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Zadar - Where on Earth is it? 10 Good Reasons Why You Should Find Out - and Go There …
You could be easily forgiven for never having heard of Zadar. That’s exactly how it was for me a year or so ago when my sister suggested that we spend a few days there on a girly trip.
My first reaction was: “Zadar? Where on earth is it?“ Followed quickly by: “Why should we want to go there?”
A year on and the magic of travel has worked it’s charms again. I now know exactly where Zadar is – and I can give you 10 very good reasons to go there.
Where on earth is Zadar?
Located on Croatia’s Dalmation coast, the seaside city of Zadar is often overlooked for the more popular cities of Split and Dubrovnik. That’s a real shame, because it has a thriving Old Town surrounded by Roman walls and packed with a wide variety of historic and cultural sites. Add to that the sparkling blue Adriatic Sea, some gastronomic delights and a large dollop of sunshine and you have found yourself a perfect long weekend/mid-week break destination.
10 Good Reasons to Visit to Zadar
- It’s really easy to get there. Ryanair flies to Zadar Airport (ZAD) from a number of airports across the UK and EasyJet flies from London Gatwick. The flight is short too – less than 2 and a half hours. Best still, when you arrive, there is an airport shuttle bus that runs 30 minutes after every flight arrives and whisks you to the Old Town in 25 minutes for less than 5 euros.
- It’s compact and completely walkable. Nowhere is too far away, so planning your itinerary doesn’t give you a headache. You can amble with ease around the pale marble streets worn to a soft sheen over the centuries and make up your itinerary as you go along
- It has a Sea Organ – One of only Two in the world.
- It has the most beautiful sunset in the world (according to Alfred Hitchcock) – View it from the Sun Salutation.
- It has some great Museums.
- History – it’s over 3000 years old.
- It has a great music vibe.
- Foodie firsts – there is plenty to discover on the gastronomic front too.
- You can easily go island hopping from Zadar.
- It is near 3 National Parks. If you can’t find enough to entertain you in Zadar itself, you can take a day trip. Plitvice Lakes National Park, Kornati Islands National Park and Krka National Park are all easily reachable.
What are you waiting for – let’s go an explore?!
Zadar's Sea Organ
Zadar has a Sea Organ – one of only 2 in the world. The other is in San Fransisco and there used to be one in Blackpool, but that has now been closed down. The organ looks like just a series of broad steps leading down into the sea, but there is a whole lot going on beneath. The lower steps allow water and air to flow in and be funnelled through resonant chambers before being pushed out through the channels on the upper steps. This produces a series of ever changing, mournful, dreamlike chimes – each as unique as waves themselves.
The sea never stops moving, so the organ music plays continuously too, soothing the souls of those who wander along the sea promenade whatever the time of day or night. Hats off to Nikola Bašić, the renowned Croatian architect who created this masterpiece. One visit is not enough – we found ourselves drawn back to the captivating sea organ several times during our trip just to marvel at this very clever woman made phenomenon one more time.
The Sun Salutation
Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world. OK – so that is a very big claim and there is obviously some serious competition out there, but that is how Alfred Hitchcock once described Zadar’s sunset.
The Sun Salutation (also designed by Nikola Bašić) lies just beyond the Sea Organ. By day, it looks just like a large blue circle, but as the sun sets and darkness begins to fall, the 300 multi-layered glass plates beneath that have absorbed solar energy during the day burst into life producing a spectacular nocturnal display that mimics the twinkling stars above.
It is a dance floor like no other. At sunset, there is often a busker playing too, so you can enjoy a little saxophone or bagpipe music as you wait for the sun to set and the light show to commence.
This really is a pretty special place. Although man made, both the Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation are in harmony with Mother Nature and combine to create a feeling of peace and calm. Even when busy, there is a respectful hush amongst the crowd hanging out there.
Zadar has some great museums – easily enough to fill a couple of days. During our 5 Day stay, we visited 4 of them.
Housed in the 19th century Cosmacendi Palace the Museum of Ancient Glass contains an impressive collection of Roman glassware retrieved from archaeological sites across Dalmatia. Marvel at: delicate vessels that once held perfumes and oils that brought daily pleasure to Roman ladies; dainty flasks and cups used for holy water and miniatures painstakingly created perhaps to showcase the talent of the glassmaker.
The Gold and Silver of Zadar
The permanent exhibition of Religious Art – The Gold and Silver of Zadar – housed in the Benedictine Convent of Saint Mary is a literally dazzling testament to the cultural importance of Zadar to the eastern Adriatic coast back in medieval times.
The priceless collection of artistic and historical treasures includes manuscripts, sculptures, reliefs and paintings . You can also see some exquisite church textiles – embroideries, tapestries and lace – woven by the hands of Benedictine Nuns themselves.
Carefully protected through the centuries – not least through the bitter Croatian War for Independence (1991 – 1995) – these intricate handmade creations display the full gamut of human emotions. Don’t forget to visit the gift shop before you leave!
The Rector’s Palace
A cultural monument dating back to the 13th century and renovated with EU funds in 2017, The Rector’s Palace is now a multivalent cultural centre. The modernised building provides a great space for temporary exhibitions. When we visited, the Zadar Does Banksy Exhibition (1/6//23 – 8/10/23) filled many of the rooms. Check out the website for current exhibitions.
Zadar Museum of Illusions
The Zadar Museum of Illusions invites you to “open the door of perception and enter the amazing world of illusion”. It’s all a bit of fun and – be warned – may well soak up way more of your holiday time than you originally intended! A great place to visit if you are travelling with kids.
We only scratched the surface really – there are a lot more museums in Zadar if you have sufficient time and inclination to visit them all. The Zadar Tourist Board’s website has all the details you need.
Zadar Old Town - Over 3000 Years of History
In a city that is 3000 years old, you can soak up centuries in seconds just by strolling around the living museum that is The Old Town. Gaze at the ruins of the Roman Forum, admire the dome of the 9th century Church of St Donatus or climb the Venetian-era bell tower of the Cathedral of St Anastasia and take in the view of the city’s pretty red rooftops.
If you have over indulged in the tempting array of ice creams from the many street side stalls (do try Ducati for the best ice cream in town), you can consider tying yourself to the Pillar of Shame to repent for your sins. In the Middle Ages, people were chained to the Pillar of Shame for punishment – sometimes for hours. They would be mocked, humiliated, and even whipped while the whole city was welcome to stop and watch. You can still see the chains attached to the Pillar now.
Zadar's Music Vibe
Music – of one sort or another – seems to fill the air most of the time. One minute, you are standing in the buzz of People’s Square listening to a mandolin player recreate those well loved songs you know all the words to in his own way – guaranteed to get your toes tapping. An hour later, a wedding party passes by, singing out Croatian favourites with gusto making you want to sing along with them (even though you don’t know a word of Croatian)
If you are there on a Friday/Saturday night, you are likely to be treated to a male Klapa group singing cappella in harmony. Live music is regularly played at the Fish and Jazz Festival in the centre of the Old Town too. If you still want more, then an evening stroll along the promenade by the Sea Organ will undoubtedly yield a musician of some kind too. Zadar is that kind of city.
Even the Rowing Boatmen have been know to indulge in a song or two to entertain you as you are transported the short distance from the peninsula of the Old Town across to the mainland on the other side.
Pag – the most indented island in the Adriatic – has the perfect conditions for making this unusual salty cheese. The Bora – a strong, cool, dry wind that blows along the Adriatic Coast gathering strength as it descends the Velebit mountain slopes blasts seawater onto Pag’s pastureland. The salt dries turning the island white and meaning that only the strongest little plants – one of which is Pag’s Sage – can survive. Pag’s Pramenka sheep graze freely on this aromatic vegetation, giving Pag cheese its distinctive flavour and making the herby lamb a gastronomic treat. You can visit the Island of Pag on a day trip if you like too.
The Pag sheep are milked twice a day – mostly still by hand. One sheep produces about 0.75 litres of milk a day and every kilogram of Pag cheese needs 7 litres of sheep’s milk, which means that you are going to need a LOT of sheep to make this cheese. On top of that, the ripening process can take from 60 days to several years. The longer the cheese matures, the harder and spicier it becomes. The maturing process requires the cheese to be turned over and brushed every day But – there is more – the maturing process requires Pag cheese to be turned over and brushed every day. So, you can really appreciate why a high quality authentic Pag cheese can command a hefty price tag!
A Burek from Milnar bakery – a filo pastry concoction with a choice of fillings – makes the perfect picnic lunch.
Zadar Desserts - Sinjorina Smokva/Sinjorina Maruska
Zadar has a couple of delightful desserts that you really just have to try. Restaurant Pet Bunara is an excellent place to sample them.
Sinjorina Smokva is an authentic sweet from Zadar area. Sinjorina Smokva jam is made to a traditional recipe from sweet figs ripened in the warmth of the Dalmatian sun. Figs are grown locally on family farms in the nearby village of Polica. The fig jam is combined with patispania (sponge cake) enriched with curd from Pag Island, dried figs, and white chocolate to create this sumptuous dessert.
Sinjorina Maruska is another favourite local delicacy. Marasca cherries – Croatian indigenous cherries well known for their intense flavour – are paired with high quality Belgian dark chocolate to give you a whole new take on the retro classic Black Forest Gateau. It’s a good job there are enough cherries left over to make the famous Maraschino liqueur though.
In 1803 – after a number of variations to the original recipe – the Drioli workshop was established in Zadar as the exclusive producer of Maraschino and the official supplier of this delicious cherry flavoured liqueur to the reigning European courts of that era.
Originally, maraschino was supplied in a square shaped bottle with a short neck made of Murano glass, from Venice. These days, the pretty little bottles still look so appealing. Treat yourself to an after dinner liqueur at one of the streetside bars – you will find Maraschino on all the drinks menus.
Where to Eat
You are spoilt for choice here. We tried a number of different restaurants and found the food to be good in all of them. Our favourite – and the best value – was without doubt Pet Bunara in the heart of the Old Town.
The food market (open daily) is a great place to shop for a picnic and the shady terraces of the park at the end of the Old Town make the perfect place to take your time to linger and enjoy it.
Island Hopping - Day Trips from Zadar
You can easily go Island Hopping from Zadar. Croatia’s coastline is dotted with islands, so it seems only right to fit a visit to one or two of them into your Zadar itinerary? Good ferry connections (visit the Jadrolinija ferry office on the promenade) allow visitors to easily explore several of the offshore islands.
We visited Ugljan Island on one of our 5 days in Zadar. The small town of Preko is only half an hour by boat from the peninsula. It’s nice to be able to look out from the island and see the city of Zadar from a different perspective. Once you get there, you could do as we did and enjoy a swim in the clear blue seas that surround it and pick out one of the restaurants for a spot of lunch?
Smart wooden sun loungers are thoughtfully provided for tourists to use free of charge and there are cute little changing stations alongside to save you struggling to protect your modesty with just your beach towel. If only they were provided on all beaches – how heavenly would that be?!
Preko was the perfect spot for me and my sister to recreate one of our favourite childhood photos – fifty years on from when the original was taken.
That’s one of the great things about a girly trip – they are always guaranteed to bring out the fun in you?!
Where We Stayed - Accommodation Review
We based ourselves at the chic Hotel Bastion, which is very conveniently located in the heart of the Old Town just a short walk from the Sea Organ/Sun Salutation, ferry port and the airport bus stop. Air conditioning, spacious walk-in showers and white fluffy bathrobes make for a comfortable stay. The buffet breakfast has a good selection – and you can also choose from the imaginative prepared to order menu.
The hotel’s gourmet Restaurant Kastel overlooks the sea and has huge picture windows which can be fully opened on hot Summer nights. Residents can enjoy 10% off, which is useful as this is one of the more expensive dining options in Zadar. The hotel also has a spa facility which we were too busy enjoying the other attractions of the city in fine, sunny weather to sample.
When to Go
March to June or September to October is a perfect time to soak up the Croatian sun without the crowds.
Tips for Future Travellers
It is a good idea to bring a reasonable amount of cash with you – Croatia has recently joined the euro. Many places operate on a cash only basis and/or have card machines that do not work. Also, if your flight is delayed, your only option is a taxi which will cost you considerably less if you pay in cash.
The very efficient and helpful Zadar Tourist Information Office in the centre of the Old Town has maps, ferry/bus timetables, leaflets galore and up to date information on museum opening hours and the latest exhibitions in town. It’s a really good place to visit at the start of your stay.
What Are You Waiting For?
As you can see – Zadar really has a lot to offer for a short getaway without any of the usual downsides of the larger, more popular city break destinations. For a girly break, with my sister, it was the perfect choice. So – take your Mum, your Daughter, your Aunt – or your own Sister – and go and have some fun. It’s not just for the girls either – anyone could have a really good time here. So – what are you waiting for?!