Zadar is a small town facing the Adriatic Sea. It is one of the lesser-known tourist destinations in Croatia. This city perfectly combines the idyllic beaches of Split and the medieval history of Dubrovnik, minus the buzzing crowds. It even has a mesmerizing sea organ.
Zadar, Croatia is a town where ancient Roman columns stand tall next to charming café terraces spilling in front of shuttered Italian-style buildings, drenched in Adriatic light glistening against turquoise waters. It’s a town where time seems to slow and its inhabitants, permanent and temporary, revel in fjaka, the zen state of doing nothing. Yet it is well connected to the many islands sprinkled across the sea in front of it and mountains and national parks not far behind it, creating the perfect vacation spot for any traveler.
If you are seeking a blissful getaway stone’s throw from some of the best Croatian treasures, this town is for you. Read on to find out what you should expect from your trip to Zadar, Croatia.
The Roman Forum and St. Donatus Church
The ancient Roman Forum, located in the Old Town, used to be the largest Roman square on the east Adriatic. Unfortunately, two thousand years have passed, leaving slabs of marble behind and a quest for you to put the history pieces together. But one thing has remained the same – the square is still the city’s central meeting place. Croats leisurely sip their coffees in the square in front of St. Anastasia’s Cathedral. St. Donatus Church lures passersby with the sounds rolling off the domed ceiling. It creates perfect acoustics, which helps transform the church into a concert hall in the summer. The single column that survived in its entirety, known as the pillar of shame, gathers spectators, its rusty chains telling stories of harsh public punishments.
Sea Organ of Zadar and Greetings to the Sun
The Croatian word pomalo, to live free from time, captures the essence of daily life in Zadar, Croatia. But during the moments of descending sun, cherishing the slightest change is when we are most aware of time passing. Zadar’s Adriatic sunsets build suspense for the grand finale as they bathe your senses with a myriad of colors and musical sighs of the Sea Organ of Zadar. An instrument played by the tide as the waves exhale into its pipes built right into the promenade steps. Can you imagine a better way to be serenaded than by a sea organ?
As the last rays begin to disappear and spectators begin to make their way to dinner, another sensory show catches them by surprise – Greetings to the Sun. The large circle-shaped installation lights the promenade with a psychedelic dance of colors popping against black solar panels, which have been soaking up the sun all day.
Rub shoulders with locals at Zadar Market while browsing the freshest produce gathered from the surrounding countryside. The market is divided into two sections – an indoor fish market and outdoor stalls of colorful fruit and vegetables. It is the perfect place to get intimate with Zadar and sample cheese, olive oil, wine, and liqueur.
Day Trips from Zadar, Croatia
Zadar, Croatia is well connected to some of Croatia’s best islands – Dugi Otok, Pag, Silba, Losinj, and the Kornati islands. So while taking a boat ride through the Adriatic is the epitome of a Croatian holiday, you can also kayak or paddle to some nearby islands.
The Velebit mountains, visible all the way from Zadar, attract climbers and hikers to explore the wild trails and limestone canyons. If you are short on time and unsure which day trip to take from Zadar, choose the Velebit Mountains.
Paklenica National Park
Just half an hour from Zadar, Paklenica National Park is a hiker’s and climber’s paradise. However, with two dramatic gorges to explore, Velika and Mala, and some sections of Velika being no more than fifty meters wide, this adventure is not for the faint-hearted.
Krka National Park
Located about an hour from Zadar, it is the ideal peaceful escape from city walls into nature. The park is full of cascades, lakes, and rivers, and there is even a monastery to discover on a tiny island called Visovac.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
The most awe-inspiring national park in Croatia, Plitvice Lakes is a playground for nature lovers. It is located just over an hour’s drive from Zadar. We explored this fascinating UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve en route to Zagreb (link) and dedicated an entire post (link) to its spectacular landscape consisting of fourteen lakes connected by waterfalls and surrounded by dense forestry. Veliki Slap is the tallest and most impressive of all waterfalls, reaching 70 meters in height. The cascades are connected by boardwalks, placing you right in the middle of nature.
What to Eat and Where
Zadar has a prime location when it comes to fresh seafood. Perhaps that’s why here, the traditionally meaty dish peka is served with a whole octopus marinated in garlic and wine. No visit to the Dalmatian coast is complete without trying sheep cheese, produced on a nearby island Pag, and bluefin tuna, farmed around Ugljan island, just in front of Zadar. Cured ham, a local specialty, the flavor of which is attributed to Bora wind, northerly wind native to the Adriatic Sea. And finally, taste the local cherry liqueur Maraschino, which originated in Zadar. If you are not a fan of pure liqueur, you don’t need to worry. This icon makes its way into other goodies, like chocolate truffles.
Spend your afternoons dipping in and out of cafes, pairing your coffees with rich desserts featuring the best Zadar ingredients like oranges, figs, carob, peaches, almond, and ricotta, topped with Maraschino cherries. Find the best desserts at Art Kavana café, which uses baking as its creative expression highlighting the best of Zadar.
Zadar’s restaurant scene is expanding, but the traditional offerings still top the leaderboards. For lunch or dinner, we recommend the traditional tavern Stomorica, which was the first of its kind in Zadar. The tavern fills with live Dalmatian songs on weekends and during festivals, bringing the guests together like a family.
On one of the evenings, skip the promenade and go straight to Lungo Mare to catch the sunset before dinner. Located next to the water, it offers stunning views followed by delicious traditional food.
Save Fosa for a romantic evening or a special occasion. It is located in its namesake small port on the edge of the water. It’s a perfect representation of Zadar, where old meets new. Just as the Old Town promenade overlaps with modern art installations, Fosa marries age-long Dalmatian cuisines with modern gastronomy trends and restaurant design.
While we were in Zadar, we were able to witness a leg of the CRO Race. It is a bicycle race, much like the Tour de France, that tours Croatia. We saw them again in Zagreb a week later.
Expect to be charmed and hypnotized by Zadar’s color pallet, winding medieval streets, and blissful zest for life. It’s a place where you quickly feel at home and long to return to. We certainly will be coming back. So grab your travel partner and gear up for an unforgettable Croatian adventure (link) with Zadar as one of the stops.