gvaried buildings, a cafe culture and a central plaza big enough to parade a small army through…there’s a reason this town at the end of the Adriatic is called ‘little Vienna by the sea’ . Since the 14th century, when it asked the House of Habsburg for protection from the lust of Venice, Trieste has spent more time as an Austrian city than an Italian one. The imposing facades were built during its heyday as a major seaport of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and even today Mittel-Europeans who come here on vacation can’t help but feel at home.
Little maritime commerce remains – on the waterfront beyond that huge square, Piazza Unità d’Italia, cruise ships gaze benevolently at the swinging masts of tiny pleasure yachts – but what remains reveals another Austrian heritage. For 300 years, Trieste has been the destination of most of Italy’s green (unroasted) coffee beans, and rumor has it that the Triestini drink twice as much coffee as their compatriots. They certainly like to hang around here, unlike the rest of the country’s stand-up espresso habit. All day you will see people chatting on a capo in b (a mini cappuccino in a glass) in the central Borgo Teresiano district, named after the empress during whose reign many of its now pedestrianized streets and squares were built.
But it’s not all strudel and Viennese waltzes; it is a place whose long and diverse history begins at the foot of its hill, where the ruins of a Roman amphitheater suggest the importance of this coast for Julius Caesar. A steep climb through the old town leads to the medieval stone fortress and cathedral, and the view over the rooftops is a reminder of the unusual religious freedoms Trieste enjoyed before World War I: the multiple domes of one of the largest synagogues of Europe, the flashing golden mosaics of the Serbian Orthodox Church and the white towers of the Greek Church.
This multiculturalism is finally resurfacing: Slovenia’s entry into the EU is helping to reintegrate the Slovenian community, which was an important part of the city’s population before fascism, and which still dominates the karstic plateau overlooking the city. These green limestone hills have become a foodie destination in their own right, thanks to the wine, ham and cheese produced here, which pops up in Trieste’s bustling wine bars at happy hour.
The streets of this market town are full of good shops and the presence of the university has fostered a large market for rare and second-hand books. The former Jewish ghetto, behind Piazza della Borsa, is home to a wonderful collection of antique shops, while the once seedy lanes of the historic red light district of Cavana (frequented by a certain James Joyce at the time) are packed with bars, restaurants and evening walkers.
Where to eat and drink
Among the cafes, Cafe Degli Specchi is the best known, spreading masterfully over Piazza Unità, where customers wait to be ushered in front of its red rope. Its owners, the Faggiotto family, have two others worth visiting – Coffee Tommaseo near the waterfront, which regularly hosts concerts, and Pasticceria La Bomboniera, in front of the Grand Canal, which presents a breathtaking selection of cakes, pastries and chocolates. And if you think the rich interior of Antico Caffe Torinese looks like an old liner, that’s because it was the designer’s daily job. During the day, it’s a pastry shop that sells presnitz – the Triestine spiral stuffed with walnuts, currants and rum – and brioche pinza; at night, it’s an elegant backdrop for cocktail parties.
For heartier meals, buffet restaurants still serve the dishes that fishermen and dockworkers used to eat mid-morning when they finished their work. Alongside traditional charcuterie and boiled pork dishes, Sideboard by Siora Rosa (which celebrated its 100th anniversary last year) also offers many meatless classics, from simmered cuttlefish to plum-stuffed gnocchi to jotathe local bean soup. Hostaria Malcanton, a short walk from Piazza Unità, specializes in fish and seafood fried to perfection, or combined with seasonal vegetables in mouth-watering pasta dishes. There is a more experimental spirit in Restaurant Ai Fioriwhose tasting menu includes octopus with barbecue sauce, creamy peas and taro chips.
You might not expect a “sports bar” to be the best place in town for wine, but the cave-like interior of Osteria da Marino, decorated with rugby memorabilia, is a cozy place to sample more than 700 varieties, including those made from the glera grape, also known as prosecco, from the nearby village of the same name. Farms and vineyards in the karst hills east of the city are allowed to sell their produce directly from their homes for just a few weeks each year. These institutions are called osmizeand website osmize.com shows open daily.
Trieste prides itself on its literary connections – as well as Joyce, poets and novelists from Rilke to Stendhal have spent time here – and salon-style conversation continues at Coffee St. Markwhose high ceilings have nurtured noble ideas since 1914. Its magnificent bookstore attracts as much as its restaurant’s food, and it remains a meeting place for the local intelligentsia, visiting professors and more, presided over by a charismatic owner Alexandros Delithanassis.
Trieste’s most revered authors are Umberto Saba, Italo Svevo and Svevo’s best friend Joyce, who stayed, drank and wrote here on either side of the First World War. Plaques throughout the city document Joyce’s various living quarters (he was often evicted for not paying his rent) and an increasingly impressive number Bloomsday Festival takes place every June – in 2022 it lasts seven days (June 12-18), incorporating readings, film screenings and even Irish breakfasts. Meanwhile, the new Trieste Literature Museum will open later this year in the newly renovated City Library, incorporating the city’s Joyce and Svevo collections.
For a less chaotic taste of life, Revolt Museum is the fin de siècle collection of art and objects bequeathed to the city by the socialite Pasquale Revoltella and exhibited in his former home, or Verdi Theaterthe city’s opera house and symbol of its bourgeois charm.
To the north of the centre, past the station, is the suburb of Barcola, whose seafront doubles as Trieste beach. Make no mistake, there is no trace of sand – anything that isn’t rock is concrete. That doesn’t stop Triestini from coming here at every opportunity, for a morning swim, a midday tanning session or after-work relaxation.
Fare il bagno is an integral part of the local culture and everyone has their favorite place to bathe. There is the pine forest with its rare shade, one of topolini (semi-circular platforms above the ball), and even a popular nudist stretch. In October, the sea bristles with sails as more than a thousand boats gather for Trieste’s annual regatta, the Barcolana.
On a promontory at the far end are the fairytale white turrets of Miramare Castle, built in 1860 by Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, brother of the Emperor of Austria. He lived, with his wife, Charlotte of Belgium, in his romantic dream home for only three years before being executed in Mexico; today the interiors and extensive gardens are perfectly preserved. The 54-acre park is one of Trieste’s most beautiful public spaces, open daily and easily accessible by bus. The waters around the castle are a marine reserve protected by the WWFwhich offers guided snorkeling and scuba diving excursions.
Where to stay
The architecture of Trieste gives its hotels a certain height. Its buildings were built to inspire wonder, not comfort: the Double Tree, which opened in 2020 in a former insurance building, is a perfect example, with oversized staircases, high ceilings, marble columns and classical statues. Just around the corner, the modernist hotel (doubles from €128 room-only) offers a boutique atmosphere in a 19th-century palace built by one of the city’s greatest philanthropists, physician Gregorio Ananian. Its lobby bar (open to the public) has an appealing mid-century atmosphere, and guests wake up each morning with a catchy quote from Proust, Eliot, or another 20th-century genius painted on their ceiling.