Pushing out into the Adriatic and basking in one of the world’s most beautiful sunsets, the old town of Zadar in Croatia is almost overflowing with heritage. This small finger of land almost entirely encircled by stone defences and boasts more historic churches than you’ll be able to get through in one trip.
In Zadar you’ll spend your time hopping from one breathtaking piece of architecture to the next, on the way finding out about the different civilisations that made their home here and fought tooth and nail to defend it! Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Zadar:
1. St. Donatus’ Church
This early-Byzantine church was built all the way back in the year 800 and remains in a near-perfect state of preservation. Over time St. Donatus’ tall, rounded outline has become a symbol and a source of pride for Zadar, the first building you’ll see on postcards. You don’t have to be an amateur historian to appreciate the primitive beauty of this pre-romanesque building. These days the church is a venue for renaissance music performances, the 27-metre-high walls complementing the sound perfectly. The church was built on the Roman Forum, which you’ll find out about below, and building material from this site were used in its construction.
2. Roman Forum
Zadar’s is the largest Roman forum east of the Adriatic. It was established by Emperor Augustus at the turn of the first century according to two inscriptions found at the excavation site when the forum was rediscovered in 1930. After bomb damage in the Second World War the space was cleared and by the 60s the forum began to take shape once more. What remains are fragments of a colonnade and a pillory, where criminals received a very public punishment! The temple and basilica that once stood here are gone, but you can still trace the raised ground of its foundations.
3. City Walls and Gates
Zadar has the distinction of never falling to the Ottomans and this is down to the formidable defence system that the Venetians constructed in the 1500s. A great deal of the city is still defended by a continuous curtain of white limestone, interrupted by two original gates: The Land Gate and Sea Gate. The Land Gate is still as striking today as it must have been half a millennium ago. It resembles a Roman Triumphal Arch, and the Venetian symbol, the Lion of St. Mark still strides proudly above the entranceway. The Sea Gate is close to the ferry port and is a little more modest. It was built in 1573 to celebrate the Holy League’s naval victory against the Ottoman Empire in Lepanto two years earlier.
4. St. Mary’s Church
On the eastern edge of Zadar’ forum is St Mary’s, belonging to a Benedictine Monastery founded in the 11th century. The building took damage in the Second World War, but was completely restored and today contains one of the city’s most prized exhibits. The Permanent Exhibition of Religious Art features a host of gold and silver religious artefacts accompanied by tapestries, manuscripts, reliefs and embroideries spanning a thousand years between the 700s and 1700s. The exhibition is operated entirely by the monastery’s nuns and there are interpretation signs in English.
5. Museum of Ancient Glass
Croatia is flush with Roman heritage and many of the glass items recovered from digs have ended up at this contemporary museum in the stately confines of the Cosmacendi Palace, which dates to the 1800s. In modern displays you’ll see drinking vessels, cup for mass, jars and intricate little vials used to contain anything from skin creams to medicine. You can brush up on the history of glassmaking in Croatia and throughout the day there are glass-blowing demonstrations, so you’ll see firsthand how these delicate items were crafted. And at the end of the tour you can visit the shop to purchase some glassware made the ancient way.
6. St. Anastasia’s Cathedral
A possible future World Heritage Site, Zadar’s cathedral is on the site of a very early Christian basilica that was founded back in the year 300. The building you see today was started in the 1100s and is yet another example of Zadar’s fine collection of romanesque architecture. It was consecrated by Pope Alexander VII in 1177 and then more than 800 years later, Pope John Paul II paid the cathedral a visit in 2003. Inside you can see an early-Christian mosaic dating back to the original basilca. The cathedral’s magnificent bell-tower is newer, having been started in the 15th century and only completed at the end of the 1800s.
7. National Museum
This is a regional museum that gives a deeper look into the natural history, ethnology and artistic heritage of the wider Zadar region. It was founded in the 1960s but has ties with local scientists and historians that date back well into the 1800s. For instance, the natural history wing has curated the collections of several local botanists and biologists, such as Domenico Pappafava who gathered more than 6000 plant specimens in the area. Part of the attraction is also the Zadar City museum, where you can see a host of artefacts from the turbulent renaissance and baroque period when the city was under the threat of Mongols and Ottomans.
8. St. Simeon’s Church
This church is most famous for what lies inside. The exterior is attractive, but relatively nondescript compared to others in the city. Within though is a UNESCO-protected piece of art that dates to the late-1370s. Found at the church’s altar, the Chest of St. Simeon is a wooden sarcophagus plated in silver and gold, boasting unbelievably detailed reliefs and inscriptions that seem to defy what people thought was possible in that age. The chest features scenes depicting the childhood, life and death of St. Simeon, as well as some of his miracles, and there are also fascinating illustrations of Zadar on this incredible work of art.
9. Sea Organ
At the tip of the old town’s peninsula is this imaginative and award-winning art installation. It was devised in 2005 by the architect Nikola Bašić to breathe new life into Zadar’s waterfront, and was the first of its kind in the world. The organ takes the form of a series of large marble steps leading down to the water, and beneath each platform is a tube that creates a musical note generated by the power of the waves that break underneath. The outcome is a random but soothing tune that might be written by some avant-garde minimalist composer!
10. Greeting to the Sun
The Sea Organ’s sister, this was also designed by Nikola Bašić and is found at the end of the peninsula looking out over the Adriatic and offshore islands, where the brilliant sunsets were adored by Alfred Hitchcock who visited in the 60s. As the sun goes down this circular installation, embedded in the ground, comes to life. The Greeting to the Sun uses photovoltaic cells to absorb the suns energy by day and then releases it in a vivid graphical display as it starts to get dark. Around the circle, 22 metres in diameter are carved the names of the saints to which Zadar’s churches are dedicated, with astronomical information detailing the ascension and declination on each saints’ day.
11. Archaeological Museum
Also set on the Forum, this attraction displays the impressive Prehistoric, Illyrian Roman, Byzantine and medieval artefacts recovered in and around Zadar. For many visitors the most exciting part is devoted to Roman times, when there was a great deal of activity in the area. There’s a model here showing what Zadar’s Forum looked like at the height of Roman power, and there weapons, ceramics, mosaics and other decorative items brought here from across the empire. If you’re interested in Croatian history then you can also check out the artefacts discovered in the graves of nobility in Nin, dating to the early middle ages.
12. Five Wells Square
You’ve heard about the city walls that the Venetians built to keep the Ottomans at bay, but none of that would have been much use without a clean water supply. The answer was an ingenious drinking water cistern accessed by five wells on the same square. These remain in place today, standing in a row next to the city’s bastion and a section of the battlements. The best time to check out this sight is at night, when the wells and defences are lit up from below.
13. Paklenica National Park
This park protects a variety of karst formations neighbouring the coast among them caves, cliffs and high peaks. Climbers and hikers love Paklenica, which has the most popular walls in the country and 200 kilometres of trails. Most visitors come to see the two spectacular gorges, Velika and Mala, which have sheer cliffs that soar in places to more than 700 metres. Sections of Velika and no more than 50 metres wide and you’ll have a fun little adventure finding the source of the canyon’s spring. This is a beautiful little pool cradled by jagged rock, with a cascade feeding a small stream that trickles out to the Adriatic in the wetter months from spring to autumn.
14. Charter a boat
There’s a whole world waiting off the coast of Zadar and it would be shame not try to see as much as you can. The Kornati National Park alone has 150 islands, so there’s an in exhaustible choice of places to visit and remote beaches to relax on. Many of these beaches are world-class too. On the island of Dugi Otok there’s Sakarun, which is often rated with the best on the planet. It’s a cove tucked with in a deep recess in the coast, bathed by crystalline turquoise waters and with a backdrop of nothing but fragrant pine scrub.
15. Plitvice Lakes National Park
Although the Plitvice Lakes are about 90 minutes north of Zadar you simply have to make the journey, because the park is easily one of Europe’s most beloved natural attractions. What you’ll see are fourteen lakes, each connected to the next by waterfalls and natural pools as waters work their way down a mountainside. The king of all these waterfalls is Veliki Slap, at 70 metres in height. You can use boardwalks to get unbroken views of some of the cascades and look down into the waters to see thriving ecosystems in these gorgeous travertine pools.