Exploring the Roman Ruins of Salona: A Day Trip from Split, Croatia

Walking through the ancient Roman city of Salona, a swathe of land dotted with 2,000-year-old stone ruins near seaside Split, Croatia, we felt a bit like Indiana Jones. We playfully feigned jubilation that we had just chanced upon an undiscovered ancient place, as we explored the remnants of the city, which was once home to more than 40,000 inhabitants.

Salona is undoubtedly an archaeological gem, deserving of such praise, however, on this February day, there were only a handful of local residents at the site. We were likely the only travelers there.

One pair of locals enjoyed a picnic on the lawn, surrounded by the old city walls; a woman hung laundry in her backyard which overlooks the ancient amphitheater; and another couple tended to their olive trees, on a plot of land overlooked by the mighty Klis Fortress (a site that has recently gained notoriety as a Game of Thrones filming location). When the gardening couple heard that we fancied Croatia’s delicious wild asparagus, which was in season at the time, they hunted for some in their garden. Plucking a few stalks out of the earth, they generously insisted that we take them as a souvenir to be enjoyed at dinner.

Astonished by the intimate degree of access that we had to the remains of the once-prominent city, we had a picnic lunch on the seats of the old amphitheater. Afterward, we strolled through the thermal baths, and past the old aqueducts and city walls. We then walked among the ornately-carved marble sarcophagi, which are scattered throughout Salona’s cemetery. Many of the ancient tombs had cracked or were missing lids, reminding us of a conversation we had with Split locals who said their friends had found ancient trinkets at Salona decades earlier. Having also recently visited the Split Archaeological Museum, which contains many of the portable relics unearthed at Salona, we were better able to piece together what the community must have once looked like.

My most memorable moment of the excursion occurred as we walked through the Porta Caesarea, a once-monumental gate that led to the heart of ancient Salona. Ruts had long before been etched onto the stone road on which we were walking, evoking images of Roman wagons and carts, and the thousands of people who literally left their mark there. The sun’s last beams of the day cast a warm glow on the tracks, and the silhouette of a female figure and her dog appeared. Slowly, the duo came into focus. When I saw the woman’s modern clothes and the dog’s leash, I shifted forward a few millennia, back to the present.

The area around Salona is now surrounded by highways and industrial buildings. Even though these symbols of modern times are encroaching on the ancient relics, it’s possible to block them out while you ponder the area’s history.

Salona was settled by the Greeks and Illyrians, but most aggressively developed by the Romans. During the reign of Emperor Augustus, Salona became the center of the Roman Empire’s province of Dalmatia. Over the course of several centuries, it underwent destruction by the Avars, Slavs, and Venetians. In the 6th century, Salona’s inhabitants fled the city, seeking shelter in the retirement Palace of Roman Emperor Diocletian, which today comprises the heart of Split’s Old Town. After Salona was abandoned, it fell into further disrepair. Even today, it has not been extensively excavated.

Salona enlivened my exploratory spirit, satisfied my hunger for history, and left me wanting to learn more about the Roman Empire. It’s my hope that it will soon be preserved so future generations can savor it, too.

***

From the most obscure spots to those that are already tourist hot spots, what Ancient Roman sites would you recommend? 

Further Reading:

Salona Croatia Frieze Fragment
An ancient decorative element lays in the lawn near the Manastirine, a former necropolis and basilica. Many such fragments and sarcophagi (stone coffins) were scattered throughout this area of Salona, creating a flea market-like atmosphere.
Salona Croatia Stadium
Salona’s amphitheater dates back to the 2nd century AD and was designed to house 17,000 spectators. Fights with animals and gladiators took place inside, and some Christian martyrs were killed here. In the 17th century, during battles with the Ottoman Turks, the Venetians made a strategic decision to deliberately destroy portions of the amphitheater.
With a blue sky overhead, a pair of white underpants hang on a laundry line near the ancient city of Salona, Croatia.
The ancient city is surrounded by residential areas, as evidenced by this laundry, drying in the breeze.
A field of grass, surrounded by Salona's ancient amphitheater, near Split, Croatia.
We picnicked inside the ancient amphitheater. A few locals paraded through, including a photogenic French Bulldog. We otherwise had the ruins all to ourselves.
Ancient Salona Manastirine Necropolis
The detail of a weathered capital atop a column, and an inscribed stone. Inscriptions in both Latin and Greek have been found in Salona.
Ancient Salona Sarcophagus Mountains
A cracked sarcophagus sits beside a walkway still used by locals today for commutes or leisurely walks.
Manastirine Salona Basilica and Cemetery Croatia
The ruins of the Manastirine necropolis and basilica are visible through this former entryway. The cemetery was situated outside the city walls, as Roman convention forbade burials inside the city.
Manastirine Salona Basilica and Cemetery Croatia 2
Remains of the basilica and a sarcophagus. Nearly one thousand sarcophagi were discovered in this ancient cemetery.
Ancient Salona Sarcophagus and Mosaics
A richly-carved sarcophagus, and remains of a mosaic-tiled floor.
A fragment of a Roman sarcophagus lays on the lawn, near a building's ruins, in historic Salona, Croatia.

Salona Sarcophagus Tomb Cherubs
A sarcophagus decorated with cherubs. Behind it is the Tusculum, a building commissioned by Croatian archaeologist Frane Bulić. Built in the late 19th century, it features a hodgepodge of archaeological fragments from Split’s cathedral and Salona. It once served as a place to lodge archaeologists; today it is a museum.
Ancient Salona Split Croatia Picnic
A pair enjoys a picnic on an emerald-green carpet of grass.
Ancient Salona Split Croatia
The gardens and detail of the Tusculum building.
Ancient Salona Solin and Klis Fortress
Shawn explores, with the Dinaric Alps in the background. On the right is the Klis Fortress (Kliška Tvrđava) which sits atop land that has been contested throughout the millennia. It appeared in season 4 of the HBO television series, Game of Thrones, and is visible from ancient Salona.
Salona ancient baths
The functional and decorative remains of Salona’s thermal baths
Ancient Salona Croatia
We devoted several minutes to trying to determine what this structure was once was. We left without solving this, and many other mysteries, but this sort of exercise was much of the fun of exploring Salona!
A weathered inscription, among the historic ruins of Salona, near present-day Solin, Croatia.

Ancient Salona Roman Road
On the left, an original road is devoured by greenery. On the right, remains of columns near Salona’s ancient theater, contrasted with a yellow car.
Salona Porta Caesarea Wagon Tracks
Ruts carved into the road by centuries of wagon wheels and carts.
A Roman-era pavement is worn away by wagon wheel ruts in the image on the left. On the right, a sign points visitors to some of Salona's main attractions: Amphitheatrum, Theatrum, Forum, Thermae, Centrum Episcopale.

A family walks on one of Salona's ancient road, just before sunset. Rugged mountains overlook the scene.
A family walks an ancient road, just before sunset.

Where in the World?

Planning Pointers:

How to get to Ancient Salona:

The ancient Roman city of Salona is located near the city of Solin, about 5 km. (3 miles) from Split.

To get to Salona from Split, you can take city bus #1 from Trg Gaje Bulata. This bus stop is near Marmontova Street, just a few minutes’ walk from Diocletian’s Palace.

We purchased tickets from the agent inside the ticket booth at Trg Gaje Bulata, but it was also possible to buy tickets directly from the bus driver. We mentioned that we wanted to stop at Salona, and the bus driver kindly alerted us when we had reached our destination.

Here is a link to Split’s Bus System (in Croatian), as well as an overview of how to use it (in English).

Salona opening hours and ticket prices:

Salona’s opening hours seem to vary, based upon the season. To confirm that the site is open when you want to visit, you might want to confirm with Salona’s museum by calling: +358-21-213 358.

Monday – Saturday: 0900-1900

Sunday: 0900-1400

Adults: 30 kunas; Children: 15 kunas.

When we visited during the off-season in March, there was a billboard at Salona’s main entrance by the Manastirine indicating opening hours and ticket prices. However, there were no employees on site to dispense tickets. We assume that the entry was free because we visited outside of the tourist season. The museum inside the Tusculum was not open at that time either.

Informational signs, written in Croatian and English, identify the major sites inside ancient Salona. However, we often had to use our detective skills to imagine the functions the ruined structures would’ve originally had. Many spots remained a mystery, but that was much of the fun!

Between strolling, picnicking, and pondering, we easily whiled away a few hours at Salona.

More information about Ancient Salona and the modern-day city of Solin:

Accommodation in the Split area:

Shawn and I have spent a total of five winters in and around the city of Split, using it as a base to explore Croatia’s popular Central Dalmatia region. We’ve made it a habit to create new memories by staying in a different property each year. Over the years, we’ve had long-term stays in Split, Trogir, and Makarska.

We would happily revisit all of the following apartments. (Please note that some are affiliate links.)

  • Apartments Mirkec (Trogir) – We spent 7 wonderful weeks in this studio apartment, which is located in the heart of the town of Trogir. The apartment had good Wifi and a kitchen with all the basics. It was also perfectly situated in the heart of Trogir’s gorgeous Old Town, just a minute’s walk from the seaside walkway, the Riva. Trogir’s bus station was about a 5-minute walk from the Apartments Mirkec, making day trips using mass transportation easy.
  • Kaleta Apartments (Split) – These lovely apartments are located within Diocletian’s Palace (well, technically just a few meters from the Iron Gate). Our elegant studio apartment, called the “Diocletian’s Suite,” had lots of character — including Roman brickwork embedded into the wall. We had overhead views of life on Split’s Old Town streets, and we enjoyed chatting with the friendly owners, Novica and Negri. We spent about 2.5 months here.
  • Guesthouse F (Split) – This cozy studio apartment is located in Split’s Varoš neighborhood, just a few minutes’ walk from Diocletian’s Palace. With its quirky narrow streets and stone homes decorated with hunter-green shutters and flower boxes, Varoš is charming. One of Guesthouse F’s apartments was originally a horseshoe maker’s workshop, owned by Anja’s grandfather. Shawn and I dubbed it the “horseshoe cottage.” Aside from our central location, we loved having a tiny terrace. We also appreciated the kindness of our hosts, Anja and Miro. In total, we spent about 2 months here.
  • Viola Apartment (Split) – We spent roughly 3 months in this wonderful 2-bedroom apartment, which is also in the Varoš neighborhood of Split. The apartment also has a lovely sun porch and garden. It is in an old stone home, but the interior has recently been remodeled. We were in a perfect location for accessing Diocletian’s Palace and Marjan Forest Park, too. On foot, it takes about six minutes to reach Split’s most famous lookout point near the Caffe Bar Vidilica. The owner, Ljubica, lives upstairs. She is easygoing and helpful.
  • Apartments Missy (Makarska) – This 1-bedroom apartment was our home for about 5.5 months. The apartment is on the top floor and features skylights. A small balcony on the back of the apartment overlooks Makarska’s harbor — the views of Makarska’s dramatic mountains are wonderful! It takes about 8 minutes to reach Makarska’s bus station on foot. In a matter of minutes, you can also walk to Makarska’s Riva (seaside promenade), several grocery stores, restaurants, and cafés. The owners, Mise and Anna, are exceptionally friendly and helpful.

Looking for more Croatia trip-planning inspiration?

See my Croatia guide.

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Published by Tricia A. Mitchell

Tricia A. Mitchell is a freelance writer and a co-founder of Eloquence. Born in Europe but raised in the United States, she has lived in Valletta, Malta, as well as Heidelberg, Germany. An avid globetrotter who has visited more than 65 countries, she has a penchant for off-season travel. Tricia has learned that travel’s greatest gift is not sightseeing, rather it is the interactions with people. Some of her most memorable experiences have been sharing a bottle of champagne with distant French cousins in Lorraine, learning how to milk goats in a sleepy Bulgarian village, and ringing in the Vietnamese New Year with a Hanoi family. She welcomes any opportunity to practice French and German, and she loves delving into a place’s history and artisanal food scene. A former education administrator and training specialist, Tricia has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in international relations. She and her husband, Shawn, married in the ruins of a snowy German castle. They’ve been known to escape winter by basing themselves in coastal Croatia or Southeast Asia. Though they are currently nomadic, they look forward to establishing a European home someday. Her writing has appeared in Fodor’s Travel, Frommer’s, and International Living.

21 thoughts on “Exploring the Roman Ruins of Salona: A Day Trip from Split, Croatia

  1. We love Roman ruins Tricia, and we particularly love them when we have them to ourselves. Somehow the quiet just increases the sense of wonder and mystery. I’m always amazed by the wagon-rutted roads, and wonder how many wagons must have passed to etch the hard stone? ~James

    1. James, enjoying them at your own pace, in solitude, does heighten the experience. Looking back, I can’t remember many spots that we’ve visited that have been as quiet as Salona, though. Do you have any sites you can recommend? :)

    1. Darlene, the question, “I wonder what this was used for” popped up frequently, but we enjoyed the chance to exercise our detective skills. Having grown up in a ‘new’ country where if something was built a century ago, it’s considered ‘old’, I found Salona’s ruins fascinating. Many of the locals were amused by our amusement – to them, much of this is commonplace. We met people with varying degrees of interest. One was a historian who’d dedicated much of his life to research for a book on the ruins in this area, and another local said, “oh, that’s just a pile of rocks.”

      Always nice to hear from you – and here’s hoping your week is off to a wonderful start!

    1. Ina, thank you for your kind words. I’m guessing you’ve been to Salona on numerous occasions?

      Salona is indeed captivating, leading us to frequently ponder why there weren’t more visitors there. We underestimated how much there was to see. By sunset, our pace had turned from slow to hurried as we tried to explore the last of the sites. We walked through the baths at such a furious pace. :)

      1. Yes indeed I’ve been there, I think that the Croatian tourism doesn’t market the place well enough and it should for it’s almost like the cradle of history there in those parts. Very worth the visit and effort I think :)

  2. Fantastic, love the way you can walk around these ruins and get up close and personal, one thing which is hard to do here in the uk, most sites charge you a small fortune and even then you can’t get close.

    1. Mark, not long after we visited these Roman ruins, we went to Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region. In the city of Modena, we happened upon an old Roman cemetery, and the headstones were displayed in an open-air museum of sorts, but connected to an alarm. Seeing the distance between us and the relics there reminded us how lucky we were to be so close to Salona’s ruins, but it made us wonder how much longer Salona can remain preserved if left unprotected.

    1. It’s fun to hear that you had a similar experience. Come to think of it, I’ve been to Rome twice, but I don’t recall having gone into the Roman Forum. The first time I was on a hurried tour of the city, and during our next visit, I think it was closed for the New Year’s holiday. Perhaps that’s why Salona left such an impression on me!

      Now that I’ve found those two websites devoted to mapping out Roman-era sites, I think I could be exploring for a lifetime. :) Thanks for sharing your memory here.

  3. What interesting ruins. I would love the solitude to explore this which is so unlike other places, where it is quite controlled and crowded. But, I do wonder how much has disappeared over the years and ended up in the hands of art dealers.

    1. Lynne, we pondered the same question. In antique stores in neighboring Split’s Old Town, dealers sold coins and other trinkets reputedly from the Roman Empire. I’m not sure if they were reproductions, if they were perhaps authentic and taken from Salona decades ago, or even if they’d been found within the locals’ own property. One of our guides said that his friend had found rare coins in his own yard many years ago. Being from a ‘new’ country, such possibilities fascinate me.

    1. Otto, I’m glad to hear that you might head there someday, as I think Salona is a site that doesn’t generate as much interest as it should! I appreciate your kind words too. Do you have Roman ruins that you could recommend? I’m ever curious to learn about the more obscure places or those that offered meaningful experiences to visitors.

  4. Had to smile about the laundry photo :-) Pretty amazing to have such historical ruins of Salona pretty much open to the public like it is ~ that would be fantastic to excite the soul & ponder the history of the Roman Empire (these are really pieces of 2,000 year old art!). As you mention, I too hope that there are some preservation works/plans to ensure it sticks around another 2000 years. What a great sight/site this must have been to visit, cheers!

    1. Dalo, those underpants flitting in the breeze do bring life to the ruins and made me smile too. I was careful not to photograph any identifying surrounding elements (such a home-front) so as not to embarrass the wearer. :)

      If your friends are still in Croatia, and near Split, I certainly recommend a few hours here. Have you heard any of their adventures from the road?

      1. Ah, must be a gorgeous time to be in Croatia – nothing but positive envy though. :) I’m wondering if many winemakers have already harvested grapes there, and if not, how fun it’d be for your friends to participate, if they fancy wine, of course.

        I’ve heard it was unfortunately a rough growing year in some parts of Europe. We just arrived in Moldova, and have hopes to try our hand at picking grapes in the coming days. So far, it’s been well worth the long bus trips to get here. Are you in Asia or the Pacific NW for autumn?

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