An Adriatic city built by the Romans and made for island hopping – an expert guide to Zadar

Tim Jepson
Zadar's Old Town - iStock

Why go?

Zadar has more than 2000 years of history, its ancient Roman roots mixed with monuments to the Venetians, who ruled for several hundred years, and a wealth of art and architecture that embraces fine medieval churches and striking contemporary sculpture. Beyond the town lie opportunities for outdoor activities on land and sea, along with ferry rides or organised excursions to nearby islands and key national parks.

Cruise port location

Until 2014 the smaller cruise ships that could access Zadar docked on the peninsula containing the town’s historic core, a stone’s throw from the sights. Since then, most ships dock at the new port at Gaženica, just over three miles (5km) southeast of the town. Shuttles run to the old town from the dock, usually for €12–15 round-trip. Taxis should cost around the same one way, but beware that visitors are often overcharged (€25). See below for details of buses into town.

Can I walk to any places of interest?

It is a long and tedious walk from the new cruise dock to the historic centre but once you are in the old town, it is easy to explore on foot. Navigation on the old town’s roughly rectangular peninsula is straightforward, as the streets still mostly conform to the original grid of the Roman settlement, and you are never more than about two minutes from delightful promenade the runs round the peninsula.

Getting around

To visit the parks and other sights around Zadar you will need to take a tour, take a ferry, use a private taxi or tackle public transport. Buses from the dock to the old town are cheap but time-consuming: take bus #9 (twice-hourly) to the bus station and change to service #2 or #4 for the old town. Tickets cost 10kn (£1.20) and are valid for any number of journeys in 50 minutes.


Five Wells Square Credit: iStock

What to see and do

Zadar’s rich cultural heritage will keep you busy for four hours, probably longer. The town has the additional lures of a lively market most days, a pretty promenade to stroll, and plenty of cafés and restaurants to while away the time. You’ll need to devote eight hours to visiting the islands and national parks, or to go hiking, sailing, kayaking or similar. Visit the regional tourist board’s website for information on what to see and do beyond the town.

What can I do in four hours or less?

Devote half a day to historic Zadar, lovely to wander for its own sake but also full of things to see. Explore the region’s Roman heritage at the Archeological Museum, the first of several excellent museums in town. Roman glass can be seen at the Museum of Ancient Glass. Don’t miss the National Museum of Zadar or the sumptuous Byzantine and other artefacts in the Gold and Silver of Zadar museum; and take in the Museum of Illusion if you’re travelling with children.

Sights that recall the presence of Venice in Zadar are dotted around the old town, not least the Land and Sea Gates, part of the 16th-century defences built to defend against the Ottoman Turks. The pretty wells in Five Wells Square were to provide water in the event of a siege.

Highlights among several churches include the Romanesque Cathedral of Sant’Anastasia (Katedrala sv Stošije), which was consecrated in 1177 and has a bell tower that offers sweeping views across the town and beyond. Also see the ninth-century rotunda of St Donatus (Crkva sv Donata), a symbol of Zadar and the largest Byzantine building in Croatia. Now deconsecrated, it hosts regular summer concerts. Make a special visit to St Simeon, where the high altar features a celebrated wooden chest decorated with gloriously detailed reliefs.

Finally, most visitors want to see the Sea Organ on the peninsula’s northern tip, a work from 2005 by Zadar-educated architect Nikola Bašić. Marble steps on the waterfront lead into the water, where pipes and waves generate random sounds in an odd but soothing medley. A less arresting Bašić work, Greeting to the Sun, is nearby.

Sea Organ Credit: iStock

What can I do in eight hours or less?

Excursions offering outdoor activities abound, from a full day’s sailing or kayaking to bungee jumping off local bridges. Many tours combine some activity with sightseeing, especially those that visit the islands, of which the most popular is Dugi Otok, not least because it has superb beaches such as Saharun (or Sakurun). This is a trip you can do under your own steam using local ferries from the cruise-ship dock.

Otherwise the key excursions from Zadar are the lakes and waterfalls of Plitvice National Park, around two hours’ drive away, but the park can be visited from several cruise ports, so expect it to be busy. Other tours include one of these ports, Sibenik, another pretty town like Zadar, often paired with the waterfalls of Krka National Park.

If you want to avoid other people, then the answer is a day’s boat tour among the islands of Kornati National Park. Many operators serve the park, of which Kornati Excursions is typical, with eight-hour small-group boat tours from €50 person and private tours from €600 per group.

Kornati National Park Credit: iStock

Don’t leave without…

One of Zadar’s best-loved inventions dates from 1768, when a small factory opened to improve on an old monks’ recipe and process the small maraschino cherries that grow well locally into a liqueur. The original Maraska factory has moved (though the waterfront building survives), but the liqueur lives on and makes a good souvenir. Sample it in the many bars on Stormica, a narrow street in the southwest of the old town. Glass is another traditional product, if you can get it home, best bought at the gift shop in the town’s glass museum

Need to know

Safety and crime 

Zadar is safe to explore on your own. Beware taxi touts at the dock and overcharging for taxi transfers to town. Settle a price beforehand (to include waiting time) if you are using a taxi to visits sights outside Zadar.

Best time to go 

Zadar sees an appreciable number of cruise visitors (137,000 in 2017), but not as many as Dubrovnik (750,000) some 240 miles (390km) to the south. Therefore it rarely feels as crowded as its distant neighbour, even in July and August, the warmest (and busiest) months for visitors. Spring – May and June – is a delightful time if you are visiting the parks.

Closures

Most of Zadar’s museums close on Saturday and Sunday afternoon (or all day Sunday), though some open at weekends in summer. Churches often close in the middle of the day.