Zadar was a last minute addition to my Croatia road trip and ended up one of my favorite stops. Even though the city boasts many unique attractions, locals seemed to outnumber tourists two to one. It was a refreshing change from the more popular cruise ship ports along the coast. My two days in Zadar were spent sipping coffee in quiet squares, wandering among Roman ruins and modern art installations, and sunsets so colorful they took my breath away.
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. 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, but it experienced a rebirth after WWII as part of the newly-formed Yugoslavia. The old town sustained even more damage when Croatia fought for and gained its independence in the mid-1990s. 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 with Zadar’s two unique modern art installations. At the Monument to the Sun, lights dance under a large circle of blue glass, glowing brighter as darkness ascends 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.