One of the most beautiful cities in Italy is not very Italian at all. Because of its proximity to Slovenia and its privileged position as the Hapsburgs’ only major seaport on the Mediterranean for centuries, over time Trieste has been greatly influenced by the Slavic and Germanic worlds. The result is an enigmatic frontier city that has always mesmerized and inspired visitors, writers and historians – a hodge-podge of architectural styles, cultures, and languages. Even on a restaurant menu, you are just as likely to find goulash or sachertorte as you are spaghetti allo scoglio.
Trieste can easily come across as a bit snotty – Umberto Saba, one of the city’s most illustrious literary sons, said it has a “surly grace”. The stately, spectacular buildings overlooking Piazza Unitá d’Italia (pictured above) seem to reflect this attitude: stepping on this square, whose southern side directly faces the Adriatic, feels like stepping back to Trieste’s heyday. You would be excused for expecting a horse-drawn carriage to pull up any second and bejellewed noblewomen step out of it, while a galleon full of goods from trading posts around the world docks a few yards away. This is a city with a glorious past, and the exquisite buildings overlooking its main square are testament to Trieste’s rich heritage: don’t miss the frescoes of the Palazzo della Prefettura, the elegant Palazzo del Lloyd Triestino (one of the world’s oldest shipping companies, now seat to the regional government), and City Hall with its eclectic style and pretty bell tower.
West of the square lies the Borgo Teresiano, named after Maria Theresa of Austria, the enlightened empress who decided to turn the city’s salt works into a modern, cosmopolitan neighborhood. The area’s main attraction is the Canal Grande, not quite as impressive as Venice’s but certainly a highlight: the canal is lined by old mansions (they used to belong to the richest merchant families). It is also spanned by two bridges – on Ponte Rosso, stop for a selfie with the statue of James Joyce, one of the writers who made Trieste their home.
Trieste isn’t only a capital of literature, however. It is also the capital of coffee, and nobody in Italy is more particular about coffee than the triestini (the city might have officially become Italian less than 100 years ago, but its love for coffee leaves no doubt over where it belongs). When it comes to ordering coffee, locals have their own vocabulary (and, supposedly, up to 60 different options to choose from): if you want an espresso here, make sure to order a “nero”. Trieste is dotted with historic cafes, which are one of the city’s best attractions: stop at Caffé degli Specchi to people-watch right on Piazza Unità, and head for Antico Caffé San Marco to really experience history (the place has hardly changed in 100 years, and the décor is incredible – with coffee leaves bas-reliefs and Venetian masks).
To get a sense of the city from above, head up the San Giusto hill. Here, you will find the Cathedral (dedicated to Saint Justus), built in the 6th century on the site of a Roman temple. Don’t miss the tiled floor next to the altar, belonging to the previous church, and the mosaics and frescoes adorning the apses. From the top of the hill, the view spans the whole of the city, with the gulf on one side and the Karst mountains on the other. The big dome straight in front of you – one of the few buildings that stand out from the sea of red roofs – belongs to the Serbian Orthodox Church of San Spiridione. This majestic building is yet another reminder of Trieste’s diversity: over the centuries, the city has been called home by Greeks, Slavs, Italians, Austrians, and a large number of Jews (here you will find Europe’s second largest synagogue, too).
One of my favorite things to do in Trieste is to walk to the end of the Molo Audace in the late afternoon. This pier offers great views of Piazza Unità and the city’s port, and is a great spot to watch the world go by while relaxing in the sun (definitely avoid it if you happen to visit the city when the infamous bora wind blows – its gusts have been known to reach 170km/h).
To complete your visit of Trieste, hop on a bus number 6 to the Castello di Miramare. This white castle, built in the 1850s right by the Adriatic, was the residence of Maximilian of Hapsburg and his wife Charlotte. Pretty as it is, however, it has something of a dark history: everyone who has lived here seems to have died either prematurely or violently. There is more. After Maximilian, who was also Emperor of Mexico, was killed in the New World, Charlotte lost her mind: her ghost is said to haunt the castle waiting for her beloved husband to return.
Trieste is an amazing city, with a rich history and a lot of offer, and yet it is too often ignored by travellers. Big mistake! If you are looking for Italy off the beaten track, this is where you want to start.
Pig out at Buffet da Pepi, a no-frills restaurant that has served local pork-based dishes since 1897. Another authentic Triestine experiment awaits you at Buffet da Siora Rosa (try the misto caldaia). Fish-lovers should try Antica Trattoria le Barettine.
Hotel Italia has simple, comfortable doubles for €85. For a more exclusive experience, stay at Hotel Urban Design (€115).