Note: Discount Code for Split Walking Tour in the post.
Split, Croatia’s second largest city, is a lovely combination of old versus new. The city is over 1,500 years old. Diocletian’s Palace is the main attraction in Split and pretty impossible to miss. While no longer a “palace,” it’s a walled-in ancient city that still houses 3,000 people.
Juxtapose all of that history to the scattering of 1960s-70s high-rise plain-Jane apartments leftover from a former-communist era only a few blocks outside the main city center. Even inside the palace, a new bank encompasses a Roman column. How’s that for contrast?
Construction of the palace began in the year 298, after Diocletian, one of the longer reigning Roman emperors, had successfully battled the Egyptians. Diocletian chose the seaside location because of its close proximity to Salona (now Solin) – the then-capital of the Roman Dalmatian Province where Diocletian was born – and for the healing sulpher water.
Built as the retirement home for Diocletian, the 7-acre palace housed gardens, temples, marble, and sphinxes from Egypt. Very few Roman emperors ever saw retirement as there seemed to a constant battle (to the death) to be in charge, but Diocletian set the tone from the beginning that he would survive and someday reside here. And he did.
After Diocletian abdicated the throne, he lived there until he died. In the 7th century the fortress became the ancient city of Split and the locals used it as protection from the invading Slavs.
Wander the Narrow Streets Inside the Palace Walls
Inside the palace is a maze of smooth cobblestone streets where each narrow turn leads to cafes, restaurants, and shops. Begin at the Golden Gate on the northern side and walk. The entrance is free. Early in the morning and after 3 pm are the best times to visit. After dark is even more spectacular. The small souvenir shops sell lavender, things made from olive wood, jewelry, olive oil, and bath salts and lotions.
If time allows, take a walking tour of the palace to get the full history and background which will make you fall in love with this compact city. We took one with Split Walking Tours and our guide was fantastic. [For a 10% discount on Split Walking Tour use code: LINDA]
Feel like a Roman in the Peristyle
Most of the roads lead to the Peristyle, the main courtyard where so many people and tour groups congregate. You can’t miss it! This is where Diocletian used to greet his subjects each day. Even today, at noon, an actor dressed as the emperor will make an appearance to greet whomever happens to be in the Peristyle. The Roman soldiers dressed as legionaries hanging around in the courtyard add a nice touch.
In the summer months, the city holds performances in the evenings as part of Split Summer Fest. I actually preferred this spot after dark with the lights all aglow on the limestone.
Visit the Oldest Cathedral and Climb the Bell Tower
The Cathedral of Saint Dominus is the world’s oldest Catholic Church (or at least that was the claim), and once was the location of Diocletian’s tomb. It is somewhat ironic that the cathedral was built on the site where Diocletian, a man who persecuted Christians, was buried. While very small, the interior is beautiful with a mix of east and west. When you purchase your tickets, take advantage of the combo admission to see the cathedral, the crypt, and Jupiter’s Temple (across the courtyard).
The bell tower, offering the best view in town, sits adjacent to the Cathedral. There’s an extra per-person fee to climb to the top, and they do have to limit the number of people because the stairs are so narrow. The queue, therefore, can be quite long at peak times. Our family went around 5 p.m. and the wait was about 15 minutes. At the top, spend a little time enjoying the 360 view where you can enjoy the mix of old vs. new and the sparkling sea.
Descend Down into the Palace Basement
Proceed through the Peristyle and walk down the stairs. A significant portion of the basement houses a dozen or so vendors selling reasonably-priced souvenirs of all kinds. (Many cheaper than the shops). The basement remains relatively intact from early days. Because citizens seeking protection in the 7th century used the basement for their trash, it helped preserve the structure over the years.
Peek into the Temple of Jupiter
The combo ticket from the cathedral gets you a glimpse into the Temple of Jupiter (later the Baptistery of St. John during the Middle Ages). If you paid for it, go in. It’s tiny and underwhelming. Make sure you do look up as the ceiling is interesting–lots of little heads looking down. A bit like Game of Thrones. The Temple of Jupiter was constructed with the palace and dedicated to the supreme Roman god and Diocletian’s “divine father,” Jupiter.
Next to the temple is the “Let Me Pass Street” (Pusti me da prodjem), known as the narrowest street in the world. Women used to enjoy passing through here hoping to bump into a potential male suitor.
Gladiator Photo via Andrzej Harassek, CC BY-SA 3.0
Basement Photo via On the Grid