When I booked a long weekend in Zadar, I knew nothing about Croatia. I didn’t even know what the currency was. I was pretty sure I could point to it on a map, but when I checked, I turned out to be wrong.
That might not sound like a great start to a trip, but for me it was a perfect chance to explore a new place and different culture. And it gave me total freedom for spontaneity when I arrived.
The Old Town of Zadar juts out into the Adriatic, with the sea on 3 sides. It has a completely different feel to the large bustling New Town: it’s small and peaceful, and you feel as though you could walk down any street and discover something beautiful, whether that’s a bright mural or the ancient remains of a Roman building.
Zadar is also a musical town: the contrapuntal ringing of church bells in the morning; buskers catching coins in a guitar case; drunken singers outside cafes and bars (who somehow seem to have a much better sense of pitch & tuning than drunk singers in the UK); choirs in the chapels & churches; a circle of women in traditional dress, facing inwards and singing apparently only for their own enjoyment; the haunting notes of the Sea Organ as the waves wash over it; the deep horn of a department cruise ship; even a couple of tourists letting out impromptu bursts of song to test the fabulous acoustics of St Donatus.
But somehow, despite all this music and noise, Zadar’s Old Town feels quiet.
Perhaps it’s the clean and uncluttered streets, which are so shiny that at first I struggled to walk on them. Perhaps it’s the wide open Roman Forum at the Old Town’s centre. Or perhaps it’s the lack of modern busy buildings, the relative lack of tourists, or the constant presence of the sea.
Whatever reason, Zadar’s Old Town is a refuge from everyday life, and a beautiful place for a weekend break to get away from it all.
It’s a town of colours: blue sky & sea; green trees & the grass of the Roman Forum; red rooftops from the top of the cathedral tower; and white shining streets, buildings, ancient stone & sunlight gleaming off the sea.
It’s a town to sit and drink wine looking out towards the buildings, or to roam the streets with a mojito ice cream in your hand.
It’s a town to explore and to relax.
72 Hours in Zadar
DAY 1 // ZADAR
Check into your accommodation: There are plenty of places to stay in Zadar’s Old Town, and a surprisingly good number of budget options too – including the best hostel I’ve ever stayed in.
Lunch: What better way to start a trip than with lunch and a glass of wine overlooking the sea, or people-watching in the Roman Forum? There are plenty of restaurants around the edge of the Forum, and on the short walk down towards the sea.
Roman Forum: The Roman Forum is right at the heart of Zadar’s Old Town. It dates from the 3rd century, but was actually only rediscovered when Zadar was bombed in the 1930s. Since then, it’s been restored, and is now open to the public. It isn’t a fenced off visitor attraction that you have to pay to enter. Instead, it’s become the hub of Zadar’s Old Town, and you’ll often see religious meetings taking place, or buskers, or groups of friends sitting on stones to eat their lunch, or children playing around the Roman walls.
St Donatus: A huge structure plonked right on the edge of the Forum, St Donatus Church is hard to miss. When Donatus built the church in the 9th century, it was called Holy Trinity, but it was renamed after its founder in the 15th century. From the outside, its rough stone reminds you of its age. It’s imposing as it towers over the low walls of the ruined Forum. But head inside, and its height has a different effect: a high soaring ceiling and a circle of white stone arches. It’s light and cool, and if you’re brave enough to sing a couple of notes in there, the acoustic sends them echoing in your ears and through your whole body.
Climb the cathedral tower: Right next to St Donatus is the cathedral. The cathedral itself is often closed and has strict clothing stipulations (no bare legs or shoulders). But it’s beautiful to look at from the outside, and the best part of it is the tower, which you can climb for a bargain price of 15kn (about £1.60). As this is the tallest building in the Old Town, it gives you a great view across the town, and really helps you get a feel for the layout of the place. And on a sunny day, the blue of the sky and sea meets the terracotta roofs and the green of neighbouring islands to create a dazzlingly colourful display.
Wander the streets with a camera in your hand: This is always one of my favourite things to do in a new place. It’s usually number one on my to-do list, but in Zadar, it’s best to do it after you’ve been up the cathedral tower, so you have a sense of the geography of the place. But there’s also plenty to photograph once you’re back down on the ground, from little parks, to elegant buildings, to Roman ruins, to buskers on the street.
Dinner: Wandering the streets is also a great chance to check out some of those bars and restaurants for an evening meal. Or if you’d rather go for something less heavy, there are plenty of street-side stores selling sandwiches, pastries and pizza slices.
Sunset by the sea: Grab an ice cream from one of the many many shops, and wander down towards the sea. From the Forum, walk to the water’s edge and then turn right. At the end of the boulevard, you can find the Monument to the Sun. This solar-powered installation, representing the sun and planets of our solar system, soaks up the sun’s energy during the day, and at night gives off a rainbow of coloured light that starts to glow as the sun sets. Here, you should also be able to hear the music from the Sea Organ, caused by the waves in the organ’s pipes under your feet. The bigger the waves, the louder the music.
DAY 2 // PLITVICE LAKES NATIONAL PARK
Plitvice Lakes National Park: This is a must visit for anyone staying in Zadar. A day trip that takes you away from the town and inland, Plitvice Lakes is a paradise of clear turquoise lakes, bright green forests, and rushing waterfalls. It’s the sort of place you arrive and think you’ve been there before, and then realise it’s because you’ve seen photos of it on blogs and calendars and screen-savers. There are official day trips running from Zadar, but it’s much cheaper and more rewarding to visit independently.
Wander around Zadar Old Town: When you get back, spend your evening wandering around the Old Town. Listen to buskers, snap up another ice cream, and explore the lit streets at night.
DAY 3 // BOAT TRIP
Islands trip: Zadar is surrounded by islands, and with all that sea surrounding you, it would be a shame not to get on or in it. Ferries to the nearby islands leave from Zadar’s harbour (just a couple of minutes’ walk from the Forum), or you can also book a place on a small boat trip from here. (The small boat trips will stop and let you swim in some of the coves, and will take you to multiple islands, rather than just the one.) NB: on Sundays, the only ferry goes to Preko, where there’s a very limited bus service and not many swimming options within walking distance of the ferry terminal.
Bar: For your final night, why not relax with a beer or two, or a couple of glasses of wine, in one of Zadar’s many bars? There are a couple of bars where you can sit outside overlooking the Roman Forum, with a sea breeze blowing through the trees, watching the world go by. What better way to end your trip?