Split is both Croatia’s second largest city and arguably its second most popular tourist destination, being the major transit hub for getting to nearly anywhere within the country. A modern city with shopping malls and shipyards, the Split of today is very much what you’d expect from a 21st century city. However at its core, Split is also still an ancient city whose history goes back at least several thousand years to when the ancestors of today’s Croats and Slavs were not even present in the region. It’s a bustling city filled with cool people and countless things to see and do for people of all ages. After Dubrovnik, Split is the one other destination in Croatia that a traveler must visit.
For the visitor, the old town of Split is where you’ll want to spend most of your time exploring. The city blossomed around the palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who lived there in beginning of the 4th century AD. The grand palace that he commissioned would soon become his mausoleum as well as a Roman administrative center for the surrounding region. In 614, the palace became a sanctuary to civilian refugees from the city of Salona who were fleeing the advancing Avar tribes. The city later went through two centuries of Byzantine rule until the Croat tribes began settling in the region. Then in 1409, the city fell under the control of the Venetians who were to leave a lasting imprint on the city’s architecture and cultural scene. In a sense the old town of Split is similar to what it was centuries ago; it’s still a labyrinth with boutique shops, craftsman, art galleries and of course, busy people scurrying about.
Main Attractions in the City of Split
Palace of Diocletian (main complex)
The Palace of Diocletian, the Roman Emperor who built and lived in it, is one of the best-preserved structures of the Roman empire outside of Italy. At it’s height, the palace was over 200 meters in length and nearly 180 meters wide. More of a fortress than the dwelling of a powerful ruler, the palace was defended by thick stone walls nearly 30 meters high contained several lookout towers. There were four entrances to the palace including the famous Golden and Silver Gates.
The Emperor himself only lived here for 8 years, mostly during his retirement until his death in 313 AD. After this, the site continued to serve as an important administrative center and home of several Roman governors of Roman Dalmatia until it was abandoned, most likely sometime in the 5th century. In the 7th century, the complex served as a last refuge for citizens escaping the Avar tribes who were marauding and pillaging the countryside at the time.
Today, the complex is home to many residents who live and work within what were once the walls of the palace. The area is popular with tourists for its many shops and nice restaurants.
An interesting fact about the palace is that scenes from season four of Game of Thrones were filmed here.
Baptistery of St. John / Temple of Jupiter
This building was originally Diocletian’s personal temple to the head of the Roman Pantheon, Jupiter (Zeus in Greek) but was converted into a church in the 6th century. Inside is a statue of St. John by the famous Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović. There are two tombs of note in the complex, the tomb of Bishop John from the 8th century and the also that of Bishop Lawrence from the 11th century.
Cathedral of St. Domnius
Occupying the same area of Diocletian’s Palace (see above) that was originally the emperor’s mausoleum, the Cathedral of St. Domnius is one of the most impressive religious structures in all of Croatia, both for it’s beauty and historical significance. The structure is unique in that it is laid out in the shape of an octagon and lined with two sets of Corinthian columns that number 24 in total. Most of these are actually from Diocletian’s original palace.
First consecrated in the 7th century, the cathedral is very much the way it is now as it was back then, the exception being the 60 meter bell tower that was built in stages between the 12th and 16th centuries. One can climb to the top for stunning views of what’s left of the palatial complex as well as the Adriatic Sea.
The interior of the church is just as cool as the exterior, with the Altar of St. Domnius and old wooden doors with artwork depicting scenes from the life of Christ. Presented in 28 Romanesque-style squares, these scenes were carved into the wood by the 13th century artist Andrija Buvina. You can also see murals by another famous Croatian artist, Dujam Vušković.
Across from the altar are other treasures including religious icons and old illustrated manuscripts. At the foot of the belfry are two lions and an Egyptian sphinx dating all the way back to the 15th century BCE.
The southern part of what was the mausoleum contain the remains of old Roman baths and a dining area with an old Roman-era mosaic.
The “Croatian National Revival Embankment” or, as it is affectionately called by locals, the “Riva” is Split’s main promenade and gathering spot for friends and families after a long day of work. If people watching is your thing, strolling down the Marmontova, the name of the white marble throughway, is your place in Split to do just that. The Riva is lined with white lampposts and palm trees that serve as the barrier between the shops and cafes and the seafront of this most lively of pedestrian zones.
The People’s Square (Narodni Trg)
At the center of the old town is the Norodni Trg, or People’s Square. This was where the village for the Diocletian’s palace support staff sprung up. By the 14th century, this area had become the center of life in medieval Split. Close by is where what’s left of the western entrance of the palace (known as the “Iron Gate”) is located. You can also see a very unique and life-sized statue of St. Anthony. What makes this statue unique, almost comical, is the little mini statue desperately clutching the Saint’s leg. This is supposedly a depiction of the sculptor’s patron. Apparently along with the statue, he also wanted to be remembered for all time.
Also worth a quick peek is the nearby Cambri palace, a stunning work of Gothic-Venetian architecture.
Radic Brothers Square
Close to the Riva you’ll find Trg Brace Radica, or the Radic Brothers Square. Here you will see the great Venetian citadel. The purpose of this imposing structure was twofold: to discourage the Ottomans from attacking the city and also to convincingly prevent the local Croatian population from harboring any thoughts of rebellion. Today though it is simply a vestige of Split’s past with a well-known juice bar now occupying the spot where soldiers once patrolled.
One can also see the famous statue of one of Croatia’s most beloved poets and the so-called father of the Croatian language, Marko Marulić, in the center of the square.
Matejuška is where one goes to see how one of Split’s main industries, fishing, permeates the daily life of the city. Less than a 10 minute walk from the end of the Riva, Matejuška proudly retains its working class character, though recently the area is going through an urban gentrification program that will soon transform much of it into a glitzy marble hangout similar to the Riva. In fact, the far side of Matejuška has already succumbed to this with newly renovated white marble walkways, a small pebble beach and spectacular views of the Riva and Split’s other waterfront districts.
At the eastern end of what had been Diocletian’s Palace is the Green Market, the place where locals and visitors alike shop for everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to cheap souvenirs and even cheaper cigarettes. Like the Riva, this is also another good place to simply people watch.
Dalmatia has had a thriving Jewish community at least since Roman times. This is evidenced by the clay menorah that was found in the ruins of the nearby city of Salona. A replica of this can be seen at the modest but vibrant synagogue in Split. It’s believed to be the third oldest synagogue in Europe that is still in use.
Like opera, ballet symphony or a good drama? Then visit the Croatian National Theatre in Split. The theater hosts nearly 300 events and performances every year including the famous Split Summer Festival.
Marjan Forest Park and Stairway
The beautiful Marjan Forest Park occupies a small peninsula that overlooks the city below. Located just outside the city and filled with tall pine trees, the park is as outdoorsy as you can get within the confines of the metropolitan Split area. Make sure to go up the famous Marjan Stairway where you can see amazing views of the Adriatic Sea and on clear days, Trogir, Ciovo, Brac, Hvar and Vis. You can easily spend a day here and it’s definitely worth your time once you’ve seen the main attractions inside the city of Split itself.
Museums in Split
If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and would prefer some time indoors, Split has several great museums that are worth venturing into.
What was once a medieval palace has now become a great museum that features cultural artifacts from the region including paintings and other works of art, jewelry, weapons, costumes, traditional clothing and other cool things from Dalmatia’s past. You can also visit the roof of the building and get another view of the city.
Museum of Croatian Archaeological Monuments
This museum was founded in 1893 in an effort to preserve the history and artifacts of medieval Croatia. There are thousands objects for view here including sculptures, weapons, historic manuscripts, tools and other cool things from the middle ages.
Visit the museum’s official site for more information, timings and visiting exhibits.
Split Archaeological Museum
Not to be confused with the Museum of of Croatian Archaeological Monuments (see above), the Split Archaeological Museum is considered to be the oldest of its kind in all of Croatia. Originally founded in 1820 and moved to it’s current location just over a hundred years later, the museum boasts a collection of well over a 100,000 objects and artifacts including ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, tile and glasswork, ceramics, clay lamps (reportedly 1600 of them) and an exquisite collection of rare gems from the area. The museum’s garden is also worth a visit to rest your mind after the archaeological overload that you’ll get from visiting this place.
Visit the museum’s official web site for more information regarding exhibits and timings.
Split Gallery of Fine Arts
What was once an old hospital is now the Split Gallery of Fine Arts. The center and museum features works by mostly Croatian artists from the 14th century up until today. Visit the museum’s web site for more details.
Ivan Meštrović Gallery
Designed by the artist himself, the Ivan Meštrović Gallery served at one time as Meštrović’s home, studio and now, a museum to commemorate his works. Ivan Meštrović was one of Croatia’s most famous artists and any true art lover should visit this museum before leaving Split.
Emanuel Vidović Art Gallery
This museum is dedicated to the works of Emanuel Vidović, a native of Split. Vidović was a Post-Impressionist painter and the museum is worth it if you’re into that sort of thing. More information can be found on the museum’s official website.
There’s plenty more about Split on the internet. Below are just a few of the resources and media that I found useful.
New York Times: 36 Hours in Split: Entitled 36 hours in Split, the video below gives one a quick view of some of the essential things that one should do when visiting Split. If photos are worth 1000 words, videos must be uncountable.
Go to the main page