Avoid the crowds of Dubrovnik and Split by heading to Zadar. From historical monuments to art and culture, here are 15 wonderful things to do in Zadar.
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I’ve been to Split twice now, and although I love the city, its crowds can be rather overwhelming during the summer months, especially inside Diocletian’s Palace, with its maze of narrow streets and tall buildings.
So, what if I were to tell you that there is a quieter alternative to Split that’s just two hours further up Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast?
Zadar is the oldest continuously inhabited city in Croatia, so there’s no shortage of historical architecture and monuments here. The city also boasts a compact and attractive old town, an abundance of art and culture, an enviable restaurant scene and plenty of opportunities for swimming and sunbathing.
If this sounds like somewhere you would enjoy then read on to learn more about some of the best things to do in Zadar.
I first visited Zadar back in 2012, when I was backpacking down Croatia’s coastline, following a cycling adventure which took me from Venice to Poreč. At that point, the city wasn’t even on my radar; it just made a convenient stop-off point between Pula and Split. But, I ended up really enjoying my short time there. So, when an opportunity arose to return to Zadar in 2022 (a whole 10 years after my first visit), I jumped at the chance.
Getting to Zadar
We booked our flights from Birmingham to Zadar with Ryanair via Skyscanner. The flight time (one-way) is around two and a half hours. Great news is that Zadar’s airport is just 12 kilometres from the centre of city, which means that getting to your accommodation after you arrive is a short and relatively painless process. A bus runs from Zadar airport to its old town (‘Poluotok’) every couple of hours between around 06:00 and 22:00 hours, with a journey time of around 30 minutes. Alternatively, you can take a taxi, which will half your journey time but cost you more than five times the price of the bus fare!
When we arrived, we’d just missed a bus. But, we were lucky enough to secure seats in a shared minibus for 50 kuna each (approximately £5.70, May 2023). We did manage to haggle the driver down though!
If you’re travelling to Zadar from Split, you can catch a bus from Split’s main bus terminal (opposite the ferry port in the centre of the city) to Zadar’s bus station, around 1.5 kilometres out of town. You have two options regarding route and duration. The faster route takes around two hours and 15 minutes and follows the main highway. The slower route takes just over an hour longer, but follows the coast road, so, as you can imagine, the views are much nicer. If you’re not pushed for time, definitely take the coast road, and make sure you nab a seat on the left-hand side of the bus. You can check out the Split to Zadar bus timetables and prices here.
Where to Stay in Zadar
Zadar has so many lovely accommodation options on offer, we were spoilt for choice! I would advise staying in the old town (or very close to it), but where you stay doesn’t really matter, because Zadar’s old town is so compact it doesn’t take very long to walk from one part to another.
There were three of us in our party, so we chose to stay in an apartment (triple rooms in hotels are harder to come by and generally not as nice). This gave us extra space, and freedom to prepare and cook our own meals, if we wanted to.
If you are in the same situation and want to save yourself some time searching for an apartment that suits your needs, I can 100% recommend Viva Zadar, located just steps from the Roman Forum, St. Donatus Church, and the Archaeological Museum. It’s spacious, immaculately clean throughout, beautifully decorated, and has a large walk-in shower, two balconies (one off the bedroom and one off the living room), and a small kitchen that was sufficiently stocked for our needs. It’s also got an ‘exceptional’ rating on booking.com.
How Many Days Do I Need to Explore Zadar?
Zadar makes for a perfect long weekend break. It’s compact enough that you can tick off all the major sights (and a few extras) in just a couple of days. However, if you’d like to explore any of the surrounding islands then I would recommend tagging an extra day or two on to your stay.
Now that we’ve covered getting to Zadar, where to stay in Zadar, and how long you need to spend there, let’s move on to what there is to see and do in the city. Here are 15 wonderful things to do in Zadar.
Things to Do in Zadar
1 | Start the day right with breakfast at Kavana Coffee and Cake
I’m starting this list with a foodie recommendation, because I wholeheartedly believe that a great breakfast is the right way to start a busy day of exploring a new city!
Despite its name, Kavana Coffee and Cake actually serve a lot more than simply coffee and cake. In fact, they do some bloody nice breakfasts and brunches at pretty reasonable prices. Check out their Instagram page for some colourful, drool-worthy food photos.
I ordered a smoked salmon and cheese omelette with smashed avocado, salad, and artisan breads on the side, and it was both a good size and utterly delicious.
You can find the Google map link here.
2 | The Roman Forum
Just a few minutes walk from Kavana Coffee and Cake is Zadar’s Roman Forum. Constructed between the first century BC and the third century AD, and modelled on Rome’s equivalent, the Forum was once the centre of public life in Zadar. As well as being home to a lively marketplace and a place of worship, it was a setting for political discussions, debates and meetings.
Unfortunately, the majority of Zadar’s Roman Forum was flattened in a violent 6th century earthquake but, today, over two millenia later, you can still see the original pavement and stairs of the temple, along with two monumental columns, one of which is still in its original place. This particular column was used as a ‘pillar of shame.’ So, if you were a citizen who was convicted of wrongdoing, you would be chained to this pillar and people would be allowed to throw things at you!
3 | Visit the cathedral and climb the tower for some fantastic views
Zadar’s cathedral (or, the Cathedral of St. Anastasia, to give it its full name) is the largest church in Dalmatia. Although the cathedral’s origins date back to the 4th and 5th century, the majority of the structure you see today was constructed in the Romanesque style during the 12th and 13th centuries.
Although, it’s definitely worth a look inside, the real highlight is the views from the top of the cathedral tower.
4 Have a peak inside the Church of St. Donatus
Named after Donatus of Zadar, who began construction on this church in the 9th century, the Church of St. Donatus is the largest Pre-Romanesque building in Croatia.
The entrance to this unusual circular Byzantine-style church is through the archway above. Inside you’ll find a simple unadorned interior, with two complete Roman columns, recycled from the Forum outside.
The church hasn’t been used for services for around 200 years, but due to its 27-metre high domed ceilings and fantastic acoustics, it often serves as an exhibition space or concert hall.
5 | Learn more about Zadar’s history at the Archaeological Museum
Founded in 1832, Zadar’s Archaeological Museum is Croatia’s second oldest museum (the oldest being the archaeological museum in Split), and contains over 100,00 archaeological artifacts and monuments from Prehistoric times through to the first Croatian settlements.
We’re not massive fans of looking at artifacts and, because it was such a lovely day outside, we didn’t really want to be stuck inside a museum for several hours. However, I have been reliably informed by several different sources that this particular museum is well worth a look if you’re a bit of a history buff, or if you want to learn more about the development of the city over time, and don’t want to trawl through various internet sites to do so.
You can check current opening times and admission fees on the museum’s website.
6 | Give your brain a workout and have a good giggle at the Museum of Illusions
Museums are great places to duck into when the weather turns bad. And, believe me, this does happen in Croatia, even in summer. We visited Zadar mid May and, pretty much like clockwork, a thunderstorm would roll in at around 4 or 5 p.m. every day.
Whilst not on anywhere near the same scale as Chiang Mai’s offering, ‘Art in Paradise’, we had a lot of fun at Zadar’s Museum of Illusions.
Our favourite interactive exhibit was the vortex tunnel, but you’ll also find holograms, a mirror room, an infinity room, and countless other optical illusions that will leave you scratching your head trying to figure them out. I was especially perplexed by this one below.
If you’re travelling with kids, this is exactly the kind of place that will fuel their imagination.
Check opening times and admission prices on their website.
7 | Enjoy a coffee in Narodni Trg (People’s Square)
Formed as ‘Platea Magenta’ (the centre of public life), and embellished by several historic buildings, such as such as the City Loggia, the City Guard, and the 16th-century clock tower, Narodni Trg continues to be a popular place for people to meet and socialise.
It is, some say, where the art of drinking coffee was invented, way back in medieval times!
Regardless of whether or not you believe that, People’s Square is still one of the best places to visit in Zadar, if you want to catch up with a few friends over coffee, or take a break from a busy day of sightseeing.
What you may not know is that the remains of a pre-Romanesque 11th century church lie hidden at the back of the clock tower, and can only be reached through the premises of Cafe Lovro. St. Laurence’s Church the oldest preserved building in Zadar. It’s small and simple, but definitely worth a quick peak inside.
8 | Check out the Museum of Ancient Glass
This is another of Zadar’s museums that we absolutely loved. Some of the pieces in here will completely blow you away!
The Museum of Ancient Glass is housed inside the stunning 19th century Cosmacendi Palace, overlooking the Jazine harbour. As well as containing examples of ancient glass — goblets, jars and vials retrieved from archaeological sites across Dalmatia, delicate vessels used by Roman ladies to store perfumes, skin creams and essential oils, and glass cups used to celebrate Mass — there are also temporary exhibitions on site (admission is included in the price of your ticket).
When we visited, the exhibition on display was ‘Glass for Eternity‘ by Peter Kuchler III — a young Austrian artist who was raised in a family of glassblowers. Born in August 1991, he has worked on shaping glass in glass furnaces since he was just 14 years old.
In 2021, he was nominated for the most exciting young artist under 30 in the Forbes list for Germany, Austria and Switzerland. So, we felt very lucky to have been able to see some incredible examples of his work in a very unassuming museum in Croatia. Here are a few of my favourite pieces below.
If you time your visit right, you’ll also be able to take part in a glassblowing or lampworking (beadmaking) workshop. Have a look at the museum’s website for further information about these fun opportunities.
9 | Listen to the Unique Sounds of the Sea Organ
One of the best things to do in Zadar is to check out the Sea Organ and Sun Salutation — two totally unique and utterly fascinating creations designed by local architect Nikola Basic.
Set within the perforated stone steps that descend into the sea, the Sea Organ is a system of pipes and whistles that exude wistful sighs when the movement of the sea pushes air through it. Listening to its harmonic sounds (which increase in volume whenever a boat or ferry passes by) is calming and almost hypnotic.
You’ll catch the sea organ at its best when the sea is choppy. But, preferably try to avoid visiting in the middle of a thunderstorm, when the rain drowns out the beautiful sounds that the rough seas help to create. Trust me, I speak from experience!
10 | Enjoy a Trippy Light Show at the Sun Salutation
Whilst the Sea Organ is subtle and mystical, the Sun Salutation is flashy, colourful, and entertaining. The Sun Salutation is a 22-metre circle cut into the pavement, filled with 300 multi-layered glass plates. These glass plates gather the sun’s energy during the day and, together with the wave energy that produces the Sea Organ’s sound, deliver a wonderfully trippy light show!
If you want to photograph or video the ‘show’ without a bunch of people getting in the way, I’d advise heading to the Sun Salutation as late in the evening as possible —preferably after the majority of Zadar’s visitors have gone to bed.
I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like the Sea Organ or Sun Salutation anywhere else in the world, so these are attractions that should absolutely NOT be missed!
11 | Hang out in Five Wells Square
So named because it houses, yep you’ve guessed it, five wells! During the 16th century, the Venetians helped Zadar withstand Turkish sieges by building a large drinking water cistern with five ornamental wellheads. Although a park has now been built on top of the nearby bastion, the wellheads still exist, and are an interesting feature at the centre of this attractive square.
12 | Savour some quality food at Pet Bunara
Located on the edge of Five Wells Square is one of Zadar’s loveliest restaurants. Pet Bunara — meaning ‘five water wells’ (for obvious reasons) — has been part of Zadar’s gastronomical scene for over 40 years, serving up delicious local, seasonal, organic food in a wonderfully relaxed and friendly environment.
We stumbled into Bet Bunara, just after being caught in the middle of a thunderstorm as we left the Museum of Illusions. We were soaking wet and not at all ‘dressed for dinner,’ but the staff still welcomed us with open arms (not literally, but you catch my drift!) and smiling faces. And, we hadn’t intended to stay for dessert, but our main courses were so good, we couldn’t resist.
13 | Head down to the Land Gate and take a walk around the harbour wall (and maybe go for a swim!)
Built in 1543 by the Venetian architect Michele Sanmicheli, Zadar’s Land Gate was once the main entrance to the city, and is considered to be one of the finest monuments of the Venetian rule in Dalmatia. So, if you only have time to check out one of the four city gates in Zadar (others are the Sea Gate, the Bridge Gate, and St. Rocco’s Gate), make sure it’s this one!
You’ll find the Land Gate in little Foša harbour, not far from Five Wells Square. It’s one the prettiest parts of Zadar’s old town, in my humble opinion, which is why spending time here is one of the best things to do in Zadar on a warm, sunny day.
It’s possible to drop down on to the little walkway that circles the harbour and follow it all the way back to the Roman Forum. Along the way, you’ll find a lovely little swimming spot, just before you reach the statue of Špiro Brusina. So, don’t forget to pack your swimming costume and a changing robe.
Alternatively, if you’re feeling flush, you can even have lunch at the restaurant featured in the above photo, overlooking the harbour. We attempted to pop in for a coffee, but were turned away, even though the majority of tables were unoccupied. I guess they were hedging their bets for some lunch bookings, and wanted to maintain a certain level of availability.
14 | Have a wander through Queen Jelena Madijevka Park
If you were paying attention when you read number 11 on this Things to Do in Zadar list, you may be interested to know that the park in question is Queen Jelena Madijevka Park, adjacent to Five Wells Square.
Founded by Austrian commander Baron Franz Ludwig von Welden in 1829, and named after the wife of the famous Croatian King Dmitar Zvonimir, Queen Jelena Madijevka Park was the first public park in Dalmatia.
Wandering through Queen Jelena Madijevka Park is one of the best things to do in Zadar if you want to feel surrounded by nature.
Ludwig von Weldon was a passionate botanist who, during his service in Zadar, collected plants that were characteristic to the region, and subsequently used them to set up these extensive gardens.
15 | Try the Local’s Favourite Tipple
I absolutely adore sampling local food and drink when I travel, and alcoholic drinks are no exception! So, of course, when we stumbled across the local rock bar on our first night in Zadar, we asked the barman for a local drink recommendation.
We assumed he’d pour us a locally-brewed beer, but he returned with three glasses of what he told us was known locally as ‘PT.’ If you’re not well acquainted with Croatian tipples, a ‘P.T’ is a blend of pelinkovac (a juniper-based spirit similar to Jägermeister) and tonic.
It quickly became our drink of choice during our stay in Zadar — firstly, because it’s really tasty and very easy to drink and secondly, because it cost us under £5 for a round of three drinks.