As the UNESCO comments:
The ruins of Diocletian’s Palace, built between the late 3rd and the early 4th centuries A.D., can be found throughout the city. The cathedral was built in the Middle Ages, reusing materials from the ancient mausoleum. Twelfth- and 13th-century Romanesque churches, medieval fortifications, 15th-century Gothic palaces and other palaces in Renaissance and Baroque style make up the rest of the protected area.
Located on the Adriatic coast, central Dalmatia, Split is the largest city in Dalmatia and the second largest city in Croatia. It also has the second largest cargo harbor in Croatia and one of the largest passenger harbors on the Mediterranean sea. As one of the city’s most important symbols, Marjan hill rises on the west side of the peninsula, making Split an ideal place for various adventurers, who like either the sea, the mountains or the old cities with long history and valuable culture.
Having existed for 17 centuries, the history Split dates back to the time when the Roman Emperor Diocletian decide to build his retirement palace on the peninsula near the great Roman city Salona. Today, as a tourist, you can not only witness the glory of the Diocletian Palace 1700 ago but also experience the changes the city has gone through. The Diocletian Palace together with the historic town of Split has stayed in the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1979 not only because of the perfect preservation of the palace but also because of the continuity of life. Walking on the ancient stone roads between the narrow walls, you feel you’ve travelled back in time. The Peristyle, the middle aged Romanesque Church and Gothic Palace, the streets, squares, gates and monuments, each brick and stone have witnessed the change of the city from the old Roman time to the middle ages, and to today.
The know more about the history of Split, please click here.
Among all the people sitting in the cafes, bars and restaurants, wandering and bargaining among the shops and in the markets, promenading on the stone streets, walking along the sea under the palm trees, taking a ship or boat on the sea, it might not be easy to tell who are the tourists and who are the locals because whoever you are, once you are here, you are part of the city.
As a city rich in history and culture, it doesn’t mean that these are the only things that the city can offer. Like I mentioned before, in or around the city of Split, there are so many things to do and even though I stayed three days here, I didn’t feel I wasted one second here. Don’t take Split as a boring or even dead historic town because all the events such as concerts, theatre and film festivals, exhibitions, as well as all the ongoing events in the bars and clubs keep attracting numerous young people all around the year.
For food lovers I have to congratulate you because you’re now in a city of excellent gourmet. Whether inserted in traditional Croatian food or exotic dining experience, seafood or beef steak, beer or fine wine, your stomach won’t complain here. However, try to avoid some “convenient” or that is to say, too touristy places and if you have time, try to find some “hidden gems” and I can promise you you won’t regret the effort. I’ll talk a bit more about my dining experience in the later chapters of this post.
In this post, I’ll combine my own experiences and the information provided by the Tourist Board Split to suggest a convenient and efficient way to understand the history and cultural value of the historic center of Split as well as the Diocletian Palace. In the first chapter, I’ll explain more about the route of the self-guided tour of the city, that is to say, 14 info boards located within the area protected by the UNESCO. After this tour, I believe you will know much more about the history and cultural heritage of the city and why it is listed in the UNESCO World Heritage site. In the second chapter I’ll focus on the main tourist attractions that I’ve been to and provide you with some background information as well as some practical tips. In the third chapter I’ll make some suggestions about where to visit outside the old town and around Split, just in case you’ve planned a lot of time in Split and want have more options, or simply just in case you wanna have an adventure. In the forth chapter, I’ll tell you more about my own dining experience or some other tips during my stay in Split. All in all, I hope you can take an advantage of my experiences and learn from my mistakes, thus having a smooth and pleasant trip in Split.
1. Self-guided tour in the city
First of all, for your information, if you don’t really wanna plan a visit of the city by yourself or read the map and follow the info boards by yourself, it is possible to book guided tour of the city through many agencies. The small organized tours are available for groups from 2 to 20 people and just look for umbrellas with different color, which indicate that they are different travel agencies. Most of the tours start at the Peristyle (Peristil), the central square of the palace, also where the Tourist Board Split is located.
If you don’t wanna wait for signing up for guided tours on site, it is recommended to contact the tourist agencies and book the tours online. Here is the list of tourist agencies recommended by the Tourist Board Split. Don’t forget to ask whether the tour includes the visit to the Cathedral of Saint Domnius or not because in my opinion, this is a must-visit attraction.
I’m not doing any advertising for any of the travel agencies so I would say a self-guided tour is not a bad idea either. Actually, I feel that it suits me better because I can arrange my trip according to my own interest and pace. Anyway, whether you want a worry-free trouble-free guided tour organized by travel agencies or a flexible self-guided tour, the city has a lot tell.
If you finally decide to have a self-guided tour I have some advice for you. First of all, you’d better start by stopping by the Tourist Board Split, located close to the Cathedral of Saint Domnius. All you need is a brochure called “Split Old Town City Map” and on it the main attractions (Museums, Galleries, theaters, cathedral, churches, squares, historical monuments etc.) are listed. On the other side of the brochure is the map showing where the attractions are marked by red numbers. The green dotted line marks the area protected by the UNESCO and the purple dotted line marks the route of the self-guided tour, on which the purple numbers indicate where the info boards are. In order to have a better understanding of the history and culture of Split, these info boards play a vital role in your visit. There are in total 14 informative posters and only number 13 and number 14 are located a bit far from the centre of Split, but still only 7 mins by foot.
As shown above, the info boards (informative posters) are like these and the first one (starting point) is on the outside back wall of Tourist Board Split. The information provided is available in five languages, that is to say, Croatian, English, Italian German and French. I have to warn you that some of the informative posters are not that easy to find. Some might be on the wall close to the restaurants or shops, some might be hidden at the corners. However, this fact makes the self-guided tour more interesting and adventurous, more like a treasure hunting game. I still remember the happy look of my friends when one of them found certain poster first and screamed:” Ahh, I found it, I found it!” I’m not sure whether the Tourist Board did this on purpose or not but it certainly is an interesting way to learn about Split.
The 14 informative posters mainly provide information about the Basement Halls, Diocletian’s Palace, the Riva, the Castle, the temples, the square, the Golden Gate, the cathedral, the Silver Gate etc. After finishing reading these posters, I promise you’ll have a much better and deeper understanding of the historic center of Split. You can see 5 posters above, but I don’t wanna leak too much information anymore because only the combination of looking at the real monuments and reading about their history can leave you a true impression and I guess I shouldn’t spoil too much. However, don’t be disappointed because in the next chapter I’ll recommend some attractions to you, which really impressed me. I’ll try to provide as much info as possible and I hope I can persuade you to visit them.
2. Main attractions in Split historic center
Without any doubt, the heart and soul of Split is the 1700-year-old palace of Diocletian, one of the only four Roman emperors who abdicated. The colonnaded Peristyle, marble streets, palaces within the palace, wonderful arched gates (entrances) and partially excavated sub-structure make Split a museum where people lived and are still living.
According to the Tourist Board Split:
Diocletian Palace is one of the best preserved monuments of the Roman architecture in the world. The Emperor’s Palace was built as a combination of a luxury villa – summer house and a Roman military camp (castrum), divided into four parts with two main streets. Southern part of the Palace was, in this scheme, intended for the Emperor’s apartment and appropriate governmental and religious ceremonies, while the north part was for the Imperial guard – the military, servants, storage etc. The Palace is a rectangular building (approximately 215 x 180 meters) with four large towers at the corners, doors on each of the four sides and four small towers on the walls. The lower part of the walls has no openings, while the upper floor is open with a monumental porch on the south and halls with grand arch windows on the other three sides.
2.1 St. Domnius Cathedral/Diocletian’s Mausoleum
St. Domnius Cathedral is with no doubt the first and most important attraction that I’d like to recommend you to visit. According to Wikipedia,
Built 295–305 as the Mausoleum of emperor Diocletian, is the second oldest structure used by any Christian Cathedral. Consecrated in 641 AD, is regarded as the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world that remains in use in its original structure, without near-complete renovation at a later date.
Before entering, do pay attention to the 3500 year old Egyptian granite sphinx in front of the cathedral.
Though Diocletian oppressed many believers, Christians in Split decided instead of destroying his Mausoleum, to transform it into a cathedral. It is here where altars with relics of St Domnius and St Anastasius, take an honorary place. The wooden door of the cathedral was carved by Andrija Buvina in 1214.
Left of the entrance is a hexagonal pulpit from the 13th century. With its ciborium erected by Bonino da Milano in 1427 in the late Gothic style, the alter on the right was dedicated to the Salona’s Bishop and martyr St Domnius. Made in 1448 by the greatest Croatian architect and sculptor of his time Juraj Dalmatinac, the left side altar is of the second patron of Split, the Solin martyr craftsman Anastasius of Aquileia. The main altar with St Domnius’s remains from the Bonino’s altar (since 1770), was built by the Venetian sculptor Morlaiter in 1767.
As the Tourist Board Split explains:
In the interior it has a circular form with four semicircular and four rectangular niches. In the middle stood the Diocletian’s sarcophagus, later destroyed. Above the niches rise eight red granite Corinthian pillars, and above them another eight smaller ones.
Now, it’s time to tell you some practical info about visiting the cathedral and some nearby attractions.
In order to enter the cathedral, please follow the signs of the entrance. Do remember that the gate you see once you have climbed up the steps from the peristyle is the EXIT.
Now, opening hours:
Visiting the cathedral is allowed on working days from 8:00-19:00 and on Sundays from 12:30-18:30. Please remember that the holy mass are held on working days at 7:30 and on Sundays at 8:00, 10:00, 11:00 and 19:00 and during the holy mass, visiting is forbidden.
As for the tickets, it’s a bit complicated because you can not buy a single ticket just to visit the cathedral, instead you can buy one type of combined ticket to visit the cathedral, the crypt, the bell tower and the baptistery of St. John (Jupiter’s Temple) [in total 25 kn as I remember] or another type of combined ticket to visit the cathedral, the crypt, the bell tower, the baptistery of St. John (Jupiter’s Temple) and the treasury [I don’t really remember how much this ticket is].
The funny thing is you can buy separate tickets to go to the bell tower, the crypt and the baptistery of St. John (Jupiter’s Temple) so after I bought separate tickets and visited the bell tower and Jupiter’s Temple, I had to buy another combined ticket to enter the cathedral… (The salesgirl suggested if I buy a separate ticket to the crypt she could let me go into the cathedral but there was a long line so I just bought the combined ticket…)
Anyway, the point of my long and boring story is, if you plan to visit the cathedral, buy the combined ticket at once and don’t buy separate tickets first to visit the other attractions. If you just wanna climb up the bell tower or visit Jupiter’s Temple, then you can buy separate tickets on site.
2.2 The bell tower
The second must-visit attraction, in my opinion, is the bell tower located right next to the exit of the cathedral. This 57m bell tower was added on the 13th century and is indeed a great place to appreciate the spectacular view of whole Split. (You can buy separate ticket right at the entrance to the tower.) Like the bell tower in Trogir, the last steps to the top are not that east to climb. I suggest you wear comfortable shoes and if you are afraid of height, you’d better raise your courage because here could be a challenge to you. All I can promise is that the reward is worth your courage and effort. Like when I am in an amusement park taking the most popular roller coaster, this is a place where if you go you will be afraid but if you don’t go, you’ll regret.
2.3 The treasury and crypt
If you have time, visit the upstairs treasury and the underground crypt. An old monstrance, made by Victor de Angelis and the reliquaries of St. Domnius are displayed in the treasure. The crypt is dedicated to St. Lucia of Syracuse, one of the last victims of the christian persecutions under the reign of Diocletian. According to history books, Lucia was from a noble and rich family in Syracuse but she dedicated all her life to god. Her mother promised her to a young man and after he learnt about her vow of chastity, he turned her over to the Roman authorities. Regardless of the torture, she warned the governor that he will be punished. After hearing about this, the governor told the guards to dig out her eyes before her death. That’s why Lucia is the patron saint of the blind.
2.4 Jupiter’s Temple (baptistery of St. John)
There were three temples in Diocletian’s palace and the main temple is the one ordered to be built (from 295-305 AD) by Diocletian opposite to his own mausoleum. He was the last Roman emperor declaring himself divine and should be worshipped as the son of Jupiter, the god of sky and thunder and king of all gods. Imagine what an important location the temple occupied in 300 AD even with one of the 12 sphinxes taken from Egypt, siting in front of it. The gorgeous intact vaulted ceiling still has some of its spooky faces, because of which, this temple is among the best-preserved temples in the world and is particularly valuable. Because of the unexpected retirement and arrival of Diocletian to this palace, parts of the temple remained unfinished.
Eminent Scottish architect Robert Adam considered this temple one of the most beautiful European monuments. Rectangular in its floor plan the temple served to celebrate the Jupiter’s cult. It lies on an elevated podium, with a six column porch in front of it. Embossed images on the portal, as well as the barrel coffered vault influenced the early Renaissance architecture of Andrija Alessi and Nikola Firentinac in Trogir.
However, in the Middle Ages, this temple was transformed into the baptistery of St. John. A Baptismal Font was made at the beginning of the 13th century and once you enter, the first post facing you shows the figure of the Croatian king, Petar Krešimir IV, the first stone sculpture of any European king! Of course, you won’t miss the statue of John the baptist right in front of you once you enter. This is the work of Ivan Meštrović, Croatia’s most famous artist.
2.5 The basement halls (substructures)
The ground floor halls and the corridors of the Diocletian’s Palace can be reached either by a gate from the Riva (waterfront) or by the downwards steps from Peristyle. The central square was in Roman times used for elevating the residential chambers of Diocletian for better living conditions (light, wind etc.) and thus reflecting the layout of the floor above. The basement halls are an identical projection of the upper floor halls. Throughout centuries, the substructures remained basically unchanged, making them the best preserved ancient complexes of their kind in the world.
Since the city was developing above the substructure level, the basement halls gradually became filled with debris and waste, therefore unaccessible. Fortunately, around 50 years ago, the cleaning and rehabilitation work directed by an architect Vicko Andrićstarted, started and made the substructures open and accessible to the public. Nowadays, the basement hall connecting the Riva and the Peristyle is used for various purposes, for example, exhibitions, theatre plays, fairs like the International Flower Fair and many other social and cultural events. If you are a fan of Game of Thrones, part of some episodes were also filmed here. I crossed this hall many times during my visit and the souvenir shops here are busier than the markets above. Guided tours are also available for exploring the underground part of the city and special tours can be arranged for access to the parts not open to the public.
2.6 Palace squares
2.6.1 Peristyle (Peristil)
It is rather surprising that within this limited area of the palace and the growing population of the city, many wide, elegant streets have been transformed into residential houses while certain squares survived.
Located between Diocletian’s Mausoleum (St. Domnius Cathedral) and Jupiter’s Temple (baptistery of St. John), the Peristyle (Peristil) is undoubtedly the main square of Split. However, here was not a place for people to meet and hang out like nowadays but a religious place for people who worked and lived in the palace to come to worship Diocletian when he appeared.
The Emperor would appear under the architrave of the central part of Protyron, and his subjects would approach him, kneeling down, kissing the hem of his scarlet cloak, or they would fall in front of him, their entire body to the ground. The red colour of the granite columns emphasises the ceremonial function. Namely, ever since the Emperor Diocletian the colour purple became the imperial colour.
Nowadays, here sometimes turns into an open-air stage with occasional theatre plays. Instead of worshipping Diocletian, modern people like us prefer to have a cup of coffee and some snacks at the background of this ancient heritage.
2.6.2 Narodni Trg (People’s square)
Just outside the west gate of the palace is another famous square, Narodni Trg (People’s square), which as the name suggests, is the place where locals as well visitors gather and hang out. It is the first part inhabited in Split outside Diocletian’s Palace. With many restaurants, bars and shops, here is also where the old Town Hall is located, now transformed into an exhibition center. Still open is one of the oldest book shops in the world, Morpurgo, Nowadays it looks almost the same as it did in 1861.
2.6.3 Voćni trg (Fruit square)
As popular as the Narodni Trg (People’s square), Voćni trg (Fruit square) is famous for being the former home to city fruit and vegetable sellers. Around this square are several important historical monuments as well as restaurants, bars and cafes.
The biggest is certainly the octagonal Venetian tower, the leftover of the former fortress, built in the 15th century for the defence of, at the time, a small town. Opposite the tower is a magnificent Palace of the old family Milesi from the 17th century with a spectacular Baroque facade, one of the best examples of that style in the whole of Dalmatia. Just in front of it stands the monument to the father of the Croatian literature, the citizen of Split, Marko Marulić, who was one of the most important philosophers and intellectuals of the 15th century. The author of the monument, as well as of several others in the city is Ivan Meštrović.
This square is officially called Republic Square resemble the Venice St. Marks Square. After you almost finish your romantic stroll on the Riva towards the west, you won’t miss it on your right side. This square is only open towards the south, providing a great view over the waterfront and the see.
The building of the Prokurativa was initiated by one of the most renowned mayors in the history of the city Antonio Bajamonti in the mid 19th century. He wanted to show that Split supported Italian tradition with all its might.
I have to say that this building together with the square is really a success in terms of the resemblance of St, marks Square in Venice. I didn’t know anything about this square before and by accident, I came to this square looking for a restaurant for dinner. The first thing I said when I reached the steps to the square was that “Wow, this looks and feels like Venice.” Along the building are restaurants and food standing selling olives, olive oil, salami, ham, cheese etc. and if you are secretly transported here without any knowledge of your destination, you would definitely think you’re in Italy.
2.7 Palace gates
2.7.2 The golden gate
The Golden gate was called Porta septemtrionalis in its Roman name. Emperor Diocletian walked through it as he entered the Palace on the 1st of June 305 AD. These gates, starting from Peristyle, and then through Cardo street, led directly towards Salona as the capital city of the Roman Province Dalmatia. Only the emperor and his family could use the doors at that time.
Today, not far away from the Golden gate is the monument dedicated to Bishop Gregius of Nin (Grgur Ninski), the work of a great Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović. Together with the Golden gate, the statue has become a popular attraction among tourists and even one of the symbols of Split today.
2.7.2 The silver gate
The eastern gate of Diocletian’s palace was dedicated to St. Apollinaire, a saint worshipped all over the Mediterranean world during the early Christian period. The same as what had been done to the northern and western gate, the sentry corridor above the silver gate was also transformed into a church so the patron saint could protect the entrance to the city using his superpower.
The silver gate (with its Roman name Porta Orientalis) was unearthed to its original level and restored to its original appearance in the early 1950s and because of that many structures from the previous centuries were unfortunately removed. The Venetian gate located close to the silver gate was opened in the late Middle Ages and serviced as the eastern gate when the silver gate was walled and covered.
Silver Gate has recently enriched its history with the greatest event for all the Split Catholics, when in the year 2000 Pope John Paul II passed through them admiring the beauty of St Domniuses Cathedral where he later prayed.
Except the attractions I listed above, you can also have a look at the Iron Gate, the Brass Gate, the Vestibule, Split Islamic Center and Mosque, St. Save Orthodox Church, Maritime Museum, Meštrović Gallery, Gripe Fortress, Ethnographic Museum of Split, Archaeological Museum of Split, Art Museum of Split, Vidović Gallery, Varoš neighborhood, Split City Museum Radunica neighborhood etc. If you don’t have enough time, I believe visiting the places I’ve been to is enough for you to have a better understanding of the city.
3. Where to visit around Split
For me, I planned 3 days in Split and it seemed a bit too much of time if I only wanted to visit the historic center of the city. There are many things to do around Split as well. Depending on how far you’re willing to go and what kind of attractions you are interested in, you will never feel bored staying in Split. For example, if you are interested in national parks, Krka National Park and Plitvice lakes are two of the best options. If you are not yet satisfied with the rich history and culture of Split, you can go to some other cities or towns such as Salona (Solin), Kaštela, Klis, Trogir, Omiš, Šibenik and Zadar, of which some attractions or the historic center are also inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list. If you are more interested in the sea and the adventures on the sea, why not taking a ship, a boat or even a speedboat to the islands such as Brač, Hvar, Šolta and Blue cave-Biševo.
Too many options and not sure where to go? Why not simply combining a visit to one of the towns with a visit to the sea? There are numerous travel agencies located at the harbor of Split, on the Riva. Different agencies have various programs (full-day or half-day) adapted to your needs and preferences. Just visit them before 8 or 9 pm and I’m sure they are happy to offer you various routes with a discounted price for groups.
As for the price, most of the agencies seem to be cooperating and the price difference is not too big, so if you don’t care about several euros, you don’t need to bother asking around. You also need to leave a small deposit to reserve your seats but most employees are rather relaxed so don’t worry if you forget to take enough cash with you for the deposit. One thing you should notice is that all the agencies I consulted are cash only, so please remember to bring enough cash when you pay your tour. You can either pay in Kuna or in Euro. You also have the option of having your lunch either on board or in a restaurant of your chosen destination by adding additional 5 euros. Considering what I had around the Blue Lagoon, I’d say it’s worth 5 euros.
A trip to Trogir as well as the Blue Lagoon? That’s the program I chose. Although a bit in a hurry, I would say I really enjoyed it.
If you are interested in my visit to the Cathedral of St. James in Šibenik “St. James Cathedral in Šibenik – Witness to the exchanges in monumental arts” please click here for more information.
If you are interested in my visit to the Sea Organ in Zadar and St. Michael’s Fortress in Šibenik “Šibenik and Zadar – Venetian Works of Defence between the 16th and 17th Centuries” please click here for more information.
If you are interested in my visit to the historic town of Trogir and the Blue Lagoon “Trogir – Gold, Blue, Green, Purple. What’s Your Color?” please click here for more information.
If you are interested in my visit to Plitvice Lakes National Park “Plitvice Lakes National Park – A chain of 16 terraced lakes” please click here for more information.
All the four posts listed above are about the UNESCO natural or cultural heritage and I hope they can give you some idea of where to go around Split.
4. Some additional tips about visiting Split
As I mentioned at the beginning, I spent 3 days in and around Split and I have some more personal suggestions for you as for what to do and what to eat.
The first thing is that I can assure you eating in Split can be really enjoyable if you are willing to explore. If you only wanna sit somewhere close to the tourist attractions and somewhere seems full of tourists, I can’t promise you will have an unforgettable dining experience here. As for me, I googled about the restaurants, chose some that were of my interest and taste and made reservations. All these efforts ensured that I didn’t need to wait in the line with an empty stomach and check the menus from one restaurant to another. Some really nice restaurants are not located far from the palace but hidden in the corners. You don’t need to walk far to reach them but need to find them.
My second tip is a walk along the Riva (waterfront). Riva got it current appearance in the early 19th century, during the French rule. This experience surely gives you an idea of what summer breeze feels like. There are many restaurants, cafes, ice cream, smoothie, and fruit stands. Under the shadow of the palm trees, you can sit on the benches either facing the sea or the palace, or stroll between the sea and the palace, having an all-day long chat with your friends.
My third tip is to visit either the Riva or the historic center during sunset. Between the day and night of Split, sunset is a period of time both short and precious. The city puts on a red-fire coat, like a pajama given by the sun, before it goes to sleep. Probably the same amount of people are still walking in this old town, but this moment makes Split especially quiet and peaceful.
My fourth tip is to look into the life of the locals here. As I mentioned before, Split is not a boring historical complex but a lively museum with people living in it. Do pay attention to the details and you will discover what life is like here for the locals.
In my opinion, there is no better way of learning history and culture than experiencing it by yourself. Like using a time machine and traveling back in time in many science fiction movies, you can simply visit Split to make this come true.