In recent years, the hit series Game of Thrones has helped to put the Balkan country of Croatia in the world’s tourism spotlight. Fictional places like the sun-soaked steps of Meereen to the imposing stone walls of King’s Landing find their realities up and down the Dalmatian Coast, including Dalmatia’s largest city, Split.

Split’s background includes its origins as a Greek colony, a Byzantine city, part of the Republic of Venice and the Austrian Empire, and its much later history of being part of post-war Yugoslavia until its independence in 1991. Such a colorful past is present in the city today, seen in the myriad of people you encounter on Split’s narrow, winding streets around centuries of stonework and architecture.

The fortress known as Diocletian’s Palace is the jewel of Split today, housing residents, restaurants, bars and shops, and even Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen’s dragon lair in the basement. On some afternoons you can find a traditional Balkan folk group singing a cappella, their harmonic voices lifting over the limestone and marble walls. Nights often see (and hear) local musicians performing crowd favorites outside the peristyle’s resident bar, Lvxor Kavana & Restoran.

Part of the large increase in tourism is due in part to the growing spring-break party type of culture in places like nearby Hvar, and Ultra Europe, one of the biggest EDM and House music festivals in the world that has made Split its venue for the last two (soon to be three) years. Some locals refer to it as the Ibiza of the Adriatic, not without some obvious distaste in their voices.

If raving, fist-pumping music isn’t your scene, have no fear — Split has plenty to offer every variety of traveler. There are Airbnbs, hostels and hotels of every caliber, even within the Palace itself. Split manages to perfect the very delicate balance of posh getaway and history destination with a hometown feel.

Sit down for a truly fantastic seafood feast at a place like Konoba Marjan, and check out the fresh, open air market every day for anything you could ever want to eat. I recommend finding some cheese and spinach burek, a flat pastry cut from a giant circle pizza-like goodness. Other great finds in the market were fresh sheep-goat (yes, sheep AND goat) cheeses, kilos of fresh dried apricots, and lime-infused honey.

Besides being a bit of a foodie haven, Split is a mini-mecca for those who crave outdoor activities on their holidays. Numerous rental places can be found along the port and in town, renting out equipment like paddle boards and kayaks. Guided group tours can also be found. These activities all had rave reviews, but my favorite was taking a day to hike around the Marjan Peninsula.

Numerous trails offer anything from moderate hikes to strenuous mountain biking. Go off trail a bit (provided you have proper footwear) and climb down the rocks from Marjan Hill to one of the many partially secluded pebble beaches below. The water is a little cold, depending on what you’re used to, but incredibly refreshing nonetheless. Do watch out for spiny sea urchins!

Tire of the city quickly? Eager to see as much of the region is possible? It’s extremely easy (and affordable) to hop one of the dozens of ferries to nearby islands like Hvar, Šolta, Brač, or Hvis, as well as cities on the eastern part of the Italian peninsula. Spend a bit more and you can take a boat along the scenic Dalmatian coast to Dubrovnik, the more well-known of Croatia’s cities and the site of yet more Game of Thrones scenes.

Another island very near Split is Biševo, home to one of the area’s best attractions: the Blue Cave. The Blue Cave, or modra špilja, is a limestone sea cave accessible only by boat. Between the hours of 11AM and noon are the best time to visit to get the full effect: the entire cave glows an ethereal aquamarine blue, from the water. The island is also home to the zelena špilja, or ‘green cave’, with an emerald effect from the sunlight hitting the cave floor.

After a day full of sightseeing, eating, or checking out the street performers by the water, you’ll want to settle down for a night sleep, but maybe not before you grab another drink for the road (if you aren’t driving!). A true trip to Split cannot be had until you’ve sampled some rakija, a popular Balkan fruit brandy. Similar to Turkish raki, the colorless liquor is usually flavored with plums, but after trying a sample (or four), I found the fig or walnut to be my preferred choice of rakia.

Finally, either late in the evening or early in the morning, sleep. Being on a bit of a shoestring budget, I chose to stay in the least-expensive accommodations I could find, short of Couchsurfing: the Grand Hostel Lero. While at first glance it seemed to be your regular bunk bed-filled, bathroom-line-for-days hostel, it was one of the best hostel experiences I have ever had. The owner, Lero, takes pride in his establishment, constantly making improvements based on traveler feedback or on a creative whim. His latest project is turning the backyard into a comfortable grilling and chilling space, which my friend and I took full advantage of. Lero even taught us how to gut, season and grill a fresh fish! (The local fish market near the palace is also a must-see, before 1PM.)

Overall, Split was a surprisingly incredible experience. The laid-back and low-key feel of the Adriatic city and its residents offered something most vacation destinations cannot boast: a feel of home, wherever that may be.

Read about my full experience here, or view more of my photos of Split here.