Diocletian’s Palace was built in the 4th century as a retirement seaside residence for the Roman Emperor, his family and 700 or so 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 it was abandoned and left in ruins, it remains one of the best preserved palaces of Late Antiquity.
Exploring Diocletian’s Palace
Diocletian’s Palace is the logical place to start exploring Split, Croatia. It is, after all, the city center of Split and the origin of the city. Visitors should understand, however, that while the basic structure of the palace still exists, it is no longer in complete form.
After Diocletian’s Palace was abandoned, it was occupied again in the 7th century by citizens who moved in hoping to find protection from the invading Slavs. They turned the ruins into a city within itself.
Most of the structures within the palace were repurposed: Diocletian’s mausoleum was converted into a cathedral and the basement halls were turned into a garbage dump, but the outer walls and gates remained, as well as three of the 13 Egyptian sphinxes that Diocletian had used to decorate the palace.
There have been abundant changes to Diocletian’s Palace over the centuries resulting in historic lanes filled with shops, restaurants and residences. Yet, the original quadrant layout still exists, with gates – Brass Gate, Iron Gate, Golden Gate and Silver Gate – leading to the center Peristil (courtyard).
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. The afternoons are quieter, but 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 pieces 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 is 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.
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 (also spelled Peristle or Peristyle Split). The Split Cathedral was converted to a church after the fall of Rome and the bell tower was added in the 13th century (and took 300 years to build).
We got our first peek inside the Split, Croatia 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 Catherdal in Split 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 Dicoletian Palace walls. The best view of the bell tower is from the Peristle of Diocletian’s Palace. 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 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, but 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
The four Diocletian Palace Gates all lead to the center Peristil Square.
Golden Gate Split – Golden Gate is the north gate of to the palace – and the most grand.
Bronze Gate Split – The unmarked and inconspicuous Bronze Gate connects the Diocletian’s Palace basement to the Riva.
Silver Gate Split – The Silver Gate is the eastern gate, which leads to the Split Green Market.
Iron Gate Split – The western gate, Iron Gate, connects the palace to the People’s Square.
Diocletian Palace Tour
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.
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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