Istria’s historic main city of Pula is symbolised by its Roman amphitheatre, scene of a surprisingly wide range of outdoor events every summer. Festivals of film and electronic music, and concerts by everyone from Elton John to José Carreras, fill the 2,000-year-old arena, with its near intact walled ring. Roman remains also form Pula’s city centre, dominated by a hilltop Venetian fortress. With docks rather than beaches nearby, many head south for out-of-town seaside fun in Verudela and Medulin.
RECOMMENDED: more great things to do in Pula.
Done something on this list and loved it? Share it with the hashtag #TimeOutDoList and tag @TimeOutEverywhere.
You can also find out more about how Time Out selects the very best things to do all over the world, or take a look at our list of the 50 best things to do in the world right now.
The full list
It doesn’t require much imagination to conjure up the gladiatorial battles that would have taken place in Pula’s Amphitheatre 2,000 years ago. In fact, you can even stand in the tunnels and corridors where warriors and lions were kept before entertaining crowds of up to 25,000. Built over the course of a century, the Amphitheatre was given its final touches in AD81 by the Emperor Titus, also responsible for the Colosseum in Rome. Today Pula’s is more intact, boasting a near complete ring of walls. It is also in regular use, staging the Film Festival, the opening night of electronic music bash Outlook, Dimensions and big-name concerts.
Having helped win the Battle of Actium in 31BC, the high-ranking Sergii family built a triumphal arch to themselves in Pula. The Arch of the Sergii remains the main gateway into what is now Pula’s historic centre, virtually intact after more than 2,000 years. Today’s pedestrians walk below its portal to access ulica Sergijevaca, somewhat incongruously passing a branch of Spanish clothing chain Mango. Closer inspection of the historic landmark reveals details relating to the events of 31BC, the names of the Sergii clan inscribed on the columns, and a chariot on the frieze.
Abandoning Dublin in 1904, writer James Joyce and his new love Nora Barnacle headed for the bright lights of Zürich. Instead, the couple would spend their first European winter in Pula, Joyce teaching English to Habsburg naval officers. He was hardly fulsome in his praise of the city, which he and Nora left for Trieste the following spring. Despite this, a convivial Pula café is keen to play up this historical circumstance, calling itself Uliks (‘Ulysses’) and placing a statue of Joyce surrounded by bar tables on its terrace.
The main destination in Istria for watersports, Medulin spreads out around a twisting promontory a short drive (or bus ride) south-west of Pula. Dotted with campsites and resort hotels, Medulin offers all kinds of activities on and, to a lesser extent, off the water. You can charter a boat or learn how to sail, dive with varying degrees of difficulty, windsurf, surf, waterski, jetski or just jump on an inflatable banana boat.
Conservationists were probably not on the municipal committee that decided to build a modern residential block over a fine Roman mosaic dating from the third century – and a car park beside it. Once impossible to find for the first-time visitor, this wonderful artwork six metres wide and 12 metres long has now been provided with a small sign, at least, saying, ‘Rimski mozaik Kažnjavanje Dirke’ and given the address of Sergijevaca 16 on google maps. Once the living-room floor of a well-to-do Roman citizen, the mosaic depicts the Legend of Dirce, a Dionysian niece-slayer.
Calling itself ‘an exhibition space for contemporary photography’, the evening-only Galerija Makina near the Pula waterfront offers a regularly changing calendar of challenging art. Run by Hassan Abdelghani, a photographer himself, in 2017 the gallery staged shows with New York, a women’s prison and motherhood as their themes. Displays are not limited to photographic paper – video works are also included, such as ‘Nothing New Under The Sun’ by award-winning Austrian Michael Goldgruber scheduled in September 2017. Opening nights are key events in the local cultural scene.
With a prime location on the focal Roman forum, Cvajner does justice to its surroundings, filling a former bank with tastefully arranged retro furniture, objets d’art and bohemian finds. Its alternative name is the Kunstcafe. But there’s more to Cvajner than wacky design beneath high ceilings. Offering the best coffee in town, Cvajner also has the best selection of beers, from Belgium, Germany and beyond, and cooling fruit cocktails in summer. Throw in a shaded terrace beside the Renaissance City Hall and 2,000-year-old Temple of Augustus, and you several compelling reasons to start, or end, the day here.
Pula’s party venue of choice since 1965, Uljanik puts on DJs pretty much every weekend, offering affordable nights out to its fun-focused regulars. Sat near the shipyard of the same name, the club comprises a huge dance floor, and outdoor stage and courtyard for the occasional live act. If you’re after a sophisticated evening, this may not be the right choice, but for a messy night with a vague theme to it, Uljanik’s the one.
With 14 choices of malvasia alone, the Enoteca Istriana on the Forum is Pula’s go-to venue for regional wines. Sommelier Alena Stuparić has selected the red Teran range – from Marko Geržinić, Gianfranco Kozlović and Franc Arman – with equal care and attention. Both an outlet and a bar, the Enoteca is also the place to taste the famed Istrian prosciutto and olives. Knowledgeable staff are on hand to guide the uninitiated, and a small array of samples might be the way to start any visit.
In a secluded spot by the naval cemetery outside of the city centre, Milan has been the gold standard for quality dining in Pula over many years. Reassuringly pricy but by no means extortionate, this family-run concern is the kind of place that allows you to indulge in one holiday splash-out. Shellfish is the way to go here, and most dishes involve the own-made olive oil produced within close range of the restaurant. Much like the menu, the wine list is extensive and focused on Istrian produce. Milan is also a three-star hotel, so if you’re making a night of it, you can even stay over.
An arts and community centre set in a former military school for the Austro-Hungarian army, Rojc is Pula’s main venue for underground culture. Home of a myriad NGOs, Rojc initially became notorious for the rave parties that were held here, not long after it was abandoned by the Yugoslav Army and pressed into service to house refugees in the 1990s.Today there is a more organised feel to proceedings, an agenda, in fact, of exhibitions, films, talks and conferences, with a little music thrown in.
Unlike the main markets in major Croatian cities such as Split and Dubrovik, Pula’s is housed in a historic building with a distinctive architectural style. Constructed out of wrought iron by the Habsburgs, Pula Market was unveiled before city dignitaries on 18 October 1903. Around the impressive creation of metal and glass, they planted rows of chestnut trees to provide shade, where outdoor stalls were also set up. A complete six-month rebuild in 1997 remained true to the original while improving conditions of storage, refrigeration and ventilation. Traders still fill two floors with meat, fish and sundry local produce, while fresh fruit, vegetables, honeys, wines and oils can be found outside under the ever-present chestnut trees.
Home of fascinating Illyrian, Roman and medieval finds, the Archaeological Museum of Istria has a history all to itself. Originally set up in the 1800s as a Museum of Antiquities, the establishment went through several changes of location before settling here, in the shadow of Pula’s hilltop Venetian fortress. In the meantime, it also added a substantial prehistoric department, one that gives this three-floor collection a more rounded feel. Given Pula’s rich Roman heritage, the Amphitheatre-era glass, pottery and sculptures will always be popular, but leave time for the artefacts from the Bronze Age and beautiful medieval calligraphy in bizarre local Glagolitic script.
Located in this adapted space of a former printing works since 2011, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Istria has been staging regular exhibitions while working on setting up a more permanent home within the Venetian fortress. The latest date for relocation is 2020. In similar vein, the museum, known by its Croatian acronym of MSUI, has a somewhat flexible structure, broken down into four main areas. These include Designs & Posters, and Photography, Film & Video, as well as Contemporary Art and Foreign Art. Temporary shows tend to focus on Istrian artists, such as internationally renowned Zdravko Milić, by way of recent example.
When the Venetians wanted a defensive fortress built here, they turned to French military architect Antoine de Ville. Best known for his star-shaped citadel at Montreuil in the Pas-de-Calais, de Ville created a similar construction for Pula. On the lofty site where the ancient tribe of Histri built their fort, the four-pointed fortress now protected Pula’s port. Today it provides fine views of the historic centre to one side and the cranes of the nearby shipyard to the other. Sadly, you won’t be able to see much of the Roman theatre that once stood below – its stones were put to good use here in the 1630s.
Croatia doesn’t go in for hands-on, interactive aquariums. The ones you find are strictly old-school, concentrating on the sea life of nearby waters. Pula’s, however, is slightly different. Set in the echoing halls, corridors and even moat of the Habsburg-built fortress in Verudela, Pula Aquarium has made it its mission to save the endangered sea turtle. Numbers of the adult female green turtles in Mediterranean waters are said to be in the hundreds. Setting up a rescue centre, the museum runs educational programmes alongside its regular duty of presenting Adriatic, European and tropical marine and freshwater sealife to the public.
Renovated in 2011, the venerable Stadion Aldo Drosina, close to the Rojc arts centre and Vodnjanka restaurant, is the home of local football club Istra 1961. Currently a top-flight outfit, Pula’s main team runs out in the city’s traditional colours of yellow and green. Russian ownership failed to work the kind of miracles witnessed at Chelsea, and now an American consortium is hoping to revive Istra 1961, inspired by Rijeka’s title win of 2017 that broke the Zagreb monopoly of Croatian football. For the time being, admission is laughably cheap, 40kn for the best seats, and availability is rarely a problem.
Pula’s Roman Forum was once fringed by three temples. While it remains the main square of the city’s historic centre, car-free and dotted with café terraces, the Forum now only has one: the Temple of Augustus. Standing next to the City Hall, which ate up part of the Temple of Juno, the Temple of Augustus is remarkably intact and considered one of the finest of its kind outside of Italy. Supported by elegant Corinthian columns, it beckons to be explored but its later uses, once as a granary, have cleared its interior of much historic detail. What you see is a lapidarium, with a display of Roman sculpture – but the thrill of being inside such as stately landmark built for and during the time of Augustus should satisfy most curious visitors.
The checked tablecloths, the payments in cash only and the mid-afternoon (and Sunday) closing tell you that you’re at a restaurant favoured by wallet-conscious regulars. A look at the menu, and its traditional, seasonal Istrian cuisine, with plenty of game in autumn and winter, confirms it. Then your meal arrives, perhaps pasta fužitwists with meat sauce, and you realise why locals come here – the food’s great. Vodnjanka is also close to the Rojc arts centre, so you might meet a few cultural types enjoying a similar cheap lunch.
Recently opened Epulon Food & Wine sits by Pula’s historic centre but this contemporary eatery is anything but staid. Smooth light wood and bare brick typify this open-plan, high-ceilinged establishment, offset by industrial-style lighting. Istrian tapas may be one way to describe the menu, although you may also find regional favourites such as fuži pasta with truffles, seafood spaghetti and the like. Portions are generous, particularly where burgers are concerned. Of the many Istrian wines, Tomaz from Motovun is the most prominent, rosé, Malvazija and Teran. Occasional live music augments your pleasant dining experience.
Istrian street food may be one way to describe Hook and Cook Pula, a convivial newbie right on the city’s main drag of Sergijevaca. As well as piscine renditions of quick-lunch favourites – tunasaurus, prawntilla, tuna steak burger – H&C offers marende, cheap lunches as once found all along the Croatian littoral. For under 40kn, you may be served sardines, tuna salad or brodet, best accompanied by a glass of equally affordable house red. The chips are also excellent – with a portion of fried calamari, your basic but delicious meal is complete.
Open until 2am and 4am all weekend, the summer-only Zeppelin Beach Bar attracts regular revellers from Pula to a stretch of beach right in Saccorgiana Bay. A music policy of electronica-only usually involves house or dubstep, though the ZBB can also be patronised by day, when you can find a table and welcome shade under the trees. Cocktails are the way to go here, all reasonably affordable so you’ll have enough for the taxi back into town.
Past Pula Airport, some 10km north-east of town, Nesactium was the main settlement of the original Histri tribe who would give the region its name. When the Romans laid siege to the town, legend has it that its leader, Epulon, and local families killed themselves rather than be taken prisoner. The Romans duly destroyed what was left of original Nesactium and they created a new town on its site, with a forum, baths and temples. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Nesactium later fell into disrepair. Today the site is an archaeological park, with remains of the walls built by the Histri tribe and the Romans, of a necropolis and the private villas where the better-off lived 2,000 years ago.
Tucked away amid a scattering of holiday homes some 2km from the sea, Farabuto takes some finding – but local taxi drivers are pretty familiar with it by now. The reason is seasonal – here, the menu changes according to the time of year. The team at Farabuto rely on small-batch local producers to supply meat, cheese and vegetables, the fish landed close by and within a relatively short time of it being treated to Belci or Šlajner olive oil. This is the place to try the famed langoustines from Kvarner Bay or, a rarity in these parts, goat – according to season, of course.
In the homely surroundings of the Konoba Boccaporta, the motto in the local vernacular is Lipa besida dopire saka vrata – ‘A nice word opens the door’. Braised on hot coals, boškarin beef and octopus are deliciously succulent and served with seasonal vegetables, all the kind of quality you might find at dining establishments that can and do charge more. Despite the rustic setting, Boccaparta only dates back to 2014, Toni Draguzet and his family setting the tone with a roaring fireplace and wooden beams. It’s all a fair stroll south-east of town but worth the taxi journey.
Facing the ACI Marina, the recently opened Shipyard Pub is helping bring to life Pula’s rather moribund waterfront, staging regular parties, live music and DJs in a stylish, tastefully post-industrial setting. Celebrating the history of the Uljanik shipyard through a chronological photographic exhibition, this popular pub allows students, young professionals and everyday locals to mingle around a long bar counter or outside in summer. It’s a huge space – but was packed to the gills for the World Cup in 2018.
Running weekly over the whole summer except during the Pula Film Festival, Spectacvla Antiqva uses Pula's venerable amphitheatre to bring Roman history and civilisation to life, and use it as the backdrop for gladiator fights with real weapons, workshops and displays of ancient clothing and hairstyles, all with narrative explanation. Admission is 80kn, 40kn for children.
The Ancient Romans processed olive oil in Pula and here, at the House of Istrian Olive Oil near the Arena, you can see how this was done 2,000 years ago. Compared with production today, the only difference is in the technology – the tastes, aromas, chemical compositions and health benefits remain pretty much the same, as a visit here will reveal. Find out from an expert as they show you how to recognise top-quality extra virgin olive oil, an Istrian speciality. Leading brands are available in the museum shop, along with truffles, lavender and Mediterranean plant-based cosmetics.
Pula's latest and perhaps most unique attraction is so-called Zerostrasse, accessed at Carrarina Nos.1 and 3. A series of tunnels built to protect Pula citizens during air raids – originally for World War I but also for World War II – these passageways are some three to six metres wide and 2.5 metres high. If you're visiting in summer, you might enjoy the cool – the temperature never rises above 20oC. Today a part of the tunnel is used for exhibitions, cultural gatherings and parties.
On Kaštel, the hill dominating Pula, stands the newly renovated Museum and Gallery Sveta Srca, named after the Holy Order who built this church of the same name in 1908. Closed after World War II, the church was eventually taken over by the Archaeological Museum of Istria. Its long renovation eventually provided Pula with one of Croatia’s most spectacular and prestigious exhibition spaces for high-profile, temporary shows. The stunning light-filled interior plays host to a rich menu of special-interest history exhibitions, contemporary art installations and other cultural events.
Lighting Giants is the unique work of creative designer Dean Skira, who brings Pula's Uljanik Shipyard to life by illuminating its cranes. A sophisticated remote control system governs the lighting and scenography, and involves some 16,000 different color combinations.
This spectacular show and lighting display runs every evening from dusk until 10pm, and until midnight in summer, with different combinations for special occasions, holidays and events.
At the highest point in Pula, the Historical & Maritime Museum of Istria has occupied this adapted Venetian fortification since 1955. Several departments – Pula, medieval and modern Istria and maritime – do a comprehensive job of explaining local and regional development. What makes this institution stand out is its niche collections, of old photographs, coins, insignia and uniforms, among other things. With a fascinating trove of photographs, videos and maps, and given the patchwork past of this port, ruled by Habsburgs, Italians and Socialists in less than 50 years, this makes for a very worthwhile visit indeed.
The Brijuni archipelago lies off Istria’s west coast, a 15-minute boat journey from Fažana, just north of Pula. Most of the 14 islands are off limits to the public. Luckily, there is so much to see on the other two that you’re unlikely to feel hard done by.
Veliki Brijuni is the largest and contains the vast majority of local treasures. Beautiful and vaguely surreal – English country estate meets Jurassic Park – it consists of hectares of well-maintained, green parkland surrounded by the dazzling Adriatic and planted with avenues of prehistoric-looking pines. This is where you’ll find a golf course, bird sanctuary, botanical gardens, zoo and safari park, three museums and the main archaeological sites. A map of the islands is posted at its harbour – including details of where to find the dinosaur footprints that dot the shoreline.
Brijuni had to wait until 1893 before it was rescued by Austrian steel magnate Paul Kupelwieser. He excavated Roman treasures, built villas, planted trees, landscaped gardens, built the first 18-hole golf course in continental Europe and even established a zoo. Kupelwieser had, in fact, created his own Xanadu – but he died in 1918.
Brijuni later passed into the hands of Mussolini’s Italy. After World War II the Brijuni archipelago, along with the rest of Istria, became part of Tito’s Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav leader used Brijuni as his base, conducting diplomacy with the Non-Aligned Movement and inviting the world’s rich and famous to his idyllic playground. As you step onto Veliki Brijuni’s quayside you are following in the footsteps of Haile Selassie, Queen Elizabeth II, JFK, Sophia Loren – anyone who was anyone in the 1960s. You can see them documented in the ‘Josip Broz Tito On Brijuni’ exhibition.
A tourist train pootles around the main island for you to see most of the attractions at one go.
The archipelago and surrounding waters were proclaimed a national park in 1983, served by a frequent shuttle boat from Pula 6km away.
As a new feature, a walking tour has been devised for you to experience how Pula would have looked like 2,000 years ago. Equipped with VR glasses and a digital map, you stroll through the old city centre, stopping at seven viewpoints to don your VR glasses and immerse yourself into the visual and auditory experience of Roman Pula. Points include the Triumphal Arch of the Sergi, the Forum and the Arena. VR tours come with a specialised guide (360kn), or self-guided (190kn) versions are available. Tours run from May to October, booked through the website or from the Dolija Olive Oil shop at Narodni trg 3.
Running over four Saturdays from May 25, the annual Days of Antiquity - Pula Superiorvm festival transforms Pula into Ancient Rome, with gladiators in the Arena, attractive women wandering around the Forum in Roman dresses and hairstyles, and indulgent gastronomy, all backdropped by imaginative displays of sound and light.
Upscale snacks and drinks are the main attraction here, inventive bruschettas, fine wines and gin-based cocktails with high-end base spirits. Halfway between the Venetian citadel and the marina, you’re also in historic part of Pula, lending a little atmosphere as you sip your Aperol spritz and nibble on a truffle tapa.
On a quiet street behind the Pula Arena a short walk away, Kod Kadre serves massive, but massive, portions of classic Balkan meat dishes, with all the trimmings. Prices are fractionally higher than you’d pay at a completely rock-bottom local corner grill, but you’re also getting a little extra quality in terms of salads, ajvar and comfort. The menu is also a little more extensive, with schnitzel and mixed grill options. Come with an appetite.
Way down in the watersports hub of Pomer, the Konoba Istriana knows how to handle boškarin ox, scampi and, perhaps the key to why diners come down here from Pula, a peka lid. Succulent seafood and meat dishes are slow-cooked in hot coals, an option you’ll need to order a day in advance. Whatever can be home-made, is, such as the pasta, while the prosciutto and vegetables are sourced from close to home. Amalija and Milan Kerniat keep a cosy spot, operating year-round, closed lunchtimes and Wednesdays in winter.
This pub-like drinking destination is where to come to watch the match, two big screens set up around the long bar counter lined with tall stools for pint drinkers. There’s a kitchen, too, burgers, ćevapi and grilled fish enjoyed inside and out, a terrace of red-checked tabletops either covered or catching the sun, as you wish. At the foot of the Venetian citadel, it’s all a short walk from the marina and most of the Roman sights. Even in winter, it’s almost a 24-hour operation, opening for (very) early morning coffee and closing way past midnight.
Opened just in time to catch the season in July 2018, Piazza Nove does the simple things right, and its location by the Temple of Augustus in the heart of historic Pula keeps the punters coming in. Hulking great burgers are served with fresh accompaniments and a bowl of tasty, hand-cut chips, or you could opt for something more local and order up a platter of scampi, mussels and blitva. The salads are generally excellent and, given the rows of tables catching the sun in outside, the Piazza Nove is more suitable for lunch after a morning of traipsing around the Pula Arena and waterfront. Kapitolinski
Attached to the four-star boutique hotel of the same name with spa and outdoor pool, the Oasi is unsurprisingly classy, the kind of place that makes it worth the taxi journey from town if you’re not staying down here by the marina. Cream of shrimp soup is embellished with fresh black truffles, that’s home-made gnocchi with the beef ragout and Grana Padano cheese, the swordfish is marinated in olive oil and herbs while the fillet of sea bass comes in a sauce of sparkling wine. This is also one of the best spots in Pula for steak. Prices are very reasonable for the quality of fare, presentation and service, while the enclosed garden terrace lends a little intimacy.