On a recent trip to Croatia, my wife and I visited the lovely city of Split along the Dalmatian Coast. I couldn’t help, but ponder as we pulled into the port, just how this charming city would appear to me. My last view of Split was from an old Russian transport plane operated by the United Nations Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) in 1995.
I was serving as a NATO Liaison to UNPROFOR working the transition of the UN peacekeeping mission to the more stringent NATO mission of peace enforcement. I recalled that unlike Dubrovnik and other coastal Dalmatian cities, Split had suffered only minor damage in the Croatian War of Independence. But still it suffered as an armed camp and its suburbs had indeed sustained its own distinct damage.
Split is a popular cruise ship destination along the beautiful Dalmatian coast. It’s the second largest city in Croatia and the largest in Dalmatia. Sitting largely upon on a peninsula along the eastern shore of the Adriatic Sea, Split enjoys both a storied past and a bright future.
The History of Split
The city’s ancient roots began as a Greek colony in the 3rd or 2nd century B.C. Perhaps its greatest claim of antiquity is its role as the site of the sprawling Palace of the Roman emperor Diocletian. In 305 A.D., Diocletian made Split his royal home.
It later became a city of the Byzantine Empire. Subsequently, the city fell under the influence of both the Republic of Venice and the Kingdom of Croatia before enjoying autonomy as a free Dalmatian city-state in the Middle Ages.
In more modern times, Split served as a predominate community as Croatia was absorbed as a province of the Yugoslavian Republic dominated by Serbia. In the aftermath of the Cold War collapse, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia and viscous fighting broke out.
Croatia’s independence was finally guaranteed by peace established and enforced by both the UN and NATO in the late 1990s. Since the end of the war, Split has prospered and the Dalmatian coast has once again become a premier holiday destination for vacationing Europeans and world tourists.
We had only one day to see the sights of this lovely coastal Mediterranean destination, but we definitely found many of the not-to-be missed places in beautiful historic Split.
What to See in Split
As a history buff, a visit to this famous palace was first and foremost on my list. Sitting in the historic heart of Split, the massive palace complex is a well-preserved UNESCO World Heritage Site built in the 4th century.
Intended to be the Emperor Diocletian’s retirement home in the area of his birth, the structure is more reminiscent of a large fortress. Only half of it was intended for his personal use, the remainder housing a Roman military garrison.
Constructed of white local limestone and high-quality marble, the palace has withstood much of the ravages of time. The ground-plan of the palace is rectangular with walls ranging from 175 to 215 meters. Sixteen towers line its walls with a tower at each corner. Four historic gates provide access.
The Emperor’s Apartment along the seafront is only partly preserved on the upper floor, but it’s ground-floor and supporting substructures are almost completely preserved along with remnants of a dome hall, two halls with apses, and part of an octagonal dining room.
Once decorated with numerous 3500-year-old granite sphinxes, only three have survived with a singular still resting on a remaining Palace Peristyle. The size and grandeur of the palace made for a filming location for the HBO series “Game of Thrones.”
Since the 7th century, the palace has been continuously occupied, with residents making their homes and businesses within the palace basement and along its walls. Many restaurants and shops, and even some homes can still be found here. It’s a fabulous walk-through history wandering through the Palace’s narrow streets, visiting the Peristyle Square, and exploring its basement halls.
Riva is the center of Split’s thriving urban area — a pedestrian heaven teeming with cafés and restaurants and home to numerous cultural and entertainment events including the boisterous Split Carnival. As the most important public space in Split, the Riva extends along the south and west façade of the Diocletian Palace and has been widened and reconstructed multiple time since the age of Napoleon.
My wife and I strolled the Riva Promenade along the waterfront, lined with cafés, bars, and restaurants. Here we enjoyed an evening café as we admired the lovely Adriatic views of the Adriatic Sea, watching the boats come and go, and soaking in the vibrant atmosphere. It remains as Split’s most preferred spot for having morning or afternoon coffee, or an evening out for drinks with friends.
Split offers more than just the standard European appeal with cobblestone streets, narrow alleyways and wide squares. It’s also home to historic lanes and green areas like the spectacular Marjan Hill Park, just steps from Old Town Split.
Accessible by foot, auto, or bus, the park is known for its epic views, hiking trails, and intriguing history. Its most popular hike is the Marjan Loop Trail. We completed it in about an hour, but visitors should spend at least two to really appreciate its stunning views while immersed in all the natural beauty Marjan Hill offers.
There is much to enjoy here. The lookout point above the Varos Neighborhood at the entrance to Marjan Hill Park provides perhaps the best views of Old Town Split and the harbor. The Telegrin Viewpoint is most popular destination, sitting on Marjan Hill’s highest peak offering 360-degree views.
The hill sports dramatic vertical cliffs, called the Santine Rocks frequented by rock climbers with cave dwellings carved into its cliffs. Two fascinating old stone churches are also found in this area.
Bene Beach and Bacvice Beach
The Dalmatian coast is famous for its stunning topography and beautiful beaches. A local favorite is Bene Beach, a picturesque west-facing beach on the north shore of Marjan Hill. It has long been the go-to beach for Split residents and tourists to soak up the sun and frolic in the sea.
Trekkers can hike over the top of Marjan Hill to get here, although it’s also possible to reach the beach by taking the shoreline path or even hopping on a bus. It’s one of several stretches of sand in the Split area, but its association with and proximity to Marjan Hill make it very popular.
Another favorite is Bacvice Beach, perhaps the most frequented. Here you can relax, swim, and try your hand at the local game of picigin—a traditional Croatian ball game played in the shallow water.
Cathedral of Saint Domnius
History again beckoned us to visit the Cathedral of Saint Domnius, an impressive Roman Catholic cathedral and, surprisingly, the oldest Catholic church in the world. Consecrated at the turn of the 7th century A.D., this cathedral remains in use in its original structure without any later major renovations.
The Cathedral of St. Domnius is actually a complex of a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary and formed from Diocletian’s Imperial Roman mausoleum dating back to A.D. 305. A bell tower dedicated to Saint Domnius was added in the 12th century. The two structures together comprise the Cathedral of St. Domnius.
We completed our tour with an exhilarating climb up the bell tower for a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Split and its environs.
Split City Museum
The rich history of Split can be explored at the Split City Museum located within the Papalic Palace. The museum houses a collection of artifacts and exhibits that provide insights into the city’s 2,000-year-old urban past.
The Split City Museum is actually an institution that manages the work of the main museum, Diocletian’s Cellars, the Emanuel Vidović Gallery, the Southeast Tower, the Venetian Tower and the Ophthalm.
We only had time for the museum itself, and found it fascinating. Artifacts ranged from Roman coinage and a map highlighting bombed areas from World War II to a wing showcasing the works of Split artist Emanuel Vidović, a contemporary of Ivan Mestrović.
Yes, more history.
took a short trip outside of Split to visit Klis Fortress, a medieval fortification situated on a hilltop. This historic site offers breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside and also served as a filming location for “Game of Thrones.”
Now a visitor attraction, the medieval fortress dates to ancient times from its origin as a small Illyrian tribe stronghold. It grew into a royal castle that was the seat of many Croatian kings and in its final development, served as a large fortress during the Ottoman wars in Europe.
As such, the Klis Fortress has been lost and re-conquered repeatedly throughout its more than 2,000-year-old history, facing barbarians, Slavs, Mongols, Tatars, Ottomans, Venetians, and others. Due to its strategic location on a mountain pass, the fortress served as a major source of defense for Dalmatia over the millennia and was one of the region’s most important fortifications, controlling access to and from Bosnia, Dalmatia and inland Croatia.
Perched on an isolated rocky peak and inaccessible on three sides, the fortress overlooks Split and nearby communities, along with most of the central Dalmatian islands. Ruled by Croatian and Hungarian Kings, and even the Knights Templar, this fortification has a storied place in the annals of the region’s history.
The fortress was built into the south face of a rocky mass, and from a distance is almost indiscernible as a man-made structure. Its original appearance is unknown due to structural changes made by occupiers over many years. Its present-day appearance is a mostly a stone fortress with towers dating back to 17th century reconstructions by the Venetians.
Green Market (Pazar)
Split’s iconic Pazar is a bustling open-air market in the very best traditions of European marketplaces.
The Green Market spans eastward of the ancient town walls and around the Dominican monastery of St. Dominic. Divided into several sections, its pathways are filled with vendors selling everything from imported clothes and souvenirs to vegetables, fruits, flowers, dairy and fresh meat products.
Its charm is that it remains true to its roots and is pretty much untouched by the tourism boom of the last decade.
Ivan Mestrovic Gallery
Art enthusiasts should not miss the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery dedicated to the works of Croatia’s most famous sculptor. The gallery preserves and presents the most significant works of this prolific 20th century artist including his sculptures, drawings, design, furniture and architecture.
Finished works in bronze, marble and wood showcase Mestrovic’s versatility. I was surprised to discover that the lovely gallery building and grounds were based upon original plans by Mestrovic himself, including the living, exhibition area, and working spaces.
If you have several days to spend in Split, consider a day trip to one of its nearby islands. Split’s central location make these adventures easily accessible and agencies offer a variety of tours. Each of the islands of Hvar, Brac, or Vis offers its own unique charm, magnificent beaches, and picturesque towns.architecturehistoricseaside