What You Need to Know--Visiting Split, Croatia
Updated: Aug 26, 2020
Finding your way around the area of Diocletian's Palace and the Riva of Old Town Split
by Siri Kay Jostad
Known as the Croatian Riviera, it lives up to its reputation. A lovely seaside promenade is a jumping off place to grab boats to the nearby islands.
The town has much to offer:
The Marjan Forest for hiking and views
Ivan Metrovic museum, gardens and chapel (he's a hometown sculptor)
I stayed 4 nights and could easily have enjoyed much more time there. Our nest for 5-days was a suite with a kitchen in a perfectly charming and home-like boutique hotel called Sleep Split.
Sleep Split is located just outside the entrance to Diocletian's Palace, which meant we were in easy walking distance to absolutely everything. A mere block or two and we were walking on the same white marble roads that were trod by Roman soldiers back in 305 AD. The Palace was built as a retirement palace for Emperor Diocletian and today comprises half the city of Split. This ancient palace today is home to candy and chocolate shops, clothing boutiques and restaurants. The idea that life in the 21st century was going on normally in the same place it did so long ago when things were so dramatically different was a bit surreal.
You would rub his toe if you believed it would grant your wish, right? Gregory of Nin (Grgur Ninski) was a Catholic Bishop from the town of Nin, who through his defiance of the church in Rome (who opposed his call to include the national language of Croatia into religious services so common people could understand better the word of God), became a National symbol as a defender of Croatian culture. This towering monument has been moved around since it's original location inside the Palace. You can find it now near the Golden Gate.
The Palace feels like it IS the city of Split and it's likely you could visit Split and never go much outside its walls. The Palace is definitely the heart of the city and what is called "Old Town Split". Its remains are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
We did a hilarious 'touristy' thing we couldn't resist--a virtual reality tour of the origin of the palace (see us in the red chairs above). Corny, yes. Not great. But super informative and kind of fun. I felt self conscious of the others walking by while we were in another world with the glasses on, and like most things when I travel...we are there for our own experiences, so who cares what others think, right?
A little back story:
Roman Emperor Diocletian voluntarily retired and and in 305 built this complex of 30,000 square meters as his retirement home. The palace/fortress has four gates (Golden, Silver, Iron and Bronze) and make good points of navigation for your visit if you can pinpoint them.
In the center of the palace is the Cathedral of St. Dominus and its bell tower...now this is an ironic thing: Diocletian was the Roman persecutor of Catholics and actually had Dominus beheaded nearby. The location of the Cathedral is actually what was originally the mausoleum for the sarcophagus of Diocletian. At some point in history, the Catholics took it back, ceremoniously destroyed the sarcophagus and built the tower.
All that said, the Tower is a lovely activity. You pay a little bit then hike your way up the narrow stairs to the viewing platform at the top that rewards you with 360° views of all of Split. It's magnificent. I see stair walking as a nice form of vacation exercise.
The Marjan Forest Park also known as Marjan Hill
We arrived in Split after a 3 hour drive from Plitvice National Park (see my blog about that spectacular place here) and desperately needed to stretch our legs. So we dropped our bags at Hotel Split and headed to the west of town and Diocletian's Palace and hiked up Marjan Hill. It was such a pleasure to have nature so close. The paths run along the coast with coastal views for a lot of it and are dotted with benches to rest and the occasional stone church building. It's actually a fairly easy hike. The forest is open 24 hours. If you wish to bike around, there is a place you can rent bikes. Any way you go, you will feel like you are in a totally different city than Split. This photo below gives you a sense of orientation for where the green hill is relative too down.
How to get to Marjan Hill / Marjan Forest Park
There are several ways to enter the park. We went by way of the Riva. When you go towards the hill and pass a square with a fountain, there will be a church with a road to the right of it going up hill. If you follow this, you will eventually come across some signs that confirm you are heading in the right direction. Follow it up the stairs, where at the top will be a small cafe and the Jewish Cemetery.
Other ways to get to the same spot include turning harder right at the fountain and meandering through the Varos neighborhood. Or take the staircase from the Matejuska Fisherman's Port. We went up the first route then came down to the Fisherman's Port.
When you look at the map, you will see just how big this nature preserve is. Map here.
A short walk from Old Town, you can find the Mestrovic Gallery--well worth the walk. Mestrovic, an architect, sculptor and writer, built the estate as a place to work, live and show his works. And it is stunning. Just look at the view. ⬇️
He intended to live here full time, and the front area (above) has two studio/workshops on it. Unfortunately when Split was occupied by the Italians during WWII, he had to leave for Zagreb and never returned. The place stayed in his family until 1965, but in his will was given over to the people of Croatia.
The grounds are peppered with his amazing sculptures
The entrance is directly on the street. There's a sweet little museum shop where you buy tickets. When we were there...we were practically the only ones walking through this massive, gorgeous building. It's nice to experience sculpture that way. So much more personal and you can take your time.
Inside, the spaces are expansive and every room is a gallery of his varied work.
There is a little church, and an old ruined farm called Crikvine – Kaštilac. It is part of the Mestrovic property and some pieces of his most impressive work can be found here. Simply walk a bit further down the road from the big Museum and cross the street. You won't be sure you are in the right place as it looks abandoned. We were alone when we visited. No tickets necessary and no caretaker watching over. This took my breath away.
After our indoctrination to Ivan Mestrovic, we found ourselves a little cafe in the shady trees beneath the big Museum and rested our feet with a snack and drinks. The primary bottled water in Croatia is called 'Jamaica'. We spent most of our trip pronouncing it like Americans...it was at this little cafe where we were trained by our waitress how you REALLY pronounce it. Watch here
Some interesting icing on the cake of our new familiarity with Ivan Mestrovic is that after leaving Split, we spent a week in Dubrovnik (you can read that post here). We didn't stay IN Dubrovnik--too crowded for my taste. Instead, we rented a villa in a suburb called Cavtat. It was perfect btw--a brief 15 mins boat ferry to old town Dubrovnik. On a hike in our Cavtat neighborhood, we came across a small cemetery at the top of the hill. The plaque on the door read Racic Family Mausoleum designed by Ivan Mestrovic. By chance, we now knew who he was.
Old Town Split
It's beautiful and vibrant and always lively. There are people in plazas eating in outdoor restaurants, there is music, there are street performers, shops are open and everywhere. The buildings look like this...all with green shutters. When we got to Dubrovnik (see that blog post here), we asked our Game of Thrones tour guide, why ALL the shutters are green. See his explanation here.
You can see all my Croatia videos, including my walking the marble paved streets of Split in this playlist.
My blogs are always so long--because I like them meaty and detailed--so I've separated out the Where to Shop and Where are the Great Places to Eat in Split into separate posts you can find at these links below.
Where to Shop in Split Croatia
Best and Worst Place to Eat in Split Croatia (plus reviews of some I would say to avoid!)
Croatia is a country I wouldn't have guessed I'd go to. It just wasn't on my list. It has turned out to be one of my favorite countries in the entire world! The people here are (tall) so friendly and easy going. When I traveled here the prices were SO inexpensive. I came back with money (something that pretty much never happens). I am for sure going back. I made this trip with my girl friends and can't wait to take my family back and see the places I missed. If you go and take any of my recommendations, I hope you will share pictures and tag me so I can see.
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