The karstic island of Hvar off the southern coast of Croatia attracts tourists with excellent wines, flowering lavender fields, a long history and an incredibly diverse culture.
The Dalmatian island of Hvar in southern Croatia is the most visited island in Croatia. Actually, no one really knows why, because the landscape of the neighbouring island of Korčula is much more beautiful than the rugged, karstic mountains of Hvar and its villages much lovelier.
Hvar can't really boast of attractive bays or beaches either, and yet the island is the most touristy of all the Adriatic islands, especially in the summer months.
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PICTURES: Island of Hvar
Perhaps it is the special scent of Hvar, because the island, also known as the spice island, is famous for its sage, rosemary and especially lavender products. Hvar's culinary specialities are roast lamb, sardines and anchovies, and probably the Mediterranean climate with mild winters and pleasant summers also contributes to Hvar's popularity.
What is the best way to get to the island of Hvar?
The fourth largest island in Croatia can only be reached by ferry. These start in Split and dock in Stari Grad and Hvar. There is also a ferry connection from Drvenik, which ends at the eastern tip in Sućuraj, where you are greeted by a picturesque lighthouse.
Tip: Hvar is not necessarily made for big cars! The island is extremely mountainous and the mountain roads from east to west are extremely narrow and often have no shoulder. Any oncoming traffic here becomes a stressful situation.
Stari Grad - Gateway to Hvar
For travellers coming from Split, Stari Grad is the gateway to Hvar. An approx. 25-minute walk leads from the ferry port between green slopes to the centre, which is dominated by the steeple of the parish church of Sveti Stjepana. In the pretty, once Greek old town, the Trvdalj residence on the medieval Piazza Skor is particularly worth seeing.
The Croatian poet Petar Hektorović was once inspired here. Today, everyday objects of the poet are exhibited in his former country residence, and the shady, arcade-lined garden with a fish pond invites visitors to linger.
The City Museum in the Palais Biankini exhibits finds from the time of the Greeks as well as works by artists from the 20th and 21st centuries.
Hvar - main town on the island of Hvar
The main town on the island of Hvar is the town of the same name on the western end of the island opposite Stari Grad. As the island's tourist centre, Hvar is often referred to as "mini-Dubrovnik", where cruise ships dock and the harbour is bustling at all times of the day. A walk through Hvar's Mediterranean old town is very reminiscent of Venice and is definitely recommended!
PICTURES: Old Town of Hvar
Due to its important maritime location, Hvar has been the destination of various rulers throughout its history. The Venetians led Hvar to its greatest prosperity between 1278 and 1797, when the town's defences were expanded and magnificent buildings were erected, which can still be seen today in the picturesque old town of Hvar. As an important port town, Hvar attracted a large number of poets, historians and theologians who wrote about Hvar.
Sights in the old town of Hvar
Tourism in Hvar started in 1866 after the Austrian doctor Franz Unger noticed that the Mediterranean climate had a very positive effect on lung diseases. The then bishop soon founded the "Hygienic Society of Hvar" and health tourism was born.
Tip: Parking in Hvar is only available outside the centre, all of which is chargeable.
In 1612, Europe's first municipal theatre was opened in the Venetian arsenal directly at the port of Hvar (at that time a huge shipyard hall). The then Prince Semitecolo made a brilliant move to finally bring peace between the nobility and the common people.
At that time, Hvar had about twice as many inhabitants as today, many of whom belonged to the wealthy noble class. To this day, the people of Hvar have held on to their theatre - no matter how bad the times. Today, the theatre can be visited in its 19th century architectural state, the best occasion being, of course, a performance by a local folk music group.
City loggia and clock tower
The last remnants of the once spacious residence of the city commander are still enthroned on the harbour just opposite the Arsenal. The city loggia was integrated into the former spa hotel Kaiserin Elisabeth (today's Hotel Palace) at the beginning of the 20th century.
Stefansplatz and surroundings
The elongated Trg Sveti Stjepana between the Arsenal and the Loggia is the largest town square in Dalmatia with an area of 4,500 square metres. It ends in the impressive Sveti Stjepana Cathedral, which dominates the square with its 16th century Renaissance façade and five-storey bell tower.
In the Archbishop's Palace next to the church, the seat of the Hvar bishops since its construction in 1249, a collection of sacred works of art can be seen.
If you turn into Matije Ivanića from St. Stephen's Square, you will reach the Hektorović Palace, one of the most beautiful buildings in the old town of Hvar. It is not known whether the Renaissance poet actually lived in it, but this is a minor matter when looking at the magnificent façade with its beautiful late Gothic windows.
Passing the Hektorović palace, you reach the convent of the Benedictine nuns after the next side street. Here, the convent sisters make elaborate embroideries from agave fibres according to an old tradition. In addition to the embroidery work, a collection of paintings and icons can be viewed.
Church of Sveti Marko
If you keep to the left after the monastery and head back towards the harbour, you will come to the church of St. Mark. Once part of the Dominican monastery, today only the church remains, which was first mentioned in a document in 1326. It houses numerous tombs of the nobility, an archaeological collection and the Grga Novak Lapidarium. Today, the ruins of the church are used for cultural events.
The Španjola fortress ("Spanish fortress") west of Hvar was built by the Venetians in 1282 and not completed until 1551. Its mighty walls still tower over Hvar on a hill and watch over the town. Its complicated architecture was necessary because of the difficult terrain.
In 1571, it provided refuge from the Turks for the entire population of Hvar. However, when Hvar lost its military importance, the protection provided by the fortress was no longer necessary and the bulwark was abandoned. Since 1971, however, the fortress has been restored and is open to visitors.
To the east of Španjola Fortress, Napoleon Fortress sits enthroned on a hill a good 200m high. As the name suggests, the small fort was built in 1811 under the French Emperor Napoleon as a sea observation post. Today, the University of Zagreb maintains an observatory in the old walls.
The fortresses Baterija in the southeast and Veneranda in the west of the harbour were also built by the French in 1811. The former is now only a ruin, while cultural events are held in the latter.
On the other side of Hvar towards the east, you come to the Franciscan monastery of Hvar. Built in 1461 on a small rocky outcrop, it now houses the most valuable painting of Hvar, "The Last Supper" by the Venetian artist Matej Ponzoni or Matej Pončun. The vividness and colourfulness of the painting bear witness to the great Venetian painting of the 16th century.
In front of the main altar of the monastery is the last resting place of the poet Hanibal Lucić, whose summer house in Hvar can be visited on Lucič Street (Hanibale Lucića).
Jelsa - camping stronghold on Hvar
The up-and-coming tourist resort of Jelsa in the middle of the Croatian island, with its campsites and inexpensive hotels, is the ideal starting point for hikes and boat and bathing trips. Due to its favourable location, you can explore almost the entire island of Hvar from Jelsa. Despite the strong growth in tourism since the 1960s, hotels are still cheaper than elsewhere on Hvar.
According to some ancient Roman villas used as holiday homes, Jelsa was already popular with travellers in ancient times, the oldest hotel in Jelsa dates back to 1911. The public in Jelsa consists mainly of young people, accordingly a lively nightlife has also developed in Jelsa.
PICTURES: Island of Hvar - Jelsa
Sights of Jelsa
The old town of Jelsa is worth a stroll and is a lot more cosy than the main town of Hvar. Highlights include the fortified parish church of Sveti Fabijan i Sebastjan, built in 1535 to protect against pirates, and the beautiful Sveti Ivan square with its late 15th century chapel.
The Perivoj garden from the late 19th century, with its poplars, pines, acacias, laurel and oleander bushes, is one of the most beautiful green spaces in all of Dalmatia.
Also worth seeing are the ruins of a former Augustinian monastery from the early 17th century, when Jelsa was still called Civitas Vetus Ielsae.
As a classic souvenir, you should buy a bottle of lavender or olive oil in Jelsa.
Activities in Jelsa
Historical sites around Jelsa make excellent hiking destinations, 7,000-year-old finds can be seen in the Grabčeva stalactite caves, and the offshore islets are perfect for swimming and bathing.
Many island hikes start in Jelsa to the surrounding historical sights, such as the Humac shepherd's settlement, the Grabčeva stalactite caves, which were already inhabited in the Neolithic period and can be visited as part of a guided tour, or the Greek fortress Tor.
Historic villages with narrow streets and cute squares are scattered as if by chance along the rosemary and lavender-scented slopes and valleys around Jelsa. You can also climb Hvar's two highest peaks, Nikola and Hum, which surround Jelsa.
A picturesque walk along the coast leads to the neighbouring village of Vrboska, which is best known for its strange-looking fortified church above the centre of the village. It was built in 1580 to protect against pirates, and if it weren't for the bell tower, you would think you were standing in front of a fortress.
In Jelsa directly, bathing on the concrete coastline is not very attractive. The most popular beaches of Jelsa are a little further away and are, for example:
- Mina, about 500m from the centre and ideal for children
- the sandy beach Grebišće including restaurant, approx. 1.5km away
- the bay of St. Luke, a shingle beach 4km away, where there is the small St. Luke church and archaeological finds to visit
The offshore islets, which can be reached by taxi boat, are particularly suitable for bathing. Nudists should head for the island of Zečovo. If you want to explore the islands around Jelsa on your own, you can also rent a boat.
Zavala - Hvar Wine Centre
Only 5km from Jelsa lies Zavala. This enchanting place lies between pine and olive groves directly by the sea and is especially appreciated by wine connoisseurs. Excellent wines are pressed here. Among the most famous are the Zlatan Plavac, the almost black Faros, the also very dark Ivan Dolac and the almost sherry-like Bogdanuša.
Tip: The road to Zavala leads through a tunnel that is only 2m high!
History of Hvar
The elongated island is almost 70km long and up to 10km wide and was already settled in prehistory. In the 4th century, the Illyrians settled on Hvar, of whom some historical graves remain. Hvar was not conquered by the Romans, the Illyrians kept the upper hand, but had to bow to the Byzantines after the fall of the Roman Empire.
From the 11th century onwards, Hvar was under Hungarian, Bosnian, Ragusian (today's Dubrovnik), Venetian, Austrian and finally Yugoslavian rule. Since 1991, Hvar has been part of the independent Republic of Croatia.