SPLIT, CROATIA — I step off the high-speed Snav ferry from Ancona, Italy, after a four hour smooth-as-glass Adriatic crossing. The coastal city of Split shimmers in the hot summer air like a white marble mirage, seeming to rise from the sea itself. Much of the city’s center is bound within the ancient walls of Diocletian’s Palace, built by the Roman Emperor of the name same in 295 CE, now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
By the way, Split wins the award for “most dramatic entrance” to any city, ever.
I walk along the Riva, the wide palm-lined boulevard between the sea and the towering palace walls, searching for an entry point – a doorway, a side street, any possible way – into the city center. I step through an open archway into the palace’s basement halls, dimly lit and dungeon-like, with rough stone walls and soaring ceilings. I make my way past the row of requisite souvenir stalls, up a staircase leading out of the darkness…directly into the midst of the peristyle’s arched colonnade – the central courtyard of Diocletian’s Palace.
Entering Split is like walking straight into a fairy tale.
The city’s slippery stone streets twist and turn through alleyways, beneath archways, up and down countless steps, pouring into tiny squares and the occasional dead end. I couldn’t help but imagine I was in a real-life version of Hogwarts – a magical, marbled maze of Gothic, Baroque and Roman architecture.
Some of the streets are so narrow, only one person can enter at a time. Turn a corner, and you might encounter bright purple bougainvillea dripping down a wall, a Temple of Jupiter, shops and art galleries, or a lone outdoor cafe tucked behind an ornate palace gate. Taking the time to explore every inch of the city center is strongly encouraged — this is all part of the fun and wonder of Split.
A few minutes walk in either direction from the city center brings you to Split’s famous beaches. To the west of the city, Marjan Park — a large hill covered in a dense pine forest — offers panoramic views, hiking trails and public beaches. To the east is Bacvice, the city’s most popular — and crowded — sand beach.
Day trips from Split include the island of Brač, and the waterfalls at Krka National Park. The city of Dubrovnik is a 4 hour bus ride away.
Dining in Split
Split offers a wide variety of international cuisine, from pizzerias to salad bars and cevapci joints, but my focus was finding the best authentic Croatian cuisine in town. Split’s location on the Dalmatian Coast makes it a great seafood destination. Croatian specialties include black (squid ink) risotto, octopus salad and grilled lobster. Here are three great suggestions on where to eat in Split.
Trumbićeva Obala 11, Split
Fife, (pronounced FEE-Fay) is a casual gathering place for students, sailors, backpackers and families. Open all day and into the wee hours, it’s a popular post-pub crawl hangout serving up simply prepared local dishes, with a focus on grilled meats and fish. The prices are rock-bottom and portions are generous. Order a refreshing glass of fresh-squeezed lemonade and peruse the menu, but don’t get too attached to your selection; the well-meaning waitstaff will likely talk you into ordering something even better.
The house specialty is pašticada, a traditional Dalmatian beef stew. The beef is marinated in a lemony vinaigrette for over 24 hours, then slow-cooked with wine, prosciutto, nutmeg and cloves. Served with a platter of tender gnocchi, the stew is lick-the-plate delicious; the tender beef falls apart at the touch of a fork. Also highly recommended: the black risotto, mixed grill and fried fish platter. If you have any room left for dessert (doubtful), try the palacinke — sweet, blintz-like stuffed pancakes.
Recommended by Locals
Ban Mladenova 9, Split
Konoba is the Croatian word for “cellar,” as in wine cellar — now used to describe a tavern-style restaurant serving up traditional food and drink. Picture dimly lit rooms with stone walls, wooden benches and folk art. In Croatia, there’s a konoba on every corner, but many are geared toward tourists. It takes a local recommendation to weed out the authentic, which is what brought me to Konoba Hvaranin. The “Hvar” in the name refers to the Dalmatian island — a lavender-covered, ultra-chic beach destination for the yachting jet set. Island food is this tavern’s specialty.
A Croatian summer starter of marinated shrimp and anchovies is served on a bed of lettuce and capers. I was the only foreigner in the place, prompting the chef to poke his head out of the kitchen, instructing the waiter to shepherd me to the corner refrigerator to peruse the daily catch. The baby squid, in season, is recommended. The chef even offered to cook it a “traditional Croatian way” – char-grilled and filled with savory black ink. The unexpected superstar on the plate? Btliva, a green, garlicky Swiss chard and potato mash, well worth a trip to Hvaranin.
Next to the Fish Market on Marmontova ul., Split
Nostromo is a long-standing Split establishment. The restaurant’s owners run the town’s fish market by day, ensuring that only the freshest seafood graces each plate. In the evenings, the market is hosed down and transformed into an outdoor seating area. Higher prices reflect Nostromo’s upscale ambiance, but diners should not be discouraged. The prices are comparable to Split’s most popular konobas, and the restaurant’s award-winning chef, Zlatko Marinovic, turns out the best seafood in town.
On a personal note, this was the most magical meal I ate in Croatia. I dined at Nostromo twice, returning the following day for lunch, three times if you count sharing a meal with a couple who joined my table shortly after I finished dinner. Finding fresh seafood is one thing; encountering splendidly-prepared seafood can sometimes be like stumbling upon the foodie Holy Grail.
At Nostromo, I relinquished all control to my waiter, who served me large, pillowy gnocchi stuffed with fresh scampi tails and prosciutto, swimming in a garlic-laden fish broth. A platter of giant Mediterranean scampi followed, grilled to perfection. Crisp Croatian white wines were seamlessly paired with each course. A caramel and hazelnut semifreddo drizzled with melted chocolate appeared for dessert, washed down by two glasses of fruit-flavored house grappa. Just when I was ready for the check, a Bosnian couple joined me at the table, insisting on sharing their wine and ample platters of tender octopus salad (the best I’ve ever tasted) and grilled whole sardines. A quick solo dinner turned into a five-hour epic seafood feast, cementing Restaurant Nostromo as my go-to foodie haven in Split.