Zadar is a scenic location with abounding churches and cathedrals that sit in the middle of a pleasant, comfortable, working city. It’s an easy city to explore, only a short walk from the cruise-ship dock to the city center. Streets in the Old Town are clean, and its historic sites are intriguing reminders of Zadar’s tumultuous past.
Zadar is one of the Dalmatian Coast’s best-kept secrets, and adventure in this tucked-away treasure teems with centuries of charm. As the oldest continuously inhabited Croatian city, its timeworn history is perpetually on display among old city walls and Venetian gates. And its zany way of life keeps this dynamic city thriving today, from the waterfront Riva promenade to the untouched surrounding islands. One minute you might mingle over coffee in People’s Square, the next plunge into turquoise waters off Ugljan Island. You can enter church treasuries, bicycle around Old Town, or check out fascinating museum exhibits. Adventure in Zadar leads you away from the crowds to discover off-the-beaten-path wonders.
For visitors, Zadar offers two special places; a sea organ that plays music from the mastery of the wind and the waves, and the outdoor Forum Bar, as you sit in the ruins of a real Roman Forum in the shadows of a 9th-century church.
Zadar lies sheltered by offshore isles on Croatia’s central coast, 75 miles to the north of Split. Zadar was established as Roman municipality and emperor’s colony. It was among the major towns of the Roman Dalmatia province. At the end of 4th century and beginning of 5th, a large episcopal complex with basilica and anexes was built on the spot of the Roman Forum. The sacristy close to the cathedral features a beautiful mosaic. The baptistery is unique hexagonal creation. The basilica itself is very impressive with its green and white columns, ancient paintings and beautiful mosaics. Saint Stephen’s basilica with a series of biforas on its southern wall has preserved a 5th-century structure. The impressive rotunda of Saint Donat dominates the city and features monolithic columns.
The disabled cruiser visiting Zadar will find the terrain most unfriendly. Being old, Zadar wasn’t originally built with wheelchairs in mind. The streets are heavily cobbled and would be quite difficult to navigate in a conventional wheelchair. One way to get around Zadar is by taxi. Croatia-Taxi is a great company that offers their services to everyone; including those in wheelchairs. Just be sure to let them know you need a vehicle that is wheelchair accessible when you’re booking your taxi. Another bonus is that public restrooms in bus stations, train stations, and airports are also usually wheelchair accessible; that helps a lot while you’re out exploring!
Where You’re Docked
The cruise-ship tie-up is one of the prettiest you’ll see; a white concrete dock at the edge of Old Town, next to the amazing sea organ, which, depending on the wind and waves, you can hear as soon as you get off the ship. There’s a nice walk from the sea organ along the Western Quay, which has benches facing the water, used by locals as a picnic lunch spot. You’ll find souvenir shopping opportunities, restaurants with beer and food, money exchange capabilities and Internet connectivity (wired and wireless) in the center of the Old Town, about a 15-minute walk from the dock.
Good to Know
Many Europeans vacation in Croatia, including Zadar and nearby Pag Island, for its beaches and nightlife. However, as most cruise ships visit this port outside the summer peak season of July and August and don’t overnight in port, cruise travelers may not get the chance to experience these major tourist attractions.
Walking is the only way to move around the compact Old Town, where there are few cars on village streets. Most cruise passengers will confine their stay to the Old Town unless they are on a ship tour or their ships are in port for eight hours or more.
For tours outside of town, ask for planning assistance at the tourist office in the Old Town, which also has bus schedules from Zadar to other towns in Croatia. The main bus station is a short walk outside the Old Town. It’s a busy place, as nearly every bus traveling up and down the Croatian coast stops at Zadar, but destinations may be out of reach for cruise passengers on short visits.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The local currency in Croatia is the Kuna. Merchants and restaurateurs will grudgingly accept euros, but almost none will take U.S. dollars. It’s best to use a credit card wherever possible for the best exchange rate, though you’ll want to change a small amount of money into Kuna for attraction admissions and inexpensive purchases. There are ATM machines and exchange bureaus in the center of Zadar’s Old Town, a walk of about 15 minutes from the cruise-ship dock. The tourism office in the center of town will direct you.
The official language is Croatian, though just about everybody speaks fairly fluent English.
Zadar is home to one of Dalmatia’s largest city markets. Here you’ll find farmers selling salty Pag cheese, olive oil, Croatian wine and fruit brandy; a handful of boutiques selling Croatian fashions plus local craftspeople hawk homemade lace tablecloths. Maraschino liqueur is made from Dalmatian sour cherries; including the pit and cherry tree leaves, as well as honey. Zadar’s Museum of Ancient Glass is also a great place to pick up unique glass souvenirs.
As Old Town is a busy center of locals, students and travelers, you’ll find the usual range of cafes, pizza and pasta places, as well as restaurants featuring seafood from the Dalmatian Coast; calamari, octopus, crab and scampi. Whether you dine amid the old city walls or along the picturesque harbor, seafood is served fresh from the Adriatic. Zadar has several konobas, traditional taverns that feature an open-hearth fireplace and a storage cellar for wine and olive oil. They’re considered to be the best places to experience typical Dalmatian cuisine. Zadar is also known for its earthy truffles, fig cake, Croatian white wine and sweet Maraschino cherry liqueur.
Points of Interest
- Old Town – from the Roman Forum and the compact pedestrian zone in the middle to the city walls, Zadar is surrounded on three sides by stone walls, begun by the Venetians in the 16th century. The oldest part of the walls is on the eastern side of town, where a footbridge connects the Old Town with the newer parts. Opposite the footbridge are four medieval gates. The Land Gate, to the south, has a Venetian lion and various coats of arms. The center of the Old Town, near the tourism office, is the major meeting spot, with outdoor cafes and shops. You can explore the entire Old Town by foot in about an hour.
- Historic Churches – no more than 10 minutes from the cruise dock is Saint Donat, a round, pre-Romanesque church from the 9th century that’s a symbol of Zadar. It’s largely empty inside and on the northwestern side is the Pillar of Shame, where evildoers were chained and humiliated in the Middle Ages. Opposite Saint Donat is a Benedictine monastery that holds the Museum of Church Art, including paintings and sculpture. Nearby are Saint Anastasia’s Cathedral, dating from the 12th century and housing the relics of St. Anastasia in a marble sarcophagus on the altar in the left apse. The Church of Saint Simeon is also close, dating from the 16th century and housing the sarcophagus of St. Simeon, a tomb commissioned in 1377 and built by a local goldsmith. The coffin is covered inside and out with pure silver.
- Tower of Saint Stosija Cathedral – is open until midnight during the summer so visitors can enjoy sweeping nighttime views of the city below.
- Roman Forum – In front of Saint Donat are the remains of the largest Roman Forum on the Adriatic Sea’s eastern shore. Trace Zadar’s ancient history dating back to the first Roman Emperor Augustus, viewing Roman towers, an old aqueduct, temples and colonnades in the area that’s remained the hub of city life since the 1st century BC.
- Morske Orgulje (Sea Organ) – The Sea Organ is on the northwestern corner of the sea promenade, near the dock for cruise ships. The Sea Organ captures the movement of waves and transforms it into music. The sound is created by 35 polyethylene pipes of different lengths and sizes, embedded with labiums (whistles) that play seven chords of five tones as the sea pushes air through them. The pipes are built into perforated stone stairs that stretch about 210 feet along white marble steps. It’s a great place for sitting and thinking, as well as for watching sunsets.
- Greeting to the Sun – located right next to the Sea Organ, this manmade, 300-glass-plate circle, flush with the ground, is the first thing visitors to Zadar will see when they come ashore. The solar modules inside work with light in the same way the Sea Organ works with sound.
- Dalmatian Hinterland – head away from the coast to explore Croatia’s national parks and outdoor adventures. Go rock climbing in Paklenica National Park and splash around Plitvice Lakes’ watering holes and cascading waterfalls. Discover caverns in Krka National Park, or dive deep into the effervescent waters of Kornati National Park.