Backed by rugged mountains, and lapped by crystal-clear turquoise sea, this buzzing Mediterranean-flavoured city is particularly renowned for its pristine rocky shoreline and for its beautifully preserved historical center.
Stretching across the Marjan peninsula at the center of the eastern Adratic coast, Split is the second largest city of Croatia and the largest city of the region of Dalmatia. Its favorable geographical position and its immediate links to the Adriatic islands and the Apennine peninsula have earned Split the status of a bustling intraregional transport hub and renowned tourist destination. The city was founded in the early centuries BC as a Greek colony called Aspálathos or Spálathos, and developed around the Diocletian’s Palace, a fortress-like residence commisioned by the Roman emperor Diocletian. Towering over the Split harbor, this 4th century complex is a sprawling maze of beautifully preserved ancient ruins, lively taverns, intimate restaurants and charming boutiques. It is, indeed, no wonder that the Diocletian’s Palace has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979 and is widely recognized as one of the most imposing ancient Roman structures in existence.
The Diocletian’s Palace
Considered to be the nucleus of Split, the 1700-year-old Roman structure measures approximately 160 m by 190 m. A gate or entranceway is located in the center along each of the four walls that lead down to the historical center’s main square, the famous Peristyle, effectively dividing the palace into four quarters. The four huge gates are each named after one of the metals and include:
- Bronze gate
- Golden gate
- Silver gate
- Iron gate
The Golden Gate (Porta aurea)
The Golden Gate is the north-facing entrance to the palace, as well as the main one, and was used by the emperor Diocletian when he entered his new home for the first time on June 1st, 305 AD, upon arriving from his nearby town of Salona (present-day Solin). Situated on the northern wall of the palace adjacent to the Strossmayerov Park (Đardin), it boasts a grand façade decorated with arched niches and four plinths which once supported the likenesses of Diocletian and his three co-emperors going by the names of Maximian, Galerius, and Constantine Chlorus. The Golden Gate is dominated by the 5th century Chapel of St. Martin, the patron saint of soldiers. This miniscule chapel measuring just 5 m in width is one of the earliest Christian chapels anywhere and was built for the troops who guarded the gate. Just outside of the gate stands an impressive towering statue of Gregory of Nin, a medieval Croatian bishop of Nin who was a strong advocate of the use of the Croatian language in religious service in the midst of unfavorable historical circumstances.
The Bronze Gate (Porta aenue)
Even though the Golden Gate had historically served as the main entrance to the Diocletian’s Palace, this role is now occupied by its south-facing cousin, the Bronze Gate. Located on the southern wall of the palace, adjacent to the sea and the bustling Riva harbor-front promenade, this entrance connects into the basement halls of the palace, where one can sneak a glimpse of the emperor’s imperial quarters before ultimately winding up at the Peristyle, the main square of the great complex. Seeing as the underground corridor is lined with all manner of quaint souvenir shops, most visitors prefer the Bronze Gate to all the other entrances. This gate was also dubbed the “safety gate” because it once enabled the emperor and others to escape by sea in case of danger, and it also acted as a service entrance for supplies that came by boat.
Silver Gate (Porta argentea)
Situated on the eastern wall of the palace, the Silver Gate is adjacent to the main green market ‘Pazar’, and that is what makes it the most crowded of all the four entrances. The Silver Gate connects to the decumanus, the original east-west street that leads to the Peristyle and on to the Iron Gate, exiting onto the famous Piazza. What is less apparent today is that the Silver Gate also had a propugnaculum, a defense system or human trap where invaders would be captured between the outer and inner gates. The Silver Gate however, is not as richly decorated as the Golden Gate, but you can vaguely spot the remains of the octagonal towers on either side of the gate.
Iron Gate (Porta ferrea)
The Iron Gate is situated at the western wall of the palace, in the immediate vicinity of the exit to the popular Piazza. As is the case with the Silver Gate, its position enables one to take a leisurely stroll along the nearby decumanus and reach the Peristyle. Looming above the gate is the magnificent Lady of the Bell Tower, an early-Romanesque tower topped with a Gothic bell-tower. This 11th century edifice, recognized as the oldest preserved bell tower on the Adriatic coast, features a little double-arched window and a grand clock on its façade. The clock is captivating as it is divided into 24 parts instead of 12. In the Middle Ages, this gate was called “free port” because it was the only one that was not closed when the city expanded westward.
Historic sights inside and near the Diocletian’s Palace
The Saint Domnius Cathedral
The history of this monumental edifice, erected in honour of St. Domnius – the first bishop of Salona and patron saint of Split – reaches as far back as the 4th century AD. Adjoined by a tower reaching up to 57 m in height, the Saint Domnius Cathedral features a variety of fascinating architectural details. One of them is certainly the stunning arcaded porch adorned by two Romanesque lions with a motley collection of human figures riding on their backs, including Greek-born Maria Lascaris, wife of Hungarian King Bela IV, who briefly took refuge from the Tatars in the nearby stronghold of Klis. Consecrated at the turn of the 7th century AD, this magnificent cathedral is regarded as the Catholic cathedral in the world that has retained its original form throughout its still ongoing use, as it is not riddled with a history of any near-complete renovations. The structure itself, built in AD 305 as the Mausoleum of Diocletian, is the second oldest structure used by any Christian Cathedral.
Right at the front of the Saint Domnius cathedral, imposing steps lead up and out into the Peristyle (Peristil), once the central courtyard of the Diocletian’s Palace complex and the crossing point of its main streets. Nowadays, it serves as a bustling square and central rendezvous point, crowded with café tables and surrounded by considerable remnants of the stately arches that once framed the courtyard. Due to its incredible acoustics, this grand square has a long-standing history of housing various cultural and musical events, such as the famous Split Summer Festival.
The statue of Gregory of Nin
Among landmarks in Split, the lucky-toed statue of Gregory of Nin holds a special position. Proudly sitting just off the Golden Gate of the Diocletian’s Palace, this imposing statue, created by most famous Croatian sculptor, Ivan Mestrović, is a heavily trafficked tourist site. The main reason for this is the local rumor that rubbing its gigantic toe brings good fortune, thus prompting both locals and visitors to keep polishing it to an almost immaculate shine.
The Republic Square
Near the the southern end of Marmontova Street, the pedestrianized thoroughfare which marks the boundary of medieval Split, lies the Republic Square (Trg Republike), an elongated square set back from the water and surrounded on three sides by the grandiose neo-Renaissance city-council buildings known as the Prokurative. This popular tourist spot is particularly abuzz with visitors during the summer, when its serves a venue for various cultural events such as outdoor concerts.
The Riva promenade
Running along the side of Diocletian’s Palace is the Riva, a seafront promenade lined with tall palm trees, bustling cafés, and shaded benches. Always packed with admiring visitors, some of which are there to attend the numerous festivities it houses, Riva is a social hub from dusk till dawn till dusk again.
Piazza or People’s Square
Nestled up against the western wall of the Diocletian Palace, this centrally located square is one of the most-frequented places in the city and one of Split’s main tourist attractions. Aside from luring in coffee-chugging passers-by with its legendary City Café (Gradska kavana), the Piazza also boasts a variety of stunning ancient buildings. These include the towering Renaissance clocktower, erected on the ruins of a Roman-era edifice, the stately Renaissance palace of the aristocratic family Karepić, boasting a façade adorned with a beautifully stylized coat of arms, and the mid-15th century Gothic-styled Old Town Hall, which once served as a public office, and now houses state-of-the-art exhibitions.
Situated at the west of the city, at the foot of the famous Marjan hill, Varoš is on of the oldest parts of Split. Dotted with typically Mediterranean stone houses and steep narrow streets that are inherited from its beginnings as a modest settlement of Split fishermen and farmers, this historical district is now a lively place that provides modern tourist accommodation, fancy restaurants and charming shops. Upon receiving detailed instructions from locals, those with a sense of adventure are also invited to make Varoš the starting point of their climb to the captivating Marjan hill that looms over it.