With its seafront cafés and ancient alleyways, shouting stallholders and travellers on the move, bustling, exuberant SPLIT is one of the Mediterranean’s most compelling cities. It has a unique historical heritage too, having grown out of the palace built here by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 295AD. The palace remains the city’s central ingredient, having been gradually transformed into a warren of houses, tenements, churches and chapels by the various peoples who came to live here after Diocletian’s successors had departed. Lying beyond the Roman/medieval tangle of central Split lie suburban streets full of palms and exotic plants, followed by stately rows of socialist-era housing blocks that look like something out of a modernist architectural stylebook.

Nearly everything worth seeing in Split is concentrated in the compact Old Town behind the waterfront Riva, made up in part of the various remains and conversions of Diocletian’s Palace itself, and the medieval additions to the west of it. You can walk across this area in about ten minutes, although it would take a lifetime to explore all its nooks and crannies. On either side the Old Town fades into low-rise suburbs of utilitarian stone houses grouped tightly around narrow alleys – Veli Varoš, to the west, and Manuš, to the east, are the most unspoiled – and, although there are no specific sights, worth a brief wander. West of the city centre, the wooded Marjan peninsula commands fine views over the coast and islands from its heights. The best of the beaches are on the north side of Marjan, or east of the ferry dock at Bačvice.

As Croatia’s second city, Split is a hotbed of regional pride, and disparagement of Zagreb-dwellers is a frequent, if usually harmless, component of local banter. The city is famous for the vivacious outdoor life that takes over the streets in all but the coldest and wettest months: as long as the sun is shining, the swish cafés of the waterfront Riva are never short of custom.

Brief history

According to conventional wisdom, Split didn’t exist at all until the Emperor Diocletian decided to build his retirement home here, although recent archeological finds suggest that a Roman settlement of sorts was founded here before Diocletian’s builders arrived. Diocletian’s Palace was begun in 295 AD and finished ten years later, when the emperor came back to his native Illyria to escape the cares of empire, cure his rheumatism and grow cabbages. Even in retirement Diocletian maintained an elaborate court here in a building that housed both luxurious palatial apartments in the south of the complex and a military garrison in the north. The palace as a whole measured some 200m by 240m, with walls 2m thick and almost 25m high, while at each corner there was a fortified keep, and four towers along each of the land walls.

The palace was home to a succession of regional despots after Diocletian’s death, although by the sixth century it had fallen into disuse. In 614, it was suddenly repopulated by refugees fleeing nearby Salona, which had just been sacked by the Avars and Slavs. The newcomers salvaged living quarters out of Diocletian’s neglected buildings, improvising a home in what must have been one of the most grandiose squats of all time. They built fortifications, walled in arches, boarded up windows and repelled attacks from the mainland, accepting Byzantine sovereignty in return for being allowed to preserve a measure of autonomy. The resulting city developed cultural and trading links with the embryonic Croatian state inland, and was absorbed by the Hungaro-Croatian kingdom in the eleventh century.

Venetians, Ottomans and Austrians

By the fourteenth century, Split had grown beyond the confines of the palace, with today’s Narodni trg becoming the new centre of a walled city that stretched as far west as the street now known as Marmontova. Venetian rule, established in 1420, occasioned an upsurge in the city’s economic fortunes, as the city’s port was developed as an entrepôt for Ottoman goods. Turkish power was to be an ever-constant threat, however: Ottoman armies attacked Split on numerous occasions, coming nearest to capturing it in 1657, when they occupied Marjan hill before being driven off by reinforcements hastily shipped in from Venice, Trogir and Hvar.

During the nineteenth century, Austrian rule stimulated trade and helped speed the development of Split’s port.

Twentieth-century Split

Split’s biggest period of growth occurred after World War II, when industrial growth attracted growing numbers of economic migrants from all over the country. Many of these newcomers came from the Zagora, the rural uplands just inland, and ended up working in the enormous shipyards – colloquially known as the Škver – on Split’s northwestern edge, providing the city with a new working-class layer. It was always said that productivity at the Škver was directly related to the on-the-pitch fortunes of Hajduk Split, the football team which more than anything else in Split served to bind traditional inhabitants of the city with recent arrivals. Beginning with the big televised music festivals of the 1960s, Split also became the nation’s unofficial pop music capital, promoted as a kind of Croatian San Remo. Since then generations of balladeering medallion men have emerged from the city to regale the nation with their songs of mandolin-playing fishermen and dark-eyed girls in the moonlight.

Into the present

Split entered the twenty-first century as a transit city in which people spent a few hours before boarding their ferries. However the last decade has seen an enormous boost in tourism, with new hostels and new hotels (with ever higher prices) catering for travellers who want to experience the city’s unique urban buzz. As Split becomes wealthier, however, it is also becoming socially more conservative and provincial – the kind of place where moral-majority citizens campaign to have Gay Pride marches banned from the streets. The current expansion of Split University may help to alleviate this slide towards philistinism, with more and more young talents being encouraged to stay in the city rather than drift off to Zagreb.

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