I find it difficult to put in words my feelings for Zadar, Croatia. The coastal city was a last minute addition to my Croatia road trip and ended up one of my favorite stops! I felt at instantly ease, as if I could move there tomorrow and be welcomed into the fold. The city had a comfortable, lived-in feel, much like a favorite pair of jeans. (This is partly due to the fact that locals outnumbered tourists two to one.) But it was so much more than that. Imagine mornings spent sipping coffee in a quiet square surrounded by ancient Roman ruins, afternoons filled with art and history, and sunsets so colorful they take your breath away. This is Zadar, Croatia.
Romans established an outpost in northern Dalmatia in the first century BC and, amazingly, ruins from that time still stand. After the fall of the Roman Empire, the region ping-ponged between competing rulers, most notably the Byzantines, Venetians, and Austrians. The Turks tried and failed to conquer the well-fortified city. Bombs devastated Zadar during World War II, destroying the Roman Forum and a large percentage of the city’s buildings. Zadar experienced a rebirth after WWII as part of the newly-formed Yugoslavia. The old town sustained even more damage when Croatia fought for its independence, ending in victory for the new nation in 1995. Walking around Zadar today, it’s incredible to think that shells rained down as little as two decades ago.
Every morning, I walked from my rental apartment to the old town, entering through the impressive Land Gate. This lion-embellished Venetian archway dates to 1573 and celebrates victory over the Turks. Once beyond the walls, I made a beeline for one of the city’s many cafes to sip coffee and watch the locals go about their day. I traced their footsteps through the marble alleys and public squares, admiring centuries-old churches and architecture reflecting the various empires that left their mark on the city. My one regret is not ascending the bell tower for an overview of the terracotta rooftops and medieval street layout.
Zadar’s bounty of attractions kept me busy during the day. The Archaeology Museum provides a visual summary of the region’s many cultural influences, including a wealth of Roman artifacts and sculptures. I was particularly impressed by the Museum of Ancient Glass, which boasts one of the best collections of Roman glass outside of Italy. I marveled at the cases pretty blue vials and jars, delicate pieces that miraculously survived multiple wars and centuries of civil change.
Evenings were spent enjoying some of the finest food in Croatia, featuring freshly-caught seafood and produce from the local farmers’ market. My after-dinner walks along the city walls culminated at two unique modern art installations that are open to the Zadar public. Every evening at the Greeting to the Sun monument, lights dance under a large circle of blue glass, glowing brighter as darkness ascended on the peninsula. Nearby, waves resound through the so-called Sea Organ. Concealed beneath a stretch of stone stairs, a series of pipes plays an other-worldly tune as the rushing water pushes air through. This is an ideal spot to rest weary feet and appreciate the coast’s spectacular beauty.
I spent four nights in Zadar and two days exploring the city. On the remaining two days I visited some of the region’s best attractions: Krka National Park and Sibenik (article coming soon). Definitely stay longer if you can!