Today an industrial port town and Istria's chief administrative center (pop. 86,000), as well as a major tourist destination, Pula became a Roman colony in the 1st century BC. This came about a century after the decisive defeat by the Romans, in 177 BC, of the nearby Histrian stronghold of Nesactium, prompting the Histrian king Epulon to plunge a sword into his chest lest he fall into the hands of the victors, who indeed conquered all of Istria. Remains from Pula's ancient past have survived up to the present day: as you drive in on the coastal route toward its choice setting on a bay near the southern tip of the Istrian peninsula, the monumental Roman amphitheater blocks out the sky on your left. Under Venetian rule (1331–1797), Pula was architecturally neglected, even substantially dismantled. Many structures from the Roman era were pulled down, and stones and columns were carted off across the sea to Italy to be used for new buildings there. Pula's second great period of development took place in the late 19th century, under the Habsburgs, when it served as the chief base for the Imperial Austro-Hungarian Navy. Today it's as much working city as tourist town, where Roman ruins and Austro-Hungarian architecture serve as backdrop for the bustle of everyday life amid a bit of communist-era soot and socialist realism, too. James Joyce lived here for a short time, in 1904–05, before fleeing what he dismissed as a cultural backwater for Trieste. What's more, there are some outstanding restaurants and a number of pleasant family-run hotels, not to mention the nearby resort area of Verudela, where seaside tourism thrives in all its soothing, sunny sameness.
In a quiet street a couple of blocks' walk above the Forum, this is Pula's premier place for budget, Italian-style fare. Try any of its 18 types of pizza as you sip a glass of house red wine at one of the rustic wooden tables on the rear terrace. There's a cozy little table in a nook on your way up the stairs.
Katedrala svete Marije
Built originally in the 4th century by the town's defense walls and facing the sea, Pula's star ecclesiastical attraction—more often called simply St. Mary's Cathedral—was transformed in the second half of the 5th century into a three-nave basilica. Extensive reconstruction that began in the 18th century was completed in 1924, with the adjacent campanile constructed in the 19th century from stones taken from the Arena. Note that the Roman-era mosaic on the floor of the central nave bears a 5th-century donor's inscription.
Designed to accommodate 22,000 spectators, Pula's arena is the sixth-largest building of its type in the world (after the Colosseum in Rome and similar arenas in Verona, Catania, Capua, and Arles). Construction was completed in the 1st century AD under the reign of Emperor Vespasian, and the Romans staged gladiator games here until such bloodthirsty sports were forbidden during the 5th century. During the 16th century, the Venetians planned to move the Arena stone by stone to Venice, where it was to be reconstructed in its original form. The plan failed, and it has remained more or less intact, except for the original tiers of stone seats and numerous columns that were hauled away for other buildings. Today it is used for summer concerts (by musicians including Sting, James Brown, and Jose Carreras), opera performances, and the annual film festival in late July. The underground halls house a museum with large wooden oil presses and amphorae.
If you make your way down from the Fortress along the eastern slope of the hill, toward the Archaeological Museum and the Twin Gates, you will pass right through the redolent ruins of the 2nd-century Roman Theater, a quiet, sublime spot to rest and reflect.
Archaeological Museum of Istria & the Twin Gates
On passing through or past the 2nd-century gates, whose paired arches account for the name Porta Gemina (Twin Gates), you will find yourself amid a potpourri of Roman ruins on the shaded grounds of Pula's most intriguing museum, home to around 300,000 artifacts from prehistoric, Roman, and medieval times.
The central scene of this large and lovely mosaic—which otherwise features geometric patterns and plants aplenty—is of the punishment of Dirce, who, according to Greek legend, lies under the enraged bull to whose horns she is about to be fastened. Unearthed after World War II bombing, the mosaic, which was once part of a Roman house, can be viewed for free by looking down through a grating beside an uninspiring apartment building, a stone's throw from the Chapel of St. Mary of Formosa.
Still Pula's most important public meeting place after 2,000 years, the ancient Roman forum is today a spacious paved piazza ringed with cafés. There were once three temples here, of which only one remains. Next to it stands the Gradska Palača (Town Hall), which was erected during the 13th century using part of the Roman Temple of Diana as the back wall. The Renaissance arcade was added later.Augustov Hram. The perfectly preserved Augustov Hram, the Forum's only remaining temple, was built in the 1st century AD on the north side of the square. Forum, 52100. 10 Kn. May and Oct., weekdays 9–9; June–Sept., weekdays 9 am–10 pm, weekends 9 am–3 pm. Closed to the public Nov.–Apr.; special tours only.
Aquarium Pula opened in 2004 on the ground floor of the onetime Austro-Hungarian fortress in the resort complex of Verudela, a few kilometers from the city center. The aquarium was originally Croatia's first sea-turtle rescue center, which opened two years earlier. Its five rooms offer a colorful look at hundreds of sea creatures from the Adriatic's underwater world, and include a "touching pool" that allows you to touch a dogfish, turtle, sea urchin, crab, or sea squirt during limited periods of time. There are also exhibits of fishermen's traditional equipment and of underwater photography, and children's playgroups are regularly organized on the terrace out front. For an extra fee, a three-hour boat tour on nearby waters offers an educational program on the ins and outs of oceanography.
Whether from the cathedral or elsewhere along Kandlerova ulica, a walk up the hill will lead you within minutes to the 17th-century Venetian fortress, the Kaštel, that towers over Pula's city center and houses the Historical Museum of Istria. Though the museum has a somewhat lackluster collection, including scale-model ships as well as Habsburg-era relics, it does carry the value-added benefit of allowing you to wander around its ramparts. But simply walking around its perimeter also ensures fine views of the city's shipyard below and, if you look to the north, the steeple of Vodnjan's church 12 km (7½ miles) away.
Triumphal Arch of the Sergians
Built by Salvia Postuma Sergia in 30 BC as a monument to three members of her family who excelled in battle and otherwise, this striking monument features some elaborate reliefs that inspired even Michelangelo to draw it during a 16th-century visit to Pula. The surrounding city gate and walls were removed in the 19th century to allow the city's expansion beyond the Old Town.