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Diocletian’s Palace was built in the 4th century as a retirement seaside residence for the Roman Emperor, his family, servants and guards. The rectangular structure (520 x 620 feet) was two stories, fronted the sea and was built more like a fort than a palace. Even though the Roman palace was abandoned and left in ruins, it remains one of the best preserved palaces of Late Antiquity. Exploring the Split palace is the top thing to do in the city.
Understanding Diocletian’s Palace History
Diocletian’s Palace – or Dioklecijanova Palača in Croatian – is the logical place to start exploring Split, Croatia. It is, after all, the city center of Split Old Town and the origin of the city. Centuries of Split history are found inside the palace originally built by Emperor Diocletian.
Visitors who explore the UNESCO site can learn much about the history of Split, Croatia, but it’s important to understand that while the basic structure of the palace still exists, it is no longer in complete form.
Diocletian Palace Split: A Timeline
Construction of the palace began in the year 298, after Diocletian had successfully battled Egyptians. The seaside location was chosen for its close proximity to Salona (now Solin) – the then-capital of the Roman Dalmatia Province where Diocletian was born – and for the healing Sulphur water.
When Diocletian retired (or abdicated) in the year 305, he – along with his family, military and servants – moved into the Adriatic-facing palace. He lived there until his death in 311. After he died, Diocletian’s Palace remained a part of the Roman Court, but it is thought that the palace was eventually abandoned.
Then the Split, Croatia palace was occupied again in the 7th century by Salona citizens seeking protection from the invading Slavs. The refugees turned the ruins of the Split castle into a city within itself.
Transforming Diocletian’s Palace Split, Croatia
Most of the structures within the palace were re-purposed: Diocletian’s mausoleum was converted into a cathedral and the basement halls were turned into a garbage dump. However, the outer walls and gates remained, as well as three of the Egyptian sphinxes that Roman Emperor Diocletian had used to decorate the palace.
There have been abundant changes to Diocletian’s Palace over the centuries resulting in complete transformation of the historic lanes. By Medieval times, small churches, family palaces and residences were built inside the walls – and, today, shops, restaurants and tourist accommodations fill the space. Yet, the original quadrant layout of the Roman emperor’s palace still exists, with gates – Brass Gate, Iron Gate, Golden Gate and Silver Gate – leading to the center Peristil (courtyard).
The Ancient Roman Palace of Diocletian Today
Fifty years ago, archaeologists began excavating the basement of the palace and, finding it to be impressively intact, have been able to put together more pieces of the past – both of the palace and of the people who have lived in it. In 1979, Diocletian’s Palace was designated as an UNESCO Heritage site.
However, even with the historic status, the inside of Diocletian’s Palace has a fantastic mix of locals and tourists. In the mornings, a duo sings traditional songs for the tourists, but locals passing by will join in on their favorites and the sounds of their voices float down the alleys. In the afternoons, kids play soccer in open courtyards and I can’t help but wonder how many other kids have played in the same space over the centuries. At night, locals and tourists can both be found at the cafes sipping coffee and restaurants dining on local fare.
Diocletian’s Palace Sights
And yet, even with all of the changes to the Split Old Town, many significant parts of the Croatia ruins remain. Most of the palace is open to the public – as what once were hallways are now alleys and centuries ago, new housing structures were built in place of the grand palace rooms.
Therefore, there is no Diocletian’s Palace entrance fee into the Split Peristyle, Diocletian’s Palace Vestibule or palace gates. Nor are there Diocletian’s Palace opening hours (and we can confirm that the wee hours of the day and dawn are the best time to walk through the palace without fighting crowds!).
That being said, some of the sights do require a ticket, like the Diocletian’s Palace Underground, Cathedral of Saint Domnius Treasury, Split Bell Tower and Split Jupiter Temple. Diocletian Palace tickets to specific sights can be purchased at the entry.
Diocletian’s Palace in Croatia is a fascinating historic site that should not be missed! While we do encourage wandering the streets inside the palace in Split, we recommend making it a point to seek out the following sights.
Distinguishable by the monumental columns and arches, the Peristyle (also spelled Peristle Split) is the center of the palace. The Split Cathedral and bell tower stand on the east side. On the south side, above the stairs to the basement and behind the balcony (Prothyrum), is the Vestibule of the Emperor’s Quarters.
In his day, Diocletian would walk from his quarters, through the Vestibule to the Prothyrum and, in the courtyard below, his loyal subjects would bow to him. Today, the square buzzes with tourists and tour groups that filter in and out of the historic square.
“Gladiators” stand in the center and pose with tourists for photos (we are not sure if they accept tips or charge a fee, so ask first). An a cappella group sings songs in the vestibule (where they accept tips and sell CDs). And weary tourists sit on the steps surrounding the square or sip drinks at the outdoor seating of Cafe Luxor.
Cathedral of Saint Domnius
For us, the most prominent of the Diocletian’s Palace sights is the Cathedral of St. Domnius. Originally built as Diocletian’s mausoleum, it sits in the center of the Palace on the main square, Peristil Split. The Split Cathedral was converted to a church after the fall of Rome and the bell tower was added in the 13th century. Fun Fact: The bell tower took 300 years to build.
We got our first peek inside the Cathedral at Sunday Mass, which was one of the more beautiful masses we’ve attended. We stood in the back (arriving just as mass is starting isn’t advised if you want a seat in the tiny interior) and took in the magnificent scene and incredible choir.
We revisited the Cathedral a few days later to see inside the church and focus more on the details of the architecture. The elaborate main altar is in the center of the room, where Diocletian’s Tomb once was. A few original columns are all that is left from the original interior. There are altars on both sides of the main altar – one is dedicated to St. Domnius and the other to St. Anastasius.
Bell Tower Split
The Bell Tower in Split, Croatia can be seen from afar, rising high above the Diocletian Palace walls. The best view of the bell tower is from the Peristle of Diocletian’s Palace, in the northwest corner of the square. However, climbing to the top of the Split, Croatia Bell Tower offers 360-degree panoramic views of the Split Old Town, coastline and nearby islands.
Diocletian’s Palace Basement
I was a bit skeptical about paying a fee to go into a ‘basement,’ but it was actually one of the most interesting Diocletian Palace sights. Information about the cellars of Diocletian’s Palace were presented on plaques (in English).
Archaeologists have been digging through the Diocletian’s Palace underground for the past 50 years. The contents of the well-preserved palace basement have helped in piecing together information about the palace and the history of Split, Croatia.
The palace was built on land that sloped to the sea and the basement was built to support and level the upper floors of the palace. The cavernous rooms show an exact floor plan of the original residential area of the palace, which has been long gone.
After the fall of Rome, the palace was left to ruins. It was again inhabited in 641 by citizens seeking protection from the Slavs. As the residents moved in, they tossed their rubbish in the basement. Recent excavations have found evidence of both temporary and permanent housing structures from the 6th and 7th centuries, as well as water wells and an olive oil press from early medieval times. Walking through the vast, moisture-rich rooms of Diocletian’s Palace Basement allowed us to imagine what the decorated upstairs might have looked like.
Temple of Jupiter Split
The Jupiter Temple Split, located down the narrow alley off the Peristil Square opposite the Split Cathedral entrance, was built in the 4th century AD. It was converted into a church in the 6th century – and in front of it is one of the Diocletian’s Palace sphinxes (although this one is headless).
Unfortunately, there isn’t a great deal of information in English at the Ethnographic museum. However, we spent some time looking at the traditional clothes, lacework, furniture, weapons and tools that were used by the early citizens of Split.
The one gem in the Ethnographic Museum was the Church of St. Andrew de Fenestris. Originally, it was an open room in the palace that was transformed into a church in the 7th century. Only fragments of the altar and stone work remain.
Diocletian Palace Gates
In its original construction, the Split Roman palace was rectangular in shape with four gates, one on each side. The main east-west street connected the east and west gates, while the north-south street connected the north and south gates. The two main streets crossed in the center of the palace on the north side of the Peristil Square – which divided the palace into 4 quadrants.
The two southern quadrants, facing the sea, were the living quarters of the emperor and his family. The northern quadrants were reserved for military, servants and working factories.
Golden Gate Split
The Golden Gate is the north gate of the palace. It is the most grand and preserved of the four gates. The Golden Gate served as the main entrance to the palace on the road to Salona. Featuring arched windows and decorative pillars, the gate had a defensive courtyard, that was a last measure against enemies.
Top Tip: Step outside the gate and look back toward the palace to appreciate the size of the original structure. Outside the gate is the 28-foot-tall statue of the 10th-century Bishop of Nin. It’s said that rubbing his toe brings good luck!
Bronze Gate Split
The unmarked and inconspicuous Bronze Gate is the southern entry from the Riva into Diocletian’s Palace basement. Before land was reclaimed for the Riva, the gate led directly to the Adriatic Sea. Once inside the basement, visitors can walk up the steep staircase directly into the Peristyle.
Silver Gate Split
The Silver Gate is the eastern gate, which leads to the Split Green Market. Nearly as opulent as the northern Golden Gate, the Silver Gate features a wall of arched windows. The gate has seen numerous modifications throughout history, as evidenced by the varying walls around it. However, attempts have been made to restore the Silver Gate as best as possible to its original construction.
Top Tip: Looking for local lavender souvenirs? The first vendor inside the Silver Gate on the south side offers an array of lavender products (we like the oil and sachets!). He is often the last vendor open and always has a smile!
Iron Gate Split
The western gate, Iron Gate, connects the palace to the People’s Square. During Diocletian’s time in the palace – and more so in the Middle Ages – a city began to grow to the west of the palace walls. The Iron Gate connected the budding city to the interior of the palace. Over time, the palace and city blended together – and the gate was radically transformed.
Diocletian’s Palace Map
Visitors can also pick up a Split Tourist Map at the TI on Peristyle Square.
Diocletian Palace Tour
Your Diocletian Palace experience can be enhanced with the knowledge of a local guide who can explain the Split Roman ruins. Join a Split Walking Tour for a guided stroll through the palace and old town. We recommend booking a Diocletian’s Palace Walking Tour on Viator or through a trusted tourist agency, like Adiona Travel. You also may explore on your own with our detailed Split Walking Tour!
Top Tip: Many Split, Croatia Game of Thrones scenes have been filmed inside Diocletian’s Palace. GOT fans can join one of the popular Diocletian’s Palace Game of Thrones Tours – Get the Details!
Want more Split Sightseeing Tips? Check out our guide of the top 10 Things To Do in Split, Croatia!
We want to know: Have you visited Diocletian’s Palace in Split, Croatia? What were your impressions of the Diocletian Palace Sights? Tell us in the comments!
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