The end of winter doesn’t necessarily mean cold, wind and rain. If you are still chasing the first rays of sun, Istria is your perfect weekend getaway.
Tucked in the south of Croatia, where the Slavic present and the Italian past of the country combine to create a gorgeous mix of cultures, tastes and languages, Istria truly is a slice of paradise.
Arriving at Pula Airport, the similarity with the Italic Peninsula is incredibly striking. Even I, a native Italian, found myself questioning whether or not I had accidentally crossed the border as we began our drive along the Istrian roads: think miles of vineyard on ends, the shimmering water of the Adriatic sea and stunning Venetian architecture.
But those incredible views are just the tip of the iceberg: Istria boasts delicious food and lovely people, too. With that in mind, here is Stylist.co.uk’s guide to Europe’s best-kept secret.
Best places to stay in Istria
Tucked away in the Istrian countryside, Meneghetti is one of Relais&Château finest acquisitions in Croatia. Boasting 24 luxury accommodation units, 10 modern rooms and suites, 15 actual houses, two outdoor pools and a lovely Spa, this retreat is what holidays dreams are made of. Especially when you consider the fact that Meneghetti is surrounded by vineyards, has its own wine shop (stocked with homemade wine), and boasts a chic on-site restaurant brimming with all the best things Istrian cuisine has to offer, too.
Kempinski Hotel Adriatic
Located in the northern part of Istria, close to forests, vineyards and stretches of olive trees, Kempinski Hotel Adriatic is a great base to explore the full beauty of Istria.
With its private beach, incredible spa, pools and suites overlooking the Adriatic sea, the Kempinski also offers many reasons to never leave the resort. The must try? A dinner on the rooftop restaurant Kanova, which offers a jaw-dropping panorama over the shimmering water.
Heritage Hotel Chersin
In the centre of Fažana, in a 500-year-old building protected by UNESCO, the Heritage Hotel Chersin is a cosy retreat for those foodies on the hunt for mouth-watering traditional cuisine.
Located just 100m away from the sea, the hotel’s own restaurant ‘Da nonna’ – ‘At grandma’s place’ in Italian – always has the freshest fish to serve with Istrian delicious wines. A lovely home away from home for a weekend under the sun.
Best places to eat in Istria
An adorable family-run restaurant in Fažana, based just 15 minutes from Pula, Alla Beccaccia is the best place to discover the real taste of Istria in a warm and familiar atmosphere.
Whether you choose to enjoy the sun on the outside terrace or eat inside around the huge bonfire, you can sample meat cooked in embers, washed down with delicious local wine. Most important to try, though, is the homemade pasta: it really is the best you will find in Istria.
If you thought that truffles were an Italian-only business, a quick look around Istria will change your mind. Indeed, truffles in this part of Croatia are as common as they are in the most famous and celebrated city of Piedmont’s Alba.
When it comes to Istrian Truffles, Zigante is an institution. From award-winning products to their own truffle fair, this family business wants to take Istrian truffles to the Italian level. To taste them for yourself, book a table in their chic Livade restaurant: literally everything on the menu is served with truffles, even dessert. You won’t believe your tastebuds.
If you find yourself tiring of truffles, slow cooked lamb and delicious homemade pasta (and we highly doubt you will), then don’t despair: Istrian cooking features plenty of traditional fish dishes, too.
Head to Savudrija to Toni, a cosy family-run restaurant that has been feeding the locals since 1970. Completely dedicated to fish, their menu celebrates the rich culinary history of Istria and their terrace, shaded by kiwi trees, is the perfect spot to spend an evening sipping Malvasia wine.
Tucked far from the city, next to an incredible vineyard – Kozlović vineyard, to be specific – and facing Momjan castle, Stari Podrum is a cosy family-run restaurant that will give you a real taste of Istria.
Traditional dishes are served with a big smile in a homey atmosphere and everything is perfectly paired with a delicious Istrian wine. If you want to taste Mira’s cooking, though, make sure you book your spot – the tavern is small and very popular in high season.
Best things to do in Istria
Olive oil tasting
With a Mediterranean climate that assures sun from May to late October, Istria has nothing to envy to Italy or Greece when it comes to olives.
Their proximity with Italy means that local Italian varieties like the Leccino will be just as fragrant as the ‘original’, if we can even consider it that. In addition, Istrian farmers’ care for their territory means that the region is filled with original, and delicious, Croatian oil. To have a taste of this liquid gold, head to local producer Ipsa and book a tasting. Between oil, cheese and local delicacies, you’ll have a gastronomic dream come true.
Visit a vineyard
What is more relaxing than a walk around peaceful vineyards, soaking up the autumnal sun, breathing the fresh air and planning to leave the big city for a life of simple pleasure? Exactly.
Istria produces many delicious wines – the most famous being the Malvasia and the Teran – and Kozlović is one the most famous producer in the region, bringing the taste of Croatia around the world, one bottle at the time. Indulge in an afternoon of tasting at their winery in Buje. Sitting on the terrace, overlooking the vineyard, you will easily lose count of the glasses…
Go truffle hunting
Eating truffles always feels lavish and special, but what about eating the truffles you helped dig out of the ground?
Visit Natura Tartufi in Buzet to experience the real taste of Istrian truffles. Start the visit with a delicious brunch made of truffle scrambled eggs, local cheese and Istrian wine (you are on holiday after all) before heading to the forest for an exciting truffle hunt with the owners. If it’s not your lucky day, don’t worry: they also have a shop!
There is no better way to enjoy the scenery of this Croatian beauty spot than by hopping on a bike. There are countless beautiful coastal roads, forests and hilly villages to be discovered – no wonder Istria is the new and unexpected destination for ‘by bike’ travellers.
Go for a road trip
Istria is a rich but small region on the South Coast of Croatia. Her great locations make it easy to get in a car and drive around, discovering a bit more of this incredible place at every stop.
From Zadar to Savudrija, Buje, Grožnjan and Rovinj, a road trip is the best way to explore every corner of this yet too unknown land. If you have time for a longer haul, you can even spend one day in Italy – Trieste is just a bit more than an hour away, after all.
Best things to see in Istria
If this is your first time in Istria, be sure to put the enchanting town of Rovinj on top of your list.
A lovely Venetian arbour, surrounded by the incredibly shimmering Adriatic sea, Rovinj has all the charm of a little Italian village, with a Slavic twist. The pebbly streets are full of cute shops and restaurants overlooking the water, but dn’t forget to explore the hidden alleys, too: that’s where you’ll find the best table in town.
Like a bear waking up after a long winter, the village of Grožnjan blooms in the Spring to welcome floods of tourists with its pebbly streets.
From music to drama, to galleries presenting established artists as well as the new up and coming Istrian artistic guard, consider this small town the Croatian answer to the more famous (but less sunny) Parisian Montmartre.
If you have done your homework, you will know that Istria was once part of Italy. The Romans left their mark on the food, the culture and the architecture of the country, the most obvious of which can be found in Pula’s amphitheatre (its similarities with the more famous Colosseum in Rome are striking). Believe it or not, the building - much like its Italian lookalike - is an original arena built by Augustus.
Poreč is a love letter to the Imperial grandeur, Byzantine and Venetian styles mix that make the old town a must-see when visiting Istria.
One of the most touristic cities in Istria, Poreč knows how to treat its visitors: the city is full of restaurants, cafes and places to visit to spend a day fully immersed in Istrian culture. If you only see one thing, make it the Euphrasius’ basilica – the beautiful building made it into the UNESCO’s World Heritage list for a reason.
Fourteen little islands in the Adriatic sea, separated from the coast by the Fažana Strait, the Brijuni Islands are the perfect one-day trip for those keen to explore the natural beauty of the region.
An ancient Roman settlement, this floating paradise has been transformed into a touristic hub and a National Park. But the archeological sites – especially in Veli Brijun, the biggest of the islands – are not the only attraction on the islands: don’t leave without a dip in the sea. After all, there is no such a thing as too many beaches.
Pictures provided by Visit Istria / Getty.