The best things to do in Novigrad
They don’t cram them in at family-run Damir &Ornella. Six tables are ranged around a cosy, bare-brick interior, a comfortable setting for fish and shrimp specialities. This truly is from sea to plate, and most of what they create – and each dish is a mini-creation in its own right – is raw. Annually acknowledged as one of the finest dining destinations on the coast, Damir & Ornella is manned by the father and daughter of the same name, happy to take bookings rather than disappoint. Signposted on focal Velika ulica, it’s set down a narrow sidestreet near the seafront.
The work of photographer/designer Sergio Gobbo, who has spent his life researching and collating material all along the Adriatic coast, Gallerion was opened by Otto van Habsburg in 2007. As the last Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, the late archduke would have taken a keen interest in this naval museum, focused on the Austro-Hungarian presence in the Adriatic from the time of Napoleon to the end of World War I. The two-storey display is filled with explanations of battles, model ships, uniforms and weapons. Although a private collection, this enlightening institution has links with the Croatian Military Museum in Zagreb.
Its terrace lapped by the sea, the Vitriol keeps upping the ante even though the setting sun, smooth service and quality cocktails make this the best bar in Novigrad, hands down. The latest attraction is artisanal gin, Istria’s first handmade gin, if you please, a combination of Malvazija wine, juniper berries and spices. Still trendy enough to appeal to weekending Italians without losing its young, lively, local character, Vitriol is also a decent daytime spot for coffee, own-recipe cakes and fruit tarts. Evening cocktail concoctions have a distinct Italian flavour (Negroni, Garibaldi). Local wines are chalked up on a board outside, beers include Kriek and Kilkenny and there are enough hot drinks to fill an entire menu.
A culinary must in Novigrad, Konoba Čok specialises in fish and seafood, most notably sea bream, sea perch and sole, lobster, and all kinds of shellfish including oysters. All is fresh as can be and expertly prepared and tastefully presented. While other family members run the kitchen, the affable Sergio takes care of guests and the wide range of Istrian wines on offer. If one of you isn’t feeling particularly fishy, then your steak will come lathered in delicious truffle sauce. A complimentary grappa usually completes an altogether satisfying dining experience.
A few kilometres outside Novigrad, Istralandia is a large aquapark complex with six pools, including a children’s spray arena, and 15 kinds of slides. Kids can try the Black Kamikaze, Family Rafting and, for toddlers, Crazy Hills. As of 2019, there will be a new feature, Space Combo, offering nearly 200 metres of space adventure in a rubberised vehicle with full visual effects. Other attractions include beach football, beach volleyball, concerts and all kinds of courses and workshops.
Close to a complex of campsites and overlooking the sea at Mareda, just outside Novigrad, the Macumba Beach Club provides al-fresco entertainment day and night. After a morning coffee, swim and seafront fun, the grill restaurant serves up classic Balkan favourites under welcomeshade. Sunbathing suits the afternoon, before early-evening cocktails and DJs take over. At some point late on, it all slowly winds down, only to start up again with a coffee and a swim the next morning.
Overlooking the marina that this luxury hotel serves, the Restaurant Navigare offers top notch Istrian cuisine, prepared in an open kitchen, to guests and non-guests alike. Executive chef Nenad Lukač is on a mission to prove that the gastronomy of this region can challenge that of France or Italy, and your experience here is a memorable part of that process. The à la carte menu changes with the seasons, with local hams, asparagus and truffles a key feature according to availability. Ingredients are locally sourced whenever possible. The house sea plate to start would be a wise choice, the sea bass carpaccio if you’re saving yourself for a satisfying main, buzara Nautica, say, with scampi and mussels, or the hefty veal ispod peke. Nautica chocolate fantasy rounds things off nicely for dessert.
Just past the bus station on the outskirts of town, Moreno Ivančić is a small, family-run winery where visitors may drop in to sample the goods any day of the week. No reservation is required. The small-batch reds and whites here have a slight mineral quality and may be accompanied by fine Istrian prosciutto. Also available is rakija, as the firm has also started producing its own strong, clear spirits. Everything takes place in convivial sit-down surroundings, with more structured visits, including tours of the cellar, on offer for groups of six or more.
A short drive from Novigrad, the modest village of Višnjan is a popular destination thanks to its world-famous observatory. Thanks to the lack of light pollution in this part of inland Istria, some 100 minor planets, two comets and more than 1,000 asteroids have been discovered here. The observatory also lays on tours, workshops and viewing sessions on certain nights of the year, with English-language explanations provided.
In its element during the 2018 World Cup, Element is a party bar with multiple screens and late-opening hours so celebrations can go on into the night. More a café/bar during the week, at weekends, Element attracts a young local crowd for DJs and occasional live music in a loungey atmosphere. Aperol Spritz is the drink du choix, though plenty of beers will be sunk by the time anyone’s thinking about going home.
The Lapidarium in the heart of Novigrad is both a fascinating collection of local architecturalremains, and a prime exactly of how to design a contemporary, site-specific museum in a town’s historic centre. Designed by the award-winning Rendić and Turato, the Lapidarium contains pieces from pre-Roman times discovered around the former cathedral, today’s Church of St Pelagius. Early Christian symbols can also be discerned, delicately carved intertwining patterns and an array of animals and mythical beasts.
Approaching its 50th anniversary, this third-generation, family-run classic has been aroundsince the start of modern Istrian tourism. Sidro (‘Anchor’) only uses fish from the immediatevicinity, heavy on shellfish and sole as the sea is shallower here. It’s right on the fishermen’s marina and locals show up to eat. For the best shellfish, come in November. The fish platter Noštromo is a solid tip: white fish, squid, grilled scampi, potatoes and spinach. Same goes for the lobster with tagliatelle, which runs to 300kn. There’s a nautical interior and terrace – ignore the neon sign and pictures of the food.
Part of the Lapidarium complex, the Rigo Gallery stages regular exhibitions, some challenging (the strange figurines of Denis Krašković, the graphic images of passion by Olja Grubić), some populist (the photos of John & Yoko displayed in the summer of 2017). The building itself is worth further investigation, once the Baroque home of the Rigo nobility, restored 200 years later to open in the mid 1990s.
A sister establishment to the original venue in Zagreb, Booze and Blues has set up at the Hotel Nautica at Novigrad marina, offering the sounds and flavours from across the Atlantic. The music, occasionally provided live on stage by an act from around the region, brings a little jazz, blues or soul to the party, complemented by similarly themed décor courtesy Mario Waldgoni. There’s a Stateside touch to the menu too, though it’s no coincidence that the Adriatic is alongside, lapping the popular terrace.
Round the corner from the Novigrad headland, Belistra water-sports centre offers all kinds of active fun on and off the coast. You can climb 200 metres above the sea parasailing, jet-ski on a top-of-the-range Yamaha WaveRunner or take the whole family on a banana-boat ride. Courses include windsurfing, kitesurfing and SUP, instructed by a Croatian champion, and there are also canoes and wakeboards to hire.
Right by the jetty that juts out just where Novigrad runs out of land, Waikiki’s Beach Bar allows you to sink summer cocktails, slink down the metal staircase into the sea, swim off the effects then climb back up for more. By day, you might want to stick to beer, especially as you can easily get involved in a game of beach volleyball and may need liquid sustenance before another plunge into the Adriatic. A late-morning coffee here also does the trick as you treat your hangover to the soothing lap of the waves.
Known to locals as simply the ‘Cathedral’, the Church of St Pelagius and St Maximus dates back to the early Christian period – or, at least, in its first incarnation. Later rebuilds, several of them, took place between the 15 th and 18 th centuries, hence the Baroque flourishes such as the altar. But look hard enough and you can still see traces from a thousand years ago, such as the window frames in the north wall. Sadly the Romanesque crypt is out of bounds,but it contains ecclesiastical artefacts from the early medieval era.
Popular with budget visitors, Torci 18 is both a homely lodging of 12 rooms and a local eaterywhere Istrian favourites are served in satisfying portions. And you needn’t just bulk out on pasta – the fish and shellfish are fresh, the Kvarner scampi delicious when grilled or prepared na buzaru in wine. The Beletić family would even be happy to prepare your fish ispod peke, slow-cooked under hot embers, provided they are given ample warning. Warm bread and the family’s own-made olive oil is the traditional appetiser to every meal.
On a corner of the historic complex housing the Lapidarium, its casual terrace occupying a small square of pavement in a narrow passageway, the Rigo Wine Bar is both tasteful and authentic. It also serves top-notch Cattunar wines from Brtonigla in the terroir of west Istria. Classic regional finger food is also available, cheeses, olives and air-dried prosciutto. The building itself dates back to the 1700s, its atmospheric façade lending an Italianate touch to proceedings.
Sunk off the coast of Novigrad with days of World War II coming to an end, the HMS Coriolanus served in North Africa before taking part in suspected spying activities in this part of Istria. In May 1945, it hit a mine and sank. Now upright on the seabed about 25 metres deep, it is a popular dive site. A club such as Zeus Faber in Lanterna, facing Novigrad from across the Mirna estuary, can take you out to the wreck and also rent out equipment. Beginners may explore the shallower waters around Lanterna, with its wealth of flora and fauna.