When it comes to top Croatian coastal cities, Split is a close second to Dubrovnik. While Dubrovnik is without a shadow of doubt the most spectacular city, Split is the most surprising, vibrant and “real.”
I don’t want to get into a comparison between those two great cities, though. Let me just say that Dubrovnik is simply stunning and Split is full of life.
Bustling with almost 180,000 people, Split is Croatia’s second city, after the capital Zagreb. It is by far the largest city on the Croatian coast, offering a back-to-civilization feel after exploring the towns and villages of Dalmatia.
A City With Two Faces
Split is very much alive, unlike some other towns along the coast that seem made for tourism. Split sprawls. Its suburbs are not pretty, to put it mildly, and there is an enormous shipyard. This, however, makes it a vibrant city—a city that offers a down-to-earth insight into how life is really lived in Dalmatia.
Split is also a two-sided city. On one hand it’s a modern metropolis and a hub of transportation and commerce; on the other hand it’s a wonderful destination with an incredible historic value, set between the glorious Adriatic Sea and the dramatic Dinaric Alps.
Although the suburbs may consist of concrete apartment buildings, the historic core of Split is astonishing. The city’s heart beats in the Old Town, an overwhelmingly beautiful area with plenty of landmarks and things to do.
Ancient Attractions, Historic Highlights
We were guided around the Old Town of Split by guide Vjeran Mlačić—the best guide we had during our time in Croatia (that’s not to say that the others weren’t good; simply that someone has to be the best!). His knowledge of the city was encyclopedic, his guided tour brief yet filled with interesting information. I was very impressed.
Split’s history goes back all the way to the Roman Empire. It was at the end of the 3rd century that Roman Emperor Diocletian decided to retire and had his retirement palace built there. After the emperor’s death, the palace continued to be used as a coastal retreat by Roman aristocracy before being abandoned a while later. In the 7th century, Slavic invaders drove the local population to seek refuge in the old palace ruins. They stayed there, effectively founding a new medieval town amid those old Roman ruins. To this day, Diocletian’s Palace forms the very heart of Split. Even today, approximately 2,000 people live and work within the walls of this huge former palace.
Further reading: Why You Have to Visit Šibenik, Croatia
Listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, Diocletian’s Palace is arguably one of the most impressive Roman ruins in the world. Its beauty lies in the fact that it’s not an actual palace anymore, nor is it a museum; instead it’s the beating heart of the city. Shops and bars line its maze-like streets, while the squares are filled with people, restaurant and old statues. Everywhere in Split’s Diocletian’s Palace, you can see ancient Roman artifacts, columns and temples.
There are many highlights, including the Cathedral of St. Domnius, the colonnaded square called Peristil and the step-back-in-time-and-be-amazed Basement Halls underneath Diocletian’s Palace.
A tip: for a drink in the evening, go to Luxor. This outdoor bar features live music and is located at the Peristil. It is possibly one of the world’s most atmospheric bars. Simply sit down on the cushions on the steps and a waiter will walk up to take your order. It may be a bit pricey, but sipping a beer surrounded by ancient Roman ruins is definitely worth it.
Diocletian’s Palace makes up half of the Old Town of Split—the eastern half. The western half is the medieval town that originated right next to the ancient palace. In this medieval center, the streets wind and snake their ways past tall stone buildings and across picture-perfect squares.
Further reading: Rovinj & Motovun – Highlights of Istria
Between the Old Town and the City Harbor lies the magnificent palm tree-lined seafront promenade, known as the Riva. This broad pedestrian promenade is quiet in the afternoons, but fills up as the sun goes down. It is lined with cafés, restaurants, street food stalls and souvenir shacks. Going for a sunset stroll is an absolute must-do in Split.
Split, A Mindblowing Destination
Split blew me away. It’s one of those cities of which you don’t expect much at first, but that end up being overwhelming. The city’s liveliness combined with the extraordinary Diocletian’s Palace and the gorgeous seafront promenade make it a destination that belongs on any Mediterranean itinerary.
Additionally, Split is also a hub of nightlife—there are plenty of nightclubs and open-air bars—and has its fair share of excellent restaurants.
I would recommend spending at least two full days in Split itself, but staying for three or four nights. There are plenty of fantastic day trips from Split, including cruises to the gorgeous Dalmatian islands of Hvar and Vis, and a short drive to the UNESCO-listed town of Trogir. A little further afield, the national parks of Plitvice Lakes and Krka can also be visited on a day trip from Split, although it’s recommended to keep them as separate destinations—they deserve more than a quick and crowded afternoon visit.