charming, although we did like staying out in Trogir too. Some of our best memories of Split were visiting the fish market, seeing a wedding party exit a church (waving lit sparklers), and walking out to Matejuška Harbor where we saw the kids’ sailing school. We enjoyed the Klapa music very much, too – not your usual street musicians. All in all Split is worth a visit and I’m looking forward to returning.

  9. Split is truly delightful. What is overlooked in this blog is the wonderful hike along the beach. Just continue walking down the pedestrian strip away from the busy part of the strip, up a slight rise to the top of some stairs. There you can look back on the strip and out to the bay. Continue in the same direction along the coast to enjoy a very pleasant walk, along a path frequented by locals enjoying the evening away from the huge crowds on the pedestrian strip. All of Croatia is a marvel, particularly Dubrovnik and the islands. I have traveled to Croatia 3 times, and I long to return again and again, particularly to see Plitvik Lakes-the greatest national park anywhere! ciao

  10. Just returned from a 10 day cruise from Venice to Mallorca that stopped in Split and Dubrovnik. Croatia has the look and feel of ancient and medieval times. Coupled with warm and hospitable people, charming pedestrian zones, and incomparable vistas (you can see why Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Winnetou, and other movies use the locales), Croatia is definitely on our ‘we’ll be back to spend more time’ list.

  11. I’m really surprised that you and Rick keep skipping Brac island. I and many others who travel the islands in Croatia find Brac to be the most enjoyable island. Hvar and Korcula are too busy and overrated. Brac is real, beautiful and not yet overrun with tourists. It is too bad your readers keep missing out on Croatia’s best island.

  12. I agree with RYAN BRAC was a delightful stop on my 4 week solo trip to Slovenia and Croatia. I also enjoyed a budget stay in Korcula. Split is a place I would love to visit again but NOT in the room I rented LOL but most of my time was spent out and about so no complaints. I also think staying in a “suburb” of Dubrovnik was great/ quiet and nice beach and shops and a quick bus ride to the walled city.

  13. Cameron, we toured Croatia with you as guide back in 2008. It was a great trip with an excellent guide. We enjoyed Split very much. It was a surprise though to be on the Riva at night listening to a band playing nothing but American songs. REM of all things!

  14. I must recommend the antiquities museum in Split..it is fantastic and a terrific place of tranquility to contemplate the history of this coast. Don’t miss Cavtat south of Dubrovnic either. An artist’s dreamworld of inspiration. Molonot south of there is well worth the side trip also. Apartments overlooking Dubrovnic harbor are a great spot to watch the comings and goings.

  15. I can’t imagine spending only a day or two in Split! My wife and I lived in Split for a couple of months in 2013 and, again, in 2017. Living in an apartmani there alows the time to thoroughly explore the palace, get to know every cafe along the Riva, know all the walks in the beautiful and unique Marjan Park-Forest, learn who has consistently the best fish at the daily market, haggle with the ladies in the Green Market who always try to put extra potatoes in your bag, and know the exact times when all the bells in town will go ringing. What a beautiful city! And, by the way, go anytime of the year except for July and August. Same for Dubrovnik. Same for Zadar. Same for Opatija. Good weather, no crowds. We even had the entire Dubrovnik wall to ourselves one sunny February day! Priceless!

  16. Ahhh, the memories! We recently were in split with Rick Steve’s Tour (Sept) with Tina.
    Our whole trip was absolutely wonderful! Split was great! Of course, I would love to have at least 3 weeks on these tours …

  17. We did Rick’s best of the Adriatic. While in Split it was pouring! Moving through the skinny alley to Jupiter’s Temple, we noticed a tiny restaurant with Mexican food and a few American style Micro brews. The food was some of the best Mexican food we have ever had, and we are from California. The IPA was as tasty as any I’ve had. Split was, indeed, a gem. Surprises around every corner!

  18. Back in 1969 when I was 9 my parents, brother and I took a week-long bus tour (actually a microbus with just us plus a guide and driver) of Yugoslavia from Dubrovnik to Venice. While in Split we stayed at the Hotel Marjan in it’s heyday. We had a huge corner room fit for a high party official which was as modern as any western hotel of the time. The palace was only a short walk away and we thoroughly enjoyed our time there. It’s sad to see that its fallen on such hard times because despite it’s jarring appearance these days it really was an outpost of western luxury in then-communist Yugoslavia.

  19. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed June, 2016 Croatia vacation and have been encouraging friends and family to visit this wonderful region since our return. We spent 5 nights in Split, two nights in Hvar, two nights in Korcula, & 5 nights in Dubrovnik. We totally agree with the author’s comments on Split. The Riva and Old Town are right at the harbor. Beautiful but also convenient for on the water day trips or a ferry to one of the islands. Driving in Croatia is a breeze. Although road signs are difficult to read just rely on your GPS and you’ll have no problem. A car is handy in Split as some of the better hotels are just outside the city (5km). Also, a car makes it easy to visit Solin for it’s Roman ruins and Krka National Park for it’s lakes, waterfalls, and gorgeous landscapes.
    Dubrovnik is also a perfect base for 4-5 nights. Skip the car here as parking is impossible. Everyone knows how fabulous the walled city is and you won’t be disappointed when you see it for yourself. 2-3 days is recommended for the city and nearby area. Dubrovnik is also great, though, as a base for day trips to Montenegro and Mostar, Bosnia; both are fascinating.
    Time allowing try to spend at least a couple of nights on one or more of the islands. Hvar can be a bit of a party town. Korcula on the other hand is more subdued and, in our humble opinion, beautiful. Plenty of on island and on the water activities at both locations.
    Final thoughts: Croatia hotels/restaurants are inexpensive compared to many places we’ve been to Europe. Avoid July & August when it’s very crowded and hot. (We went in early June and the weather was perfect – OK is was 95 farenheit in Mostar and Montenegro) Lastly, go as soon as you can!

  20. So glad to read Cameron’s reflections on Split, Croatia. My husband and I visited it with the RS Adriatic tour in October of 2016 and were so impressed with our experiences there. We spent more time there after the tour to catch a boat to Italy. I would like to recommend 2 more places to see in Split that Cameron did not write about. The Park Suma Marjan is lovely to walk through with many paths and beautiful vistas throughout. And the sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic’s Gallery and villa are your reward for walking to the other end of the park. Fantastic!

Comments are closed.