Croatia’s third city, Rijeka is a low-key destination less popular with tourists than cities like Dubrovnik and Split, but this only makes it more “real”.
Rijeka is a city where you can soak up Croatian daily life: You can mingle with locals over a cup of coffee, meal or night out on Korzo, Rijeka’s busy promenade, or shop like a true Rijekan at the lively central market.
Although it’s next to the Adriatic, Rijeka is more reminiscent of a Central European city like Budapest or Prague, with its striking neoclassical palaces and theatre. And of course, if you need to unwind then Blue Flag beaches and their cobalt waters are minutes away.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Rijeka:
1. Trsat Castle
You need only stand at the crest of this steep hill next to the Rjecina Gorge to appreciate that this must have been a useful lookout point in ancient times.
There’s been a watchtower or stronghold at this elevated location since the time of the Ilyrians, who ruled much of the Balkans before the Romans arrived.
The castle changed hands between the Venetians and Habsburg Empire in the 1500s, but was forgotten until the 19th century when it became the residence of Field Marshall Nugent, an Irish commander of Austrian forces (it was a complicated time!).
What you see at the summit today are the romantic additions made by Nugent in the late-1800s.
2. Central Market
If you’re new to a city then one of the best ways to get a crash course in its customs is to head for its markets.
Rijeka’s Fish Hall is a gorgeous piece of metal and glass art-nouveau architecture. It was built in 1916 on the site of a previous neoclassical building, the grand entrance of which is still in place.
Adjoining this hall are two smaller pavilions where you’ll find meat and dairy, and out front are a host of stalls selling fruit and vegetables and street food.
If you’re at a self-catering apartment then you have to pay a visit, both for the experience and to stock up fresh produce!
This street is also essential if you’d like to get acquainted with daily life in Rijeka. Korzo is a long and broad promenade full of upmarket shops and cafes.
Here you could just park yourself at a table with a cup of coffee and see the city go by. As day turns to night Korzo takes on a livelier and younger feel, and you’ll see couples going out to dinner and some of the bars turning into nightclubs.
The buildings along the street are also worth your attention and mostly date to the 19th century, with grand neoclassical designs.
4. City Tower
Half-way along Korzo you’ll come to the baroque City Tower, which is possibly the city’s most emblematic building.
The front of the tower is adorned with a stone relief of Rijeka’s double-headed eagle coat of arms, granted to the city by the Habsburg Emperor Leopold I.
If you’ve got good eyesight you’ll notice that the eagle is holding an overflowing urn in its talons. This is supposed to signify the city’s constant loyalty to the Austrian emperor.
Above the coat of arms is the clock-face that has remained unchanged since the 1600s.
Ten kilometres up the coast from Rijeka is this little stone town on high ground, 365 metres above the sea.
The streets of the 16th-century core are just right if you want to escape Rijeka; in fact, many Rijekans come to Kastav in summer for the many concerts and festivals held at this scenic spot.
There’s a blues festival and a guitar festival, as well as the Kastav Summer of Culture, which runs throughout the season. Check local listings to see what’s going on if you drop by.
In the meantime you could just revel in those vistas that go out to the islands of Krk and Cres, and down to Rijeka.
6. Croatian National Theatre Ivan pl. Zajc
This lavish neoclassical building wouldn’t be out of place in one of the great Central European cities, so you won’t be shocked to learn that its construction was conceived by a Viennese studio in the 1880s.
The theatre’s slightly unwieldy official name comes from the Croatian composer Ivan Zajc, described as the Croatian Verdi and one of the country’s major cultural figures in the late-19th century.
The National Theatre is a multi-use venue, hosting ballet, concerts, opera and drama. If you’re coming to Rijeka then you could check the website to see if there’s something that tickles your fancy.
7. Peek & Poke Computer Museum
Here’s a real hands-on attraction that will be right up your street if you’re into vintage computer hardware (and even if you’re not!).
Peek & Poke is a massive collection of games consoles and personal computers going back to the 1960s. So of course, people of different ages will have their own favourites here, from the Nintendo Wii to the Sinclair Spectrum .
It’s also cool to see the a chronology of home computing up close, and to see so many of these old computers in working order.
Visitors are also free to have a go on some of them, so it may be difficult to drag yourself away!
8. Torpedo Factory
One of Rijeka’s many brags is that it was the city in which the torpedo was invented. The story goes that Ivan Lepps, a retired naval officer, was trying to think up ways of defending Rijekas coast.
In a moment of inspiration he conceived the self-propelling “Coastal Saviour” and he collaborated with Robert Whitehead to create a prototype.
By the 20th century the factory on Rijeka’s waterfront was rolling out torpedoes at a rate of hundreds per month but went into bankruptcy and all that’s left is a shell of the old structure.
The city is now considering a number of plans to restore the site and commemorate its past.
9. Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral
This attraction is in one of Rijeka’s most magnificent buildings. It’s a bright white neoclassical palace from the late-19th century that was built for the Hungarian governor Lajos Batthyány.
The museum was founded in the 1960s and is organised by several departments: Archaeology, ethnography, culture and history and the maritime exhibits.
It won’t be hard to lose a couple of hours here studying large displays of anything from historic coins and maps to coats of arms, antique weapons, navigational equipment, toys and even postage stamps.
10. Modello Palace
Another of Rijeka’s ornate Austro-Hungarian buildings, Palace Modello was designed by the Fellner & Helmer studio, which was responsible for hundreds of buildings across the empire.
This building stands out for its intricate stucco facade, and was originally a savings bank, built as part of the same project that gave the city its National Theatre.
Inside there’s a gala hall, where Rijeka’s Italian Cultural Club gathers, while the ground floor is Rijeka’s public library.
11. Astronomical Centre Rijeka
Croatia’s only facility to combine a planetarium and an observatory, Rijeka’s Astronomy Centre is on the Sveti Križ hill in an eastern suburb of the city.
It’s quite a recent attraction, having opened in 2001. The centre repurposed a Second World War military fortress and represented the biggest ever investment in Croatia’s technological culture.
So far two variable stars have been discovered from the observatory. For foreign visitors the best time to come is on Wednesday nights in the summer, when at 10pm the state-of-the-art planetarium puts on films in a variety of languages.
12. Roman Arch
For centuries locals believed that this archway in the centre of Rijeka was an old Roman triumphal arch, but in fact it was part of the gateway to the old compound of Tarsatica.
This was the late-Roman military fort on which Rijeka would later be founded. Either way it’s the oldest piece of heritage on the streets of modern Rijeka and has been integrated on each side by the buildings Ulica Stara vrata between Korzo and the cathedral.
There are 11 beaches on this length of coast, two of which fly the Blue Flag, which is awarded to Europe’s best beaches for criteria that include hygiene and services.
These are Ploce and Kostanj, and both are shingle bays with the smooth and transparent waters that visitors know and love about Croatia’s beaches.
Croatia is also a sport-crazy country and you’ll find that all beaches have volleyball courts and even facilities for water basketball, which is great fun in the shallow sea.
In this resort 20 minutes west along the coast from Rijeka you can follow in the footsteps of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor and nobility who established Opatija as a spa and used to spend their winters here.
One look at the town and you’ll understand why it was called the “Nice of the Adriatic” in the 19th century, and the Austrians certainly left their mark.
Opatija is bursting with stately architecture dating to the rule of Franz Joseph I. Try Villa Angiolina, an extravagant palace with formal French gardens, or take an easy stroll on the Lungomare, a seaside promenade laid out in the 1880s.
15. Local gastronomy
As a working town with a less touristy reputation, Rijeka is the perfect place to try Croatian specialities as the locals prefer them.
The food here is what you’d expect from a region that changed hands between the Italians, Austrians and even the French for a short period: Very eclectic. You can see the Italian influence in dishes like cuttlefish risotto and squid stuffed with prosciutto.
A light summer dish is Tuna Tartare, with tuna and capers combined with a sprinkle of lemon peel, cherry tomatoes and wild samphire.