The forgotten Italian city on its way back to greatness

The best way to approach the city is by boat
The best way to approach the city is by boat - Alamy

Standing at the summit of Mount Giusto, amid the ruins of the Roman forum, gazing at the huge harbour down below, and the deep blue Adriatic sea beyond, you can see why Trieste used to be one of the world’s most important ports. So why is it now forgotten?

For several centuries Trieste was famous, Europe’s main gateway to the Mediterranean, and a popular destination in its own right. Yet when I mention the place to people back in Britain, I’m invariably greeted with blank looks. “Trieste?” they say. “Where’s that?”

That attitude looks set to change. Last time I came here, five years ago, Trieste seemed like a sleepy backwater. Now big cruise ships, driven out of Venice by restrictions, are docking here instead. After a lifetime in the doldrums, this ancient, contested city is back on the tourist trail.

More cruise ships are now docking in Trieste having been driven out of Venice by restrictions
More cruise ships are now docking in Trieste having been driven out of Venice by restrictions - Getty

The reason Trieste fell into obscurity was because it was on the losing side in both World Wars. Before the First World War, it was the only seaport of the Austrian empire. When Austria lost the First World War it became Italian, but the Italians had little use for it.

At the end of the Second World War it was occupied by Tito’s communists, who wanted to make it part of Yugoslavia. The western allies refused, so from 1945 it remained in limbo, ruled by the UK and the USA while they tried to work out what to do with it.

Finally, in 1954, Trieste was returned to Italy, shorn of its Istrian hinterland, which became part of Yugoslavia. During the Cold War it was a dead-end town at the end of a one-way street, hemmed in by the Iron Curtain. When I first came through here, 40 years ago, on my way to Yugoslavia, it seemed like a place whose time had passed.

Trieste's canals are pretty enough to rival Venice
Trieste's canals are pretty enough to rival Venice - Alamy

What a lot has changed. Yugoslavia is no more, and Trieste is a crossroads not a cul-de-sac. Its new neighbour, Slovenia, is in Nato and the EU. Its streets are filling up with sightseers, and the chatter in its bars and cafes is polyglot, just as it was in its Edwardian heyday, when Britons travelled here by train to board steamers bound for the Far East.

Many modern travellers arrive on cruise ships, merely stopping off for a brief walkabout before departing for another port. Yet if you stay a little longer, you’ll see another side of Trieste – an enigmatic border town at the confluence of the Latin, Germanic and Slavonic worlds, still haunted by the ghosts of its Habsburg glory days, still a place apart.

On my previous visit, I stayed at the Savoia Excelsior Palace – a grand hotel built just before the First World War. It’s historic and luxurious, in a prime position on the waterfront, but to me it felt more like a business hotel. This time, I wanted to unwind, and see some of the surrounding countryside, so I stayed at the Tivoli Portopiccolo, a coastal resort in Sistiana, 12 miles west of Trieste.

Tivoli Portopiccolo is a picturesque resort 12 miles west of Trieste
Tivoli Portopiccolo is a picturesque resort 12 miles west of Trieste

Portopiccolo is a modern development, built into a secluded cove with a sleek beach club and a marina full of smart motor yachts. It reminded me of that TV show, The White Lotus. It’s supremely comfy and relaxing, but you feel rather cut off from real life. However, Sistiana is just around the corner, a workaday harbour full of fishing boats and dinghies, and a strip of pebble beach, flanked by rows of seaside shacks selling cheap and cheerful food and drink.

The best way to approach the city is by boat, and during the summer there’s a ferry from Sistiana which takes you right into the heart of town. Tickets are good value and the voyage is a treat. The surrounding coast is a long wall of limestone cliffs, laden with thick dark forest. It’s a dramatic sight and the finest view is from the water. At last, the cliffs recede, and you sail into a broad bay, flanked by wharfs and warehouses. Welcome to Trieste.

The best time to visit Trieste is during the shoulder seasons when the weather is still pleasant
The best time to visit Trieste is during the shoulder seasons when the weather is still pleasant - Trieste tourist office

Over a century since the Austrians were driven out and the city became part of Italy, Trieste still feels more Teutonic than Romantic. The cuisine is hearty, the architecture is robust and its cafès are more like Kaffeehäuser. The Triestini are proud of their mixed heritage and though Italian is the lingua franca, everyone I spoke to was keen to stress their multi-cultural roots.

There is even some separatist sentiment. “Free Territory of Trieste,” proclaims a large banner on the Piazza della Borsa, one of Trieste’s busiest thoroughfares. “USA & UK come back!” I only met one outright separatist, far too young to remember when his hometown was administered by Yanks and Brits, but nostalgic for that era, nonetheless.

This regional identity adds another layer of interest to this elegant, intriguing city. It’s a metropolis in miniature – lively and attractive, yet small enough to navigate on foot (the population is about 200,000, around the same as it was a century ago, when the Austrians departed). From the narrow alleys of the old town to the broad boulevards of the city centre, it’s a pleasant place to wander, full of street life and human interest.

Aerial views of Trieste and the Victory Lighthouse
The Victory Lighthouse - Getty

Trieste has no stand-out sights, no must-see attractions. Its appeal is subtler, more discreet. The travel writer Jan Morris captured its cryptic aura in her melancholy memoir, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. James Joyce, who spent a decade here, relished its understated charm.

The site that sums up Trieste’s moody ambience is Miramare, a fairy-tale castle on a rocky promontory, battered by the restless sea. It was built by Maximilian, kid brother of the Austrian Emperor, Franz Joseph, but he barely spent a year here before he was whisked away to become the Emperor of Mexico. His quixotic empire was overthrown, and the republican rebels had him shot by firing squad. Today his forsaken folly is a museum, a monument to Habsburg hubris. It’s supposed to be bad luck to spend the night here. Several subsequent inhabitants also met violent ends.

I finished up back where I’d begun, on Mount Giusto, high above the city. Most tourists make the hike to see the castle and the cathedral, but I’d come to see the mausoleum of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-1768), the father of modern archaeology. Winckelmann wasn’t from Trieste – he’d merely come here to catch a boat to Rome – but while he was here, he befriended a young man called Francesco Arcangeli who murdered him (for what reason, no-one knows). Winckelmann was buried in the cathedral across the road. Arcangeli was broken on the wheel in the city square below.

This sinister story encapsulates what I love about Trieste. Everywhere you go in this elusive city, you’re stepping on layer upon layer of history – some of it recorded, much of it unknown. As I walked back to the harbour, past the Roman amphitheatre, I recalled something Jan Morris wrote in Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere: “Here, more than anywhere, I remember lost times, lost chances, lost friends.” As the evening ferry carried me away, and Trieste shrank into the sea, her words were still ringing in my ears.

Where to stay

I was a guest of Tivoli Portopiccolo Sistiana ( Doubles from €300 per night, including breakfast. The room rate includes use of the chic beach club. The house style is international rather than Italian. The entire resort is car-free (there’s a large underground garage). There are several restaurants on site, in the hotel and the surrounding development. The best food I ate by far was in the beach club restaurant. It’s a good spot if you want seclusion, or if you’re travelling with children.

Tivoli Portopiccolo Sistiana is part of the exclusive Portopiccolo community built around the marina
Tivoli Portopiccolo Sistiana is part of the exclusive Portopiccolo community built around the marina

What to do – out of town

There are some decent excursions near Sistiana, most notably the Rilke trail from Sistiana to the Castello di Duino (, a medieval castle where the poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote his Duino Elegies. The clifftop hiking trail that bears his name snakes along the coast for several miles, giving you some stunning views over the Gulf of Trieste.

If you’d rather sit around and stuff your face, head for Bajta Salež (, a family-run farmhouse restaurant and delicatessen midway between Sistiana and Trieste. They make their own wine and cure their own ham on site. The family has strong Slovenian roots. The place is popular with locals, not just tourists. Eat in the gardens when the weather’s fine.

What to do – in town

Trieste has several splendid museums, housed in spectacular buildings. As well as the palatial Castello di Miramare (, surrounded by lush gardens, and the Winckelmann Museum (, with its eerie archaeological relics, don’t miss the Museo Revoltella (, the opulent mansion of a rich merchant which now houses Trieste’s modern art museum.

The Grand Canal in the heart of Trieste
The Grand Canal in the heart of Trieste - Getty

Where to eat and drink

As one of Europe’s leading ports, with close trading links with South America, Trieste has always been renowned for coffee. Like the Viennese Kaffeehaus, a Triestine caffè is a virtual living room, a world away from high street chains like Starbucks. Caffè San Marco is the most historic, Caffè degli Specchi is the most ornate, but my favourite is Caffè Torinese (, a quaint, antiquated hideaway where you can linger over a decadent cream cake, sink an espresso at the bar, or buy coffee beans to take away.

For an unpretentious slap-up meal, head for Buffet da Pepi (, a local landmark since 1897. The décor is traditional, the service is down-to-earth, and the no-nonsense menu is carnivorous. Afterwards, take a walk around the corner to the Gelateria Zampolli (, a traditional ice-cream parlour, for a refreshing gelato.

Getting around

By far the best way to get to Trieste from Sistiana (and other resorts along the coast) is on a Delfino Verde ferry ( A return ticket costs €12. The trip takes 80 minutes each way and the journey is an absolute delight. For other public transport options around Trieste (and walking trails within the city) visit

Getting there

Ryanair ( flies to Trieste from London Stansted and Dublin. For more information about Trieste and the region visit or