A classic Dalmatian destination in many ways, historic Šibenik is coming into its own after being somewhat left behind by nearby Zadar and Split. One city with two UNESCO sites, current attractions range from a falconry centre to a renovated masterpiece of Renaissance heritage, the Cathedral of St James. Fringed by a pretty if underused harbour, Šibenik makes a pleasant, undemanding change from its now tourist-swamped coastal counterparts, while still offering quality Adriatic cuisine at an improving array of restaurants.
RECOMMENDED: where to eat, sleep and drink in Šibenik
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20 great things to do in Šibenik
Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2018, Šibenik’s International Children’s Festival involves kids in theatre, film, music, puppetry and the visual arts for two weeks each June. Staged in the city’s streets, squares and major landmarks, the ICF puts participation and tuition to the fore, holding workshops in subjects as diverse as dance, graphic design, comics and video. Many activities are carried out in Croatian but there is plenty of international focus, where the common language is English. Foreign theatre companies are regularly invited each year to perform. The dates for ICF 2018 have been set as June 16 to 30.
It’s not vast by any means, occupying a traditional old stone house close to the cathedral, but Šibenik’s Aquarium Terrarium contains enough variety to keep most kids interested for an hour or so, more if you time your visit around a feeding time. Sealife is the main focus, with beautiful bright tropical fish, a lively octopus, small sharks, lobsters, morays and all kinds of crabs, but you’ll also find a number of reptiles, including a pair of somewhat ravenous tegu lizards from South America.
For centuries, Croatians up and down the coast, and over on the islands, lived in fear of invasion from the Ottomans, who dominated the Balkan hinterland. Šibenik was defended by four fortresses, the most formidable being St Nicholas, Tvrđava Sv Nikole, which guards the narrow channel into the city from its vantage point on the islet of Ljuljevac. It was here, about half a century before the decisive sea battle of Lepanto of 1571, that locals begged their Venetian rulers to construct a fortification so impregnable no Turk would dream of coming near it. Having to clear a whole monastery, St Nicholas, to do so, the Venetians carried out the request to the letter, creating a citadel across the whole island. Never tested from that day to this, St Nicholas is a prime example of defensive architecture, one of six built by Venice recently designated as a collective UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Part of the Solaris Beach Resort but open to all visitors, the Solaris Aquapark is the first of its kind in Croatia, a themed water park where children can let loose in perfect safety over 8,000 square metres. Attractions include slides, waterfalls, jets and sprinklers, as well as the lazy river that allows you to negotiate the complex in relative serenity before passing under a huge barrel of water that tips out on anyone below it from a height of 13 metres. There’s also a fairytale cave to explore. Parents can take a break on the beach chairs spread out beneath the shade of welcome parasols, and a snack bar awaits with home-made ice cream.
A ten-minute drive from Šibenik in the modest village of Dubrava, the Sokolarski Centar is a visitor attraction and place of education. Most of all, though, Sokolarski is a rescue centre, set up by Emilio Mendjušić, who has also tapped into the centuries-old tradition of falconry. Here hundreds of injured birds of prey are treated each year. By throwing this sanctuary open to the public, and gathering a team of some two-dozen falconers, Mendjušić both funds his healing mission and allows visitors to observe first-hand the tricks and training needed to master the noble art of falconry. The centre is open right up to November and then from March, usually welcoming groups of schoolchildren during the autumn and early spring, and tourists during the summer season. Visitors may spend the day here or sign up for a course to learn more about ornithology and bird protection.
What could be better? At the Krešimir IV, you are not only backdropped by the walls of the 14th-century Monastery of St Francis, but overlookingŠibenik’s palm-fringed embankment from its elevated location, with the Adriatic no distance beyond. That would obviously be pleasant enough, but throw in an excellent wine selection of mainly Dalmatian origin, dozens of Croatia’s latest craft beers and no fewer than 100-plus from Germany, Belgium and beyond, not to mention top-quality coffee, and you have a very impressive destination bar indeed. Occasional live music and regular exhibitions round out the venue’s many attractions.
Prvić is a pretty little island, a half-hour from Šibenik by regular, affordable ferry. Most come here for relaxation amid the olive groves and vineyards, maybe find a rocky beach or two. Few appreciate that these simple pleasures were also enjoyed by Faust Vrančić, who spent many a happy summer here as a boy in the mid 1500s. Later he become an eminent scientist and engineer, known around the Venetian Republic as Fausto Veranzio, later to go down in history as the creator of the first practical parachute. Described and drawn in his scholary tome ‘Machinae Novae’, the parachute was allegedly tested by Veranzio himself by leaping off St Mark’s Tower in Venice. He later died in Venice, his body laid to rest on his beloved Prvić, at St Mary of Mercy Church near today’s Hotel Maestral. Here, too, is a fascinating Memorial Centre, with life-size models of Veranzio’s inventions, multimedia displays and examples of his written works.
Within easy reach of Šibenik, the nearest main town, Krka National Park is one of the great natural wonders in a national filled with them. Not quite as popular as Plitvice, another verdant paradise to which it is often compared, Krka has the considerable advantage of encouraging active participation, or at least, accommodating it. While plunging into the waters around Plitvice is strictly prohibited, Krka allows visitor to swim around Skradinski buk, the lagoon at the foot of a series of 17 dramatic waterfalls. So popular is the plunge that in 2017, the authorities had to limit admission numbers. Skradinski buk can also be admired from one of the boardwalks or from the comfort of an excursion boat that also takes in the equally impressive Roški slap waterfall further upstream, and Visovac, a 16th-century monastery set on its own island. In total, Krka National Park runs along the river it is named after for more than half of its 72.5-kilometre journey, allowing for any number of treks along its many trails, looking out for wolves, golden eagles, boar and peregrine falcons.
Opened in 2016 in the presence of the mayor of Šibenik and a number of former Tito Partisans, the Victory Museum tells the story of the liberation of Dalmatia from Fascist forces in 1944. This seminal period in modern history is not something that’s covered in depth in many Croatian cities, for sensitive reasons. With significant documentation in English, this permanent exhibition shows how Tito’s forces, with eventual help from the Allies, cleared Dalmatia of Italian and German troops, illustrated with diagrams, maps, original documentation and photographs from the time. Archive footage screened in a multimedia room brings events to life. Star guest at the official opening was Vinko Guberino, a callow 16 year old when he returned to his home town of Šibenik soon after its liberation, having seen action around Dalmatia and islands. The museum is located near the Tourist Office in the heart of Šibenik, closing on Sundays, otherwise operating 10am-1pm, 5pm-7pm.
Painstakingly researched and landscaped by award-winning architect Dragutin Kiš, the Medieval Mediterranean Gardens fills a prominent space around the former St Lawrence Monastery, on the edge of Šibenik’s historic centre. The plot had lain unkempt for centuries until landscaping expert Kiš andhis team set to work, carefully planting medicinal herbs and plants in the shape of a cross, juxtaposed with the occasional fruit tree for colour. The end result is both practical – it’s also an educational resource, as local schoolchildren are regularly involved in maintaining it – as well as a relaxing tourist attraction, visitors following the pathways or spending a quiet ten minutes enjoying the peace and greenery on the patio. It operates year-round, hosting open-air events in summer.
An international food conference run by local aces Peligrini, Chefs' Stage brings food experts and industry leaders together to celebrate the country's increasingly visible gastronomy scene. Traversing the culinary and historical landscapes of the Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Venetian empires, Croatian food is starting to gain the recognition it deserves on the world stage. Newly Michelin-starred Peligrini is at the forefront of this foodie revolution. Tasting sessions, masterclasses and gala dinners feature over this weekend in March. Local food writers and chefs from around Croatia are also invited to take part in proceedings.
Alongside the Cathedral of St James, facing the Adriatic, the medieval Rector’s Palace was converted into the Šibenik City Museum in 1975, occupying the atrium and south wing. As was the way with museums at that time, this institution is quite old-school – you shouldn’t come here expecting hands-on features and displays that move or light up. However, given the unique nature of Šibenik in relation to its neighbours, settlements built by Greeks, Romans or both, evidence of the local Illyrian and Croatian heritage here offer a different insight than you’ll find in Split or Zadar. For a start, it goes way back, to the Danilian era some 6,000 years ago, around 4,000-4,500BC, named after the village of Danilo close to Šibenik where important discoveries were found in the 1950s. Artefacts here, particuarly ceramics, shed light on just how developed so-called Danilian Culture was, thousands of years before the Romans. Look out, too, for the sparkling medieval jewellery and overview of Šibenik’s development in the 1200s and 1300s.
Every Croatian town should have an Azimut, a fun, unpretentious hangout in the city centre where you might come across an alternative live act, a DJ or an exhibition, all over the course of three days. What it probably won’t be is boring. Concerts are given by a broad range of Croatian performers. In December 2017 alone, these included Azimut hosted Zagreb’s radical, masked electropop band Nipplepeople, Šibenik four-piece heavy rock outfit Rival, and energetic soul-funk outfit Spectrum from Vodice, trombone, trumpet and all. Tucked in behind the waterfront near the Cathedral of St James, with its junkyard furniture and pretty inner courtyard, Azimut is an easily accessible and funky spot to spend an evening out, whatever the entertainment. Affordable drinks prices, too.
Seated, as if in judgement, in statue form on an elevated point at the end of the city’s embankment looking out to the Adriatic, Peter Krešimir IV would be proud of the Šibenik that he did most to create. Known to Croats Peter the Great, Krešimir instigated the creation of what is now the historic centre of town. The flag you see in the City Museum, bearing the Šibenik coat of arms dates back to 1066, about halfway through Krešimir’s rule. Among the many things he accomplished was Croatia’s expansion eastwards, past Sarajevo in the south and Varaždin in the north, and to set the country’s religious orientation towards Rome rather than Constantinople. The one thing he didn’t achieve was to procreate a male heir, and he may have been deposed by his cousin. The history of this period is too opaque to know for sure.
Within the Solaris leisure and hotel complex on an Adriatic-facing headland a short drive from the historic centre, Amadria Park Lifestyle Jure is the kind of hotel Šibenik has been waiting for for years. Four-star plus and full of amenities – an events room, a restaurants, a beach club – the Amadria Park contains the Jure Spa, where you can order a whole raft of massage treatments from expert therapists, spend the afternoon hopping between three saunas (steam, bio and Finnish) with their full-length glass walls overlooking the outdoor pool, laze in the relaxarium zone and treat tired muscles to the water jets below the surface of the saltwater pool. Here, amid the decking and the sun loungers, you can finish your day’s pampering in the open air, as the sun goes down.
Opened in 2015, the Museum of St Francis is named after the adjoining monastery that dates back to the 1300s, the imposing white building that dominates the far end of Šibenik’s main waterside promenade. It’s the kind of ecclesiastical landmark that would have a fusty old library only open to researchers of medieval history. Here, not a bit of it. Yes, it has a library, a most impressive one, filled with 10,000 volumes, including the pricelessŠibenska molitva, one of the first known pieces of text in Croatian and Latin. But the museum also has interactive and audiovisual sections that bring the 700-year history of monastic activity to life, giving the visitor a vivid picture of the simple life serving God in the Middle Ages. Essential documentation has English translation. A lovely landscaped garden completes the picture.
The term ‘architectural masterpiece’ is one bandied about surprisingly rarely on Croatia’s Adriatic coast. The Diocletian Palace in Split is an atmospheric ruin, Zadar Cathedral is prosaic at best, but here in Šibenik, the Cathedral of St James is an exquisite example of Gothic Renaissance craftsmanship. Created from fine white limestone and marble from Brač, this UNESCO World Heritage site, a basilica of three naves, a signature dome but no tower, is mainly the work of two architects who required 100 years to build it. Juraj Dalmatinac, whose statue stands on a tall column outside the main entrance, was originally commissioned to craft a Renaissance jewel from a hotly debated Gothic model. Before his death in 1473, he left behind the main portal, the Lion Gate and the stunning baptistry. Leaving his signature on the north apse, Dalmatinac also created a frieze showing likenesses in stone of the prominent citizens withheld funds and caused decades-long delays to the project. Niccolò di Giovanni Fiorentino completed the master architect’s work, though the signature dome echoes the Florentine roots of this later sculptor. The cathedral still required another 30 years to finish after Fiorentino’s death, and was consecrated in 1555. The Cathedral of St James was then restored after significant damage by Serbian shelling in 1991.
Sprawling over 15,000 square metres at Pakovo Selo, the other side of Krka National Park from Šibenik, Etnoland is a recreation of a traditional Dalmatian community, demonstrating and celebrating a way of life that lasted over many generations. Accessible by a pre-booked tour that lasts 90 minutes or three hours plus if you’re staying for lunch, this walled complex comprises an ensemble of green-shuttered stone houses, each filled with the kind of rustic furnishings that would have been in domestic use a century or so ago. The attraction here is the demonstrations, showing how smoked ham, rakija brandy and other local specialities are prepared, classic Dalmatian dishes slow-roasted by the old-school peka method then offered to visitors. In summer, they stage open-air performances of Dalmatian folk tunes and dances.
Awarded the honour of Best Restaurant in Dalmatia in 2016 and 2017 by the discerning judges at Croatia-wide Dobri Restorani, Pelegrini is the kind of establishment worth creating a city visit around. Run by passionate chef-owner Rudi Štefan, this top-notch eaterie runs on a philosophy of tradition and innovation, perhaps reflected in its prime location amid the historic stone edifices of Šibenik offset by swish contemporary decor and furnishings. Certainly, the open kitchen takes classic Dalmatian cuisine and goes to town with it, eliciting the freshest flavours of hake, monkfish or lamb and balancing them with just the right choice of vegetable or staple accompaniment, nearly all sourced from nearby waters, farms and markets. The wines are also selected with care and experience. The results can be sampled within the framework of a meal extending over several courses, minimum four, spanning starters, daily soup, first, main and dessert. Assuming expense isn’t a huge issue, the way to go might be the Tasting Menu for a current basic price of 865kn/€117.
Renovated and reopened with a spectacular light show in 2016, Fort Barone was originally built in double-quick time during fears of Turkish invasion in the mid 1600s. The era is now captured and dramatised as part of the augmented reality system that walks visitors through the design, military planning and architecture of the day. Hiring AR glasses from the ticket office, you can let a local historian and an eye-witness account reveal what life was like under Ottoman siege, as was the case in 1646. The fortress now also features the Barone Bistro, a panoramic café-eaterie that puts local fare and wines to the fore, inventive seafood and meaty nibbles complemented by the lesser-known labels of regional wine producers.