The Essential Guide to Istria

While Dalmatia often gets the spotlight, the heart-shaped peninsula of Istria (on the northern end of Croatia’s Adriatic coast) is also worthy of exploration. Food lovers in particular flock to the region for its award-winning cuisine and abundance of fresh ingredients—Istria is home to Croatia’s first Michelin-starred restaurant, Monte, as well as some of the country’s best wineries. Those willing to dive even deeper will find UNESCO World Heritage sites, spectacular parks, postcard-worthy coastal towns, medieval hilltop settlements, and a cobalt sea full of Adriatic dolphins.

If you want to check out a real-deal agritourism operation (a family-run working farm), Tončić is the top choice. Located in a hilly hamlet in Istria’s bucolic interior, the farm not only has panoramic views of Čićarija mountain and the Mirna river valley, but also serves up succulent lamb and potatoes, roasted under peka (a traditional, dome-shaped baking lid). While most people come for the lamb, you should also try the handcrafted pastas, Istrian prosciutto, and dishes featuring game meat, truffles, and wild asparagus. The terrace is a lovely spot to linger over a meal, but should the weather not cooperate, the rustic interior with a fireplace is equally cozy. Be sure to make a reservation ahead of time.
Paladini 14, 52420, Buzet, Croatia
Some of the most fun you can have in Istria involves roaming the forests around the medieval town of Motovun with the Karlić family, hunting for truffles. Based in a tiny village near Buzet, the Karlićs have been in business since the 1960s—the third generation runs things today—and are veritable experts when it comes to finding both white and black truffles. During the family’s two-hour truffle-hunting experience, guests get to learn all about the tradition, the variety of truffles found in Istria, and the dogs trained to sniff for treasure underneath ancient oak trees. Plus, they get to taste a variety of different truffle products.
52425, Hum, Croatia
Not only does Humska Konoba have a covered terrace with dazzling views of Istria’s hill-strewn hinterland, but the restaurant is also located in one of the world’s smallest towns and serves some of the most honest, delicious Istrian cuisine you’ll find anywhere on the peninsula. Whether you opt for hand-rolled fuži (Istrian pasta), maneštra (a rich, local take on minestrone), or a fritaja (an omelet with truffles or wild asparagus in spring), you’re in for a treat at this hilltop favorite. Pair your meal with a shot of humska biska (mistletoe grappa) or a glass of Istrian teran (red) or malvazija (white) wine, then stick around to take in the marvelous vistas.
Trg Sv. Eufemije
For mind-blowing views of the Rovinj archipelago, visit this hilltop church and climb the bell tower, which features a copper statue of Saint Euphemia that rotates around its axis as the wind blows. On a really clear day, you’ll be able to spot the Alps in the distance. Afterward, explore the church itself. Constructed in the early 18th century, it’s a remarkable feat of Baroque architecture, with richly decorated altars, beautiful paintings, a marble sarcophagus with relics of Saint Euphemia, and a Venetian-style facade that was added in the late 19th century.
Go searching for Adriatic bottlenose dolphins on boat trips guided by local marine guides who are trained to track these spectacular sea animals and interpret their behavior. Excursions depart from Rovinj and head out to the dolphin-rich waters between Brijuni Islands National Park and the Lim Channel, lasting for up to three hours. On 90 percent of the outings, guests see dolphins—if they don’t, they get another trip for free. Whether you see dolphins spyhopping (raising their heads vertically out of the water), lobtailing (forcefully slapping their flukes against the surface of the water), or breaching (leaping out of the water and landing with a loud splash), you’re guaranteed a hugely fun afternoon.
Obala Pina Budicina 2, 52210, Rovinj, Croatia
At this small museum in a 17th-century town house by the sea, you can learn about the batana, the wooden, flat-bottom boat that’s long been a part of Croatia’s maritime heritage. Tour the interactive exhibits to discover fishing traditions kept alive through the centuries, like the bitinadas, or typical fishing songs. On the medieval pier of Mali Mol, which functions as the outdoor portion of the museum, you can see moored batanas and chat with the fishermen as they mend their nets. The museum also arranges boat trips guided by barkariaoli (boatmen) as well as traditional meals in the on-site Spacio Matika tavern, which features stone walls and wood-beamed ceilings.
Ul. Luje Adamovića 31, 52210, Rovinj, Croatia
A contemporary take on a classic 1970s Adriatic resort, Hotel Lone is Croatia’s first and only member of the Design Hotels network. The gleaming-white, Y-shaped building may sit amid the forests of Zlatni Rt Park (a 10-minute seafront stroll from the Old Town of Rovinj), but its five-story lobby forgoes nature for flowing golden fabrics, rich murals, and a suspended steel sculpture. The Scandinavian-style accommodations are decidedly more minimalist, with lots of wood and natural light aplenty—plus plunge pools on park-facing terraces in the 16 Jazz rooms. Facilities include an 18,300-square-foot spa with an indoor pool, eight treatment rooms, and a unisex sauna complex, as well as the stellar ResoLution Signature Restaurant.
Stancija Meneghetti 1, 52211, Bale, Croatia
Set amid olive groves and vineyards in the middle of the Istrian countryside, this typical stancija (homestead) is small—it has just four rooms and suites—but delightful. It first opened as an exclusive restaurant serving regional cuisine, wines from its own vineyard (one of Istria’s most renowned), and single-sort extra-virgin olive oils (made from indigenous olives and lauded for their quality). As its reputation grew, however, Meneghetti transformed into a boutique hideaway with rustic rooms—and a Relais & Châteaux designation, to boot. Lounge on the series of outdoor terraces, swim in the indoor and outdoor pools, and dine on creative dishes like bream sashimi and lamb chops with stuffed zucchini.
Whether you want to learn the secret to filleting fish, cook a traditional Istrian dish like žgvacet, or explore the peninsula’s top wineries, look no further than Eat Istria, run by food blogger Goran Zgrablić. The outfitter picks guests up in Pula and brings them to a family farm between Medulin and the village of Ližnjan, where they can enjoy a highly personalized cooking class on dishes like handmade Istrian pastas, or simply have a marenda (light lunch) in an olive grove. If you wish to travel farther afield, Zgrablić can also arrange for tours of Istria’s small, family-run wine cellars.
Flavijevska ul., 52100, Pula, Croatia
The sixth-largest Roman amphitheater still standing today, the Pula Arena is Croatia’s most magnificent classical monument—and reason enough to check out Pula, Istria’s main city. Built in the 1st century C.E. during the rule of Emperor Vespasian, this oval-shaped stunner once hosted gladiator fights and could hold up to 23,000 spectators. Today, visitors can roam freely through the small underground chambers and enjoy the sweeping ocean views. During the summer months, the arena doubles as the most imposing stage in all of Croatia, hosting several concerts and film festivals.
Kamenjak, 52100, Premantura, Croatia
Located on the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, this rugged nature park is the perfect place to set off with a backpack and be active for the day. You can follow in the fossilized footprints of the dinosaurs at Cape Grakolovac, visit an Istrian ox farm and have lunch at a family-owned agritourism operation, lounge at the funky seafront Safari Bar overlooking the Mala Kolombarica cove, ride a bicycle along the orchid trail, kayak or windsurf along the coast, or swim in coves with crystal-clear water. To learn more about the park, head to the House of Nature Kamenjak in the nearby town of Premantura.
Čimulje 25, 52100, Banjole, Croatia
Run by a family of fishermen, this tiny, no-frills tavern just south of central Pula is the place to go for exquisite seafood, with unique offerings like fish liver and salted dried roe. In fact, whatever the family catches during their morning run will likely end up on your plate, whether it’s fish tripe, catfish fries, or roasted bream skin. Be sure to make a reservation and bring enough cash, then keep an open mind—instead of a set menu, chef David Skoko will choose your dishes for you, picking from what the sea churned out that day.
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