This ancient Croatian city is a heady mix of Roman grandeur and sophisticated seafront metropolis.

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Why go now?

Croatia's second city is at her sparkling best in autumn, when the crowds retreat but the days remain warm and bright. This seafront metropolis was chosen by the Roman emperor Diocletian for his palace of pleasures, and has been attracting visitors ever since. Split's layers of history and culture are more accessible than ever thanks to better air links. And prices are lower than elsewhere on the Adriatic coast.

Touch down

The main airlines from the UK are Croatia Airlines (020-8563 0022; ), with flights from Heathrow and Gatwick, and easyJet (0905 821 0905; ) from Gatwick and Bristol. Flybe (0871 700 2000; ) serves Birmingham and Southampton only on Saturdays; and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; ) flies on Saturdays from Newcastle.

Split's modern and efficient airport is only 12km west of the centre of Split as the Croatian crow flies, but because of the curious geography the road distance is more like 30km. That is because Split occupies a tongue of land poking out from the Dalmatian coast. Croatia Airlines buses meet all inbound flights (including easyJet services) and leave about half-an-hour after the scheduled arrival time, taking around 40 minutes to the airport bus terminal (1) for a fare of 30 kuna (30kn/£3.75). But if you cross the main road outside the airport you will find the stop for bus 37, which costs half as much and runs every 20 minutes to the suburban bus station (2).

Get your bearings

The heart of Split is defined by the ancient and roughly square fortifications of Diocletian's Palace, which has been continously occupied for 17 centuries and is centred on the Emperor's mausoleum – now the city's cathedral (3). The Roman palace has a superb view from its southern façade, separated from the sea by the broad, attractive Riva.

The tourist office (00 385 21 345 606; ) is normally a nudge to the north of the cathedral, but becasue of refurbishment it is currently sharing a travel agency office just to the south, with erratic opening hours.

To the west lies the city's main square, Narodni Trg (4), and beyond that the fascinating old quarter of Veli Varos. Still further west stands Marjan Hill. To the north and east the townscape quickly deteriorates, with row after row of Tito-era apartment blocks.

Check in

If you want to stay within the Palace itself, the Hotel Peristil (00 385 21 329 070; ) is tucked just inside the Silver Gate (5). Part of the fabric of this restored townhouse comprises stone from the original palace. The nine handsomely furnished double rooms start at 900kn (£112.50), including breakfast. Regrettably, the roof terrace has had to be closed.

I paid €150 for a double room with bumper buffet breakfast at the elegant if expensive Hotel Park (6), superbly located at Hatzeov perivoj 3 (00 385 21 406 400; ), just above Bacvice beach (7).

I also stayed at the cheaper and scruffier Hostel Split Mediterranean House (8), a stone-built complex ranged around a shady courtyard at Vukasoviceva 21 (00 385 98 9877 1312; ), where a double without breakfast costs 550kn (£59).

Take a view

What remains of Split's fishing industry tends to congregate around the western arm of the harbour (9), from which you get an excellent panorama of the façade of the palace, and further to the east the busy port which serves as the main hub for Croatia's Adriatic ferries.

Take a hike

From the pier, walk around to the small park (10) and cross over to head inlnad along Tomica Stine and Ban Mladenova, to gain a flavour of the Veli Varos quarter. Where it joins the main street of Bana Jelacica, there is an archway leading through into the handsome, elongated square known as Trg Republike (11), also known as the "Prokurative". Walk through the opposite archway and you emerge with the Fish Market (12) on your right – well worth a squint at the squid. Continue straight ahead, and you soon encounter a "Konzum" shop. Turn sharp right here and you find yourself in Narodni Trg (4), an odd-shaped "square" largely filled with tables spilling out from cafes. Admire the old town hall on the north side then take the plunge through the Iron Gate (13) into Diocletian's Palace. Before you get lost in the maze of ancient lanes and alleyways bearing the scuffs and scars of human occupation, see if the staircase just on the left is open; if so, take it up to the arch to get a rooftop view. Or just grab some food.

Lunch on the run

Just inside the Iron Gate (13) and up the first proper lane on the left, Bajamontijeva, is Trattoria Bajamont, a no-nonsense, centuries-old restaurant selling fresh fish, freshly grilled, along with Dalmatian wine (though many prefer Croatian beer). It is also a good choice for dinner, offering historic ambience and excellent value in an otherwise very touristy location. From here, walk off your lunch by exploring the nooks and niches of Diocletian's Palace. For example, the Temple of Jupiter (14) features a headless sphinx imported (presumably intact) from Egypt during the decade-long building of the palace. And just outside the elegant Golden Gate (15) stands the statue of Gregorius of Nin, whose polished left foot is the result of a legend that says if you touch it, you will return to Split.

Window shopping

Almost all the shops within the Palace are focused on tourists, but well worth exploring – not least because they add an interesting dimension to a fascinating are. People have been trading here for a millennium and a half. Even the Splitska bank in the centre is worth looking into because of the Roman flooring (don't change money here – rates are much better elsewhere). Walking south from the cathedral (3), a flight of steps leads down to Diocletian's Cellars (16), which are filled with stalls and shops, in contrast to the austere and empty Vestibule directly above. Continue south and turn left out of the Bronze Gate (17), then follow the ancient wall to the corner where the Green Market (18) begins, selling everything from corn to clothing and lavender to lettuce.

An aperitif

Split has a seafront to match the most glamorous locations in Europe. Towards dusk, the stones of Diocletian's Palace take on a golden hue, while promenaders gossip beneath the palm trees of the Riva – the esplanade that extends the length of the city centre. Cafes on either side of the Bronze Gate (16) typically charging 20kn (£2.50) for a 33cl beer. If you prefer to live like a Roman, a couple more cafes fill the Decumanus (19); as you sip, you can drink in an ambience that has barely changed in 17 centuries.

Dining with the locals

Cuisine revolves around fresh seafood and grilled meat, so vegetarians may have a tough time. At an outdoor restaurant such as Konoba Vidakovi (20) at Brace Kaliterna 8 (00 385 32 489106 ) you can order simply a salad as you sit beneath the trees, or indulge in a feast from the surf or the turf.

Sunday morning: go to church

You will find yourself constantly drawn back to Diocletian's Palace. St Domnius's cathedral (3), at its heart, is one of the most ancient places of worship in Europe. It occupies the mausoleum of Emperor Diocletian; no doubt the Church felt a burst of righteousness about imposing a Christian place of worship in the resting place of a man who was in the Premier League for martyring Christians. Admission is 15kn (£1.90), with an extra 10kn (£1.25) for the adjoining tower, which has excellent views of the city.

Out to brunch

Split wakes up slowly on Sundays, but a sure bet for a filling morning feast go to the modest SK Burek Bar (21) at Domaldova 13. For around 12kn (£1.50) you can sample a slice of meat or cheese burek, an essential yogurt to enhance it, and a coffee.

Take a ride

Bus services are erratic, but it is worth waiting for bus 1 to leave from the stop outside the Croatian National Theatre, or HNK (22), theoretically on the half-hour on Sundays, for the 20-minute journey to the entrance to the ancient Roman city of Salona (fare 12kn/£1.50).

Cultural afternoon

Salona is a Roman site like no other. The complex was founded by Julius Caesar, as the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia, and pre-dates Diocletian's extravagant palace by the water. It covers a large area, and is very thinly interpreted. Admission (20kn/£2.50) includes the museum at the entrance. Officially the hours are only 9am-1pm on Sundays (7am-7pm from Monday to Friday, 9am-7pm on Sundays), but these are not enforced; if there is a trickle of people, the official on duty will stay open. And even after the site closes, the amphitheatre that is the main highlight is open to the public – people park their cars just beside it, and occasionally race motor scooters within it.

A walk in the park

Split has the good fortune of possessing one of Europe's great city parks – draped over a shaft of rock that rises from the western end of the city centre. The climb to the summit of Marjan Hill begins at an innocuous flight of steps (23), and gradually lifts you to 180m above the Adriatic, with lovely views out to the islands – at their best on a sunny Sunday afternoon, when pollution is at a minimum.

The icing on the cake

Plunge into the Adriatic from Split's favourite beach, Bacvice (7), which is one of the few sandy strands on the coast and extremely popular at weekends. Even after dark, it is busy with locals playing picigin – a Dalmatian creation where a small rubber ball is energetically propelled between participants. Admission to the beach is free, and plenty of cafes can provide an end-of-day beer or ice cream.