What to do in Split, Croatia? Visit hidden gems that nobody told you about

You have already booked accommodation and bought airplane tickets and now you need a plan for what to do in Split. When it comes to this question we have some refreshing proposals that might help. Whether you visit Split for one day or plan to stay longer, an unavoidable must-see attraction is a 1700 years old Diocletian palace which for more than 40 years enlisted in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. Despite many centuries it is so well protected that it belongs among the best-preserved monuments of Roman architecture in the world. The palace has many sightseeing attractions that you will find on every tourist map, but we are not going to talk about them now. What we want to discover are those less known places inside the palace, hidden and a bit self-deprecating which, without any advice, you would most likely skip and they are worth a visit.

St. Martin’s church

A great start for a walking tour is from the Golden Gate: the main entrance to the palace situated on the North and surrounded by an antique defensive wall. For 1300 years this wall was more than just a defensive wall – it is also home to an early Christian church of St. Martin. The church was built in the 6th century, after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, when the towers and watchtowers of the palace were converted into churches. Because it is located within the defensive wall of the palace which originally served as a passage for the guards, the church has a unique interior appearance: only 1.64 meters wide and 10 meters long, it is the smallest, and also one of the oldest churches in Split.

Church of St. Martin is still in the sacral function, and the Holy Mass is held once a year, on 11th November, when citizens of Split celebrate his day. Apart from its unique location, the church of St. Martina is also significant for being the only church in Dalmatia that has preserved an early Romanesque stone altar partition from the XI. century. An elegant marble partition served to separate the altar from the space for the believers. Made of marble and decorated with tendrils, vines, and griffins, it is one of the most important pieces of Croatian heritage.

Next to the church is a convent of the Dominican Sisters, who take care of it and use it as a prayer space. The monastery was first mentioned in the 14th century, and according to legend, it was founded by a Dominican sister from the small village Žrnovnica, who donated a golden chalice with the message that in no case should it be sold or alienated. During the plague in Split, the sisters were quarantined, which left the convent to theft and destruction in which the donated golden chalice disappeared. If we have aroused your interest, you can visit this unique church according to the schedule at the entrance of the monastery.

The garden

The only garden inside the Diocletian’s palace is a truly hidden gem that you won’t find on tourist maps. It is not hard to find it if you know where to look. The easiest way to reach the garden is by entering Diocletian’s palace through the Golden gate (on the North side) and continuing straight with the main street inside the palace. On the second crossroad turn right, pass something that might remind you of a vault, and all of a sudden a small Mediterranean garden will be in front of you. If you now think: well, it’s just a garden, what is there to be seen, we will encourage you to go in and explore. Why? Because it is a place where you can feel the palace’s life pace. It is also genuine proof that the 1700 years old Diocletian’s palace is still inhabited and that people are really living inside of its walls making it a truly living museum.

Until the early 2000’s today’s garden didn’t exist. That was just an empty spot between the houses where people used to dump everything they didn’t need anymore in their households like old washing machines or even ovens. Then the neighbors started an initiative: they brought soil, planted first trees and greenery, and the rest is history. With the ropes on which freshly washed clothes dry on the wind above it and the lovely stone street in front of it, the garden is today a great place to take authentic photos of the city Split. It is also a place surrounded by café bars where you can find some high-quality specialty coffee. These bars situated in small secluded streets are popular destinations among locals, so if you want to feel a glimpse of a Split life lived by locals, put a garden on your must-see list.

Zlatna Vrata cinema

If you are a movie buff and like movie theaters in all shapes and sizes, you might find it interesting to visit Zlatna Vrata or Golden Gate cinema. Just the fact that it is situated in a gothic palace, inside the UNESCO-protected Diocletian palace, reveals that this is not another common blockbuster cinema. Removed just a couple of meters from the palace’s main entrance after which it got its name, this cinema had its first movie projection as far back as the 1960s. Since then it has nurtured a diverse program that ranges from European cinematography to American independent movies. Here you can watch documentaries, and classic and art movies, but also be a part of public discussions, literary evenings, or even a concert.

The crypt of St. Lucy

When you visit Split, Croatia, its saint Domnius cathedral is usually one of the must-see places on everyone’s list. Less known is that underneath the cathedral is a crypt dedicated to st. Lucy, a Christian martyr who lived at the same time when Diocletian was alive and enjoying his palace. In those days the crypt of Saint Lucy was part of Diocletian’s mausoleum. As Roman Emperor, Diocletian considered himself a god, so during his lifetime, he made himself a magnificent tomb in which he was later buried. A couple of centuries after his death Split’s inhabitants converted the mausoleum into the cathedral which they dedicated to St. Domnius, and the space underneath them dedicated to Saint Lucy.

Dark and narrow, the crypt exudes a touch of secrets and mysteries. What was its exact purpose during the Diocletian’s time we don’t really know and can only guess? You enter it with stairs underneath the cathedral, and the hallway leads you to the main room with the well. Today this room has a statue of Saint Lucy, and every year on her day, 13th December, the people of Split come here to pray and send her their hopes and desires. Following the custom, they also rub their eyes with the water from the well in order for Saint Lucy to keep their sight. Although the crypt is closed during the year, in the summer season it is regularly open, and the entrance ticket can usually be bought at the selling place next to the cathedral.

Jupiter’s temple and its sphinx

A secluded, dark alley directly opposite the St. Domnius cathedral will lead you in front of Jupiter’s temple. Built at the same time as the rest of the palace, it was dedicated to the supreme Roman deity, Jupiter, whom Diocletian believed to be his divine father. Originally the temple had a porch with six pillars, but unfortunately, it was lost. What was originally preserved is the temple’s coffered vault, which is one of the best-preserved examples of its type in Roman architecture.

There are many details in and around the temple that are noteworthy. At the very entrance, there is a sphinx brought from Egypt by order of Emperor Diocletian. It was placed in front of the temple in 1928 and is one of the two best-preserved sphinxes you can see walking through the palace. These sculptures of mythological creatures are probably the oldest objects in Split, being at least about 3000 years old. No one knows exactly how many sphinxes there were in the Palace during the time of the Emperor. From the remains found we know that there must have been at least 12 or 13. Unfortunately, over time most of them were damaged or destroyed. This happened after the fall of the Western Roman Empire when Christianity became the dominant religion, and the population began to destroy or “baptize” symbols of earlier religions. According to legend, people in the Middle Ages believed that if they looked her in the eyes, the sphinx would do them harm, which brought their destruction.

During late antiquity and the Middle Ages, in the process of baptizing the palace, Jupiter’s Temple was turned into a St. John baptistery. In the 13th century, the baptistery received a baptismal font with a marble slab showing the depiction of the Croatian king. Which one is it: Petar Krešimir IV. or Dmitar Zvonimir, the historians are not sure, but regardless of who he is, this is the earliest depiction of a European king in medieval stone sculpture. The most visible and perhaps most impressive inside the baptistery is the statue of St. John the Baptist. It was made by Ivan Meštrović, the most prominent sculptor of Croatian modern sculpture. The Interior of the baptistery also contains two sarcophagi with the two Split archbishops buried in them. When you look at everything, it is interesting how many objects invaluable for Croatian culture you can find within just a few square meters of this small temple. For those who want to explore more, below the baptistery is the crypt of St. Thomas. All relevant information about the entrance you can get in front of the temple, during the ticket purchase.

We hope that these suggestions will help you explore Diocletian’s Palace in detail. Palace itself is a true gem of Roman architecture, preserved in excellent condition, and once you get into it you’ll see that it is a true time machine that left no one indifferent.

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