Pula is a quaint little coastal town in Istria, Northern Croatia. Famous for truffles, organic beef steak and its marvellous amphitheatre. I was lucky enough to spend 3 days there and this is my Pula Travel Guide.
We hadn’t planned to go to Pula. We hadn’t heard of it and I could for the life of me find a Pula Travel Guide to clue me in on the area.
We had originally planned to go to Dubrovnik – just like every other blogger I follow on Instagram this year. We’d found cheap flights and a great Air B&B. Then we had to wait a week to get approval for time off from work and by the time we came to book our Air B&B was sold out and the flights had quadrupled in price.
Pula, however, was less than £30 each way and the Air B&Bs didn’t go much above the £40 a night mark. And Pula has an amphitheatre … who doesn’t love some ancient ruins?
Impressions of Pula
Pula has a distinctly Italian feel to it. Istria borders Italy and was colonised by Italy until the early twentieth century. Because of this, the culture of Pula feels very Italian. The locals say ‘ciao’, the cuisine is mostly pasta and pizza, and the architecture is reminiscent of many Italian towns found on the Mediterranean coast.
Pula itself is a spiralling circle of cobbled streets laden with the ruins of Ancient Rome. There are cute cafes on every street with plenty of outdoor dining options. Gelateria kiosks are built into the walls and the fresh smell of salt water wafts in from the sea.
But Pula is crumbling. Or in the process of being rebuilt. I am not sure which is more accurate. It is evident that Pula doesn’t have the money seen in many Italian tourist destinations. The city is still a working harbour, with huge cranes used to salvage dying cargo ships and cruise liners. It is also surrounded by fortifications – a reminder of both the Second World War and the more recent Cold War. Many of these military remains line the coast that wraps around the city – they are mostly abandoned, falling to ruin and amateur graffiti.
Despite this, there is a charm to Pula. A strange blend of industrial modernity and historical interest. Even the giant cranes that hoist decrepit ships are turned into an art feature. After dark, they are illuminated in a vibrant light show that, if viewed from the sea, frames the ancient amphitheatre being them. The people are friendly, the atmosphere relaxed, and to the south of the city the beaches are phenomenal.
Pula is a cheaper and quieter – it does not yet have the bustle of Dubrovnik, nor is it the tourist trap of Venice, which lies just a short boat ride away.
This city is a retreat, for now. But if you’re staying for more that three days then you may need a car as you will have run out of distractions.
When to visit Pula
Pula is worth seeing all year round. But the high tourist season is May – September when the sun shines brightest and the winds ease. Like most cities in the mediterranean basin, the temperatures peak in July and August. I would definitely recommend going during the high season to take full advantage of the array of boat trips on offer from Pula. If I were to go back again, which I may well do, I would aim for September when family holidays have departed but the city is still awake with visitors.
We were there for three days in October meaning that many of the excursions and trips had ended for the year. Some of the restaurants we wished to try had also closed or were running reduced opening hours for the low season.
September – December sees the greatest rainfall. Thankfully, we were blessed with an unusually warm and dry October which meant sunbathing on the roof-top terrace of our Air B&B was utterly delightful. Sadly, due to expecting a rainy break, I hadn’t packed a swimsuit for taking full advantage of the golden beaches. Thankfully, I did check the weather forecast the morning of departing and threw in a last minute sundress and sandals. I needn’t have packed the bulky waterproof!
Where to stay in Pula
Pula is a small and compact city with very few hotels in the centre. The western outskirts of the city are laden with resorts – a real tourist hotspot these areas are filled with chalets and hotels that are just a short stroll to the beach. These are, however, a good 40 minute walk to the city or a 5 minute bus ride.
We stayed far more central, in a beautiful little apartment that overlooks both the amphitheatre and the harbour. The Air B&B had a spacious roof terrace with views over the amphitheatre and a nearby church. The apartment was spacious enough for two with a a subtly kitsch decor. It was more than comfortable for our three day stay and just a short stroll to nearby bars and restaurants. The cobbled streets of old town started less than a street away and the neighbourhood was quiet and relaxed. The apartment also came with a parking spot that would make it perfect for longer stays and exploring more of Istria.
I highly recommend staying close to the amphitheatre but be aware that the local church calls monks to prayer at sunrise with an incessant ringing of the bells. You definitely won’t be sleeping in when staying here!
What to See in Pula
Explore the Roman Ruins
It would be hard to miss the Roman Ruins. They literally line the streets of old Town and the amphitheatre dominates the coastline. Ancient arches nestle between houses and apartment blocks and Many of the ruins are just there to explore – no entrance fee, no red ribbon to keep you off. There is simply a plaque near to the ruin explaining what it is.
The Temple of Augustus, hosts concerts and art exhibitions. These are ticketed events, payable at the door of the temple itself. We didn’t go in as, during the day time, the temple is swathed in tourists wearing headsets. At night, however, the temple stands quiet and solitary whilst the square around it fills with bars and outdoor dining. We spent a few hours sat with a glass of local wine watching the heavy black veils of the temple blow in the breeze.
We did pay the 50 kuna to see inside the amphitheatre. It is a steep price, given the lack of additional information or exhibits when inside. However, maintaining a building that dates from 68BC is not cheap.
The underground levels of the amphitheatre do contain and exhibit on amphora (wine) production in the area. This was fascinating although brief and left me in need of a glass of Istrian wine just after.
If visiting Pula, do make sure to look out for the regular concerts that happen in the amphitheatre. There were none the week we visited which is a shame as I’d love so experience the atmosphere of an ancient festival arena bought back to life.
Wander through Old Town
You can’t help but do this given that you will need to walk through Old Town to get anywhere. But take your time doing so. Stop off at the many cafes and bars for some local wine or a strong black coffee.
Whilst you’re there, eat some gelato and explore the spice shops. Bring home some Istrian truffle to eat in pasta or some local wine to drink with friends.
Enjoy the views from Pula Castle
Climb the steep cobbled slopes of Old Town to Pula Castle. From the high, Venetian ramparts you can enjoy spectacular views of the Amphitheatre, the city, and the aquamarines waters of the harbour.
Whilst you’re there, explore the Istrian liberation museum which tells the history of Istria’s fight to be independent first from the Italians and then the Germans. The museum tells the story of the resistance movements in the area during their occupied history.
See the turtles at Pula Aquarium
Pula Acquarium is built into an old Cold War bunker to the West of the City. It has an array of marine and fresh water life local to the Mediterranean with impressive tanks built into the maze of the old military bunker. Caymans live in the attic and they have an impressive breeding room where they nurture dogfish purses and infant seahorses.
The highlight of the aquarium is the Turtle hospital where wild, injured turtles are nursed back to health and given extensive rehabilitation treatment. Those successfully cared for are restored to the ocean but some remain with the aquarium, or others in the area, for life. Many of the turtles are injured due to man; they’ve eaten plastic or been tangled in fishing equipment and so its great to see a centre attempting to combat some of the damage we’ve done to these beautiful creatures.
Whilst west of the city, make sure to wander down to the beautiful golden beaches and rocky coves. There is a coastal path you can saunter along to see a little more of the Croatian coast.
Take a boat trip to see the dolphins
I am always sceptical about dolphin excursions. In fact, I would put money on not seeing dolphins whilst on a dolphin excursions – at least, not wild dolphins.
Yet 30 minutes after setting sail (well motoring away) from Pula harbour, we were surrounded by pods of dolphins. There were even young with them. The excursion came complete with wine and water and you could pay a little extra for some food.
Even if you don’t see dolphins, being out at sea is the ultimate in relaxation and the boat trips from Pula harbour offer wonderful views of the city and surround coastline. They skirt the small, scarcely populated islands just off the coast and stay out long enough to watch the sunset. These trips are really not to be missed.
Browse the local market
Like many mediterranean towns, Pula is centres around its marketplace traditions. The market hall in Pula is definitely worth a visit. A huge glass construction the market houses street food vendors and cafes. On a Saturday, the square outside is filled with local providers selling everything from sausages, to truffles, to fresh fruit and veg.
Visiting a market is always one of my favourite things to do when exploring a new city and I always try to bring a taste of the place home with me. On this occasion, we came away with an array of scrumptious Istrian sausages that we throw into pasta dishes cooked at home.
Excursions from Pula
And if you’re staying in Pula for more than a few days, there is so much to do just outside of the city. If you are braving local transport then the trains and buses seemed to run much smoother than our own – they were even reliable. We also got so much great advice from locals so don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Through the summer high season, there are regular boat excursions to other towns like Rovinj or across to the National Park island of Brujini. And if you want to explore inland then Istria is adorned with vineyards, many of which offer wine tasting tours throughout the year. There is also the clifftop town of Pazin with its medieval castle built into the deep ravine. For the thrill seekers there is a zip wire across the canyon. I’ll definitely be doing this if I go back to Istria!
What to Eat in Pula
We ate exceedingly well whilst in Pula, but mostly my fluke. Many of the restaurants we planned to visit were closed for the season or not open on the nights we turned up. If visiting through the summer, this won’t be a problem but keep winter closures in mind if visiting between October and April.
As usual when travelling, we made use of local bakeries for breakfasts and raided delis for cured meats for lunches or light dinners on the days were we indulged at lunch. We drank the local wine and beer and found both delightful – not to mention cheap!
Istrian Steak is definitely hyped up in the city and rightly so. We were lucky enough to get the last table at Kantina Pula, a steak house with a reputation for doing the best steaks in town. The restaurant is found nestled below street level in a cave like bYou choose your cut of meat which is sold by weight and take your pick of sides. The rib-eye that we shared remains one of the best steaks I’ve eaten. It went beautifully with polenta, roasted vegetables and a truffle sauce.
Truffles are another delicacy in the area. They are served with particularly anything but my favourite was as truffle past – especially with pljukanci, the small tubes of Istrian pasta served throughout the city.
And of course, pizza. There are pizzerias all over the city but by far the most popular is Jupiter.
Owned by the former Olympic boxer, the restaurant serves the best (and the biggest pizzas). Definitely book if you want an evening spent on the terrace as this restaurant is very popular!
Also, be wary of the size of pizza you order. The large pizza will easily feed a family!
Shop my travel wardrobe
If you can’t tell, I adored my three day break in Pula and I think husband and I are in agreement that we’d love to go back and explore more of Croatia. Maybe next time we’ll hire a car and spend a week touring!
Got a question about Pula? Or been there yourself? Drop a line in the comments and let me know all about it!