I’m going to take a wild guess and presume that most of you reading this will be thinking, ‘Istria? Where’s that?’
Usually when someone books a trip to Croatia they usually head to the popular towns of Dubrovnik, Split & Hvar which are each stunning in their own right. However, few of you may have heard of the (for now) unspoilt beauty of Istria in Croatia.
Istria is only 2.5 hours from London, with most flights departing from London Stansted airport to Pula. Jet2 offer flights to Pula, as well as holiday package options to Istria with many of their 4 star, week long packages starting at just £500 per person.
If you’re unsure whether it’s somewhere that would tickle your fancy, I’ve shared my top 11 highlights from my trip there so read on and let me know what you think!
- Go Olive Oil Tasting
In the small town of Vodnjan, you will find a quaint, traditional Olive Oil farm owned by the award winning olive oil producer Chiavalon. We visited this place on our first day and had the luxury of being given an introduction into olives and their journey into being transformed into oil and it was fascinating! We learned that 80% of oil is fake – who knew?!
After being taught how to test the oil for authenticity – taking a small amount into the mouth, smelling it, heating it, and tasting it right at the back of your throat, we had a light dinner of salami and cheese with some local white wine. I really like Croatian wine– it’s delicious! They also have a shop onsite where you can purchase their 5 different types of oil (each created to suit a different type of food such as meat or fish).
They are open 6 days a week and reservations can be made online for their tailored courses that include exploring their olive groves, understanding the production process of the oil and of course the best part – tasting the oil! I’d thoroughly recommend this experience if you are visiting Istria, not only is something a little unusual to do, but the staff are both extremely knowledgable and very entertaining.
2. Truffle Hunt with Labradors
This was perhaps my favourite activity in Istria! On our last morning we drove to the town of Paladini to visit the Karlic Tartufi truffle farm. I am obsessed with dogs, so you can imagine my delight when we were greeted by eight very excitable dogs, from a three month old Labrador to an old, but equally adorable cocker spaniel.
Ivan Karlic founded the business in 1966 and it’s now run by his daughter Radmila who kindly spent her morning educating us on all things truffle. There are two types of truffle – black truffle which can be grown by planting truffle trees (which sell at £500 a kilo) and white truffles – these are much rarer and can only be found in nature – and sell at an eye watering £1,000 for a kilo! Luckily the Karlic estate is located near Motovun forest that is home to the white truffle and they also have a plethora of black truffle trees planted in their estate that provide them with truffles all year round.
They sell a variety of products including white & black truffles, truffle infused olive oil, various truffle pastes, truffle cheese, truffle butter, honey liquor (with truffle) and brandy infused with truffle.
We tried some of truffle infused brandies, including a domestic kind called “biska” and a honey flavoured variety called medica. Then we sat down in the farm’s beautiful restaurant with its incredible views to sample truffle laced salami and cheeses, one made with cow’s milk, one with goat’s milk, and another with sheep’s milk.
We were also treated to the most delicious scrambled eggs I have ever eaten, heaped high with truffles and topped with parmesan – it was heavenly!
Afterwards, we headed into the nearby woods to go truffle hunting with trainee Leila, the Labrador puppy, and Candy, the farm’s most successful truffle hunting dog. I didn’t know what to expect! As soon as the dogs neared the trees, their noses hit the ground immediately, sniffing furiously. It was only a matter of minutes before Candy found her first truffle. The truffles grow underground, close to trees and as soon as the dogs have dug far enough into the ground, the tour guide uses a small shovel to pull the truffle from the ground.
Each time a truffle was found, he would talk us through what made a good and bad truffle, and what they needed to contain in order to be worthy of selling – it was the most fun I’d had in a long time!
You can book truffle hunting tours and truffle tasting experiences directly on their website.
3. Unwind in the Histria Park Plaza hotel
If you’re unsure of where to stay during your time in Istria, I would highly recommend the Park Plaza Histria Pula with Jet2Holidays . Located right next to the beach, just south of Pula, the luxury modern hotel is perfect for families or couples alike to unwind after a day of sight seeing or simply to switch off for a few days. There are 3 outdoor swimming pools and 1 indoor pool that also features massage rooms, a sauna and steam room. The hotel has direct access to the beach and my favourite feature was a winding slide, fit for all ages that landed in a pool right next to the sea. We were upgraded to a sea view room with a little balcony overlooking the pool and sea. The room was spacious with an extremely comfortable bed and a powerful shower. It was a super relaxing environment, so I was always happy to return to my room every evening.
The breakfast was fabulous. I love a continental buffet, and this one didn’t disappoint. It featured an abundance of different cereals (I always opt for Coco Pops when I’m abroad) cheese platters, meat platters, delicious pastries, an omelette station, every fruit you could imagine, a full cooked breakfast, and a huge dessert station too. Safe to say, I was thoroughly stuffed every single morning!
The staff were very friendly and super helpful whenever we needed anything and whilst we didn’t have dinner in the hotel, they do have a great a la carte menu that offers seafood, truffles and a whole host of local dishes.
Location wise the hotel is nicely tucked away right next to a beautiful harbour, but if you’re looking to explore further, there is a frequent bus that can take you directly into the city centre.
Jet2 offer flights from Stansted straight to Pula, that is only a short drive from this beautiful hotel.
4. Explore Brijuni National Park
Brijuni National Park is definitely worth a visit during your stay in Istria, Croatia. It’s located in the south of Istria and can only be reached by boat (15 minutes max) which departs from the small town of Fazana. Once you arrive on the island, there is so much to do and it can explored either by an electric car ( which we went with), or a guided tourist train which lasts approximately 4 hours and covers absolutely everything there is to do on the island.
There is so much stunning greenery in Brijuni, – I felt like I was in Jurassic Park! While we were there, we visited the Byzantine castrum- a settlement hailing back to the 1st century BC.
For those wanting a bit of adventure, there is also a safari park complete with camels, zebras, ostriches and even an elephant! The highlight for me is the dinosaur footprints. Over 200 have been discovered here, there are four different sites in the park where they can be seen, so make sure that is your first port of call when visiting.
Costs to visit the island start at £18 per person and tours of the island must be booked in advance.
5. Wander the cobbled streets of Rovinj
My favourite town during our visit to Istria, Croatia was Rovinj, which I think closely resembles Dubrovnik with its winding, rising streets that climax at the top of a hill that boasts a stunning church. It’s often referred to as the ‘star’ of Istria and it’s quick to see why when you arrive. During the height of summer, the town can become overloaded with tourists and so many travel to one of the 14 islands of the Rovinj archipelago for some peace and tranquility.
St Euphemia’s church is perhaps the most impressive in this town that was built in 1725 its bell tower is modelled on the campanile of St Mark’s in Venice. The Rovinj city museum is housed in a baorque palace and displays a multitude of artworks from various centuries.
However the most appealing part of the town are it’s winding, colourful cobbled streets that you can roam and discover cosy local shops and delicious, Michelin starred restaurants with panoramic sea views ( more on that later). If you’re only visiting for the day then I’d recommend in doing a guided walking tour to take in all the sites (there are only a few) and learn about the rich culture and history the town possesses.
6. Marvel at the beauty of Andrew Island
The largest archipelago islands off the coast of Rovinj is the stunning Andrew Island – also known as Red Island and is only a short 15 minute ferry from Rovinj. There is only one hotel on the island – the beautiful Island Hotel Istra and a couple of untouched beaches with crystal clear waters – heaven for a water baby like me!
We spent a couple of hours devouring a four course lunch at Lanterna. The restaurant is spread across an elegant courtyard and a jetty right next to the sea. They serve the most phenomenal fresh fish and seafood, including lobster, as well as pasta dishes, risottos, and more, all complemented by a stunning view of the sea.
I started with a salad (probably the third one I’ve eaten in my entire life – it was delicious!) followed by a fresh prawn risotto and a fish based main. For dessert, we had an incredible chocolate cake that melts when you pour warm sauce over it.
The hotel has a spa, an outdoor pool, an inflatable assault course in the sea and the best part by far all surrounded by sparkling turqouise waters. If this sounds like your kind of experience, you can plan your trip to Pula with Jet2Holidays to find your dream summer break.
7. Feast at the magnificent Puntalina restaurant
Rovinj isn’t short of beautiful restaurants for dinner with a view. During our time there we had dinner at the infamous Puntalina, a Michelin 5 star restaurant we had to book months in advance. Relaxed and sophisticated, it’s situated at the edge of town, right on the waters edge with uninterrupted views of the Adriatic sea.
All the staff were extremely friendly and helpful during our meal. I had a starter of parma ham with various cheese’s followed by pasta with beef ragu. For the main course, I had steak with cheese and roasted potatoes, finishing off with the perfect palate cleanser – a refreshing lemon sorbet.
Best of all, we were in the perfect location to watch the fire red sun set over the horizon – perhaps my happiest memory of the entire trip.
Booking is strongly recommended as it is virtually impossible to find same day availability.
8. Learn the history of Istria in Motovun
The town of Motovun (Celtic for “a town in the hills”) is a small hill top medieval town in Istria, Croatia that has been likened to Tuscany for it’s expansive rolling green hills and vineyards. We had a walking tour of the town and its steep, sloping streets which granted us dazzling panoramic views of the luscious greenery and incredible Celtic and Illyrian architecture.
It’s another great spot to experience olive oil tasting and Motovun is famous for its restaurants and truffles, as the largest ever white truffle was found in the Motovun forest and sold to neighbouring towns.
9. Try exquisite delicacies at the Roxanich Wine and Heritage Hotel
Located in the heart of Istria, the newly opened Roxanich Wine and Heritage Hotel is close to the best that Istria has to offer – an annual carnival, a food festival, and even a bike race! We enjoyed a four course meal, including specific wines paired with each dish by our own sommelier. Before this trip, I hadn’t tried a Croatian wine and as a Sicilian, I feel terrible for saying this, but Croatia’s wines are some of the nicest I’ve ever sampled!
Their comprehensive menu boasts an extensive collection of local cuisines and traditional Istrian specialities. Our lunch started with an amuse bouche of snails, followed by crab and lobster coleslaw, veal and vegetables with potato puree, and a lemon tart for dessert.
10. Travel back in time at the Pula Ampitheatre
In Pula, you will find Istria’s most impressive attraction – the Pula Arena – a Roman amphitheatre. It’s located just outside the old city due to it’s size and is not only the best preserved monument in Croatia, but it’s also one of the six largest Roman arenas left in the world. It was so beautiful, just like the ancient coliseums you see in the gladiator movies.
Entry to the amphitheatre starts from £6/ 50 kunas and allows you to explore inside the amphitheatre – imagining what it would have been like to be a spectator at a gladiator fight. During the summer, the arena hosts an array of events including everything from concerts to sports competitions to ballet performances.
The underground passages that were originally home to the gladatiors can be accessed by the public to view exhibitions of viticulture and olive growing in Istria in ancient times. You can find reconstructed machines that demonstrate how olive oil and wine were originally made.
11. Roam the roads of Porec
Porec is a beautiful coastal town with a large harbour. It’s incredibly reminiscent of my home in Italy, more so than any other part of Istria I’ve seen so far. Along with Rovinj, it’s also hailed as one of the most popular resorts in Istria.
We explored the town on a walking tour of the European Basilica, one of the region’s most famous monuments. There, we gazed in awe at the spectacular mosaics, as well as some of the other 6th century Istrian architecture that is still standing to this day.
If you’re visiting with children, there is a water park nearby called Aquacolors. The harbour is home to day trips from anywhere to Birjuni National Park to Venice!
On our last evening, we had dinner at a luxurious Michelin star restaurant in Porec called Sv. Nikola – again, located right next to the sea. I could get used to this life!
This time, I opted for the vegan menu, starting with vegetable soup, followed by a delicious platter of vegetables including baked aubergine, carrot, and corn on the cob. For dessert, I went for the non vegan option and had a waffle with chocolate ice cream. The staff were extremely attentive, even bringing us blankets when the evening chill started to descend.
I had an incredible time in Istria. I made a point of not doing much research beforehand, as I wanted to experience everything with no preconceived ideas, judgements, or expectations. Despite this being my first visit to Croatia and never having been to Dubrovnik, Split, or Hvar, I would thoroughly recommend Istria over other areas.
The reason is that, so far, Istria remains unspoiled by tourists. The beaches aren’t overcrowded and the seas are beautifully clear. The towns are busy but not heaving, and most of the best restaurants have availability. We felt as though we were experiencing a hidden gem that could easily become the next Dubrovnik in a few years’ time.
Because of my heritage, I especially loved Istria’s links to Italy. Until 1947, Istria was part of Italy and as such, everyone speaks both Italian and Croatian. The Italian culture runs deep in everything the Istrians do – the food, the architecture, and their very way of life.
If you’re looking to plan your next trip to Croatia, Jet2Holidays have an abundance of affordable and versatile package holidays that will satisfy every need.
To my ever lovely readers – have you ever been to Istria? If not, is it somewhere you would consider visiting?
Disclaimer: I visited Istria with Jet2 as part of a press trip in May, but all views and comments are my own.