One of my favorite stops when I visited Croatia was the coastal town of Zadar. If you’re like me though, you probably don’t know a lot about this remarkable city, much less why you should include it on your must visit list. In order to help convince you that this is a fantastic destination for any style of traveler, here is some insight into the ancient city of Zadar.
1. That it exists – When I first heard about Zadar I thought it sounded more like a city in a fantasy novel than a real, honest to goodness town. But no, it’s there and has been for a really long time. Zadar is located in Croatia on the Adriatic Sea, almost directly across from Rimini, Italy. Historically it was the center of Dalmatia and is the country’s fifth largest city with 75,000 residents. The city has been through a lot in its history, but is back and stronger than ever. Its position on the water plus the romance of the city is slowly making this a must-visit destination.
2. Cool vibe – There is an inexplicable quality that some cities have. As soon as you walk through the gates you sense it, whether it’s a sense of welcome of just a pulsating undercurrent of fun. Whatever it is, it is almost always unexpected and almost always wonderful. Zadar is just such a place. At first the hot sun reflecting off of the brown stones didn’t appeal to me; it reminded me of parts of Greece and not in a positive way. But then as I walked through the narrow streets, past countless cafes full with people enjoying the afternoon weather I started to feel that vibe, a sense of trendy awesomeness. That really is the only way to put it. I felt like I could spend years exploring Zadar and never get tired of it. Never get tired of the warm welcomes, hearty handshakes and laughter, so much laughter. It was a bright spot on my travels through Croatia and one that I hope to repeat many times in the future.
3. Ancient – For a city that I thought was made up until a few months ago, Zadar has a shockingly long history, much of it still on display around town. The current name of the city, Zadar, has been bastardized over the years and actually dates back to a people living there BEFORE the Greeks arrived. We’re talking 4th century BC here folks, a very long time for a town to be in near permanent existence. While most of the Greek influence has vanished, Roman life is clearly visible everywhere around Zadar. The main street running through the old town is the old Roman road, perfectly straight as are the laneways radiating out in all sectors of town. I always love thinking of the hundreds of generations of people who walked the same route when I visit towns like Zadar, the weight of history so heavy it’s almost debilitating. For a more obvious remnant of Roman life, in the center of town is the old Forum and the 9th century St. Donatus’ Church, built on the remnants of a Roman temple to Juno. A walk through town is a walk through time, from the Greeks to the Middle Ages and the more recent and sad history of the 20th century. The culture of the centuries is imbued on every sandy stone and old growth tree towering overhead.
4, Quirky – Zadar is old, beautiful and hip, that much I’ve established so far. One thing I haven’t mentioned is how quirky it can be, if you know where to look. My favorite oddity in town is the famous Sea Organ. What looks like steps leading into the sea along the city’s famous boardwalk is actually a working organ, operated entirely by the water. Completed in 2005 along with repair work after the Croatian War of Independence, the stairs extend for 70 meters and under them are 35 pipes of varying length and height that play 7 chords of 5 tones depending on the tides. Another favorite quirk I found was the nightclub in the middle of an Old Town park. Located near Zadar’s ancient gates is The Garden Zadar, located literally in the middle of some green space along the waterfront. The cafe took over the location from a derelict hotel and now it’s a tranquil spot to drink coffee during the day. At night though the Garden transforms into a bar and nightclub, all outdoors. Guests can enjoy the warm summer air in cabanas or even day beds as they dance or lounge away the night. For a guy who hates loud music and crowds, this provided the perfect night out. These are just a couple of the many strange but undeniably cool sights found around town.
5. Best sunset in the world – If you spend any amount of time in Zadar, someone will at some point tell you of a famous quote associated with the city. In May 1964, Alfred Hitchcock checked into Room 204 of the classic and now closed Hotel Zagreb on the waterfront in Zadar. The hotel’s location was one of the best in town and it was from there that the famed director opined that “The sunset of Zadar is the world’s most beautiful and incomparably better than in Key West, Florida.” This is a fact that Zadar residents have long known, but which the celebrity mention made world famous. In an effort to determine the truth of this grand statement, I climbed to the top of the St Anastasia Bell Tower in the middle of town for the best view in Zadar. Standing there watching the sun slowly fall into the sea, the colors and effect on the surrounding buildings was nothing sort of magical. Walking down the stairs to the main street that evening I thought to myself that no, Mr. Hitchcock was not embellishing when he named this one of the most amazing sunsets in the world.