The wine region of Istria & Kvarner encompasses the triangular Istrian peninsula pointing south from the top of Croatia, near the Italian border and, to the east, the Gulf of Kvarner, with the city of Rijeka (Croatia's third largest after Zagreb and Split) at its head. Whilst the cities and towns (and their beaches) are hugely popular with continental European tourists, there’s sufficient land mass here to allow for a veritable escape, especially if you’re an intrepid fan of exploring expansive national parks and hunting out deserted coves. This is where you’ll find Istria’s natural wildness, with rugged beaches and local wildlife aplenty. Man-made wildness comes in the form of some of the most intriguing wineries and best bars you’ll find anywhere in the world, in which to relax with your favourite tipple. Often in quirky settings, or capitalising on stunning natural surroundings, the vibe is cosmopolitan chillout meets the great outdoors.
At the southernmost tip of the Istrian peninsula is Pula, the region's capital, which boasts a Roman amphitheatre, a vibrant summer festival, and is the landing point for those flying in from overseas. The west coast is strung with picturesque resort towns, including Novigrad, Poreč and much-photographed Rovinj. The beaches are an elemental contrast to Croatia's usual gentle shelves, and largely rocky, but a wonderful playground for the active. Despite the presence of some large hotel complexes, the sea is sparkling clean and secluded spots are still to be found.
Away from the coast, Istria's verdant interior is food-rich and resplendent with wineries and local artisan producers. Medieval hilltop villages hewn from ancient stone (Motovun and Grožnjan are highlights) teeter above serried vineyards bursting with Malvasia and Merlot. There are autumn truffle and olive harvests, a bounty of fresh seafood and wild asparagus in spring; and hiking trails inside the protected forests of Učka Nature Park and Risnjak National Park, along with glorious cycle routes, including the disused 'Parenzana' railway line which originally ran from Poreč to Trieste.
Kvarner's hinterland also hides some of the region's best secrets. Beyond the bay you can explore the genteel Habsburg-era towns of Opatija and Lovran, the majestic and stark Velebit range, and the Gorski Kotar mountains, where marked trails link six awe-inspiring seaview belvederes.
Sheltered by lunar mountains, the Kvarner Gulf itself is beloved by visitors who prefer the mild climate and cobalt waters; especially those who want more than just beach-lazing. With memory-making gastronomy (sublime fresh seafood, prime white truffles, wild asparagus, top-rated olive oils and award-winning wines), sprinkled with historical charm you can unwind and stoke your passions in one region.
Some of the region's largest islands lie within its tucked-away waters. The islands of Cres and Lošinj have charming old port towns and stretches of unspoilt coastline dotted with remote coves for superb swimming. Wildlife fans can find heaven here too - Cres has a Griffon vulture population of breeding significance, Lošinj has a marine centre devoted to preserving the Adriatic's dolphins and turtles, and bears (though shy) can occasionally be seen in both Učka and Risnjak.
Croatian wines can be little-known abroad. This is because they are mainly consumed by the domestic market, which is why you really need to go there. Istria is known for the red Teran and white Malvazija, while in the Kvarner region the island of Krk makes the subtle white Zlahtina. During the latter half of the last century, Croatia abided under Yugoslav communist rule, quantity trumped quality, and private winemaking was virtually unknown. However, after Croatia gained independence in 1991, it began its winemaking Renaissance and honing its most-acclaimed wine brand - Malvasia Istriana (Malvazija Istarka), in Istria. Although the region is also home to the red Teran (made from autochthonous grape variety, Refosco), as well as to some international vines like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, Malvasia is king here. Though customarily aged in oak, winemakers have recently introduced ageing in acacia barrels and in amphorae, as well as using different maceration techniques, to bring out its uniquely Istrian expressions of floral and citrus character with hints of acacia, almond, and Adriatic-influenced minerality and freshness. Thus highlighting the marriage of heritage and pioneering spirit evidenced across this exciting region.
You can arrive in Istria & Kvarner by air, land, or sea, with seasonal direct flights from the UK and global flights into Pula and Rijeka accessible in frequency and price. Despite the wilder geography of the region, arriving by boat is still a favourable option, enabling you to tour the islands and access a number of sea-entry coves. Driving down through mainland Europe, taking in the northeast of Italy and Slovenia offers a scenic option with many interesting stops, including Trieste and Koper (somewhat appropriately called Capodistria in Italian). Getting to the islands is also easy. Krk is connected to the mainland by bridge, and Lošinj and Cres are accessible by ferry.
The Croatian Kuna (HRK) is national tender, despite Croatia’s EU membership. It’s advisable to change money as you go, as there is intense competition between foreign exchange agencies in Croatia, so you can shop around and find excellent rates.
All the established stores accept international credit cards and ATMs delivering local currency are easy to find in the main cities and towns, such as Pula, Medulin, Hum (the smallest city in the world), Rijeka or Opatija.
Whilst you can plan travel here all year round, due to the region’s mild Mediterranean climate, tourist season in Croatia begins around Easter and peaks in the summer, when warm, sunny weather prevails.
Istria's popular coast is populated with European tourists in summer, but you can still feel alone and unperturbed in the peninsula's interior, even in mid-August. Our tip is to visit outside of the peak months if you determined to hit the beach, where possible. Winters in the region can be mild but rainy, and some tourist facilities close in November until March. However, the climate is perfect for activities throughout the year - the average day temperature in January is 6℃, and suitable for sports and adventuring. In April (11℃) and May (16℃) the weather is ideal for cycling and horse riding in the lowland areas. Spring is vibrant, but can bring showers. Regardless, that can be a chance worth taking in May or early June, when the area’s natural beauty is bursting with promise. A tour focused on the wine and food hotspots of the hinterland beyond the Istrian peninsula and the Gulf of Kvarner, with sporadic forays to the coast is desirable at virtually any time of the year.
Your visit duration can fit flexibly into a wider tour of mainland Europe or can form the focus of a single-stop holiday, for there’s plenty to amuse here – destination dining opportunities showcasing local ingredients in their cultural context, active pursuits that enable you to commune with natural beauty spots, scenic walks, and wineries that exemplify the unique terroir and culture. However, as part of a larger trip exploring the hinterland of this stunning coastline, we’d recommend a week or eight days to discover the food and wine experiences that abound here, as well as some “downtime” days in which to soak up the sun and luxuriate in delectable wine and food.
The region offers untouched natural beauty comparable to that of Tuscany (in fact, the region’s been called “the New Tuscany”), but at a fraction of Tuscany’s tourist prices. Its national pride, proximity to and influence from Italy and Slovenia, and position on the cobalt Adriatic, all make the region worthy of gastronomic and vinaceous pilgrimage.
Each year Poreč celebrates an open air Festival of Life across its streets and squares. This usually takes place runs from the beginning of July to mid-September, and brings theatre, dance, music, cinema, street food and wine to the party. The open air cinema in the gardens of the luxurious, pink Villa Polesini with deck chairs on the lawns and a massive screen showing classic films is a great way to relax with a good glass. Most events are free.
The Torre Rotonda dates from 1474 and is now a unique bar with a circular rooftop terrace for wonderful views to accompany your sundowners.
The sixth century Euphrasian Basilica is a UNESCO world heritage site and has been lovingly restored to reveal a church, an atrium and a baptistery with a glittering wall of mosaics in the apse.
Tip: Climb up to the belfry for incredible views, and look out for atmospheric classical music events in the Basilica complex between May and October. These are usually advertised at fairly short notice, so keep an eye out for local posters or drop in at the local tourist office.
The third biggest city in Croatia, and home to the country’s biggest port. Located in the Kvarner Bay, the city centre Korzo promenade is the place to head for shopping and pavement cafés. Close by you’ll find the Rijeka Saint Vitus Cathedral and the stunning Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc for dramatic, ballet and opera events. For panoramic views of the city, visit Trsat Castle, which is 138 meters above the sea level. Next to the castle is the church Shrine of Our Lady of Trsat and the Trsat Franciscan Monastery, which are the largest pilgrimage sites in Western Croatia.
Tip: Explore the Central Market for an exposition of local cuisine and some of the freshest fish you’ll taste.
Motovun is an enchanting walled town perched on a 277m hill. The gorgeous setting offers fantasy views over the verdant Mirna River valley. The damp, dark Motovun Forest at its base also has a fairytale quality, and contains fabled and secret hunting grounds for hidden treasure in the form of Istria's legendary truffles. The Venetians fortified the town in the 14th century within two sets of robust walls. Within the walled town, you’ll find Romanesque and Gothic buildings housing artist studios, restaurants and small shops. Motovun is also well-regarded for its annual summer film festival.
Istria’s principal city, its most famous sight is the 1st Century Roman amphitheatre, which is the third largest in the world after the Coliseum in Rome and El Djem, Tunisia. It is remarkably well-preserved and hosts many seasonal events and a small museum about Roman development and olive oil production in the region.
Tip: Evening performances are magical as the sun sets red through the arches. Summer performances usually commence at 9pm.
Close to Pula, Nesactium is an archaeological museum and the ruins of settlements of both native Histri tribes and Roman invaders. There are annual open air theatre performances in English that depict the battle between the Histri and the Romans, and explain the blended influences evident in the region.
Again, just a scenic drive from Pula, Zeppelin Beach and Lounge Bar embodies the blend of rugged natural setting and relaxing chillout vibe so similar to more crowded party spots. The bar and lounge area is spread out on a pebble and rock beach in Saccorgiana cove, near the Verudela area of town, so it’s just a few steps into the cooling sea.
Krk Island is connected by bridge to the mainland, and it’s central town (also Krk) is a mini Dubrovnik. Astoundingly, Volsonis Bar right by the city walls has a entire floor of Roman ruins which were found when excavating for the project. They’ve been left intact so patrons can enjoy the fabulous outside terrace AND Roman relics, pools and water systems.
This is the charming little town you’ll have seen in so many photographs of the region. And for good reason - its cobbled lanes and colourful buildings jut from the western side of the peninsula. The impressive Church of St. Euphemia overlooks Venetian architecture and fisherman’s boats bobbing on the Adriatic. They bring in their catch each day, so you can indulge in delectable seafood at the restaurants and cafés right next to the sea.
The Wine Wanderer Week: This self-drive tour through the wine regions of northern Italy, rounding the curve of the Adriatic into Slovenia, and finally to Istria & Kvarner’s wine land, can be extended with longer stays at personal points of interest. You can easily while away a holiday fortnight with this itinerary.
Begin by flying into Verona and exploring its cultural highlights. Collect a hire a car and drive for approximately one and a half hours to Bardolino on the eastern shore of Lake Garda. There, sample the fruit-packed reds from the Veneto region at one of the many lakeside restaurants in the town for which they are named.
Head north into the Trentino Alto-Adige region and stop off at cosmopolitan Riva to indulge in local wines and delicacies.
Thereafter, head east to Venice for a sojourn or continue further east to Trieste before leaving Italy for a brief drive through Slovenia. Stop in Koper (Capodistria, somewhat appropriately) to experience Slovenian wines, before heading on down into mainland Istria & Kvarner for a longer exploration of Croatian wines and specialities of the region.
Many Winerist tours are fully-formed itineraries in their own right, and cover many single or multi-day trips, meaning all the thinking is done for you. One immersive example can be found here!
Whatever your preferences, timescale or budget, a unique bespoke tour can be created by the travel experts here at Winerist, for you. Simply email email@example.com or speak to Catherine or Céline on 020 7096 1006.