Hidden Gem: A Traveler’s Guide to Zadar, Croatia
Thinking about traveling to Croatia anytime soon? Without a doubt, the sun-soaked city of Zadar, Croatia should be at the top of your list. This gem of a city is all too often overshadowed by the more popular Croatian tourist destinations Dubrovnik (King's Landing from “Game of Thrones”), Split, the Island of Hvar and county's capital city Zagreb. Zadar, Croatia features an abundance of ancient history and raw natural beauty – all of which is still comparatively undiscovered.
Zadar, Croatia: A Tiny Peninsula with Grand Views
The dazzling 3,000-year-old city of Zadar, Croatia, is the oldest continuously inhabited Croatian municipality and is known for the Venetian and Roman ruins of its peninsular Old Town. Indications of the earliest evidence of human life in the area of present-day Zadar, Croatia can be traced back to the late Stone Age (between 8700 BCE and 2000 BCE). Sometime during the 4th century BC, the Illyrian tribe of the Liburnians inhabited the area. Antecedent to the Illyrians, the region was populated by an ancient Mediterranean people of a pre-Indo-European culture.
Located on the southern stretch of Croatia's glorious Dalmatian coast, and situated along the awe-inspiring Adriatic Sea, with a population of just over 75,000 inhabitants, Zadar, Croatia represents the country's fifth-largest city.
Zadar, Croatia’s Old Town is the first place you will want to visit. It is pedestrian-friendly and there's no shortage of captivating views to enjoy as you wander around the quiet streets of marble.
Envision Balboa Island in Newport Beach, California, only with an amalgamation of medieval churches and cathedrals, cosmopolitan cafes and bistros, ancient Roman ruins, and museums – all contained on a tiny peninsula surrounded by glistening waters of the Adriatic Sea. Zadar, Croatia is truly an alluring city. Perhaps, the best part of the city is that it's not too crowded and isn't completely overrun with annoyingly narcissistic and unaware tourists taking videos of themselves with their selfie-sticks. Oh yeah, did I mention that it’s cheap here too?
In 1964, prolific English film director and producer Alfred Hitchcock wrote, “Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world, more beautiful than the one in Key West, Florida, applauded at every evening.” The maestro wasn’t exaggerating. The master of suspense was supposedly attracted to the city so as to witness the breathtaking reddening of its skies at dusk.
Perhaps, the preeminent place to enjoy one of Zadar, Croatia’s spectacular sunsets with an inebriating beverage in hand is at Brazil Bar, an establishment just in front of the Adriatic Sea and alongside Nikola Bašić's Sea Organ and Monument to the Sun.
Nikola Bašić’s Sea Organ
By far, one of the most charming attractions in Zadar, Croatia is its uniquely impressive Nikola Bašić’s Sea Organ. The architectural sound art object and experimental instrument that sits along Old Town’s waterfront was designed by local architect Nikola Bašić. Positioned within a set of perforated marble stairs that descend into the sea is an arrangement of pipes that exudes melancholic but mellifluous sighs when waves push air through the tubes.
Its effect is incredibly relaxing and hypnotic. Sounds from the organ are most robust on a windy day or when large boats pass by and create large incoming wakes. I can’t think of a more enchanting place to sit and quite literally enjoy the sounds of the sea.
Nikola Bašić’s Monument to the Sun
Another eccentric creation by Nikola Bašić is his Monument to the Sun, which also sits on the edge of the Zadar, Croatia waterfront. Nikola Bašić’s Monument to the Sun is a 22-meter-wide disc set into the pavement, representative of the sun, and consists of 300 glass panels which collect the sun's energy during the daytime.
The sunlight’s energy, combined with the wave energy that powers the Sea Organ, produces a psychedelic light display from sunset to sunrise. Additionally, Nikola Bašić’s Monument to the Sun collects enough kinetic energy to power the entire systems of lights along the harbor-front. Kids absolutely love it.
Bars, Lounges and Night Life
If you like to dance, or you want to go out for a few drinks and meet some local Croatians, Svarog Bar is a good choice. Svarog is a Slavic deity and the god of celestial fire and blacksmithing in ancient Greek religion. Neat name for a nightclub, isn't it? It is the only nightclub tactfully positioned in the center of Old Town.
Svarog Bar is the supreme outdoor party destination inside the old city walls and can be enjoyed most during summer nights. DJs at Svarog play an eclectic variety of musical genres ranging from techno, R&B, hip-hop, reggaeton, and house music.
Ledana (“Ice House”)
Ledana, or “ice house” in English, is an outdoor lounge and bar where designers have done well to hybridize modern styles with historical value. This synthesis generates a unique atmosphere that party-goers of all persuasions can enjoy.
Music played on weekdays tends to be pretty cheesy, but if go out on a Friday or a Saturday night, you might have better luck as occasionally live bands or guest DJs will play sets. If you happen to go during the off-season and it’s a bit crisp outside, make your way into the 19th-century Ledana. I know that may seem counter-intuitive but believe me – it's worth it.
Beach Bar Bamboo
If you fancy relaxing by the Adriatic Sea, taking a swim or sipping a classy cocktail, make your way to the Beach Bar Bamboo. This bar has a relaxing atmosphere with great views of Old Town. Each moment you spend here will be a moment thoroughly enjoyed.
Ibiza vibes are ever present throughout Zadar, Croatia’s glorious Old Town. Head to The Garden, where you can lay back and relax atop daybeds under white drapes while you gaze upon the shimmering Adriatic Sea.
If Zadar, Croatia’s crazy festivals have left your body feeling nutritionally depleted and in need of a health kick, the bar and restaurant serves delectable plates of raw organic food. Envision vegan dishes like peanut spring rolls and crunchy vegetable norimaki, to name a few.
Croatia is home to some of the most beautiful national parks in the whole of Europe. While it’s the Dalmatian coast that gets the majority of the press, Croatia has much more to offer in terms of natural beauty – and it’s not far from Zadar. Sandwiched between the crystal-clear Adriatic Sea and the Velebit Mountains, these parks offer hiking, bike riding, rock-climbing swimming in lakes and waterfalls, and other activities.
Plitvice Lakes National Park
Plitvice Lakes National Park is the most popular and largest national park in Croatia. Traveling from Zadar to Plitvice National Park takes a little more than an hour and a half by bus. Plitvice Lakes National Park is truly one of the most spectacularly gorgeous areas on the planet. In some ways, it's how I would envision the Garden of Eden looking like.
Contained in borders of this densely forested national park, 16 lakes with crystal clear water descend into one another via a network of waterfalls and cascades. Scores of butterflies flock above the 11 miles of wooden pathways that make their way around the edges of the emerald blue lake water. During the summer months, Plitvice Lakes National Park can be extremely crowded – so to avoid crowds and head out early.
Krka National Park
From Zadar, Croatia, Krka National Park is a little more than an hour's bus ride. Tourists enter the park by taking a short jaunt up Krka River, through a pine-cloaked limestone gorge, to Skradinski Buk. A delightful area just for swimming is roped off at a bend in the river below the collection of breathtaking waterfalls. If swimming isn’t exactly your thing, rent a bike and ride on one of many of the trails that meander throughout Krka National Park.
The Roman Forum: Churches and Cathedrals
St. Donatus Church
Built by Donatus of Zadar in the 9th century, and originally named the Church of the Holy Trinity, St. Donatus Church was renamed in the 15th century. It represents the largest Pre-Romanesque building in Croatia. Due to its unusual circular Byzantine-style building, it’s considered to be one of the most important cultural relics and places of worship of its kind in all of Europe.
St. Donatus Church is one of the only buildings from the early Croatian kingdom to have survived the Mongol invasion during the 13th century. The building hasn’t been used for church services for about 200 years. Today, due to its superb acoustics, it serves a concert hall. St. Donatus Church sticks out because of its simple, round shape and imposing position.
St. Anastasia’s Cathedral
St. Anastasia’s Cathedral is the largest Roman Catholic cathedral in all of Dalmatia, and acts as the seat of the Archdiocese of Zadar. The construction of St. Anastasia's Cathedral originally dates back to the 4th and 5th centuries. Today, the currently standing buildings were built in the Romanesque fashion during the 12th and 13th centuries.
St. Anastasia’s Cathedral has been submitted to UNESCO's Tentative List of World Heritage Sites. The 12th-century cathedral contains three beautiful portals and a bell tower to climb, affording visitors sweeping views of the city. At 184 feet high, the Bell Tower of St. Anastasia’s Cathedral represents the highest structure in Old Town.