The second largest city in the region of Dalmatia, Split offers an abundance of Roman ruins, beautiful beaches and Croatian seafood dishes, fresh from the Adriatic
Croatia’s second largest city is a living testament to its ancient heritage. Explore Roman ruins that blend seamlessly with modern living; where age-old traditions are still observed by the cosmopolitan residents of this thriving Dalmatian city.
What to do
The beating heart of Split lies within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace, which stands proudly on the harbour looking out to the Adriatic islands of Brac and Hvar. Completed in 305AD, it was constructed as a retirement residence for the Emperor and remains one of the most impressive Roman ruins in existence. After his death, refugees fleeing the Avars seized the building, turning it from a military and imperial residence into a fortified town, erecting homes within the palace walls. Today, the red-roofed houses are filled with numerous shops and restaurants.
Off the main palace courtyard, the Peristil – where the Emperor would appear to address his subjects – stands the Cathedral of St Dominius. It was originally intended as a mausoleum for Diocletian, but the Christians he so mercilessly persecuted during his lifetime claimed the octagonal building as a resting place for their martyred Archbishop Dominius, the patron saint of Split, instead. Behind the intricately carved walnut doors the domed interior is filled with beautiful religious artefacts, including the superb baroque altar of St Dominius.
Across the Peristil, guarded by a headless black granite sphinx, lies the Temple of Jupiter, home to a striking figure of John the Baptist by world-renowned modern sculptor Ivan Meštrovic, a son of Split who has donated many of his finest works to the city.
Outside the palace walls and behind the waterfront promenade of Obala Hrvatskag Narodnog Preporoda, thankfully shortened to the ‘Riva’, the old town is a maze of narrow streets and varied architecture. Austro-Hungarian and Venetian constructions blend effortlessly with the dominant Roman style. Restaurants offering simple home-cooking with quality local produce nestle in the winding streets alongside chic boutiques where the ever-immaculate inhabitants of Split sate their hunger for designer labels.
For a dose of culture, take time to visit Split Art Gallery (00 385 2134 0800) – it has a fantastic collection of paintings from the 14th century onwards. For total immersion in local talent, head to the Meštrovic Gallery. Housed in Ivan’s mansion, the collection includes an impressive sculpture garden.
The verdant Marjan Hill provides a backdrop to the city, and a short stroll from the old town affords forests, old chapels and a peek at Split’s most exclusive suburb. On the other side of the harbour are the city’s stunning beaches including Balvice, where locals play the traditional game of picigin, similar to volleyball, in the shallow turquoise waters.
Where to stay
You can’t get more central than Hotel Peristil within the ancient walls of Diocletian’s Palace for an overwhelming sense of the city’s ancient history. For five-star luxury, Le Meridien Lav is eight kilometres outside Split with a regular shuttle bus to the centre. Perched on rocks with breathtaking views of the Adriatic, the hotel has a private beach and marina. The Hotel Park is a renovated townhouse in the leafy area of Balvice, just a short stroll from the palace and the beach.
Where to eat and drink
Hotel resorts are all about fine dining, but simple home cooking with super-fresh ingredients is the order of the day at Split’s konoba. Fish are hauled from local waters daily, forming the basis of most menus in these popular, family-run tavernas. Šperun (00 385 21 346 999) serves appetising staples such as grilled sardines doused in olive oil. Glistening heaps of black cuttlefish risotto and brodet, a traditional fish stew, are favourites at Konoba Varos (00 385 21 396 138) and, for meat eaters, the local classic is pašticada – beef stuffed with lard slowly roasted in red wine and spices, served with potato dumplings. Croatian dishes are hearty and filling, so you will not go hungry.
Time running out?
Recreate scenes from Gladiator among the ruins of the amphitheatre in the deserted Roman city of Salona.
Climb the bell tower at the Cathedral of St Dominius for a bird’s-eye view of Diocletian’s Palace and the surrounding city.
Currency is the Croatian kuna. Split is one hour ahead of GMT and a two-hour 30-minute flight from London.
Croatia Airlines (020 8563 0022; www.croatiaairlines.com) flies from Gatwick and Heathrow to Split via Zagreb. EasyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) has regular direct flights from Gatwick to Split.
Split Tourist Information Centre: 00 385 2134 5606; www.visitsplit.com. Visit the website for opening times.
This guide first appeared in Food and Travel magazine.