Things to Do in Istria, the Best Road Trip

In this article we will discuss things to do in Istria in Croatia, an itinerary that we have done by car to be able to travel it quickly and easily.

To see everything there is to do in Istria you need at least 3 days. We traveled in early December, with winter at the gates of the northern hemisphere, with the days short and each of the villages allowing themselves to be seen without the crowds of tourists. In summer, it would be necessary to add the enjoyment of the beaches, but that will be another time.

The Istrian Peninsula is located in the north of Croatia, on a piece of land that juts into the Adriatic Sea. The cities we decided to visit are not so far from each other (between 50-100 kms away), going by highway is quite fast, but when you take the internal roads in the middle of the mountains you have to drive carefully.

Is istria worth visiting

For us, Istria is really worth a visit. Its old towns on the shores of the Adriatic as well as on the top of the hills with their narrow streets are very picturesque. Also, from the gastronomic side, it has regional dishes with many ingredients inherited from the Italians and truffles as the main element.

From a historical and cultural point of view, many of the monuments that we are going to see and visit there, we should know that in ancient times the whole peninsula belonged to the Roman Empire, later it passed into the hands of the Venetians and then it was under the Austro-Hungarian Empire until the First World War. In the last century, it was part of Italy, Yugoslavia, until its dissolution and incorporation into present-day Croatia.

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Things to do in Istria, the best road trip

The itinerary we took by car was as follows:

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First we visited Zagreb. For more info, you can read our article on things to do in Zagreb.

From there we went to Rijeka ‘(A)’, from where we visited Opatija ‘(B)’ and Trsat. For these 3 places we also have an article we have written separately, where we discuss things to do in Rijeka and Opatija.

Rijeka was our starting point for our Istrian Peninsula itinerary by car. They gave us lots of recommendations of other towns to visit, but we didn’t get to do much more because it was getting dark very early in the evening, having traveled in winter. Too bad because it’s all so cute!

  • Pazin ‘(C)’, a village in the middle of the mountain with a medieval castle.
  • Pula ‘(D)’, coastal town with a spectacular Roman amphitheater.
  • Rovinj, ‘(E)’ a mini peninsula with a beautiful old town.
  • Poreč ‘(F)’, in the style of Rovinj, also beautiful.
  • Motovun ‘(G)’, the area where truffles grow, an exquisite and expensive product. The village is located entirely on the top of a hill.

📷 If you want to visit the Istrian Peninsula and you don’t have much time, you can make excursions from different cities that will save you from planning:
Tour to Pula, Rovinj and Porec from Zagreb.
Tour to Rovinj, Bale and Vodnjan from Pula.

1) Visiting Pazin, the inspiration of Jules Verne

Pazin was the first destination of the places to see on the Istrian Peninsula. It is a small mountain village on the edge of a cliff, which was the inspiration for Jules Verne ‘s novel Mathias Sandford. We went looking for its medieval castle where the protagonist of this novel was imprisoned. Since the end of World War II, the site has served as a museum.

Things to do in Istria, the best road trip

One of the main things to see in Pazin is the abyss in which the castle hangs, due to the fact that the Pazinčica river goes subway forming 3 lakes. Its interior can be accessed through caves.

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2) Things to do in Pula, the must-see in Istria Peninsula

Pula is the largest city of our itinerary through the Istrian Peninsula, where we find the first trace that the Romans were in this region, an amphitheater of the first century, although for them it was also one of the most important ports of their Empire.

This Roman amphitheater with a capacity of 20,000 spectators is one of the best preserved still standing, so much so that it is still used for summer festivals and concerts.

Things to do in Istria, the best road trip

📌 General admission in 2022 to visit the Pula Amphitheater: 70 kuna (≅9€).

But in addition to the amphitheater there are more Roman ruins, as you go deeper into the historic center, you will find the few remains of walls that are preserved.

The historic center is made up of narrow pedestrian streets, with lots of charm.

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Among the main attractions is the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary dating from the fourth century, although more structures have been added to what was the original church. Also the bell tower is later, from the 16th century, which was built using stones from the amphitheater.

Both the Cathedral and other monuments, including the Temple of Augustus seen below, were half-destroyed in World War II, but restored again.

Things to do in Istria, the best road trip

If you continue walking you will find the main square, where the ancient “Roman forum” used to be and where today is the tourist office, the municipality or town hall and more Roman monuments such as the Temple of Augustus.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, this temple was a church and also a kind of warehouse or silo; today it houses a small museum. The municipality building is also somewhat old, dating from the 13th century and has a mixture of architectural styles.

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Nearby is also the Chapel of Santa María de Formosa, which is closed to the public and is only opened on special occasions.

The Arch of the Sergios is at the end of the pedestrian street and is also from the 1st century, it was one of the entry points to the walled city. Unfortunately, in the 19th century, with the expansion of the city these walls collapsed, but at least they left this great arch as a souvenir.

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In the upper part of Pula you should explore the Bourguignon Fort that has guarded the city since the 19th century. This fortress was built by the Austro-Hungarian Empire. We took a walk around the outside to see the views of the city.

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Peninsula Istria Croatia 10

3) Visit charming Rovinj

We continued on our way to Rovinj, another of the must-see places on the Istrian Peninsula.

The old town of Rovinj is located on a piece of land that juts into the Adriatic Sea. It used to be an island, but in the 18th century it was joined to the mainland. It is not accessible by car, but has to be left in the parking lot outside or further uptown, which is what we did.

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We can’t imagine what these narrow streets will be like in summer, how crowded everything must be, really very lucky to be able to enjoy it like this, in solitude, despite the cool sea. We know that it is a town that lives mainly from tourism and we understand the insistence of a few vendors trying to sell us a souvenir.

📷 Check here this guided tour of Rovinj and book your place.

Things to do in Istria, the best road trip

In the upper part of the historic center is the Basilica of Santa Eufemia, in baroque style and from the eighteenth century. It has a bell tower that emulates those of St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice, with the statue of the saint at the top. Getting there is not complicated, since the hill on which it is located is not so steep, although it is not “accessible” as such because of the cobblestone streets and steps. It is worth the climb both during the day and at night.

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Another site to see in Rovinj is the Balbi Arch, one of the 3 gates that were built in the 17th century during the time when Rovinj was one of the most important cities of the Venetian Republic. The arch is decorated, on each side, with the head of a Turk and a Venetian.

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With Juan we did not want to leave without having a panoramic view of both sides of the peninsula, the south side and the north side. On the south side, the best thing to do is to stroll along the marina and fishing port of Rovinj. And from the north approach the parking lot to have a good panoramic view of the peninsula.

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4) Visit Poreč, a World Heritage Site.

🔘 Check out the rest of the World Heritage Sites we have visited.

The old town of Poreč has as its main monument the Euphrasian or St. Euphrasius Basilica, a clear example of Christian architecture of the 6th century and for that reason declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

📷 Book here the Food Tour of Istria from Porec.

a) Euphrasian Basilica ☑️

The Basilica can be toured inside, finding different rooms such as the sacristy, an octagonal baptistery, a sixteenth-century bell tower which can be climbed to contemplate the views of the city and the bishop’s palace.

📌 General admission in 2022 to visit the Euphrasian Basilica: 40 kuna (≅5€).

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Things to do in Istria

In addition, mosaics, frescoes and the archaeological remains of an earlier sanctuary dedicated to St. Mauro, the first bishop of Poreč, can be seen.

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The highlight of the tour is the Church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, whose altar features golden Byzantine mosaics that are a delight to behold.

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b) Historic center of Poreč

The old town of Poreč is reminiscent of Rovinj in terms of small cobblestone streets, only this one has no ups and downs.

Things to do in Istria
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5) Visit Motovun

To return to Rijeka, instead of retracing our steps and going back along the highway, we took an internal route to go through Motovun and if we made it in time (and it didn’t get dark) through a couple of other towns that had been recommended to us from the hotel.

So we went to the center of the Istrian Peninsula and on the top of a hill of about 280 meters above sea level we found the village.

Things to do in Istria

Car access to the village is restricted and you have three options:

  • One is to pay an entrance fee for the car and get it as close to the top as you can;
  • the other is to pay for a bus that the municipality makes available to the visitor (and leave the car in the parking lot on one side);
  • up and down on foot.

Knowing that we would have no problem parking upstairs, we paid to go upstairs with the car and have more schedule independence.

We left it parked very close to the access gate to the medieval city containing examples of Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance architecture. Look up before entering and you will find the Lion of Venice carved in stone, a legacy of the Venetian period on the Istrian Peninsula.

In the main square of Motovun, called Andrea Antica in honor of this illustrious artist born there, stands the church of St. Stephen and, next to it, a bell tower of the sixteenth century. You will also find the medieval cistern.

Things to do in Istria
Things to do in Istria, the best road trip

Below the mountain and on the other side of a river is Livade, where we had lunch with Juan with a plate of pasta with truffles. It seems that this area is ideal for the collection of white and black truffles, although because they grow below the ground, their collectors need the help of trained dogs for their correct detection.

Things to do in Istria

Practical information for travel to Istria Peninsula

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– Where to stay in Istria

Where to stay in Rovinj

We chose Rovinj for an overnight stay, as it suited us perfectly for our itinerary on the Istrian Peninsula.

The hotel chosen was Angelo D’Oro, a hotel in the heart of Rovinj’s old town. The building in which the hotel is located is beautiful and blends in with the style of the city. Inside the decoration is very tasteful and we enjoyed all the facilities. The rooms followed the classic and stately decoration of the hotel.

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Things to do in Istria

We had breakfast included, which was continental buffet style with a wide variety of fresh produce. In summer you can enjoy the garden terrace at the back of the house.

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There are different optinos where to stay in Rovinj. Hotels and apartments within the historic center are priced higher than accommodations outside the historic center. We recommend two more alternatives:

  • Residence Porta Anticain the historical center, in front of the fishing port. Exquisitely decorated rooms with rustic furniture and ocean views.
  • Apartment IvaThe apartment is located 10 minutes walking distance from the historical center, it is an excellent option to pay less. Ivanka is the owner of this beautiful fully equipped apartment with terrace.

Where to stay in Pula

The best location to stay in Pula is close to the amphitheater and the historical center of the city. We recommend these three alternatives:

  • D&A AmphitheatreD&A Amphitheatre: modern and well equipped apartments in the heart of the city, 200 meters from the amphitheater and at the entrance of the historical center.
  • Rock HostelShared and double rooms in the center of Pula. It is an elegant and well-decorated hostel, ideal for budget travelers or backpackers.
  • Hotel AmfiteatarThe hotel offers comfort and spacious rooms, good breakfast and a restaurant for tasting local dishes, just a few meters from the amphitheater.

Where to stay in Motovun

The historical center concentrates most of the accommodations in Motovun. The most affordable options are located in the outskirts of town, in rural houses or apartments surrounded by vineyards.

  • Apartments Galerija MotovunApartments Galerija Motovun: spacious and comfortable apartments in the center of Motovun. Includes kitchen and views. Excellent service.
  • Guesthouse Villa MarijaVilla Marija: operates in a renovated 17th century house. Rooms with balcony and fabulous views of the valley and vineyards.
  • Casa Rossa: on the outskirts of the historic center of Motovun on the road, with private parking and garden. It is an excellent option to rest in a renovated rural house.

🏨 Do you want to look for other options? Find here the best hotels in Istria.

– How to get around Istria

We rented a car. It cost us 370 kuna (≅50€) for 2 days and includes full comprehensive insurance and unlimited mileage. Gas for the trip we made was 26€ and we spent about 90 kuna in tolls (≅12€). In total we spent almost 90€ between the two of us. On the itinerary through the Istrian Peninsula we covered about 300 kilometers.

Pint it!

Things to do in Istria

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