Croatia’s third-largest city with a population of 150,000, Rijeka has a busy port that handles ten million tonnes of cargo and a quarter of a million passengers, many heading to nearby resorts. It’s a nice place for a week’s city break, during which you can enjoy Rijeka’s fascinating history, great restaurants and kicking year-round nightlife. This is not a tourist-oriented city, which is part of its charm: in Rijeka, you will be dining, drinking and dancing with locals.
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The best things to do in Rijeka
Currently the poster boy of Rijeka’s cultural scene on account of its recent move to new premises in the ex-industrial Benčić complex, the museum has one of the richest collections of contemporary art anywhere in Croatia. There is no permanent exhibition, however; items from the museum’s crammed vaults are regularly rotated in a highly imaginative cycle of changing, themed exhibitions. There is also a busy schedule of solo and group shows featuring artists from elsewhere. Occupying part of the so-called H-building, which began life as a sugar refinery before becoming a cigarette factory then a tractor-making workshop, the museum is an outstanding example of how to adapt 19th-century industrial architecture for contemporary cultural use.
Rijeka Carnival Croatia’s main annual public celebration, February’s Rijeka Carnival now attracts some 100,000 visitors to the city centre. Consisting of several events in the run-up to the main parade on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, the former pagan ritual still features bellringers in terrifying masks and costumes, the Zvončari, who cast out the dark of winter and summon the coming of spring. Find a place early on Rijeka’s main street, the Korzo, and be prepared for late partying.
Municipium is set in a grand Habsburg-era building, tucked away in a quiet courtyard right in the centre of town. Door staff might greet you at the entrance, but don’t worry, this provides 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, this 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 alongside the Governor's Palace – and thus alongside the History & Maritime Museum, making it a convenient first port of call for any first-time visitor to Rijeka – the two-floor City Museum comprises a modest permanent exhibition but stages a number of fascinating temporary ones. Recent subjects have included the development of the torpedo, the history of Rijeka harbour, and emigration from Central Europe to America 1880-1914.
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. Pay particular attention to the platters for two; specialities such as the Franjo Glavinić pork chop stuffed with pršut and mozzarella or the Maksimilijan squid with baked potatoes and vegetables are well worth the extra outlay.
Formerly the Belgian Beer Brasserie and still bearing decorative traces of the Benelux, this prominent terrace bar with an atmospheric interior remains one of the key spots to drink in Rijeka. Located so close to the harbour you can see ships passing from the tables outside, it’s worth a longer linger for its hearty Belgian-style cuisine and, most notably, brews in draught and bottled form from the land of beer.
Rijeka’s classiest option is a modern business hotel with a spa and gym. Sauna cabins and massage and beauty treatments have also been introduced. The 120 rooms are tastefully done out, the in-house Kamov restaurant is one of the best in town, and the terrace café overlooks the city.
With a good location and a reputation as one of the best places in town, this busy cellar restaurant can charge higher prices than most. Along with the usual seafood offerings, appetisers include fish carpaccio with capers, and marinated salmon. The day fish is displayed on ice and includes a wide selection of molluscs. The hefty salads can work as a small meal, followed by a number of cheeses. Snappy service adds to a 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 computerized 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, some 2,000 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.
This once-tiny seafood bistro has expanded into the neighbouring room and kitted itself out with new furniture – its reputation for serving some of Rijeka’s best seafood in a simple setting remains unchanged. Settle at one of the rustic wooden tables in the bright, modern interior and admire the trays of just-caught fish and crustaceans chilling behind the glass. Point at your choice and wait for it to be expertly grilled, perhaps dressed lightly with olive oil and big chunks of sea salt, and then served up as a minimalist masterpiece. The car park terrace gets the sun and gives a view of the docks. You can find fancier, but not much better.
A slick, modern glass-enclosed structure, sitting all by itself on a pier in the main harbour, houses an upmarket bar that draws a mix of yuppies, tourists, hipsters and hard-drinking barflies. The bar’s terrace is on 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. DJs and dancing at weekends.
Although Mornar is next to the docks and the marine terminal, the views from its L-shaped corner terrace include just a snippet of sea and a whole load of car park. Forget the scenery: hearty meat dishes here satisfy, and the fish comes right off the boats or from the nearby market, which means it’s fresher and cheaper than most places in town. Join hungry locals and sailors as you tuck into generous platters of calamari, sardines or superior freshly caught whitefish at amazing prices.
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 it’s more than just another faux-Irish joint: The walls are cluttered with interesting local art, and the windy bar and upstairs gallery are packed with interesting local people, mostly in their twenties and thirties. Music ranges from electronica played by the staff to occasional Irish folk bands. Australian barmaid Anita is friendly and welcoming.
Visit this fort for the panoramic view alone, best enjoyed from the terrace café beneath the Nugent mausoleum – the Kvarner Bay spreads out before you. Irish-born Austro-Hungarian naval 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.
Jadran contains 66 nicely fitted rooms in an enviable shoreside location. Set by Rijeka’s first stretch of swimmable sea with its own stop on the No.1 bus route east of town in Pećine, the Jadran (‘Adriatic’) has been a spot for bathing since it opened in 1914. There’s a supplement charged for sea-facing rooms. Half and full-board deals are available.
Fabulously located up in Trsat, this eaterie, part pizzeria, part grill offers high-grade versions of renowned standards, with a terrace view to boot. House specialities include lamb chop with homemade noodles, tuna steak with polenta and salsa verde, and ragout with pasta. The pair of you, if carnivores, could order the steak-and-potatoes for two. À la carte, you’ve got all the domestic favourites, grilled squid, monkfish and pljeskavica meat patty, here served with feta cheese.
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