9 reasons to stay in Split, Croatia

Split, Croatia's larger than life second city, is seriously remarkable. The heart of this sultry Mediterranean port is a 1,700 year old Roman palace. Far from being a museum piece, Diocletian's Palace is a thrillingly alive web of tight stone streets where old ladies hang out their washing in former state rooms and tourists stroll down streets smoothed by the sandals of Roman legionnaires, before joining the famously stylish locals reclining in cafes set in dreamy Roman courtyards.

Top reasons to stay in Split, Croatia © Tomasz Horowski - Fotolia.com
Top reasons to stay in Split, Croatia © Tomasz Horowski - Fotolia.com

Until recently most visitors just passed through Split to catch a ferry to one of the myriad Croatian islands. I've been coming to and writing about Split for two decades and if I had a kuna for every time I heard one of these unfortunate souls bemoan the fact that they didn't plan a stay I'd be building my own palace by now. Split instantly grabs you and compels you to stay longer.

Today the cruise ships are discovering Split and it's gaining cachet as a hip city break destination so I'd get in before it gets seriously busy. You can get to Split direct from Manchester Airport in summer 2017 with Thomas Cook Airlines in under three hours - just one of the many reasons for staying in Split when you go on holiday to Croatia.

1. That palace...

Diocletian's Palace really is something special. Delve in from the waterfront and you enter a brilliantly preserved Roman palace, fashioned by Emperor Diocletian for his own retirement. The streets are arrow straight, the columns, well, Roman, and the architectural flourishes enough to get visiting university professors very excited. Architect Robert Adam was so excited he was inspired to bring shades of Split to his own designs in both Bath and Edinburgh. The palace is pedestrianised and you can just lose hours strolling around with plenty of cafés to stop off in en route.

Courtyard at the heart of Diocletian's Palace, Split © Isabell Schulz - Flickr Creative Commons
Courtyard at the heart of Diocletian's Palace, Split © Isabell Schulz - Flickr Creative Commons

2. Relaxing on the Riva

The locals - the Splicani - like nothing better than a good pose and the epicentre of the people watching action is on the sweeping waterfront Riva. It was tarted up a few years ago and now functions as a slick catwalk where the evening promenade is a local institution. Make sure to pack your best designer clobber and cool shades before heading out to see and be seen. The wee upstairs terrace at Café St Riva is a sneaky little spot for catching the action.

3. Mestrovic Magic

Arguably Croatia's finest sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic, built a glorious villa and studio in his beloved Split. It is now the Mestrovic Gallery, which showcases some of his finest work, as well as sketches and other various insights into the great man. You can find Mestrovic's striking art dotted around Split with the most dramatic example the epic sculpture of Grgur of Nin, which lords it over a park just outside Diocletian Palace's Golden Gate.

4. Superb seafood

Croatia's Adriatic dishes up some of the finest seafood in Europe, and Split is a great place to sample these delights. An ideal place to start is at the fish market on the edge of Diocletian's Palace. Mornings see frenetic activity here as the fresh catch of the day arrives and is furiously haggled over. Look out for the little bar, Buffet Zlatna Ribica, which overlooks the market. Here you can join the market workers nipping in for simple fried fish dishes. I recommend coming back at night to dine at Nostromo next door. Order the groaning platter of grilled Adriatic seafood, laden with such delights as white fish, squid, prawns and mussels. It's best washed down with the crisp local white wine, Posip.

Grilled Adriatic squid with zucchini © Daniel Vincek - Fotolia.com
Grilled Adriatic squid with zucchini © Daniel Vincek - Fotolia.com

5. Retail therapy

You cannot fail to notice how well dressed the Splicani tend to be. Traditionally many citizens designed and made their own clothes, but these days most shop in the boutiques and stores that hide away within the walls of Diocletian's Palace and on the wide sweep of Marmontova. The palace also houses myriad wee craft shops and souvenir stores, while the lower level of the palace has stalls stacked with souvenirs.

6. Split has its own sport!

Yup, Split has its very own sport, picigin. I say a sport, but to be honest the main aim of it as far as I have been able to ascertain is that the local lads get a chance to pose around in the water battling hard to impress the local ladies. Imagine the beach volleyball scene from Top Gun with a hard table tennis ball instead of a volleyball and you'll get the idea. The best place to witness it is at Bacvice, the beach where picigin originated.

Saturday afternoon on Bacvice Beach, Croatia - photo courtesy of Split & Dalmatia County Tourist Board
Saturday afternoon on Bacvice Beach, Croatia - photo courtesy of Split & Dalmatia County Tourist Board

7. Buzzing nightlife

Split's nightlife is gloriously fun especially on long, languorous summer nights. Early doors it's all about a sundowner on the lifeblood Riva. Then the action moves into the hip bars of Diocletian's Palace. A wee insider tip is to head up the stairs to the little known second tier of the palace where a string of bars await and locals always outnumber tourists. Hide your guidebook and camera and enjoy a drink with the local cognoscenti at Ghetto Bar.

For late night revels it's back to the sprawling complex at Bacvice Bay. Diocletian's Palace starts to empty later on as a curb on noise kicks in to protect palace residents. Join the Splicani wandering behind the port to Bacvice Bay. Here a swathe of cafes, bars and restaurants batter on late into the balmy Adriatic night.

8. Catch a game at Poljud

Hajduk Split is a legendary name in European football. The team play their games at the incendiary Poljud Stadium, a striking modernist affair just back from the waterfront just outside the centre. If you can snare a ticket you can enjoy the febrile atmosphere and see the famously rabid Torcida fans in action. Big games against Dinamo Zagreb have the whole city captivated.

9. A brilliant base

Ok, I've been telling you what a great idea it is stay in Split and not just fire off to an island. I stick by that, but that doesn't mean you cannot use what is Croatia's busiest ferry port as a base for a few day trips out to some of the country's 1,244 islands.

Franciscan monastery on the nearby island of Hvar, Croatia © Nolte Lourens - Fotolia.com
Franciscan monastery on the nearby island of Hvar, Croatia © Nolte Lourens - Fotolia.com

For cool cats it's all about jet set favourite Hvar Town on the eponymous island, while beach bums will want to catch a fast ferry out to Bol on the island of Brac. If you like your isles rugged then Vis (think a Scottish isle in warmer waters) is the island for you. There is great world class scuba diving here at the famous Blue Grotto too.

Does the idea of staying in Split have you packing your bags? Thomas Cook Airlines' new route to Split from Manchester kicks off just in time for summer, letting you try these top tips for yourself while basking in some serious sunshine. Check out the weather in Split and remember to see when we think is the best time to go for ideal holiday weather.

Robin McKelvie

Robin McKelvie
Posted on Thursday 5th January 2017 in: City Culture Europe

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