The ancient Romans definitely knew how to live majestically.
And Pula is the living proof. Ample Roman ruins scattered among the city’s historic core speak volumes about the Pula’s rich history and strategic position it held throughout centuries.
Architecturally endowed capital of Istria offers a multitude of options for the curious traveller, with sites and activities tailored to all ages. History buffs, foodies and sun worshipers can all find their own piece of paradise in this naval Istrian town.
Curious what to see and do in Pula? Read on.
Visiting Pula and not seeing the Amphitheatre is like going to Rome without visiting the Colloseum.
This ancient Roman structure is the emblem of Pula and one of the most recognizable landmarks of Croatia. Known as the Arena in Croatia, it is truly amazing:
- It is the 6th largest surviving Roman Amphitheatre in the entire world;
- It is the best preserved ancient monument in Croatia;
- It is the only remaining Roman amphitheatre in the world to have four side towers and all three architectural orders entirely preserved.
According to legend, the construction of this imposing structure has nothing to do with ancient Romans. On the contrary, it was built by – fairies!
Fairies, which used to populate the lush Istrian grounds, carried stones all night from the nearby Mount Učka to build their Divić-Grad. Grad is a Croatian word for a city, and Divić means wonder – the city of wonder.
However, since fairies are creatures of the night, they had to cease their work as soon as the first sun rays appeared. Because of that their city of wonder – the Pula Amphitheatre – remains unfinished.
Those with a more pragmatic look on things believe the three-storey structure was erected during the 1st century AD. It was built on the grounds of a previous smaller wooden construction and it could host up to 23,000 spectators during its prime years. There is even a somewhat romantic story embedded in the Arena’s construction.
The Pula Amphitheatre had many uses throughout centuries. In addition to hosting Gladiator combats during the age of the Roman Empire, in the Middle Ages it was used for grazing, tournaments and medieval fairs.
Today the Amphitheatre serves as a fantastic venue for concerts by renowned world performers (Alanis Morissette, Elton John, Norah Jones and Michael Bolton are only some of them), ice-hockey tournaments and movie screenings during the Pula Film Festival.
The modest Hercules Gate is in contrast with the glorious hero it was named after.
Once marking the entrance into the city of Pula, the gates were built in 1st century AD. The very top of the arch above the gates holds the relief of bearded Hercules raising his club.
It might be difficult to spot for the un-trained eye, but believe us – it’s there!
A damaged description accompanying the relief state the names of Lucious Calpurnius Piso and Gaius Cassius, men entrusted by the Roman Senate to found the ancient colony of Pola – today’s Pula.
The Temple of Augustus
Who would’ve thought a temple could be so versatile! Dedicated to Emperor Augustus and goddess Roma, this ancient temple adorning the Pula’s Forum served as a church, a granary and a museum.
After defying the hands of time for almost 2,000 years, it took a World War II bomb to destroy this ancient pagan sanctuary. It was meticulously restored several years later and turned into an absorbing historical museum displaying items of Roman sculpture.
The Temple of Augustus was one of three temples decking the Forum, but today only this one and a wall belonging to the Temple of Diana remain.
In the 17th century the Venetians decided to build a stone fortress on the remains of an ancient Roman castrum. The word kaštel means castle in English, but using that term might be slightly too generous.
Kaštel played a crucial role in Pula’s defensive system, as the view from the fortress spreads over the entire Pula harbour and makes it easier to notice any enemy vessels preparing to strike.
Canons might still be lining the entrance to Kaštel, but fear not – they are not here to defend you from vicious pirates. Kaštel today serves as Historical and Maritime Museum of Istria, as well as a summer stage for a number of open theatre performances, music concerts and film screenings.
The Triumphal Arch of Sergii
The majestic arch is sometimes also known as the Golden Gates. It was built in 1st century BC in honour of three members of the distinguished Sergi family who had fought and died at the battle of Actium between Octavian’s Roman army and Mark Anthony’s Egyptian-Roman army.
Forming an impressive entrance to Pula’s historic core, the arch is richly decorated with fluted columns and war chariots drawn by horses engraved along the top.
The citizens of Pula us it as a popular meeting point, while the square next to it is a place where numerous cultural performances take place during summer.
The Cathedral of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary
Don’t let the cathedral’s minimalist design fool you, as this impressive 4th century structure exhibits overwhelming grandeur. It was built in the place of a Roman temple where Christians would gather during their persecution.
The cathedral’s main altar is in fact a Roman sarcophagus holding the relics of 3rd century saints. Visitors tend to admire the most the 5th and 6th century mosaics adorning the structure’s floor.
Here’s something particularly interesting – the cathedral’s bell tower erected in the 17th century was in fact built from the stone blocks taken from Pula’s Amphitheatre!
What was once the ancient Roman Forum, today is Pula’s favourite piazza. This pedestrian-only zone speaks volumes about Pula’s eclectic past as diverse buildings represent architectural styles from ancient, medieval and modern times.
Forum is still the central meeting point of the city, with a multitude of cafes, restaurants and shops jostling for space. It is the perfect spot to sit down after an exciting day of sight-seeing and enjoy a glass of renowned Istrian wine.
Pula was once the main military port of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so it comes as no surprise such an important city would come with a Naval Cemetery.
About 150,000 people have found their resting place in this spectacular location which resembles a slightly eerie park. This enchanting cultural monument is the burial ground of many brave soldiers, officers and admirals who fought many battles, including World Wars I and II.
When you pay a visit to the Amphitheatre or the Temple of Augustus, know that they are the dislocated collections belonging to the Archaeological Museum in Pula.
The Museum itself displays archaeological findings from entire Istria. Rich in remnants and evidence remaining from the ancient past all until more modern times, the Museum is a fantastic opportunity to load up on enthralling information and facts about this gorgeous region.
Take a trip to the beach
The coast of Pula is dotted with several stone, pebble and sandy beaches. Some of them have even been awarded the prestigious blue flag. Since it is given only to the beaches which adhere to the highest standards, you can be sure Pula has all one needs for a superb beach experience!
Everyone can find something for themselves – families with children, water sports enthusiasts, the elderly, naturists or solitude seekers.
Abundance of options for day trips
After exploring the ample Roman ruins and other impressive locations within the city, you might want to further your exploration of Istria.
Your options are practically limitless.
You can visit the nearby Brijuni National Park and its beautiful safari park, splash around the crystal-clear waters of Premantura – Istrian southernmost settlement, or spend a few nights in the solitary Porer lighthouse. Inland Istria is abundant in charming places such as Hum – the alleged world’s smallest town and Motovun – the capital of truffles.
Perhaps this list of 99 things to see and do in Istria might serve as perfect inspiration.
There are simply too many wondrous things to see and do in Pula to list them all. When you do visit, make sure to share your fantastic photos with us on Instagram by using the #TotalCroatia hashtag!
Photo Credit: (1), (2), (3) (5) & (12) Pula Tourist Board, (4) Sebastià Giralt, Flickr, (6) Orlović, Wikipedia, (7) Ramón, Flickr (8) Voyages Lambert, Flickr (9) Ramón, Flickr, (10) Troels Peter Roland dk, Flickr, (11) Orlovic, Wikipedia, (13) Tomislav Mavrović, Flickr