“Zadar has the most beautiful sunset in the world, more beautiful than the one in Key West, Florida.” Alfred Hitchcock
Nestling comfortably between the rich blue Adriatic and the impressive hilltops of Mount Velebit, Zadar is a northern Dalmatian city marked by a tumultuous 3,000 year old history and exceptionally rich cultural heritage. This former Roman municipum wonderfully infused with a romantic ambiance is a trove of ancient and medieval architectural riches and a wonderful example of how the fusion between the old and the new can create new traditions and valued heritage.
The earliest evidence of human life in the Zadar Region traces all the way back to the Stone Age. However, the first permanent settlement was created by the Liburnians, an ancient tribe of Illyrian origin, in the 9th century BC, who turned Jadera into a powerful trading centre. After becoming a Roman colony in 2nd century, Zadar came under the rule of the Ostrogothic Kingdom. Severe neglect of the town coupled with a serious earthquake that hit the area in the 6th century caused an immense damage to the city, destroying entire complexes of monumental Roman architecture.
Zadar quickly rebuilt itself, right at the time when the influence of the newly founded Croatian Kingdom started to grow. Later incorporated in the Habsburg Monarchy, Zadar faced a significant series of devastations, mostly by the hand of Venice to which Zadar was a significant naval and trading competitor. Zadar was particularly harmed in 1202 during the crusaders’ siege of the city on their way to the Fourth Crusade War. In the 15th century Zadar was sold to Venice for 100,000 ducats.
From then Zadar changed Italian, Austrian and French owners several times, until it finally became part of Croatia in 1944 after being liberated from the Germans by the Allies who destroyed 65% of the city in the process. Today Zadar is completely rebuilt, with its tumultuous history proudly visible in the city’s architecture.
Zadar is easily reachable from all parts of Croatia and Europe. Zadar is situated along the A1 motorway connecting Zagreb with south Dalmatia and it takes about three hours to reach Zadar from Zagreb by car. If travelling by train, know that Zadar is linked by a railway with Knin where the main railway roads from Split and Zagreb join. About 14 kilometres (9 miles) away in the nearby Zemunik is the Zadar International Airport with frequent flights from all major European destinations. There is a Liburnija bus line running between the terminal, the main city bus station and the port on the Old Town peninsula. One way ticket costs 25 HRK (~3.40 EUR). Finally, the ferry between Zadar and Ancona in Italy runs almost daily, as do other ferry and passenger linesconnecting Zadar with the surrounding islands and other major ports on the Adriatic.
The heart of the city originates from the old Roman Forum built from the 1st century BC to the 3rd century AD. The Forum was once the main city square and the focal point of Zadar’s life. Throughout several centuries the Forum saw a unique fusion of old Roman buildings such as a temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva Gods, and the newly erected Christian structures. Sadly, in the midst of several tumultuous events the structures suffered severe devastation.
One of Zadar’s most recognisable landmarks is the church of St. Donatus, coupled with the belltower of St. Anastasia’s cathedral, located on the Forum. Dating back to the 9th century, St. Donatus Church originally went by the name of the Church of the Holy Trinity until it was renamed after the bishop who had it built. The church’s imposing presence marked by its peculiar circular shape make it one of the most popular attractions in Zadar. Every July and August St. Donatus Church is used as a concert venue for the International Festival of Medieval Renaissance Music, also known as the Musical Evenings in St Donatus. The Cathedral of St. Anastasia from the 12th century in on the UNESCO World Heritage Sites tentative list.
People’s Square, or Narodni Trg in Croatian, has been the focal point of Zadar’s life since Renaissance all up until today. After several structures were built and destroyed throughout centuries, the square today is home to the City Guard from the 16th century, the pre-Romanesque church of St. Lawrence from the 11th century, the City Loggia completely rebuilt in the 16th century and again after the World War II, the Romanesque style Ghirardini Palace from the 15th century and the new City Hall from the first half of the 20th century. Linking the People’s Square and the Forum is the famed Kalelarga, Zadar’s most famous street and once the city’s main promenade.
The city walls surrounding Zadar and guarding the city for centuries have been preserved only partially together with several gates. The Land Gate from the 16th century is located in the small Fosa Harbour and once guarded the main entrance to Zadar. Its imposing appearance is marked by a motif of Zadar’s main patron saint St. Chrysogonus and the Shield of St Mark. On the northern side stands the latest addition to Zadar’s gates, which leads to the People’s Square – the neo-Renaissance Bridge Gate, while next to the City Market you will find the St. Rocco Gate named after the St. Rocco Chapel. The Sea Gate is located between the ferry ports and the Church of St. Chrysogonus, adorn in a striking relief of St. Mark’s lion on the side facing the sea, whilst the final Chain Gate stands proudly by the old Arsenal connecting the Wells Square and the harbour area.
The Wells Square is a popular site for concerts and similar events, wrapped in a romantic and relaxed ambiance. Its focal point are five wells in the square’s heart built by the Venetians in the 16th century during the siege of the Turks to provide water for the people of Zadar.
Zadar is remarkably rich in sacral structures dotting its narrow streets and lively squares, such as the Church of St. Simeon where a gilded silver casket holds the remains of St. Simeon and the Church of St. Chrysogonus dedicated to the patron saint of Zadar.
One of the most important structures adorning Zadar’s waterfront is the city’s university. Founded in the 14th century, it is one of the oldest universities in Europe. It was closed in the 1800s until it was reopened again in 2002.
The fusion of ancient heritage and innovative modern ventures is best reflected on Zadar’s Riva located on the Old Town peninsula. There visitors have the opportunity to enjoy one of the most unique projects in Europe – Zadar’s Sea Organ, the world’s first pipe organ played by the sea. The instalment consists of gorgeous white stairs descending into the sea. As the waves caress this stunning musical instrument, the organ creates wonderful music. The best you can do is sit down on the stairs, listen to the captivating music and enjoy the most beautiful sunset.
The sunset is truly one of the most attractive features of this ancient city. To fully capture its exceptional beauty, a Croatian architect created the Sun Salutation, a light instalment consisting of 300 multi-layered glass plates above photo-voltage solar modules. As the sun starts to set, the instalment turns on, creating an impressive lightshow conducted by the rhythm of the sea waves.
In the Zadar Harbour you will find barkajoli, similar to gondoliers in Venice. For the past 800 years barkajoli have been carrying the tradition of transporting passengers from one end of Zadar’s Harbour to the other in their small wooden rowboats.
For a dash of more exotic culture, visit Villa Atilla from the very beginning of the 20th century. There you will find a garden with a Sphinx that the villa’s owner built in the memory of his bellowed wife. The legend says the Sphinx can grant love wishes.
Zadar is abundant in numerous galleries and museums. One of the most visited is the Museum of Ancient Glass, renowned for possessing one of the most impressive collections of Roman glassware outside Italy, recovered from archaeological sites across Dalmatia. The museum is also a wonderful opportunity to stock up on souvenirs such as replicas of Roman glassware.
When it comes to accommodation in Zadar, visitors can chose from a vast array of large wellness & spa hotels, family-held boutique hotels, hostels for younger travellers and auto-camps.
FOOD, DRINKS & SHOPPING
Cafe culture is just as strong in Zadar as it is in other parts of Croatia. Here you can find both smaller family-held cafes with an intimate atmosphere, as well as more lounge-like places. Make sure to try Maraschino, a prestigious cherry liqueur originating from Zadar, once enjoyed by the British king George IV and queen Victoria, the French king Louis XVIII, Russian tsar Nikola I, Napoleon Bonaparte and many others.
Mediterranean cuisine is the cornerstone of Dalmatian cuisine, which means that Zadar is abundant in restaurants offering all varieties of popular Dalmatian specialties based on fish and seafood.
Zadar has many small boutiques in the Old Town where you can purchase traditional souvenirs and locally made products. In addition, there are several shopping centres dotting the town offering everything from clothes to food. For locally-grown produce make sure to visit Zadar’s marketplace – pijaca.
Zadar is located in a region exceptionally rich in natural treasures and cultural heritage. Located several miles south of Zadar is the historic town of Biograd, the crowning site of the Croatian kings, and Nin, a town nestling in a magnificent sandy lagoon and home to the world’s smallest cathedral.
Zadar’s area in abundant in hundreds of tiny islands, such as Silba, Olib, Premuda, Ist and Skarda, that are perfect for a sailing exploration, as well as larger islands like Pasman, Ugljan and Dugi Otok that are incredible destinations on their own. Pasman boasts with the cleanest waters on the Adriatic, Dugi Otok is home to the wonderful Telascica Nature Park and the Saharun Beach, one of the most mesmerizing beaches on the Adriatic, whilst Ugljan offers one of the most breathtaking views of the Zadar Archipelago from its St. Michaels Fortress. In the vicinity is Pag Island with Zrce Beach, the go-to destination for party enthusiasts.
Kornati National Park offer wonderful sailing and diving adventures, while at Paklenica National Park situated on the slopes of Mount Velebit above Zadar are a perfect escape from the sun-drenched summer days for rock-climbers and nature enthusiasts. Close are the Zrmanja River, a popular rafting spot, and Lake Vrana Nature Park, a spectacular ornithological reserve.
Photo Credit: (1) Ivo Pervan, Croatia Tourist Board, (2) Velid Jakupovic, Photonet, (3) Ignacio Garcia, Flickr, (4) Ivo Dunatov, Photonet, (5) Ireyere, Flickr), (6) Delaina Haslam, Flickr, (7) Mladen Radolović, Photonet, (8) Boris Kacan, Photonet, (9) Aleksandar Gospić, Photonet, (10), Kiran Bahra, Flickr