Diocletian’s Palace

Top choice historic site in Split
Image by Christopher Groenhout / Getty Images

Taking up a prime harbourside position, this extraordinary complex is one of the most imposing ancient Roman structures in existence today, and it's 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.

Although the original structure has been added to continuously over the millenniums, 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, as well as columns and 12 sphinxes from Egypt.

Each wall has a gate at its centre that's named after a metal: the northern Golden Gate, the southern Bronze Gate, the eastern Silver Gate and the western Iron Gate. Between the eastern and western gates there’s a straight road (Krešimirova, also known as Decumanus), which separated 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 residents hang out their washing overhead, kids kick footballs against the ancient walls, and grannies sit in their windows watching the action below.