Zadar may be synonymous for its Roman ruins, sunsets and sea organ, but this rising city is fast becoming known as the Croatian ‘capital of cool’. Formerly a quiet corner of Croatia, Zadar’s unspoiled charm within its Unesco-protected Old Town can no longer be kept a secret. With a flourishing culinary scene and bustling nightlife, this seaside city located on the Adriatic has rich Dalmatian DNA along with an abundance of daily excursions to keep you entertained, day and night.
Zadar's postcard-perfect waterfront © Alex Tihonov / Getty Images
Day 1: Roam through Old Town
First, get acquainted with the city’s historic Old Town. Kalelarga is the main artery, running from Pet Bunara all the way past the Roman Forum, but don’t be afraid to steer off this path and delve into the mixture of cosmopolitan-chic and consistent Roman and Venetian motifs throughout each narrow alleyway.
Exploring the Old Town by foot is a breeze, although segway tours are becoming increasingly popular. Don’t miss climbing the Bell Tower, an extension of the Romanesque St Anastasia's Cathedral, where you’ll be met with uninterrupted views of the Zadar Archipelago (there are over 200 islands and islets) and Zadar’s equally impressive mainland. During sunset you’ll find most people congregate toward the sound art installation dubbed the Sea Organ, which uses ocean waves to create euphonious sounds, or the ‘Greetings To The Sun’ installation, a monument that retains its awe factor anytime of day.
Although elements of what is now St Anastasia's Cathedral were established as early as the fourth century, the current facade was completed in the 12th century © Phant / Shutterstock
Cafes and restaurants throughout the Varoš neighbourhood come alive when the sun goes down. Canzona is modest and unpretentious, offering an array of fresh seafood delicacies and homely vibe. Close by at Bruschetta you’ll notice tourists have caught on, wolfing down seafood caught by local fishers. Bon Appetit is known for its morska teća (seafood hot pot). The restaurant’s prime location by the waterfront means you can sit here while the sun sets over a glass of Korlat, a local yet internationally award-winning wine.
After dinner, Ledana Lounge & Bar is an ideal spot for those who want a taste of nightlife and are looking for a boozy hideout inside the Old Town.
Day 2: Day trip to Dugi Otok
Dugi Otok, the seventh largest island in the Adriatic Sea, is where you’ll quickly forget the sounds of the city. Visit Nature Park Telašćica, a quiet bay toward the northeastern part of the island that's fringed with small coves and cobalt-blue waters surrounded by uncompromised nature. Stop by the scenic salt lake Mir, followed by lunch at Taverna Goro, situated within Telašćica in Magrovica Bay, where the food is faithful to local Dalmatian specialties.
Yachts off the coast of Nature Park Telašćica, on Dugi Otok Island © xbrchx / Shutterstock
Spend a few hours under the sun at either Uvala Brbišćica, a heavenly sandy hideaway, or Veli Žal Beach – both good alternatives to the typically crowded Sakarun Beach. Or take one of the local guided kayaking tours that explores Golubinka Cave, an underwater cave popular for scuba diving located west of Brbinjšćica Bay. Further north of the island you’ll find Veli Rat Lighthouse, the tallest lighthouse in the Adriatic, and those seeking an underwater adventure will enjoy the mysterious Shipwreck Michelle.
On your return to the city, head to Art Hotel Kalelarga, moments from the social ‘Narodni Trg’ (People’s Square), which offers a fine selection of cakes and pastries from Art Kavana, another chic cafe in Zadar and an extension of their own bakery – an excellent option to sit and partake in Croatia’s coffee culture.
Day 3: Hiking in Paklenica
Start your final day with a hike or climb of one of the two famous canyons in Paklenica National Park, the second oldest national park in Croatia (second only to the famed Plitvice Lakes National Park). Mala (small) Paklenica is recommended for experienced hikers and mountaineers due to the density of the trail, while Velika (big) Paklenica is more suitable for beginners.
Rocky canyon walls in Paklenica National Park © Mark Read / Lonely Planet
Paklenica National Park is located only 40km from Zadar, and is easily accessible from the nearby coastal town of Starigrad. Once inside the park, the landscapes, limestone canyons and idyllic views of Velebit mountain range unfold. Consider joining a group tour on one of the 150km worth of trails or one of many caves in the area, such as Manita Peć, which is rich in underground fauna.
Adrenaline junkies looking for their next ‘fix’ can go skydiving, but they can also expect to fall further in love with Zadar’s wider region. Zrmanja Canyon, a pristine, emerald-coloured river, is perfect for rafting, kayaking and canoeing, and is located in Obrovac only 30 minutes away from Paklenica National Park. Family friendly and great for team building, activities in the region accessible through several local tour agencies.
Regain some strength after a long day of adventure by enjoying peka (a stew baked in a fireplace under a bell-shaped lid) at Ramića dvori, a local lodge and restaurant immersed in nature.
For your final nightcap in the city, enjoy spectacular front row views of the sea and sunset at Bamboo Beach Bar, a terrace bar in Borik whose crowd is a mixture of locals and tourists.
Situated on the Adriatic, Zadar offers access to a few beaches near the city center, but the pristine waters of the wider region are within reach as well © paul prescott / Shutterstock
Make it happen
If you’re looking for accommodations in the city, sleep in style at Almayer, a newly opened boutique hotel located moments from Zadar’s landmark attractions such as the Sea Organ, Kalelarga and the Roman Forum. Those looking for a more relaxed, slower-pace getaway will find Falkensteiner Adriana to be a tranquil escape in Zadar’s trendy beachfront neighbourhood of Borik.
Otherwise book an apartment rental and wake up to the waterfront at Lux Zadar No.6, located on The Riva in the same building Alfred Hitchcock stayed in when he claimed that Zadar had ‘the best sunset in the world’ back in 1964. Or to sleep in the heart of all the action, Hostel Forum Zadar claims first prize with each room having a birds-eye view of the ancient Roman Forum.
Lonely Planet has produced this article for Zadar Tourism. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.