Guardian to around 300 islands nestling off its coastline; located in easy reach of six national parks, and site of a beautiful, old walled city whose charms rival that of its sibling city of Dubrovnik but without the hordes of day trippers, Zadar is one of Croatia’s best kept secrets.
The marbled streets of its old city are a hotchpotch of cultural and artistic treasures sitting cheek by jowl with modern shopping centres, bustling market stalls and coffee bars whose chairs are constantly filled. Zadar is a city that easily blends its rich cultural heritage with innovative, contemporary art and its ancient traditions with modern life; whose youthful population nightly flock to its bijou bars and pizza takeaways and whose sunsets flood the horizon with their enduring intensity and squeeze the heart with their beauty.
Zadar lies on the coast of Croatia’s Northern Dalmatia. The bulk of the 75,000 plus population live in the new city on the mainland while most of its treasures lie within the old walled city, accessed by footbridge or by a five minute ferry ride from the quayside.
Set out in a grid format, bordered on one side by the high city walls and on the other by a coastal promenade, the narrow streets of the old city quickly become familiar and easy to navigate.
Ryanair fly weekly from Liverpool, Stansted and the East Midlands to the International airport, a ten minute drive from the city. Alternatively, fly British Airways to Zagreb from Leeds, Glasgow, Inverness, Belfast, London, Manchester or Newcastle from where it’s a three and a half hour bus journey or a three hour drive away. Flights are two and a half hours from the UK.
Jump on the small ferry that shuttles foot passengers the five minute journey across the Jazine Bay from the quayside to the old city for the princely sum of 5 kuna (around 50p/70 cents). The ferrymen have been rowing passengers across this stretch of water for 800 years and it’s nice to help ensure their continued survival. Alternatively, take the wide footbridge that spans the water to the city gates.
Follow the main artery of Siroka Ulica to reach the city’s Roman Forum. Only discovered in the 1930s (inadvertently aided by allied bombers), the remains of the Roman settlement lie scattered around the open space to be enjoyed as much today as they were in the third century. At one side of the Forum is the tower of St Anastasia’s Cathedral, built during the 12th and 13th centuries. Provided you’ve got a head for heights, climb the spiral staircase beyond the belfry to the viewing platform that give stupendous 360º views across the old and new cities and from the iconic, red domed roof of St Donatus Church below to the snow capped grandeur of the Velebit Mountains on the horizon.
Rise early to get to the city for the fish market that lines the quayside by the foot bridge and then head through to the larger market around the Jurja gate where fresh fruit and vegetables; whole Pag cheeses and deliciously savoury Prosciutto can be bargained for amongst the ubiquitous lavender oils and Maraschino liqueur.
Those historical treasures and artefacts which are not still in the streets to be enjoyed can be found in the Museum of Ancient Glass (Open Mon-Sat 9am-7pm; entrance 30 kuna (£3.50/€4) housed in a 19th century Palace near the Jurja gate where you can see exquisite examples of glassware from miniature medicinal pipettes to large ornamental vases, and the Archaeological Museum (Open Mon-Sat 9am-3pm; entrance 15 kuna (£1.70/€2) housed in an incongruously modern building on the Roman Forum where you can find permanent exhibitions of archaeological finds dating back to the Stone and Bronze Ages.
After all that antiquity, head out of the city on its coastal side to amble the promenade of The Riva, or waterfront, along Obala Petra Kresimira IV to reach The Sea Organ. In 2005 artist Nikola Basic designed a series of organ pipes which run beneath the steps of the promenade and which, when the waves are choppy and the breeze is in the right direction, produce sound – the sound of the sea. Return to this spot as the sun begins to set and you’ll witness Zadar’s incredible sunset and the wonderful Salute to the Sun created by the same artist. Settle in for the long haul as the sun nightly displays an alarming reluctance to entirely leave the scene but once it does, the Salute to the Sun becomes a kaleidoscopic dance floor of electric colours.
Where to Stay
Those with the budget to match their taste and no car to worry about finding a parking space for, can enjoy staying within the city walls, literally, at the fabulously located Hotel Bastion (Bedemi zadarskih pobuna, 13; double room and breakfast from €219/£187) on the site of a former Venetian kastel above Luka Bay. Rooms are not large and the sombre shades of its period décor can bring on a bout of squinting but the location is unbeatable and the open air terrace is the place to enjoy excellent cuisine and the best of Croatia’s wines.
Also within the walled city is the rather splendid Art Hotel KaleLarga (Majke Margarite, 3; double room and breakfast from €191/£163) where just ten, beautifully designed and furnished bedrooms blend the best of contemporary style and comfort with traditional materials and finishes. Bright, chic and right in the heart of the city.
Those on a smaller budget will find plenty of rooms and apartments to let in the new city from as little as €35/£30 a night where it’s also much easier to park, and the walk to the old town is a pleasant 15-20 minute stroll. Just a 15 minute walk to the ferryman is Amico Apartments (00385 23 334 886; Tomislav Tamburin Put Petrica, 20; email firstname.lastname@example.org) where spotlessly clean rooms and apartments are available. The décor is a tad old fashioned in some of the rooms but there’s a fully fitted kitchen, free wifi and Ivan is a font of knowledge about Zadar.
Where to Eat and Drink
For fabulous seafood and superb value for money, you’ll be hard pressed to better Lungo Mare (00385 23 331533; Obala kneza Trpimira, 23; open daily 11am-11pm) in Maestral Bay whose seafood risotto is superb. A shady outside terrace has views over the bay.
Traditional Croatian cuisine and an excellent wine list are both on the menu at Kornat Restaurant (00385 23 254 501; Liburnska Obala; open daily midday to midnight) just beyond The Garden (see below) and near Salute to the Sun. The menu is quite a bit more pricey than most other Zadar restaurants but the lamb is excellent, as is the daily fish choice, and it’s a good venue in which to wait for the sunset.
When in Croatia, don’t miss out on dining in a konoba. Literally meaning ‘basement’, konobas are traditional, often rustic restaurants serving a small menu of locally sourced and traditionally prepared dishes. In Zadar the konobas are tucked away in little courtyards above which lines of washing hang like a scene from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Konoba Stomorica (0035 23 315 946; Stomorica,12; open daily 10am-midnight) is one such establishment where the service is as friendly as the prices and the mixed meat platter for two is ridiculously good value.
A university city, Zadar enjoys a lively night scene during term time weekends and throughout the high season months of June to August. For great bars where you can sit outside and watch the world go by or grab a slice of pizza in a brown bag and chomp it with your pint, head to the Varos District and the area known locally as Four Corners. Amongst the clutch of outside tables and electric blue interiors you’ll find Kult Caffe, a good terrace from which to people watch while you savour your Ozujsko beer.
For something a little more sophisticated, climb the wall alongside Queen Jelena Park above Five Wells Square and join the cool set in the former ice house of Ledana Lounge Bar (Perivoj kraljice Jelen Madijevke; open 8am-2am) where a sophisticated, chill out space occupies the top of the walls and an uber chic ‘igloo’ supplies a rather funky dance floor.
Join the legendary garden set at one of Croatia’s most famous nightspots, The Garden ( Bedemi zadarskih pobuna; 0035 23 25 631; open summer only, 8pm-3am) on the city walls where the venue’s spectacular, the music’s cool and the menu is provided by Hotel Bastion’s chef. The group’s sister venue in Tisno is scene of the famous annual Garden Festival.
Tour operators daily tout tickets for trips to Kornati and Plitvice Lakes National Parks, both in easy reach and both Croatian must-sees. Regular ferries depart from outside the city walls to the islands of Dugi Otok, an island known for its white sand beaches, the curative waters of Telascica Bay and its summer festival of Saljski uzanci; and Lz, a secluded getaway island with just two villages and one hotel.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+