Zadar, Croatia: the secret is out

By Colin Baird, a Travel Enthusiast

Read more on Zadar.

Overall rating:4.0 out of 5 (based on 7 votes)
Recommended for:
Cultural, Short Break, Budget, Mid-range

Take a rowing boat to Zadar's old town and discover medieval loveliness, Roman ruins, fine dining and an organ played by the Adriatic Sea!

When it comes to Croatia's Adriatic allure it has always been Split and Dubrovnik that rolled off the tongue. Their pleasures are well-known, but Zadar somewhat less so and commonly touted as some kind of unexplored gem. This may have been true at one time, but not now. Budget airlines are landing at the airport and the streets are busy with people all thinking they are going somewhere “undiscovered”. Zadar couldn't hide its charms forever and now it is my turn to rave about it.

The Old Town, sited on a peninsula that is only 500 meters wide, retains many of the walls and city gates from the era of Venetian rule. Inside these walls there are shiny marble paved streets leading to churches, Roman ruins and squares with laid back cafés.

What to see and do

I have yet to come across a more pleasurable way to enter a town. The short rowing boat crossing to Zadar is one of the most endearing things about the place. Known as barkarioli these boats and the men who work them have been keeping up an 850 year-old tradition by taking passengers on the 80m crossing. It takes minutes, costs small change, but is oh so lovely with deep blue water, gentle summer breeze and the approaching city walls for a view.

Another quirky attraction in town is the Sea Organ. A local architect, Nikola Bašić, constructed a collection of 35 pipes and whistles by the shore. These produce music as the sea passes through, the sound varying according to the power and rhythm of the waves; when a big boat passes there is an impressive crescendo.

Right by the Sea Organ is another piece of street art called the Sun Salutation. It works like a solar panel collecting sun energy during the day to power a light show that attracts a crowd in the evenings. People walk across the panels entranced by the dancing and colourful lights. Combined with the organ music it creates a peaceful and happy place.

Zadar is also blessed with fabulous architecture and monuments. The main place to head for is the Roman Forum. In this relatively small area there is an incredible concentration of pretty things. There are many columns and stone carvings, including a “Pillar of Shame” that was used to chain up people who had committed some misdemeanor or another. The great thing about the Forum is that there are no barriers or signs saying “don't touch” and it is quite normal to see people sitting on 2000 year old stones.

The Forum is dominated by the 9th century Church of Saint Donat. This is Zadar's poster boy; featuring on all the tourist literature. Its pocket-size and unique roundness make it very attractive.

Nearby, taking the 180 stairs of Saint Anastasia's belfry is worth it for the superlative views. From this point it is clear to see how compact the old town is and the sparkling blue Adriatic waters virtually surrounding it on all sides.

Five Wells Square contains the Venetian-built wells that were instrumental in helping the town to successfully withstand Turkish sieges in the 16th century. There is a nice shady park here and a great view down to the best of the city gates: Land Gate, with its Republic of Venice coat of arms.

Where to stay

The Old Town is pristine because the tourist infrastructure is kept 3km away in Borik. There are buses and walking takes about 20 minutes. Most of the big hotels are geared towards package tourists, so for more of an authentic Croatian welcome I would recommend staying in a guest house. 

My first choice was Villa Hresc (from 750kn for a double). The swimming pool, balconies with sea views, garden and bar shaped like the prow of a boat had an undeniable allure. However, they were fully booked.

Instead, I checked in to Pansion Albin (from 450kn for a double). It is a family run place with simple and comfy rooms. My room had an airy, homely feel with lemon-coloured curtains and bedspreads. The swimming pool is the real treat. In the height of summer the water is warmed by the sun to a pleasant temperature and greenery provides plenty of shade. The owner, Leo, pointed out that much of the greenery is actually fig trees and encouraged us to help ourselves and pick the fruit. I have fond memories of lazing by this pool, reading, playing cards and gorging myself on figs.

Leo is a bit of a character, basing his persona on the British TV comedy creation Basil Fawlty. He regaled us with lines from the show and acted out famous scenes each time we rang the bell at reception. Thankfully, Pansion Albin did not replicate the shoddy customer service of the hotel on the TV show!

Eating and drinking

Pansion Albin's own restaurant is good and it saves you the hassle of getting to and from the Old Town. This is straightforward cooking, mainly seafood, with the emphasis on taste and freshness rather than fancy flourishes. The outdoor terrace is the place to be in summer and subject to hushed conversations by couples and easy going wait staff. Mains from 40kn.

For a treat that you will not regret I urge you to get to the best restaurant in town; Kornat (Liburnska Obala 6, 254 501). That moment when you open the menu to read about what you could soon be satisfying yourself with is always special, but here even more so. A starter of gnocchi in shrimp sauce and monkfish in truffle sauce for the main course was a taste sensation with every mouthful. Crisp table linen, heavy silver cutlery and finely turned out waiting staff suggests a formal air, but I wore jeans and nobody cared. Mains from 80kn.

Try a glass or three of Maraschino, a locally produced cherry liquor. It is made from a Dalmatian cherry that is reputed to be sweeter and more delicious than any other kind of cherry. I drank it after every meal and am pretty sure “they” are right about it being the best tasting cherry.

There are cafés all over Zadar, so you won't be stuck for a caffeine or ice cream hit. One to point out is Café Bar Lovre on Narodi Trg. It has a large number of umbrella protected seats on the terrace, ideally positioned for that favourite of spectator sports; people watching.

Getting there

Direct flights to Zadar airport from many European destinations, including Edinburgh, London, Oslo, Berlin, Brussels.
Fast trains from Zagreb take 7 hours.

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More information on Zadar, Croatia: the secret is out:

Colin Baird
Traveller type:
Travel Enthusiast
Guide rating:
Average: 4 (7 votes)
Total views:
First uploaded:
7 June 2010
Last updated:
5 years 12 weeks 4 days 7 hours 11 min 10 sec ago
Destinations featured:
Trip types:
Cultural, Short Break
Budget level:
Budget, Mid-range
Free tags / Keywords:
city break, sight seeing

Colin recommends


Price from Rating
(out of 5)
1. Pansion Albin
2. Villa Hrešć

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Community comments (11)

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I have never come across a sea organ before and have to admit I had a lot of trouble trying to imagine what it would sound like, which is where the video footage really came into its own.

I think I agree that there are too many photographs, but I'd edit some of the town views, which are a bit similar, rather than the food shots. Food is an intrinsic part of the travel experience just as much as architecture and it helps to give a bit of local flavour (pun intended). Food is notoriously difficult to photograph well, but I think you have certainly done it justice.


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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

This sounds like a fantastic place, and I think you'll get a lot of click-throughs with this guide, Colin. Your guide is easy-to-read and entertaining, with tips that the reader can trust as it's obvious you went to the hotels/restaurants you mention. One minor criticism - some of your headings look a bit messy. You can edit these by selecting a "heading" style in the font format.

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Thanks Richard for the tip about the headings. I have never used that before in any of my guides, so thank you for that one.

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I would just like to thank everyone for their great comments. This is my first guide to be reviewed by the Moderators and I appreciate everything that you have said. Keep up the good work!

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Spot-on guide, Colin!

You draw a nice picture of a place I don't know - and make me put it on the list, so the guide has certainly worked. I like the way you have sought out some quirky aspects (the organ, the rowing boat, the `Pillar of Shame`). Your pictures are great and varied (though just perhaps 21 may be a few too many -do we need all of the foody ones?).

Great stuff!

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Thanks Jon!
Yeah, I sometimes wonder about the number of photos. I get a bit carried away. The problem is that ever since discovering the "food scene" on my camera I can't resist taking photos of everything that I eat! I think it annoys my travel companions so it might start to calm down a little bit!

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Colin I love your guides. My only experience of Croatia are indeed Dubrovnik and Cavtat and those shiny cobbled streets that stay in the heart. I had read about Zadar and the Sea Organ and couldn't imagine how it must sound- thank you. I can imagine whiling away many an evening at Sun Sensation and hope to do so some day. Your photos are, as ever, brilliantly chosen

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

I like reading your guides Colin, this one is no exception. The concept of 'Sea Organ' and 'Sun Salution' sounded quite peculiar yet refreshing. Your excellant pictures supplement the guide well, be it the view from the belfry or the dishes at the restaurant, all seemed so realistic!!
I am sure this well written guide will inspire other readers to look beyond Split and Dubrovnivk and explore Zadar too.

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0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.

Thank you for a well researched guide and an enjoyable read. Your pictures showed your personal experience of the old town and gave the feel of a pleasant relaxing holiday.
I felt that some of your bold text was in the wrong place, and therefore wasted. For example, you used bold for Zadar being 'a peaceful and happy place,' which no doubt it was, and left 'the Land Gate, with its Republic of Venice coat of arms' un-highlighted. The same applied to the '180 stairs of St. Anastasia's belfry,' which should have been in bold text throughout.
I liked your wry humour, but you sold the buildings and monuments short by adding 'and such like.' When you described them I really wanted to go and see these splendid relics from a previous age.

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Thanks Myra!
I see what you are saying and I have made the changes to the bold text as you have suggested. It is right to highlight the key features of Zadar rather than phrases like "peaceful and happy". Thanks for this feedback.
I think my wit got the better of me with that opening to the paragraph about the buildings! I have changed this also.

0 of 0 people found the following comment helpful.


This is a well written guide which I thoroughly enjoyed reading.

I must admit I usually look at the photographs before I read any guide and was intrigued to find a picture of John Cleese's memorable Basil Fawlty character staring at me!

All was revealed when you talked about the fun hotel manager who sounds like a brilliant character.

The Sea Organ also sounds amazing and I have never heard of anything like that before. Great that you have included a video clip as it really helped me understand the concept of it.

I have never really considered Croatia before but your guide, packed with good recommendations, has certainly given me food for thought.

The photographs of restaurant dishes is a great idea too as readers can get a real feel of what to expect. I could almost smell that fresh fish!

I look forward to reading more of your guides. What do other readers think? Has Colin encouraged you to take a look at Croatia and Zadar in particular?

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