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If you want to explore Croatia off the beaten path, then you need to visit the Istrian peninsula.
This heart-shaped region is one of the most charming areas in the entire country, yet has miraculously managed to avoid mass tourism. Dotted with magical hilltop towns and some of the most beautiful hidden gems in the country, Istria offers a truly unique holiday experience.
In this post, we’ll be covering all of the best things to do and see when exploring Croatia’s breathtaking Istrian peninsula.
Exploring the Istrian Peninsula: Croatia Off the Beaten Path
The Istrian peninsula is located in the north west corner of Croatia, at the very tip of the Adriatic Sea. Although parts of the peninsula are shared by Italy and Slovenia, the majority of it belongs to Croatia.
This western-most region of Croatia can be divided into two parts: Blue Istria and Green Istria.
Blue Istria refers to the parts of the region that border the dazzling blue Adriatic sea, while Green Istria refers to the peninsula’s lush green interior.
Istria is quite different from the ultra-popular Dalmatian region of Croatia, which is more focused on sea and sun holidays. Istria, on the other hand, offers a variety of activities that visitors can enjoy all year round. Some of these include biking, hiking, wine tastings, vineyard tours, historic landmarks, charming hilltop towns and villages, and many opportunities to taste some of the area’s most authentic cuisine.
The peninsula has a beautiful and rugged coastline characterized by cliffs and rocky beaches surrounded by crystal clear water. Some of Croatia’s top resorts have even positioned themselves in prime coastal locations in order to appeal to tourists from Austria, Slovenia, Italy, and Germany.
However, if you want to experience the true charms of Istria, you need to explore beyond the coast. It is in the peninsula’s stunning green interior where the real magic lies. While driving through Central Istria, you’ll take in views of endless green vineyards, olive groves, ancient ruins, medieval villages perched on hilltops, and roads lined with cyrpess trees.
The entire region is bursting with Italian flavor, thanks to the influence Italy had over the region for many years.
Best Places to Visit in Istria
The Istrian peninsula is filled with the most charming hilltop towns and villages, each with its own unique character. While exploring green Istria, there are a number of places worth visiting, all of which are within a relatively short drive of one another.
This hilltop town is absolutely darling. Made up of pastel-painted houses situated on a beautiful hilltop, Labin oozes with charm.
The town’s narrow, winding streets hide many photogenic corners, boutiques, and ateliers. It is also where you will find the best pizza (perhaps in all of Croatia). Pizzeria Rumore is situated on a gorgeous terrace overlooking the rolling green hills of Istria, and the Adriatic Sea in the distance.
This pizzeria offers both gourmet and classic pizzas, all of which are made using fresh ingredients. Their incredible flavor combinations include toppings like pistachio pesto, truffle cream, and even toasted hazelnuts. Pizzeria Rumore is definitely a must-try if you’re in the area.
The restaurant is typically very busy, so it is best to arrive in Labin an hour or two before you would like to sit down. As soon as you arrive, head over to Pizzeria Rumore and put your name down for a table. Then you can stroll through the city, take photos or grab a coffee while you wait for them to call you.
Pijana Pruga (“Drunk Railroad”)
Pijana Pruga, or Drunk Railroad, is a unique stop to add to your Istrian road trip.
Located in the southeastern part of the Istrian peninsula, these abandoned railroad tracks once connected the towns of Lupoglav and Štalije. Today, they are part of a hiking trail that many visitors to the area come to enjoy.
One section of the tracks has become entirely disfigured due to the collapse of the terrain, causing the rails to bend and slope, inspiring the nickname Drunk Railroad.
The train tracks are crazy, windy, and in some parts hollow underneath, so walking over this particular section should be done with caution. Otherwise, the tracks have not been in use for over twenty years, so exploring them is entirely safe. While walking on the tracks, you can enjoy beautiful views of the Čepićko Valley, which are extra spectacular during sunset.
This is such a fun place to visit and is a great opportunity to get some cool photos on the tracks as well!
How to get there: Enter “Pijana Pruga” into Google Maps and drive to the village of Kožljak, where you will leave your car. From there, starting at house number Kožljak 125, walk up the gravel path through the trees until you reach the train tracks. Once you reach the tracks, turn left and walk until you see the section of the railway where the tracks begin to slope (only about 5-10 minutes from where you parked). You’ve made it to the Drunk Railroad!
With only 30 inhabitants, the tiny town of Hum is officially listed as the smallest town in the world!
Visitors can walk around the entire town in just a few minutes as it is only 100 meters long, and 30 meters wide. Way back in the 11th century, the town was entirely closed in by walls, making it one of the few well-preserved urban developments that is entirely encompassed by medieval walls.
While there are not many activities that go on in Hum, it is a lovely pit stop to make while driving through Istria. In town, you can grab some lunch or stop by the Aura shop to try the town’s most famous Istrian brandy known as Biska. The brandy is made following a 2,000-year-old recipe and makes a great souvenir to take home from the smallest town in the world.
Located just a short drive away from Hum, Kotli is an abandoned mill village with a pretty unique landscape. The river Mirna that runs through the village has formed natural, crater-like pools in the rock, creating a scene that resembles Pamukkale in Turkey. Although much smaller than Pamukkale, this hidden gem has transformed this area into a natural spa in the middle of the Istrian countryside.
This magical place is perfect for swimming but bear in mind that the pools can dry up in the summertime. For this reason, the best times of year to visit are in the spring and fall when there is more rainfall. In addition to swimming, you can also enjoy a drink under the shade of the hillside tavern overlooking the falls.
Perhaps the most photographed town in all of central Istria, this medieval village is perched on a 277-meter-high hill overlooking the Mirna Valley and the truffle-rich Motovun Forest.
This exceptionally well-preserved medieval town comes alive for a week in the summer during the annual Motovun Film Festival. During the festival, international films are screened at pop-up theaters throughout the town from morning until late at night. Directors from around the world even compete for the prestigious Propeler Award, while movie-goers enjoy interactive events and endless parties.
Grožnjan, also known as Grisignana, is the most enchanting of all of the hilltop towns that can be found in Central Istria. From winding cobblestone streets, beautiful flowers blooming among ancient ruins, and picturesque views around every corner, Grožnjan is like something straight out of a fairytale.
Much like Motovun, Grožnjan comes alive during the summer months, when the town opens up its doors to summer music academies as well as dance and drama workshops. Young artists flock to the town to study under the mentorship of talented experts in music and drama.
Oprtalj is a charming little hilltop town overlooking Motovun and the rolling green hills of Istria. A beautiful winding road lined with cypress trees leads up to the town, making for quite the scenic drive.
The town itself is small and filled with antique stores, hidden courtyard gardens, and abandoned stone houses. Despite its tiny size, Oprtalj is an excellent place to base yourself for exploring this particular area of the Istrian peninsula.
When in Oprtalj, be sure to stop by the town’s restaurant, Konoba Oprtalj, and try their asparagus omelette. Istria is very famous for its wild asparagus, which will probably look different than what you are accustomed to. The asparagus in Istria is very long and skinny.
If you visit Istria during the springtime, you might notice locals along the sides of the roads searching through the grass and trees – they are most likely searching for wild asparagus!
One of the tiniest villages in Istria, with a total population of 17 inhabitants, Ipši is a darling little village to drive through when leaving Oprtalj.
There is one house in particular that you cannot miss. It can be easily recognized by its lovingly decorated window, and the sign “Antiques” hanging next to it. This home is owned by a local who sells some of the most stunning antiques in the region! You can even purchase traditional Istrian glass bottles from him that were once used to store rakija, a popular Croatian brandy. The bottles today can be seen all over Istria and are now used mainly for decoration.
Buzet, also known as the Truffle Capital of Istria, is a sleepy little town that offers a taste of the region’s ancient history. It is worth paying a visit to the town’s historic core to explore the 15th-century streets and visiting the nearby distillery, Aura.
Aura is Istria’s most renowned distillery, famous for producing fine Istrian liquors like biska (traditional Istrian brandy) and terranino (a sweet red wine liqueur). In addition to countless flavors of brandy and liqueur, Aura also produces award-winning gin and a variety of local jams and chocolates.
The distillery can be visited without prior notice, where the friendliest and most welcoming staff will welcome you in with open arms. They will walk you through the distillery and explain the process of making brandy, liqueur, and gin from start to finish.
You will also have the opportunity to try a variety of different liqueurs like dried fig, rose, almond & olives, pear, honey, along with many others.
During our visit, the staff even put together a complimentary board of Istrian cheese, prosciutto, olive oil, olives, and bread for us to try along with the liqueurs. They really exceeded our expectations, especially because we arrived unannounced.
Also in Buzet, about a twenty-minute drive from the Aura Distillery is Karlic Truffles, a must-visit when you are in the area. Buzet is the gateway to the truffle-rich region, so there is no better place than Buzet to sample the freshest truffles and most unique truffle products.
At Karlic Truffles, you can enjoy a complimentary tasting by their lovely staff, and try truffle products you never even knew could exist like “Trufella” (think Nutella mixed with black truffles), truffle-infused brandy, and even truffle Aceto balsamico.
The staff is incredibly hospitable, welcoming all visitors in as if they were family. If the weather permits, you can even go truffle hunting with them and their adorable dogs! However, be sure to book at least one week in advance on their official website.
The town of Momjan is surrounded by some of the most renowned restaurants, wineries, and breweries in Croatia. This is the perfect place to head for trying the region’s famous Istrian delicacies!
For the best homemade pasta with truffles, you will want to visit Konoba Stari Podrum. This restaurant offers a wonderful, and welcoming ambiance, spectacular staff, and some of the most delectable dishes to be found on the Istrian peninsula. Of course, they also have an excellent selection of Istrian wine! The prices are moderate, but be sure to make a reservation in advance as the restaurant tends to get very busy, especially during the weekend.
Right down the road from Konoba Stari Podrum is one of Istria’s most famous wineries, Kozlovic. This stunning winery is best visited in the summer and fall, when you can enjoy lush vineyard views with award-winning wine in hand. Kozlovic offers both tastings and vineyard tours that can be arranged in advance, or you can just pop by for a drink and to enjoy the beautiful scenery.
If wine isn’t your thing, you might consider a visit to San Servolo Resort & Beer Spa, located just a few minutes away from Kozlovic Winery by car. This luxurious boutique hotel is nestled in the hilly countryside near the town of Buje and offers one of the most unique beer experiences. In addition to an exceptional steak restaurant, San Servolo offers die-hard beer fans the opportunity to enjoy an actual beer bath!
Getting Around the Istrian Peninsula
The best way to explore Istria Croatia is by renting a car. This will allow you to make stops along the way and spend as much time as you like exploring each destination.
Unfortunately getting to each of these places by bus is not efficient as the bus system typically offers service to larger towns from which you have to take a smaller, local bus to your desired location. There are no busses that run between the small hilltop towns, and for this reason, a car is the most ideal mode of transportation.
Due to the winding roads and hilly terrain, be sure to keep an eye on your gas tank. Gas stations in these rural areas are not as frequent as they are in larger, more touristy towns, so it is best to ensure that your tank is always at least half full.
Where to Stay When Exploring the Istrian Peninsula
There are plenty of options to choose from when it comes to accommodation in Istria. From boutique hotels, rustic Croatian villas, and even 5-star resorts, there are options for all travel styles and budgets.
Here are a few recommendations of where to stay when visiting Central Istria:
- B&B Palazzo Angelica, Oprtalj
- San Canzian Village & Hotel, Buje
- Wine & Heritage Hotel Roxanich, Motovun
- San Servolo Beer Resort & Spa, Buje
If you are interested in renting out an entire Istrian Villa, Airbnb has plenty of great choices.
Best Time to Visit the Istrian Peninsula
The Istrian peninsula can be visited all year round, however, the best time to visit is between the months of May and September. If you prefer moderate temperatures and don’t mind a bit of rain, the spring is a wonderful time to visit as you will likely have most destinations all to yourself.
The tourism season begins in June and is in full force until the end of August, making these months the busiest and hottest times of the year to visit.
September and October are also great times to visit, particularly for truffle hunting and olive harvesting.
Places Worth Checking Out on the Istrian Coast
No trip to Croatia is complete without a visit to the Adriatic coast! Luckily, the Istrian peninsula is no exception. You can easily continue your road trip through Istria’s lush green interior to the sparkling Adriatic Sea. Most coastal destinations can be reached in just a few hours by car.
Here are some that are worth checking out:
Rovinj is a charming town made up of colorful houses crowded onto a tiny peninsula. Spend a few hours or days getting lost in its enchanting piazzas and cobblestone streets, or bathe in the crystal waters of Lone Bay. Discover more things to do in Rovinj here.
Located at the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, Pula is the largest town in the area and holds some of the most history. This seaside destination is home to one of the best-preserved Roman arenas outside of Rome, and it is absolutely spectacular to see. In addition to the arena, the area also offers some pretty amazing swimming spots just south of the city at Cape Kamenjak.
Just a short boat ride away from Pula lies the beautiful Brijuni archipelago. This chain of fourteen islands make up a national park bursting with untouched natural beauty, exotic wildlife, and even dinosaur footprints. The Brijuni islands can be seen on a day trip, or you can opt to stay for a few days of exploring and swimming along the gorgeous coastline.
Poreč is one of the most popular resort towns in Istria. It’s a city that boasts incredible history thanks to its 6th-century Euphrasian Basilica that can be spotted from nearly every point in town. The town’s pristine coastline and beautiful camping areas draw in visitors who love the sea, sun, and great outdoors.