Ruling the Adriatic from the southern end of the Istrian Peninsula, Pula has been a strategic prize for a host of power players, going back to the Romans. This city with its natural harbour was developed in Augustan times, and a breathtaking amphitheatre, temples and a collection of arches have survived for 2,000 years.
Later, the Venetians made it part of their Adriatic defences, enriching the city with yet more military heritage. But it was the Austro-Hungarian empire that really went to town in Pula, picking the harbour for their imperial maritime arsenal in the 1800s. What remains is a city jammed with majestic old buildings, but also in a stunning hillside location hemmed by natural parks.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Pula:
Pula’s emblematic Roman Amphitheatre is one of the most complete in the world.
It’s not just that the three storey-high arched walls and four towers around the perimeter are still standing; Pula’s Arena displays the incredible inner-workings of a Roman amphitheatre in vivid detail.
You can see the underground passages used by Gladiators, and the cisterns that channelled perfumed water to the 20,000 spectators.
This wonderful monument dates to the first century and one of the reasons it has survived is because medieval knights were still using it for tournaments 1,000 years after it was built.
Just like in Roman times, Pula’s forum is the city’s main square. So just as it would have witnessed important gatherings two millennia ago, whenever there’s a big event you can be sure something will be happening in the forum.
During the summer there are concerts and other cultural events here, as well as big crowds if the Croatian national football team is taking part in the Euros or World Cup.
It’s also a impressive setting, with other Roman monuments and the renaissance-style city hall providing a fitting sense of ceremony.
3. Arch of the Sergii
A slightly older Roman monument is this triumphal arch that was erected to commemorate the powerful Sergii family’s participation in the pivotal Battle of Actium in France.
It dates to about 30 BC and considering its great age is still in fine shape. When it was built the arch was a city gate leading up from the naval port.
Carved into the stone are friezes depicting cupids and garlands, and just beneath this you can still make out a relief of a horse-drawn battle chariot.
4. Temple of Augustus
Unmissable on the forum is the grand tetrastyle portico of yet another historic building that has been well looked-after.
The temple was built during the reign of Augustus, which makes it more than 2,000 years old.
This temple has survived so well because it was converted into a church when the Romans adopted Christianity, although later it became a granary before settling on its present role of lapidarium in the 19th century.
Step inside to see ancient pieces of stonework and bronze sculpture from around Pula.
5. Archaeology Museum
The Temple of Augustus became the city’s museum in the 1800s, but before long the city had more ancient heritage than it could display, and eventually this attraction was opened in 1925.
Today the Archaeological Museum showcases finds from across the Istrian peninsula, including busts, mosaics and ancient stone reliefs.
Exhibits here are being constantly updated due to the historical wealth of the region: They begin with artefacts recovered from Stone Age caves and finish up in with byzantine marble carvings found at the site of Pula’s first cathedral.
6. Church and Monastery of St. Francis
Located on the slope of the central hill leading up from the Forum, Pula’s Franciscan church is from the 1300s when this monastic order first arrived at the city.
In the century that followed a monastery complex was constructed around it. With its tall, slim-line windows and understated facade, the monastery is a classic piece of late-Romanesque architecture.
The best bit for most visitors is the cloister and courtyard, as the garden at its centre is a gorgeous little oasis of statues and palm trees. You can even see small tortoises sunning themselves here in the summer.
Set atop the rise in the middle of Pula, Kastel is a Venetian fortress from the 1600s.
You’ll notice that the powerful-looking walls are in a star configuration, which was a state-of-the-art design to repel artillery after the arrival of gunpowder.
Kastel was created to be the Venetians’ main stronghold, defending Pula’s harbour as well as the entire upper Adriatic.
If you’re into military history you should definitely climb the angular walls to see the cannons and watchtower.
Along with the arena Kastel is one of the iconic venues for the Pula International Film Festival. every July
8. The Gate of Hercules
Although this landmark may seem modest, it’s one of the earliest pieces of Roman heritage still standing in Pula.
The arch has an eroded carving of Hercules, but you can also make out the names of two contemporary Roman officials: Gaius Cassius Longinus and Lucius Calpurnius Piso.
These two men were tasked by the Roman Senate with establishing Pula as a Roman colony in the middle of the 1st century BC.
On either side of the gate are medieval towers that made up the city’s defences on the original Upper Circular Street.
9. Small Roman Theatre
Complete your tour of Pula’s Roman sights at this theatre on the hillside. These evocative ruins are described as “small”, because Pula’s other, larger theatre was located outside the city walls.
The small theatre is the only one of the pair to have survived and you’ll get to walk along a large section of the tiered seating, as well as part of the stage and orchestra (where the Ancient Greek or Roman chorus would sing and dance).
It’s a low-key attraction that draws fewer tourists but is all the better for it.
10. Pula Aquarium
With a dramatic home inside the Austro-Hungarian fortress Verudela, Pula’s Aquarium is the largest in Croatia.
The aquarium is a useful option for rainy days or the hottest afternoons in summer.
Blending neatly with the fort’s stone architecture are tanks with freshwater and marine species native to Croatia and the Adriatic, together with tropical displays, a turtle rescue centre (the only one to be found in Croatia) and an entire room devoted to sea horses.
The centrepiece of the attraction is the shark tank, which is found in the former atrium of the fortress.
11. Pula Communal Palace
A town hall has occupied this spot next to the Temple of Augustus for 2,000 years.
This is because the Temple of Diana which stood here until medieval times, was actually put to use as the town hall for several centuries.
In the 13th century it was replaced by the current building, but stonework from the original temple is still visible to the rear of the current structure.
Due to a host of rebuilds down the years The Communal Palace is now a melange of different styles, from gothic to baroque.
12. Cape Kamenjak
A few easy kilometres down from Pula is Istria’s southernmost point; a craggy headland with a constellation of little islands offshore.
The scenery has a kind of stark beauty to it, with bare cliffs and otherworldly rock formations used by youngsters to dive into the Adriatic’s smooth, clear waters.
The best beaches are on the west side of the cape, which has a long sequence of shingle coves or rocky terraces that lead down to the water, like the sides of the world’s best swimming pool!
13. Brijuni National Park
The only way into this park from the mainland is to head to the town of Fazana a few kilometres north of Pula.
From there you can catch the regular boat service out to the archipelago, which will take about 20 minutes.
The park is absolutely stunning, with densely wooded islands ringed by narrow white beaches. Seek out the natural history sites on Veliki Brijun, where 200 dinosaur footprints from the Cretaceous Period have been found.
You can also see the remnants of a Roman villa and a Knights Templar church.
14. Local produce
For a real Istrian souvenir nothing beats a bottle of Rakija. This aperitif is distilled across the Balkans, but always with small regional distinctions.
In Istria Rakija comes in honey and mistletoe varieties. The latter is called Biska, with a sweetish flavour and yellow-brown tint.
If you visit a market or artisan shop in Pula also be sure to track down a bottle of oil made from Istrian white truffles.
These thrive in the humid oak forests at the heart of the Istrian peninsula, and are shaved onto steaks or grated onto fuži pasta (small rolled pasta sheets with veal sauce).
15. Austro-Hungarian Fortresses
Pula’s Austro-Hungarian era, during which it was the Empire’s main naval port, left the city with a striking set of coastal military defences.
There are 26 forts in all, together with batteries, trenches and tunnels many of which are slowly being reclaimed by nature.
All the of the fortresses have a circular form, designed to help deflect artillery. You can get hold of a map of these installations and track them down on a walking trip.
And what’s great is that many, such as Fort Bourguignon and Fort Punta Christo, have lofty hilltop positions where the vistas are fabulous.