Zadar — located in Croatia's island-strewn midriff — is the coolest place on the Adriatic to visit this summer. Don’t let anyone tell you different. In Croatian terms, it’s improbably crowd-free, with memorably-beautiful sunsets, a spectacular confusion of cliffs and coves, and its ancient Roman streets are a world apart from the cruise ship chaos in Split and Dubrovnik.
Why you should visit Zadar, Croatia
The shape of Zadar is defined by what lies to the immediate east. The Velebit mountain range, the longest and largest in the country, is where 4x4s, climbers and hikers congregate to discover limestone canyons and wild shepherd trails most visitors don’t know exist.
There are empty Adriatic beaches and islands, from Ugljan, a pine-covered strip rich with tuna farms, to Sakarun, a Croatian-meets-Caribbean curve of white sand heaven. It’s also the jumping-off point for microadventures in the country's most memorable national parks, including Plitvice Lakes and its chain of Instagram-worthy crystal-clear lagoons.
Here are six reasons why the Zadar, and the surrounding region of northern Dalmatia should be on your hit list this year.
Zadar's historic centre© xbrchx/Shutterstock
1. The streets are alive with history
The story of Zadar begins off the city’s main thoroughfare, Kalelarga, at the ancient Roman Forum in the Old Town. The brainchild of Roman Emperor Augustus two millennia ago, it was used as the city’s main meeting place and still serves the same purpose today. Coffee-obsessed Croats catch-up with friends in the cafes beneath the Venetian-era bell tower of St. Anastasia's Cathedral, while families sit on the steps in front of the 9th-century St. Donatus Church. Inside, the domed ceiling is the perfect natural amplifier for regular summertime concerts and classical performances. Towards the waterfront, an assortment of ruins from the earthquake that dismantled the city in the 6th century are neatly spread out on the waterfront lawn. Together, the Roman columns, colonnades, pediments and sarcophagi resemble an impossible jigsaw puzzle.
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2. You can learn how to blow glass
Nearly all traditional glass blowers in Croatia have gone out of business, but the Museum of Ancient Glass, brimming with artefacts from an earlier chapter of Roman times, is home to the very last one. On the second floor, you can watch artisan Marko Štefanac huff and puff in front of a furnace primed to more than 1,300°C, gawping as he spins the glossy, white hot glass into all sorts of vases, jugs and souvenirs. Brave souls can have a go at blowing the glass for themselves, but we can't guarantee the finished product will looks as good as Štefanac's.
3. It’s where Adriatic sunsets wowed a Hollywood legend
Film director Alfred Hitchcock knew a thing or two about creating suspense. The same can be said of Zadar, particularly at dusk when the golden sun drops below the horizon, turning the sky from a silky blue into a rainbow of pinks, reds and oranges. The English movie master holidayed in Zadar in 1964, staying in the same building that now houses chic apartment Bristol Lux 3BR, and he described sundown here as the world’s best.
It’s hard to argue. Especially when hearing the soft lilt of waves playing suspenseful chords on the city’s extraordinary Sea Organ nearby. Created by architect Nikola Bašić, its subterranean pipes give the lapping tide a mournful voice, one that meshes whale-song whistles with musical sighs as the tide flows in and out.
Sunset along the Zadar waterfront © 9MOT/Shutterstock
4. The country’s most impressive national parks are found here
The northern Dalmatian hinterland shelters two remarkable outdoor Shangri-Las. The most famous is Plitvice Lakes National Park, a Mother Nature-meets-MC-Escher mash-up of terraced lakes, multi-tiered waterfalls and brilliant blue cascades. There’s plenty to discover in the park, including Veliki Slap, Croatia’s highest waterfall, but it’s a major magnet for coach trips from Split in high-season (June to August). Plan your visit wisely to hog the highlights yourself.
To the south, Paklenica National Park is within striking distance of Zadar for bouldering, climbing, rafting or white knuckle mountain biking in the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. To see the park’s greatest hits in comfort, Velebit Photo Safari arranges bumpy off-road tours from Starigrad to mountaintop farms for lunch, as well as to Zrmanja River canyon for Cowboys and Indians vistas and Wild West backdrops. In fact, the area has been used as a stand-in for the American West more than once: German classic film series Winnetou was shot here and continues to bring in a trickle of hardcore Euro cinephiles.
The turqouise pools at Plitvice Lakes National Park, Croatia © Melinda Nagy/Shutterstock
5. Northern Dalmatian cuisine could be the next big thing
Istria had its moment. Now the focus in Croatia is turning to what Zadar can do next. Dalmatians swear by peka, a meat and potato stew, slow cooked and smoked on a fire under a bell-shaped pot. But in Zadar, it’s often served with a delicious twist, with whole octopus steeped in garlic and wine. Other specialties include pungent sheep cheese from Pag; pršut, Croatian prosciutto air-dried by the bura, or cold north wind; salt from nearby Nin; and lamb on the bone, slow cooked in mounds of mountain herbs.
Arguably the highlight is the exceptional bluefin tuna, sustainably farmed in the deep waters around Ugljan. It’s so renowned, in fact, it’s given the city the annual Tuna, Sushi and Wine Festival each April and planeloads of Zadar’s finest catch are whisked to Tokyo by cargo plane weekly. Want some wine? Visit Kraljevski Vinogradi to savour the last of the day’s sunshine with a glass of dazzlingly gold pošip, a grape bred since the time of the Ancient Greeks. Just don’t linger too long: Maraschino, the renowned cherry-flavoured liqueur, was first distilled in Zadar and locals regularly pack out the Old Town bars, keen to tell you its backstory. The nightly special? A stiff measure, uncomplicated and served over ice.
Grilled squid with lemon and zucchini © Dani VIncek/Shutterstock
6. There are hundreds of beaches to discover
Most places in Northern Dalmatia are easy to access, and even those places requiring a little more effort are well worth the journey. One such highlight is Kornati National Park, an uninhabited, limestone-dotted marine reserve to the south of the city. Dolphins, lizards, ring snakes and nearly 70 species of butterfly abound, and in summer, day-long boat trips sail shuttle scuba divers and sun seekers out to rarely-seen channels, shingly coves and reefs. Just don’t tell anyone else about its hypnotic appeal.
Sailboat in Zadar area waterfront, Dalmatia, Croatia © xbrchx/Shutterstock
Top image: Famous Fosa harbour in Zadar, Croatia © xbrchx/Shutterstock