Croatia is an infinitely beautiful country, with widely diverse landscapes that make every region unique in it’s own, magical way. Though we typically hop from place to place quickly, we spent months exploring Croatia from top to bottom, with each new location rocking our world even more than the last. Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, we made our way to the far north – the Istrian Peninsula – and discovered our favorite spot in all of Croatia.
Istria is a heart-shaped peninsula where the rolling hills of continental Croatia meet the Adriatic Sea. The surrounding coast is home to secluded spots with enchanting, cliff-side views, while the interior’s rolling hills are home to quaint, colorful hilltop villages overlooking endless rows of beautifully kept vineyards. The best part? The whole peninsula smells of truffles! They are easy to find, cheap to indulge, and the wine-roads lead you though a gastronomic piece of heaven. For us – this is paradise!
We settled in the charming, coastal town of Rovinj for our two months exploring Istria. Rovinj is filled with tourists in the summer; however, things slow down dramatically at the beginning of September, which is the height of truffle season 🙂
We arrived in Rovinj with no expectations, which made our first stroll down the cobblestone streets, lined with colorful buildings and charming piazzas, quite dramatic to say the least. We explored every inch of our neighborhood – as far as our bikes would take us – and we also ventured inland for a deeper dive into the Istrian countryside. Rovinj is the perfect jumping off point, and our weekend trips down the wine-roads were some of our favorite experiences.
Here are 7 highlights from our two months exploring – just a taste… from the charming streets of old town Rovinj to the rolling hills of northern Istria!
#1: The panoramic view from the Rovinj bell tower.
Beside the Church of St. Euphema sits the 60 meter bell tower, with breathtaking views from the top. The climb is surprisingly intimidating as you step up narrow, wooden steps all the way up!
The view, however, is worth every step, especially at sunset!
#2: Biking through The Zlatni rt Park Forest.
This gorgeous landscape is filled with lush vegetation, winding along well marked trails, leading to pristine beaches and cliff-side views.
We found that biking through the forest was definitely the best way to explore, stopping at scenic spots along the way.
The park is also a rock-climbers paradise, with tons of varying options along the cape’s cliffs.
#4: Indulging in truffles to our heart’s content.
Istria has ideal conditions for fertile truffle grounds, and these underground treasures are served at nearly every restaurant in the region. Although truffles run rampant in many areas of Italy as well, their specific taste and intense scent will forever make me think of Istria – we couldn’t get enough. In general, the truffle dishes we sampled were the most affordable we’ve seen anywhere. It was a budget, foodie travelers dream!
Our favorite dining experiences were at Aqua2 and La Puntulina – both of which have phenomenal truffle-inspired dishes and homemade pasta.
#5: Cliff-side picnicking.
When we first arrived in Rovinj, we spent many evenings at Mediterraneo Bar. This laid back spot was our favorite cliff-side bar, and I was devastated when it closed for the season!
It wasn’t long, however, before I realized that there are tons of secluded, cliff-side spots perfect for a bottle of wine and a blanket.
We often had a breakfast picnic on the cliffs, returning in the late afternoon for sunset and a bottle of Malvasia 🙂
#6: Roaming the wine roads.
Wine is sacred in Istria. The the love and art of making wine runs through the veins of the Istrian people, something that is very apparent while touring the wine-roads. We took a beautiful drive north from Rovinj, visiting wineries big and small along our way, and falling in love with Teran and Malvazija. We were surprised to discover that it’s hard to squeeze in more than two or three winery visits in a single day. Each stop provided generous tasting glasses and plenty of treats for a long and lovely experience.
We started our day with a beautiful tasting at Kozlovic Vina. This classy building (a modern piece of architectural art!) sits atop sloping vineyards and among ancient surroundings. It’s quite a unique phenomenon.
Our tasting was scenic and even affordable, especially since you have the option of buying bottles to take home in lieu of paying for the tasting 🙂
While Kozlovic was a phenomenal experience, we found our time at the quaint, traditional Geržinić family Winery to be a very special treat.
We were welcomed by Marino, one of two brothers who own and operate the vineyard, and we were treated to their famous Istrian Malvazija, homade olive oil, and an impressive display of flavored Grappa.
Our time with Marino did more than satisfy our wine-loving taste buds. We learned more about the art of wine-making in Istria, and how the love of wine can live on for decades through a dedicated family of vintners.
#7: Exploring the hilltop towns.
Most tourists in Croatia cling to the coast, and I can’t blame them for that, but Istria is different. It’d be a shame to miss the beautiful hilltop towns found inland! Let the wine-roads be your guide for a visit to some of the most colorful, creative little scenic-spots you’ve ever seen.
Our personal favorite was the lesser-known artist’s colony of Grožnjan (only 185 inhabitants). I’ve never seen such an enchanting place, with beautiful gardens and colorful homes around every corner.
We spent most of our time wandering the streets and walking the Parenzana Trail, which follows a scenic train path through tunnels and over bridges.
We were also blown away by an incredible meal of truffle pizza and $1 glasses of wine at Caffe bar Vero, with breathtaking views from the terrace.
Motovun is the most popular Istrian hill-town, and for good reason. Sitting high above vineyards, Motovun’s dramatic views swept us off our feet.
We were lucky to be in town for their annual truffle festival, which takes place towards the end of October.
This festival alone caused us to have a dependency for the potent truffle taste and smell, one that we’ve had trouble breaking ever since.
Istria is one of those special places that feeds all of your senses…
The views, the smells, the tastes, and even the warm breeze of the Adriatic Sea are burned in my brain. A beautiful memory of a place that inspired us in so many ways. If I’m ever asked what my favorite spot in Croatia is, “Istria” is my resounding answer… that’s saying a lot considering my love for every inch of the country.