As I was planning my Balkans trip, I was really excited to learn that the coastal city of Zadar had made it onto the Lonely Planet “Best in Travel for 2019” list. I imagine that some of you are here because you saw that list and are looking for things to do in Zadar, but before we jump into that, I would like to share why chose to visit Zadar:
Before I knew I liked to travel (I think it came onto my radar sometime during college), I read about Zadar’s sea organ, and thought “I would really like to see that one day.” I had forgotten about that goal when I booked the trip, but as soon as I started mapping my route, it hit me that I would finally be able to see the sea organ – so even though my itinerary was super tight for the whirlwind 2-week trip, Zadar was definitely staying on the list!
Where is Zadar?
Zadar is a historic city on the Croatian coast. It’s a super popular eastern Adriatic cruise port so the city sees many group tours (and is set up with loads of “tourist-friendly” restaurants and shops).
It’s a reasonable 2.5-3 hour bus ride from both the Croatian capital of Zagreb and another popular cruise port city, Split. It’s also about 1.5-2 hours from Plitvice Lakes National Park. Given how easy and quick (relatively) it is to get to Zadar, it would almost be irresponsible to skip it. 😀
I’ve mapped out all the locations for you, so save the map at the end of this article for reference!
Things to do in Zadar
Though there are lots of things to see in Zadar, the main visitor area is quite small and can be covered fairly quickly. I’m going to list out what there is to do, and also have a post about seeing Zadar on a budget!
The main tourist area of Zadar isn’t very large, so even though there may be a lot of things to see, they’re all very close to one another.
5 Wells Square
If you’ve been Googling “things to do in Zadar” – it is likely going to be on every list. This is a very aptly-named section of the city. During the 16th century, the Venetians helped defend the city against attacks by the Turks. They repurposed a defensive ditch from the Middle Ages into a cistern, topped by the 5 ornamental wells. The wells are no longer functional today, but the area functions as a popular skateboarding spot.
Good to know: I’m going to be totally honest and admit that though I spent a bordering-on-embarrassing amount of time trying to dig up information on further historical significance and context of the wells, I was unable to find anything more than what I noted above. I did notice this as a bit of a theme throughout Croatia and a handful of the sites I visited had only vague details around origins.
Museum of Ancient Glass
I’m a big fan of sea glass (I even bought a hollow glass lamp to display it all), so learning that there was a museum dedicated to old glass was very exciting. The sheer quantity of items in the museum is impressive, and about the different uses for each type of item was cool.
To view everything, you would need no more than about an hour, so even if you don’t have a ton of time in Zadar, you can still keep this on the itinerary.
Good to know: The museum has bag storage! I went there last because I was sandwiching my visit between checking out of the hostel and catching my departing bus.
Perhaps a little underwhelming from far away, the sea gate is something you will almost certainly walk through (or encounter accidentally) when you’re exploring Zadar. Though it may seem like just a giant archway, its a giant archway that was built in 1573 – and that makes it very old.
Church of St. Donatus
Have you ever seen a round church? I mean, round buildings in general are pretty rare, so one built between the 8th and 9th centuries is pretty special. Started by Donatus of Zadar, the church was originally called Holy Trinity, the church was renamed in the 1500s by the Venetians.
Good to know: Since St. Donatus Church sits within the Roman Forum, the area gets pretty high levels of foot traffic, so go early if you want some people-free photos!
Growing up, a “forum” was always something you had to dial into via AOL (or Prodigy) to access. I guess things like Reddit count, too. So when I heard that the Roman Forum was a popular destination in Zadar, it took me a little while to figure out exactly what that meant. During the times of the Roman Empire, the “forum” was like a main city square where all the public business of the city would take place. As I understand it, this was everything from markets to meetings to public shaming – there is a big column that was used as the “Pillar of Shame” where individuals would be chained and ridiculed or beaten. Apparently there is also remnants of a sacrifice altar, though I didn’t happen to spot it while I was there.
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Pillar of Shame
This is right off the center of the Roman Forum. Imagine you had done something kinda bad- like didn’t pay enough taxes or looked lustfully at someone other than your spouse- you would be running the risk of being shackled to this very public pole by the city center.
Imagine the sea could sing to you. Now imagine it was weirdly dissonant but you were kinda into it. That’s what you can expect at the sea organ. The water comes over the steps, it pushes air into the tubes creating sounds that are similar to that of an organ. The organ faces west towards the Adriatic Sea which makes it a great place to catch the sunset.
Greeting to the Sun
This was an installation I was really excited to see, but apparently it had been damaged and was protected by fencing. The monument is meant to be another form of communicating with nature, doing with light what the sea organ does with sound.
Walk the length of the (western) sea wall
Zadar Old Town is on a small peninsula, with the Adriatic Sea being on the western side with a narrow bay to the east. I would imagine that many people walk along the eastern side and then stop when they get to the sea organ. Keep walking. Actually, stop and say hi to the sea organ, take some pictures, and keep walking along the Adriatic (western) coast. The view is beautiful and and its quiet in relation so the busy squares and seaside hot spots.
Good to know: It looks like the walkway comes to an abrupt end and I noticed many people turning around. There is actually a skinny little walkway that follows a waterway into a cute marina filled with different colored boats. Definitely don’t turn back too soon!
Climb up onto the city wall
Hope you like free climbing! Just kidding, there are stairs. On the eastern side of the peninsula, there is an elevated wall (this is where you’ll find the sea gate), and you can take stairs to the top for a vantage view of the city.
Good to know: The wall also doubles as a road, so don’t get hit by a car.
Check out the open market
If you need vegetation (I lived off cheap bread and burek) to stave off scurvy, make sure you check out the open market. As was the case in Zagreb, it looks like the market runs from about 6:00am through about 1:00pm – so go early!
Good to know: The selection is overwhelming and the English was limited, so ask your hotel/hostel staff for a few written translations (and what a fair price may be just in case its not marked.)
Yes, seriously. This is how I found some of my favorite little details. The old town area (within the peninsula) is small enough that if you’re a fast walker, you can cover most of the area in less than a day. Slow down and make random turns and look all around. Like a lot of the places I visited on the Dalmatian coast, Zadar has a lot of personality and history hidden in the details, so slowing down to examine everything as you’re wandering will really help you take it all in.
Let’s wrap this up, ok?
There is plenty to do in Zadar, but not so much that you would necessarily need to spend a ton of time. If you’re into shopping, there are lots of cute shops, but given my tight budget (and general disinterest in browsing) I resisted all the shops.
If you’re curious how I spent my time – and money – in Zadar, check out my post outlining what I did and how much I spent!
- If you’ve been to Zadar, what was your favorite place to explore?
- What are your favorite types of attraction in a new place? Museums? Residential areas? Popular tourist sites? OR maybe you’re like me and you bee-line to poke around a grocery store?