Summer might be over, but Rijeka’s cultural calendar is just hotting up. From huge shows at the National Theatre to must-see exhibitions, here are the seasonal highlights.
The best things to do in Rijeka this season
Using geographical maps from the British Library and works by a dozen or so artists, this autumn’s exhibition at the MMSU, We’re Not Like Them, concludes a four-part exploration of migration through art. Groundbreaking and global in its outlook, it typifies the approach here. Occupying the former Benčić complex, the museum also has one of the richest collections of contemporary art anywhere in Croatia. It’s also an outstanding example of how to adapt 19th-century industrial architecture for cultural use in the 21st century.
Crowd-pleasing opera – Madame Butterfly, Tosca, La Bohème – and ballet, Tchakovsky’s The Nutcracker Suite, are programmed for the 2019/20 season at this architectural and cultural landmark. Rijeka’s Croatian National Theatre was designed by the same team of architects as its namesakes in Split and Zagreb: Austrian Ferdinand Fellner and his German partner Hermann Helmer.
The interior is worth a look around – Gustav Klimt and brother Ernst helped paint the ceiling before its grand unveiling, a performance of Verdi’s Aida.
Municipium is set in a grand Habsburg-era building, in a quiet courtyard in the centre of town. Door staff might greet you at the entrance, but don’t worry, this is a very informal dining experience, down to the day’s menu chalked up on a board. This menu is usually fish-oriented, reasonably priced considering the quality of service, presentation and the fare itself. The wine list runs to scores of (mainly Croatian) varieties, a decent number available by the glass. Note also the cut-price lunch specials, marende.
The first of Rijeka’s café-bars to get really serious about craft beer, King’s Caffe Pub is still one of the best places to enjoy a pint or two. Not only is there a long menu of choices on draft or by the bottle, there’s also a neat-but-cosy auntie’s living-room ambience to the whole place, with framed pictures and old-school wallpaper overlooking a solid collection of dark wood tables.
Set in a pavilion at the Governor’s Palace – alongside the History & Maritime Museum, so a convenient choice for any first-time visitor to Rijeka – the three-floor City Museum has a modest permanent exhibition but stages a number of fascinating temporary ones. In September 2019, the BBC and press from Austria and Hungary seemed suitably impressed by this autumn’s stand-out attraction, The Rijeka Torpedo – the first in the world, on view at a branch of the museum at the railway depot at Žabica 4.
Every city needs somewhere like Život. A cosy music venue where you can really let your hair down, Život offers a stage to visiting indie bands and DJs who play everything from grime to Yugoslavian disco. Decorated like your gran’s house on drugs, expect to see UV-blasted dollies and dodgy watercolours. It’s an essential part of an autumn bar crawl in Rijeka.
Hidden away among quiet suburban lanes behind Trsat’s sports hall, Tarsa could almost be a village inn, and it’s not surprising that it has become one of Rijeka’s prime venues for a slap-up traditional meal. Despite being a modern building the décor is decidedly trad, with plenty of exposed brick and wooden beams. The menu revolves around lavish platters of local meat and fish, grilled or baked; home-made pastas with tangy goulash accompaniment; and some of the Kvarner Gulf’s best pancakes to round things off.
Rijeka’s classiest option, part of the Poreč-based Plava Laguna group and right in the heart of town, the Grand Hotel Bonavia is a modern business hotel with a spa and gym. Sauna cabins with chromotherapy, and a wide range of beauty treatments for face and body, have also been introduced, making this ideal for a relaxing weekend city break. The in-house Kamov restaurant is one of the best in town, known for its green pasta, and the terrace café overlooks the city.
With a great city-centre location and a reputation as one of the best places in town, ‘The Golden Conch’ can charge higher prices than most. Along with the usual seafood offerings, the day’s catch is displayed on ice, and includes a wide selection of shellfish. A decent range of Croatian wines accompany. The hefty salads can work as a small meal, followed by a number of cheeses. Snappy service adds to the pleasant atmosphere.
Both a museum and a club for enthusiasts, PEEK&POKE is one of Rijeka’s most unique attractions. Dedicated to the early days of computers and computerised games, PEEK&POKE also looks to reassess the reputation of those pioneers, mocked at the time, whose groundbreaking ideas eventually made our lives easier or more entertaining. Sir Clive Sinclair, for example, is given a stellar biography. All tolled, more than 1,000 consoles, terminals and calculators are exhibited, either in display cases or for hands-on investigation.
CukariKafè is a cross between a modern art gallery, a film set for a children’s fairy-tale adventure and a passenger steamer cruising up the River Nile. Everything about the place exudes character: the list of speciality beers includes not just Duvel and Chimay but several lesser-known Belgian brands as well. And unless you specify otherwise, tea will be served with a dandy slice of fresh orange.
Rijeka’s harbour is the heart of the city and its steeped in history. Bars and cafés line the port, making it the ideal place to stop for a coffee and admire the scenery as the boats pass by. If you’re feeling peckish, visit one of the bakeries and drink your coffee with an apricot croissant on the side.
A slick, modern glass-enclosed structure, sitting all by itself on a pier in the main harbour, houses Karolina, an upmarket bar and nightspot that draws a mix of yuppies, tourists, hipsters and hard-drinking barflies. The terrace looks out onto the sea; inside is a carefully designed, dimly lit space, with high tables and tall stools in the middle of the bar area, and lower chairs with zebra-striped cushions at the two ends. The darkness releases inhibitions, and the techno and trance music inspire a good time.
Autumn in Rijeka is all about indoor gigs and concerts. This is a city that bristles with punk and rock and roll heritage, and its music scene bursts into life every autumn when local promoters and musicians return from summer hijinks.
On a small square on a hill in Rijeka’s Old Town, a Guinness sign announces this quaint old-style wood-and-brass pub with exposed brick. There’s Kilkenny beer too, but thankfully Celtic Caffè Bard is more than just another faux Irish joint. The walls are cluttered with interesting local art, and the bar and upstairs gallery are packed with interesting local people, mostly in their twenties and thirties. Music ranges from electronica selected by the staff to occasional Irish folk bands.
Visit Trsat fort for the panoramic view alone, best enjoyed in autumn, when the trees offer a wealth of colour before the Kvarner Bay spreads out before you. Irish-born Austro-Hungarian commander Laval Nugent-Westmeath fought Napoleon and rebuilt the medieval Frankopan fortress to house his family and his art collection – his hoard of Greek vases can now be seen in Zagreb’s Museum of Archaeology. The mausoleum is worth a look, partly if you like your Central-European history, partly to see how the dynasty looked back then.
Uphill from the centre in Trsat but well worth seeking out, this Rijeka branch of Zagreb’s Beertija bar sticks to the same formula – a superb range of bottled beers from all over the world, and well-chosen weekend DJs. Look out, too, for indie nights, Doors tribute bands and all kinds of excuses for a party.
Built in the 1890s by Hungarian architect Alajos Hauszmann, also responsible for similarly stately buildings in Budapest, the Governor’s Palace is worth exploration not just for the cultural attractions within and around it – the Rijeka City Museum and the History & Maritime Museum – but because of its own history. A century ago, with the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, Italian poet Gabriele D’Annunzio seized control of Rijeka and installed himself in the palace. Mussolini duly removed him but for that short period, Rijeka was the poet’s personal domain
A café by day, a lively bar by night, with 2am closing at weekends, the Bačva has generated a loyal customer base thanks to its regular pub quizzes, craft beers and broadcasts of football matches, not least big European nights involving Rijeka. A DJ may well take to the decks and, of a chilly autumn evening, you couldn’t really wish for a warmer place to be.
Autumn offers the perfect opportunity to explore Rijeka’s beautiful cycling trails. Without the intense heat of summer, the experience is a lot more enjoyable as you tackle the city’s uphill terrain and sudden hairpin bends. The official route takes you as far as Kraljevica, a small fishing village near Crikvenica, but there are endless options.