If you are near the Balkins, then you need to visit the Croatian coast at some point. And of all the cities in Croatia, the city of Split is a gem that can’t be missed. Less crowded than the cruise port of Dubrovnik, locals tell us that Split is their favorite place to go.
Old Town is the main attraction in Split, and it was built within the ruins of a Roman palace. This was Emperor Diocletian’s retirement palace, and it is the best preserved Roman palace in existence.
We loved getting lost in the streets of Old Town. The narrow, twisty streets will take you on a journey through history. Architecture from the Roman era, Medieval times, and the 12th and 14th century are woven together like a beautiful tapestry.
Live like an Emperor
The basement of the old palace is incredible, and it is a great way to escape the heat in the middle of the day. This lower level was built for the sole purpose to elevate the Emperor’s apartment (since he considered himself to be a god, he couldn’t live on the same level as his subjects).
There is a small entry fee of 32 kuna (about $5), and it is well worth it. While the apartment ruins above have changed drastically over the years, the lower levels remain perfectly intact. The floor plan mirrors the Emperor’s apartment above, and this allows you to imagine what a Roman Emperor’s palace was really like.
Buy the Red Ticket
There are a few key sites to see in the city, and you can purchase one ticket to visit some of the most popular. The red ticket costs 60 kuna (about $10), and it includes access to the Bell Tower, Cathedral, Baptismal, Treasury, and Crypt.
The Bell Tower is the icon of the city. From the top, you get an incredible 360 degree view that includes the beautiful Mediterranean ocean. There are a lot of steps, but the view is worth the climb.
In the Cathedral, you will see a stunning dome built during the Roman era. This was originally built as Emperor Diocletian’s crypt (he was the last great Christian persecutor). Ironically, when Rome became Christianized, his bones were thrown out, and the building was turned into a Cathedral that honors the martyrs he killed.
The Baptistry was originally built as a temple to the god Jupiter (the Roman equivalent to Zeus). Emperor Diocletian claimed that Jupiter was his father, and so he built this temple to worship there. During the Medieval times, the building was converted into a Baptistry.
Finally, the real reason to see the Treasury and Crypt is that they are a wonderful way to escape the heat. Apart from that, they aren’t really impressive, but the Treasury is air conditioned, and the Crypt is below the Cathedral with a well that keeps it nice and cool.
The History (Nerd Alert)
Diocletian was the Emperor that founded the tetrarchy in Rome. He ruled from 284AD to 305AD alongside his brother Augustus Maximian and his more junior Cesars Galerius and Constantius who was the father of Constantine the Great. The “Golden Wall” entrance has five cutouts for statues: two for the Augusti, and two for the Cesars, and the fifth spot held a statue of an eagle symbolizing Jupiter, the god that Diocletian considered his father (Jupiter is the Roman name for the equivalent Greek god Zeus).
Diocletian is the only Emperor of Rome that successfully retired, and he lived out his golden years here along the Croatian coast (known at the time as Dalmatia).
If you aren’t familiar, most ancient Roman buildings that are in ruins were mainly destroyed due to repurposing the materials. For example, in Rome, the Vatican was partially built using stones taken from the Colluseum. The Roman architecture didn’t fail over time, but the materials were taken and repurposed to build something else. In fact, the iconic Bell Tower in Split was created using materials taken from the upper levels of Diocletian’s apartment.
However, in Split, the lower levels of Diocletian’s apartment have remained untouched for nearly 2,000 years. They were only excavated in 1950, and they are some of the best preserved Roman ruins in the world.
Now, the reason for this preservation is quite comical actually. After the fall of Rome, the barbarians were attacking and burning the city, and the locals hid in the lower levels of the palace. As time went on, and things were safer, they started to build on the upper floors of the city. When this happened, the citizens decided to help themselves to a sewer system by poking holes in the upper levels of the palace and dropping their bodily waste down to the area below. The centuries of sewage protected this part of the palace from being repurposed. Don’t worry, that stench is long gone now.
Where to stay
We loved our AirBnb, and this particular host has three units in the same building that are very similar. It’s only a short 10 minute walk from Diocletian’s palace, and the air conditioning was a welcomed escape from the hot summer weather. This AirBnb was a perfect home base that allowed us to quickly rest and then go back out exploring.
AirBnb is a fantastic way to travel, and much cheaper than a hotel. If you’d like to learn more about how AirBnbs can save you a ton of money on your next trip, read our tips here.
Renting a car is a great option, and it is a beautiful drive. You will undoubtedly drive along the Croatian coast for at least part of your journey, and there are a lot of beautiful, fun stops along the way. Close to Split, there is a town called Omiš, and it was originally founded by pirates.
We were traveling from Sarajevo, and the road is stunning. You are in the midst of the Alps, and you pass several lakes and other beautiful scenes. However, the driving style in Bosnia and Herzegovina (and Croatia) is very intense and competitive. It can be quite intimidating, especially on curvy mountain and coastal roads.
We opted to take the bus since we were living in Sarajevo. It was a long bus ride, but we took advantage of the time to learn a bit about Roman history and Emperor Diocletian. There is an excellent podcast called “The History of Rome,” and episodes 122-131 are worth listening to.