Split is used to playing second fiddle. It’s the second-largest city in Croatia (behind the capital, Zagreb); its most famous football team, Hajduk Split, have finished runners-up in the Croatian First Football League a record 12 times; and it’s often overlooked on the tourist trail in favour of its Dalmatian neighbour Dubrovnik.
Even when people actually make it to Split, they do so almost begrudgingly while en route to the sun-drenched islands of Brač, Hvar and Vis. The city generally seems to have a bit of a public relations problem in this respect; as early as the second sentence of Visit Croatia’s destination guide to Split, it uses the phrase “transport hub”. So we could hardly be blamed for planning to spend a solitary night in this 2,000-year-old city.
And yet I hold my hands up: we were wrong. Split is wonderful, and is the one place in Croatia that I genuinely wish I’d stayed for longer. If you’re passing through Central Dalmatia, do yourself a favour and spend a couple of nights exploring the city. Here’s why you won’t regret it:
1. Diocletian’s Palace is basically porn for history buffs
Built in the 4th century AD, Diocletian’s Palace is undoubtedly one of the world’s grandest retirement homes. Originally inhabited by Diocletian – the first Roman emperor to leave office by choice (rather than, say, at knifepoint) – it was large enough to house an entire garrison. The complex was abandoned for centuries following the death of Diocletian, before resourceful locals moved in, building shops and businesses in the palace’s basement – and in some cases, directly into its walls.
Today, the palace is a fantastic spot to lose yourself in for an evening or two. Its warren of alleys, passages, tunnels and staircases are an absolute treat if you’re the sort of person who loves an aimless wander. Even better, you’re never more than a few steps away from the nearest bar or restaurant, so even if you end up hopelessly lost, you won’t go hungry or thirsty.
2. It’s like a bigger, cheaper Dubrovnik
Don’t get me wrong, no part of me is recommending that you visit Croatia and deliberately ignore Dubrovnik, with its gleaming marble-clad Old Town. But you could never accuse it of being a budget destination – you’ll rarely pay less than £4 a pint within the walls of the Old Town, which is a sizeable outlay in a formerly Socialist country.
Not only will your cash go a lot further in Split, but you’ll also find a lot more places to spend it. The palace complex only makes up part of the city’s Old Town; the surrounding streets are lined with stunning historic structures, not least the 600-year-old city hall and the People’s Square (Narodni Trg Pjaca), which dates back to the 15th century.
3. The tree-lined Riva brings the south of France to the Adriatic
If you only visit Split’s Riva to catch an island-hopping ferry, you’re really not doing it justice. The beautiful seafront promenade feels more like Cannes or St Tropez than an important Adriatic port. It turns out there’s a good reason for that; the Riva was built two centuries ago when Split was under French rule.
Much like its Gallic counterparts, the Riva is a fantastic people-watching spot. It also plays host to some of the city’s biggest events, from the annual carnival (which takes place every February) to more spontaneous celebrations. More than 150,000 people flocked to the waterfront in 2001 to hail the return of hometown hero Goran Ivanišević 24 hours after he shocked the tennis world by winning the Wimbledon men’s singles title. Hajduk Split haven’t won the Croatian football title for more than a decade, but if they ever manage it again, you can bet that the Riva will be the biggest party in town.