Split: when a city doesn’t always satisfy expectations

Sometimes you get to a city and instantly know you’re ready to leave- that the main “story” you’ll get out of it is “well, I guess now I’ve seen it.” If you’re thinking of going to Split for more than just a stopover, below is my account of why this city for me was Split. I also considered titling this post “French tourist mecca.” Take it with a grain of salt.

I decided to head to Split because I’d heard good things about the city. Granted, this is all from someone who’s never been there. First mistake. And I admit that I can see how the city might have held a certain charm before it exploded from being just a transit hub into being a full-blown tourist mecca.

On my way to Split from Šibenik, I did get into a mess that I knew would happen at some point. Since I was sick of being that obvious tourist and repeating “Split? Split?” (insert name of city you’re trying to get to here), I did my best to check the signs on the front of each bus, and hopped on board the one I thought was headed to Split. Big mistake. Turns out, the bus was coming from Split. 5 minutes after we pulled out, the ticket guy got to my seat, checked my ticket, and said roughly and matter of factly: “Split? No. Zagreb.” He walked back to the front to tell the driver. Since he hadn’t told me what they’d be doing with me, I mentally settled on changing my plans to make the 8 hour trek back up north to Zagreb. Instead, I was (kindly) dumped at a bus stop in the middle of nowhere to walk back to the station and get a new ticket. Oh well.
The (eventual) bus ride down to Split is hands-down one of the prettiest drives I’ve had on a bus, let alone in general. The road curves right along the coast, so every turn is a new picture-taking moment of clear blue water and little beaches. It’s actually still mind-blowing how blue and clear that water is, especially against the white rocks.

Don’t mind the blurriness – taken mid-ride


Pulling into Split, though, it was instantly obvious how much tourism has played a role in this city. Bright yellow signs advertising currency exchanges, excursions, cheap food, and everything else under the sun line the bus and ferry areas all the way into the city. Not the most attractive. The port is just overwhelming, with 25 or more docks for high cruise ships and ferries and catamarans coming from Italy or taking you out to nearby ports and islands. I’ve never really seen something like it, but now I get what they say about “port cities” that get a lot of tourism from ships.

I followed the little blue dot on my phone up to my hostel, and checked into a huge 6-bed room I had all to myself, surprisingly. Tempted by a flashy brochure with bright blue waters and snorkelers, I debated booked a kayaking and cliff jumping excursion for that day, but held off.

Instead, I wandered down to Bačvice Beach and decided to just try to stop stressing about “taking full advantage of every moment” of the trip (which, at this point in my 6 weeks, I was still putting effort into, and was much easier said than done). I ended up stopping at a side part of the beach with ladders into the water from a concrete pier instead of making it all the way to the busy part. People were out sunbathing, groups of American or British tourists crowded the beach bar and local older women went for dips in the water. I set my stuff beside a woman’s, hoping it would be safer, and got in. It’s always amazing to just get in the water and look up and see the mountains, the islands, and see how blue the water is.
As I got out to dry off, a guy came over to talk. Turns out he’s from Kosovo and was with his 4 other military diver friends in Croatia for 5 weeks of diving training. I was a bit skeptical at first, but talking to him was nice, and he showed me pictures of his 11-month old daughter and the raspberries he grows and the little birthday parties they have in the fields, toasting with Coke and drinks and a picnic. Village life is way better than life in the capital, he thinks. Food is fresh, people are nicer, and the scenery is better. Once I saw his friends start climbing up into a rock and jumping, though, I knew I had to try it. I’d been mostly safe up to this point, avoiding crazy adventures for the most part, and I wanted to just throw caution to the wind and take the opportunity. I climbed up with them, and with some hesitation, did my first dive into the water. Painful, but awesome. A couple jumps later, I climbed out to dry off again, and the guy joined me. I noticed I had split my toe open, most likely actually from climbing back up, and he taped it up for me to stop any bleeding. It reminded me that sometimes people aren’t inherently bad, and to give people a chance more than I do always.

The rock we jumped off of (right). I swear it feels much higher than it looks!

On the way back, I wandered through town and picked up some burek (baked pastry made with flaky phyllo dough and usually filled with meat) from Baš Burek.

Burek from a little shop just outside of town

Tempting?

(Touristy, pricey) restaurants along the water

Diocletian’s Palace

Of course no visit to Split is done without wandering through Diocletian’s Palace. Built by Roman Emperor Diocletian in the 4th century AD, the place was actually intended as his retirement residence. It went empty for centuries after the Romans abandoned it – until the 7th century when residents ran in to escape Slavs invading the city. These days, a lot of residents actually live within the walls of the former palace, and there are tons (tons) of shops in the underground part. Sadly, it’s definitely touristy, and, since it’s a part of the city (as opposed to a separate part with information and without the throngs of tourists and ice cream stands), it’s a bit hard to soak it in and imagine it as it could have been. Personal opinion. It’s still gorgeous, though, and the stone is so white.

      

A wedding at Diocletian’s Palace

The balcony at our hostel

Back at the hostel, I met a Kiwi girl, a Dutch guy, and an Argentinian guy out on the balcony of our hostel, and we made plans to go out later for drinks.We went to a mostly empty bar on the port but it was still nice to be out. The Dutch guy works for immigration services at the airport in Amsterdam so it was interesting to hear all his stories about that. We ended up back at the hostel, sharing mate tea with 2 Argentinians, passing it around in the guy’s own cup he had brought. I never realized how much of a ritual it was, but it was really fun. We turned lights off and it was a nice little night of Argentinian culture…in Croatia.

Played some darts at the hostel

Are there any good things about Split?

So…what was my one piece of advice every time someone asked me what to do in Split? “Don’t go.” As for the charm of the city, with its narrow, winding, and climbing streets, its inviting old town square, and the food – honestly, I found much better of each in Šibenik (and much cheaper!). If you have time, I would highly recommend adding it to your travels). I’ve also heard great things about Istria, but I imagine that can get quite touristy as well. But don’t get me wrong, I did hear good things about Split – mainly about the nightlife. So if that’s what you’re after, and you want it in a city on the water that’s still cheaper than Western Europe (despite still being pretty pricey in my opinion), Split may be for you (though I’d venture to say there are still better options further south than Croatia).

Traveler vs. tourist: French tourists in Split

One thing that really kept hitting me in Croatia, and was even more prevalent on the ferry to Brač, was the number of French tourists. I don’t know what it is- the sun, the water, and the bars, maybe, but this is apparently a really popular destination for the French. Overall, it was one of the few times this trip (after Lake Bled), where I really felt overwhelmed by tourism, which did put a damper on my time there. As high and mighty as it might sound, being in Croatia overall (but Split especially), with all the short-term vacation tourists, was just a bit of a change coming from being surrounded by adventurous and wide-eyed backpackers.

travelerquote travelertourist

“The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.'”

-Daniel Boorstin

For a good (basic) article on the differences many people, myself included, see between the two terms “tourist” and “traveler,” USA Today fleshes it out well.

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