Family Abroad

Istria: Coastal and Interior, Hilltop Cities

Introduction

With a name like “Terra Magica”, coined by the Romans, you know you are entering a place of enchantment, magic, and beauty. That is exactly what it feels like when you visit Istria, a wonderland and feast for your senses.

Istria Croatia encompasses everything you could want in your family travel and leisure from hilltop towns, crystal clear waters, cobblestone streets, untouched nature to ancient city walls, paragliding, mummies, and film festivals. Oh, and I forgot to mention, dinosaur footprints!

Overview

Istria is made up of two general areas: the coastal areas and all the interior, magical hilltop towns. The best and ultimate way to experience all the hidden gems and jewels of Istria Croatia is to travel slowly spending the time you need in each area seeing life through the eyes of those that call Istria home.

History of Istria

Istria welcomes you with the feeling of romantic and fabled medieval history where you almost feel like you are exploring the streets of Italy with all the Venetian-style towns. Istria Croatia was once part of Italy, from 1918 to 1947, so this makes perfect sense.

 

Things to Do and Family Travel Ideas in Istria

1. Pula

The history of Pula is seen throughout the city through its structures and monuments. Its roman architecture will astound you, especially as you set your sights on Pula’s well-preserved Roman Amphitheatre. As the largest town in Istria Croatia, Pula has a working port and is the economic and industrial hub. It is a city of living history mixed amongst the culture of today.

The Pula Colosseum is an example of grandeur with four levels as the roman monument with the highest point up to 33 meters. Once holding up to 23,000 onlookers, it is considered one of the most important monuments within Istria and is one stop you don’t want to miss. It is still used today as a stage for cultural events and performances. We were stunned to view the beauty of the colosseum close up and our imaginations fired up as we thought of the gladiator matches, jousting and other historical events that took place over the centuries. We only saw the exterior and the part of the interior that was open to the public. You can also buy a ticket to go inside the colosseum should you want to explore further.

Aerial shot of Pula with the Colosseum, Croatia. UNESCO world heritage site.

Built during the first century, the Gate of Hercules has the bearded image of Hercules and an inscription makes it possible to date Pula back to sometime between 47 and 44 BC. It is an amazing sight. Close by was the Augustan Forum, which included temples to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva. While the above three temples are no longer in place, the temple of Augustus remains preserved for all to see.

2. Groznjan – Grisignana

In the central part of Istria lies the “Town of Artists”, a 14th-century hilltop village full of artists and musicians overlooking the Adriatic Sea.

With defensive walls, it used to be a fortress area and is exploding with charm with its cobblestone streets and medieval essence.

3. Hum

With only two streets and around 30 residents, it is a fantasy and fabled-like village. In the northwest part of Croatia, Hum was created back in the 11th century and is the smallest town in the world (this is widely reported as being in the Guinness Book of World Records, but I could not confirm this “fact”).

Although small, it is mighty in its ambiance. Hum has an astounding baroque church of the 1800s, monuments galore, and even a Grappa festival. It is a picture-perfect fairytale town.

4. Vrsar

Vrsar is a town that Casanova wrote about after visiting this enchanted seaside town two times. Vrsar even sets the stage of love for the Casanovafest every June.

 A romantic town of beautiful views, it captures your heart. Explore the tranquil harbor, set out for a dolphin tour, enjoy the views of Limski Canal or make your way to the beautiful beaches of Vrsar. With pebble bay beaches and fantasy-like colors of the water you will want to enjoy the magic of traveling here in Vrsar.

Aerial shot of coastal city Vrsar, Istria, Croatia

FAMILY TIP: Dinopark is just outside Vrsar and is a great stop when you travel with kids. It is a bit of quirky fun with moveable statues that are life-size, set against the stunning backgrounds with playgrounds and a museum. It is a joyful and happy place to add to your family travel adventure.

 

5. Vodnjan

Although gorgeous and unique, the exterior of the Church of St. Blaise in Vodnjam is not what attracts its visitors – it’s what is hidden inside. 6 mummies to be exact! With more of a wooden appearance than that of a mummy, the remains of 6 saints are on display behind enclosed glass.

Learn how they lived and the reasons behind their passings as you take in this rare opportunity to see mummies up-close as well as having the chance to see almost 400 macabre yet interesting relics.

And, even though we did enjoy the church, our favorite activity in Vodnjam (and possibly in all of Istria) was a visit to the Brist Olive Oil shop. We were fortunate enough to meet Paul, who welcomed us into his olive oil shop and taught us how to tell if we truly have extra virgin olive oil in the bottle before us. It was quite a bit of information and if you are interested in learning more about our olive oil tasting lesson, I strongly suggest watching much of his presentation on our Vlog! We really enjoyed learning about this family business it was incredible to taste a good portion of their flavors. This is a must-do in our opinion. And if you do go, be sure to ask about the time Chef Gordon Ramsay visited their olive tree farm.

6. Rovinj

More than likely your home base while you enjoy your holidays, Rovinj is ultimately the key destination for your best family vacation to organize your day trips while in Istria. However, be sure to include enough time to fully enjoy and appreciate Rovinj on your family trip.

Aerial shot of Old town Rovinj at sunset, Istra region, Croatia.

We almost made this exact mistake, so take it from us and make sure you schedule time to wander the alleyways of this remarkable and historic city. Be sure to explore this town both during the day and at night, as the time difference brings about different experiences. The sunsets were incredible and I loved seeing the Adriatic Sea lapping the exterior walls of the city, which included living residences.

The walking tours of Rovinj are a perfect way to journey through the romantic marble cobblestone streets. The old town is bursting with colorful homes and takes you along the interesting Venetian architecture. The alleys have no cars in sight, so you are free to roam about safely with the children.

The marina will gift you with breathtaking sunsets and you may even get a chance to see dolphins or head out on a sunset cruise. Be sure to stop at the bell tower when wandering on the town’s most popular street, La Grisa ,for magical and charming views of the treasured town of Rovinj.

Panoramic view of the Old Town of Rovinj

7. Porec

Remarkable history is here in Porec at the declared UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Euphrasian Basilica with portions dating back to the 4th century and 6th century. Porec is an ancient Roman town on the west coast of Istria and is also a great option for your family travel home base.

Old Istrian town in Porec, Croatia

As with many other villages, the northern sector of Porec displays the defensive walls with its medieval charm. The “Round Tower” takes you into a deep mix of Middle Ages history mixed with its urban essence. Today, it is used as a restaurant and bar, but with a stunning terrace at the top with bird’s eye views.

Your children will also enjoy the more modern activities of zip-lining, adventure parks and go-kart racing that are only a short distance out of the city. A funny side note – we actually went to one of these high-adrenaline parks after a long day of exploring, but when we arrived, we were all too tired to go inside!

FAMILY TIP: Although Porec offers a wonderful family travel atmosphere, it can change a bit in the summertime. The city then becomes a bit more on the livelier side, becoming a place for those who want to party and enjoy their vacation days.

8. Kamenjak National Park

About 20 minutes from Pula, you can head to the land of dinosaur footprints at Kamenjak National Park. It is one of the best things to do with the family in Istria Croatia, especially with its dino guide making it an adventure for kids.

The dinosaur footprints are easy to distinguish since Kamenjak National Park has placed big black circles around each of them so you can’t miss them. They aren’t barricaded or enclosed either, so you can literally step within paleontological history.

Fossil footprints of cretaceous dinosaur, Kamenjak National Park, Croatia

9. Brijuni National Park

The Brijuni islands are so beautiful that former Yugoslavia President Tito made it his summer home. The islands are also home to over 200 dinosaur footprints. When you arrive at Brijuni National Park, you will be taken to a whole new unique world one of ostriches, camels, elephants, llamas, and more.

We were planning to go to Brijuni on my birthday, but at the last minute, I decided that I wanted to visit the hilltop cities that dot the interior landscape. And while there is no doubt that Brijuni National Park would have been incredibly beautiful, I hadn’t visited any interior Croatian towns and I wanted to see for myself what all the blogs were talking about. And, I am so glad that we decided to make a road trip out of Istria because not only did we get to see a side of Croatia few people ever see, we also got to see so many beautiful vineyards and olive tree groves.

FAMILY TIP: Brijuni National Park has a tourist train that takes you throughout so sit back and enjoy the family adventure!

10. Motovun

During the summer months, this small little town comes alive for the annual Motovun film festival. If you aren’t here during this time, then enjoy the tranquility and peace while walking amongst the old town’s walls. Take a moment to look around because from this hill-based town, you can see all four stunning corners of Istria Croatia.

Named the town in the hills, fly like the birds and see the sleepy village from above with their paragliding. We enjoyed the incredible views from the top after walking the steep ascent. Incredibly, many people actually rode their bicycles up this steep hill and I was so impressed with their abilities! If you enjoy riding bikes, this countryside is the place for you.

Motovun in Istria, Croatia

11. Truffle Hunting

One of the many great family vacation ideas could be to add a little twist to your family activities in Istria Croatia and participate in a truffle hunt. One truffle even made it into the Guinness Book of World records by being the largest white truffle in the world right here in Istria Croatia.

Dining in Istria

Istria is a paradise for food lovers with fresh pasta, pizzas, and plenty of seafood fresh from the Adriatic Sea. Olive oil is a staple of all your meals, even on ice cream for a treat. When we visited the Brist Olive Oil shop, the owner just happened to have some vanilla ice cream in the back of the store and when he heard that we had never tried olive oil poured on vanilla ice cream, he immediately went and prepared a bowl for our enjoyment. Trust me when I say that not a drop was wasted!

Truffles are abundant and are put on almost everything you could imagine. Plan to eat plenty of fresh cheeses and meat platters and eat like a local and try the prsut, home-cured and salted ham.

In Motovun, we enjoyed a meal at Konoba Mondo. We had great service and a wonderful meal. We really enjoyed the pasta with truffles. Anthony Bourdain even ate here – so you know it was good.

In Vodnjan, we just happened to wonder into a restaurant called named Pizza & BBQ Buffalo. Edith and I really enjoyed several unique dishes like a “meat donut” and spicy paprika U Vrhnju. The pizza was also tasty!

In Rovinj, we had, perhaps, one of the best dining experiences at La Puntulina. Anna was our server and she was incredibly warm, attentive and lots of fun. The restaurant has one of the best views of the harbor and Adriatic Sea, but we went after dark and were unable to make it to see the sunset.

Everything Anna suggested turned out to be “the bomb”. From the Hors D’oeuvres to the soups and from the main dishes to the desserts, nothing could have looked so well presented and nothing could have tasted any better. We enjoyed the fish soup, the scallops a La Puntulina and the shrimps in oil and garlic as starters. Edith raved about her baked whitefish in olive crust and I ate the catch of the day. The kids also loved their food and even tried new dishes. Now the desserts…I almost wish I had started with the desserts and then worked backwards! They were so good and we decided to try and share several of the desserts as suggested by Anna. The Mille Foglie, Panna Cotta and Tiramisu were an incredible treat.

Perhaps the very best part of our meal were the staff and even other diners. A couple of diners from Austria helped to sing me Happy Birthday and then joined us for a few rounds of some sort of dessert liqueur. As the restaurant closed down, we enjoyed a lot of laughs with our new Austrian friends and our two waiters. It was truly a memorable night and I cannot wait to return.

 

Transportation In and Around in Istria

Getting around Istria is best served by renting a vehicle enabling you to travel at your own pace. This will allow you to spend more time at all the best family vacation spots that your family will fall in love with. This will probably be the entire peninsula of Istria Croatia, to be honest, so don’t say we didn’t warn you!

Conclusion

In the western region of Croatia, you will find Istria on a heart-shaped peninsula, which is fittingly so as it captures everyone’s heart that visits. It most definitely holds a special place in our family’s heart as we chose to journey in the manner of slow travel to capture all that Istria is.

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