Halfway between Rovinj and Novigrad on Istria’s busy west coast, Poreč has long been given over to tourism, even before Croatia’s current boom. This doesn’t mean that this former Roman colony doesn’t have a history. Known to Italians – and the rest of the world until 1947 – as Parenzo, Poreč contains the Euphrasian Basilica, a 6th-century wonder of Byzantine architecture. The once uniform hotel stock has improved no end, though tourists strolling along focal historic Decumanus will still be pestered by restaurant barkers.
RECOMMENDED: where to eat, sleep and drink in Poreč.
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The best things to do in Poreč
At the head of Decumanus, the main Roman road that bisects the outcrop of land that holds Poreč, Trg Marafor was the showcase square when the Emperor Augustus made this former fortified military camp a city in the first century AD. At that time, two temples stood here, one dedicated to Mars, the other to Neptune. Without the expanse or detail of the Roman forum in Pula, Trg Marafor requires a little imagination to conjure up images of toga-clad citizens strolling around it, chatting – the former temples are piles of undocumented rubble, with stubs of columns scattered around. The unkempt, balding grass on which they sit hardly adds to the experience. But, taken together with ever lively Decumanus, Trg Marafor does give an idea of the lay-out of this seafaring settlement 2,000 years ago, and could probably do with some kind of visitor-friendly artist’s impression or annotated diagram.
The main superclub in Istria – in fact, pretty much the only one worthy of the name – Byblos by the Zelena Laguna tourist complex outside Poreč has been in business since 1968. Back then, Byblos was more of an entertainment centre for families by day, with somewhat racier attractions by night. In 2007, this all changed, and Byblos became a massive party complex of outdoor disco spread over 3,500 square metres, an even bigger green space next to it, an indoor club and a private night bar. The dress code is relaxed – no bare tops, please – and the list of DJs who have performed here impressive. David Guetta, Paul Oakenfold, Roger Sanchez and Fatboy Slim have all rocked the house at Byblos. Pre-season runs from late February until early summer, when they open up all the outdoor areas.
Just off the coast of Poreč facing the city harbour, easily accessed by a five-minute shuttle boat, Sveti Nikola is easily the largest of the islands lying immediately offshore. It even has its own islet of the same name. It is large enough, in fact, to house a whole tourist retreat and upscale lodging, Valamar Isabella Island Resort, which practically covers the whole outcrop. Half-hourly shuttle boats are free for hotel guests, a nominal fee for non-residents. Divided into hotel rooms and separate villas, surrounded by three pools, seven beaches and a sports centre, facilitated by five restaurants, a gym, spa and indoor pool, the Island Resort is exactly that. Guests can also hire motor boats, kayaks and surfboards, among the many activities available on and off the water.
With 13 waterslides, including the Looping Rocket, the Space Boat and the Magicone, two large pools, one with a half-hourly wave feature, and half a kilometre of Lazy River, Aqua Colors Poreč offers a fun, family-friendly day out close to the Zelena tourist complex outside town. To one side are a children’s playground with climbing frames, beach volleyball and another outdoor sports court, with competitions held at various points of the summer. Grown-ups can also order an on-site, whole-body massage. Opened in 2016, Aqua Colors is still finding its way in terms of other entertainment – an Animation Corner has been set up on the other side of the complex from the Sports Zone. Admission is structured in whole-day, six-hour and 210-minute price bands.
No other man-made sight in Croatia is as stunning as the Euphrasian Basilica by the northern shore of the Poreč peninsula. It was here that the first Christians in the area worshipped – several places of worship, and a Roman villa, were built here before Bishop Euphrasius himself got to work in the mid 500s AD. The complex is quite extensive and you’ll need at least a couple of hours to explore it, taking in the baptistry, the bell tower and what’s left of the Bishop’s Palace from where Euphrasius directed operations. And there’s little doubt this is his work, the bishop having left his likenesses and inscriptions all over the strikingly bright mosaics around the Basilica. Glittering gold colouring and sparkling semi-precious gems all feature amid the sumptuous mosaics, a pristine example of Early Byzantine architecture. Construction is said to have taken ten years, though various elements, such as the 13th-century cimborium based on St Mark’s in Venice, were added much later.
Established back in 1996, the summer-long Jazz in Lapidarium festival runs from mid July to early September, with live acts performing on seven or eight nights. The Lapidarium is an open-air bar named after its historic surroundings, in the grounds of the City Museum. In a courtyard enclosed by Roman-era walls, the likes of award-winning bass player Vedran Ružić, his pianist brother Zvjezdan, as well as guitarist Darko Jurković, entertain the mellow crowd on balmy summer evenings. Admission is free.
Right on Decumanus, on a prominent corner with Cardo Maximus, the Zuccato Palace retains its historic Gothic exterior, partly made from stone all the way from Korčula. The interior has been transformed into the Zuccato Gallery, the most radical and active on the local arts scene. Recent exhibitions have featured the works of Petra Grozaj, whose paintings have been shown in Zagreb, Berlin, Graz and Venice, and conceptual artist Radomir Damnjanović Damnjan, whose solo shows across Europe date back to 1958.
Close to the Euphrasian Basilica on Eufrazijeva ulica, Bacchus is wine bar, eaterie and delicatessen all in one, all purveying authentic but affordable Istrian products. Malvazija, Muškat and red Refošk are sold by the glass, allowing you sit outside on the rustic terrace on a pretty open courtyard. Family-made rakijagrappas – honey-flavoured medica, biškafrom mistletoe and fig-based smokva – may also be sampled. Istrian platters of smoked hams, cheeses and olives can be shared among two or four people, and there are sardine, seafood and truffle versions too.
Every year, in the abandoned quarry of Montraker outside Vrsar, close to Poreč, a unique arts project takes place. The Montraker International Sculpture School involves a gathering of students whose task is to transform lumps of stone into finely crafted works of art. In order to do this, they are instructed by tutors over the course of these three weeks in September. Members of the public can go and watch the sculptors in action, and see the progress they make. The best creations, including ones from the current summer batch, are then placed in prominent places around Vrsar, parks, squares and on the waterfront.
Opened with a live show by Elvis Jackson in 2010, the Ski Lift Poreč near the Zelena Laguna holiday camp and Byblos nightspot is a station that provides access to a cable 650 metres in length. Several kinds of waterborne activities can be tried here, including wakeboarding and mono-ski slaloming. Beginners can pay by the hour for instruction and practice, with helmet and equipment thrown in for a few extra kunas. The Ski Lift station doubles up as a summer attraction even for those not taking part, as its bar and restaurant are popular hangouts. There’s also beach volleyball, sand football and various other land-based games alongside. Ski Lift Poreč stays open from Easter to the middle of November.
Though the world probably doesn’t need another Beatles theme bar, there’s a touch of authenticity about this one – or a nice Lennon-McCartney hook to it, at least. The current owner is the son of Oldham-born Jackie Carnihan, who managed to meet Macca backstage in England at the height of Beatlemania in 1965. Two years later, she was on holiday in Poreč, had a holiday romance with a local hotel receptionist, and got married to him when this was Tito’s Socialist Yugoslavia. Opening the friendly little bar, appropriately called Yesterday, the son of this happy twist of fate then decorated it with Beatles iconography. He also welcomes occasional live acts, who give unplugged performances. All takes place surrounded by the lovely green space.
Calling itself ‘The Key to Poreč’, Peterokutna kula stands at the gateway to the Old Town, a pentagonal tower built in 1447 with a handful of restaurant tables at the top. Most of its many seats are inside, a pleasantly restored space, though the panoramic ones are at a premium in high season and worth booking around the hour of sunset. The menu does nothing adventurous but shouldn’t disappoint either, with classic Istrian dishes brought to the fore, many involving truffles. This might be the place to opt for steak rather than fish, which is probably better executed elsewhere.
As arrow straight as can be, as well as narrow and high-sided for much of its length the Roman thoroughfare of Decumanus is the spine of Poreč, packed to the gills in summer. Laid out east-west under Emperor Augustus in the first century AD, Decumanus runs from modern Trg Slobode to the former Roman forum of Trg Marafor, a distance of some 350-400 metres. As well as far too many ice-cream parlours and souvenir shops, Decumanus is dotted with several historical curiosities, starting with medieval Peterokutna kula and its tower-top restaurant. Further along is the City Museum, currently under long-term reconstruction, with the atmospheric courtyard bar Lapidarium alongside. You then hit the major crossroads of Cardo Maximus, the north-south Roman thoroughfare, with the Gothic-tinged Zuccato Palace gallery on the corner, before passing the stand-alone Romanesque House, mainly two-storey structure dating back to the 1200s. By now, the landscape is more open, with occasional green spaces either side and pretty Baroque buildings more prominent, former homes of Venetian and Habsburg merchants. At the end, Trg Marafor is somewhat underwhelming, its twin Roman temples little but ruins, though you can walk round them for a full view of the Adriatic seafront.
In operation since the early 2000s, the Diving Centre Poreč offers both instruction and guided dives to sites around the area, as far as the Limski kanal and Rovinj. Beginners can start with a basic two-hour scuba session, culminating in a first sea dive, while those with slightly more experience can search for starfish and seafish in the shallow waters of Uvala Brulo on the doorstep. More seasoned divers then explore Žontulo, Frižital reef and around Sveti Nikola island. Diving Centre Poreč holds a special permit from the Croatian Ministry of Culture, meaning that it can take the most experienced divers to the wreck of the Coriolanus, a Royal Navy trawler that sank with 40 men on 5th May 1945, two days before the German surrender was signed.
If not the best nightspot in Poreč then certainly the most accessible and affordable, Saint and Sinner is both downtown club and beachfront lounge bar. The seafront venue down by the Zelena Laguna complex is a summer favourite, fun and unpretentious. You’ll find name DJs elsewhere, here is just about dancing to mainstream tunes with a whole bunch of like-minded holidaymakers. There’s little by way of heavy security and the cocktail makers are as entertaining as the DJs, spinning drinks and rapping with the customers. Relaxation is the name of the game here, with a bit of wild partying thrown in for good measure.
Facing the island of the same name, the view one of the many plus points of the top table in Poreč, Sveti Nikola is reassuringly expensive without making the diner feel straightjacketed by formality. Again, the view helps, but the staff here make the place, attentive and polite as should be expected, but with just the right touch of humour and warmth in several languages. Then, of course, there’s the food, best described as luxury Istrian, the cream soup with truffles and mushrooms, the carpaccio of monkfish, octopus and scampi, the house steak. It goes without saying that you’ll pay a pretty penny for it but the prix fixe lunchtime deals lessen the burden and allow you to enjoy one of the great dining experiences in this part of Istria without breaking your credit-card limit.
Built in 1902, left to rust after 1935, the Parenzana was a narrow-gauge rail that ran from Trieste, winding through the bucolic Istrian interior before terminating at Poreč. In those days, this was all Italy and Poreč was Parenzo, hence the name. Running for over 60 kilometres, it has gradually been revived, section by section, by local outdoor enthusiasts. There’s even a short stretch of rail, between Motovun and Vižinada, plied by a tourist train. Mostly, though, the Parenzana is patronised by cyclists and hikers, and regularly facilitated with improvements such as maps, benches, bike racks and service stations equipped with air pumps and repair kits. In September, it stages the three-day MTB Parenzana race, one of many events in a busy cycling calendar.
Where once Roman citizens of Parentium strolled, shot the breeze and perhaps sipped wine, today holidaymakers sit and neck cocktails. Enclosed by ancient stone walls and overhanging foliage, Comitium provides the perfect setting for evening drinks after a hard day’s sightseeing or sunbathing. In a lovely garden amid the atmospheric ruins of Trg Marafor, classic mixed drinks are served, all the cocktail favourites include flavour of the month in these parts, Aperol spritz. If there happens to be a summer shower or Bura wind, tables inside are surrounded by a décor of marble and shiny wood. All is a touch more sophisticated than most spots around Poreč, without being noticeably more expensive.
One of many companies who provide boat trips from Poreč, family-run Victoria Tours offers a more unique excursion. Setting off from Poreč harbour at 6pm most evenings, Captain Bruno steers the Victoria towards Rovinj and, in particular, the mouth of the Limski kanal. Here dolphins come to feed when the shipping lanes are much quieter. Although dolphin sighting is not guaranteed, given Bruno’s vast experience in these waters, it’s a more than likely occurrence. The tour also takes in this part of the Istrian coast – Funtana, Vrsar and the islands off Poreč before returning to harbour for 10.30pm.
Halfway from Poreč to Višnjan, the Baredine Cave has been a major tourist attraction since opening to the public in 1995. Tours are advertised all over Poreč. You can travel here independently – there’s a car park right outside – but all visits are guided ones, and take place every 30 minutes, in English among other languages. You’re first led along a pathway 300 metres long before reaching 60 metres deep, where you find underground lakes and five otherworldly chambers filled with ancient stalactites and stalagmites. In the waters you should see the strange-looking olm, or European cave salamander, blind and pink, hence its alternative name of the human fish in Croatian. Given its appearance and habitat – it does everything underwater – the olm has been the subject of many a local legend. Tours last 40 minutes. Wear decent shoes, hold on to the railings when negotiating slippery stairs and be prepared for a fair climb back up.