Culture

Forget Dubrovnik. Rovinj is the coolest Croatian city right now

Ancient streets and an azure sea combine with slick hotels and gourmet restaurants to make Rovinj an urgent addition to your travel bucket list

The small picturesque town of Rovinj in Istria, northern Croatia, is fast becoming the summer destination of choice for those in the know. Why? Unlike the more traditional Croatian hot spots of Dubrovnik and Split, Rovinj flies comfortably under the mainstream tourist radar, meaning it still feels relatively undiscovered. However, its growing reputation for luxurious five-star hotels, excellent locally produced wines and first-class restaurants mean that it won’t stay much of a secret for long.

The ancient town is dominated by the spire of St Euphemia church, which rises up from a cluster of terracotta roofs. It looks and feels straight out of a Fellini film – a cinematic cityscape of quaint bustling streets, colourful buildings and laundry hanging overhead. It’s no wonder a colony of artists set down their easels here in the early Sixties and never left.

Dig a little deeper, though, and Rovinj has much to offer besides its very Instagrammable façade. From its award-winning vineyards and local olive oil to its celebrated gastronomy  – truffle hunting is just one highlight – there’s much to attract gourmets (and gourmands) here. And beyond Rovinj’s beautiful Adriatic coastline there’s an archipelago of 21 further islands, perfect for snorkelling, dolphin spotting and sailing, all of which can be easily arranged from the bustling harbour.

Where to eat in Rovinj

The proximity to Italy (Venice is a mere two hours 45 minutes away by ferry) makes the food of Rovinj superior to much of the rest of Croatian cuisine. The location of Puntalina (above), perched on the very edge of the rocks over looking the Adriatic, serves some of the best seafood I have tasted. If you can claim a table outside to fully appreciate the sapphire blue sea beneath your feet, the scallops (highly recommended) taste just that little bit better.

Puntalina, Ul. Sv. Križa 38, 52210, Rovinj, puntulina.eu

For a pre or post-dinner drink check out Mediterraneo, where you will quite literally have your aperitifs on the rocks. As well as smart Italian cocktails on the menu, seek out locally produced wines, which are currently giving the Tuscan grape a run for its money. The local white Malvazija wine with its light floral flavour is perfect to go with any number of the freshly caught seafood.

Mediterraneo, Ul. Sv. Križa 24, 52210, Rovinj

To get more of a taste of the local wines I’d recommend a sampling stop at Piassa Granda, tucked down a hidden alley amid the Old Town’s winding historic quarter, with an impressively well-stocked cellar. Run by two sisters, they offer more than 200 labels, the majority native to the Istrian area. Keen to promote domestic prosciutto, salamis and cheeses, it’s a tasty respite from the bustling town, and with most varieties sold by the glass you can merrily sample several varieties.

Piassa Granda, Veli trg 1, 52210, Rovinj

Away from the daily bustle of the harbour, Katarina Patisserie, situated on the newly developed marina, was a good find for decent coffee and pastries, and became our regular morning pit-stop. But you’d be hard pushed to go wrong with most food choices in Rovinj: even the pizzas from street vendors were some of the best we’ve tasted this side of Venice.

Katarina Patisserie, Grand Park Hotel, Smareglijeva ulica 1A, 52210, Rovinj

Saying that, Bitinada in the heart of the marina was exceptionally good, its elevated prices reflected in the carefully crafted seasonal menu. Not surprisingly, locally caught seafood features heavily on the menu together with the celebrated local truffles.

Bitinada, Grand Park Hotel, Smareglijeva ulica 1A, 52210, Rovinj

What to see in Rovinj

If you want to take a speedboat out to explore any of the tiny dotted islands that hug the coastline around Rovinj, then Vedran Modrus at Mare Nostrum is your man. For more organised excursions, take a taxi boat ride to Red Island where boats head out of the harbour every hour. Benedictine monks opened up a church on the island in the 6th century, but it’s been left pretty much deserted since the 19th century after Napoleon chased them off. Alternatively, sail over to Sveta Katarina, the closest island to Rovinj harbour. A former playground of various European dukes and counts, today travellers can make do with catching frequent ferries over to amble through past vineyards and ancient olive groves. There are many and varied boat trips lined up along the harbour, offering anything from an hour’s trip to all-day excursions.

The town’s relationship with artists dates back to the 14th century, when painters and poets from Zagreb and Belgrade descended to form one of the first artist colonies in Europe. But it was the early 1960s that today’s artists really got a foot hold in this ancient peninsula. Take yourself off through the stone-paved Grisia district of Rovinj, a colourful thoroughfare of ateliers and galleries, offering paintings, ceramics and locally made arts and crafts, which lead up to the church of St Euphemia. For a more curated view head to the Rovinj Heritage Museum, which was set up by a group of artists in the Fifties. It houses Istrian art along with a fine collection of Italian art from the 1400s onwards.

Rovinj Heritage Museum, Trg Maršala Tita, 52210, Rovinj, muzej-rovinj.hr

Where to stay in Rovinj

The Hotel Adriatic

Rovinj

The Hotel Adriatic has held a respected presence on the harbour front since 1913, but it wasn’t until the hotel’s current owners, the Maistra Group, completely refurbished the hotel that its jewel began to shine again. The interior, a mix of dark wood, light marble and plush navy velvet, wouldn’t look out of place at a Soho House outpost. Beyond the well-designed interior, which extends outside under striped canopies, the Adriatic is an excellent location to both stay or visit, as its restaurant allows a great view of the daily bustle of the working harbour.

From €404 per night (around £370), Obala Pina Budicina 16, 52210, Rovinj, maistra.com/hotel-adriatic-rovinj

The Grand Park Hotel

Rovinj

The Grand Park Hotel looks back across the picturesque harbour to the old historic town. Rising out of the Adriatic Sea like a majestic cruise liner, the local architects 3LHD responsible for the 209-room hotel cleverly created a series of cascading terraces overlooking the ocean. It’s punctuated by 33,000 carefully positioned plants, which soften the vast glass and sandstone of this five-storey tiered building. 

The impressive interior, created by Italian architect and designer Piero Lissoni, is an oasis of calm. The floor-to-ceiling windows make the most of the constantly changing view out across the peninsula. The hotel’s world-class Albaro spa spans an impressive 3,800 square metres over two floors, offering three pools, three saunas, two steam rooms and two cold plunge pools.. I tried out the thermal mud deep cleansing facial, an indulgent sixty minutes that gave the face a much-needed firmer appearance, and the hot stone massage with bay laurel, which uses white stone carved from the ancient quarry in the hotel’s forest to relax muscles and ease tension in the body. Many of the treatments utilise local botanical clays along with mineral rich marine muds, locally harvested sea salts and fragrant essential oils.

From €611.40 per night, (around £560), Smareglijeva ulica 1A, 52210, Rovinj, maistra.com/grand-park-hotel-rovinj