By Alex Crevar Photographs by Maria Mavropoulou
June 8, 2023
Alex Crevar is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to New York Times Travel. He has lived in and covered Croatia for 20 years.
It’s easy to fall for Split, Croatia’s largest seaside city, which sprouted from a palace built for the Roman emperor Diocletian 17 centuries ago. And with the country’s recent adoption of the euro and entrance into the European Union’s border-free Schengen Area, it has become even easier to swoon over the history and ancient ruins that abound here. Still, travelers to Split soon discover that the unofficial capital of Dalmatia, as the country’s southern coast is known, is no museum piece trapped under glass. Equal parts chic Adriatic beach town, active archeological site and proud, gritty port city, Split is fueled by long seafood lunches, ancient traditions and wine-filled evenings. “We’re great hosts,” said Ivica Puljak, the physicist-turned-mayor of Split, in an interview. “But our priority is that Split remains a living center for our citizens.”
- The Riva, called Split’s living room, is the city’s seaside promenade and a prime spot for coffee and people-watching.
- Diocletian’s Palace was built between 295 and 305 A.D. for the retiring Roman Emperor. The palace’s structure still forms Split’s core.
- The Museum of Fine Arts, just outside the palace’s Golden Gate, displays works from the 14th century until today.
- The Meštrović Gallery celebrates the work of sculptor Ivan Meštrović in the sprawling summer villa he built in the 1930s.
- AndAdventure offers sailing expeditions from Split’s harbor that include wine, cheese and prosciutto.
- The Klis Fortress, known as the “key to Dalmatia,” occupies a strategic position that has protected Split and surroundings for millenniums.
- Salona was once one of the Roman Empire’s largest cities. Today, it is an open-air museum filled with sarcophagi and an amphitheater.
- Bačvice Beach is perhaps Split’s most famous beach. Sandy and shallow, it’s also a favorite for families and active locals.
- The Pazar, the outdoor green market, is next to the palace and a daily pilgrimage for locals buying fresh fruits and vegetables.
- The Ribarnica, Split’s fish market, is another ritual for citizens and restaurateurs, who come to buy the daily catch from generations of mongers.
- Marjan Forest Park is a great getaway that stretches over 742 protected acres of serene nature on a peninsula west of the center.
Restaurants and bars
- Dvor serves modern, beautifully executed Dalmatian dishes to terraced tables along the shore.
- Bar Sistema is helping to expand Split’s traditional mix of libations with international and locally inspired cocktails.
- Kruščić, an artisan bakery behind the fish market, sells loaves and pastries from organic, whole-grain flour.
- Villa Spiza, a go-to restaurant in the historic center, creates a new menu and new dishes based on fresh ingredients every day.
- Chef’s Table is a pop-up dining experience that takes guests on a Dalmatian journey.
- Soul is a new lounge with a courtyard terrace, a relaxed vibe, and local beer, wine and spirits.
- Baraka BBQ and Brew Bar pours craft beer from a nearby brewery and stages blues and rock ’n’ roll shows.
- Dujkin Dvor, a restaurant facing the fishermen’s harbor, Matejuška, dishes up traditional marenda (a hearty, mid-morning meal) favorites.
- Teraca Vidilica, which serves food and drinks, has arguably the best terrace in town with panoramic views of Split.
- Nadalina, located inside the palace, is a bean-to-bar chocolate shop that offers an array of choices and roasts beans from around the world.
- Uje Oil Bar, a shop and restaurant within the palace walls, sells an assortment of Croatian delicacies, including olive oil, jam, and wine.
- Break Time creates custom nautical rope bracelets in an on-site atelier just a few hundred feet from the Adriatic Sea.
Where to stay
- Heritage Hotel Antique Split, inside the Diocletian Palace complex itself, is a boutique hotel with eight comfortable rooms and a personalized feel. Doubles begin at €150.
- After a nearly eight-decade hiatus, the Hotel Ambasador (opened in 1937 and closed after World War II) reopened last year. The redesigned 101-room hotel, on Split’s so-called West Bank (the Riva’s western extension), has wellness amenities and a rooftop pool with island views. Doubles from €110.
- The Santa Lucia Heritage Hotel, on the historic center’s main square, dates to 1776 and reopened in 2021 following a renovation. Some of the 35 airy rooms have palace wall views, and the hotel’s Central Kavana (cafe) and Restaurant has been a cultural anchor for centuries. Doubles start from €105.
- For short-term rentals, the Varoš neighborhood sits between the center and Marjan Peninsula. Bačvice’s villas are perfect for beach access. Toć is a five-minute walk to the Riva and just behind the main ferry harbor.
- Split is a walking city; nearly every attraction is a close and flat stroll away. Buses are dependable, and traditional taxis, as well as ride-hailing services like Uber and Bolt, are reliable choices. Perhaps the best option for convenience and cost is to use the city’s bike-sharing app, Nextbike.
6 p.m. Swim before a seaside dinner
Bačvice Beach, a five-minute walk from the main ferry port, is named for the wine barrels (bačvice) that were once unloaded here because of the shallow, soft, sandy bottom (as opposed to Croatia’s typical stone beaches). That forgiving sand is also famous for picigin, a diving, handball-meets-hacky-sack game played in knee-high water and born on this beach. After a swim, walk 10 minutes along the shore to Dvor, a decade-old restaurant with seaside terraces. Begin with the canelon tuna (around 16 euros, or $17) — rolled tuna carpaccio filled with foie gras — and a glass of vugava (around €6), white wine from the island of Vis. Then, treat yourself with rack of lamb served with roasted potatoes and rosemary cream (around €25).
9:30 p.m. Shake it up
For Splićani (people from Split), alcohol typically means wine, rakija (local brandy) or beer. Bar Sistema, a cocktail spot, has started to change that. A few feet from the city’s medieval ramparts, Sistema’s doors open to 20-foot-high, backlit, liquor-filled shelves. The owner, Anteo Ivanišević, a Split native who learned his trade in New York and New Zealand, makes drinks using locally inspired concoctions: One drink, Solstice (€9.95), is a mixture of amaro, blueberry, cranberry, lemon thyme and teranino, a liqueur made from a red Croatian grape variety called teran. Finish the evening’s gallivanting with a glass or two of travarica (€2.10), a Dalmatian herbal rakija, and a panoramic view of Split at Teraca Vidilica, an expansive outdoor terrace on the eastern slopes of Marjan Peninsula.
Diocletian’s Palace, built for the Roman emperor and finished in 305 A.D., still forms Split’s active city center. “We have to remind ourselves we live inside one of the world’s best-kept examples of Roman architecture,” said Dino Ivančić, a local historian and guide, in an interview.
8:30 a.m. Wake with farmers and mongers
The Riva, the seaside promenade, is lined with cafes (an espresso costs around €1.5) and is teeming with fashion-conscious locals. Open daily, a city-block-size outdoor green market known as Pazar sits on the Riva’s eastern end. Pick up rations from the stands selling fresh fruit, vegetables, nuts, honey and Dalmatian olive oil. Then head to the promenade’s western end and the Ribarnica, or fish market (also open every day), which is crowded with stone tables where mongers hawk Adriatic treasures: glistening sea bass, shrimp, lobsters, oysters. Your reward after shopping: Kruščić, an artisan bakery (behind the fish market) where rustic creations like cherry strudel (€2.40) are made with organic, whole-grain flour.
Cathedral of Saint Domnius
10 a.m. Walk through an emperor’s palace
Diocletian’s Palace, a 7.5-acre limestone-and-marble retirement villa for the Roman emperor that was finished in 305 A.D., was Unesco-inscribed in 1979 and still forms Split's active city center, where locals shop, meet for coffee and conduct daily business. Hire a guide (about €50 per hour), like the encyclopedic guide and historian Dino Ivančić, then prepare for historic overload. (Palace entry is free, with fees for specific attractions.) Highlights inside the grounds include the ruler’s 3,500-year-old Egyptian sphinxes; the view from atop the Cathedral of Saint Domnius’s 187-foot bell tower (€7); the perfectly preserved subterranean rooms (€7); and the Temple of Jupiter, which was dedicated to ancient Rome’s chief deity and later converted into a baptistry in the 7th century (€3). “It is easy to forget how incredible this is,” Mr. Ivančić told me. “We have to remind ourselves we live inside one of the world’s best-kept examples of Roman architecture.”
Cathedral of Saint Domnius
12 p.m. Dine where locals eat all year long
Locals know: To eat well, choose spots open year-round, not just during tourism season. Villa Spiza, 300 feet from the palace’s western-facing Iron Gate, is one such place. The cash-only restaurant, which has two intimate dining rooms with stone walls and rough-sawn, wooden ceiling beams, doesn’t take reservations. It also has no freezer, so the ingredients are fresh daily (the handwritten menu is updated accordingly). Start with the black mussels (€12), cooked with wine, garlic and olive oil. Follow with a glass of red plavac mali (€3.10), a Dalmatian grape variety, and the slow-cooked beef cheeks with gnocchi (€20). The meal isn’t over without the chocolate cake with ganache (€5).
1 p.m. Stroll through Croatian and European art
A minute’s walk from the palace’s northern Golden Gate and the 28-foot statue of the medieval bishop Grgur Ninski, created by the famed Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović, the Museum of Fine Arts (entry, €5) offers respite from Split’s bustling tangle of streets. Its collection of more than 5,000 pieces features Croatian and other European artists from the 14th century until the present. Take note of the modern art (including sculptures by Meštrović) and the contemporary works that include abstract paintings from Edo Murtić. Before heading back into the city’s hubbub, relax with a cappuccino (around €1.85) on the museum’s cafe terrace that overlooks the palace walls.
2:30 p.m. Take Split home
Nadalina is a chocolate shop inside the palace’s central cluster of streets opened by Marinko Biškić, a punk rocker who became one of Croatia’s first bean-to-bar makers. You’ll find bars (€3) with locally roasted cacao beans from Madagascar, Bolivia and Cuba. Around the corner, Uje Oil Bar has seven rooms where you can shop for and taste well-curated food products, as well as sit in to eat. On Uje’s shelves, olive oil from the Croatian island of Brač (500ml bottles, €36.50) and dried-fig jam (around €3.50) are favorites. Nearby, Break Time is an atelier steps off the boutique-lined Marmontova Street that creates and sells nautical-rope bracelets (around €35) with various designs, clasps and engraving possibilities.
3:30 p.m. Sail around the Adriatic
The palace’s location — construction began in approximately 295 A.D. — wasn’t accidental. The strategic position of Klis, a fortress, and Salona, a former Roman city, now in ruins — both northeast of Split — provided protection from the mountainous north. The Adriatic, which originally lapped the palace itself, guarded the southern flank’s Bronze Gate, and navigating the nearby barrier islands (Brač, Hvar, Šolta), which form a natural system of channels, demanded prowess. To better contextualize the sea’s historic importance (and snap incredible photos), book a custom sailing expedition with the veteran local outfitters AndAdventure (from €500 for up to six sailors for around four hours). Leaving from the harbor, the skippered journey includes wine, cheese and prosciutto.
7:30 p.m. Cook with a Dalmatian chef
Digest the city’s history and hospitality with the cookbook author, licensed tour guide and local chef Jolanda Vitaljić, who hosts Chef’s Table dinners (from €790 for groups of four to six). The three-hour gourmet and storytelling experiences (dietary restrictions are accommodated) are held in a showcase kitchen and dining room a 10-minute walk north of the center. Watch, taste and listen as Ms. Vitaljić shares local culinary secrets: for instance, that delicious capers grow on bushes near the palace’s Silver Gate. She prepares around 10 dishes with wine and aperitif pairings, with typical menus including homemade pasta with mushrooms and local herbs, cheese aged traditionally in sheepskin, baked white fish and orange cake with carob and almonds. (Message Jolanda’s Instagram account to book.)
10:30 p.m. Give it soul, then blues
Tucked away among Art Nouveau villas, past the medieval walls framing the center’s north end, Soul — a new bistro and lounge with light bites, D.J. evenings and an intimate courtyard terrace — provides an ideal transition between dinner and late-night partying. Croatian wines and a selection of craft beers from the nearby brewery Familia are on tap (around €4.50). Try a glass of pošip, a white wine from the nearby island of Korčula (€3.30), to start the flow. After, head to Baraka BBQ and Brew Bar, where rock and blues performers take to a stage (free entry) framed by a wall of guitars and a ceiling-to-floor American flag made of chains. Order the American pale ale (€3.60 for a half liter) from Split brewery Tap B and find your groove.
To better contextualize the sea’s historic importance (and snap incredible photos), book a custom sailing expedition with the veteran local outfitters AndAdventure. Leaving from the harbor, the skippered journey includes wine, cheese and prosciutto.
10 a.m. Explore a sculptor’s villa
On the southside of the Marjan Peninsula, a 20-minute walk west of Split’s center, the Meštrović Gallery (the €12 ticket includes entry to the seaside chapel across the street) is in a palatial home built by the sculptor Ivan Meštrović, perhaps Croatia’s most famous artist. Meštrović, who grew up poor in Dalmatia’s hardscrabble hinterland and died in 1962, completed construction of the villa in 1939, but World War II cut short his time on the property, which was intended to be his summer house and studio. Today, the sprawling rooms are filled with blueprints, letters and many of the prolific creator’s finest pieces: paintings and the instantly recognizable, elongated lines of his wood, bronze and marble sculptures, which were lauded by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin.
12 p.m. Fill your belly and open your lungs
Dalmatians aren’t breakfast people. After a morning’s work (starting early to beat the heat), families traditionally gathered for a brunch-type meal called marenda. Dujkin Dvor, a konoba (tavern) with a patio facing Matejuška, the fishermen’s harbor, at the edge of the Varoš neighborhood, serves classic, often stew-like marenda dishes. Refuel with brujet, a rich soup made with cod, olive oil, onions, garlic, wine and tomatoes, and served with polenta (€20). Then, walk off your brunch with a climb up the nearby staircase to the Marjan Peninsula’s 742-acre, protected Forest Park, known as the “lungs of the city.” At the top of the stairs, gaze west to the Trogir, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and the islands of Čiovo and Šolta.
2 p.m. Turn the key
For a big picture perspective of Split’s history and evolution, take local bus 22 (€3) eight miles inland to the Klis Fortress (tickets, €10), wedged in a gorge between the Kozjak and Mosor Mountains framing Split’s vulnerable backside. The fortress was built and rebuilt for more than 2,000 years as control for this strategic position and “key to Dalmatia” was held by Illyrians, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Venetians and Croatians. On the way back (also bus 22), stop at the archeological site of Salona (€8), once among the Roman Empire's most populous cities dating to the third century B.C. You can stroll the 22 acres between sarcophagi, mosaics and the amphitheater. Notice, in the distance, the 5.5-mile aqueduct built for Diocletian’s Palace that still supplies Split with water.