As the second largest city in Croatia, Split is often unfairly overshadowed by its glamorous cousin Dubrovnik. Located on the Dalmatian Coast in a unique setting against the dramatic Mosor Mountains and the deep blue waters of the Adriatic, Split is home to some of the world's most impressive Roman history. Embracing both the ancient world and the modern, Split balances monuments alongside an exuberant city bursting with life, music and unparalleled Dalmatian seafood.
Here are our top three must-see historical experiences in this Croatian treasure trove...
Even those only vaguely acquainted with Roman history will not want to miss out on the extraordinary complex dominating the heart of the city. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the palace is one of the best-preserved structures of Roman architecture in the world.
What exactly is it? Built under the rule of the Emperor Diocletian in the 4th century AD this enormous palace served as the retirement residence of Diocletian after his voluntary abdication from imperial office. But don't be fooled by the name - the sprawling complex was designed to be a formidable combination of luxury villa and military camp. The current day structure certainly gives a fortress-like impression.
With fortified walls stretching 215 metres north to south and 180 metres east to west, the palace is the birthplace of Split the city. Today it forms the heart of the old city, with modern inhabitants (around 3,000 of them) living within the narrow streets and passageways formed by ancient walls.
As such, don't go expecting a museum or Rome-type cordoned off ruins. Diocletian's Palace is a living, breathing part of the Split packed with bars, shops and people. Enjoy the ancient complex on your own or even better with an experienced guide or walking tour group, to learn more about the history that formed the great structures. Tours can either be booked in advance or at the TI offices inside the palace.
If you're on a tight budget or just want a quick look around, here's what you need to see:
- The Bell Tower - Easily the most noticeable part of the palace and can be seen rising high from the palace walls throughout the city. Climbing to the top gives you a fantastic panoramic view of Old Split Town, the coastline and the nearby islands. Note though that you do have to pay extra for access to the tower.
- The Peristil - Originally the palace's central square, it features grand marble columns and a sphinx shipped from Egypt which dates back almost 3,500 years.
- Palace Gates - These spectacular structures all lead to the Peristil Square and show off the varied metalwork designs. The grand Golden Gate leads north, the Silver Gate leads east, the Iron Gate goes west, and the unmarked Bronze Gate connects to the palace basement.
Cathedral of St Domnius
Right next to Diocletian's Palace is Split's very own octagonal cathedral, colloquially known as Sveti Duje. It's another spectacular example of surviving Roman architecture that defines the setting of Split. Originally consecrated in the 7th century AD it is regarded as the oldest cathedral in the world that is still used in its original structure.
It's no coincidence that this cathedral was built right on the border of Diocletian's Palace. The oldest part of the cathedral (third century) was originally a mausoleum to the emperor, famous for his mass persecution of Christians. However, the sarcophagus was destroyed later by vengeful Christians who converted his tomb into a church, dedicated to persecuted martyrs. Since then the church building has had the Romanesque bell tower and choir added.
Access to the cathedral is usually via the sacristy, situated on the right-hand side of the building. There is ticketed admission which costs around 25kn. However, this price also includes access to:
- The Crypt - Accessed by an exterior door it now functions as a chapel dedicated to St Lucy.
- Treasury - Located near the sacristy, the treasury houses a rich array of the relics of Saint Domnius, illuminated manuscripts, sacral works of art and much more.
- Temple of Jupiter - Now known as the cathedral baptistery, this building was originally a Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter, King of the Gods. It still features the original barrel-vaulted ceiling and ancient Egyptian sphinx transported by order of Diocletian.
Situated at the base of the north-eastern mountains, the ruins of the ancient city of Salona are some of the most important archaeological discoveries in Croatia. Originating around the 7th century BC, Salona was an Illyrian settlement. Seized by the Romans under Augustus it became the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia.
Indeed, Diocletian's decision to build his palace nearby was largely motivated by his interest in the thriving city of Salona. The city however was destroyed by the invasions of the Avars and Slavs in the 7th century, forcing the refugees to settle in the relative safety of Diocletian's palace walls and the surrounding islands.
Salona is noted by archaeologists for the remains of its mighty city walls, which can be clearly seen on the site today. It is speculated that the walls would have taken several centuries to build, and the completed effort featured at least 90 towers with a 4km total circumference.
The site itself can be easily reached via the Split city bus (Route 1), which departs from Trg Gaje Bulata every half an hour. To get tickets to the Salona site you will need to pay the admission fee at the main entrance building, known as the Tusculum, at the northern entrance to the reserve. While at the Tusculum you can also enjoy the information about the digs that led to the Salona discoveries.
If you're interested in submerging yourself in the history of Croatia, get in touch with your local Travellers Choice agent today.