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?
Where in the World?
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.
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
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:
- Solin Tourist Board website: Features information about Ancient Salona as well as the city of Solin, including this pdf version of Solin’s visitor’s brochure.
- OmnesViae: Roman Routeplanner and Vici: If you’re interested in old Roman routes and history, be sure to explore these two websites, which allow you to plot out a route and glimpse what Roman sites are along the way.
- Excavations at Salona, Yugoslavia, 1969-1972 (book)
- Picturesque and Historic Voyage in Istria and Dalmatia (book): Published in 1802, this book features beautiful engravings from the region, including some of Salona.
- Roman Cities in Italy and Dalmatia (book): Published in 1910, this book is available on Internet Archive. See pages 264-283 for information about Salona.
- Study of the Aqueduct of Salona 2014-2015 (academic paper)
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.