Rijeka, the European Capital of Culture for 2020, sits at the mouth of a sheer, limestone gorge where the Rječina River meets the northern Adriatic Sea. It's Croatia's third-largest city and its largest port. Defined by its open character and progressive spirit fashioned by waves of immigrants, nationalities, and layers of ethnicities, its status as this year’s Capital of Culture honours its multilayered identity. The accompanying year-long calendar of events – a programme named “Port of Diversity” – kicked off in February, just as the city’s famously flamboyant Carnival celebrations were revving into high gear.
“At times it seems Rijeka – which is described as post-industrial, post-socialist, post-Yugoslav, post-rock – is permanently gazing into its past,” says Vjeran Pavlaković, a professor in the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Rijeka. “However, the city willingly confronts its complexities with a bubbling energy and unique bravado, which makes it a fascinating place to visit for those interested in cultural heritage, edgy art, and dynamic natural and architectural landscapes.” Here are the best things to do and see when you're visiting Rijeka.
Start on the western side of town with a visit to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, which was moved into a repurposed industrial compound (previously used for tobacco and sugar) in 2017. Today, the space stores around 8000 pieces dating from the late 1800s until present day, and hosts a rotation of cutting-edge exhibitions and installations. The Maritime and History Museum was built as a governor’s palace during the Austro-Hungarian era. The historic structure casts a wide net and includes everything from art to naval curiosities and photography.
2. The National Theatre
From the museum, cross the city’s main pedestrian avenue – the cafe- and boutique-lined street named Korzo – past the 4th-century Roman Arch, and walk toward the sea to the neo-baroque Croatian National Theatre Ivan Zajc. Built and opened in the late 19th century, this is still the city’s main stage for world-class ballet, opera, and drama.
3. Views from Trsat Castle
Take a walk to the village-like neighbourhood of Trsat. From the city’s Titov Sq, take the Petar Kružić Stairway, which doubles as a pilgrims’ route to the Our Lady of Trsat Church and the Franciscan Monastery. At the top, make your way across a little square and past cafes to the district’s main sight: Trsat Castle.
The medieval fortress sits on a bluff looking out across the sea. This vantage point – a spot associated with Rijeka’s earliest development and recorded as early as the 8th century – provides expansive views of the region, including Kvarner Bay’s string of islands and Istria. Soak in the scene with a drink at the castle’s Vintage Bar.
4. Local markets and restaurants
Browse the outdoor City Market (Placa), with stands of vegetables, fruits, and flowers, and the smell of roasting coffee. The indoor pavilions are dedicated to meat and seafood vendors. Take a seat at one of the nearby restaurants such as Bistro Mornar with its rustic dining room, outside terrace, and tables lining the street. The wide menu changes with the season, and what’s available from the day’s catch, but seafood options might include mussels, grilled lobster, or sea bass served with sautéed Swiss chard and potatoes.
Rijeka is a sociable city with a fun-loving nature. Start your evening at the riverside bar Pivnica Cont, at the north end of the Hotel Continental; it makes its own beer and serves top-end pub fare such as pulled-pork sandwiches and fish and chips. From there, it's a 300m walk north to Život. Decorated in Yugoslav memorabilia, the club is one of the best spots in town to hear Rijeka’s thriving DJ scene. A solid, rotating line-up of local and international spin artists keep the beat going until 6am on Fridays and Saturdays.
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