I spent 3 days in Rijeka. I can’t say I know the city through and through. But I have certainly fallen in love with it.
Rijeka’s biggest charm is the journey it takes to get to know it. It’s almost like going on a quest. Very little is obvious in a touristy kind of way.
And then again, everything is that much more exciting. Such as deciphering a secret code to win a game. Once you do it, the winning feeling is exceptional.
Rijeka has always been a place where people live, not where they travel for leisure. Still, it’s one of the most cosmopolitan cities in this part of Europe.
Over centuries, this principle Adriatic port has attracted foreign investors, experts and intelligentsia. With such mix of people, Rijeka has become a cradle of innovations. For example, did you know that the first torpedo was produced right here?
You can best experience this diversity when you meet the locals. Ask them about their ancestors and they’ll mention a grandma who survived 6 different regimes. Austro Hungary, Italy, Yugoslavia, to name a few, who all fought to keep Rijeka theirs.
The city’s architecture is evidence of these struggles. Especially the medieval Trsat Castle, the Art Nouveau palaces, and the sprawling industrial complexes. They are all witnesses that Rijeka is a jewel of the Adriatic everyone wanted in their crown.
As you walk its streets and along the seafront, you’ll feel like an archeologist unearthing precious artefacts. History oozes from each crack.
But there is another vibe on top of it all. A stir in the air.
With its title of the 2020 European Capital of Culture (ECC), Rijeka has become a global cultural hot spot. It is especially interesting to smart travellers who love a sense of adventure and openness.
The city hosts exciting cultural programs all year round. So, you don’t have to limit your visit to the summer months only.
Just to spike your interest, here are the top 10 attractions that made me fall in love with the city.
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1 | The layout of Rijeka
Rijeka’s official nickname is The City That Flows. On the whole, the element of water runs through its geography and the locals’ state of mind.
In Croatian Rijeka means a river. Fiume, the Italian version of its name, means just the same. Even the name of the river that flows through the centre shares the meaning. Rječina means big river, even though the river is not as big as the name suggests.
Let’s think for a moment about natural border, such as riverbeds. They can either divide or unite. And sometimes, they do both. In that case, their mission is to be in flux.
Rječina in Rijeka has done exactly that. In essence, it divided the city in half between Italy and Yugoslavia. Then in 1947 the Croatian side (Sušak) and the Italian side (Fiume) united under Tito.
It was once a political border along the Dead Canal. Today, however, this very spot keeps the city together.
Rijeka locals are aware of this shifting past. But for those who are new to the city, there is a remembrance plaque by the river. You will find it by the brand new pedestrian Bridge of Croatian Defenders.
2 | Rijeka – the avant-garde city
There is another curious sight at the same place. It’s the statue of Janko Polić Kamov, one of Croatia’s most prominent writers.
Rijeka has produced many avant-garde thinkers and alternative artists. But writer Janko Polić Kamov is the epitome of this free-spirited buzz.
He was only 24 when he died in Barcelona. But with his fiery language and fierce social critique, Kamov ushered in Croatian avant-garde.
He died too soon. And he never knew how his work would influence literature as a whole. In many ways, he was the forerunner of important literary movements. Writers, such as Lawrence, Joyce and Proust, followed in his steps.
3 | Rijeka – the cosmopolitan city
My biggest discovery was how multilingual Rijeka people are. When I asked my hosts about their grandparents, I learned that most spoke at least 4 languages. Namely Croatian, German, Hungarian and Italian.
In a sense, this proves one of my favourite expressions true. People say that the more language you speak, the more broadminded you are. In fact, the original expression comes from this Latin proverb.
Quot linguas calles, tot homines vales.
You are worth as many different people as the number of languages you know.
— Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor
But there was another reason why Rijeka developed a dynamic social climate. It was declared a free port in 1719, which helped the city’s economy to flourish too.
During the Austro Hungarian Empire, Rijeka served as Hungary’s port. Across the bay, Trieste belonged to Austria. Still, the dual monarchy made sure that both cities developed equally.
All in all, people flowed in and out, mixing their world views and cultural backgrounds. This vibrancy remains to this day.
4 | Rijeka – the innovative city
The free movement of people and ideas made Rijeka into a leading innovative city.
150 years ago this is where the world’s first torpedo was invented and produced.
The weapon was designed by the Croatian navy officer Giovanni Luppis. Initially, his idea was to protect the coast with small boats laden with explosives.
The concept was so revolutionary it immediately attracted the attention of Robert Whitehead. This English engineer based in Rijeka would perfect the first self-propelled torpedo.
The works on the torpedo finished just before the WW1 broke out. And the weapon soon became of utmost importance.
Torpedo was later manufactured in Woolwich in the UK. But the launch ramp where it was first tested still stands in Rijeka.
Although torpedo’s main purpose was military, its final design resulted in several side creations. For example, a torpedo couldn’t work without contra-rotating propellers and a gyroscope. And these devices later became useful in numerous other fields.
You can learn about this intriguing history at the exhibition: Torpedo of Rijeka – First in the World.
The exhibition features fantastic examples of torpedoes. You can observe both their models as well as the real historic specimens.
5 | Rijeka – the city of the sea
There is hardly a Rijeka local whose livelihood is not connected to the sea. Shipbuilders, fishermen and seafarers all thrive on deep and shallow waters.
During the time of Yugoslavia, Rijeka was the biggest shipbuilding port. The industry has suffered a dive in the last 20 years, but is now on the road to recovery.
The seafarers of Rijeka are special too. Many of them sailed on the Carpathia. This was the ship that steamed through dangerous ice waters to come to the Titanic’s rescue. Because of their courage, 705 Titanic passengers were saved from drowning.
You can see the original Titanic life jacket in Rijeka’s Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral.
6 | Rijeka – the industrial jewel
During the second half of the 19th, Rijeka began its rise as an industrial centre.
Factories, workshops and warehouses were built along the seafront and the river. But as Rijeka has grown, these old factories are now right in the centre. Unfortunately, most buildings are now empty and derelict.
There are talks about how to revive them. But, unlike many Western cities, Rijeka has yet to fully embrace this potential.
You must see some of the Rijeka industrial complexes. Even if the sight of those deserted giants makes you sad.
This is just the first impression. Later comes curiosity as you spot some of the weirdest juxtapositions of the old and the new. Such as the clothes drying in front of a paper factory. And get this: Hartera factory supplied the world with its cigarette paper.
Finally, you are struck with all the potential. For example, Hartera could be the next Tate Modern. Warehouses could become showrooms or apartments, similar to those in London, Brooklyn or Hamburg.
The city is not short of plans for all of this. But there is something quite special about seeing the industrial Rijeka as it right now. Suspended in time, waiting for its next big purpose.
7 | Rijeka – the city of inspiration
If you want to see Rijeka’s layout from above, you must climb to Trsat. There are 600 steps that take you all the way. It’s not easy, but there’s more than one good reason to do it.
The medieval Trsat Castle is a great sight on its own. But there is a cafe there from which you can enjoy the view as you sip on a drink.
The second must-see attraction is the famous Shrine of Our Lady of Trsat. This wonderful Baroque church attracts thousands of Catholics on the Assumption day (15 August).
According to the legend, angles brought Mary’s Nazareth house to Trsat. But after it appeared here in the 13th century, it was taken to Loreto in Italy where it still stands.
Although the steep Trsat staircase was initially made for pilgrims, anyone can climb them. Once you reach the peak, Catholic or not, you won’t be short of inspiration. Only slightly short of breath!
8 | Rijeka – the city of energy
Rijeka is at its most energetic during the international Rijeka Carnival parade. This colourful all-out feast may be a younger sibling of the Venice and Rio Carnivals. But it can more than 100,000 people from around the world.
Masked spring celebrations here have a long history, dating back to pre-Christian times.
You only need to hear the hypnotic bell tolling of Halubajski Zvončari to sense that antiquity.
Zvončari (tollers) make a loud noise with their bells to chase away the winter. Wearing sheepskin and stylized animal masks with horns, they invoke the fertile spring awakening.
The tolling, however, begins much earlier than on the day of the Carnival Parade. These tireless men visit villages in Rijeka surroundings for 8 weeks before. This prehistoric custom is on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage.
9 | Rijeka – the gourmet city
Many people are surprised to find how diverse Croatian cuisine is. Most visitors recognize the difference between the continental and Mediterranean style dishes.
But in Rijeka, you don’t have to make that choice. The food here is a rich fusion between earthy and light flavours. Homemade pasta comes served both with seafood and meat stews. And veggies can be both steamed or part of hearty soups.
To open up your appetite, you must visit the Rijeka farmers’ and fish market. It is housed in a gorgeous Art Deco building and it teems with all things fresh.
Come midday, you can taste what you saw in a nearby konoba [tavern]. Don’t miss this early meal of the day called marenda. Go straight to either konoba Fiume or konoba Volta.
10 | Rijeka – the city of surprises
Everywhere I walked in Rijeka, I uncovered a little something that made me sigh with wonder.
But Rijeka locals don’t brag enough about their city. They are unpretentious and used to being surrounded by so much history. Often they don’t even realize how crazy foreigners would go for some of those hidden gems.
Like for example the Peace Ship Galeb, parked right there in Rijeka port. This Yugoslav Navy training ship was Tito’s official yacht for 27 years. It sailed more than 86,000 nautical miles and welcomed 102 world statesmen.
For now, you can only admire it from outside. But soon, Galeb will get a new lease of life. Maybe as a museum, or something else cool. Rijeka will decide and it won’t disappoint.
So hurry to Rijeka – the city is coming into full bloom!
Book your stay in Rijeka now
To complement the entire experience of wonder, you must stay in one of the most unique accommodations ever. It’s a hotel on a boat – Botel Matina – now docked in Rijeka port.
The ship was built in 1936, in Frederikshavn, Denmark. And because it was christened by the Swedish princess Ingrid, the boat’s first name was Kronprinsessan Ingrid. It originally sailed between Scandinavian countries. Later in the 1960s it changed its name, its owner and it moved to the Adriatic sea.
In 2013 it was revamped into a comfy hotel. Now retired and permanently docked, the world comes to see it.