History, beauty and holidaying in Split
Split is a perennial favourite among European summer vacationers. The largest city on the Dalmatian Coast holds historical treasures and a relaxed environment with something for everyone. Although bustling with tourists with it’s always-on sun, the centre of the city remains encased in an amazingly well preserved in a grand Roman palace. That and the general surrounding natural beauty makes it a place to revisit again.
I last visited Croatia in the summer of 2014 but didn’t get outside Zagreb. Although a lot smaller, Split holds its own as a must visit destination that is very well connected. I only had a few days here and only ventured out on foot so there is plenty more to see next time. On the first day and second morning the weather was terrible! For a place that is about always being sunny it was from drizzle to torrential rain! Fortunately after that it improved dramatically. I’ll highlight some of the main parts on offer.
In and around town
Most of the fun to be had is within the old town core, mostly wrapped in the old palace walls. This place is living nearly all day with some clubs and bars open till very late, bakers working throughout the night and the fish and wet markets open from very early. Everything is on foot, so unless you’re planning on leaving Split, absolutely avoid renting a car. You can’t go anywhere and locals have to park vast distances from their houses or avoid driving in general because of the San Francisco like parking situation.
The water front is lined with food outlets along with open seating. It’s all overly touristy and picture perfect. The Split Church of Saint Frances is at one end.
Restaurants, cafes and shops are everywhere in centre of Split with mostly pan-European cuisine. Particularly clustered around the squares but the best of places are hidden down the narrow alleyways whether day or night. At night it can be harder with less open but eventually you’ll find areas lit up with music playing. When it does come to food, I found it is super easy and cheap to buy snacks. The bakery ratio here is high, with the smell sometimes hard to avoid. Croatia also has a lot of pizza chains selling cheap and rather large single slices ‘cut pizza’. Finally there are a number of good ice cream and gelato stores, but didn’t see any frozen yoghurt.
There was free wifi in the square and the water front. Water fountains are common, so no need for bottled water here. The water supply tastes great.
The 4th century palace, which at times resembles more of a fortress, has been inhabited nearly continuously. Successive societies have made their own changes. It’s UNESCO listed as it is an amazingly preserved piece of architecture and piece of history. It’s large enough that you could spend nearly all your stay within its boundaries.
Many areas still hold true to the original palace in additional to newer additions such as the cathedral. You must keep in mind you’re experiencing multiple cultures over numerous centuries.
Walls and gates
If you walk around the centre you will quickly orient yourself to the northern Gold Gate, the eastern Silver Gate, southern Bronze Gate along with the water front. There is also the Iron Gate to the west. As it sounds the northern one is the most impressive, dedicated to the Roman leadership.
Cathedral of Saint Domnius
The cathedral is a complex of different structures that also were built over many centuries. It includes the church, it’s crypt and the bell tower which can be seen from afar, towering above the rest of the town. The church and other sections on a single ticket, except for the bell tower which is separate (20 hr) – and far better value.
The towering structure of the bell tower gives it great views of all of Split. As you would imagine it has some narrow and steep stairs both carved in and metal frame inside the structure. Anyway uncomfortable with stairs or heights should best avoid!
Meanwhile under the cathedral there is a small crypt which takes a whole 10 seconds to explore.
The palace had a sub-layer which has slowly been excavated. You can freely walk through the centre basement corridor between the water front and the bell tower with tourist stalls lining the way. You can also explore deeper into the halls and chambers on both sides, costing 40 hr or half for students (hurray!). Besides large halls there is also an area leading outside. This lower ground was meant to directly support and represent the layout of the upper floor.
For some the main drawcard to Split is the sun. And with sun you get beaches. Personally for me, they were rather poor however I have grown up around Australian beaches as a child so consider me spoiled. But regardless of my opinion, there were the usual array of body types happily laying on concrete soaking up sun rays and barely tanning at all.
Marjan Forest Park
Just to the west of Split lays Marjan hill jutting out into the ocean at the end of the peninsula. Although developed has partially encroached, planning laws have protected the majority of it and today it is a protected park. Marjan Forest Park (Marjan Park Šuma) provides a natural recreation environment just minutes from Split. Indeed it has been used in such a way from the days of the Roman Palace and still contains remnants of more recent facilities, most of which have been abandoned. I found it a highly peaceful area that lacks any shops or other facilities, making it a great place to walk around.
You can walk in from the city, just follow the paths leading up between the houses.
Once you enter the forest park it become predominantly dense forest. Although there are paths you can also access by car.
Heading towards the 178 m peak, it ends with a nearly endless set of stairs.
Once you reach the peak though you are greeted by the largest Croatian flag they could muster and an equally large cross.
The park of course is spoiled with a great views in most directions. Besides the peak, there are view points dotted around the forest park.
Finally going off track in Marjan is still relatively rough terrain. But you can find some oddities like this supposed ‘labyrinth’, a crack in the Earth, with a further gap in the rocks that looked like it lead down 20 metres or more. Through the darkness, cobwebs and distant sounds of water dripping I could just make out at the bottom what looked to be the top of a metal ladder… so one wonders how far it really descends. Not something I best find out when exploring alone. Difficult to photo unfortunately.
Where to stay
Without a doubt, stay near or ideally in the old town centre. There are a huge array of hostels, home stays and boutique hotels. I later noticed there were resorts and international chains but they are far far away, so you’re completely missing out on all these things.
I found a very affordable home stay option when looking the night before (about the time I booked the flight). Only problem when turning up was they were overbooked… these things happen. Fortunately they provided me with an alternate just outside of the old town and a car ride. All very personal and welcoming. Whether an individual or a group, this sort of accommodation is hard not to recommend, although if you really want upmarket there were some nice boutique hotels in the centre as well.
Getting in and out
I flew in on SAS from Stockholm. The airport is about 30 minutes away by bus or taxi. The shuttle bus stops at the ferry, bus and train terminal which the main regional transport hub. Walking from the bus/train/ferry terminal takes 10-15 minutes, just don’t bring too much luggage.
Trains head up towards Zagreb and aren’t overly modernised. Ferries and cruise ships are aplenty, including charters to the islands. You could also go over water to Italy.
Otherwise buses are the main form of transport around the local region and also cross border.
I eventually choose to travel next to Mostar in Bosnia & Herzegovina. This ended up being a mini-bus which took a rather scenic route through the mountainous regions.
We eventually hit the EU border (at this time Croatia is in the EU but not yet in the Schengen area). Nearly all others were locals, watching them show their ID cards onboard. I had to pull out the passport but the Dutch permit saved me the hassle of a stamp once again. Close enough to being a local I suppose. Cross the border they didn’t even want to check us, lucky I did not need an entry stamp for any reason!
Well that was my brief stay in Croatia this time. It is a great place to visit although it would be much better with friends next time. Definitely a lot more to see and explore along the Dalmatian Coast but Split is the best starting point to give context of traversal of time.