Croatia – the country full of life, magic and nature… or by avoiding quoting the most popular Croatian hashtags – the country full of fascinating historical sites and charming Old Town districts, beautiful beaches leading into turquoise waters, as well as mountain views and breathtaking landscapes spread on 1200 islands and all of this available during 12 hours of sunshine. This most funny shaped country in Europe, located on the Balkan Peninsula on the Adriatic Sea was on my bucket list for some time. But instead of pushing through the crowds in Dubrovnik or Split, I decided to go to the slightly less popular, but equally charming – Zadar. Ok, inexpensive Ryanair flights could have also had something to do with my choice.
Located in the middle of the Dalmatian coast, Zadar is almost overflowing with heritage. Roman ruins, Venetian architecture and medieval churches – Zadar is definitely an intriguing city. You can wander the quiet streets of marble, enjoy a sweet break in cosmopolitan cafes with delicious pastries, visit quality museums or even go island hopping and at the end of the day admire (according to Alfred Hitchcock) the most beautiful sunset in the world. True story.
Ok, so I’m sure you’re convinced already. So, that’s it, thanks for reading…
Below you can find a proper “11 things to do in Zadar” guide.
1. Visit St. Donatus church.
I know what you’re thinking, but no, St. Donatus had nothing to do with donuts. Donatus, also called Donato of Zara was a Dalmatian saint who became a bishop and a diplomat of 9th century Zadar (Zara). It was he who began the construction of this impressive church which nowadays is a symbol of Zadar and the first thing you will see on the postcards. It stands out for its simple, round shape and dominant position and thanks to its great acoustics it often hosts classical music evenings. Being the largest Byzantine church in Croatia, it’s definitely one of the most interesting churches I’ve seen.
You can combine your visit with climbing the bell tower situated next to the church and admire the panoramic view of Zadar, the harbour and the Adriatic Sea.
2. Stroll The Forum
Located in front of St. Donatus church and built in the Roman era (between the 1st century BC and 3rd AD), The Forum used to be the largest Roman square on the east Adriatic. “The forum” is the name given to all main squares in the cities of the ancient Roman Empire, where the public life of the city unfolded. Today it’s maybe only a space full of walls, bricks and stones, but you can just imagine ancient thinkers and philosophers coming up with their most innovative theories there: to think or not to think… I personally choose not to think. Plus, probably none of them were actually thought of there. Nevertheless it’s still the main square of Zadar area.
3. Wet your whistle at Café Bar Forum
Ok, enough with the history! After visiting the church, the bell tower and wandering around the Roman Forum, time to energize your body with some cold cocktail, a glass of fine Croatian wine or local beer. Sit in the middle of ancient events in the café located just next to the bell tower and enjoy the views, the sun and a drink…or two.
4. Walk along the Riva
“The what?”, you might ask. Riva (which actually is just a generic word for “waterfront”) in Zadar is a promenade on the edge of the Old Town with a view of the Zadar Channel, the islands of Ugljan and Pašman and the open sea to the northwest. It’s a great place to walk along and enjoy the greenery of parks and palm trees on one side and blues of the Adriatic Sea on another.
5. Listen to the sounds of the sea
For anyone who makes it to the end of the Riva (or maybe it’s actually the beginning…no idea), something very special awaits – another unique attraction of Zadar – The Sea Organ. What might look like simple steps are actually quite an advanced musical instrument with very clever engineering hiding under the surface. The lower steps allow water and air to flow in. That water and air is then funnelled into resonant chambers under the steps, and pushed out through the channels on the upper stairs. These cause the undulating, chime-like notes to be produced. Because the sea is always shifting and changing, the sea organ never sounds exactly the same twice. Each sound is completely unique and it’s a truly amazing experience to just sit there and listen to its music.
6. Be like Alfred Hitchcock
No, no, no, I’m not saying you have to make an Oscar winning movie. If it happens that you’re enjoying the music of Sea Organ at dusk, you can simply stay there longer to admire (according to “the Master of Suspense”) the most beautiful sunset in the world. Maestro used to come to Zadar to watch this beautiful game played by the sun, while trying to capture it with his camera. Ok, he came once. And saw it from his hotel room. But still, sunset in Zadar – 1 : sunset anywhere else – 0.
7. Dance on the “Greeting to the sun”
To celebrate such a wonderful sunset, the Croatian architect Nikola Bašić (who also designed The Sea Organ), built a remarkable installation made out of 10,000 solar panels that absorb daylight and transform it into a beautiful light show at night. This 22m circular plate, located just next to the Sea Organ is one of Zadar’s most beloved attractions. Make sure to be there after the sun is already set and find your inner child while chasing the lights. I heard a rumour that soon the plate will be interactive, so your best dancing poses will be actually followed by colourful illuminations.
8. Walk down the streets
I know, I know, you would do it anyway. You can’t get anywhere without strolling the streets. But the streets of Zadar Old Town are very different to any other city I walked along. Most of them are made out of marble, so again you can image how ancient Zadarians were strolling there in their leather sandals and white togas. Plus, they are super clean. Over the 3 days I was there, I didn’t spot a single piece of rubbish lying around. Make sure to stray from the path, maybe not down a dark alley (although I didn’t notice even one), but to the little side streets where you find the best places to eat.
9. Count the number of Wells in Five Wells Square.
What is Five Wells Square? Nothing more, and nothing less than the name suggests – a square with five wells lined up. As fascinating as it might seem, it helped the Zadarians survive the Turkish attacks during the 16th century and nowadays looks like an attraction that people with OCD would enjoy – the wells are lined up perfectly straight. After 2 min of admiring the wells, you can head to one of the oldest parks in Croatia – Queen Jelena Madijevka Park, located just next to the square. Due to the fact that the park was built on top of the Grimaldi Bastion, it offers a nice view of the city. If you’re eyes crave more greenery, go to the even bigger Vladimir Nazor Park situated just opposite the Jelena park.
10. Hey there sailor – spend the day on a boat
There are many day boat trips leaving from Zadar to neighbouring islands. Usually they last 8-9 hours during which you get to admire beautiful Dalmatian nature, both from the boat and on the shore. I decided to explore Kornati National Park. It’s an archipelago of 89 little and large islands which you get to sail through – a haven of pretty islets, dense forests and soaring cliffs. There are many companies organizing the day trips to Kornati. You can book them either on Internet, in travel agencies in Zadar or on one of the stands located on the promenade. I took…can’t remember now which one, but there was a huge, black dog on board. A welcome drink (Rakia in the morning…score!), breakfast (a sandwich), lunch (fish or risotto) and some drinks were included. Most of the day was spent on the boat upon which I got to admire the islands from. There were 2 breaks when I could actually touch the islands: one involved climbing rocks to an abandoned building high up on the cliffs and the other was a “beach” break which took us to a small, mostly rocky lagoon. To be honest, I was a bit bored by the end of the day. So if you want to have a chilled out relaxing day, this is an activity for you. But if you’re hoping for some action, the boat trip is not the way to go.
If you’re not a fan of boat trips, there were many bus trips available as well. For example to…
11. Swim in the crystal clear waters of Krka National Park
With Zadar being surrounded by many national parks, picking a second one to visit was not easy. In the end, attracted by an incredible looking waterfall – Skradinski Buk, I decided to go to Krka National Park, located just an hour drive south from Zadar. The second tough decision was to choose the entrance I wanted to use. Krka National Park has 5 of them. Depending on what you want to see, what kind of transportation you want to use (bus, boat or your feet) and most important of all – how much time you have, you can pick the one most convenient for you. Because of restricted time, I went with Lozovac entrance, which offered one of the fastest ways to reach the waterfall. From the parking lot there is a 875 meters (2,870 ft) long trail to the beginning of the path, which you can conquer by foot or by bus. But hold on…what is this fuss all about? Why is this park so special? Krka National Park is one of the most beautiful parks in Croatia, with diverse flora and fauna, waterfalls, many footpaths and walking trails, boat tours and other tourist attractions. The park was created to protect the Krka River, and that’s where it got its name. The main attraction of the park is Skradinski Buk – the longest waterfall on the Krka River and one of the best known natural beauties in Croatia.
The path from Lozovac entrance to the waterfall leads through the beautiful landscape where thanks to lush green vegetation, little ponds filled with different fish, small waterfalls and wooden bridges, you can feel like Jane of the Jungle or Tarzan. But the feature that will leave you speechless is the waterfall. Looking magnificent yet sounding very threatening, Skradinski Buk is actually not one waterfall, but a series of cascades one after another. You get to admire its beauty close up as you walk along the paths. At the base of the waterfall there is a terrific spot where you can swim just in front of it, so make sure to take your swimming suits and swimming shoes (recommended – the bottom is very stoney). Around the waterfall you can find a restaurant, a few food stands and many places where you can just sit and look at the water falling.
One little thing…even in early October there were still crowds. I can’t imagine how busy it gets during the summer.
If this didn’t convince you to visit Zadar and its surroundings, I give up. Croatia and especially The Dalmatian Coast is really full of life, magic and nature so don’t hesitate to book the tickets.