Where Habsburg heritage meets the Adriatic. Today we’re exploring Rijeka, Croatia’s third-largest city after Zagreb and Split, located on the Kvarner Gulf. A city that developed where the Adriatic Sea deeply penetrated the European mainland, Rijeka is the closest port to Central European countries along with Trieste and Koper.
With a Renaissance rebirth and Baroque flair, Rijeka is a well-positioned city, connected to the hinterland and the entire coast by roads, with ferry and boat connections to the Kvarner islands, and an airport on the island of Krk. This easily accessible destination is a great start to your Northern Adriatic sailing trip.
Rijeka, or Fiume in Italian, has a complicated past. The tracks of humans date back to the Paleolithic and Neolithic times, and the prehistoric Liburnian settlement of Tarsatica was located in today’s hilltop Trsat area. In Roman times, a military fort was built here to defend the nearby settlement. Trsat was then held by the Frankapans from 1223 until the first half of the 16th century and was taken over by the Habsburgs in 1466.
In the second half of the 15th century, Rijeka achieved a significant economic rise. Still, it didn’t take long before it began to fall, primarily due to the invasion of the Ottomans, the war with the Republic of Venice, and the strengthening of other cities like Trieste. Nevertheless, it maintained positive relations with its hinterland and took on a Croatian character. It was also a prominent cultural center where books in Glagolitic were printed in the 16th century.
After Rijeka was declared a free port in 1719, its economic rise began. Trade began to flourish, and the first modern production plants were created. However, an earthquake in 1750 devastated the city, forcing it to be rebuilt almost entirely. As a result, the small medieval town transformed into a much larger commercial and maritime city centered around its port.
In 1776, Rijeka was part of the Kingdom of Croatia, and from 1779, it was declared an independent body attached to the Hungarian Crown. In the 19th century, Rijeka was occupied by the French and was an integral part of the Illyrian provinces. However, when the Croatian army entered the city during the 1848 revolutions, it again became an essential part of the Croatian territory. The dispute over Rijeka’s affiliation flared up again during the 1860s, and the Habsburg Monarchy finally fell in 1918.
At the beginning of the 19th century, Rijeka’s trade developed, and it also grew into a vital port and industrial center with increasing inhabitants. Unfortunately, Rijeka became the center of postwar peace settlements in 1918. While it was first given to the new Yugoslav state, it was returned to Italy in 1924 once Mussolini assumed power. The Free State of Rijeka was then founded, and the city was in the hands of the fascists. During this period of political upheaval, violence, and insecurity, the economy and trade fell into crisis, forcing the population to decline.
During World War II, Rijeka suffered extensive damage from Allied air raids, but once Partisan troops entered the city and the Paris Peace Treaty came into force, the city finally became part of Croatia. After it was reconstructed and its industries were revived, the city saw expansive social and economic growth, and the number of inhabitants rose. It didn’t take long for Rijeka to become the center of western Croatia. In 2016, Rijeka was named the European Capital of Culture 2020 for its “Port of Diversity” program, built on a city of culture and creativity within Europe.
However, it’s good to know that the commercial port of Rijeka is Croatia’s busiest, where a container port, shipping lines, oil tankers, and ferries operate. Yachts are not wholly encouraged in this Rijeka port, considering commercial vessels and fishing boats take up most of the space. If you find a spot, the port is well-protected in most conditions, apart from strong westerlies.
And the good news? There is a bright future for this famous maritime city. A new ACI Marina at Porto Baroš in Rijeka will see Croatia's most significant investment in nautical tourism. Set to open by 2026, this ACI Marina has plans to be green and fully digitized, with new maritime technologies. In addition, the new marina plans to have 260 berths!
Let’s start with the most popular. Fish restaurant Conca d'Oro (or the Golden Shell) is located in the heart of Rijeka, in an alley directly off the city’s main promenade Korzo. Operating since 1885, it has gained a reputation as an institution for tradition and quality. Its interiors are dominated by local artist Bruno Paladin, while it serves only what the market offers that day. Thus, you can take your pick of fresh fish, meat, and homegrown produce. A special part of the restaurant is the pizzeria "Bracera", where traditional Neapolitan pizzas and pasta dishes are also served.
And if you’re looking for something fancy? Nebo Restaurant & Lounge at the Hilton Costabella is led by one of Croatia’s top chefs, Deni Srdoč. This fine-dining choice elevates Croatia’s best ingredients with stunning Adriatic views. This restaurant is an excellent spot for tasting menus and wine pairings, while its lounge boasts a unique selection of spirits and cocktails. Or if you want something a bit more casual? The Kitchen by Chef Miljenko Kosanović offers wholesome comfort food, an a la carte menu, and one of Croatia’s best buffets.
Those after tried and true tradition should head to Konoba Tarsa in the ancient Trsat area. Due to its location in the city’s first settlement, this tavern respects the region's culinary traditions and its wealth of culinary delicacies, from coastal dishes to local wines. Everything is prepared with a touch of imagination, but according to their original recipes, like homemade gnocchi with game, flambéed meat, green pasta, and black risotto.
Plaža Ploče Beach, also known as Fiumana Beach, is perhaps the city’s most popular. Located north of the city center, this Blue Fag gem has more to offer than its quality - it’s the largest landscaped beach in Rijeka, with a promenade, greenery, lighting, benches, and amenities.
And another favorite? Sablićevo Beach is one of Rijeka’s most beautiful. One of the oldest beaches in the city is just over 2 kilometers from the center. Accessed by steps that descend to its fine pebbles, you’ll quickly be mesmerized by a cerulean rainbow of colors and the sea’s freshness even in the hottest summer months!
And then there is Kostrena Beach, a romantic bay about 8 kilometers from Rijeka that also offers a restaurant, cute beach bars where you can kick back, and an unbelievably clean sea for those interested in a bit of snorkeling.
Trust us when we say there is much to see in Rijeka, from historical sites to modern marvels. And narrowing it down isn’t easy, but we’ll start with some of the city’s most famous first, like the Shrine of Our Lady of Trsat.
The most exciting way to get there is by climbing the Petar Kružić Stairway, and we promise the 538 steps to the top are worth the increased heart rate. On the way up, you’ll notice small chapels dedicated to saints. However, the main attraction is the church itself, famous for its Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the most significant sanctuary in Kvarner dedicated to Mary, dating back to 1291. Franciscan monks built the church on this sacred land, and today, you can visit the chapel, which houses an art collection and rare objects.
And for the best view of Rijeka? Trsat Castle is a must. Built on the site of a Roman fort, this castle is perched on a hill and was once used to control access to the sea along the Rječina River. Today’s castle dates back to the 13th century and was built by the Frankopan family. It was renovated in the 19th century, and its courtyard now boasts a small cafe.
Then there is the Rijeka Cathedral, or Saint Vitus Cathedral, located in the heart of Rijeka. This Baroque building was started by architect Giacomo Briano in 1638 and took over 100 years to finish! Today, visitors flock to this rotunda structure, with Baroque and Gothic elements inside and out. Don’t miss the 13th-century crucifix!
Fans of churches will also enjoy the Capuchin Church of Our Lady of Lourdes, built in the early 1900s. Designed by Rijeka architect Kornelija Budinic, this neo-Gothic structure was erected to mark the 50th anniversary of the miracle of Lourdes and boasts frescoes by local artist Romulo Venucci.
And we can’t forget about the museums. While Rijeka has many classic museums, like the Maritime and Historical Museum of Coastal Croatia housed in the former Hungarian governor’s residence (circa 1800), or the Natural History Museum in a 19th-century villa, there are some quirky ones, too. Like the Peek&Poke Museum, dedicated to old computers, printers, and gaming consoles. Rijeka’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is also worth a visit and hosts the Biennial of the Quadrilateral featuring artists from Croatia, Slovenia, Italy, and Hungary.
Best of all, a foolproof place to take in a bit of local life is Korzo, Rijeka’s main promenade, with several cafes, shops, and restaurants. You’ll also find the City Tower here, one of Rijeka’s most famous attractions. It’s not hard to notice this picturesque piece of architecture in the middle of this bustling street, standing out as the city’s symbol. No wonder this was part of the main gates that led into the fortified town.
Rijeka, a city of many faces, waiting to be discovered.
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