There are plenty of things to do in Split now that – thankfully – its days as a departure point to the nearby islands are gone. Brimming with recently opened high-quality bistros, antiquities aplenty and the best bar scene on the Adriatic coast, Croatia’s main ferry port is also the country’s most promising all-round city-break destination. Time Out's local experts pick the best things to do in Split.
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Year after year, Split is becoming an increasingly important hub of Croatia’s burgeoning gastronomy scene, with new quality restaurants opening all over the place. Until a few years ago, dining in Split meant standard grilled fish and meat. Now, there are at least half a dozen restaurants that can hold a candle to almost any other in Croatia. These new names include Bokeria, Kadena, Villa Spizat, Uje, Ma:Toni, Mazzgoon, Re di mare and Zinfandel. If you throw in a few old favourites, such as Nostromo, Appetit, Tinel, Konoba Hvaranin and Konoba Matejuška, and you’ve got exactly a fortnight’s worth of delicious dining to look forward to.
Croatia’s greatest sculptor spent many years in Split, where his villa and studio have since been converted into two major attractions: the Mestrovic Gallery and Kaštelet. The former shows the range of his works, the latter, his remarkable 28-piece work of wooden reliefs depicting the life of Christ. All is set on a leafy boulevard overlooking the seafront,beneath Marjan hill. Nearer to town, you’ll find the sculptor’s works around the Diocletian Palace: his statue of Grgur Ninski next to the Golden Gate and another of Renaissance writer Marko Marulić at Voćni trg.
The Diocletian’s Palace is the perfect backdrop for Croatia’s best bar crawl, a night of revelry in the secret alleyways and hidden corners of this atmospheric ruin overlooking the seafront. Certain bars stand out amid the blur – though whether you’ll be able to find them the next night is another matter. In fact, retracting your footsteps, or trying to, is half the fun. In any case, do look out for Charlie's Bar, To je to, Figa, Gaga, and the long-established Academia Ghetto Club. If you just want to sit down for ten minutes and observe, then the little hub on Majstora Jurja containing Teak and Na Kantunu should do nicely.
Set beside the Silver Gate entry to the Roman Palace, and the main road leading down to the bus station, Split market is a local institution and practically a 24-hour operation. Arrive here, in fact, by some overnight bus from somewhere and you’ll see stallholders setting up shop not long after the rest of the city has gone to bed. Once the market opens up, the many bars all around it do a roaring trade from unfeasibly early hours of the morning. The main attraction is the fresh fruit and vegetables, a Mediterranean tableau of colours and flavours, presided over by age-old vendors with faces creased by decades in the hot sun. Here’s the place to stock up for your picnic, buy cheap stuff for the beach or just browse. If you’re self-catering and need something more substantial to cook for dinner, at the other side of the Old Town is the equally traditional fish market, by Marmontova, where the day’s catches are laid out for discerning local shoppers.
No, it’s not in the least bit exclusive or elegant, but the point about Bačvice – not ten minutes’ walk from Split’s main bus station and ferry terminal – is that it’s a city beach, used by everyone. A modest half-moon of shingle lined with a couple of bars (most notably Žbirac) and few nightclubs just metres from the sea, Bačvice is all things to all men and even provides showers too. If you’re feeling really adventurous enough, try and join in with a game of picigin, a popular local pastime for which Bačvice is famous. It involves a group of lithe-looking lads arranged in a circle who use their acrobatic skills to hit a small rubber ball between themselves – the more outrageous the dive to save the ball from hitting the water, the more admiring the looks from everyone on the beach.
The new wave of Split’s culinary prowess can now be felt at dozens of cutting-edge venues around the city. But there is a small street in the north-western corner of the Diocletian’s Palace which can offer a gastronomic tour all of its own. Dominisova, in the heart of what once was a medieval Jewish quarter, is where you’ll find the four venues belonging to Uje, the Dalmatian word for ‘Oil’. Uje started out as an olive oil distributor, but now it has its own mini empire, right on Dominsova, four doors long. You can start at the Uje’s Dnevni boravak, ‘Living Room’, with an aperitivo. You then proceed to Pikulece, Uje’s Dalmatian tapas bar, where you can pick at fine hams, cheeses and olives, before moving next door to the main act, the Uje restaurant itself. Meatballs, pašticada stew, tuna steak, all is fine and fresh and served in a bistro atmosphere. Afterwards, move alongside to the Uje wine bar, to finish it all off with a glass of crisp Dalmatian white.
Right in the heart of the historic Palace complex stands Cathedral Sveti Duje, once the site of the mausoleum of Roman Emperor Diocletian himself. After admiring the cathedral’s sumptuous pulpit, for a nominal entrance fee you can make the dizzying climb to the top of the bell tower for a stunning panoramic view of the palace, the city and sea beyond. Alternatively, to get a view of the bell tower rather than look out from it, you can scale up to the neighbouring heights of the Vestibule, the southern part of the Peristil and the entrance to what once was the emperor's residence. It may be lower than the Cathedral’s tower, but the view is worth it.
So, you’ve been bar hopping around the Palace, dancing away the night on Bačvice –you need a starchy breakfast. There are several places offering such essentials, starting with NoStress or Brasserie on 7, where you can indulge in a distinctly continental way of starting the next day, from pancakes to all kind of pastries. Each has healthy options, too. Many other venues also open earlier in the day. Quality pastries with reviving coffee are offered at Fro and Crème de la Crème. For those who just like to grab a bite on their way to a beach, excellent bakeries and pastry shops such as Bobis and Babić are strategically scattered everywhere. The two near the main produce market are open round the clock. Just right for re-fuelling after party time.
Although not approaching the kind of prices charged in Dubrovnik, Split is no longer an easy option for the budget traveller. Gone are the days when every eaterie offered a seafood pasta and the catch of the day. Split has gone gastronomic. Nevertheless, there are still places where your kunas can stretch a little further. For years, the inimitable Buffet Fife was the wallet-friendly mainstay, set just in from the seafront. It’s still very popular, but now almost too popular, so prepare to have to wait to be seated. Still, portions and prices of classic Dalmatian dishes are still generous. Just as the Fife is in every guidebook, so the Dioklecijan, known by locals as the Tri Volta, is invariably overlooked. Yet, set within the sea-facing walls of the Diocletian's Palace, it can provide the best prosciutto in town, as well as standard local dishes and drinks at knock-down prices.
Before Split developed, the biggest communal hub here was at Salona, the provincial capital in Roman times when it was a city of 60,000 people. What there is to see today is the remains of an amphitheatre, the public baths and the old city gates, all near the modern-day settlement of Solin about 5km north of Split. Salona was destroyed by Avar and Slav forces – its residents fled to Split and hid inside the Diocletian’s Palace. How they lived can be discovered by a visit to the unsung Archaeological Museum, halfway between the National Theatre and Poljud Stadium, a rare collection of mosaics and everyday objects gives you some idea of local life in the first millennium AD. There are also finds from the Ancient Greek and Early Christian eras, even Neolithic artefacts dug up from around the Dalmatian hinterland.
Marjan is the hilly green tip of the Split peninsula, with the city spread out below it. Considered both its symbol and guardian angel, Marjan is Split’s biggest natural recreational zone. Locals have always had a special relationship with Marjan, dotting it with churches, using it for long walks around its forest paths and swimming at its various beaches in summer. Strenuous cycling is another popular activity, and forms part of the various tours that are now offered around this verdant headland. More scholarly visitors may like to be guided around Marjan’s medieval churches. Others may simply like to admire the spectacular view, best observed from the Vidilica café perched on the hilltop. It’s a steep but worthwhile climb, rewarded by an unmissable panorama of the string of islands and ships gracefully gliding between them.
Split’s focal embankment, officially titled Obala Hrvatskog Narodnog Preporoda, the Riva is where the city meets over coffee. As the sun moves across the sky, and thoughts turn to the night ahead, customers on the dozen or so café terraces tend to start ordering stiff drinks rather than coffee. This is just the time to sneak into the Diocletian’s Palace behind, follow the yellow arrows near the Hotel Vestibule Palace, and find yourself at a bar called, in fact, Dioklecijan. Although somewhat basic in appearance, its advantage is equally simple: a scattering of bar tables set outside, immediately above the Riva. Find one by the three Roman-era arches (hence its local nickname, ‘Tri Volta’), and you get a perfect view of the sun setting over the Adriatic. Order up a cheap, cold beer, maybe a signature doorstep sandwich of prosciutto and cheese, and take in the last of the day’s rays.
Re-opened in 2009 in a converted hospital, the Split Gallery of Fine Arts is home to one of the finest collections of modern and contemporary Croatian art in the country. Founded in 1931, the gallery originally comprised some 500 works, 300 of which were on display at its original base on Lovretska. The gallery now holds some 3,500 pieces, including some by Dürer and Venetian Masters from as far back as the 14th century – but it’s the modern, Croatian, works that have made the gallery its name. These range from paintings by Vlaho Bukovac to sculptures by Ivan Meštrović, and then there’s Edo Murtić’s abstract Sky Over New York from the early 1950s. Works in video and new media are also included, lending a contemporary touch and underlining the gallery’s position at the cultural forefront.
Said to be best prepared on Hvar, gregada is a much-loved domestic fish stew, involving potatoes, parsley, olive oil and chunks of fresh fish. Locals reckon that, with the exception of family dining tables, the best place to find this classic Dalmatian dish in Split is at the Konoba Hvaranin. Under the expert guidance of the Radovani family, the gregada here is the house speciality, a healthy, delicious bowl that keeps regulars coming back for more. Plus you’ll be enjoying it in a real family atmosphere, with mum and dad in the kitchen, and the son Vinko running the bar and usually excellent music set list in the background. Hvaranin is not only about food, though. Being a meeting point for Split writers, journalists and artists (whose books fill the restaurant shelves), Hvaranin is also a place to earwig erudite conversation as you slurp down your fish stew.
Although Split doesn’t have an opera house per se, the eclectic, high-brow agenda at the Croatian National Theatre (‘HNK’) includes opera as well as ballet and local-language theatre over the length of the cultural season between September and June. The building itself is a landmark – the national theatres here and in Zagreb played a vital role in the development and promotion of the Croatian language before the country gained any kind of independence. Thus it is with great pride that citizens attend performances here, dressed accordingly, and so creating a real sense of occasion. The venue is a pleasant stroll along pedestrianised Marmontova, with plenty of spots nearby for a pre-show meal or drink. During the summer, the HNK hosts the Split Summer Festival, which also includes crowd-pleaseing opera outdoor performances at Peristil in the Roman Palace.
Only a few steps away from the tourist-choked Riva embankment, for centuries Split fishermen have kept their boats in a small cove known as Matejuška. They still do so today. The only difference is that the string of wavebreaking rocks around Matejuška has become a hang-out for twentysomethings, local and tourist, who meet up over drinks and maybe a strumming guitar or two. It’s an easy way and cheap way to have fun: pop into the Mali Dućan store opposite, open its fridge with the largest selection of beers in town, buy a couple of beers, find your spot, gaze out at the sea and chat to the people around you. Matejuška is basically the starting point for any night out, a place where new acquaintances are struck up, just as the fishermen are tidying up their nets and preparing for the next day.
The spectacular success of the ‘Game of Thrones’ TV series has had a strong impact on Croatian tourism. Though Dubrovnik is identified the King’s Landing, Split has gained its fair share of unexpected fame. Its narrow streets seem tailor-made for the filming of fantasy-city locations. Dark, atmospheric and full of theatrical menace, the alleyways around Dioklecijanova in the Roman Palace were used to represent the streets of post-siege Meereen, where former slaves are seen hunting down their deposed masters. The echoing subterranean halls of Diocletian’s Palace Basement have lent themselves to all kinds of interior shoots. Most significantly they provided the location for Daenerys’s throne room as ruler of Meereen, seen in the latter episodes of season four. A new addition is Kaštel Gomilica, a short drive from Split towards the airport. This doubles as Braavos, the place where Princess Arya Stark found refuge in season five.
You’ll see it all over town, the round badge with the red-and-white checkerboard motif inside and the words ‘Hajduk Split 1911’ around the outside. In the stretch of street near the main post office, between the bus station and the market, stalls proffer shirts and tracksuit tops with the Hajduk motif. What’s it all about? Well, Hajduk are the de facto flagship football club of Dalmatia, most specifically Split. Pitted against the eternal enemy, Dinamo from Zagreb, Hajduk fans are fiery, passionate, loyal – and aggrieved by the recent years of failure and mismanagement. Nonetheless, a game at the Poljud stadium, north of the National Theatre, is a spectacle, not least for the dramatic setting over the Adriatic. Tickets are cheap and don’t, whatever you do, wear blue. On non-match days, a stadium tour allows you to peek into the club’s trophy room and find out more about their colourful history.
Carnivores should feel at home anywhere in Croatia, but Split was one town that always preferred fish over meat. Bucking the trend a decade or so ago, the Stare Grede became a destination of choice for discerning meat-eaters, though its location north of the city centre away from the action counted against it. It’s a long walk from the Riva. Steak aficionados now beat a path to the Chops Grill steak & seafood, a large and acclaimed restaurant just off Marmontova, the main shopping street that leads up from the seafront. A mouth-watering selection includes Argentine rib-eyes and Black Angus burgers, running all the way up to the gargantuan half-kilo Simmental beef T-bone. You can even start the day here – the American cowboy breakfast will set you up and then some.
While half the city seems to flock to Bačvice, a short walk east from the Old Town, its nightspots mobbed night after night, a more discerning, younger and most certainly local clientele goes west, to the two adjoining stretches of beach known as Zvončac and Kaštelet. They’re not here for the Meštrović Gallery right above, but for the DJ-driven party spot Jungla. Here local legend Pero Fullhouse spins tunes for an in-the-know crowd, usually without a tourist in sight. Just as a warm-up to the night’s carousing, a little bit further west, the bar Obojena Svjetlost is ideal for chilling by the sea, day and night.