A beautiful and historic coastal city is a description you could use with many Croatian towns. But from the moment you lay eyes on Zadar, you’re drawn in. Its terra-cotta topped skyline, interrupted by ancient bell towers, immediately catches the eye. Enveloping Zadar’s Old City is the deep blues of the Adriatic, and a decorated waterfront waiting to be explored.
It’s easy to think that the location also tempted the Romans who took control of the city in the 1st century. They would then develop one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe. The Old City is a delight to explore, combining historic buildings with a delicious, healthy and modern food scene.
Outside the ancient walls, you’ll find spectacular national parks and islands encased in golden sand. It helps to ensure Zadar’s reputation as a city not to be missed.
Roam the Ancient City Walls
Zadar balances its new personality as a modern city with its storied past and historic architecture. A perfect example of this is Zadar’s City Walls and the famous gate. Today, you can wander the walls and through the gate to cobblestone streets and old Roman ruins flanked by cosmopolitan cafes and patio-laden restaurants.
The walls surround much of the old city, with the oldest section and gate built under the Roman occupation. While the rest were constructed after the Venetians took hold of the beautiful coastal city. The highlight of the experience is the Land Gate, one of four remaining in Zadar. This passageway was complete in the 1540s by the Venetians, who incorporated several aspects of intricate Renaissance architecture.
Not only is it easy on the eyes and a portal back to the 16th century, but the Land Gate is your best entry point to discover the city’s Old Town. Another gate to witness is the Morska Varta, also known as the Sea Gate. This is another Venetian construction however it used an existing Roman arch. You’ll also find historic emblems, memorials and plaques.
Explore the Church of St. Donatus
Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast is teeming with breathtaking Byzantine architecture, showcasing the true power and footprint of the Roman Empire. The Church of St. Donatus is a stunningly preserved 9th century church, and exploring her hallowed halls is one of the best things to do in Zadar. After construction was complete, it was first named the Church of Holy Trinity, until it was renamed after the revered Bishop Donat.
The Church of St. Donatus was in fact built on top of an old Roman forum and makes use of many of the original designs. Wander inside the eye-catching building to discover to original columns that out date the church by a significant period. For centuries, the floor was covered up but has recently been removed in order to highlight the original stonework of the forum.
For two centuries, the church has been de-consecrated, and no longer holds services. It’s instead a place of classical music where the acoustics of the old forum still hold sway.
Visit the Roman Forum
In the first century, Roman Emperor Julius Caesar commissioned for the forum to be built in the heart of ancient Zadar. Typical of a Roman Forum, it was to become a part of everyday life. The surrounding city was planned upon the location of the forum, developing the characteristics of a Roman city such as the intricate road network and a capitolium (a temple on a hill dedicated to Jupiter).
Construction on the forum wasn’t complete until the 3rd century, commemorated by a duo of inscriptions by Emperor Augustus. But from the day the first stone was laid, till the entire structure was razed in a 6th century earthquake, it was a place of politics, justice and culture.
300 years after the earthquake, redevelopment began in haste, leading to the Church of St. Donatus. Today, the forum lays in ruin but is a spectacular site to visit. The original pavement and stairs remain in place, alongside several columns. One of which is believed to be a shame pillar.
Go Swimming in Kornati National Park
Comprising almost 150 islands, the Kornati National Park is an opulent natural world minutes from Zadar. Most of the islands are uninhabited and offer a wild and rugged experience on the Dalmatian Coast. It’s not just the land that is protected under the establishment of the park, but also the surrounding seas, which present a rich and untouched marine life for you to explore.
There are several boats departing from Zadar for the national park daily, offering anything from a large group experience to a private adventure. But all take you around one of the most majestic parts of not just Zadar but all of Croatia. As you get closer and closer to the islands, their soaring cliffs become ever more imposing, rising powerfully out of the Adriatic Sea.
After making your way around dozens of smaller islands, stop by the biggest in the archipelago, Kornat Island. 15.5 miles (25km) long, the island was once inhabited by Romans, who developed a series of farms and villas. This fell under disrepair during Venetian times, leaving ruins for you to discover. Top it all off with a swim in a salt lake.
Do all that and more on this boat tour of Kornati National Park.
Catch a Magical Sunset
Since 2005, the peninsular of the Old City has been the place to take in the local sunset. It was then that the sea organ was developed by Nikola Basic. It features a layer of steps that lead down to the Adriatic, each with their own openings. As the sea rolls in, it fills the gaps, creating music for passersby to enjoy.
Zadar’s sea organ is one of only a handful on earth, with its musical composition ever-changing thanks to the randomness of the waves. Croatia’s sunsets are famous. The west facing coast has uninhibited views of the horizon with the glistening Adriatic Sea playing the role of a budding co-star. Each evening, crowds gather at this very spot to take in the music and the colors. It helps create a lively atmosphere, befitting of such a sight.
After the sun falls beneath the horizon, walk over to the Greeting to the Sun installation. This public art piece comprises 300 solar cells and kaleidoscopic glass sheets that light up at night.
See the Zadar Cathedral
Another must see attraction in the Old City is the Zadar Cathedral. Known otherwise as the Cathedral of St. Anastasia, the church was built at a similar time to the Church of St. Donatus, in the 9th century. Over the ensuing millennia, the cathedral took on many architectural styles, leaving you with a spellbinding and complex sight.
When construction on this historic church began, it was under the influence of the Byzantine era. However, it underwent significant redevelopment, beginning in the 1100s. This gave the Zadar Cathedral many Romanesque qualities.
As you walk up to the church, you’ll be able to see just that as you gaze upon the embellished facade. The bottom half has three beautiful Roman archways, while above you’ll spot the gilded work of Byzantine design. It all leads you to the captivating interior of stone altars, wooden choirs, and the remains of St. Anastasia.
To take your experience to the next level, check out the 15th century bell tower which can be climbed for magical city views.
People Watch in People’s Square
After walking through the Land Gate, continue along the famous streets, making your way through the Old City to People’s Square. The square is Zadar’s Platea Magna, aka the center of life. From medieval times until the present day, the square has played a significant role in local life in addition to the Roman Forum.
It’s believed the square was developed as early as the 11th century. The surrounding cobblestone streets lead to the city’s most historic sites, just steps from the aforementioned forum, St. Donatus and the beautiful waterfront. But it’s within the square that you can really bask in Zadar’s history and modern vibes. Throughout, you’ll find a range of chic cafes with sprawling patios. Grab a coffee and bask in the Croatian sun as you see locals gather in immense numbers.
As you enjoy the scenery and soak in the modern atmosphere, look to one side and find the City Loggia, a 13th century administrative building, still used today. On the other side of the square is a 16th century tower, befitted with a clock in 1803. One that hasn’t stopped ticking since.
Check Out the Local Markets
Zadar has multiple markets worth checking out. They range from your exciting flea markets to delectable fresh food stalls. One not to be missed is Zadar Market just steps away from People’s Square. It’s a historic market which dates back to the Renaissance. The market went on uninterrupted for hundreds of years until bombs dropped in the Second World War destroyed much of the market’s buildings.
Today, you’ll find Zadar Market in a large open-air space. It’s made up of three individual sections, called green, meat and fish. They face each other, making it easy to get around. It opens at the crack of dawn, at 6am. At that time, you’ll spot the early birds tussling for the freshest produce and fish that’s just been brought it off the boat. If you enjoy the atmosphere at markets, it’s nice to arrive early and experience it like a local.
You’ll be swept up in the excitement, but don’t forget, this is the perfect place to load up for a day at the park. Aside from veggies, meat and fish, you’ll find fresh fruit and plenty of artisan cheese.
Have a Picnic in the Old City
Separating modern Zadar with the Old City is the serene Park of Vladimir Nazora. Adjacent to Five Well Square, the park is the biggest in the city. It was designed in the late 1800s with the help of Austrian army commander, Dragutin Blazekovic. For this reason, it was known for a long time as Military Park.
After Zadar experience sustained damaged in WWII, the park was completely renovated. It’s now lined with miles of nature paths, that snake through alleys of cypress, old-growth pine and laurels. As you wander around, you’ll find a series of benches under old lamp posts next to blooming flowers. It’s an urban oasis that provides the perfect break from the bustle of the city.
With the loaded picnic basket in hand, find one of the many open lawns to laze upon. Gather with friends and family or simply find a shady tree to enjoy your delectable treats. For added points, find a spot with views of the harbor or the Adriatic.
Explore the Zadar Archaeological Museum
Upon opening in 1832, the Zadar Archaeological Museum became the second oldest museum in the country. In a city as rich in history as Zadar, it’s no surprise that the museum is an exceptional visit. It showcases the city’s past through a variety of enthralling exhibits that will take you on a journey to see how the region was built.
Zadar Archaeological Museum is made up of three floors, each exploring a different era. As you enter, you’ll be whisked away to the 7Th century and the height of the Byzantine era. You’ll then wander through the ages to the 12th century, leading to the rise of Venetian rule.
Afterwards, head up to the next floor, which explores the region in its entirety during the Roman era. Here, you can discover how the Roman’s characteristic city planning led to the Zadar you’re traveling through today. To finish, go even further back in time to prehistoric periods, along with the Bronze and Iron Ages. Uncover ancient artifacts, such as jewelry, weaponry and pottery.
Experience the Local Cuisine
Croatia is renowned for its various cuisines that changes thanks each distinct geographical location. This means much of the authentic Zadar dishes will differ from the rest of the country. Zadar is influenced by its location on the Dalmatian Coast and its history under several rulers from different parts of west and eastern Europe. While its position on the Adriatic Sea has given way to ample mouthwatering seafood recipes.
Dalmatian cuisine as a whole is considered to be one of the healthiest in the world. The local food is light and flavorful, with plenty of pride taken in food preparation. Traditional eats revolved around cooked or grilled fish, with a touch of spice and olive oil. This is complemented by fresh vegetables and exceptional wine from nearby vineyards.
Not only is the cuisine a gastronomic adventure, it’s a great way to experience the romantic buildings in the city. Head inside 17th century structures that now host modern restaurants to try local delicacies like pasticada (Dalmatian Beef Stew), seafood risotto and clams right out of the Adriatic.
Visit Croatia’s Top National Park
An hour and a half northeast of Zadar is Plitvice Lakes National Park. The park is laden with sparkling turquoise lakes that lead to tumbling waterfalls which split lush forests. It’s a scene straight out of a fairytale, and one of the best experiences you can embark on, not just in Zadar but Croatia.
It’s the most visited national park in the country, a fact that shouldn’t scare off crowd-weary travelers. It’s worth braving the hordes to experience the country’s first ever national park. Plus, with miles of hiking trails, if you’re willing to put in the steps, you’ll quickly find yourself away from it all and on your own.
Plitvice Lakes combines 16 majestic lakes, each with their own spectacular viewpoints. Each lake is like a step on a staircase, with each one lower than the other and connected via a series of breathtaking waterfalls. Walk between each one on the hiking trails while also discovering the rainforests that are a haven for native species and migratory birds.
See the best of the national park on this full day guided tour of Plitvice Lakes.
Have a Beach Day
Croatia’s west coast is famous for its splendid beaches and crystal clear water. To get your beach on while in Zadar, head to the city’s main beach just ten minutes on foot from the Old City. Here, you’ll find the popular Kolovare Beach which is the place to be in the summertime.
The beach has typical Croatian sand, being a mix of sparkling white and pebbles. It leads down to the turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea where you can swim with amazing clarity. When you aren’t swimming, you can sunbathe on the lounge chairs. But to escape the sun, wander a few steps inland to the shady park, which is great for picnics and playing yard games with friends.
Kolovare Beach can get crowded during peak season. So if you want to escape the jam, pick up your beach gear and walk east along the beach and watch the crowds become fewer and fewer. When you’re feeling peckish, you’ll find a number of beachside restaurants and bars to choose from.
Explore the Museum of Ancient Glass
Looking over the Jazine Harbor, in Zadar’s Old City, the Museum of Ancient Glass is a unique experience not to be missed. Enter through the Cosmacendi Palace, a memorable experience in itself, to discover an incredible range of historic Roman glassware.
It’s the largest singular collection of glass antiquities in Europe, taking you on an adventure into glass making, its various uses and how it’s changed through time. Most of the work was found through several important archaeological digs along the Dalmatian Coast. These have uncovered vials, goblets, and jars from the Roman Era.
Each piece has a description of its use and you’ll be excited to discover ancient perfume cases, body oils and cups used to disperse holy water during mass. Complement your visit with a workshop of glass-blowing before purchasing your own glass memento.
After exploring the museum, admire the stately palace before wandering the beautiful Jazine waterfront.
Embark on a Walking Tour
Unpacking Zadar’s story is a thrilling experience for travelers. As you venture through the ancient gates for the first time, you’ll join thousands of years’ worth of visitors who have arrived in the Old City. That includes kings, queens, emperors and invading armies. It’s a hallowed group.
But while you could discover each attraction from Church of St. Donatus to the Roman Forum, it remains a big undertaking. To have the picture of Zadar’s past painted just for you, join a walking tour. Your expert local guide will take you to all the ancient attractions, while explaining the timeline of the city in a simple yet captivating way.
On this private walking tour, discover the 3000-year story of Croatia’s fifth-largest city. Explore all the highlights, along with the more modern Sea Organ and Greeting to the Sun. Before finishing with some authentic Maraschino liqueur.
Go for a Sail
You may have already combined your experience in Zadar with Croatia’s famed Sail Week, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy another day of sailing on the Adriatic Sea. Zadar’s central location makes it a prime spot to explore the entirety of the Zadar Archipelago.
Having ticked off the Kornati National Park, take the time to explore further afield while enjoying the views that are quintessentially Croatian. There’s an enormous range of day sailing opportunities which depart from around Zadar. Not only will they take you over the glistening sea but also to inhabited islands home to ancient fishing villages.
Some of the top islands to visit during your sail include Dugi Otok. This is the largest in the island chain, and home to several Roman-era towns. One of those is Sali, the island’s main village and port. This has long been a popular vacation spot, dating back to the 12th century. You’ll also find several historic churches, along with beautiful scenery, including the Telascica Nature Park and Sakarun Beach.
See the Church of St. Mary
Adding to your growing list of architectural attractions, take some time to see the Church of St. Mary and its Benedictine Monastery. The church has several similarities to the Zadar Cathedral, including the circular window that adorns the building’s Renaissance facade.
The first iteration of the beautiful church was complete in the 11th century. Over the years it has received several facelifts, most notably the addition of a bell tower, the Koloman’s Tower in the 12th century. Alongside the church is the monastery that remains in use today. Inside the Benedictine Monastery is Zadar’s Museum of Church Art. Check out the museum which has grown to become the city’s preeminent display of church antiquities. Here, you’ll find the Gold and Silver of Zadar exhibit, with breathtaking gold cast religious artifacts. Another important aspect of the monastery is its home as the burial point for many revered bishops and saints.
Hike Through Paklenica National Park
After Plitvice Lakes, Paklenica National Park is the oldest park in the nation and its soaring jagged peaks provide a welcome point of difference. Splitting the towering mountains that form Croatia’s biggest mountain range are two jaw-dropping canyons, Velika (big) and Mala (small). Amazingly, the Paklenica National Park is only an hour from Zadar.
The mountain range forms a part of the Dinaric Alps, which sweep through not just Croatia but seven other countries. Reaching its highest point in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The mountains within the national park soar out of the Adriatic Sea, appearing like a sharp rock slab from a distance. But you’ll discover on any of the park’s 93 miles (150km) of hiking trails, that there’s plenty of forest to explore.
If you’re visiting on a day trip, then the one trail you must complete is the one to the summit of Vaganski Vrh. It’s the park’s tallest peak, standing at 5,764 feet (1757m) above sea level. From the top, you’ll have panoramic views of the range, the canyons and Zadar below.
Experience the Museum of Illusions
The Paklenica National Park and the Museum of Illusions may exist on two ends of the scale, but they both provide the same thing, a spellbinding experience. As the name suggests, this museum exists to trick you. It’s a place where nothing is what you think it is. The museum is the perfect rainy day adventure, although it’s also fun enough to forego a few hours of blue sky.
As you enter the Museum of Illusions, prepare to have your perception of reality warped to the nth degree. Start off by entering the perplexing vortex tunnel that features a room teeming with mirrors. You’ll quickly find yourself lost and confused by what is an equally frustrating and hilarious journey.
Next up is the anti-gravity room that allows you to walk on walls just like a spider. After that, wander into a room neatly shaped to confuse your perception of depth. If you still haven’t had enough, finish up your experience by trying one of the many thrilling puzzles that will put all your skills to the test.
Stay Out All Night on Pag Island
An hour away from Zadar, Pag Island is one of the easiest islands to reach in the Zadar Archipelago. In fact, you don’t even need a boat. The island is connected to the mainland via bridge, allowing you to bring over the rental car, jump on a bus or even take a ferry from town.
Before discovery why the island is known as Croatia’s Ibiza, take some time to explore Pag’s culinary brilliance. Across the island’s countryside, you’ll find hundreds of sheep. Living on a diet of herbs and wild grass, the sheep produce a unique and exceptional cheese. As you explore, you’ll find plenty of roadside vendors selling the local delicacy. But why not check out the Gilgora Dair factory on a guided tour?
As day turns to night, Pag takes on a different personality. This is best seen in Zrce. The beachfront town is a clubbing mecca where international DJs wow crowds all summer long. From Aquarius and Cocomo to Euphoria and Kalypso, you’ll have no shortage of epic nightlife to choose from.
Try White Water Rafting
Tumbling down from the Dinaric Alps are a number of rivers that make for memorable white water rafting and kayaking experiences. The best of these is the Zrmanja River, 60 minutes from Zadar. The fresh alpine water is crystal clear and the rapids provide for thrilling, heart-in-mouth moments as you journey down.
Depending on your launch point, you’ll battle a variety of graded rapids. This allows for challenging conditions for intermediate and expert paddlers, with several wonderful options for families and beginners.
For families and first-timers, check out this private guided rafting or kayaking tour on the Zrmanja. Learn from the best before tackling the experience head on. Over the course of 2.5 to 4 hours, journey down 9 miles (15km) of river admiring the spectacular canyon along the way.
For an even more thrilling experience, try your hand a packrafting. Explore the surging river on your own personal raft before arriving at Visoki Buk, an enveloping waterfall.
Two of Zadar’s most popular attractions are the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation — artistic installations that utilise the power of nature to create beautiful sounds and sights for the citizens and visitors of Zadar.
In the Second World War most of Zadar’s sea front was destroyed – and then quickly repaired as a boring, monotonous concrete wall. In order to bring some life and something different to the sea front, architect Nikola Basic designed and opened the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation in April 2005.
The Sea Organ is an experimental musical instrument, which plays music generated by the motion of sea waves through a series of 35 organ pipes built under a set of large marble steps.
As the movement and energy of the sea, in terms of tides and winds, is unpredictable then the sea organ produces a infinitely long, random, yet mournful sound.
The “music” is created by pipes of different lengths and sizes with whistles built in them, which play seven chords of five tones as the waves force air through them. The pipes are built into seven steps, each one with its own tubing and chord, so as you move along the sea front the sounds and harmonies you hear change relative to your position.
The Sea Organ gets extremely busy in the evening, when crowds gather to sit on the steps and listen to the music whilst watching the sun set. I much preferred sitting and enjoying the music during the afternoon when it was less crowded.
Below is a video I took recording the sounds of the Sea Organ whilst staying in Zadar:
After watching the sun set, the crowds then head over towards the Sun Salutation, located a few hundred metres away from the Sea Organ.
The Sun Salutation is a 22 metre diameter solar panel formed from 300 multi-layered glass panels. Underneath these glass conduction plates, there are a series of solar cells.
The solar cells absorb the Sun’s energy from sunrise to sunset, and convert this energy into electricity. The electricity produced is then used to light the entire waterfront at night – a unique example of an efficient and renewable energy source.
At sunset, the installation switches on and displays a series of bright colourful lights. The motion of the lights is dependent on the solar energy collected throughout the day as well as the power of the waves, and is supposed to also represent the motion of the solar system. All eight planets are represented by proportionally sized solar lights placed at their proportional distances from the sun.
When I visited the Sun Salutation, it was extremely busy, and so it wasn’t easy to see as much of the display as I would have liked. I imagine that if you were to return later on in the evening after the crowds had dispersed then it would be a lot more impressive.
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