A breeze blows in from the Adriatic as wooden sailboats ferry travelers out to islands full of hidden beaches and coves. Vendors tout bottles of fresh oils pressed from the olive trees that grow outside the city walls. A crowd sits on the slick white marble steps along the courtyard of a Roman palace to hear a traditional Klapa performance. A gem of the Dalmatian coast, Split is Croatia’s second-largest city and a paradise on the sea. History pervades this city, and the surrounding scenery only amplifies the beauty of the limestone walls. If planning a trip to the Balkans, Split is a cultural hub not to miss.
Split can easily be seen in a day. While the antiquated city centre is immensely charming, it isn’t large. That said, Split serves as a great jumping-off point for exploring neighboring cities and islands. Take a day trip to Hvar, Brač, Šolta, or Korčula. Visit the stunning Krka falls or explore the inland city of Zagreb. Try out sea kayaking and rock climbing, or a relaxing sunset sail.
I found Split to be a youthful city, striking a balance between the antiquated walls and the buzzing modernity of Dalmatian life. It’s nightlife scene was vibrant compared to Dubrovnik, and the atmosphere even more relaxed. Split sits on the central coast, somewhere below Zadar but north of Dubrovnik. Here are some of the best things to see and do when spending 24 hours in Split.
Explore Diocletian’s Palace
The jewel at the heart of the city is the palace of roman emperor Diocletian. Pass through any of the four gates into the old town, thriving inside the palace walls as it has for thousands of years. The scenery may be recognizable from its recent feature on Game of Thrones, but the city was first founded as a Greek colony around the 2nd century BC. The Palace of Diocletian was built in 305 CE by the Romans as a retirement home for the emperor. Over the years, the city has been influenced by the Byzantines and the Venetians – which is what gives the region and its architecture an Italian flair. Today Diocletian’s Palace still houses half of the old town, and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Visitors can even explore the subterranean network of vaults beneath the palace.
Visit the Cathedral of St. Dominus (and Climb the Campanile!)
Within the palace walls sits the Cathedral of St. Dominus, an architecturally stunning mausoleum and chapel with a bell tower that sits dominant on the city’s skyline. For the best view of the city, start climbing up! I will warn that this was one of the most harrowing bell tower climbs I’ve encountered to date. From the cheap metal stairs to the open windows, I felt quite exposed – so this isn’t for the faint of heart! But the views at the top made the climb more than worth it.
Visit the Temple of Jupiter
Follow the signs from the cathedral to the baptistery (your ticket from the first serves as admission to the second) and you’ll discover the Temple of Jupiter. This small, ancient Roman temple features vaulted ceilings and friezes along the walls. A statue of St. John the Baptist now stands in the centre, as the temple became the cathedral’s baptistery in later years. Outside, an 3rd century Egyptian sphinx guards the entrance.
Idle in Peristil Trg
My favorite square (trg) in Split, Peristil sits in the heart of Diocletian’s Palace, bordered by the Cathedral of St. Dominus and another Egyptian sphinx. Thousands of years ago, the emperor would greet his subjects here. It’s a chilling experience, standing where you can nearly touch the history. The stone courtyard is lined with white marble steps, where locals and travelers alike gather to sip on coffee or wine from a nearby cafe and listen to the musicians who play nightly.
Wander the Streets of Old Town
The narrow stone walkways of Split’s old town snake out of the palace and around world-class piazzas, cathedrals, museums, and restaurants. In a way, it feels like a historic labyrinth. Visit the People’s Square (Narodni Trg) and Fruit Square (Voćni Trg), where you’ll find shops and cafes to idle at. The Octagonal Tower rises above the city, dating back to the 15th century. Statues of prominent leaders can be found throughout, like that of Gregory of Nin – be sure to rub his toe for luck! The city isn’t sprawling, so the best way to see it is to let yourself just get lost in the architecture.
Shop at the Marketplace
Just outside of the palace’s silver gate, you’ll find a sprawling marketplace where tents tout local crafts, goods, and foods. If you’re looking for a local souvenir to bring home, test out the local olive oils and honeys. Jewelry made with traditional Šibenik button designs and local stones can be found, as well as handprinted scarves or fresh fruit to stay cool in the hot Dalmatian sun. You can also find additional vendors in the vaults below the palace.
Lounge Along the Riva Promenade
Finally, take a stroll along the waterfront promenade outside the city walls. From the marina down to Republic Square (Prokurative), you’ll find outdoor restaurants a plenty – the perfect spot to idle with a drink and people watch. Yes, they tend to be a bit more expensive, but I found the ambiance to be worth it. Vendors line the waterfront and ships tour their tours. If you have the time, I recommend a sunset cruise on the Adriatic for stunning views of the city from the water!
If you are spending more time in the Balkans, consider a day trip to Bosnia!
What’s your favorite thing to do in Split?