On the northern half of Croatia’s sunny Adriatic Coast, Zadar’s old town centre is crammed with rich, multilayered history – Roman, Romanesque, medieval, Venetian – enhanced by art installations and a vibrant cafe scene.
For many years, Zadar remained off the main Croatian tourist trail, in favour of Dubrovnik and Split, which is a shame because it’s as beautiful as either of these and its historical credentials are just as impressive. These days Zadar is most definitely in – however the good news is that it remains pleasantly less overcrowded than Split or Dubrovnik.
Zadar also makes a great springboard for exploring the nearby Paklenica National Park, historic Nin and the island Pag.
A comfortable bed
Hotel Bastion is a fabulous little boutique hotel built into a section of the old town's medieval fortifications. Rooms come with exposed stone and polished wooden floors, and there's a beautiful spa. Double rooms cost from €124 (Dh498), including breakfast.
Zadar City Apartments has a selection of stylish apartments in the old town centre as well as in the suburbs. Most sleep between two and five people and come with fully fitted kitchens. An apartment for two in the old town costs from €62 (Dh249).
As its name implies, Boutique Hostel Forum (www.hostelforumzadar.com) offers a lot more than a humble hostel. Go for the Lux or Lux2 rooms on the top floor – stylish en suite doubles with stunning views across the cathedral to the islands. Double rooms cost from €72 (Dh289), including breakfast.
Find your feet
The place to begin exploring the historic centre is the Sea Gate, which leads you from Jazine Marina into the pedestrianised old town. Walk along Kalelarga to the 13th-century Cathedral of St Anastasia, the largest Romanesque cathedral on the Dalmatian Coast. The three-tiered facade has echoes of the cathedral in Pisa. Inside, there’s a large 14th-century ciborium – taller than the one in St Mark’s in Venice. Climb the bell tower for fantastic views over the old town.
Around the corner, the Roman forum was the heart of the old town some two millennia ago – there’s not much left there now. More impressive is the ninth-century church of St Donatus, one of the most striking buildings on the Croatian coast. Keep an eye out for bits of pillaged Roman stonework embedded in the walls.
Opposite St Donatus, the Archeological Museum (www.amzd.hr) is worth seeing for its fine medieval stonework – or head around the corner to the Museum of Church Art to see some opulent gold and silver reliquaries.
At one end of the waterfront, overlooking the islands of Ugljan and Dugi Otok beyond, the Sea Organ plays soft watery notes powered by the lapping of the waves. Next to this, the Greeting to the Sun is the place to see stunning sunsets – and they really are impressive, dipping below the horizon as coloured LEDs flicker beneath awestricken onlookers’ feet.
Meet the locals
The heart of the old town is its main pedestrian artery, Široka ulica (which everyone just calls Kalelarga). Grab a table at one of the many cafes spilling out onto adjacent squares and order a coffee. Now you’re in Zadar.
Book a table
Zadar’s most upmarket tables are at Foša (www.fosa.hr), with a waterside terrace just outside the old town walls – one of only a handful of restaurants in Croatia to carry a Jeunes Restaurateurs listing. A four-course seafood menu costs 245 Croatian kunas (Dh132), while à la carte dishes peak with fresh Adriatic lobster at 1,000 kunas (Dh539) per kilo.
One of the better places within the old city walls is 2Ribara the name means two fishermen, but they serve grilled meat, pasta and other dishes, as well as seafood. Dalmatian standards such as black risotto with cuttlefish cost from about 85 kunas (Dh46).
You can’t leave Zadar without trying some of its sladoled (ice cream) – just wander along Kalelarga, where you will find a succession of ice-cream shops fronted with a mouth-watering range of flavours.
The lower end of Kalelarga is lined with people selling handmade lace and local crafts. If your visit coincides with Noc Punog Miseca (a festival on full moon in July), you will find the waterfront between the forum and the Sea Organ crammed with stalls selling local goodies and delicacies.
What to avoid
If you’re considering taking a boat trip out to the Kornati Islands, check exactly what’s included – many excursions only go to Telašcica Bay, adjacent to the Kornati Islands on the island of Dugi Otok – a lovely destination in itself, but it may not be what you were paying for.
Zadar's Museum of Ancient Glass is quite simply one of the finest museums anywhere in Croatia. The astonishing collection of Roman glassware comes from archaeological sites all over Dalmatia and is one of the most impressive outside Italy, all beautifully presented and well-labelled and housed in a renovated 19th-century palace.