Pula, Croatia is the perfect location to choose as a base for exploring the wider Istria area and has an abundance of hotel and hostel accommodation. Undoubtedly there are prettier bases for a stay in Istria (Rovinj springs immediately to mind) but for convenience, distance to the international airport, and ease of access to other Istrian destinations for day visits Pula should rank pretty highly on anyone’s list. The town is most famed for its iconic Roman Amphitheater, but there’s more to Pula than just that. You’ll only need a day or two to see most of what Pula has to offer, but it’s definitely worth the stop on any Istrian (or Croatian) grand tour!
Pula is served by Pula International Airport which is handily located a mere 8km outside of town; making it a very easy transfer. If you don’t fancy faffing around then there is a single authorised taxi service provider at the airport and their handy dandy website provides a pretty solid pricelist. If you’re trying to save the pennies then a shuttle bus also ferries passengers to downtown Pula and operates in alignment with incoming flights. The schedule and advance purchase tickets for the bus service can be found here (click on the button in the top right hand corner if your Croatian language skills are a little rusty). Finally, if you’re planning on exploring Istria on your own then there are a whole host of rental car options (including Hertz, Avis and Budget) at the airport and their desks can be found in the arrivals terminal.
As with elsewhere along the coast of the Adriatic, Pula is within relatively easy reach of a number of other major Croatian and regional cities. In addition to intercity domestic bus services you can also find reliable international services from Pula to Ljubljana, Trieste, Munich, Sarajevo, Zurich, Venice and Graz; making overland transport entirely feasible (even more so if you transfer domestically to Rijeka first where there are even more international bus routes in operation). If international bus services (and indeed local Pula services) are of interest to you then I would start by looking at the ‘Get By Bus’ website page covering Pula (or the Autotrans Website). Another option is rail (handy because the railway station is right in the center of town). Rail services in Croatia are provided by HZPP whose website, providing timetables and ticket purchase options, can be found here. Your final option is by sea. As with pretty much all coastal Croatian towns Hydrofoil is the more expensive (but scenic) option for domestic travel. Pula also has a 3 hour summer ferry connection to Venice provided by Venezia Lines.
Pula is a fairly small city and it is really easy to walk between the main sights. Despite this fact a hop-on-hop-off company has popped up to ferry tourists from a to b. The service is very much mirrored on the ‘City Sightseeing’ company model (down to the fact that they seem to use near identical fonts and colours on their brochures) and has a fairly meagre 8 stops (of which only three are in the city center where all of the major Roman attractions and restaurants are). In summary, I wasn’t convinced it was value-for-money even for those who may not be prepared to walk the short distances between sights. However, don’t base your decision solely on my judgement; you can check out the website in the additional resources section below and come to your own conclusion.
If you’re a diving aficionado then Pula can cater for you with a host of dive sites featuring both wrecks and reefs. Orca Diving Center offers a number of options and is actually based in the center of Pula. I’ve included the link to their website in the additional resources section.
Pula Arena: Probably the most visited attraction in Pula; the Pula Arena is the 6th largest surviving Roman Amphitheater in the World. I’ll leave it to your imagination as to why a 22,000-seater gladiatorial amphitheater was needed in a small coastal town of a few thousand residents (nobody seems to know). Still, the three tiered arena is a pretty impressive sight that towers over the rest of the town and forms the focal point of tourism in Pula. Despite the fact that the seating stones were pilfered by the locals to build their houses and the fact that the rest of the arena was nearly dismantled as a show of might by the Venetian empire who wanted to reconstruct it in Venice, the arena today has a surprisingly intact exterior shell (making it great for photography). For a small entry fee (50 Croatian Kuna at the time of writing) you can head inside the arena to reenact your favourite Russell Crowe scenes from Gladiator (‘my name is My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius’, ‘are you not entertained’ etc.) and visit the underground rooms and tunnels that used to house petrified wild animals and Christians before they went out to fight gladiators in the arena.
Brijuni National Park: If it’s ever been a personal goal to see Asian elephants or African zebra given as diplomatic gifts to a communist dictator so that he can stock his private Yugoslavian island residence then this is the place to do it (and let’s be honest, who doesn’t have that goal on their bucket list??). The Brijuni Islands, which lie just off of the coast of Pula certainly have an interesting history; from being the private summer residence of the former President of Yugoslavia, Josep Tito (visited by 100 heads of state and Hollywood A-Listers including Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren) and Navy Fortress to an opulent weekend getaway for European Aristocrats. Today the 14 beautiful islands form a national park and holiday getaway for those seeking some relaxing beach time or for visiting the several cultural, prehistoric and Roman archeological sites on the islands. Of course, if you want to see Tito’s exotic animal collection then that’s also an option at what is now a small safari park. The islands can be visited by boat transfer from Fazana; a quick 10km taxi transfer from Pula. If you want to find out more about arranging a visit to the islands (and to book advance transfers) then check out the National Park Website in the additional resources section below.
The Forum and the Temple of Augustus: The main square in the city center has been built on the site of the ancient Roman Forum. Today the square houses City Hall and the well-preserved Temple of Augustus (it was reconstructed after being basically destroyed by allied bombing raids in WWII). The Temple was built between 2BC and 14AD and was dedicated to Emperor Augustus. Don’t get too excited; it’s a pretty small temple by Roman standards, but worth the small entry fee to have a quick look around inside and to have a peek at the Roman Sculpture exhibit. The square itself is now a great place to stop for a spot of lunch in the sunshine at one of the few cafes and restaurants with outdoor seating.
Pula Castle: The castle was built by the Venetians between 1630 and 1633 and occupies an elevated position on a small hill right in the center of town. The construction of the fort was (unfortunately) largely undertaken utilising stones from the Roman Theater which can still be seen at the rear of the castle. Disclaimer: The castle itself isn’t all that impressive but it does now house the Istrian History museum and also provides some pretty decent views across the city towards the Pula Arena and the Mediterranean (head up the hill for sunset for the best photos would be my advice).
City Gates and Arches: The city is home to three other points of Roman interest; the Arch of the Sergians, Hercule’s Gate and the Twin Gate. As the names would suggest, they are just archways, so not exactly somewhere you’ll be looking to spend much time. However, the Arch of the Sergians is the entrance to the town’s main shopping street and is also a good place to sit down for a spot of lunch or coffee after a hard day of ‘touristing’. The Café right next to the arch on Portorata Square was once where James Joyce, the Irish Writer, taught English for the Berlitz School. There’s a plaque to commemorate this fact on the wall of the building….how exciting!
Zerostrasse: If you want to make the most of the Istrian sunshine and the healing properties of the refreshing coastal sea breeze by heading underground in to a dark, damp labyrinth of man-made caves then Zerostrasse is the place for you! That’s probably not the tagline that the tourist board of Pula would shoot for, but it seems pretty apt?! Nonetheless, Zerostrasse is an interesting system of subterranean tunnels built as an air-raid shelter and ammunition store during WWII. Today you can tour the tunnels and also visit the aviation exhibit in the center. If it’s a nice day outside I’d probably suggest you skip it; but if the clouds are gathering or the rain is pouring then you might want to make Zerostrasse your own personal shelter for an hour or so.
Istrian Food Tours: Istria County, of which Pula is the largest city, is renowned for its food and wine; in fact it’s best to think of Istria as an ‘undiscovered’ Tuscany (maybe a slight exaggeration, but you get my point)! So if you’re planning to visit Pula (or, in fact, anywhere in Istria) then you’re going to be blessed with fine dining (and drinking) experiences that blend Italian and Austrian cuisine. If you want to expand your knowledge of the local cuisine beyond stuffing your face and consuming enough Croatian wine to sink a battleship then you might want to consider a food and wine tour. ‘Eat Istria’ offers truffle hunting, wine tours and cooking classes that will allow you to savour the best Istria has to offer; wild truffles, Croatian fine wines, olive oil, honey, locally farmed oysters, wild asparagus and dry-cured ham. The Eat Istria website is a good place to start looking at what’s on offer from Pula so I’ve included the link to their website in the additional resources section below. Of course, if you don’t fancy venturing outside of Pula city center then you could also try the olive oil tasting sessions at the ‘House of Istrian Olive Oil’ which is 200m from the Pula Arena.
The Lighting Giants: One of Pula’s newest ‘sights’, and one of the oddest city attractions I know of, is the Lighting Giants. Pula is a working port and as a result there are some rather unsightly 19th Century port cranes dotted along the city’s waterfront. Presumably in an effort to make tourists think that the unsightly port cranes are beautiful the city hired a lighting designer to adorn the cranes with over 16,000 lights that illuminate the night sky to a choreographed musical ditty each and every night from dusk onwards (on the hour every hour until 10pm). In fairness, it seems to have the desired effect it’s definitely the highlight of an evening in Pula; and the cranes actually do look pretty spectacular lit up as the sun goes down!
Pula Airport Taxi Service Website: http://taxi-airport-pula.com/
Pula Airport Shuttle Bus Website: http://prodaja.fils.hr/lpindex.php?lng=en&l=Shuttle
Pula City Tour Website: www.pulacitytour.com
Orca Diving Center Website: www.orcadiving.hr
Eat Istria Tours Website: www.eatistria.com
House of Istrian Olive Oil Website: www.oleumhistriae.com