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Exploring Diocletian’s Palace: A walled wonder

Please only travel when it’s safe to do so.

Where is Diocletian’s Palace?” visitors frequently ask in Split, the second-largest city in Croatia.

Shopkeepers laughingly reply, “You’re in it.”

Diocletian’s Palace

Built by the Roman emperor Diocletian as his retirement residence, the 1,700-year-old palace is no lifeless ruin; it’s the beating heart of Split’s historical inner city.

More than 3,000 people live and work within the palace.

Its immense walls surround a 10-acre tangle of temple ruins, apartments, museums, hotels, markets, coffee shops, modern boutiques and even an ancient cathedral, all interlaced with pedestrian-only cobblestone alleys.

Diocletian's Palace
We wonder where this alley leads?

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Split palace is one of the few cultural monuments in the world where people still go about their everyday lives – where lines of laundry are strung across streets, children kick soccer balls and cats curl up in doorways.

And exploring the Palace of Diocletian is one of the best things to do in Split!

Cool factoid:

The name Split comes from the Latin word spalatum, which means palatium or palace.

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The Roman Emperor Diocletian

Sculpted head of the Roman Emperor Diocletian (Credit: Wikimedia)

Diocletian became Emperor of the Roman Empire in 284 AD.

He recognized that the Empire was too large to be ruled by just one person. So he decentralized its administration and split the Empire into two parts, which helped to stabilize it.

At the same time, Christianity was a growing religion and a thorn to deal with. Diocletian’s solution was to persecute the Christians, and he ended up slaughtering 150,000 of them.

Diocletian is also known as the first emperor to resign voluntarily. But before he did in 305 AD, he commandeered an army of slaves to build his retirement retreat, made up of 220 white limestone buildings.

He sure picked prime real estate – on a sunny bay lapped by warm, azure waters.

What to do in Split
Split’s picturesque harbor in front of Diocletian’s Palace

Diocletian is said to have spent his retirement years gardening. In 313 AD, he died.

Three hundred years later, his palace-fortress was converted into a town by refugees who moved in after their homes were destroyed by invaders.

Over time, the city spread out over the surrounding landscape.

Modern-day windows built into a wall in the Split palace

The Riva, Split

The Riva in Split, Croatia
The Riva, the harborside promenade in front of the palace, is a great place for a stroll (and a coffee)

The best place to start exploring the palatial city is the famous Riva, the harborside promenade lined with cafés and white benches shaded by palms.

If you take a small group walking tour of Split, you’ll see the Riva.

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Bronze Gate, Split

Diocletian's Palace
Diocletian brought in Italian marble and 12 sphinxes from Egypt to adorn his palace (Credit: Pixabay)

Through the Bronze Gate (which once opened directly onto the sea), we descend into a huge underground vault where locals sell arts and crafts.

At the far end, steps lead up to the Peristyle, formerly the central courtyard of the palace.

Now the main square and open-air hall for the Split Summer Festival each July, it’s the perfect spot to sip a kava (coffee) at one of the crowded cafés and gaze up at the lofty Corinthian columns around you.

It’s so atmospheric that it’s easy to imagine toga-clad Romans sauntering past the columns.

Diocletian's Palace, Split
Corinthian columns and arches decorate the palace

Dig ancient history? Then discover ancient Petra, the rose-red city of wonder

Cathedral of St. Domnius

On the east side of the square, there’s a black granite sphinx that Diocletian looted from Egypt. It guards the entrance to what was his mausoleum.

In an ironic twist of fate, the mausoleum was converted in the 7th century into a shrine to St. Domnius, a bishop he’d beheaded during his persecution of the Christians.

Diocletian’s remains were apparently tossed into the Adriatic.

The mausoleum-cum-cathedral is said to be the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world.

A stone relief on a palace wall

Certainly, it is a striking attraction, popular with the hordes of tourists milling about.

On the main doors of the octagonal building, beautifully carved walnut and oak panels from the 13th century reflect the life of Christ.

Inside, there are decorative friezes, gold and silver artefacts, baroque paintings and an intricate Romanesque pulpit.

And if you climb the Bell Tower, there are great views of the palace in all its decaying and partially restored glory.

Diocletian’s Palace basement

Diocletian's Palace basement
Subterranean chambers in Diocletian’s Palace

You get a sense of the grandeur of what used to be Diocletian’s private seaside quarters by wandering the subterranean chambers beneath. They mirror the layout of the upper floors.

In medieval times, the inhabitants threw their garbage down into this netherworld, filling the basement over the centuries.

Only in the last 50 years have excavations unearthed many of these enormous vaulted rooms, in which archaeological finds are strewn about.

In medieval times, people threw garbage down into underground chambers beneath the Palace of Diocletian in Split.
In medieval times, people threw garbage down into these underground chambers

Today, the main alleyway of Diocletian’s Palace basement is used as a market.

(And, as previously mentioned, you can also connect from the center of the palace to the Riva through here.)

Diocletian's Palace basement
Entrance to the underground chambers in the palace

Silver Gate, Split

Outside in the daylight again, we wander toward the Silver Gate, beyond which is a bustling fruit and vegetable market.

We follow Diocletian’s Street, nipping into the Gothic townhouse that is the city museum to eye the medieval weaponry, coins and paintings on display.

Diocletian's Palace: Look up! Apartments have been built right into the old palace walls.
Look up! Apartments have been built right into the old palace walls

Golden Gate, Split

From there, we exit out the Golden Gate (an impressive palace gate for sure, though not gold).

This gateway to the palace was the main processional entrance used by Emperor Diocletian and his family

Ivan Mestrovic statue

Just outside the Golden Gate, the towering statue of the 10th century Bishop Gregory of Nin by Croatia’s most famous sculptor, Ivan Mestrovic, catches our attention.

Legend has it that rubbing the statue’s shiny big toe brings good luck.

We rub the toe – feeling pretty lucky already to be here – then head back through the gate to lose ourselves in this extraordinary palatial city.

It must be quite something to live within the walls of the palace today…

Diocletian’s Palace entrance fee

It’s free to walk around inside the Palace of Diocletian – it’s all part of central Split.

You need tickets, however, to visit certain parts:

  • Diocletian’s Palace basement – 40 kn (about $6.50 USD)
  • Cathedral (and Jupiters Temple, part of the cathedral) – 25 kn (about $4 USD).
  • Belltower (to climb it) – currently closed for renovations

Split gates

The four Split gates all lead to the Peristyle (old square) in the center of Diocletian’s Palace.

Bronze Gate, Split:

The most modest of the gates, the Bronze Gate on the Riva is the main entrance to the palace. It’s the starting point for Diocletian Palace tours.

Golden Gate, Split:

The Golden Gate is the north gate to the palace, and the grandest.

Silver Gate, Split:

The Silver Gate is the eastern gate, which leads to the Split Green Market.

Pope John Paul II passed through this gate in his “Pope mobile” to reach the St. Domnius Cathedral, when he visited Split in 2000.

Iron Gate, Split:

The western Iron Gate connects the palace to the People’s Square or Piaca.

In the Middle Ages, Split grew so much that a “new” town square and beautiful family palaces were built outside the Iron Gate. Today, you find lots of great places to eat in the Piaca.

Diocletian’s Palace, Split

For more information, see the Diocletian Palace website

Read more…

We didn’t do a Diocletian Palace tour – though this palace walking tour gets great reviews!

We did, however, use a trusty guide book. Check out these helpful Croatia guides.

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Photo credits: © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase (except where noted)


Have you been to Split? Did you get lost in the palace?


About the authors:

Janice and George Mucalov

Luxury travel journalists and SATW, NATJA and TMAC “Best Travel Blog” award winners, Janice and George are the owners and founders of Sand In My Suitcase. Between them, they’ve traveled to all 7 continents.

Find destination guides, global food-and-wine stories, articles on cultural explorations and soft adventure trips, luxury hotel reviews, insanely useful travel tips and more!

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Linda Bibb

Monday 30th of June 2014

We were in Split last October and thoroughly enjoyed our visit. Since it is a UNESCO site, Diocletian's Palace was on my "must see" list - though as you mentioned, if you're in Split there's no way you can miss it! We really, really enjoyed looking through the green market's fruits, vegetables, and other delicacies, and had a great time walking through all the narrow streets. Did you get to hear the singing group perform near the mausoleum?

Janice and George

Monday 30th of June 2014

If this is the same Croatian male singing group, then yes, we did! And George bought their CD too!

Carmen

Monday 23rd of June 2014

We really enjoyed our day in Split. Diocletian Palace has so much history. Much of the area in the palace walls have been turned into restaurants and cafes. We had lunch inside the walls of the palace. It's worth walking around to see the architecture of the palace. Funny how modern construction doesn't last as long as the Roman construction did back then.

Laura

Wednesday 11th of June 2014

I plan to visit Croatia in the future. Thank you for pointing out Split to me. Great post with great pics.

Mary

Tuesday 10th of June 2014

Your post and photos brought back some great memories of my trip to Split and wandering through the palace. Especially remember sitting on a bench along the waterfront enjoying the cool breeze, sunshine and view of the ocean. Thanks!

Susan Moore

Wednesday 4th of June 2014

Looks wonderful! I haven't been to Croatia yet but Split looks like a city I would very much enjoy, as I love the combination of a modern city with a rich history.

Cheers, Susan

Janice and George

Saturday 7th of June 2014

We loved our visit to Split. Apart from exploring all the nooks and crannies and skinny alleyways within the palace walls, we also really enjoyed a couple of evening classical concerts, one in an open-air historic church. Though it's busy in high summer, the Split Summer Festival from mid-July to mid-August offers many musical performances (making it a particularly fun time to visit Split).