Pula is a seafront town on the southwest tip of Croatia’s Istrian Peninsula. With nearly 60,000, it is the 8th biggest city in Croatia. This beautiful city gives a small taste and feel of Rome without the large population, tourists, or cheesy commercialization. It is a great low-key alternative to Rome with the bonus of being on the Adriatic Sea!
This region of Croatia dates back to the prehistoric era and has a strong Venetian influence. Due to its strategic location, the city has been through extensive battles for occupation, including the Romans, Venetians, Ostrogoths, and the Allied forces during World War II.
Pula is a fascinating city that remains largely undiscovered by tourists. There is an authenticity and local appeal that is quite attractive. That is changing as more become aware of all there is to offer. There are ancient monuments, lovely national parks, an old town, and many forts. You can also take in the gorgeous coastline, extensive water activities, music, and art festivals. There is a vibrant nightlife and modern light shows.
The Roman Ruins that called to us
What drew us there was the Roman arena. It is the 6th largest Roman Amphitheater globally and the only one with a fully intact circular wall. Built in the 1st century A.D., it is amazingly preserved and a pleasure to explore.
Imagine this: Rome Coliseum without all the crazy lines or packed with people. It is smaller but, in many ways, just as spectacular, and it is on the Adriatic Sea to boot.
This massive structure and the interesting museum underneath had only four people at the time of our visit. Arriving near sunset and after a rainstorm illuminated it in a golden light. To wander this magnificent Roman ruin and have it to ourselves was extraordinary. We felt as if we had stepped back in time. It was hard to believe we were not in the heart of Rome.
Slide show of Pula Amphitheater
Entertainment venue for over 2,000 years
It was not hard to imagine 20,000 cheering spectators two thousand years ago watching gladiator fights. Surprisingly, it is still used for concerts with performers like Elton John and Pavarotti. There are sporting games, city events, and outdoor movie nights. It has been used as the backdrop for Hollywood movies such as Titus. The fact it is still actively used for significant events 2000 years later speaks to the engineering and brilliance of the Romans.
Other Roman sites in Pula
Having a long Roman presence in this city, there are many more monuments from that period. The Temple of Augustus, Triumphal Arch of Sergius, Old Town, Forum, Gate of Hercules, Pula Communal Hall, and a well-preserved Roman theater are well worth visiting. There is no doubt this was a great Roman city.
There is WAY more to Pula Croatia than those Roman sites
The Pula Castle Fortress
Pula Castle “Kaštel” is an old Venetian fortress built between 1630 and 1633. It resides high on a hill above the city of Pula. Pula is on Croatia’s southern end of the Istria Peninsula along the Adriatic Sea. Because of its dominating position, the fortress was used to defend the city, bay, and port for many centuries.
The Castle was designed by French military engineer Antonio De Villa and modeled on French methods. Some of the stones used to build the Castle were from a nearby large Roman theater, along with other quarries around Pula. It was an important defensive point for Venetian control of the Adriatic Sea.
The center of the fortress has a rectangular shape and four additional pentagonal towers, which enhanced its security. From an aerial perspective, the Castle appears to have the shape of a flower. The Castle was refurbished several times over the centuries. During the Austrian-Hungarian dynasty, the fortress was called Hafen Kastell, and during the 19th century, it received new armament, prison, guardhouse, and other enhancements. It was part of the city of Pula’s fortification system.
Today, there is the Historical Museum of Istria in the Castle, which has more than 75,000 objects of cultural, historical, political, and military significance in over 15 collections. To reach the castle you can drive up or take an elevator up via Zerostrasse (see next).
Beneath Pula’s hills, the Austro-Hungarian authorities began construction of an extensive underground system of tunnels stretching across most of the city of Pula. The underground tunnels were erected during WW1 to provide shelter in case of air raids. After the First World War, the Italian government continued to use the underground shelters and expanded them.
The underground tunnel system consisted of shelters, trenches, galleries, and passages, as well as ammunition storage and communication passages. The tunnels of Monte Zaro, Monte Ghiro, and the Castel are the largest. Zerostrasse has four entrances from different sides of the base of the hill, through which underground corridors lead towards an intriguing space in the middle. The entrances are designed in a way that ensures the air circulates properly. All the Pula shelters combined could accommodate up to 50,000 people, almost equal to the number of city residents
We found the tunnels fascinating and a great way to enter the castle from below. The middle space where the tunnels meet up is where you can take an elevator up to the Castle. There are separate entry fees for Zerostrasse and the Castle.
Pula has an impressive collection of remnants from its Austro-Hungarian era in which it served as the Empire’s main naval port. There are a total of 26 forts that are falling into ruins but are still fascinating to visit. Maps can be found that will help you discover these gems, many on hilltops with gorgeous views. It is a great way to spend a day exploring the city’s surroundings.
Croatia is a country of deep faith that is core to the lives of its citizens. Pula reflects that with many religious places of worship. They include the Monastery and Church of St Francis, the Church of St Anthony, the Church of the Lady of the Sea, the Cathedral of the Assumption of the Holy Virgin, and the Pula Cathedral.
The Modern Side of Pula
On the more modern side, there is the Pula Aquarium, Marketplace, wineries, pubs, and bars, lovely public parks, sporting events, outdoor concerts, film festivals, gladiator shows, cooking classes, and quite a party club scene. If that isn’t enough, there are the Lighting Giants in the shipyards of Pula. Created by designer Dean Skira, the sophisticated light show involves 16,000 color variations.
The Gorgeous Adriatic and its offerings
Sitting on the deep blue Adriatic Sea Pula is blessed with a beautiful and dramatic coastline. The beauty of this area will take your breath away. Cape Kamenjak is striking, with a collection of small islands offshore. The natural beauty with its cliffs and rock formations will amaze you, as well as the locals jumping off the cliffs into the crystal clear ocean. The best beaches are on the west side of the Cape.
Just to name a few seaside activities
Residing on the Adriatic water activities is a popular draw here. Kayaking, sunset boat tours, sailing, speed boating, windsurfing, paddleboarding, sea cave exploration, dolphin watching, waterskiing, jet skiing, snorkeling, and scuba diving are popular. Many of these are available a short drive south of Pula in Medulin.
Want to explore some nature? The Brijuni National Park requires a 20-minute boat ride and, in most cases, requires reservations ahead of time. The island is densely wooded, with the perimeter graced with narrow white-sand beaches. This area has hundreds of dinosaur footprints from the Cretaceous period that are fun to see, along with size full-size dinosaur figures. Additionally, there is part of a Roman villa to see.
Food and Libations
The food in the region is well respected, and a popular activity is food tours. Istria peninsula is famous for its truffles, and this is a great place to partake in some black truffles. What is food without a drink, there is quite a bustling nightlife in Pula, and pub crawls are a fun way to spend an evening. Not into pubs; well, there are also some wineries in the Pula area to do some Croatia wine tasting. Croatia has a vast wine country with unique and fun varieties. Food and alcohol are very well priced, so indulge a little.
Of course, what is a city without a collection of fantastic museums? Pula has many, and one of the best is the archaeology museum, with a beautiful collection of mosaics and ancient stone relics. On display are artifacts from Stone Age caves and Byzantine marble sculptures. Several other museums, including contemporary art, maritime, and photography, are for your perusing pleasure. Take some time to appreciate the rich history.
Pula is one of many incredible cities on the west coast of the Croatian Istria Peninsula and would be an excellent base for visiting the area. We stayed for two days and used it as our base to visit Rovinj, Porec, Sveti Lovrec, Novigrad, and Vrsar. We are so in awe of these towns that we will dedicate a whole post to them. They are beyond magnificent. Pula served us well as the perfect location to work from, especially since we wanted to avoid changing hotels every night.
Two of our favorite Pula restaurants
On Joelle’s second visit to Croatia with her cooking group they were able to secure a reservation at one of the top restaurants in Croatia. It is just a short distance from Pula in Banjole. It is incredibly popular and it is very difficult to get a reservation. We thought it was a pipe dream to get a reservation for 16, even months before, It may have been our willingness to arrive at 5:00, a very early hour to eat in Croatia, that we were able to secure one.
Battelinas is a distinguished old tavern in Banjole owned by the Skoko family. It is simply decorated while attaining some elegance at the same time. The famous self-made chef David Skoko, a talented TV Chef loved throughout Croatia, was one of its founders. Although he does not cook at Batelina anymore, he is the one who creates the menu it is reported. Batelina prides itself on serving fresh produce directly from the sea, meaning that what is fished that day will be on the menu. That spontaneity is what draws many to Batelina’s as well as the imaginative culinary skills. David Skoko’s cuisine is unique and delicious.
The daily offerings are explained verbally to the guests. We never saw a menu though smaller tables may have been given one. There were fish served we had never heard of. The presentation was remarkable and the freshness was beyond compare. Some dishes were raw and most were cooked. The wine list is that of local wineries. The warm service, attentive staff, and relaxed atmosphere make it one of the best meals you will ever experience.
Anthony Bourdain brought them even bigger exposure
Anthony Bourdain visited Croatia in episode 3 of season 8 of No Reservations. In this episode, he dines at Konoba Batelina with Chef David Skoko and his mother Alva, who had appeared on Master Chef. Batelina was already on the map but this launched them into a worldwide audience.
Here are some of the dishes we were served: White Bream carpaccio with tiny tapioca balls, Eddlefish confit in zucchini sauce, Conger eel butter, Octopus salad, Gnocchi with tuna, Risotto with tiny shellfish, Anchovies in olive oil, Scallops on the shell, and Red Mullet with crispy polenta and zucchini. These were only some of the dishes, our meal had 21 different dishes. For a fish-oriented menu, their desserts were no less spectacular. Many in our group felt it was one of the best meals they ever had.
The restaurant takes only cash and though the cost is high for Croatia it is very inexpensive in comparison to most of Europe and the US. We warn you that getting a reservation can be confusing. They do not have a website which makes their popularity even more amazing. We were able to get a reservation by emailing email@example.com. Their phone number is +385 52 573 767 though we never used it ourselves.
On our first visit to Croatia in 2020, while in Zagreb, our hotel front desk asked us where we were heading next. When we said Pula, they immediately said we have staff here who come from there. They called her over, and she was excited to share her area knowledge. We told her we prefer restaurants that cater to locals versus tourist areas. She did not hesitate for one second and said Konoba Boccaporta. She said it was a local favorite with the region’s traditional food.
Always seek recommendations from the locals you meet; they are a wealth of information.
As we made our way to the restaurant on our first night in Pula, we were sure the GPS was lost as we went into a forested residential neighborhood; however, just as we were about to give up, it appeared.
And what fun it was!
Their motto says it all ‘A nice word opens the door’
That is fitting as it had a local feel, as we were likely the only non-Croatians there that evening. The restaurant had a rustic interior, wooden beams, and a roaring fire in the hearth. It reeked of authenticity, atmosphere, and charm. We were lucky that night as there was only one table left. Our server initially seemed unsure of what we were about. As we asked him to suggest what he believed would be the best representation of the local cuisine and his favorites, he became genuinely excited to plan our meal.
We got a feast! So much meat as is the local cuisine. It was a blast, and our server was engaging and entertaining. The service was excellent, the conversation fun, and the food delicious. The price was very reasonable for all the great food we ordered. As we headed out after we paid the bill, our server stopped us and invited us to join him for a shot of Grappa. That simple and kind act made our whole evening. It is moments such as that which make the best memories.
We highly recommend Konoba Boccaporta for an authentic, delicious dive into Istrian Croatian specialties.
Where to stay in Pula
Pula and its suburbs have an extensive collection of accommodations to choose from. We stayed south of downtown on the waterfront in the Pješčana Uvala area. We loved the location, minutes from downtown but quiet and relaxed. Our hotel was nice, just not one we would recommend as it serves a narrow clientele that would not be a good fit for many people, including us.
The hotels and Air BnBs we found as we researched the area were quite reasonable as most everything is in Croatia.
We suggest deciding first if you want more of the city or a quieter experience. If you prefer a resort beach experience, look at the Medulin area. Check reviews closely and make sure they are recent. Parking can be challenging during peak season, so consider that as you look for hotels. Check out either link below for accommodations in and near the Pula area.
Where to find accommodations
It is important to price out properties on various sites. Expedia is a US-based company, whereas Booking.com is Europe-based. Not all properties appear on both, so check both. Our personal first choice is Booking.com. If the establishment has a website, check the price there as well.Booking.com
Croatia is a magnificent country, and Pula is part of that wonder. The city is vibrant and has a vibe that caught us by surprise. Amid ancient history, there is a cosmopolitan feel while remaining personable.
We wish we could have spent at least one more day in this area during our joint visit. That was one reason Joelle suggested it to her cooking group. It still wasn’t enough time. There is so much to see and do. It could be a full-week vacation with endless activities.
As we continued our journey, we reminded ourselves the adage remains true; it is best to wish you could spend more time at a destination than to be anxious to leave. You will want to spend more time, and maybe you won’t want to leave. Don’t worry; there is always next time.
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