It has a waterfront, but no beaches. It has tourists, but you don’t feel like you’re drowning in masses. It also has an Old Town, but it doesn’t feel like a contrived hotspot geared for those that don’t live there.
What is it about Zadar – the gateway to Dalmatia – that attracts us, yet makes us appreciate how understated it actually is?
Sveti Donat (Church of St. Donatus)
The promontory on which the old town sits – which was once an island – is like a micro city itself. It’s a place for residents to live, work and study, it’s dotted with Roman ruins, museums, many stunning old churches and enough to keep visitors occupied for the duration of their stay.
The monumental 9th century Church of St. Donatus, with its circular pre-Romanesque façade, is the most famous edifice in Croatia. Today it’s used for musical performances due to its extraordinary acoustics. General admission is 20 kuna.
Next to it is the Cathedral of Saint Anastasia – the largest in Dalmatia. This early Christian basilica has had numerous alterations and additions, but its present Romanesque appearance was formed in the 12th century. You can even climb its bell tower for 15 kuna for the best views in town.
Five Wells Square
The Old Town is a breeze to walk around – no hills, relatively easy navigation and plenty to discover in your wanderings. I love how you just walk around a corner and stumble upon a small flower market, a strip of local taverns and cafés or a historic site.
You’re bound to stumble upon Five Wells Square – a site between the medieval city walls and the Renaissance bastion Grimani on the southeast corner of the old town. Once a defensive ditch below the old city walls, it was transformed into a cistern topped with five ornamental wells by the Venetians in the 16th century.
Cogito Coffee – Poljana Pape Aleksandra III B
Coffee & Cake – Ulica Braće Vranjana 5-7
Traditional layered cake called mađarica
Anyone that’s been to Croatia knows how obsessed these people are with coffee, and it goes without saying there’s a plethora of cafés up for sampling.
From cigarette smoke-filled caffeine dens frequented by local dudes, an espresso and something sweet from Coffee & Cake or a single origin Chemix or V60 from Cogito Coffee – there’s something for everyone.
And let’s not forget about the ice cream joints along Široka ulica near the cathedral.
One of my favourite places in any new town or city is the market. Zadar’s pride and joy is Gradska Tržnica – or City Market – located exactly where it’s always been since the Middle Ages.
Here you’ll find the best local produce from the islands of Pašman and Ugljan, plus fruit and veg grown in the Vransko jezero region – a freshwater lake southeast of the city.
Expect to see all your glorious seasonal fresh produce, dried pulses and legumes – including carob pods. The pods can be eaten as they are and they taste just like sweet caramel.
At the north corner of the outdoor market there are a few clothing stalls, and just behind them, the wet market for any fresh or saltwater critters you may need to buy.
Homemade olive oils and brandies are offered, and even cakes.
One local specialty is smokvenjak, a dried fig cake that contains almonds and brandy. This is perfect sliced into pieces and served with a sharp cheese like the ones from the nearby island of Pag. Absolutely divine!
Cathedral of Saint Anastasia
Restauran Bar Atrij – Ulica Jurja Barakovića 6
Finding a place to grab a bite or an afternoon drink is made very easy in the old town. Just about any street you walk down has somewhere worth considering.
For people watching, there’s Restauran Bar Atrij just down from the arched gate on Ulica Jurja Barakovića. During the day they serve up your typical Croatian offerings like grilled meats and seafood, pizza and pasta. Come the evenings and it transforms into a lounge bar, and those plinth seats on the pavement are perfect to watch the world go by.
A little less busy is Illy Bar, a café tucked down a laneway with seating that spills into a lovely stone-walled courtyard. As the name suggests, they use Illy beans for their coffee, but if it’s a beer or cocktail that you’re after, they do those too.
Illy Bar – Ulica Rudjera Boshkovica 4
Gricko Grill – Ulica dr. Franje Tuđmana 54
Whilst the Old Town is filled with loads of restaurants, we did head across Gradski Most (City Bridge) for a tasty bite at Gricko Grill. This roadside grill does some mean ćevapi sandwiches served in traditional lepinje (buns), a handful of salads and baklava for dessert.
The guy running the show is very friendly, and his leafy courtyard set-up is a fab spot to sit, relax and chomp into some decent food.
Back in the old town there’s the very popular restaurant strip of Stomorica Ulica in the Varoš district. Plenty of wonderful eateries that cover all budgets and flavours. It was here that we settled on Trattoria Canzona, a cosy Italian joint with outdoor seating and a buzzy atmosphere thanks to its laneway location.
Pizza, pasta, grilled meats and seafood – can’t go wrong.
Trattoria Canzona – Stomorica Ulica 8
Morske Orgulje (Sea Organ)
Zadar may not have beaches, but it still has a lovely waterfront that’s designed for walking and enjoying the expansive outlooks.
Situated on the northwestern corner of Riva is the Sea Organ – a series of broad steps that extend 70 metres along the shoreline. Beneath the steps is a network of chambers and channels where air and water is funnelled through pipes that have labiums attached, which play 7 chords and 5 tones as the natural motion of the water travels through them. The resulting sounds are hypnotic and increase when a boat passes.
Right by the Sea Organ is the Sun Salutation. The 22m diameter installation is made up of 300 multilayered glass plates that store the sun’s energy during the day, powering the lighting system along the entire waterfront.
From sundown to sunrise it also transforms into a colourful lighting display that’s meant to simulate the solar system. It sure keeps everyone’s cameras busy!
Pozdrav Suncu (Sun Salutation)
Buses leave Primošten every hour or so and take 2½ hrs. Cost is 60 kuna per person. The Zadar bus station is relatively close to the Old Town and can be walked within 30 minutes. Alternatively there are local buses and taxis that can get you there.