A quick itinerary for Istria—including details on how to travel from Rovinj to Pula using public transport, and the best things to do in two of Croatia’s most beautiful Adriatic towns.
A day and a half.
Anyone who has been to Croatia will think I’m crazy for spending so little time in Istria, the Adriatic peninsular shared with Slovenia and Italy. While we have plans to return to the Dalmatian coast later in our trip (how could we miss Dubrovnik!?), a precious 36 hours was all the time we had to explore this part of Croatia.
In late February, Istria is sun-kissed, but with a bite in the air that still had me reaching for my beret. Both towns we visited were positively deserted on a crisp Sunday morning in February (it’s still the off-season, after all). Sure, it was too cold for water activities, and our food options were somewhat limited—but in all honesty, it was worth the trade-off to have those magical streets all to ourselves. Considering that up until a few days prior we hadn’t planned to stop off in this part of Croatia at all, we have no regrets!
On our quick visit to Istria we chose to base ourselves in the charming town of Rovinj and take a half-day trip to Pula to see the magnificent Roman Arena. Here’s how we did it—plus my top tips for the two towns.
In This Post:
Exploring Rovinj’s old town
Cafes, cobbler’s shops and polished stone alleyways. Pastel blocks pressed together, freshly washed linens billowing from every balcony. Wooden shutters thrown open to let the morning light in; the ring of church bells calling Rovinj’s residents up the hill for Sunday service. This was the Rovinj we found in on a sleepy winter’s morning in February.
An old Venetian naval base conquered by both the Byzantines and the Franks, Rovinj was part of Italy up until 1947. The town is still officially bilingual, with Croatian and Italian seen as equal. When viewed from above (or even from the outer edge of the harbour), the old town area appears to jut out on its own defined peninsular. That’s because Rovinj used to be an island before it was connected to the mainland in 1763.
Apart from visiting the main church, St. Euphemia’s Basilica, which sits at the highest point of Rovinj, walking around the main square and taking in the harbour, there’s not much else to do in this tiny town except get lost in its alleyways. It takes about 20 minutes to walk the whole old town area. Balbi’s Arch, one of the gates that formed part of Rovinj’s Venetian-built fortifications, is still standing, along with remnants of the city walls. Further afield, Lone Bay and the protected Zlatni Rt Forest Park offer nature walks.
One of the most interesting things about Rovinj is how the city meets the sea. In parts, it’s as if the buildings and squares are floating on the surface. Every few blocks you’ll see stone staircases leading from the street directly down to the ocean, beckoning commuters to take a quick detour and dip their toes in.
The Adriatic, never more than a few minutes’ walk away, sends a constant sea breeze through Rovinj’s alleyways, carrying with it the promise of open water. Apart from tourism, fishing is still one of the biggest industries in this part of Croatia. The evening tide literally laps at the doors of Rovinj’s apartment blocks. In the summer, bars and restaurants set their tables along the rocks that line the western-facing waterfront.
Rovinj’s inner streets are packed with restaurants and bars, gift shops peddling locally made products, leather workshops, galleries and artists’ studios. We found most businesses still shuttered in late February, but we didn’t much care. It was a pleasure to watch locals going about their Sunday, ducking into the farmers’ market off Valdibora Square to replenish their string baskets with blushing pink apples and bundles of fresh herbs.
Visiting Pula Arena & Roman ruins
Pula is so close to Rovinj, it makes sense to tack it onto your Croatia itinerary as a day or half-day trip. We spent about 6 hours in Pula and managed to see all the main sights.
Like Rovinj, Pula was once a Roman-controlled settlement and in fact, served as the administrative centre of Istria for a period. Pula is also located on the Adriatic coast but lacks the ocean views and harbour Rovinj is famous for. People flock to Pula for something entirely different: Its well-kept Roman ruins.
A freshwater supply and a sewage system were among the infrastructure developments the Romans gave to Pula. As in Rovinj, they fortified the city, erecting 10 gates including the impressive Arch of the Sergii, which can still be seen today.
Just inside the archway on the cusp of the old town is a monument to another famous Pula resident: Irish author James Joyce, who was a teacher in Pula in 1904. The Temple of Augustus sits forlornly in one of Pula’s main squares. Standing outside the Austro-Hungarian Fortress Verudela, built in 1886 atop a hill, you can get a good view of Pula and the a small section of the main Roman arena poking out above the city’s rooftops. The ruins of a smaller amphitheater lie just beyond the castle’s boundaries.
Pula’s main attraction is of course its Roman arena. The Pula Amphitheater was built between 27 BC and 68 AD on orders from Emperor Vespasian. As old as the Colosseum in Rome and almost as breathtaking, Pula’s arena is one of the six largest preserved Roman Amphitheaters in the world. The structure is of such historical value that during WWII, people were seriously considering dismantling and relocating the arena it to Italy.
The arches, passageways, tiered seats and galleries are hewn from local limestone. The elliptical field, 130m at its widest point, once hosted gladiatorial events for up to 20,000 spectators. Now the arena is used for festivals, sports events, and in the summer, gladiator reenactments as part of Pula’s Spectacvla Antiqva.
For a different perspective, visitors can go inside the Amphitheater—although I think the views from outside are majestic enough. The arena’s passageways house small exhibitions about Istrian history. Entrance costs 50 kuna/adult.
Fortunately, we showed up at the amphitheater just as the sun was setting. The arena is built on a slight incline, so climbing up the street behind the structure permits nice views looking down back down. The sun peeking through the arches and casting the arena as a silhouette was an absolutely magical sight. Better still, we shared the view with just a small handful of other people.
Istria travel info
If you’re on a Balkans road trip, driving around Istria is a piece of cake. If you don’t have a car, here’s how to get between Rovinj and Pula by bus.
How to get from Rovinj to Pula by bus
A lot of people self-drive or book a taxi from Rovinj to Pula, but it’s easy enough to visit using public transport. Pula is located roughly 45 minutes from Rovinj by road, due south along the Adriatic coastline. Multiple buses travel between the two cities daily. The weekend timetable is slightly paired-back, but we had no trouble getting around on a Sunday.
A few companies run the Rovinj to Pula route. Whenever we had the option, we travelled with Arriva in Crotia and Slovenia, simply because we found the buses comfortable, safe and generally punctual. Arriva’s 4.40am bus to Pula is the first of a dozen services throughout the day (note there are longer breaks in the timetable between 10am and midday, and midday and 2pm). The last bus leaves Pula at 8.45pm.
Tickets cost either 37 or 44 kuna/person depending on what time you travel. We paid slightly less (34 kuna/person) when we booked tickets online through FlixBus. Check the latest Arriva bus timetable and fares online here.
Coaches depart Rovinj from the city’s small bus depot ⚑. Staff at the station are friendly and helpful. There’s a luggage storage service if you need it, and a clean toilet you can use for 5 kuna. If you want snacks for the ride, you’ll find a bakery and grocery store nearby.
The bus station in Pula ⚑ is considerably larger. Ticket desks and TV screens displaying upcoming departures are located inside. Again, there’s a luggage storage service available for 5 kuna/hour.
Where to stay in Rovinj
In Rovinj, we stayed in this Airbnb studio apartment. The old town location is great, and our host, Massimo, was brimming with local tips. The building is one of those classic Istrian homes where you have to pull the front door at night to stop the neighbourhood cats from wandering in. I got a kick out of opening up the old-school wooden shutters every morning.
First time using Airbnb? Follow this link to get $55 AUD off your first booking.
Where to eat in Rovinj & Pula
Most restaurants and cafes were shut during our visit to Istria, but we still ate some fantastic food in both Rovinj and Pula.
- La Vela ⚑ Popular with locals, this Rovinj restaurant serves wholesome, home-cooked Croatian meals. Portions are large, and the terrace dining area out front is lovely (no sea views, sadly). The location is central but it’s tucked far enough away from the main tourist area that the prices are very reasonable. We ate our favourite meal in Croatian Istria here.
- Orfej ⚑ Another local eatery, this pub was the only place open in Pula on a Sunday in February. Having planned to eat somewhere else, initially we were a bit disappointed—but our uncertainty quickly turned to joy the moment our food arrived! The thin-crust pizzas are spectacular (I recommend the house specialty with prosciutto), and they also serve simple meals like chicken or turkey fillet with chips (sounds bland, but it’s delicious). Again, prices are very reasonable. Another huge plus: Staff here are super friendly.
More fantastic places to visit in Croatian Istria
If you have more time in Istria, here are a few places I’d love to check out next time I’m in Croatia.
- Hum, AKA the world’s smallest village, is home to just 30 people. Its location in central Istria, about 70km from the coast, makes it possible to visit as a quick day trip from Rovinj or as a stopover on your way to Zagreb.
- Motovun is another quaint Istrian village situated north of Rovinj, close to the Slovenian border. The settlement sits atop a mountain and is only accessible via 1052 steps!
- Opatija was a popular seaside resort in the 1800s and is filled with Habsburg-era villas—many of which now lay abandoned. The city is located in the crook of Istria, right at the point where the peninsular meets the mainland.
- Cape Kamenjak National Park has no fewer than 23 stunning beaches and would be the perfect addition to a summer Istria itinerary. It’s located right at the bottom of Istria, roughly half an hour’s drive further south from Pula.
Where to next? Look out for my upcoming guides to Piran, Slovenia’s Istrian city (just 90 minutes away by bus), and Zagreb, Croatia’s capital (3.5 hours away by bus).
Istria in the off-season: Things to consider before you go
- Many (I’d say 75 to 80 percent) of restaurants and cafes are closed during the off-season. Most signs we saw indicated that businesses would re-open in the first week of March. I suspect things don’t kick into full swing until after Easter. If you’re travelling to Istria for the food, consider visiting in spring instead when everything is open.
- Similarly, many of the small gift shops and workshops in Rovinj were closed in February.
- In February, the water is still slightly too cold for swimming. Additionally, most boat companies aren’t running their usual tours, which limits your activity options significantly.
- Pula Arena closes early in winter at 5pm. Make sure you factor this in when planning a visit. Opening hours and more visitor’s info here.
- Transport services run as normal in shoulder and off-season (apart from on public holidays). In terms of transport, February is actually an ideal time to travel in Istria, as the buses are very quiet and it’s easy to get a seat.
- Accommodation in Rovinj (and probably elsewhere in Istria) is significantly cheaper in the off-season. There’s also a lot more availability—another plus for visiting in February.
Have you travelled from Rovinj to Pula? What are your tips for visiting Croatian Istria? What other Istrian towns should I add to my list for next time? I’d love to hear your recommendations!