It was in Istria that we got our first taste of Croatia and immediately fell in love with it.
A triangular peninsula in northwestern Croatia, Istria (Istra in Croatian) might not be as famous as hyped Dalmatia, but it is definitely equally as beautiful. Although not that big, this is a diverse region—a place where you can visit Roman ruins in the morning, taste wines and olive oils at noon, sunbathe on pebble beaches in the afternoon and enjoy local cuisine with a view in a hilltop town in the evening.
Highlights of Istria, Croatia
Istria is home to landscapes that resemble those of Tuscany in Italy and Provence in France, although it must be said that it’s a tiny bit less spectacular than those two world-famous regions. Nevertheless, Istria makes for a wonderful place to spend a few days in. Formerly part of Italy, Istria is the most Italian region in Croatia. Italian influences are visible everywhere, from the bilingual road signs to the menus of restaurants and the architecture and layout of towns.
With its rolling hills topped with photogenic villages, green vineyards, olive groves and truffle forests, and gorgeous coastal towns, Istria has everything that a summer holiday destination needs.
And more and more people begin to realize that. Many parts of the Istrian west coast are lined with seaside resorts and hotel complexes—sometimes tacky, but always well-equipped. We stayed at the amazing Hotel Maestral in the tiny coastal town of Novigrad. We spent two nights there, using it as a base to explore two of Istria’s main highlights—Rovinj and Motovun.
Perched on a hilly perfectly oval peninsula jutting out into the blue Adriatic Sea, picture-perfect Rovinj (pronounced Roh-VEEN) is arguably one of the prettiest towns in the Mediterranean. Unlike most other towns on the Istrian coast, Rovinj is totally authentic, one of the last remaining Mediterranean fishing towns.
Rovinj has been a wealthy harbor town since the Middle Ages and was a part of the Republic of Venice for about 500 years. Venetian influences can be spotted all over the town—Venetian windows adorn centuries-old houses, while cozy cafés line pretty piazzas. Even the local dialect stems from Venetian. Even more so, it is said that local folk singers sing their songs in a language that is considered more Venetian than the dialect that is spoken in Venice itself nowadays. Rovinj is like a miniature Venice, without the canals and situated on a hill.
This was actually the very first place we visited in Croatia and it completely blew us off our socks. I’d read raving stories by other travelers and my guide book was overwhelmingly positive as well, but nothing could prepare me for what Rovinj actually looks like.
Brightly painted houses line cobbled streets, seagulls scream overhead as fishermen haul their daily catch into the harbor and a huge bell tower towers over the town… Words can only say so much.
Rovinj is incredibly picturesque and its beauty lies in the fact that it’s not yet overrun by tourists. Its harbor is still home to a large fishing fleet—there are no luxury yachts. The heart and soul of Rovinj is still pure, the town not having been spoiled by mass tourism.
I would go as far as to say that Rovinj is my favorite town in the Mediterranean.
It’s a small town, too. You can get around in about an hour, leaving you with plenty of time to sip a coffee on a piazza, browse some shops, take a dip in the sea or simply enjoy the incredible views and take way too many pictures.
Further reading: Why You Have to Visit Šibenik, Croatia
Rovinj’s counterpart is Motovun. Anyone visiting Istria has to get a taste of both a coastal town and a hilltop town, the two things that typify the region. And Rovinj and Motovun are the respective best ones.
The Istrian interior is nothing like the busy coast. Sleepy stone villages dot rolling landscapes covered with olive oil farms, wineries and ancient forests where truffles, Istria’s delicacy, are harvested. The main attractions in inland Istria, however, are the hilltop towns.
Motovun (pronounced Moh-toh-VOON) is the most well-known and most visited of all Istrian hilltop towns and there’s a reason for that. Set atop a 270-meter (886-foot) hill, the Old Town of Motovun is home to a striking old church and walkable medieval walls. The views from the town walls are the best in inland Istria.
Motovun is tiny. You can see it in about an hour, not including the hike to the top of the hill and back. Its small size makes it a wonderful day trip from the coast—taking a road trip through rural Istria is definitely recommended.
Besides the spectacular views, Motovun’s drawcards also include excellent restaurants and stores selling local products such as olive oils, wines and truffles. I would suggest visiting Motovun around lunchtime. The restaurants offer both incredibly scenic views and delicious local dishes. If you want to try typically Istrian food—and you should—this is the place to do it.
We spend only three days and two nights in Istria, which is enough to get a feel of the region and see both a gorgeous coastal town and scenic hilltop town. However, I would recommend allowing for more time. Four to five days would be ideal.
In addition to Rovinj and Motovun, in my opinion the two major highlights in Istria, you might also want to visit the incredibly well-preserved Roman amphitheater in Pula, the UNESCO World Heritage Listed 6th-century Euphrasian Basilica in Poreč and the wild landscapes of Rt Kamenjak on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula.