Trieste is an important port city on the northern Adriatic Sea. Over the course of its history, it has gone from being part of the Roman Empire, to the Republic of Venice, to Austria-Hungary, to its own Free Territory, to present-day Italy (among others). While some aspects of Trieste are typically Italian, strong Austrian influences are evident, as are distinctly Triestine characteristics.
Trieste can be accessed by train from much of Italy and surrounding countries. Trieste has a small airport with international connections mostly through Munich (which Italians call Monaco… very confusing!). It’s also just a 2 hour train from Venice or 1.5 hour bus from Ljubljana, Slovenia.
Exploring the Trieste waterfront and city centre
You have to start any waterfront city with the waterfront. And some of the most impressive parts of Trieste are right along the sea.
Piazza Unità d’Italia
A great place to start is the main square, Piazza Unità d’Italia, one of Europe’s largest square located on the sea. At the head of the square is the Trieste City Hall, built in 1873-75 when it was part of Austria-Hungary. The eclectic style was considered ugly at the time, but the architecture is now celebrated.
The fountain in the square, Fontana dei Quattro Continenti, represents four continents: Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Four important rivers are also depicted: Danube, Ganges, Nile and La Plata. It was built in the 1750s to celebrate Trieste as a port city.
The rest of the square is flanked by popular restaurants and café/bars. Notably, we find Harry’s (of Venice fame), offering several food concepts including Harry’s Piccolo (with 2 Michelin Stars), Harry’s Bistro, Harry’s Pasticceria and Harry’s Bar.
Piazza Unità is also home to the historic Caffè degli Specchi. We’ll talk more about this later.
Just a short walk from Piazza Unità is the Canal Grande, a wide but rather short canal that extends from the sea to the church of Sant’Antonio Nuovo. Built between 1754 and 1756, the canal allowed shipping boats to unload goods further into the city. The original canal went right up to the church, but the last section was filled in in 1934.
The Church of Sant’Antonio Taumaturgo, more commonly known as the Church of Sant’Antonio Nuovo, because it was the second church built on this site, sits at the end of the canal. It’s the largest Catholic church in Trieste, constructed between 1827-1842, with a facade of ionic columns and six statues of various saints.
Also along the canal you’ll find the Saint Spyridon Church, a Serbian Orthodox church. The current church building was finished in 1868, but the Orthodox Church in Trieste dates to 1751 when Empress Maria Theresa made Trieste open to religions. Still today, Trieste is more religiously diverse than most of Italy.
San Giusto Hill and the old city
As we move inland we find San Giusto Hill, the heart of Trieste where we find Roman ruins, Romanesque churches and medieval buildings.
Ancient Roman Trieste
Just a short walk in-land from Piazza Unità are two remnants from Ancient Roman times.
The Arco di Riccardo is a 7.2 metre arch that is the only remaining part of the city’s Roman walls constructed in 33-32 BCE, when the Emperor Augusto established a Roman colony named Tergeste.
The Roman theatre dates to the 1st and 2nd century and could accommodate 3,500 spectators. It was only re-discovered in 1938.
Churches of Trieste
After seeing the Arco di Ricardo, you’ll like stumble upon the Basilica di San Silvestro, the oldest remaining church building in Trieste. The Romanesque basilica dates to the 11th/12th centuries (some parts may go back to the 9th century). The bell tower is believed to have been a medieval tower part of the former San Giusto fortifications.
Further up the San Giusto hill is the Trieste Cathedral (Basilica cattedrale di San Giusto Martire). Originally two basilicas from the 9th and 11th centuries, they were joined in the 14th century by removing a nave from each basilica and adding the simple facade with rose window that we see today. Upon entering the church, this unusual history becomes apparent.
San Giusto Hill and Castello di San Giusto
During the 13th and 14th centuries, Trieste became a maritime trade rival to the Republic of Venice. Trieste was occupied on-and-off by Venice, until Trieste voluntarily surrendered to Austria in 1382. The Castello di San Giusto was built between 1468-1636 as a fortress to protect Trieste. Because of the long construction period, the fortress incorporates different bastion designs, based on the prevailing defensive technique of the time, from round to polygonal to triangular bastions. Austrian Imperial Captains resided in the castle until 1750; today it’s a museum.
In the surrounding area, you’ll find more Roman ruins, including the area that was probably the settlement’s Forum.
The area also includes an impressive First World War monument, the Monumento ai Caduti, depicting three men holding a wounded companion, with a fifth holding a shield for protection.
Enjoying coffee at a historic café
Trieste: Italy’s coffee capital
After coffee was introduced to Italy in the 16th century, it quickly became popular among the wealthy and intellectuals, with elegant cafés popping up all over Venice and Vienna in the 17th century.
The supply of coffee beans for Vienna and the Austro-Hungarian empire flowed through Trieste. Companies began roasting and blending coffee. Illy was founded in Trieste in 1933, and would grow to become one of Italy’s (and the world’s) largest coffee brands.
Nowadays, Triestini drink twice as much coffee as Italians in general.
Viennese-style cafés in Trieste
Trieste still boasts several Viennese-style cafés that were established in the 19th and early 20th centuries. If you’re a coffee lover, you’ll definitely need to give one (or several) a try; if not, swing by later in the day for spritz or wine and enjoy the ambiance.
Because of its location right in Piazza Unitá, one of the most popular historic cafés is Caffè degli Specchi, established in 1839.
Just outside Piazza Unitá is the oldest café in Trieste, Caffè Tommaseo, founded in 1830 and carefully restored in 1997.
But it’s off the beaten track that you’ll find the favourite historic café of locals, Caffè San Marco. It’s casual and comfortable, and ornately decorated with carved wood showing coffee leaves and cherries. There are also references to the Venetian lion of San Marco, and other allegorical references that are surely lost on me.
Trieste’s unique coffee language
If you need more proof of Trieste’s special coffee culture, just consider its unique coffee names. If you want to order coffee like a local, especially in one of its historic cafés, learn a few drink names. If you want an espresso in Trieste (called caffè elsewhere in Italy), you’ll order a nero; you drink this quickly at the bar and leave. If you prefer a bit of milk in your coffee, order the popular capo in b, the Triestine version of an espresso macchiato served in a small glass. If you want something closer to a traditional cappuccino, order a caffelatte (but only before lunch, as in all of Italy).
Opicina and Grotta Gigante
Take a day trip outside the city to see the region in a different way.
Nestled on the karst plateau above Trieste is the small town of Opicina. A hybrid tram and funicular that first opened in 1902 links Trieste and Opicina. The route is only 5.2 km, but climbs over 300 metres, hitting a maximum gradient of 26%. The ride itself is rather fascinating, and getting off at the Obelisco stop on the outskirts of Opicina offers great views of Trieste.
From Opicina, head over to Grotta Gigante, the second-largest cavern in the world accessible to tourists. It’s truly awe-inspiring. I provide more details in a dedicated writeup on Grotta Gigante and the Postojna Cave.
Ferry to Muggia
For a fun outing from Trieste, take the 30 minute ferry from Trieste to neighbouring Muggia. Muggia is a picturesque town full of Venetian and Austrian architecture and a modern 500-berth marina.
On the ferry ride, you get a close-up view of the modern working port of Trieste, as well as panoramic view of the city.
Once in Muggia, the trappings of a working city disappear and you feel like you’re in a coastal holiday town. Wander the streets to find the Duomo or Cathedral, hit up a restaurant or bar, admire the homes and sail boats, then make your way back to Trieste.