Istria, Croatia

Croatia has been at the top of the travel bucket list since it started getting the reputation of being the ‘next Italy. ’ As a total Italy buff, I was sold. Could two heavens exist on earth, both teeming with fresh pastas and vineyards and beautiful ancient villages?

Why yes, apparently so.

Now Croatia is a big place, and we only scratched the surface, but what a surface it was! Our exploration focused on the Istrian peninsula, that little chunk of Croatia that touches Italy, poking out into the Adriatic Sea, far removed from the more popular destinations of Dubrovnik or Split.

We drove over to Croatia from its gorgeous neighbor, Slovenia. Being well-trained car driving Americans, the quick two hour drive flew by and soon enough, we were climbing our first small mountain up to the village of Motovun, where we rented an apartment for a few days. We love having a home base from which to explore, so we settled into our lovely flat, met the resident dog, a young and rambunctious black poof named Max, and felt right at home.

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That first afternoon was spent huffing and puffing our way up the rest of the hill (I really want to call it a mountain but appreciate that I tend to exaggerate these things) to the old village of Motovun, which these days is mostly pedestrian-only. We quickly explored the small town, gaping at the panoramic views and the slowly setting sun. There are villages like this all over the region – tiny hilltop towns connected by twisty roads and not much else. The first time you look over the vast space of Istria, hilltop villages in the distance, rolling countryside laced with vineyards, well, you start to believe that little bit about the next heaven on earth.

Over the course of a few days, we fell into a predictable routine, as we so quickly do when we’re away from hotels and tourist sites. Leisurely mornings were spent picking two villages to visit for the day. Then, we would drive the 30-45 minutes in a given direction to village #1, explore, drive to village #2, have lunch, walk around, take photos, walk some more. Late afternoon, we would find our way back to Motovun, to our apartment on the hill, cook dinner, and hang out on the terrace watching the sunset with some cheap grocery store wine, listening to Spotify.

Repeat. Repeat again.

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For those planning to visit the area, and if it’s not clear we highly recommend it, a few thoughts about the villages we visited:

Poreč  – We knew immediately when we drove into Poreč that this place must be nuts in the summer. It has a summer resort feel, lots of large hotels hug the coast and with a little imagination, we could feel the summer heat and envision the families hopping on day long boat tours of the coast or getting an ice cream from one of the endless carts and stalls. On a quick duck into a local grocery store, we realized that Poreč  is also a place where you can buy wine by the liter from a barrel. We left a few minutes later with a huge plastic bottle filled with inexpensive but completely drinkable red wine, for just under €2. Score!

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Rovinj – We read that the small city of Rovinj is the start attraction of the Istrian coast and we’re not surprised. I mean, could a place be any more picture postcard perfect? On a Tuesday in April, it was lovely and mostly devoid of tourists, but it gets crowded with visitors in the summer. Its prime location means that lots of boutique hotels and fine dining restaurants have popped up, so if it’s luxury you’re after, look no further. Rovinj deserves its star status in Istria, and would be a great place to stay for a few days the next time around.

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Buzet – We came to Buzet for a single reason – to visit Natura Tartufi and to eat a million truffles. We did a quick walk around the Old Town, but compared to others, this one is relatively dull for visitors – no welcoming cafes or vantage points. We did a quick look around a typical Croatian cemetery, which was interesting, but no need to make a special trip to see it.

Motovun – Our ‘home’ for the week is on many lists of must-visit villages in Istria. If the daily onslaught of German tourists is any indication, it isn’t exactly a secret spot in the Istrian peninsula. Motovun is a charming town, with lots of nooks and crannies and a fantastic view of the valley, but you probably need less than an hour to explore it thoroughly. One thing we did notice here was the abundance of shops that sell truffle-related products, so it’s a good place to stock up on edible souvenirs.

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Grožnjan – Grožnjan has a similar look and feel to Motovun, narrow streets and uneven cobblestone paths. As we walked around we noticed art gallery after art gallery and speculated that they were all for tourists. Later, a local told us that in fact, Grožnjan is a village that has long attracted musicians and artists of all kinds. Every summer there is a well-known jazz festival here where an impressive selection of globally recognized jazz musicians play from sunset until midnight. Every single night. For over two weeks. This festival would be reason enough to plan a visit to Istria in July and it sounds magical.

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Opatija – On the far east side of the Istrian peninsula lies Opatija, and what a difference the distance makes. Opatija reminds us of the French Riviera, with the glitz and glamour of Monaco. The temperatures bordered on hot and the palm trees lulled us into imagining another holiday, lounging in one of the gorgeous seaside hotels that dot the shore.

Can you sense a theme here about our much needed return to Istria?

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We always know we’ve really loved a place when we start searching online for real estate in the area. It’s happened to us a few times around the world, but in Istria, Croatia, we spent many a morning looking at hilltop cottages and wondering how long it would take for a small vineyard to flourish under our care and attention.

We’ve got the Istria bug bad and can’t wait to get back soon.

Have you been to this area of Croatia? Did we miss anything that we should visit next time? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

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Istria, Croatia

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  • April 27, 2016

    Very nice! I missed this part of Croatia when I was there. Would love to go back and see it now!
    Stephen Garone recently posted…A Taste of Old-World Cuba in New-World MiamiMy Profile

    • April 29, 2016
      Julie

      We are such huge fans. It is just so beautiful and hard to even convey in photos. It’s fantastic!!

  • April 29, 2016

    Lovely photos! And it’s great to read a post about Croatia that doesn’t cover Dubrovnik!
    Shannon – SoleSeeking recently posted…Books & Bridges: Budapest for the Quiet Solo TravellerMy Profile

    • May 2, 2016
      Julie

      So true! We were blown away by Istria. Definitely one of our favorite destinations in Europe now!

  • April 30, 2016

    Istria or even more precise Novigrad (close to Porec, very beautiful as well) was my families favourite holiday destination for about 7 years. We were basically one of these thousands of German families 😀
    I still love Istria and seeing these pictures brings me right back there …

    Gonna go back there at the end of this holiday season. Since I actually know all these destinations around (all really great, good job!) I dont think I will see anything new but thats not what its about this time 😀
    My personal highlight in Istria is a boat tour from Novigrad to Rovinj, with a short stop for snorkeling in the Limski-Fjord. Probably the exact opposite of an Off the beaten track destination but really lovely.
    Leon recently posted…Wuzhen, a chinese Venice?My Profile

    • May 2, 2016
      Julie

      Definitely so much to do in the Istria region. Great tip on the snorkeling stop. The water was still a little too chilly for any beach/water activities, but we want to head back in September when the weather is warm and the summer tourists have left…mostly.

  • April 30, 2016

    Croatia is so pretty and loved your post and pictures about this lovely country. We went from South to North of Croatia, failed to see Plitvice Lakes, but we will be back again. 🙂

    • May 2, 2016
      Julie

      We have a lot left to explore in Croatia. We are looking to take an extended Balkan road trip, and aim to see much more of Croatia the next time around. Looking forward to it!

      • February 20, 2017
        Dan

        I have been numerous times to Croatia from Australia as it quickly became my favorite destination. I have now done most of the country but it’s such a diverse beautiful country you need at least 2 months or numerous trips to see it for what it is worth. Rovinj, Dubrovnik, Plitvice Lakes, Split, Hvar island and Korcula island,Zagreb and Zadar are the places most tourist venture to. But check out these hidden treasures that will blow you away. Island Murter and the Kornati archipelago, The medieval city of Sibenik and the nearby Krka waterfalls, The island of Losinj, The island of Vis and Stiniva cove, The beautiful villages of Pucisca and Bol on the island of Brac, the waterfall village of Rastoke and the old Croatian capital of Varazdin and the Makarska Riviera. Be sure to google them and my recommendation is visit in Summer. Croatia is always beautiful but the summer vibe is just amazing in this country. So from May to end September. July and August are peak.

  • April 30, 2016

    Oh my, this part of Croatia looks so amazing! I think I’ve been to Rovinj as a child, but can’t really remember anything. I’ve been to other places in Croatia as well, including Zagreb and Dubrovnik, but the Istria region looks dazzling! Have to go back and explore it 🙂
    Kathrin recently posted…Hannah in Sevilla in Andalucía, SpainMy Profile

    • May 2, 2016
      Julie

      A perfect region if you like to eat and drink wine! Cured ham, truffles, olives, wine. It’s all you need to have a great afternoon!

  • April 30, 2016

    I was already keen to visit this corner of Croatia, but even more so after reading through your article. Wonderful photos. Bookmarked for future reference, thanks!
    David recently posted…Photo Series: Adventures in Salar de UyuniMy Profile

    • May 2, 2016
      Julie

      Glad we created a little travel inspiration!

  • April 30, 2016

    I just need to go to Istria for the first time. Especially since I’ve already been to a lot of Croatia…the Dalmatian Coast, Central Croatia and Plitvice for instance. I’ll get there!
    Fiona Maclean recently posted…Perfect PestoMy Profile

    • May 2, 2016
      Julie

      a really picturesque region. Reminded us so much of Italy, but with fewer crowds.

  • April 30, 2016

    I’ve wanted to visit Croatia forever now! Your photos are gorgeous and have stirred some serious wanderlust. No wonder you were looking at real estate! I’ve totally done that too, in the places I’ve just fell in love with! You’ve detailed such great information about each town making it so helpful to plan a visit to Istria. It seems like April/May might be a great time to visit. The weather is more comfortable but the crowds haven’t arrived yet.
    Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie recently posted…Everything You Need to Know for an Epic Visit to Monument ValleyMy Profile

    • May 2, 2016
      Julie

      I think the fall would be nice too, since the water might be a little warmer from the summer heat. Our plan is to head back in late September to catch some warmer weather and a little more beach time!

  • April 30, 2016

    Istria is truly lovely as seen through your camera lens! You have now added another region of Croatia to my bucket list. I long to visit the villages and, like you, I dream of finding a hilltop cottage of my very own.
    Howard | Backroad Planet recently posted…Mississippi Backroads Between Natchez & VicksburgMy Profile

    • May 2, 2016
      Julie

      Renting a car and just driving around the interior is really worth it. So many quaint villages and towns to stop off and explore!

  • May 1, 2016

    I love the photos and layout of your blog! Thank you for giving an individual breakdown of the towns you visited-really gives us a feel of Croatia
    anna recently posted…The Best Way to Travel around New ZealandMy Profile

    • May 2, 2016
      Julie

      You’re welcome!

  • May 2, 2016

    Your images are incredible! I love the cobbled streets and the green of the hills – I think you’re right, they can be two heavens that exist on earth!
    Vicki Louise recently posted…100+ Cities & 34 Countries in 8 Years – Why You Don’t Need To Quit Your Job To Travel The WorldMy Profile

  • May 2, 2016
    Carol Colborn

    What a lovely post and set of pictures! Would you have chosen a different base?

    • May 3, 2016

      I don’t think so. Motovun is pretty centrally located, about 30-45 minutes from either east or west coast. The larger coastal towns are definitely more tourist driven, and we found the interior to be a little more quiet and beautiful.

  • May 2, 2016

    I totally love the photos and the sunrise of the villages. I have never been to Croatia, but would definitely love to visit it soon. Istria is such a beautiful place!
    Bernard Tan recently posted…The 7 Wonders of SingaporeMy Profile

    • May 3, 2016

      That it is!

  • May 5, 2016

    Sounds like a lovely getaway! I can’t seem to escape posts and photos from Croatia and Slovenia lately…must be a sign that I need to get there soon!
    Leigh | Campfires & Concierges recently posted…Two Days in PhuketMy Profile

    • May 6, 2016
      Julie

      It’s so funny how destinations kind of fade in and out. I always take the trends as inspiration for my own travels for sure 🙂