Split is Croatia’s second largest city and a top tourist destination on the Adriatic coast. Everything in the old town area is set up to cater to visitors. Filled with gelato shops and cafes with outdoor seating, you’re never far from a snack or drink. Much of the downtown is attractive and charming, but it can also be swarming with throngs of tourists. Crowds are the worst when the cruise ships are in port, which is basically everyday during the peak season. Our visit took place over the shoulder season, so while many days were still congested, we were able to take advantage of a few that were not. And exploring the old town without the masses is a real treat.
“Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world.” That quote has been attributed to both Alfred Hitchcock and Ernest Hemingway according to various Croatian tourist sites and blogs. My search for a source came up empty, but no matter who is heaping the praise, Zadar takes their sunsets seriously. The setting sun is a must see event here. Each evening hundreds of people show up along the western edge of the old town for the spectacle.
Pula is home to one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters on the planet. The Pula Arena is around 2000 years old, but it barely shows its age. It really is a marvel of engineering and longevity on the Croatian coast. Old structures like these are normally referred to as ancient ruins, but there’s not much about it that’s ruined. While the Pula Arena is absolutely incredible, we also found a lot of natural beauty nearby. Our two week stay was a lot of fun.
Rovinj is a delightful seaside village on the northern Croatian coast. It’s very popular with tourists, and for good reason. We recently spent a day there just wandering the old town. This historic section is a web of cobblestone lanes lined with colorful buildings. It’s built on a hill so there are lots of great viewpoints of the Adriatic Sea too. It’s a really cute town.
Trieste is a historic port city at the northern tip of the Adriatic Sea. Unlike many ports that are rough and tumble, Trieste is a gem featuring gorgeous buildings on large squares, ancient ruins, and sweeping sea views. With a population of just over 200,000, it has about everything you’d want in an Italian coastal city except for a beach. Trieste also has an interesting and somewhat sordid history. For a long time it’s been a bit off the beaten path of Italian tourism, but that’s changing.
For our second month in Austria, we spent our time in Graz. The city of 300,000 people is actually Austria’s second largest, despite being only 15% the size of Vienna. Until the mid 1800s it was spelled Gratz, which is how it’s still pronounced even though the spelling has changed. The name means “little castle”. The castle no longer exists, but the great viewpoint on the hill above town still does. There is a large student population, mostly from the University of Graz which has over 30,000 enrollees. It’s a diverse town that mixes old school charm with a young vibe.
If I had to use one word to describe Vienna, it would be fancy. With few exceptions, the art museums, buildings, churches, and shopping districts are all dressed up. It’s not enough to just have great art, it must be displayed in a palace. Most apartment and commercial buildings have gorgeous detailed facades. There are horse-drawn carriages clip clopping around giving tourists an expensive glimpse of old Vienna. And the downtown pedestrian area is filled with upscale shopping and antique stores.
On the north side of Vienna along the edge of the Danube canal sits the Spittelau Incinerator. But don’t mistake this thermal waste treatment plant for your ordinary smoke-belching eye sore. Vienna contracted with unconventional artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser to turn it into a work of functional art. His anti-straight line design philosophy is prevalent on every surface of the incinerator. It’s the coolest one in existence*.
Zagreb is a lively place for a city of fewer than a million people. Not just a stopover for those trying to get to the beach, Croatia’s capital offers numerous attractions. The downtown pedestrian zones were busy with shoppers, strolling tourists, and cafe goers of all sorts. We enjoyed the large daily farmers market, detailed architecture, multiple parks, and sweeping views from the hills above the city.
After a month in Belgrade, I can confidently say that Serbia’s capital is a great stop. I expected it would be a busy, dirty city full of ugly buildings. Instead, what we found was a very livable place filled with friendly people and dotted with beautiful parks. While exploring, we walked down numerous shaded streets lined with cute cafes. There were spring flowers planted everywhere. We even got our “pet fix” from the neighborhood cats, many of whom were happy to be on the receiving end of our love.