Nestled on the Adriatic Sea with a mountainous backdrop, Split is the second-largest city in Croatia. It’s a beautiful city with an ancient old town. Holidays to Split Croatia should be included in every Croatia itinerary.
If Dubrovnik is Croatia’s beauty, then Split is her vivacious sister. Although less fairytale-like than Dubrovnik, it’s a vibrant city, juxtaposing the awe-inspiring old ruins and Romanesque architecture against the bustling excitement of the trendy seaside promenade. Diocletian’s Palace, a fortress complex in the center of the Old Town, is surely the highlight.
Split at a Glance
- Population: 178,192
- Language: Croatian
- Currency: Croatian kuna
Brief History of Split
Split was founded as the Greek colony of Aspálathos in the 3rd century BC. After the Sack of Salona by the Avars and Slavs, the fortified Palace of Diocletian was settled by Roman refugees. Split became a Byzantine city and subsequently, it drifted into the sphere of the Republic of Venice and the Kingdom of Croatia.
Over the centuries, Split has endured invasion and rule from Romans, Venetian, Ottomans, French, Italy, Austro-Hungarian, Germany, and post-war Socialist Yugoslavia.
In 1991, Croatia seceded from Yugoslavia during the Croatian War of Independence.
When to Visit Split
Like most of Western Europe and the Balkans in particular, Split is very crowded and prices are higher in the summer months of June through August. On the plus side, it’s also very festive with an average temperature of around 78°F. Tourists can enjoy the Days of Diocletian festival when the streets of Split are filled with guards decked out in authentic Roman attire and Diocletian comes back from the dead to address the city.
Shoulder seasons of April to the beginning of June offer nice weather (though probably not for swimming) and fewer crowds. September – October would be similar.
Because of the mild Mediterranean climate, winters are not terribly cold (average temperature of 45°F). I cannot recommend it because I’m not a fan of winter, but you may feel differently. You’d certainly face less tourism.
Where to Go
For sure, how you spend your day in Split depends on what the rest of your Croatia itinerary looks like. If you’re heading inland to Plitvice National Park or south to the stunning medieval city of Dubrovnik, then you might want to spend a bit of time on Split’s beaches.
Alternatively, if you’re island hopping in Croatia’s Dalmatian Islands, then you’ll want to spend more time exploring Split’s old town.
I spent one day in Split after my cruise to the Dalmatian Islands of Korcula, Hvar, Brac, and Mljet. Because it’s such a compact, walkable destination, you can easily see the highlights in a day.
Here are my recommendations for how to spend one day of holidays in Split Croatia.
1 Diocletian’s Palace
Before you do anything else, head to Split’s highlight attraction. Diocletian’s Palace, the beating heart of Split, remains mostly intact, forms the core of the old city and was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. While many older European cities have castles and fortified churches from the medieval period, Diocletian’s Palace is more than a thousand years older.
Split gained fame after the infamous Roman Emperor Diocletian who ruled between AD 284 and AD 305 and started building his retirement palace there. Diocletian raised himself from low birth through military prowess and finally to the emperor. He died of natural causes (unusual in those times), and was the first emperor to retire voluntarily.
Don’t expect Diocletian’s Palace to be a castle; its 200 buildings with four entry gates were constructed to be more like a fortress but it’s actually an amalgamation of an imperial villa, military citadel, and Roman military camp. Half of the marble-street palace was used for the personal use of Diocletian and his decadent tastes, and the other half was used to house his military. At its peak, Diocletian’s Palace housed over 9,000 people and included watchtowers, gates, military encampments, and residential villas.
The southern façade of the palace was formed by a high wall rose rising directly from the Adriatic Sea, without a tower. Diocletian designed it this way so his ships could enter directly into the palace through the seaside gate. The Palace was eventually abandoned and is now considered among the most well-preserved remnants of a Roman palace.
While you can certainly walk through the palace and surrounds on your own, I would suggest signing up for a guided walking tour because the history of the ancient structure is fascinating and you’ll miss many insightful details.
If you have time, go into the basement substructures, one of the filming locations for numerous scenes in the HBO hit series Game of Thrones.
2 St. Domnius Cathedral Bell Tower
Just outside the palace complex, the Cathedral and Bell Tower of St. Domnius (St. Duje) are among the top tourist attractions in Split. The octagonal St. Dominus was created as a mausoleum for Diocletian back in the year 311 and is the oldest cathedral building in the world. Diocletian despised and persecuted Christians, so it’s ironic that his mausoleum which contains his remains was converted into a Christian church in the 7th-century.
Travelers visit the building to see one of the world’s best-preserved examples of Roman architecture including the original ring of 24 supporting columns.
The Cathedral of St. Domnius is still in use today, holding mass every Sunday.
The bell tower, built in the 12th century, is dedicated to St. Domnius. To get a nice overview of the old town, climb the stairs of the bell tower. Be advised that the staircase is extremely narrow and if there’s someone coming the other way, it could be very… intimate.
The Vestibule was once the formal entrance to the emperor’s palatial residence. This circular hall was once covered by a dome, and only the aristocracy was allowed into the impressive meeting hall. During Diocletian’s days, the vestibule was used as an entry, but nowadays it is visited for its fine architecture and acoustics.
The public square of the palace –the Peristyle– is a real Roman Court and one of the most vibrant plazas in the Balkans. People gather here day and night to eat, drink, chat and enjoy music and the festive ambiance. A peristil is a long continuous porch formed by rows of dramatic columns surrounding a courtyard. The great court is one of the most photographed spots in the city.
The Peristil is where Diocletian made his public appearances demanding that his subjects prostrate themselves in front of him.
Fully costumed Roman soldiers can sometimes be seen walking through the square, and if you’re lucky (as I was!) they’ll let you get a photograph for free (although they usually charge).
5 Grgur’s Toe
Just outside of the Golden Gate of the Palace you’ll find the statue of medieval bishop Grgur Ninski, sculpted by Ivan Meštrović, a very famous Croatian sculptor, architect and writer. The 10th-century Croatian icon is known for defying the pope and spreading a Croatian branded Christianity in the region.
Legend has it that if you rub his big toe, it will bring you good luck and ensure a return visit to Split.
6 Old Town
If you’ve taken either a walking or self-guided tour of Diocletian’s Palace, then you’ve literally walked through the old town. However, there’s more to it than just looking at the major historic landmarks.
While it’s not as clearly defined as Dubrovnik’s walled old town, it is spread out in such a way that you can wander pleasantly around the labyrinth of alleys, passing small locally-owned shops and residences. It might seem like a maze at first, but if you get a map from the Information Center, you’ll find it relatively easy to navigate.
We did a guided tour, but if you want to do your own, I recommend you start at the scale model of this historic center on the Riva as we did. Then head west along the Riva, along what looks like an old city wall but is actually the south façade of the Palace. The path leads to a number of charming piazzas and then you can go back into the Palace itself if you like.
7 People’s Square
People’s Square (Pjaca) has represented Split’s social life, since medieval times. Just outside of Diocletian’s Palace, the white marble-paved square is anchored by the Old Gothic Town Hall, the clock tower, and the 120-year-old fish market. Pjaca also hosts outdoor cafés, restaurants, and shopping areas, and has live entertainment wafting out of the busy bars at night.
On a Romanesque tower in a corner of the piazza is the city clock, which dates from the 15th century and contains the remains of a medieval sundial. It’s remarkable in that the clock’s face shows 24 hours instead of the usual 12.
8 Riva Promenade
As much as I enjoy exploring ruins and old towns, I think I fell in love with Split while on the Riva. Catering to tourists, the attractive palm-fringed Riva harbor promenade is situated in front of Diocletian’s Palace but has a totally different, trendy vibe. The pedestrian-only esplanade is lined with trees, cafés, restaurants, boutique shops and lively nighttime bars. Here you can sip a cocktail (or rakija, the strong regional spirit) overlooking the bustling port, watch a romantic sunset, take a peaceful evening stroll along the promenade or simply sit on a bench to people-watch. Riva is also a public square, which hosts concerts and festivals.
9 Marjan Hill
If possible, take a short hike up Majaran Hill where you can ascend some 300 stairs to get panoramic views of Split and the Adriatic Sea. The lookout spot is part-way up the hill and includes a long stone railing which leads to a plateau and terrace where you can get some stunning photos of Split. For a nice foreground, try standing at the ruins of the church of St. Benedict which is located in the park; alternatively, if you can get there at sunset, it’s spectacular.
10 Bačvice Beach
If you are visiting any of Croatia’s nearby Dalmatian Islands, then you can skip the beaches in Split. But if not, the closest beach to Split is Bačvice beach – just a 10-minute walk from Old Town. It’s not as beautiful as the island beaches, but it’s a sandy beach (most of the others are pebbly) with beach bars and a party vibe. For all of these reasons, Bačvice gets very crowded in the summer.
If the weather is not good for the beach (or you prefer not to go) and you have extra time, you can drive outside the city and visit medieval Klis Fortress known as a filming location as the fortress of Meereen in Game of Thrones, featured in the fourth season where Daenerys Targaryen crucified evil slave masters.
If you have more time to dedicate to Croatia besides the islands, the best thing to do is rent a car and explore other great places such as Plitvice Lakes, Dubrovnik, and Trogir.
Exploring Split felt a bit like stepping into a time machine. Thе 1700-year-old bastion sprawled across Croatia’s Dalmatian соаѕt isn’t like anything else in the Balkans and well-worth a day (or more) of exploration.
IMPORTANT! Never travel to any foreign country without travel insurance! Random, unplanned things can happen. I was involved in a horrendous car crash in South Africa in 2014.
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About the Author
Patti Morrow is a freelance travel writer and founder of the award-winning international blog Luggage and Lipstick and southern travel blog Gone to Carolinas. TripAdvisor called her one of “20 Baby Boomer Travel Bloggers Having More Fun Than Millennials.” Patti is the author of the book “Girls Go Solo: Tips for Women Traveling Alone,” and has over 150 bylines in 40 print and online publications, including The Huffington Post, International Living Magazine, Washington Post Sunday Travel, Travel Girl, Travel Play Live Magazine, and Ladies Home Journal. She has traveled six continents looking for fabulous places and adventure activities for her Baby Boomer (and Gen X!) tribe.