No expectations. That’s the zone Matt and I were in the first time we traveled down the coast of Istria to Rovinj, Croatia. During that trip, eight years ago, our aim was escaping the tourist-clogged canals of Venice. While our love for Venice runs strong, we were in the mood for something different. We were in search of breathing space, cycling roads and running trails.
After consulting ferry schedules from Trieste, with a whim and southbound ticket, we set sail on the Adriatic for a destination we heard called by several different names – Rovigno (Italian), Rovinj (Croatia), and nicknames including Pearl of the Adriatic and Little Venice – yet, those monikers were the extent of our knowledge. A few hours later, as a tangle of red-tile roofs and Venetian silhouettes materialized in the distance, we wondered: could “mini-Venice” provide the breathing space we yearned to find?
What we discovered has inspired us to return no less than six times in the last few years. This Mediterranean-fishing-village turned tourist-destination offers a unique duality…
Rovinj offers an unmistakably Venetian heart, with the bonus of Istrian lungs.
And, while we always advocate slow, immersive travel, with four days/three nights you can experience a solid introduction to the artistic spirit and outdoor bounty of Rovinj. With more time, a multitude of day trips to award-winning wineries, olive oil farms and medieval villages are within easy reach via bus or daily car rental – plus, you will have the opportunity to sink into the relaxed way of life that Rovinj embodies so well.
As with much of coastal Croatia, young locals are often fluent in English, especially those working in the tourist sector (which is a high percentage), yet when visiting this country (or any country), it’s always appreciated when you learn a few words and phrases in local language, right? Nail these terms and you will make fast friends, we swear:
Croatian Cheat Sheet:
Dobro dan – good day
Used from morning until mid-to-late afternoon.
Dobra vecer – good evening
Used from late afternoon through early evening.
Dobro – good
Used ALL the time, like we might use “fine” or “okay.” This is your response to almost anything asked. “How is xxx?”. “Dobro.”
Hvala – thanks.
Wear this one out.
Molim – please.
Always used as a response to “hvala” or “thanks.”
Okay, now that you have a base in Croatian, here’s how to experience Rovinj almost like a local.
Rovinj is a town with rich soul and “lived-in” vibe. From fishermen hauling in fresh catch to dance school groups performing on the plaza, local life is on full display, even during the height of tourist season. Rovinj is also the kind of spot you ease into. Coffee culture and Italian influence run strong in Istria, so join the buzz at historic Batana Café, where the terrace is packed with locals sipping espresso and macchiato all day and into the evening. You get a view of the bustling harbor, packed with fishing boats and small charter vessels (FYI, this is also where you catch ferries to Red Island and Cat, aka Katarine, Island). Your soundtrack is all squawking seagulls. It’s a sublime spot.
You also have a view of the famed Balbi Arch, gateway to the historical center. (The arch is currently undergoing renovation. If uncovered, be sure to check out the Venetian lion with all its bits, a salute to the Venetian empire, plus this artwork is a novelty in Venetian architecture for exhibiting the lion’s genitals). Scavenger hunt challenge: Rovinj sports five winged lions on buildings around town. Can you find the other four?
Before entering the town through the archway, take note of another quirky “only-in-Rovinj” site. Giant, hand-painted signs publicizing upcoming events are propped outside Konzum market. Written in Croatian and Italian, sometimes even in English, the beautifully crafted signs detail concerts, lectures and art openings for the entire community to see. Select a few target events (Pro-tip, take photos to record times and locations), then stroll through the arch with intention of getting lost in the maze of historic alleys. Within a few hours, you will have mastered orientation, thanks in part to assistance from Rovinj’s patron saint Euphemia, (more on that soon).
Has the Old Town of Rovinj Always Been a Peninsula? Find out here: Here’s Why You Should Visit Rovinj, Croatia, and Soon.
Head up Grisia Street, a narrow cobblestone alley, loaded with art galleries and restaurants. Many acclaimed local artists show their work here – look for folksy treasures like expertly hand-painted clothes pins by artist Maria Ćurčić as well as massive modern pieces in one of my favorite spaces, C.B. Schneider Modern Art Gallery. Venture a block over on Garzotto Street to catch the work of artist Vokic Ranko. His miniature Kazun sculptures are exquisite. And, of course, don’t forget to look up and all around…equally artistic are the flower-decked balconies of homes lining the street and colorful ever-present laundry lines.
On the walk up, don’t miss a peak at the menu of Monte, which in 2017 became Croatia’s first Michelin Star restaurant. Chef Daniel Dado Dekic crafts nightly six-course tasting menus featuring seasonal ingredients – he can often be spotted shopping in the outdoor market. There’s also a six-course vegetarian tasting menu and a la carte options.
Not far from Monte, you will also find one of the best spots in Old Town for sampling and buying local artisanal products according to guest artists Rob and Barbara Markoff. At Blago Istre, proprietor Aldin will set up blind tastings of Istria’s distinctive olive oils, including Perdisacca (international Gold medal winning olive oil). The Markoffs also recommend scoring a souvenir of Croatian sea salts mixed with Mediterranean spices. “Every time we taste it, we’re reminded of Rovinj,” says Rob. Bonus, it’s compact and light for transport back home.
You can’t miss the soaring tower of Church of St. Euphemia, rising 60 meters above the town. Istria’s largest baroque building, completed in 1736, is capped by a striking copper statue of the saint, which rotates with the wind, serving as orientation marker and weather forecaster. It’s said, when facing the sea, Euphemia signals clear skies. When storms are on the horizon, the wise saint turns her back to the sea.
How did St. Euphemia become the patron of Rovinj? For more info and quirky facts, read Why You Should Visit Rovinj, Croatia).
When you reach the top of St. Euphemia hill, perspective continues to ascend. Climb the nearly 200 steps to the top of the tower for gorgeous views of the coastline and sea. Just a note of caution, though: The steps are rickety and slick in places, so have on your sturdy, walking shoes.
Reward yourself with a coffee or cool glass of Istrian Malvasia (this is a vacation, after all), at an outdoor cafe, located just below the church, whose expansive views seem to have inspired the silly name. (Tip: Caffe Bar XL is easy to miss. Walk to the church’s sea-side terrace, great for a photo opportunity, then look down to spot tables alfresco).
For lunch, choose between several old town gems, depending on your craving. Eat up hearty Istrian cuisine like seppie al nero and grilled squid at Tipico, taste the Italian influence at local favorite Pizzeria da Sergio, go Croatian-with-a-twist at funky cafe Ulika (don’t miss the tuna tartare), and, at personal fav Segutra an outdoor table in the snug alley is the perfect setting for a big plate of Adriatic treasures like grilled sardines and local specialities like blitva (sautéed chard in that yummy Istrian olive oil).
After lunch, wobble downhill to the cobblestone street Ul. Vladmira Svalbe, the town’s oldest street. An alley near Taverna da Baston (another classic Rovinj restaurant), leads to the Outdoor Vegetable & Local Goods Market. (Pro-tip: Pick up a small bottle of locally-produced lavender spray for your pillow. Hello, sweet dreams!).
In the market’s indoor section, you’ll find the fishmongers as well as shops loaded with local cheese and meats. Take note of a second harbor, located just in front of the market. This is where ferries for Italy as well as Porec launch. Complete the “town” orientation with a stroll along main shopping drag of Corera Street. This is where you’ll find the best gelato shops, including Gelateria Italia and music-themed B-52. And, well…since you’re here…why not have a GELATO BREAK? (Right?!).
The promise of epics sunsets eventually brings everyone to the coastal promenade between the main harbor and St. Euphemia. While waiting for glory time, groups of friends and couples set up picnics and jump off the rocks into the sea. Plan to participate in this ritual one evening, but for your first night in Rovinj, go upscale for sublime views with gracious service. Bar Valentino and Mediterraneo Cocktail Bar both offer terrace seating and romantic ambiance, yet both receive flack for the price of drinks. Pay this no mind, and remember, you are paying for the experience, which is totally worth it.
For your first dinner in Rovinj, you can hardly plan better than with reservations at cliff side La Puntalina. (To ensure terrace seating, make reservations online or by phone at least a week in advance or stop by as soon as you arrive in town). The Pellizzer family, can be considered the first family of Rovinj cuisine, as they also own and operate Rio and Giannino, each an institution in its own right. At Puntalina, three small dining terraces offer dramatic views and the Adriatic-centric menu offers just the right amount of diversity. Begin with a sampling of fish carpaccio and local cheeses, working up to the fresh catch of the day.
Of course, for a really big splash and splurge, you can taste all the courses and all the things at Monte (just be sure to book a month in advance). Expect prices to run approximately 850 kuna / $150 for a tasting menu (remember, I used the term “splurge”), plus wine pairings by the glass of around 64 kuna / $10 per glass. Menus and prices are detailed on Monte’s website.
After lavender-infused dreams, you will be ready for exploring Rovinj’s abundant outdoor bounty. I’ve long told anyone that would listen that Rovinj offers my favorite spot for running in the entire world. Yet, Punta Corrente National Park aka Golden Cape (Zlatni Rt)‘s miles of shaded, seaside trails offer so much more than running routes. Cyclists can rent bikes at the park’s entrance or in town at Bike Planet (near the bus station). Rock climbers have open access to free climbing in the park’s old quarry. And, beaches and swimming spots are in beautiful abundance.
Due to construction of a fancy new hotel, part of Maistra’s empire, it is currently not possible to reach the park’s entrance from the harbor. Still, the detour makes the park accessible via a mere 20-minute walk from Old Town, weaving through the main harbor and into the residential zone, then through the hotel zone housing Hotel Eden, Hotel Lone and Hotel Monte Mulini. (Pro-tip: Use Hotel Lone as your Google Maps pin to get to the park entrance).
Before setting out on the trek, fuel up with a savory breakfast pastry, known as burek (seriously, the best thing ever!), stuffed with spinach, cheese, or meat. Mlinar Bake Store, near the outdoor market, offers the town’s most tasty bureks. And, for 7 kuna (about $1) you can taste every single variety.
Next, it’s off to the outdoor market to load up on picnic supplies. Grab in-season fruits, cheese, bread, sliced meat and honey. For sardine fans (that’s everyone, right?), the shop to the left of the outdoor bar sells locally caught, processed and tinned fish for picnic-perfection.
Be sure to notice the Antonio Gandusio Theatre located next to the market. Istria’s most historic theatre was completed in 1854. Today, the lovely building houses yet another Konzum market as well as an active theatre and cinema. For movie-buffs, it’s great fun to see a film, many shown in English with Croatian subtitles, in this sweet space.
Maybe I’m always thinking about the next meal, but as you walk along the harbor – with lunch picnic supplies in hand – it’s a great time to make dinner reservations. Two harbor-front dining institutions always stand out for us. Rio, another Pellizzer family restaurant, is friendly and casual and offers hearty plates, like grilled octopus and mashed potatoes, at reasonable prices. A few doors down, Kantinon is a beloved Rovinj institution. Seating is inside an old-canteen turned bustling dining room. Menus are printed as vintage newspapers and food is always solid and yummy. (Tip: While the fish soup is a tempting option, skip the oddly watery version here).
After scoring a reservation, it’s time for a small detour. (Hint: it’s for local vino). While there’s no shortage of wine shops around town, we love sampling and buying from local producer San Tommaso. Dip in their shop in the residential zone on Omladinska ul, it’s in-route to the park, for distinctive Malvasia on tap (yippee!!), and take away a half or full liter, in reusable plastic bottles.
Once you reach the park, there’s no end to the hiking, running and cycling…trails go on for 30+ miles. Walk out far enough to find the perfect picnic spot and beach of your liking. If Rovinj has taught me anything, it’s that I’m far from faithful when it comes to beach type. Sand, pebbles, rocks…I like it all and Golden Cape offers each type in abundance. I even dig the smooth and cool concert slab of Mulini Beach, making for a great spot for yoga and no sand trailing back to your room. Don’t expect long stretches of sandy beach. Think more in terms of pockets of pebble beaches and rocking swimming spots (Pro tip: Buy a cheap pair of water shoes in town to make rock scrambling a bit easier).
If you really want to stretch your legs without being encumbered by picnic supplies, no sweat. One of the other draws of the park are outdoor cafes with drinks and snacks, located at nearly every km marker (high season only).
Before dinner, plan to stop in the small boutique Hotel Spirito Santo (more hotel info below), for a glass of wine in the impressive cellar. The historic space has been renovated with great care and style and feels simultaneously old word and modern. Wine by the glass is pricey by Croatian standards ($10-15 per glass, on average) but worth it for the ambiance. Also, it’s super cosy on a chilly evening, with a fireplace located in the canteen.
If it’s Saturday night, it’s worth peeking in La Concha, Rovinj’s Mexican (yep, Mexican) restaurant for live music – just imagine a killer Croatian band, playing marachi tunes. This place is just as weird and quirky as you’re thinking it may be and, it’s fabulous. It’s worth a visit alone to see the owner sporting a sombrero and working the crowd. (Pro-tip: Skip the margarita, stick with beer. And, I’m not suggesting taking a pass, but if a local offers to buy you a shot, don’t expect tequila. Because really, you can’t visit Croatia without sampling local rajika, right?).
Begin your morning at our favorite neighborhood coffee shop, funky-cool Bazar. It’s tucked up an alley in the Old Town and not the easiest place to find, which only adds to its charm.
History and art lovers, will want to pop into Batana Eco-Museum which tells the story of the area’s unique flat-bottomed boats and fishing culture. It’s a tiny gallery, yet the essence of Rovinj’s seafaring traditions shine through in each display. Also, check for special exhibits presented by the Rovinj Heritage Museum, which often scores heavy-weight traveling installations (we’ve experienced stellar Picasso and Chagall exhibits here).
Seeing Rovinj from the water is essential and options are abundant. Multi-hour boat cruises travel to 12-km-long Lim Fjord and include barbecue fish lunches and swimming stops. Alternatively, you can pass on the all-day trip and opt for lunch at one of the other suggestions from Day 1: Tipico, Segutra, Ulika or Sergio, then get on the water, for less money and time in the afternoon with a sunset harbor cruise (for a mere $15, the latter is one of the town’s best values. Look for Glass Boat Aquarius near Admiral Casino). You can also opt for a taxi to Red Island or kayak rentals.
Of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing absolutely nothing. Rovinj is a beautiful place to just “be” and be present, soaking up the sea air and relaxed vibe. An afternoon spent sunning on the rocks below St. Euphemia, reading and immersing, is an afternoon well spent.
Let it be known, we love fancy restaurants. But, there’s really nothing better than a down-home local tavern where menus are hand-written, the owner is always present and vibe always familial. In Rovinj, for us, that means Restaurant Lavanda. This tiny tavern, with four tables outside and only as many inside, is run with great pride and flair by local character Jose. Put your trust in him and ask for a seafood, fish and vegetable plate of his choosing. You won’t be disappointed – and you probably won’t have a better meal anywhere on the coast. (Pro-tip: Jose loves to talk about music!).
Okay, so remember earlier, when I suggested visiting a Mexican joint? Here comes another odd-for-us suggestion, end your local immersion with a dip into the local dive / Irish pub known as Art Bar. It’s dark, smokey and often packed, but always festive. Don’t be surprised to find live music, a killer section of beers on tap, and likely all the restaurant staff you’ve met in the last few days. This is where everyone ends up after shift and a great last stop in Rovinj.
When to Go:
The town’s population, normally around 15,000, triples in summer months and the number of day-tripping cruise-shippers continues to swell. If possible, plan your trip in shoulder seasons, April through early June or late September through October. Prices are cheaper, the town is more tranquil, and weather is ideal.
If summer is your only possible shot, take it. Plan ahead for accommodations during summer and expect bustle. When it all becomes too much, seek calm on the far reaches of Golden Cape or with a private fishing or sail boat charter.
Where to Stay:
The number of vacation apartment and room rentals is staggering compared to half a decade ago. If we talked for five minutes, you would hear me voice five different takes on the issue. Let’s just say, it’s complicated. We’ve witnessed and participated in the phenomenon in cities all over the world. Locals find through platforms like Airbnb that they can make great money renting their homes. Soon, many choose to relocate to cheaper residences outside the city center in order to rent popular spaces more often. As each family moves out, a bit of the historic core’s soul flickers dark.
With all the potential negatives, do we still rent Airbnbs? Yes, because we love experiencing local living and engaging with hosts. Plus, we tend to stay for weeks, if not, months at a time. Can we engage in rentals while also encouraging sustainability? We think so. We always aim to rent from a local host, someone who actually lives in the community, as opposed to outsider investment properties. Don’t be afraid to ask specific questions before booking. For our Rovinj apartment rental (which we have now lived in on five different occasions), the Croatian host family has become interwoven with our love for the place and country. Through their hospitality and engagement, we have gained deep friendships and invaluable cultural insight – and, that is one of the glowing positives of connection services like Airbnb. (And, I’m happy to share our host’s contact info for anyone interested. Just message me. Their apartment is fabulous).
Still, you can’t beat the glamour that staying in a nice hotel brings to travel. Rovinj is rich distinctive and luxurious hotel accommodations. Here are a few of the best:
Near the historic center, a luxury home from the 1920’s has recently undergone a beautiful renovation and re-imagining as Hotel Spirito Santo. The seven guest rooms are each unique and offer luxury amenities. Plus, the location and access to the impressive wine vault can’t be beat.
A prime harbor-side location and proximity to Old Town would be enough to set the historic Hotel Adriatic apart, but what puts this hotel over-the-top is gracious service, restaurant with terrace seating and elegant bar featuring inventive cocktails and impressive artwork. At every turn, this hotel delivers surprise. Even if not staying here, come for the delicious and reasonable breakfast and brunch menu or after-dinner drinks.
If you have followed our journey, you know I’m slightly obsessed with modernist architecture. Hotel Lone, located near the entrance of Golden Cape, knocks me out from every angle. It looks like a cruiseliner gliding along the sea. The five-star property features great views, plus an ultra-luxe spa.
Located in the historic core, the elegant Angelo d’Oro is a top pick for travelers seeking refined elegance. Twenty-three rooms are housed within a former Bishop’s Palace in Old Town. The hotel also rents out a few apartments, located nearby.
Have your own favorite spots in Rovinj? Please, please, please share in the comments. We aim to check out every single place! 🙂
MORE ABOUT THE FEATURED ARTISTS:
What’s the saying…a picture says 1,000 words? So very true when it comes to lovely Rovinj. Here’s more of the work of featured artists Barbara and Rob Markoff whose love for Croatia runs deep and strong. Enjoy!
Barbara Markoff is an accomplished Photographer and Art Consultant whose work can be seen in Healthcare facilities throughout California. She is a world traveler, who with her husband, Rob share the Simpson’s passion for Croatia and especially Rovinj which they consider one of their favorite places.
Rob Markoff is a bon vivant and world traveler with a degree in Visual Ethnography. Croatia is one of his favorite destinations.
Cheers, y’all!! Or, as they say in Croatian…Zivjeli!!!
You Should Go to Croatia Just for the Art Scene. Here’s Why.
(I wrote this story for adventure travel company, Intrepid Travel).