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An easy 2-hour train ride from Venice, Trieste is a mostly unknown Italian treasure to most Americans. Located in the northeast corner of Italy on the Adriatic Sea, it’s a short distance to Slovenia (approximately 60 miles) and a 90-minute ferry ride to the Istria peninsula of Croatia. Under the rule of the Hapsburg family from 1382 until 1918, it was at one time the main shipping port of the Austrian-Hungary Empire and the fourth-largest city in the region.
The rich and varied architecture is an eclectic combination of the Liberty style, the Italian equivalent of Art Nouveau, neoclassical, and Baroque. Trieste boasts excellent northern Italian cuisine, especially shellfish, tons of cafés, centuries-old castles, forts, charming squares, and fascinating museums.
The main and most significant square of Trieste, Piazza Unità d’Italia, facing the harbor, is a prime example of the great architecture of the city from the late 1800s. Four formidable buildings, Palazzo del Municipio (City Hall) on the east side, the north side has the Palazzo del Governo, a government administrative building, on the south side is the enormous palazzo of Lloyd Triestino, a leading shipping company founded in 1836, and the Teatro Verdi, an opera house name after the celebrated composer. Have a drink on the terrace of Harry’s bar, an offshoot of the famous bar in Venice, which is part of the majestic, five-star Grand Hotel Duchi D’Acosta.
Pro Tip: The tourist office is on the square.
If you want to discover some of the best panoramic views of Trieste, head up to Castello di San Giusto. Commissioned by the royal Hapsburg family and constructed between the 15th and 7th centuries, the castle extended the original Venetian fortress, replacing the Roman ramparts. The fortress today contains a collection of rare weapons from medieval times until the 1800s, along with tapestries and furniture. Close to the castle is Lapidary Tergestino, a museum with 130 Roman monuments and statues, including Venus, Bacchus, Apollo, Minerva, Igea, and Aesculapius, discovered during an excavation of an ancient Roman theater, plus gorgeous mosaics from a nearby seaside palazzo.
Pro Tip: About halfway up the hill before you get to Castello di San Giusto, visit the 17th-century Jesuit church, Santa Maria Maggiore, with a beautiful Baroque-style interior.
Just a 25-minute bus ride from the center of Trieste, the Miramare Castle and gardens should be on the top of the Trieste must-visit list. High on a hill overlooking the Adriatic Sea, the opulent, limestone castle was built for the Austrian Archduke Arche Maximilian of the royal Hapsburg family and his wife, Charlotte of Belgium. Constructed between 1856 and 1860, it has a rich combination of Gothic, Renaissance, and medieval architecture. On the main floor, you can visit the original, private apartments of the duke and duchess. On the upper floors are the state and entertainment rooms, which all have most of the original furniture, tapestries, paintings, and sculptures
After you visit the castle, leave time to visit the glorious, 54-acre park with exotic and rare plant species, imported by the duke while on scientific voyages he made around the world on his warship. The gardens are cultivated in two separate styles, an English garden with trees, paths, gazebos, and ponds while the Italian garden features extended flower beds, including a daffodil garden that blooms in early spring. The complex also has a museum, bookstore, café, and horse stables.
Pro Tip: To go by bus, take either the G51 or G21 bus from the central train station and get off at the Grignano/Miramare stop. It’s an additional 11-minute walk up a steep hill to the castle. You must buy your bus ticket in advance at either a newsstand or machines at the bus stop.
Just a short distance from the Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia is Canal Grande, built in 1756, which was a significant harbor for sailing and commercial ships at the time. Today, it’s lined with lively cafés, restaurants, and small boats. The celebrated author James Joyce resided in Trieste from 1904 to 1915 and frequented the cafés on the canal. A bronze sculpture of Joyce stands proudly on a bridge facing the canal.
Pro Tip: After dark is especially lovely when the lights of the buildings reflect on the water. The canal has a Christmas market in December.
An elegant 18th-century villa once occupied by an aristocratic, Italian family is now the Santorio Museum, housing an impressive collection of religious paintings, period furniture, antiques, and tapestries. Laid out on three floors, the sitting rooms, bedrooms, kitchen, library, ballroom, and private chapel are decorated in various styles of decor including Empire, Biedermeier, Gothic, and Rococo Revival. The second floor has temporary and permanent exhibitions, including works by Giambattista Tiepolo. The Sartorio Museum also has an English-style garden with wandering paths, flowerbeds, towering trees, and Veneto-style sculptures.
Close to the Canal Grande, the neoclassical-style Church of Sant’Antonio Taumaturgo is the largest in Trieste. Started in 1825, completed in 1842, and finally consecrated in 1849, the church has classic neo-classical elements including tall, ionic columns plus six statues of the most important Italian saints.
Trieste was a large center for the Serbian Orthodox community in the 18th century. The Spiridione church was built in 1748, designed in the rich, Eastern Byzantine style, featuring mosaics with gold tiles, stained glass windows, hand-painted frescoes, religious paintings, and blue stone domes.
Behind the Savoia Excelsior Palace is a mini-antique district along with bookstores and unique home and fashion boutiques.
Susanna and Roberto, two master craftsmen, meld antique odds and ends along with new pieces to create one-of-a-kind furniture, art pieces, sculptures, and decorative objects at their shop Blu di Prussia.
A delightful children’s shop, every inch of Cucu is loaded with the most charming toys, puzzles, clothing, pajamas, games, stuffed animals, books, mobiles, and jewelry.
Once named the most important and luxurious hotel in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Savoia Excelsior Palace, opened in 1911, is a grand hotel in the old-world style, but with modern, up-to-date conveniences. Located in the heart of the city, across from the harbor and minutes away from Piazza Unità d’Italia, the hotel was almost within walking distance of every major attraction. We had a deluxe room on the fourth floor, tastefully decorated in soft, neutral colors and contemporary furniture with a king-sized bed plus an Illy espresso machine, a white marble bathroom with a separate toilet room, and free Wi-Fi. Best of all, we had great views of the Gulf of Trieste, watching the different cruise ships docking daily.
Located on a centrally located square, the reasonably priced DoubleTree By Hilton hotel is housed in a handsome 19th-century limestone building with some of the original frescoes and marble interiors. Amenities include free Wi-Fi, room service, and a fitness center.
Steps away from the waterfront, nestled on a narrow side street, Cio Che Piace serves authentic northern Italian cuisine plus also offers vegan and vegetarian dishes. House specialties include whole Branzino fish, fritto misto from the Gulf of Trieste with shrimp, calamari, and sardines, spaghetti with capers, raisins, sardines, a savory flan with pumpkin mousse, and shallots. All desserts are made in-house.
Pro Tip: If it’s warm enough, dine on their secluded outdoor terrace.
Trieste is known for having some of the best coffee and cafés in Italy and it’s the home of the world-renowned Illy coffee brand.
An Art Nouveau gem inspired by the great cafés of Vienna from the 19th century, Caffé San Marco became a magnet for writers (including James Joyce) and intellectuals to gather when it opened in 1914. Caffé San Marco was recently restored and now has a bookshop that also exhibits art pieces by local artists and concerts.
Passing through an archway festooned with red roses and antique wood doors at La Bomboniera, you enter a sweet world of Italian and Austrian meringues, bonbons, chocolates, cakes, pastries, and biscotti. The handsome Art Nouveau-style building dates back to 1836.
Pro Tip: You can have a coffee with your pastries on the outdoor tables in front.
There’s no way you can leave Trieste without having a scoop or two or three of their famed gelato. Although we passed dozens of gelato shops, we were told by the locals that hands down Gelato Marco is the best in the city. They were right. We speedily slurped on the artisanally made flavors of espresso, tiramisu, pistachio, and dark chocolate.
Pro Tip: Don’t be put off by the long lines — they move quickly and the gelato is well worth the little extra wait.
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Richard Nahem is an ex-New Yorker living in Paris since 2005. A travel writer and photographer, he’s been publishing his blog Eye Prefer Paris since 2006 and also writes for publications such as Travel Agent Central, Passport Magazine, The Guardian, Bonjour Paris, and Luxury Travel Advisor. He focuses mainly on luxury travel in Europe. Richard also leads private personalized tours of Paris for clients looking to explore the off the beaten path Paris they never usually see on their own.