The best things to do in Zadar
Installed in 2005, the bizarre but immensely popular Sea Organ created by Zadar-educated Nikola Bašić has given a new dimension to the city’s waterfront. As you approach the steps at the tip of the peninsula that contains the town centre, strange noises arise from holes drilled into the marble, linked to 35 organ pipes beneath the waves. These create unworldly sounds randomly dictated by the ebb and flow of the water, an unusually comforting feeling as you lie on the flat stones and sunbathe.
Zadar’s jewel in the crown is its unique collection of religious artefacts and Venetian art housed in two floors of the Treasury alongside the Church of St Mary. Known as the Gold and Silver of Zadar, it comprises sumptuous, shining reliquaries containing limbs of sundry saints, icons and crucifixes, all painstakingly decorated and finely carved. These were curated over hundreds of years by Benedictine nuns – the adjoining convent (benediktinke-zadar.com) is still in operation.
Zadar’s signature drink is advertised all over town, splashes of cherry red embellishing uniform walls and bursting out of billboards. After olives and grapes, maraschino cherries are the third largest crop in the region and they have gone into the commercial production of the sweet-yet-slightly-sour liqueur Maraska since the 1700s. Most cafés and bars will sell it, matured in special oak casks and poured from a particular type of bottle encased in hand-woven reed. Revived in modern times, the liqueur has long been an essential element of sophisticated cocktails such as the Aviation, created at the Hotel Wallick in New York in 1916.
A narrow street that dog-legs from behind the former Hotel Zagreb on Zadar’s south quay, Stomorica is lined with tiny bars whose furniture is placed outside for nearly 12 months of the year. Certainly, in summer, the pavement action here is hectic until well into the night, a constant hubbub of merriment. Since the sad closure of alternative music spot Kantun, few bars stand out – you won’t be inside any of them to differentiate, only to pop in to use the facilities as the beers keep on coming. You might mingle at busy Kult and hear a few old Stones tunes blasting out of Lotus but specifics will be a blur come the next morning.
It would be no exaggeration to say that The Garden, a Brit-run lounge bar and nightspot atop the Venetian city walls in full view of Zadar’s stunning sunsets, has transformed the town from northern Dalmatian backwater to sought-after, summer-long party hub. Not all of this partying takes place here, amid sink-in-able loungers and the sounds of occasional DJs, but at the music festivals spawned by The Garden team that run most of the season at out-of-town sites such as Tisno. While The Garden’s no longer runs its own festival, closed after ten successful years, it welcomes hordes of partygoers looking to chill over cocktails and perhaps a game of chess to a lower-key electronica soundtrack.
Behind his longer-established Sea Organ installation, Nikola Bašić has devised another creation powered by nature: Greeting to the Sun. It depicts the solar system in the form of a circle, illuminated by photovoltaic cells in irregular but bewitching colours and patterns as the sun moves across the sky then spreads out across it in the panoply of Zadar’s celebrated fiery sunset. Not as immediate as its wave-driven partner work, Greeting to the Sun requires a lot more thought and investigation on the part of the viewer – or the casual passer-by strolling along Obala kralja Petra Krešimira IV.
Right on Zadar’s main square originally laid out as a Roman forum, the Archaeological Museum displays a reconstruction of how downtown Iadera would have looked around the time of Christ. Centrepiecing the same regular street pattern still in place today, the forum would have been the hub of civic life, its colonnades and temples, recreated here in model form, typical of any Roman municipum in many historic Mediterranean cities. Mosaics, sculpture, weaponry and glassware hint at how developed civilisation would have been here 2,000 years ago.
Arguably the top table in Zadar, certainly the eaterie with the best location, overlooking the headland and regular passage of boats heading for Ugljan and Dugi otok, Kornat is known for its monkfish. Here served with truffles and home-made gnocchi, it just gets the nod over the John Dory and sea bass, other stand-outs in a menu complemented by daily specials. Monkfish also makes an appearance as a warm appetiser, in a risotto with basil-and-fig pesto.
Based at Ždrijac beach by Nin, just outside Zadar, Surfmania is the place to come if you want to find out how to windsurf or kiteboard. Your qualified instructor will show you the ropes, in English, either a three-day, six-hour course for beginners or a two-day, four-hour refresher session for initiates. All equipment and materials are provided. Kite-boarding is a little less strenuous and time-consuming, and there’s stand-up paddling available too.
Before the relatively recent hoohah created by The Garden lounge bar, Zadar had its day in the sun when it was visited by Oscar-winning Hollywood film director Alfred Hitchcock. In May 1964, he and his wife pulled up in a Lincoln Continental, and quickly became the talk of the town as they wandered around a city still shattered by Allied bombing 20 years before. Staying in room 204 at the Hotel Bristol, Hitchcock had been drawn to Zadar because of its celebrated sunset. Hoping to use the city as the setting for an upcoming movie, he signed autographs as he took a number of photographs with his camera and tripod. As he did so, local cameraman Ante Brkić snapped his own pictures of Hitchcock, which later won international awards. Hitchcock never came back to make his film but mark this unusual event, a series of billboards depicting the director has been set up around the quayside near what was the Hotel Bristol, today the Zagreb, long awaiting reconstruction.
The Museum of Illusions is a great option if you’re in Zadar with the kids and you get a rainy day. Calling itself a smart playroom for the brain, it’s full of holograms, optical games, puzzles, kaleidoscopes, mirages and mirrors, the favourites being the anti-gravity room and the vortex tunnel. If you’ve got a birthday party to organise, you can even hire an illusionist with his own box of tricks.
For more than 800 years, rowboats have been serving the Zadar waterfront, taking passengers from Obala kneza Trpimira embankment on the mainland to the Liburnska obala beside the historic centre on the peninsula. The passage takes ten minutes – drop a few coins on the oarman’s coat, spread out at the back of the small wooden vessel. Your ferryman will have learned his job from his father, who learned from his father before him. By opting to be rowed over the water rather than walk round to the footbridge, you are helping extend a long and proud tradition. You should find a bobbing boat waiting below the Tankerkomerc office on the modern side of the waterfront.
The Italian influence around Zadar runs deeper than just architecture, decent pizzas and 20th-century history. Every summer, Zadar’s many cafés and ice-cream parlours outdo each other to provide tourists with the finest gelato. For kids, the Slastičarna Donat gets the nod, for with its towering, all-colour creations of the old-school knickerbocker glory variety, guaranteed to get a ‘Wow!’ when brought out before them. Adults might prefer the more contemporary, organic offerings at Eva il Gelato Originale, based at Mihovila Pavlinovića 8, where a dizzying range of flavours is created according to original recipes.
With so many hotels cropping up in and around Zadar these days, there seems little reason to consider a standard lodging a ten-minute walk from the train station and even longer from town. But most don’t visit the Tamaris to stay there – they go there for the lamb. Spit-roasted in the traditional way, an expert hand occasionally turning the succulent creature over glowing hot coals, this is meat as fine as you’ll find around nearby Pag, home of Croatian lamb. This is old-school Dalmatian dining, no nouvelles or fusions about it, and all the better for it.
The Venetians twice ruled over Zadar, once when they conquered the city in 1202, then again when they were sold it by King Ladislaus in 1409. This was just as well, because a century or so later, the Turks were knocking at the door. The Venetians duly fortified the town, building a series of gates that still serve as pristine examples of their architecture today. By the little harbour of Foša, the Land Gate, Kopnena vrata, gateway to Zadar’s historic Roman centre, displays the Shield of St Mark, the Venetian coat of arms. Halfway to the far end of the peninsula, tucked in from the ferry port, the Sea Gate was built in 1573 to mark the victory of the naval Battle of Lepanto two years before. These monuments are not surrounded by glass or manned by a security guard but are walked through hundreds of times a day, just as locals and their Venetian rulers would have done 450 years ago.
Being the largest of its kind in Dalmatia and built the best part of a millennium ago, St Anastasia’s Cathedral (Katedrala sv Stošije) would be worth a good look around anyway, not least for its rose windows and ninth-century stone casket containing the remains of the saint in question. But climb the bell tower, then keep climbing, and you are rewarded for your trouble with a stunning view across the city. From this vantage point slap in the middle of Zadar’s historic Roman centre, it takes in 2,000 years of history and miles of blue Adriatic beyond.
Set up every day behind St Chrysogonus Church in the heart of the city’s historic centre, Zadar market is a sight in itself, all greens, reds and oranges from the wealth of fresh local produce on display. It’s even worth having a wander around the indoor fish market, even if don’t have cooking options where you’re staying, just to see what’s been caught that day. For stuff to take home, there’ll be jars of home-made honey and preserves and bottles of wine, olive oil and rakija spirits, not to mention Maraska, Zadar’s signature cherry-flavoured liqueur. The market is also handy for cheap knick-knacks for the beach.
There can be few better settings to hear medieval music being played live than in the ninth-century rotunda of St Donat’s Church (Crkva sv Donata), historic symbol of Zadar. The largest Byzantine building in Croatia, St Donat’s has long been abandoned as a place of worship. But its wonderful acoustics are put to good use every summer when it plays a leading role in a three-week festival of medieval music that starts in July. Its name, Musical Evenings in St Donat is something of a misnomer, as the Roman forum, St Anastasia’s Cathedral and the Great Hall at Zadar University also co-host – but St Donat’s is its most revered and iconic venue.
Borik beach is Zadar’s latest nighlife hub. Where there was once just a campsite, there is now a ring of sea-facing bars, an upgraded marina and hub of international-standard resort hotels a short bus ride from town. One addition to this burgeoning scene is Famous, a self-styled ‘beach house and grill’, all done out in bright Caribbean colours. The attraction here, apart from the expansive terrace and sun loungers, is the phenomenal range of beers, more than 200 in all, including eight on draught. There’s affordable bar food too, burgers, beer-steamed mussels and fried calamari. Everything rolls on until 1.30am, then starts again for coffee in the morning.