The first thing that strikes you on arrival in Split, Croatia, is how very busy it is. The quayside is lined with local ferry boats -- some wood-trimmed and charmingly old fashioned, with room for no more than about 12 passengers -- and there are hordes of young backpackers embarking or disembarking as they make their way around one of Europe's most beautiful regions.
Bigger ferries and cruise ships come into the main terminal, and from there it's a short but uphill walk to the Old Town with its market and the world-famous jewel that lies at Split's heart, the magnificent Palace of Diocletian.
En route you'll encounter plenty of those gap-year kids, some toting backpacks or wheeling cases, others sitting -- rapt in young love -- on the many wooden, sea-facing benches that line the harbor front.
Split's youthful buzz arises partly from its status as a university town and partly from its position as a jumping-off point for exploring Dalmatia's lovely coast and islands. So it's hardly surprising that it has such a young population -- and the affordable bars and lively nightlife that go with it.
But older travelers arriving by cruise ship should not feel left out, for there is much to enjoy in this delightful port, from elegant pastel-colored tea shops and great restaurants to even better shops.
There's also a museum featuring the works of Ivan Mestrovic, one of Croatia's greatest sculptors. And, of course, there's that magnificent palace, built by a Roman emperor around 2,000 years ago.
The area around the port caters well to young travelers, with plenty of cheap and cheerful cafes, exchange bureaus and Internet centers. Head a little up the hill opposite the terminal and you'll find a street market selling beach towels, hats, sunglasses, newspapers and other tourist paraphernalia. But the main action is to your left, in the Old Town and around the palace.
Diocletian's Palace: It would be very difficult to miss this. The vast walled enclave spans 10 acres and dominates the Old Town. It's effectively a mini-city in its own right, containing hotels, bars, restaurants and apartments. It took 10 years and the efforts of 20,000 slaves to build the palace, and it contains several temples, four imposing gates, villas and a military barracks and encampment, not to mention the emperor's magnificent private apartments. Nowadays, shops and cafes are nestled within its precincts, and it's a delightful place to browse around, even if you're not into historic monuments. (You'll also find several handsome young men dressed as Roman legionnaires who are very happy to pose for pictures.)
A stroll along the Riva: Split's famous waterfront promenade underwent a $12 million renovation in 2007. It's now lined with trendy shops, cafes and bars and is delightful by day and night.
Bacvice Beach: This Blue Flag beach is a short walk away along the Riva. It's a city beach and quite pebbly, so don't expect anything too spectacular, but there are showers and changing rooms at either end, and it's lively and very popular with the locals. It's a good option if you want a seawater dip, a light lunch or a beer or two.
Markets: There are several markets in Split, but the general market beside the palace's Silver Gate is arguably the best. It operates virtually around the clock and is a good place to track down affordable beachwear and buy freshly picked Mediterranean fruits and vegetables. There are plenty of bars here, too, so it's a good place to stop for a mid-morning coffee or a drink. On the other side of the Old Town -- set incongruously close to Marmontova, Split's poshest shopping street -- is a bustling fish market, a culinary education in its own right.
Split's grand squares: Particularly recommended for lovers of fine architecture and sculpture. On Narodni Trg (the People's Square), near the west gate of the palace, you'll see the stunning, 15th-century City Hall, while near the Riva, in Trg Brace Radic, you'll find a superb statue of Croatian Renaissance writer Marko Marulic by Split's most famous sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic. Another of his sculptures, of 10th-century bishop Grgur Ninski, stands near the palace's Golden Gate, and you can see more of his work at the Mestrovic Gallery, which occupies his former home.
Mestrovic Gallery: Learn about Split's most famous artist, Ivan Mestrovic, who was born a Croatian peasant's son in 1883 and became famous in Croatia and later in the United States. The gallery contains portraits and many statues and occupies a neoclassical villa built by Metrovic himself in 1931. The entrance fee includes access to a lovely sculpture garden and the 16th-century Kastelet, a summer house in the villa's grounds that now houses Mestrovic's famous Life of Christ reliefs. (From May to September, open Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.; from October to April, open Tuesday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Closed Mondays.)
Marjan Peninsula: This hilly stretch of land within a 20-minute walk from Split not only is home to the Mestrovic Gallery but also offers quiet, pretty beaches and peaceful, spectacular hiking trails. Not up to walking? You can get there by taxi.
Split Archaeological Museum: Discover the region's vast history at Croatia's oldest museum. Founded in 1820, the repository features Roman coins and 7th-century religious artifacts. (25 Zrinsko-Frankopanska; open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Closed Sundays.)
Salona: In Roman times this city was home to around 60,000 people, many of whom fled to Split and sought shelter in Diocletian"s Palace after the city was destroyed by the Slavs. Lots of their artifacts and mosaics are now to be found in Split"s Archaeological Museum (see above), but if you make the three-mile journey to Salona you can also find the remains of the amphitheater, public baths and old city gates.
Diocletian's Palace and the Old Town are within easy walking distance of the dock. If you want to venture farther afield, you'll find a well-served taxi stand right outside the passenger terminal and a bus station to your left.
Look right, across the road, and you'll see a tourist information center; there's also a post office and a place to leave luggage. Stroll along the harbor front and you'll see ferries offering trips to Korcula, Hvar and Dubrovnik.
Croatian food has a strong Italian influence, so pizza- and pasta-lovers will find lots to enjoy in Split. Truffles are a big delicacy here; fuzi s tartufima (pasta in a tasty truffle sauce) is a popular dish.
Locally sourced fish, along with mussels, oysters, prawns and squid, form the basis of many dishes, such as brodet, a rich fish stew usually served with rice polenta.
Seafood not your thing? Try beef, lamb or chicken peka, a delicious dish in which the meat is cooked on hot coals underneath a bell jar of sorts to keep it succulent. Or try pasticada, a luscious beef casserole best served with gnocchi.
For a snacky lunch, prsut (Croatia's version of prosciutto) and paski sir (a sturdy sheep's cheese from the island of Pag) are a good combination with crusty bread and salad, as are cevapcici (thin, sausage-style minced-meat kebabs). Or give burek -- a tasty pastry filled with minced meat, cheese and spinach -- a whirl. (Many local dishes originated in the Middle East, another of Croatia's key culinary influences).
As for dessert, leave room for fritule (little fruit-flavored doughnuts) or a slice of kremsnita, a heavenly cake made with creamy vanilla custard.
Restaurants abound in Split, so if you're feeling adventurous, your best bet is simply to head for the Old Town, look at a few menus and follow your nose.
Restaurant Boban: Some call this the best restaurant in Split, which is praise indeed for a hotel dining room. It lies slightly out of town, near the tennis courts in Firule, between the Old Town and Bacvic Beach, but it's been a popular venue with Split's inhabitants and visitors since it first opened in 1973. It's famed for its grilled meat and seafood dishes. It also has an outdoor terrace overlooking a pool, so it's a good choice for a sunny lunch. (Hektoroviceva 49; +385 21 543 300; open daily, noon to 10 p.m., for lunch and dinner.)
No Stress Bistro: Overlooking the popular Narodni Trg (People's Square), this bistro is right next to the 15th-century City Hall and a stone's throw from the palace. Trendy and bustling with a stylish outdoor area, it dishes up decent food at touristy prices and couldn't be more convenient for a lunch near the main sights. It's also a lively place for dinner if your ship's in overnight. (Iza Loze 9; +385 99 498 1888; open Sunday to Thursday, 7 a.m. to 1 a.m., Friday and Saturday, 7 a.m. to 2 a.m.)Buffet Fife: This lies just inland of the Riva, a short walk from the palace, and offers hefty portions of freshly cooked meat and fish at affordable prices. (Trumbiceva obala 11; +385 21 345 223; open daily, noon to 10 p.m.)
Split is a very easy port to navigate; simply turn left outside the shipping terminal and you can walk into town along the Riva (the harbor-front promenade), or head right (up the hill) and then left for Diocletian's Palace.
Be aware that traffic is heavy and drivers have a rather cavalier approach to stopping at crossings. (Don't just step out!)
The waterfront and streets around the palace are often thronged by tourists, so be prepared for crowds.
Taxi fares can vary. Be sure to agree on the rate in advance and check any "extras."
Croatia's currency is the kuna (the name refers to small, weasel-like creatures whose pelts were traded for goods in the distant past). One kuna is made up of 100 lipa. (For the latest exchange rate, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com.)
You'll find several ATMs along the Riva promenade, which runs parallel to the port. (You'll find it to your left when you leave the passenger terminal.)
The locals speak Croatian among themselves, but fortunately for tourists, most also speak English. Basic phrases worth knowing include "Dobro jutro/Dobra vecer" ("Good morning/Good evening"), "molim/hvala" ("please/thank you") and "Racun, molim" ("The bill, please").
In an emergency, dial 112 or call 192 for the police, 193 for the fire brigade or 194 for an ambulance.
Foodies might enjoy a slab of Croatian fig cake, which comes in lavender, orange and almond flavors. Alternatively, try a jar of fig jam or chutney.
Figs are big here. So, too, are almonds, and little bags of locally grown nuts, coated in pastel-tinted icing, make good presents. Other cheap and cheerful mementos include locally made apricot biscuits and praline chocolate.
For something more lasting, check out Split's many jewelry stores or the stalls at the entrance to Diocletian's Palace, which feature small sculptures, clocks and dishes made from white Dalmatian marble.
The Dalmatian coast produces some fine wines; try Plavac Mali from the Peljesac Peninsula if red is your preference, or Posip from the area around Korcula if you enjoy white wine. If beer (known locally as "pivo") is your tipple, you'll be spoiled by the choices; try Karlovacko (which, not surprisingly, hails from Karlovac). Or for a real taste of Croatian history, sip a glass of Osjecko, Croatia's oldest beer, first brewed in 1697.