With an enchanting old town idiosyncratically tucked into the ruins of a ancient Roman palace, Split is one of the jewels of Croatia’s glittering Adriatic coast. Croatia’s second largest city is also a great base for day trips to some of the most spectacular and intriguing castles, towns and islands in northern Dalmatia.
Klis Fortress offers expansive views of Split and the Dalmatian coast © TPopova / Getty Images
History meets fantasy at Klis Fortress
Just 12km from the city centre, Klis Fortress is the perfect excursion from Split, combining an atmospheric and historic castle with impressive views over the Dalmatian coastline. The fortress is spectacularly located high on a ridge, defending the valley that leads to Split. Cobbled ramps and walls zigzag up the hillside, with the castle’s towers and ramparts piled precipitously on top. The most dramatic event in the fortress’s history happened in 1537, when Ottoman invaders captured it from local defenders and mounted their captain’s severed head on a spike.
Klis Fortress was used as a filming location for Game of Thrones © Kirilart / Getty Images
More recently its claim to fame is as a Game of Thrones filming location – the terraces and ramparts stood in for the city of Meereen when Daenerys vengefully crucified the city’s slave masters. Exploring the ruined castle is great fun, and there are exhibitions of historic armour and weapons in the armoury, and Game of Thrones filming stills in the artillery barracks. The fortress is a great spot for a picnic – you can admire the views of Split and the surrounding islands, whilst gentle breezes keep you delightfully cool. Alternatively, the village of Klis Grlo, just below the castle, is famous for its spit-roast lamb, which is sold by the kilo and eaten with spring onions.
Getting there: Klis Fortress is a 30-minute drive inland from Split. You can catch a local bus from the city centre, or visit on a guided tour.
Trogir's well-preserved old town benefits from a stunning location, encircled by the sea © Emicristea / Getty Images
Trogir's Renaissance architecture and unique setting
Just along the coast from Split’s Unesco-recognised Diocletian’s Palace is another wonderful World Heritage Site: Trogir, which received its status thanks to its extraordinarily well-preserved Romanesque and Renaissance architecture in a unique and beautiful location. The old town sits on a small island, separated by narrow channels from the mainland on one side and the larger Čiovo Island on the other. The old town is surrounded by imposing fortifications, leafy gardens and seafront promenades.
Elaborate 13th-century carving on the portal of St Lawrence's Cathedral © Alf / Getty Images
It has a laid-back vibe, and is a lovely place to while away a few hours, either wandering through the narrow marble-paved streets, or sitting in a seafront cafe watching the world go by. The town’s showpiece is St Lawrence’s Cathedral, which has some incredibly ornate and beautiful carving around the door and in the Chapel of St Ivan. The views from the tower are worth the thigh-busting climb.
Getting there: Trogir is about 40 minutes' drive west along the coast from Split, near the airport. There’s a direct intercity bus, or in summer you can can catch the shuttle boat run by Bura Line.
Omiš is surrounded by imposing cliffs © Andrey Omelyanchuk / 500px
Active adventures in the legendary pirate stronghold of Omiš
The legendary pirates’ lair of Omiš has a breathtakingly dramatic location at the mouth of the Cetina river, where the fresh water carves its way through towering limestone cliffs to reach the Adriatic sea. In the middle ages pirates based here terrorised the surrounding coastal and island communities. They used a special type of ship called a sagitta, which was super-fast but had a very shallow keel, allowing it to withdraw past the underwater fortifications in the Cetina river that kept other larger ships out at sea. The pirates constructed two medieval fortresses high above the town to protect it from attackers, and both can be visited, if your legs can take the climb.
You can try activities such as rafting and ziplining on the Cetina river © Rusm / Getty Images
Once you’re in Omiš, it’s well worth taking an excursion up the Cetina river. The most sedate option is a river cruise, stopping off in a riverside restaurant on the way to sample local specialities such as frogs, eels and snails. To get the adrenaline pumping, sign up for white water rafting on the rapids a little further upstream. You’ll paddle your way through the turquoise waters of the river as they carve a channel through a lush valley, with tall mountains on either side. Another exciting way to enjoy the spectacular scenery is shooting down a zipline. Eight wires of varying length and steepness zigzag through the canyon, crossing the river several times on the way.
Getting there: Omiš is a 40-minute drive east of Split. City bus 60 heads there every half hour.
Maslinica is one of the prettiest villages on Šolta © RPBMedia / Getty Images
Locally grown culinary delights on the island of Šolta
Often overlooked by tourists in favour of its more famous neighbours, the small, bucolic island of Šolta is ideal for anyone who wants to get away from it all. The island’s most attractive settlements are the seaside towns of Maslinica and Stomorska, which sit around pretty harbours at opposite ends of the island. Maslinica is the ritzier of the two, with a newly constructed yacht marina and a luxurious hotel in a restored castle. Stomorska, the island’s oldest coastal settlement, has more of a traditional vibe, and is a great place to eat a simple yet delicious lunch of grilled fish and vegetables right by the sea.
The bees that make Tvrdic Honey feast on rosemary flowers © Tvrdic Honey
Inland, the villages are less polished but no less charming, with cobbled streets and shuttered stone cottages, some of which have seen better days. As well as taking a stroll back in time, it's worth visiting the inland villages to try the island’s local produce. At Tverdić Honey in Grohote visitors can tour the beehives and taste the award-winning rosemary honey. You can tour the olive groves, visit the olive mill and sample a variety of top-quality olive oil at Olynthia in Gornje Selo. Also in Gornje Selo, Kaštelanac offers tastings of their traditional dark red and innovative rose Dobričić wines, as well as fragrant and citrusy local olives to buy as a souvenir.
Getting there: There are several ferries and catamarans each day from Split to the port of Rogač. From there you can explore the island by bus, bicycle or even on foot.
The view of Hvar Town and the Pakleni Islands from the castle © Evgeniya Moroz / Shutterstock
Picture-perfect views and swimming spots on Hvar
With historic architecture, gorgeous swimming spots and lively nightlife, the beautiful island of Hvar is one of Croatia’s most popular destinations in its own right. Though it’s worth staying here at least a night or two if you can, it’s also possible to visit Hvar as a day trip from Split. You’ll want to get the fast catamaran direct to Hvar Town, the island’s largest and most charming settlement. For a picture-perfect view of the terracotta-roofed white buildings clustered attractively around the square harbour, climb up to the ramparts of the medieval castle that looms high above the town. It’s also worth wandering the atmospheric streets of the old town and trying the island’s delicious traditional fish stew (hvarska gregada) at one of the harbour-side restaurants.
Kayaking in the Pakleni Islands © & Adventure
If you can tear yourself away from the pretty town there are plenty of great ways to spend the rest of your day. Stroll along the seafront promenade to find yourself a great spot to swim in the crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic, or take a taxi boat out to one of the Pakleni Islands that lie just off the coast. If you fancy something more active, & Adventure offers half-day kayaking, cycling and rock-climbing tours. Alternatively, to get a feel for the less-visited interior of the island, take a jeep safari through abandoned villages and lavender fields to the island’s highest point, where you can enjoy panoramic views of the whole island.
Getting there: The fastest way to Hvar from Split is by catamaran, which takes just over an hour. In summer (June to September), the earliest departure from Split is at 8.30am with Jadrolinija and the latest ride back from Hvar is at 7pm with Kapetan Luka. If you want to visit Hvar from Split in a day outside of high season it’s probably best to take an organised tour.
Anna Tyler travelled to Split with support from the Croatian National Tourist Office. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.