It was winter when I arrived in Trieste. The wind carried with it the whisper of sleet and the soft scent of snow. The ground sparkled with the reflections of Christmas lights in the afternoon rain and the central square was surprisingly quiet.
Of all the things to do in Trieste, from luxurious cake to literary history, grand architecture to brutal history, I found myself thinking about the edge of the old Iron Curtain and the melting of the Cold War.
This article covers both classic and unusual things to do in Trieste as a thoughtful traveller. It also glimpses into its soul, and mine at the time and project where I found it.
For a quick overview of things to do in Trieste, check out the highlights box below. Use the table of contents to navigate to more useful in-depth points on each of the places. And read the middle section for the all-important background on the city and its place in the tumultuous 20th century.
A central square with a name like Piazza d’Unita d’Italia already invites questions. A mention in a landmark Churchill speech becomes an informal visit to help the police with their enquiries. By the time I was translating the Italian word for sauerkraut (crauti) while sitting in the century-old beloved Buffet da Pepi, historical questions had become a caffeine-fuelled double cross-examination in a hyped and highly-televised celebrity trial of the century.
Just who or what was Trieste? What was the former Iron Curtain? And why didn’t I already know about this fascinating, fantastic place?
First things first. Trieste lives in the northeast corner of Italy, a short train ride away from the not-so-well-kept-secret city of Venice. One hundred years ago, it belonged to the Habsburg Empire.
The Habsburgs (in case, like me, you never covered any of this in school) ran and oversaw an empire that stretched from Holland to the subsequent USSR and lasted for more than 600 years.
100 years after their demise, hardly anyone knows who they are. Today's grandchildren never knowing there was a Queen of England.
World War One began with the assassination of the heir to the Habsburg throne. And as World War One ended, so did the Habsburgs.
A victorious Italy moved into Trieste, Slovene names were switched to Italian and the decades that followed involved ongoing border disputes, forced Italianization, Nazi occupation, the decimation of the Jewish population and the formation of the only concentration camp on Italian soil.
Landing on the losing side once again, at the end of the Second World War, Trieste “belonged” to the Allied Forces. Its territories were split once more and within a few years it settled into the borders it uses today, snug against what used to be western Yugoslavia, and what is now 21st century Slovenia.
And, according to Churchill’s speech in 1946, at the edge of the Iron Curtain.
"From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the Continent. ” Churchill 1946
He was talking about the political divisions that had appeared in the immediate aftermath of World War Two.
Yet that border with Yugoslavia was different. The Iron Curtain with modern-day Slovenia was less, well, iron, more semi-permeable but tough goretex.
Now I’m watching the waves of the Adriatic as they approach the shore of Trieste. I’m smelling fresh and salty air and thinking of dinner. I’m looking for Viennese-style coffee shops and lard-soaked pizza; historical sauerkraut and slices of pork; a Garden of Remembrance and the inspiration for James Joyce. I’m looking for Italian and Slovene, Habsburgs and happiness, Cold War and warm peace.
I am, I suppose, looking for Trieste.
Behind me, I know that sapphire lights stud their way across the stone. Right now, though, I’m watching darkness.
Behind me, flames from an occasional car streak across the empty velvet sky, backlit by the brilliance of a long forgotten empire.
Ahead I see nothing. Black, dark, empty, silent. Just the sound of water touching the stone that leads from the Piazza d’Unita d’Italia to the edge of the Adriatic.
I am standing in Trieste, in Italy, and I am thinking about the Iron Curtain, the driving force for my current #ironroute trip.
Really, this is the best thing to do in this grand, imposing yet full-of-quiet-alleyways Italian city. Start at the waterfront and follow the waterways in and back to the Adriatic. Climb hills. Meander in coffee shops without a plan at all. Look up at grand facades and out again to the sea.
I'll sketch out more of a plan for you to guide your way, but always remember this: the best thing to do in Trieste is to explore with your feet and with your stomach.
Head to the waterfront and walk around the old part of town without a plan. Coffee. Cake. Walking. All good, so good.
Mixing all the romance of Vienna's coffee shops with Dublin's literary history is the Caffe Tommaseo, a cosy spot that serves a lot of cream with its coffee.
All polished wood and cream with a smoky, old fashioned feel, it's the exact antithesis of the bright white, ceramic tiled hipster coffee bar of today.
It opened in 1830 and claims to be Trieste's oldest cafe still in operation.
Overlooking the sea and notching up an impressive pedigree of Italian creatives in its day, it's one of those literary spots I love to sit and soak up some inspiration (And cake. And coffee.)
Where to find it: Piazza Nicolò Tommaseo, 4, 34122 Trieste
A core feature of Trieste is the nearby steep limestone plateau (although, this too had a grisly role in the shifting populations of the past.)
Today, though, it's a spot for hiking and walking off that cake.
The easiest route is the Strada Napoleonica which leads to the small village of Prosecco (yes, that Prosecco, although production now takes place to the west.)
Local tip: take bus no 4 from the centre to start the hike to Prosecco.
The Posto delle Fragole, or strawberry patch, is a restaurant, bar and cultural centre surrounded by parkland in Trieste. But it used to be the city's psychiatric hospital.
Trieste was the first Italian city to end the forced incarceration of people with mental illness and students now throng here, mingling between the buttery yellow walls. In summer, I'm told concerts take place between the rose gardens.
Top tip: bus 12 from the city centre will whiz you along to the rose gardens and park.
Besides the stunning waterfront architecture, the best thing for me about Trieste was understanding her history through her food. So much so, I wrote a whole article about Trieste cuisine in particular.
The switch from Austro-Hungary to Italy has never been more evident than on a plate.
And the most striking example, particularly if you're more used to the Italian side of the menu, is the Buffet experience.
Casual yet sacrosanct, it's a style of eating where everyone rubs shoulders with everyone else and huge hunks of ham and pork legs are sliced into mustard-rich platters. This isn't the cured, slender, parma ham world.
It's the chunky, juicy, slabs of meat with sauerkraut world. And it's delicious!
Top tip: Visit Buffet da Pepi on Via della Cassa di Risparmio, 3, 34121 Trieste for the real deal.
To add a bit of structure to your walk, head to the lighthouse or Faro della Vittoria. The 70 metre structure has all the hallmarks of empire building and glory but it's come to represent a symbol of liberty for the people who live here.
Although run by the navy, it's open to the public and promises panoramic views across to Slovenia and Croatia. A view that bound families together during the political separation.
Top tip: find the lighthouse on Gretta Hill on the foundations of Austrian fort Kressich.
You wouldn't think it to look at it, but this impressive waterway stands on the ground of reclaimed salt marshes. Built in the 18th century, the canal was a key part of reinventing the city. And while it lacks the iconic grandeur of Venice, it gains a sense of authenticity. You won't find Trieste crowded out with tourists.
Top tip: look out for the James Joyce statue
Right in the heart of Trieste lie the ruins of a Roman Theatre. A reminder, if one were needed, that this crossroads of Europe has changed hands many times.
It's a beautiful spot for a concert or short walk around but if you're short on time, it may be one to skip (particularly if you've been to Rome lately.)
Top tip: a spot to skip if you're short on time
It's a steep old hill that leads to San Giusto Castle, as befits a spot for fortification. Even before the Romans arrived on this part of the Adriatic coast, this part of the city was involved in defence.
The current castle, built in 1468 by Austria, never needed to sully its hands with the mucky business of actual military campaigning. And so it still stands today.
Top tip: again, save your time if needs be for the coast.
And so we return to the grandeur of Trieste in Piazza della Borsa, close to Piazza d'Unita d'Italia. The columns of the Chambers of Commerce. The grand facades of the square. The pedestrian area now a mix of work, play and dreamy looks back at history.
Insider tip: Pull up a chair and have a coffee. It's not just because I'm tired. This is coffee success story "Illy's" homeland, don't you know?
This article forms part of a series for #ironroute, a journey by train from Istanbul to Berlin. This took place thanks to the sponsorship, freedom and encouragement of InterRail.
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