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Travel Croatia Guide: 10 Things To Do In Pula, Croatia
Written by travel writer Laura Lynch
One of the main reasons people flock to Croatia is for the beautiful Adriatic and the dramatic coastline. While most tourists will head to Dubrovnik or inland toward Zagreb, the Istrian Peninsula remains a much less visited Croatian coastal region. That, however, is starting to change, as more and more tourists discover the many wonderful gems of Istria and tell their friends and family about them.
One of Istria’s handful of awesome coastal towns, historic Pula has one of the main airports on the Istrian peninsula. Therefore, it’s often used as a launching point for travelers looking to enjoy the peninsula, while few people actually stick around and explore Pula itself. As the largest city in Istria, Pula actually has quite a lot to offer tourists who want to get a feel for what Istria is really like – historically, culturally and culinary. It’s also a great place to visit with kids as well. Here are some of the top things to do in Pula, one of the oldest cities in Croatia.
Explore Pula Arena – The 6th Largest Roman Coliseum In The World
There is a strong Roman influence in Pula’s history, evidenced by the largely intact Roman coliseum that dominates the center of the city. The arena is an assuming presence in Pula, its stone walls visible from almost any point in the city. This three-level coliseum may be much smaller than the one in Rome, but it is no less impressive. The Arena was built in the 1st century AD and was used until the 5th century for gladiatorial fights and other mass spectacles.
More than 26,000 spectators could fit on the terraced seating inside the arena. Below ground is a series of tunnels and rooms where the animals and gladiators awaited their fights. Although some of the structure pilfered over the years, the exterior remains and is one of the best preserved Roman amphitheaters that are still standing. Today, the Arena is used to host events and performances, surely one of Europe’s greatest music and live arts venues. You can take a tour of the Coliseum and learn a bit about it in the attached museum.
Admire The Temple Of Augustus
The Temple of Augustus was built in the 2nd century BC and dedicated to Emperor Augustus and the goddess Roma. It’s been used for many different purposes throughout its long history (a temple, a church, and even a granary) and used to be part of a three-building complex. The main central temple is long gone, but the back wall of one of the other structures, The Temple of Diana, survived and has been incorporated into the Communal Palace.
During WWII, it was hit by a bomb that almost completely destroyed it. Nowadays, it has been mostly restored to what it was like 2,000 years ago and houses Roman sculptural artifacts. You can take a quick tour of the interior for a small fee (it’s a small space). The Temple of Augustus remains the only surviving part of the original temple triad, a major highlight and one of the best things to do in Pula.
Visit The Triumphal Arch Of Sergius
Also built in the 1st century AD, the Triumphal Arch of Sergius is a monument erected to honor the members of the Sergii family who fought and died in a battle between Octavian’s Roman army and Mark Antony’s Egyptian-Roman army, a battle in which Octavian and the Sergiis were triumphant.
The Arch leads into the old town center and has ornate decoration with fluted columns and chariots engraved along the top.
Stroll Through The Twin Gate
Not far from the Arena is one of the old city gates that were built in the 2nd century AD. It’s called the Twin Gate because there are actually two gates side by side. Rumor has it that the double gates were necessary to allow more townspeople into the city during gladiator fights and other major town events.
The gates are very well preserved and open up to a central part of the old town where people still hang out. In fact, it can get pleasantly crowded during the day when tourists are enjoying the surrounding shops and locals go about their everyday business.
See The Cathedral Of The Assumption Of The Holy Virgin
Don’t expect to find an ornate interior at this church. It’s not like the intricate catholic cathedrals you find in Italy. Built by the Christians during their persecution, the church is quite minimalistic in design, but the architecture is impressive, nonetheless, and it’s worth a walk-by to check it out.
Sample Croatian Wine
While Croatia doesn’t export a lot of wine – most of its production is kept in country – the quality of the wine often parallels that of neighboring Italy. Wine tourism is starting to catch on in Croatia, too. In Pula, there are a handful of opportunities to get a glimpse into the wine-making tradition of Istria and try some of the tasty wines produced in the vineyards that dot the countryside.
Taste the white varietal, Malvasia, and red varietal, Teran, both of which are unique to Croatia. You can take an organized wine tour with EatIstria or drive to the wineries yourself. Trapan winery is located just a few kilometers outside the city.
Editors note: If you love wine, be sure to add some of these great Croatian wineries to your vacation checklist.
Taste Istria’s Bounty Of Incredible Foods
The food in Croatia has largely been influenced by both its inhabitants and rulers over the centuries, imparting the flavors of Italy, Greece and French into the local cuisine. With its proximity to the sea, fresh fish and seafood are obvious specialties. You can find some of the freshest seafood in the restaurants bordering the waterfront and occupying the Verudela Peninsula to the south.
For fish, squid and shellfish, visit Ribarska Koliba on the marina. Alternatively, splurge on a five-course feast from one of the area’s best chefs at Konoba Batelina. Istria is also well known for white truffles and olive oil. You can find both specialties in almost any restaurant (as long as the truffles are in season). You can also buy truffle paste and olive oil to take home with you, making for a fantastic souvenir.
Walk Along The Waterfront And The Old Roman Forum
With only about 60,000 inhabitants, Pula isn’t a large city so it’s easy to walk around and enjoy the tranquil beauty. Take a stroll along the marina to see the boats bobbing along in the calm water, watch as the sun falls in brilliant color behind the horizon, or just soak up the sea air. It’s a great way to spend an hour or two in Pula. It can get pretty busy during high tourist season, but if you’re lucky to visit during a slower time, you may have the whole waterfront to yourself.
After a stroll along the waterfront, check out the town center that was once a Roman Forum. The piazza today is a pedestrian-only zone that contains plenty of cafes, restaurants and shops.
Take A Gourmet Tour Or Cooking Class
I’m a firm believer that you can’t fully experience a culture without trying the food. A great way to learn about the food and try many different things you might not have known about otherwise is taking a food tour or cooking class. Every Wednesday, leaving from the Arena, a two-hour organized tour combines a little sightseeing with traditional Istrian food and wine tasting.
You can buy tickets at the Arena. If you’re not in town on Wednesday, you can still get in on the gourmet fun with a cooking class from EatIstria. You’ll have a chance to look around the food markets, buy local ingredients, learn to cook in the traditional style and then enjoy the fruits of your labor.
See The “Lighting Giants”
The Lighting Giants is a relatively new form of entertainment for Pula. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, though it reminds me of a Christmas lights display that used to take place in my neighborhood growing up. A world-famous lighting designer, Dean Skira, decided to create the lights display on the dozen or so industrial cranes along the waterfront in Pula.
The more than 16,000 lights are hooked up to a remote control system and illuminated according to a dramatic musical sequence. The program changes frequently, and they have special displays around the holidays, so it never gets old. You can catch the lights display every hour starting at 9 pm. It lasts for about 15 minutes.
These are just a few of the things to do in Pula. There are also numerous places to go and things to see just outside the city that will introduce you to more of the Istria peninsula.
Have you been to Pula? What things to do in Pula will you add to your list?
Laura Lynch is the writer and creator of the travel blog, Savored Journeys. She caught the travel bug over 20 years ago and has been traveling the world ever since. She has an insatiable appetite for culinary travel and she tells of the food and wine adventures she and her husband Nick have had around the world on her blog and on Facebook and Pinterest.