Trieste: A Different Side of Italy

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2022 issue of Dream of Italy. Join Dream of Italy today for access to thousands of articles like this one! 

** Curious about Trieste? Join Kathy McCabe October 5, 2024 for a very special Regent Seven Seas Cruise departing from Trieste with multi-night port calls in this city, Croatia, Montenegro and Athens! Book your cabin today and use code: Dream of Europe for a $500 shipboard credit. Kathy will be hosting special dinners, excursions and seminars. **

Trieste is different, they say. Any Italian will tell you so. It’s the Italian city least like the others, the one with no medieval marvels or Renaissance frescoes, a place where you’ll see more bratwurst and dumplings on your plate than pasta, the fascinating city beloved by the late Jan Morris that inspired her most evocative book, Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere. 

History dealt Trieste a most unusual fate. Once upon a time, this was the window on the world for the mighty but nearly landlocked Austro-Hungarian Empire. Under their rule, Trieste replaced Venice as the great port of the Adriatic. It grew fabulously rich, with trade connections that spanned the globe. It was a multicultural bubbling bean soup of a city—not just Italian beans but Austrians, Slovenes, Croats, Greeks, Jews, Turks and a bit of everything else, including one very famous Irishman. 

Trieste’s destiny changed forever with the end of World War I. Almost overnight, the city became a backwater, while the different peoples who had peacefully coexisted under the Austrians turned to fighting each other. Times were bad, and stayed bad. 

With the advent of the European Union, however, things started to turn around. The borders with nearby Slovenia and Croatia have all but disappeared. Today, you might not even notice when you cross one. Trieste, long a shadowy gray city of spies and intrigue on the edge of the Iron Curtain, is suddenly in the center of things again, a treasure waiting to be rediscovered. 

Trieste is a world in itself; its rollercoaster history has given it plenty of personality and culture. Come for the remarkable modern art in the Museo Revoltella or for a Sachertorte in a grand café, with Europe’s most exalted coffee. Or come in October for the world’s biggest regatta, the Barcolana. 

The Beginnings: Colle San Giusto

Getting down to the murky beginnings of this peculiar town doesn’t require any digging. Instead, you’ll need to climb. Colle San Giusto, the steep hill that looms over the city center, has been a great place for a settlement since forever. Walking around its slopes, you’ll pass the well-preserved Roman theatre, with seats for 6,000. The city still occasionally puts on concerts here. 

Continue on and you’ll see some of the oldest streets of Trieste, with curiosities like the Arco di Riccardo, an ancient Roman arch that somehow came to be associated with King Richard Lionheart, who may have passed through Trieste when he was captured on his way home from the Crusades. Now comes the climb, up the bizarrely wavy, bumpy Via della Cattedrale, paved with giant cobbles that look like fossilized watermelons (to avoid it, take the 25 bus to the top from Piazza dell’Unità). 

Colle San Giusto provides a bit of the flavor of medieval Trieste—crumbly and poor, a very deep fall from prosperous Roman Tergeste. Scant remains of the Roman temple and forum face the city’s ragtag cathedral, a building with bits and pieces of just about everything: lovely fragments of ancient sculpture built into the walls, medieval mosaics (and some awful ones from the 1930s), a Gothic rose window. 

Trieste couldn’t afford much better. The city did survive through centuries of troubles, but it never thrived—thanks to its jealous neighbor, young upstart Venice, which became the top dog on the Adriatic and made sure Trieste was never able to compete.

The Venetians even managed to rule this city for a short time, and they built the Castello di San Giusto behind the cathedral to keep it from causing trouble. You can walk on the castle walls for great views over the city in all directions and explore the old barracks and galleries to see collections of Roman-era sculpture and medieval arms. 

Just to the right of the cathedral entrance stands a dowdy little chapel called San Michele al Carnale. There’s a touch of medieval black humor here: You can still see the holes in the foundation where they would periodically dig up the bones in the adjacent cemetery and shovel them into the crypt. Now, instead of a cemetery, you’ll find a strange and fascinating garden stretching around the edge of the hill, filled with architectural follies and works of real and reproduced antique sculpture. This is the Orto Lapidario, and the lovely yellow stucco villa in it is the Museo d’Antichità J. J. Winckelmann, with an excellent collection of ancient art from the Egyptians to the Etruscans. 

Sea Gate of the Empire

Trieste’s grand showcase is Pizza dell’Unità d’Italia. It’s a broad, handsome piazza—the biggest seafront square in Italy, the Triestini boast, even bigger than Piazza San Marco in Venice. In the old days, the view out to sea would pass over long ranks of masts and riggings. Now it’s just the good gray Adriatic and the occasional passing cruise ship or supertanker.

Piazza dell’Unità d’Italia

Pride of place on the piazza belongs to the Municipio, the City Hall, with its clock tower where two bronze Moors, called Michez and Jachez, bang out the hours. To the left is the Palazzo del Governo, spangled with golden mosaics; matching it across the piazza is the real landmark of Trieste’s golden age, the majestic Palazzo Lloyd. This could be the palace of some mighty king, but in fact it was the headquarters of the Austrian Lloyd steamship line—one of the world’s biggest and the backbone of Trieste’s giddy prosperity in the century before World War I. 

What made Trieste, and what gave it its fabulous destiny? The story is told by the two monuments on the piazza. One is the statue of Emperor Karl IV, who declared the city a free port in 1719, drawing all the trade away from neighboring Venice and making the Triestini very rich. The other, the Fountain of the Four Continents, shows the result: crates and bales and barrels full of good things, pouring into Trieste from the corners of the Earth. 

Trieste grew so spectacularly after 1729 that an entire new district had to be built, on swampy lands north of Piazza dell’Unità. This is the Borgo Teresiano, named for Empress Maria Theresa. Its centerpiece is the long, straight Canal Grande (Trieste had to have its own Grand Canal, copying Venice in this too). Lined with café tables, it’s the subject for most of the postcard shots you’ll see of the city.

On one of the bridges over the canal, the Ponte Rosso, you’ll pass a quizzical-looking gent, cast in bronze, who seems a bit out of place. This is James Joyce, who lived in Trieste for 10 years, teaching languages at Berlitz to get by while he was writing Dubliners and Ulysses. Joyce got on well here, talking to his children in Triestin dialect and keeping company with the local intellectuals; if not for World War I he might never have left. 

For another unexpected tribute to the cosmopolitanism of Trieste under the Austrians, the monument of this district, the most impressive church in Trieste, is the Serbian Orthodox San Spiridione, with gorgeous interior decorations donated by a Russian archduke. If you’re around in the evening, you might be lucky enough to hear their famous choir singing vespers.

If you’re looking for a guided tour with something out of the ordinary, see Trieste Arcana. Lisa Deiuri, an expert on local folklore and legends, offers a walking tour that features a range of spooky subjects, from Slovenian vampires to the White Lady who haunts the alleys of Cittavecchia (

A Terrible 20th Century

“History,” James Joyce said, “is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” The 20th century was a nightmare indeed for Trieste, one from which the city is still recovering. In a city with a cosmopolitan population, some troubles were inevitable. Under the Austrian Empire, ethnic conflicts had been kept to a minimum, but with the end of World War I everything exploded. 

Even before they took power, Mussolini and his blackshirt thugs made Trieste a special case, burning down the Slovenian cultural center and causing frequent street riots. Later, the Fascists would outlaw the Slovenian language and culture altogether. The Slovenes answered the brutality with a decades-long guerrilla war. 

With Italy’s 1943 collapse, the city was occupied by the Germans and then briefly by the Yugoslav communists. The aftermath brought decades of economic stagnation and political troubles. The old port lay in ruins, and most of its proud shipping lines’ boats had been sunk. Occupied by the Allies, the city eventually passed through seven nervous years of dubious independence, as the Trieste Free State, before being returned to Italy. 

A few grim reminders of these terrible times can be visited, such as Kleine Berlin: “little Berlin,” the network of tunnels and underground galleries built by the paranoid Nazis. Not far from it is Trieste’s monumental synagogue, which only survived because the Nazis used it (and not the tunnels) to store gold bullion. It has since been beautifully restored. 

Most sinister of all is the Risiera di San Sabba (, an old rice mill on the southern edge of town. It’s a banal setting for what was the only Nazi death camp on Italian soil, built to incinerate the city’s Jews by a Trieste-born Nazi named Odilo Globocnik who became one of Hitler’s most coldly evil henchmen. The Nazis tried to hide all the evidence before they retreated, but a visit here remains an unsettling experience.  

Museums and Melodies

What did the Triestini do with all the loot they piled up in the golden age? The merchant barons spent a lot of it on art, and one of the best ways to sample the flavor of that era is to tour the fascinating family museums they left behind, located in their own well-preserved palaces. The Fondazione Scaramangà ( contains a collection of art and Trieste memorabilia, assembled by a boss of Austrian Lloyd. The Museo Sartorio ( has art from the medieval to the Baroque, while the Museo Morpurgo ( offers a chance to giggle at its fulsomely awful Victorian-era furnishings.

The greatest of these museums is the Museo Revoltella (, built by a shipping magnate who helped finance the Suez Canal. Recently restored, the Revoltella is bright and airy and full of treasures. Most of the important figures of 20th-century Italian art are represented here, but some of the most intriguing works come from Trieste’s own talents, including Leonor Fini, an important figure of the international art world of the 1920s and ’30s. Recently rediscovered, she has become as much a feminist icon as her friends Frida Kahlo and Leonora Carrington.  

You can also take in an impressive museum of ships and shipbuilding (the Museo del Mare, and another of trains (Museo Ferroviario, Those looking for something off the beaten path will enjoy a museum dedicated to James Joyce; the very good Civico Museo Teatrale Carlo Schmidt, full of theater memorabilia and antique musical instruments; and the small but charming Museo Postale in the grandiose Palazzo della Posta.

Coffee Culture

In Piazza dell’Unità, take a seat at the grandest in this city of grand cafés, the Caffè degli Specchi, and prepare to begin your education in a subject dear to the hearts of the Triestini: java. Trieste likes to think of itself as the world capital of coffee culture, and its port still unloads more beans than any place on Earth, just as it did in the 18th century to supply the thirsty coffee houses of Vienna and Prague. 

Coffee means business here. The Illy company is one of Italy’s biggest java roasters, and its former boss Riccardo Illy served for years as Trieste’s mayor. Today, the Triestini support the local economy at the rate of 20 pounds of the stuff per capita every year, twice as much as the average Italian. 

Fittingly enough, the capital of coffee is the home of the Università del Caffé ( run by the Illy Company. Coffee U offers serious courses in coffee business and coffee growing, training for ultimate bar professionals and Discovery courses in coffee culture for us visitors, including tours of the Illy plant.

If you visit the Café of the Mirrors often enough, you might eventually learn all the 67 ways you can order a coffee in Trieste. One of the favorites is a capo in B, a cappuccino in a glass (bicchiere). Try them all!

Plenty of other famous cafés managed to survive the bad years and are coming back into popularity today. Caffè San Marco (Via Battisti, 18), the elegant hangout of Mitteleuropean spooks and spies, is still gorgeous. The Bar Cattaruzza (Piazza Duca degli Abruzzi, 1), with its modest Art Deco glories, could be a cinema verité film set. The Stella Polare (Via Dante, 14) remains the choice of the intellectuals, especially those who like sweet Viennese cakes. Caffè Tommaseo (Piazza Tommaseo, 4), posh today, was once home to Trieste’s anarchists.

Coffee isn’t all they’re fond of, though. Germany’s finest brews wash over the Alps in torrents, competing with the superb white wines of Friuli and a cocktail culture perhaps unparalleled in Italy. On pleasant evenings after office hours, the streets behind Piazza dell’Unità turn into an outdoor alcoholic inferno. Spritzes are the thing, and some bars offer 20 different kinds, all at prices you can’t refuse. 

Dining in Trieste

Trieste’s cosmopolitan legacy has made its cuisine unlike anything else in Italy, with contributions from Slovenes, Austrians, Croats and Germans, not to mention Italians. You’re never far from wurstel and kraut, along with plenty of charcuterie and roasts, dumplings, goulash and warming soups, followed by delicate Mitteleuropean desserts (and a coffee, of course). 

Trieste doesn’t put on airs. The Triestini like their cooking simple and traditional, and they like it in the same convivial, old-fashioned places their grandparents knew. Many of the most popular places to eat are called buffets—not a buffet as we know it, but a combination restaurant/bar/deli where you can usually get a quick bite outside normal Italian dining hours. Most of these still specialize in bolliti, boiled meats and sausages from the imposing cauldron, accompanied by sauerkraut and patate in tecia, smashed potatoes fried up with onions and, naturally, a little horseradish on the side. 

One of the most popular Triestin dishes is jota, a simple bean soup with sauerkraut, perfect for keeping you warm inside against the blasts of the bora, the notorious wind that occasionally blows off the Carso plateau. Goulash, often served with polenta here, serves the same purpose. 

You’ll never want for a wienerschnitzel or any other kind of schnitzel. See if you can measure up to the formidable ljubljanska, a double pork schnitzel stuffed with ham and cheese that’s more than enough for two people. All of these go particularly well with the fine white wines of Friuli and Slovenia. 

If the dinners here tend towards the democratic and hearty, the Triestini expect nothing but delicacy and refinement from their desserts. Sachertorte and other creamy classics of the Viennese tradition still thrive here. Many favorites are things we would think of as coffee cakes, like the kugelhupf, a bundt cake flavored with powdered sugar and lemon zest. Others are borrowed from Trieste’s Slavic neighbors, such as putizze and presnitz, rolled-up pies with various combinations of nuts and fruits inside. 

Then there is Rigo Jansci, an indecently rich chocolate cake named for a gypsy violinist who eloped in the 1890s with the daughter of a Detroit steel tycoon who was already married to a Belgian prince. It’s a memorable cake—and a great story, one of so many from the time of the Habsburgs in this city.  

Around Trieste

You won’t need a car to explore the city’s fascinating outskirts. A city bus or a half-hour ride from the docks on a little ferryboat will take you to Muggia, a lovely and peaceful old Venetian fishing village that is a popular escape for the Triestini on weekends. On the way there you’ll pass Trieste’s enormous, high-tech new port. It’s Italy’s biggest, and one of the most impressive sights this city can offer.

Castello di Miramare

Heading north on the coast, visit Trieste’s best-known landmark, the Castello di Miramare (, in a romantic setting on the sea cliffs. This magnificent palace and its equally lavish gardens were built in 1860 for the Austrian Archduke Maximilian—yes, the sad patsy who let himself be talked into becoming Emperor of Mexico, propped on a shaky throne by French troops. Maximilian ended up in front of a Mexican firing squad before he ever had much time to enjoy Miramare, though he did design the lovely gardens, with trees and flowers from all over the world.

If you have enough time for some rustic rambling, consider a day up on the Carso, the plateau that looms over Trieste. This is the original karst landscape that gave its name to all the others around the world: porous limestone full of sinkholes, caves and rivers that disappear underground. There’s a natural park to visit and a colorful stalactite cave, the Grotta Gigante ( The Carso grows a lot of wine; its village of Prosecco gave its name to that famous Italian bubbly, though little of it is made here today.

The Triestini love their sea, and there are plenty of nautical activities you can arrange right in the center of town, including harbor tours and excursions down the coast. The sea around the Castello di Miramare is a rare maritime habitat, a World Wildlife Fund-protected marine reserve, the Area Marina Protetta ( Access is limited, but visitors can go on snorkeling trips with lovely clean water over bewitching submarine landscapes. 

Read more on where to stay and eat in Trieste

** Curious about Trieste? Join Kathy McCabe October 5, 2024 for a very special Regent Seven Seas Cruise departing from Trieste with multi-night port calls in this city, Croatia, Montenegro and Athens! Book your cabin today and use code: Dream of Europe for a $500 shipboard credit. Kathy will be hosting special dinners, excursions and seminars. **

— Michael Pauls

Michael Pauls has spent most of his lifetime as a travel writer, co-authoring more than 20 guidebooks to Italy with his wife, Dana Facaros. Pauls grew up on putizze just like the ones in Trieste; his Slovenian grandfather sailed from here for America a century ago.