Istria Travel Guide

Overview of Istria

Often referred to as “Terra Magica” and “The Little Tuscany,” the Istrian Peninsula is home to diverse landscape, long history, rich culture, and booming tourism industry that is putting Istria at the top of many travel lists. Get ready to be amazed by Istria’s stunning coastline, charming medieval towns and villages, ancient architecture, rolling vineyards and olive trees, exciting land and water adventures, delicious gourmet cuisine, and other unique experiences as you embark on your unforgettable visit to Istria. 

Come visit Istria and see for yourself why Istria is at the top of travel lists!

History of Istria

Istria has a long and rich history. The history of Istria reaches back to the age of the dinosaurs and beyond. Remains of those Mesozoic giants have been found throughout Istria, including at Brijuni National Park and near Bale. The oldest traces of prehistoric human life were discovered at the Sandalja site near Pula, dating back to the Paleolithic period about 800,000 years ago (Late Stone Age). Following the Ice Age, around 6,000 BC, the Neolithic era began (Early Stone Age) when ancient Istrians transitioned from nomads to settlers, building huts, the remnants of which can be found in south Istria to this day.

A mix of prehistoric tribes and clans inhabited Istria during the Bronze Age, throughout third and second Millenia BC, constructing hill-forts as dwellings. The Histrians, who gave rise to the name "Istria", were of Indo-European origin and inhabited Istria during the Iron Age. They were hunters and fishermen that raised goats and sheep, and traded with Greeks, as evidenced by traces of Greek pottery and culture found on the peninsula. Histrians also pirated in the northern Adriatic Sea, coming into conflict with the formidable Romans. Around 177 BC, the Romans arrived and took control of Istria, establishing major centers such as Pula, developing trade routes and roads, and architecture. The Roman era led to the development of culture, literacy, and art, with all inhabitants of Istria enjoying the same rights as Roman citizens. The Arena in Pula, the Arch of the Sergii, and the Temple of Augustus in Pula are some of the remnants from Roman times, paying homage to a peaceful, settled era through the fifth century.

In the second part of the fifth century, the Roman Empire fell under the rule of Ostrogoths. The Croats arrived at the end of sixth century and settled in Istria. The Byzantine Empire ruled Istria starting in sixth century for 250 years. The Euphrasian Basilica in Porec and Basilica of St. Mary Formoza in Pula are both from the Byzantine period. The Franks arrived in the 8th century and Istria became part of Charlemagne’s feudal state. Several centuries of turbulent history followed, with various German rulers controlling Istria until the 10th century when Istria became part of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 13th century, the Venetians took over the western part of the Istrian peninsula, continuing to rule until end of the 18th century. Many artists of that time visited Istria and left traces of their work. The inland region of Istria became part of the Habsburg Empire. The Habsburg Monarchy was formally unified as the Austrian Empire from 1804 to 1867 and as the Austro-Hungarian Empire from 1867 to 1918. In 1797, the Venetian part of the Istrian peninsula was taken by Austria which already controlled the remainder of Istria. From 1805 through 1813, Istria was under Napoleon's rule before it was handed back to Austria again.

With the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following World War I in 1918, Istria was given to Italy and remained part of Italy for 25 years until 1943. Thousands of Italians still live in Istria and most Istrians speak fluent Italian. After World War II, according to the Paris Peace Treaty of 1947, the territory between Novigrad and Trieste became the independent Free Territory of Trieste, while other parts of Istria were incorporated into Yugoslavia. Then in 1975, under the Treaty of Osimo, the current Istria became part of Croatia. Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia June 25, 1991, but agreed on July 7 during the Brioni Agreement to postpone its independence to October 8, the date which is celebrated as Independence Day of Croatia. The agreement, however, didn't stop the war between Croatia and Serbia. The war ended on November 12, 1995, with Croatia emerging independent and preserving its current borders. Croatia and Istria could finally return to the peaceful places they once were, blessed with a gorgeous coastline, beautiful mountains, and warm, industrious people, ready to again enjoy all the wonders held therein. Two decades later, Croatia continues to maintain a stable government, nurturing a respectable economy, and welcoming visitors eager to enjoy this marvelous land and culture.

Additional information about the history of Istria is available at Istria Tourist Board.

What to do in Istria

Selecting just a few places for Istria highlights is not easy considering the many historical landmarks, beautiful coastal and inland town centers, and the many other charms that make Istria so intriguing. Rather than being a comprehensive list of highlights to see, this is a list of highlights in Istria that you should not miss. 

  • Pula Arena: The Arena is one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters in the world and the sixth largest. It was built through different periods, starting in 27 BC, and finished in first century. The Arena is three stories high (almost 33 m), as is the Amphitheater in Verona, Italy, but the Pula Arena is much better preserved. It is 133 m long and 105 m wide, and could seat 20,000 people when built, but only around 5,000 today. Mock-gladiator fights still happen in the Arena and there are many concert and entertainment events scheduled in its open-air atmosphere, especially during the summer. While in Pula, also hop on the Pula bus for a tour through this fascinating city.
  • Brijuni National Park: Brijuni National Park is comprised of 14 islands off the SW coast of Istria in the vicinity of Pula. Brijuni is a Croatian National Park and a site of marine interest. Veli Brijun and Mali Brijun, the two largest islands, have been inhabited since prehistoric times, as evidenced by the many archeological sites and dinosaur footprints on the islands. Former Yugoslavia President Tito reserved Brijuni as his residence for over 30 years where he hosted meetings for other international leaders and visitors. The islands can be reached by ferry from nearby Fazana in 15 minutes or you can take sightseeing tour of the archipelago from Pula.
  • St. Euphemia Church in Rovinj: St. Euphemia church was built in 1756. Located on the highest point of Rovinj, St. Euphemia church was built in 1756. Relics of St. Euphemia are kept inside the church. Legend has it that in the year 800, the church bells rang in the morning as residents flocked to the sea to find a floating sarcophagus of St. Euphemia of Chalcedon who was killed on September 16 of year 304. Nobody could move the sarcophagus save for a young boy to whom St. Euphemia appeared in his dreams. To this day, September 16 marks Rovinj Day and St. Euphemia feast, celebrated with food and wine. This is just one highlight from Rovinj, the most picturesque town in all of Istria.
  • Euphrasian Basilica in Porec: The Euphrasian Basilica is a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture built by Euphrasius of Thrace, the Bishop of Porec, in the sixth century. It has been listed on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage List since 1997 and is the only historical site in Istria listed on UNESCO. While in Porec, also walk the streets of old town.
  • Motovun: Your Istria experience won’t be complete unless you also visit the distinctive hilltop towns of Istria. The view from the hilltops is astounding, as are the views from valleys below as you approach them. They all have their unique stories to tell, which kids, as well as adults, find intriguing. The most visited inland town in Istria is Motovun, located on an almost 300-meter hill with a view of the Mirna River valley and mysterious Motovun Forest. You can walk the walls of Motovun for a spectacular view of the world below. 
  • Groznjan: Not far from Motovun is Groznjan, the “town of artists.” Groznjan is packed with galleries and art studios. As you walk along the cobbled streets with stone houses, you can feel the artistic vibe. There are special events throughout the year but the town comes fully alive with jazz nights, classical concerts, and various other art events during the summer.

The Istria Tourist Board is a great resource for all types of information for travel in Istria. The helpful resources offered include calendar of events in Istriabrochures about what to see and do in Istria, and much more. 

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