The days when Split was little but departure point to nearby the islands are gone. Having nearly doubled its accommodation stock in next to no time, Split now welcomes visitors all year round. When Le Meridién Grand Hotel Lav opened in 2006, it was the first five-star in the region. Now it's one of three and in the company of a dozen good four stars, with more to come.
A long-term plan envisages most of the bay becoming a hotel complex and conference centre, with the train and bus stations to be relocated from their convenient spots near the ferry port. The transformation of this former industrial centre is well underway, and the suburbs are benefitting too. Back in town, the purpose-built Split Art Gallery at last puts the city on the cultural map.
Despite this progress and property price hikes, Split has not sold its soul to tourism in the way that other Dalmatian destinations are perceived to have done. Café terraces on the main promenade, the Riva, fill on on sunny days with locals happy to chat all day. Coffee is Split's source of energy and social glue. Contemporary decor and lighting still grate with some but at least Split's café society is sacrosanct.
The city's hub and prime sight, is the gutted Diocletian's Palace behind the Riva, a vast, rectangular complex containing any number of shops, bars and businesses. Wandering aimlessly around the palace is one of Split's essential experiences. There is no ticket office or protocol - you just stroll in.
Four gates guard its main entrances: Golden, Silver, Iron and Bronze. The latter gives access, through the basement of Diocletian's old Central Hall, now filled with souvenir and craft stalls, to the Riva.
Long after the Romans left, Split was part of the Venetian empire, and the population had since spread outside the palace walls. Split's role as the main access point for trade in fast boats between Venice and the East - thus avoiding the pirate-infested waters further north - helped the local economy prosper. A short period of French rule saw rapid urban development, such as the landscaping of the waterfront embankment below the arches that once enclosed Diocletian's living quarters. The Riva, now officially known as the Obala Hrvatskog Narodnog Preporoda, is Split's main drag.
Its recent makeover has unfortunately not pleased everybody.
Just to the east, the city's main market runs daily. Beyond that, past the nearby train and bus stations, and harbour opposite, over the rail tracks is the city beach and modest leisure complex of Bacvice. You can walk from the Roman palace to Bacvice in 15 minutes.
On the western side the palace, the busy fish market is found in a little square. Adjacent runs Marmontova, another Napoleonic introduction, a smart(ish) pedestrianised avenue, Split's main shopping street. At the top stands the stern edifice of the Croatian National Theatre. Most tourists are happy to stick to this central hub, the more adventurous taking in the Split Art Gallery and Mestrovic Gallery within relatively easy reach.
Most visitors first head for the grand gutted shell of Roman Emperor's Diocletian's Palace, the atmospheric ruin where you will be spending most of your time. Entry is free. Amid the chaos, added to over the centuries, two landmarks stand out: the courtyard of Peristil, a major crossing point, and, beside it, the Katedral Sveti Duje. In the north-east corner of the palace, the Split City Museum is worth visiting for the 15th-century Gothic building itself.
The palace is fringed by two prominent statues by Dalmatian sculptor Ivan Mestrovic: one of literary scholar Marko Marulic in Trg brace Radic in the south-west corner, the other of medieval bishop Grgur Ninski by the Golden Gate. On the other side of the road stands the Split Art Gallery, the city's latest cultural attradtion.
The other side of the National Theatre stands the Archaeological Museum with finds from the nearby Roman capital of Salona. Two further cultural attractions are set within reasonably easy reach. The most rewarding is Ivan Mestrovic's own Gallery, a neo-classical villa built by the sculptor himself in 1931. Nearby, the Kastelet accommodates his religious carvings. The beach below, Zvoncac, is less well known but has a couple of decent bars on it.
Note that the Split Card (www.split.info), offering free and discounted admission to many museums and attractions, is offered free of charge to visitors staying more than three days in town.
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As Split's hotel stock improves so does the profile of its restaurants. Where once was standard local menus at the many downtown venues, are now increasing vegetarian and international options. Bistro Black Cat was an early pioneer, since joined by others. The owners of Enoteka Terra have now taken the already highly regarded Bekan further upmarket under its new name, Kadena; Luxor's recently reopened restaurant and the new Apetit, in the city centre, are creating a buzz, while old stalwarts Nostromo, Sperun and Boban still draw discerning customers for quality Dalmatian dining.
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Downtown, commerce is concentrated on pedestrianised Marmontova and in little boutiques dotted around the Palace. Either side of it you'll find the main daily market and, just off Marmontova, the fish market. The nearest mall to town is the Joker Centre, while the huge City Center one further out opened quite recently.
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Split has been on the luxury hotel map since Le Méridien Grand Hotel Lav set the tone. Since then, a number of four-stars, including the recommendable Marmont Hotel, have opened their doors, doing their bit to transform Split into a tourist destination rather than transit point. Though you'll still be bombarded at the bus station and ferry terminal by old ladies offering private rooms, a new breed of apartment owners has learned to cater to Western tourists. Villa Matejuska and Villa Varos are two examples in the Varos neighbourhood, while Dalmatian Villas is another option. Check www.diocletianpalace.com for simply furnished doubles inside the palace.
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Bar culture is concentrated on the Roman palace, where the Academia Ghetto Club covers most bases. For late drinks, head for Bacvice (particularly Tropic Club Equador) and the Zvoncac beach area near the Mestrovic Gallery (particularly Obojena Svjetlost). In terms of clubbing, and live music, the O'Hara Music Club has had a makeover. For something more underground, then Jungla is the place to be.
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