© Croatian National Tourist BoardMotovun

Istria’s historic hilltop towns

From Labin to Motovun and taking in art-focused Grožnjan, Istria's lofty communities offer prime panoramic views

Written by
Justin McDonnell

Inland from Istria’s celebrated coastline, historic hilltop towns and atmospheric villages beckon the curious visitor. Here are six of the most attractive ones to see and experience.


Right in the centre of the Istrian peninsula, near the regional capital of Pazin, Gračišće is the ideal destination if you fancy leaving the modern world behind for a day or two. Its history shrouded in mystery, Gračišće looks little different to how it would have done a few centuries ago.

The entire village under heritage protection, Gračišće comprises a handful of medieval churches – including St Euphemia’s from 1383, with a crucifix from a century earlier – with an observation defence tower to the south, a five-minute walk uphill from town. From there, great swathes of central Istria are spread out before you, the skyline of Gračišće punctuated by St Vid Church tower. Walking enthusiasts should try the Trail of St. Simeon that starts and ends in Gračišće; it’s 9 km long, of medium difficulty and takes about 3.30 hours to complete.

© Istria Tourist BoardGrožnjan


Few of Istria’s medieval hilltop towns are as pretty as Grožnjan – or as culture-focused. Set at an altitude of 228 metres, surrounded by spectacular views all the way to the Adriatic, Grožnjan was just another depopulated community until it was declared a ‘Town of Artists’ in 1965. This not only led to the opening of many studios and galleries, bringing the village to life with artists, artisans and gallerists, but also the infrastructure here reflects the local artistic bent.

Street signs are hand-painted ceramics rather than state-manufactured enamel, the colours of the shutters have been carefully selected and ancient-looking stone seats have been perfectly located for visitors to take in that wonderful view. On warm summer evenings, the gorgeous little town square hosts live performances of classical, folk and jazz. Other arts festivals are on through autumn, such as the annual Ex Tempore (September 22–25, 2022), attracting artists and art lovers from around the world.


If anywhere defines the difference between the coast and inland Istria, it’s Labin and Rabac. In the far southeast of the peninsula, Rabac is a summer resort of hotels and apartments, while a short drive away stands the former Albona, the ‘Town on the Hill’, once populated by Celts and Romans. Today’s Labin is all galleries and Baroque palaces built by local noblemen. One houses the Labin City Museum, whose interactive features includes a presentation of the miners’ striker of 1921, when the town became its own independent republic.

The town comes alive for today’s Labin Art Republic (till August 25, 2022), a summer-long festival of culture, featuring shows and meet-the-artist sessions in ateliers, churches and cultural venues. Catch the free sightseeing tours starting every night at 9.30pm outside the info point in the old town; these run till September 13.

© Arnie PappMotovun


Montona to the Romans, Motovun is one of the best-preserved of Istria’s medieval hilltop settlements. From its strategic position, at the summit of a 277-metre hill in the middle of the Mirna valley, surrounded by truffle-rich forests, Motovun controlled the merchant routes across the valley floor on the way to the coast. It was down this ancient inlet that Jason and his Argonauts are supposed to have fled after capturing the Golden Fleece.

Motovun’s two sets of fortified walls divide the town into three sections – the higher you climb, the older it gets. As you wend your way upwards, past rather dilapidated, 16th- and 17th-century Venetian-style houses, you pass outlets offering the celebrated local produce of wine, truffles and grappa. At the top, the original 13th-century walls feature 360-degree panoramic views revealing the whole of inland Istria laid out before you.

Every summer, this tranquil town transforms for the Motovun Film Festival (July 26–30, 2022), a cross between Sundance and Glastonbury.


Across the Mirna river valley from Motovun, Oprtalj feels like the land where time stands still. Old town walls enclose a sleepy community, their traditional houses set on cobbled streets, a mysterious aura haunting the uninhabited, dilapidated properties and dark passageways. Here, you’re deep in wine country – just take a look at the vineyards stretching way beyond the immediate horizon below, with nearby family-run wineries happy to accommodate visitors and offer a sample of their wares.

A local white served by the jug is the perfect accompaniment to a peaceful evening sat on the shaded terrace of a typical tavern or konoba, on the main square. Truffles, of course, are liberally used for many main courses, pastas, stews and grilled meats. Afterwards, walk off your meal with a stroll along the picturesque main road lined with cypress trees.


For the Romans, Istria was Terra Magica, a magical land of vineyards, olive groves and timeless landscapes best visible from bucolic hilltop villages such as Završje. Sometimes compared to Piedmont, beneath the Alps in northern Italy, Završje is tranquillity itself, the occasional conversation between locals breaking the library-like silence, birdsong and odd dog bark or two.

Your footsteps clacking along the cobbled streets will echo around you as explore hidden alleyways and shadowy passages. Every few paces, the jaw-dropping view will cause you to stop and admire the seemingly endless vistas of the Mirna valley and, across it, Motovun. This vantage point has meant that Završje was fought over by various counts, dukes and empires, its fortifications added to over the centuries, façades and gateways embellished with various reliefs and coats of arms. Left to its own devices but by no means abandoned, Završje continues to attract the intrepid tourist keen on discovering history without the crowds. 

This article is sponsored by the Istrian Tourism Board.
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