36 Hours in Rijeka, Croatia

36 Hours in Rijeka, Croatia

If Croatia’s seaside locales have become tourism starlets, then Rijeka, a working-class port city on the Adriatic, is the country’s gritty understudy. So, it came as some surprise when this town, whose skyline merges Hapsburgian decadence with shipyard cranes, was named European Capital of Culture for 2020 over other Croatian candidates like Dubrovnik and Split. “No one believed we would win,” said Ivan Sarar, Rijeka’s head of culture, about the award. “Being noble underdogs is our cool.”

Famous for raucous Carnival celebrations and an alternative vibe, Rijeka (population 130,000), which has been a shipping and boatbuilding hub for centuries, combines Roman legacy, Italian influence, Austro-Hungarian architecture and fading Yugoslav industry. For visitors, the result is a unique mixture of sights, cuisine and night life. Along with a raft of events set for the 2020 celebrations starting in February, and a five-star Hilton hotel opening next summer, this Croatian harbor seems ready to trade in its cranes for the travel spotlight.

It doesn’t get any more local than Konoba Fiume. On an alley next to the market, this is the sort of diner where, under vaulted ceilings, fishermen sit with lawyers, and dock workers share tables with politicians. Though Fiume serves scores of tempting, moderately priced dishes like homemade pasta with shrimp and truffles (90 kuna), consult the chalk board’s fresh offerings, close the menu and say one word: “brudet”: a mixed-fish stew made with the day’s best seafood (50 kuna). Surrender to the restaurant’s ingredient suggestions, but ask nicely, and for about 90 kuna more, add the succulent scampi.

Dive deeper into this eclectic port at the Maritime and History Museum of the Croatian Littoral (admission, 20 kuna), in the neo-Renaissance Governor’s Palace, built in 1897. The exhibitions cast a wide net: Bronze Age findings, an interactive city model, ancient ships’ logs and a life vest from the Titanic. The Peek & Poke Computer Museum (30 kuna) packs in more than 7,000 mint-condition, tech-nostalgic items. The evolution of calculators, computers, phones, TVs and video games from every era fill each pixel of space. Finally, the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art was relocated in 2017 to a complex that once included a sugar refinery and tobacco factory. The venue’s 6,500 square feet house some 8,000 pieces; exhibitions of photography, paintings, sculptures, drawings and film rotate bimonthly (10 kuna).

Head back to the City Market for brunch. Instead of searching for mimosas and eggs Benedict, make your way to Bistro Mornar (mornar means sailor) for a Rijeka-centric breakfast. Morning shoppers — with bags of vegetables, butcher cuts and seafood — stake out tables with red-and-white-checked cloths under a skiff hanging from a wood-beamed ceiling. Grab a sidewalk seat and start with mussels steamed in olive oil, parsley, wine, brandy and garlic. Order a liter of white Malvazija and opt for the lightly seared tuna steak with roasted carrots, potatoes and perfectly blanched kale. Brunch for two runs 400 kuna.

Take bus number 32 (26 kuna) nine miles to Croatia’s original resort town, Opatija. A getaway for 19th-century Austro-Hungarian royalty, the Opatija Riviera strings together opulence, beaches and traditional communities. Have a coffee on the terrace of Caffé Wagner at Hotel Milenj, once a Hapsburg villa. Then walk the five-mile, seaside Franz Joseph I Promenade, colloquially known as Lungomare. Take in the rotating exhibitions of vintage postcards, posters and old photos at the Croatia Museum of Tourism before ending your stroll in the fishing village of Volosko. Along the way, Rijeka will be in full view on the opposite side of the bay. “People here have absorbed a lot of cultures,” said Vojko Obersnel, the mayor of Rijeka. “Because of that, we accept everyone and keep being ourselves.”

Originally built in 1876, the Grand Hotel Bonavia is — at least until the Hilton is finished — the city’s top-end choice. An anchor in the center just a block behind the main pedestrian promenade, Korzo, the four-star hotel has 120 rooms, multiple bars, two restaurants, a gym and a choice of saunas. A double room with breakfast starts at around 920 kuna.

If private lodging is your inclination, the Molo Longo has 180 apartments, rooms and villas all over the city and surroundings. Accommodations start at around 300 kuna per night, depending on the season, and can include either self check-in or a visit to the office in the middle of town.

To get a real sense of how locals live, book an Airbnb stay in the historic city center near Korzo and the seaside. For an entire one-bedroom apartment, expect to pay around $30.

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