Rovinj and Motovun are two beautiful small towns in Croatia. They are found in the northwest part of Croatia in an area known as Istria. The Istrian peninsula is located just across the Aegean sea from Venice, and is often cited as a less expensive alternative to Italy’s Tuscany due to geographic similarities. The Istrian area of Croatia features ancient Venetian seaside villages on its coast and an interior dotted with small hilltop towns, truffle forests, olive groves, and vineyards. In this post, I will guide you through our week exploring the two beautiful towns of Motovun and Rovinj Croatia.
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Rovinj Croatia is a stunning ancient Venetian city built up on a small peninsula that juts out into the Aegean sea. It features old stone buildings, a boat-filled harbor, an old Venetian style church at the top of a hill, narrow alleys, nice people, bilingual signage (Croatian and Italian), and great seafood. The town center is small, walkable, and easily explored in a half-day. As of now, it holds the title of most beautiful small city that I have ever visited.
Rovinj was the first stop on our Croatian honeymoon following our wedding at Lake Bled Slovenia. Croatia’s Istrian peninsula is located just across the border from Slovenia, and Rovinj Croatia was just a 3 hour drive from Lake Bled, and only 2 hours from Ljubljana, Slovenia’s beautiful capital city.
Driving to Rovinj Croatia
The drive from Bled/Ljubljana is on a well-maintained highway with ever-changing scenery as you drop elevation from the base of the Julian Alps to the ocean. You can even look across into Italy along the way. We did have to pass through border control at the Croatian border which slows down the crossing. Though Croatia is part of the EU, it is not yet part of the Schengen zone and so a passport check is required (Schengen membership is expected in 2020).
The border crossing along the main highway can get quite backed up at times. We took a lunchtime side trip to the Slovenian seaside town of Piran, and then crossed the border from a smaller road rather than the major highway connecting the two countries. The border crossing was much quicker here and only added a few minutes onto our drive. Once crossing into Croatia, it’s just a 45 minute drive to Rovinj
Cars are not allowed in the town center, but there are many free parking lots just outside of the town center.
Our Lodging in Rovinj Croatia
While in Rovinj Croatia, we stayed at La Fondiaria – a small, newly renovated 1-bedroom apartment with a sundeck. (I found this great place on Booking.com, but don’t see that it is currently available on the site). It was located near the harbor on the edge of the town center at the entrance to one of its narrow alleys.
The location was absolutely perfect. I would walk along the harborside every morning into the center of the town where there was a bakery. I love to forage local stores for our breakfast each morning. It was always early and there were only a few people around, mostly just fishermen working on their boats. This was the most breathtaking morning foraging that I have ever experienced.
The apartment was also located within a 5 minute walk to the ferry pier where we would catch the ferry over to Katarina Island
Parking is not allowed in the city center. There are many free parking lots located just on the edge of the old town. When we arrived in Rovinj, our apartment host met us outside of the town in his car, escorted us to a parking lot, and then took us in his car to a drop off point near the apartment.
Even if you aren’t lucky enough to stay at La Fondiaria, there are lots of great places to stay in and around Rovinj Croatia. Booking.com is a great resource to check these out.
Best Meals in Rovinj Croatia
Rovinj in Croatia was once part of Italy and there is a strong Italian influence still present. This is certainly manifest in the quality of the pizza. We ate pizza twice in Rovinj and it was excellent at both places. I used TripAdvisor to guide us to Pizzeria Leone and Pizzeria Da Sergio. Pizzeria Da Sergio has a higher TripAdvisor rating but I didn’t notice a big difference in quality between the two.
This is a small seafood restaurant that is also highly regarded on TripAdvisor and happened to be located just below our apartment. The food was simple and inexpensive, yet excellent. We ate grilled fish and prawns along with a very flavorful potato salad. Although the restaurant doesn’t have a harbor view, it has outdoor seating in the narrow cobble-stoned alley, which offers an alternatively appealing ambience.
Rovinj offers plenty of opportunities for harbor view dining. Our apartment host recommended that we eat at Maestral while watching the sunset. It’s located near the ferry terminal and offers commanding views of the old town, boats in the harbor, and Katarina Island. I stopped by the day before to ensure a reservation at sunset. When we arrived the next night, we were given one of the very best tables with an unobstructed view right along the pier. The views didn’t disappoint. We watched the sky evolve through the spectrum of red and orange, while dining on traditional Istrian cuttlefish stew and baked sardines.
Activities In and Around Rovinj Croatia
Wandering the Old Town
It is easy to explore all the winding alleys of the town center in half a day. These alleys are filled with shops and restaurants. There is a daily outdoor farmer’s market in the center of old town. The town’s church with its 16th century Venetian bell tower presides over the town center from atop a hill.
This mostly wooded island sits directly across from Rovinj. The small island’s central structure is a moderate sized hotel, but there are walking paths circumnavigating the entire island, offering views of central Rovinj on one side, and views out to the Aegean sea on the other side. Benches dot the pathway for sitting and soaking it all in.
The island also offers different ways to enjoy the ocean. There is a small sandy beach near the hotel and various water toys like kayaks can be rented from the hotel. The shoreline around the island is mostly rocky, but it’s easy to find a flat spot to hang out and enjoy the ocean views. We also found several areas where steps lead through the rocky shoreline down to the ocean for swimming.
A short ferry ride takes you across to the island from Rovinj. You catch the ferry at the Delphin Pier located a few minutes south of town center by foot. Buy your ferry ticket from the hotel reception desk when you are ready to return. I always love a good ferry ride, and though this one is short, the views of Rovinj are fantastic.
Olive Oil Tour at Chiavalon
Istria is famous for its olive oil and a few local olive oil producers offer tours and tastings. We chose the tour at Chiavalon. It’s a 30 minute drive from Rovinj as you head towards Pula. It’s a small family farm located in the small village of Vodnjan. I booked the tour ahead of time via the email address found on their website.
We were greeted by our friendly English-speaking tour guide and joined by only one other couple. We were given an olive oil history lesson (Istrian olive oil was so revered by the Romans, that the emperor redirected all Istrian olive oil for his personal use), a tour of the trees, a detailed description of olive oil production, and then a tasting. Our tasting included local charcuterie, cheese, and wine, and we were taught how to discern good olive oil from the pretenders. Chiavalon’s premier olive oil is called Ex Albis. It is ranked in the World’s Top 15 by those who know their olive oils. Chiavalon also produces several different other types of olive oil, and we tasted them all. Our tour and tasting cost 25 USD each.
They have a little store on site where all their products are sold. How much did we like it? We bought an extra suitcase so that we could bring home gift boxes of olive oil for family, and a small supply for ourselves. How much did we like it? I still order Ex Albis online from the Chiavalon’s US distributor.
Afterwards, my wife was so taken with the wine served, that our guide walked us down the quiet streets of the town and around a corner to the winery, where we were treated to an impromptu wine tasting. We purchased a few bottles for the rest of our trip.
Roman Amphitheatre at Pula
Pula, Istria’s largest city, is only 40 minutes from Rovinj (and only 15 minutes from the Chiavalon farm). The main attraction here is the Pula Arena. It’s the 6th largest remaining Roman amphitheatre in the world, and is definitely worth a visit. I always feel a great sense of awe whenever visiting Roman ruins. Here still stands something that is 2000 years old! Plus these amphitheatres are architectural wonders. A parking lot is located right across the street from the building.
The area surrounding Rovinj offers lots of other activity options as well. You can check them out on Viator:
The Istrian hill country is another must visit if spending time in this part of Croatia. Motovun is the most visited hill town in the area and is only 45 minutes from Rovinj making for an easy day trip. We stayed near Motovun for 3 nights, giving us an entirely different Istrian experience. This area of Istria is also known as truffle country, so if you love truffles, then you will especially love Motovun.
Our Lodging in Motovun Croatia
I used VRBO to rent this fantastic restored country house along the hillside adjacent to Motovun. It was surrounded by fig and olive trees. From our patio (or pool), we could see Motovun and watch it change colors as the light changed throughout the day. The owners lived up the hill in a different house, so we had the place to ourselves. It was a quiet, relaxing, romantic way to end our honeymoon. We would venture out for a few hours each day, but it was an otherwise perfect location to just relax with a glass of Istrian wine in hand. There is a large supermarket about 10 miles away in the town of Buzet where we were able to stock up with all our breakfast and snacking needs.
Best Meals and Activities near Motovun Croatia
This part of Istria is all about the truffle. Truffles are so expensive outside of truffle-growing regions that I had never eaten truffles, other than supposedly tasting truffle in the ubiquitous truffle oil or salt. Truffle is the main feature of every menu in this area, and the price is very good. Most dishes featuring black truffles were around $15-20. Dishes featuring the more pungent and rare white truffle cost about three times more.
Truffle Hunting & Lunch at Prodan Tartufi
There are several truffle hunting adventures in the area that combine a truffle education, a truffle hunt, and a coursed truffle meal. I chose Prodan Tartufi. I was able to book my reservation by emailing them directly through their website a few weeks in advance. We drove to the nearby town of Buzet and easily found Prodan Tartufi using Google Maps.
On site they have the family house, a small retail store where they sell their truffle products, their dog kennels, and an outdoor dining area with a beautiful view across the small forest below and the surrounding hills. Two other couples joined us on the tour. After learning about truffles, the history of local truffle hunting, and how the dogs are trained, we walked down into the forest below their house with their dogs. We followed the dogs as they hunted for about 45 minutes. The dogs found 3 or 4 black truffles!
After our hunt, we returned to the outdoor dining area, where the mom prepared a 3 course truffle meal for us. The first course was bread, salami, and cheese along with a variety of their truffle spreads.
The second course featured the best eggs I have ever eaten. The eggs were lightly scrambled with parmesan cheese and butter, topped with a generous amount of the freshly sliced truffles (the very ones we found in the forest), and finished with more shaved parmesan. She even gathered us around the stove and showed us how she made them.
The third course was a dessert – ice cream with truffle honey. It was a great meal in a great setting with some really nice people who really care about their family trade. We were there for about 3 hours. The cost was 65 Euros per person and worth every penny.
Exploring and Dining in Hilltop Motovun
When visiting the town of Motovun, it’s best to take a shuttle to the top of the hill where the town sits. There is a parking lot at the base of the main road that leads up to the town. The alternative is to walk up, but it’s steep and it isn’t a short hike.
Once at the top, the town is made up of few streets and alleys and it doesn’t take long to explore these. You’ll find several touristy shops on these streets. The views off across the surrounding hills and valleys are plentiful. At the very top of the town, you’ll find a church which is worth a quick peek.
After exploring Motovun we decided to eat on the outdoor patio of Konoba Mondo – Motovun’s #1 rated restaurant on Tripadvisor. We found plenty of truffle dishes here as one would expect, and it was all very good. I had homemade gnocchi with shrimp, topped with shaved black truffle. My wife had a seafood salad and tomato basil soup, both topped with shaved black truffle. Plus, you really can’t beat hanging out on an outdoor patio at the top of an Istrian hilltop town.
We truly loved our week spent exploring Motovun & Rovinj Croatia, and can’t wait to go back someday. The food, the scenery, our lodging, the activities – it was all fantastic. Istria should be high on your travel bucket list!