Split – the old town you have to visit
Croatia’s second-largest city, Split (Spalato in Italian) is a great place to see Dalmatian life as it’s really lived. Always buzzing, this exuberant city has just the right balance of tradition and modernity. Step inside Diocletian’s Palace (a Unesco World Heritage site and one of the world’s most impressive Roman monuments) and you’ll see dozens of bars, restaurants and shops thriving amid the atmospheric old walls where Split life has been humming along for thousands of years.
To top it off, Split has a unique setting. Its dramatic coastal mountains act as the perfect backdrop to the turquoise waters of the Adriatic and help divert attention from the dozens of shabby high-rise apartment blocks that fill its suburbs. It’s this thoroughly lived-in aspect of Split that means it will never be a fantasy land like Dubrovnik, but you could argue that it’s all the better for that.
Best places to visit
Facing the harbour, Diocletian’s Palace is one of the most imposing Roman ruins in existence and where you’ll spend most of your time while in Split. Don’t expect a palace though, nor a museum – this is the city’s living heart, its labyrinthine streets packed with people, bars, shops and restaurants. Built as a military fortress, imperial residence and fortified town, the palace measures 215m from north to south and 180m east to west, altogether covering 38,700 sq metres.
Although the original structure has been added to continuously over the millennia, the alterations have only served to increase the allure of this fascinating site. The palace was built in the 4th century from lustrous white stone transported from the island of Brač, and construction lasted 10 years. Diocletian spared no expense, importing marble from Italy and Greece, and columns and sphinxes from Egypt.
Each wall has a gate at its centre, named after a metal: the Golden Gate (north), Bronze Gate(south), Silver Gate(east) and Iron Gate(west). Between the eastern and western gates there’s a straight road (Krešimirova; also known as Decumanus), which separates the imperial residence on the southern side, with its state rooms and temples, from the northern side, once used by soldiers and servants.
There are 220 buildings within the palace boundaries, home to about 3000 people. The narrow streets hide passageways and courtyards, some deserted and eerie, others thumping with music from bars and cafes, while the local residents hang out their washing overhead, kids play football amid the ancient walls, and grannies sit in their windows watching the action below.
Cathedral of St Domnius
Split’s octagonal cathedral is one of the best-preserved ancient Roman buildings standing today. It was built as a mausoleum for Diocletian, the last famous persecutor of the Christians, who was interred here in 311 AD. The Christians got the last laugh, destroying the emperor’s sarcophagus and converting his tomb into a church in the 5th century, dedicated to one of his victims. Note that a ticket for the cathedral includes admission to its crypt, treasury and baptistery (Temple of Jupiter).
The exterior of the building is still encircled by an original colonnade of 24 columns. A much later addition, the tall Romanesque belfry, was constructed between the 12th and 16th centuries and reconstructed in 1908 after it collapsed. Notice the two lion figures at its base. Tickets are sold separately for those eager to climb up the belfry for views over the old town’s rooftops.
Visitor access to the cathedral is via the sacristy, situated in an annex around the right-hand side of the building. This structure also houses the cathedral’s treasury, which is rich in reliquaries, icons, church robes, illuminated manuscripts and documents in Glagolitic script.
Inside the cathedral itself, the domed interior has two rows of Corinthian columns and a frieze running high up on the walls which, surprisingly, still includes images of the emperor and his wife. To the left of the main altar is the altar of St Anastasius (Sveti Staš; 1448), carved by Juraj Dalmatinac. It features a relief of The Flagellation of Christ,which is considered one of the finest sculptural works of its time in Dalmatia.
The choir is furnished with 13th-century Romanesque seats, the oldest of their kind in Dalmatia. Other highlights include a 13th-century pulpit, the right-hand altar carved by Bonino da Milano in 1427, and the vault above the altar decorated with murals by Dujam Vušković. As you leave, take a look at the remarkable scenes from the life of Christ carved on the wooden entrance doors. Carved by Andrija Buvina in the 13th century, the scenes are presented in 28 squares, 14 on each side, and recall the fashion of Romanesque miniatures of the time.
Don’t forget to take a look in the Cathedral crypt, an eerily quiet chamber which stays cool even on the hottest days. It’s now a chapel dedicated to St Lucy.
The ruins of the ancient city of Salona, situated at the foot of the mountains just northeast of Split, are the most archaeologically important in Croatia. Start by paying your admission fee at the Tusculum Museum, near the entrance to the reserve, as you’ll need the map from its brochure to help you navigate the vast, sprawling site. This small museum has lots of ancient sculpture and interesting displays on the archaeological team that uncovered the site.
Salona was first mentioned as an Illyrian town in 119 BC and it’s thought that it already had walls by then. The Romans seized the site in 78 BC and under the rule of Augustus it became the administrative headquarters of the Roman Dalmatian province. When Emperor Diocletian built his palace in Split at the end of the 3rd century AD, it was the proximity to Salona that attracted him.
That grand history all came to a crashing halt in the 7th century, when the city was levelled by the invading Avars and then the Slavs. The inhabitants fled to take refuge within Diocletian’s old palace walls and in the neighbouring islands, leaving Salona to decay. While many of Salona’s ancient treasures are now on display in Split’s Archaeological Museum, there’s a surprising amount in situ. Numerous sarcophagi are scattered about the area known as Manastirine, between the car park and the museum. This was a burial place for Christian martyrs prior to the legalisation of Christianity and includes the substantial remains of an early basilica. From the museum, a path bordered by cypresses runs south to the northern city wall.
From here you can get an overview of the foundations of buildings that comprise the Episcopal Centre, including a three-aisled, 5th-century cathedral with an octagonal baptistery, and the remains of Bishop Honorius’ Basilica with a ground plan in the form of a Greek cross. Public baths adjoin the cathedral to the east. Just beyond this complex and slightly to the right is the 1st-century eastern city gate, Porta Caesarea, later engulfed by the growth of the city eastward. Grooves in the stone road left by ancient wheels can still be seen here, along with the remains of a covered aqueduct which ran along the top of the wall. It was probably built around the 1st century AD and supplied Salona and Diocletian’s Palace with water from the Jadro River.
Just through this city gate was the centre of town, the Forum, with temples to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva, none of which are visible today. The original city spread west from here to the huge 2nd-century amphitheatre, destroyed in the 17th century by the Venetians to prevent it from being used as a refuge by Turkish raiders. At one time it could accommodate 18,000 spectators, which gives an idea of the size and importance of this ancient city. The main path leading to the amphitheatre follows the line of the ancient wall, with the vineyards to your left covering what was once the western end of town.
Just to the right of the path (ie outside the wall) you’ll pass another early Christian cemetery, where the remains of some of those killed in the amphitheatre were once buried, along with the ruins of the Five Martyrs Basilica, built in their honour. Outside the main Salona complex, but situated at what would have been the southeastern corner of the ancient walled city, is the Gradina, a medieval fortress built around the remains of a rectangular early Christian church.
Salona is easily accessible on Split city bus 1 (13KN), which goes all the way to the parking lot every half-hour, departing from Trg Gaje Bulata.