by Natalie Paris, The Telegraph, June 29, 2017
Tempted by Croatia this summer? Before you go hunting for flights to Dubrovnik, let us introuduce Zadar, and suggest why you might want to give this lesser-known historic port on the Dalmatian coast a try.
1. Enjoy Croatia without the crowds
The southern stretch of Croatia's Dalmatian coast is saturated with sunseekers in the summer months. Head north to Zadar, however, and you will find a region rich in history and natural beauty, which is still relatively undiscovered. With Dubrovnik being such a popular cruise port now, locals are starting to protest. Last August, in one day alone, 10,388 visitors bought tickets to walk the ramparts, a record number.
In Zadar you can wander quiet streets of marble, enjoy cheaper prices than in Dubrovnik, and sail to pine-scented beaches on remote islands, where you can sprawl undisturbed alongside tiny konobas – restaurants catering mostly to fishermen. Ryanair, EasyJet and FlyBe fly direct to the city.
2. The city’s sunsets wowed Hitchcock
The film director and master of suspense was reputedly drawn to the city to witness the spectacular reddening of its skies in 1964. He apparently described it as “the most beautiful sunset in the world”, but stopped short of ever making a film there.
The best spot to watch with a drink in hand is Brazil bar, which sits alongside the Monument to the Sun.
3. There’s a giant, solar-powered public dancefloor
A what?! To celebrate such magnificent sunsets, an artist, Nikola Basic, decided to build what is called the “Monument to the Sun” on the edge of the Zadar waterfront. All day a 22-metre disc, supposed to represent the sun, soaks up solar rays only to dazzle people with them in the form of coloured light patterns as night falls. Smaller discs representing other planets in the solar system also radiate their own rainbow glow.
What makes this attraction even cooler is that there are plans to now refurbish it and make it interactive. So the next time you visit, you will be able to dance across the sun and see the lights respond to your movements.
4. And a giant harmonica, played by the sea
At the same time, the revamped Monument to the Sun will connect up to Zadar’s other bonkers attraction, its Sea Organ. This is an adjacent art installation, formed by cleverly cutting steps into a section of the concrete waterfront promenade. These have underwater pipes in them that sound musical notes when filled with water - and create a harmonica effect that sounds as if each wave is gently sighing.
The plan is to have the lights on the sun monument correspond to the sounds created by the organ. Which sounds pretty amazing to us.
5. Zadar’s the gateway to Croatia’s best beach
Whisper it, but just a short ferry ride from Zadar is Saharun, one of the country’s best beaches. Its white sand -unusual for Croatia - and gently deepening turquoise shallows have led some to compare it to the Caribbean. Added to this, outside of July and August, there are really not many people there to enjoy it. But don’t tell everyone.
6. There’s plenty to see inland too
While it’s the Dalmatian coast that makes the headlines, it’s not just about what the sea can offer in Zadar. This part of Croatia, being much broader than the thin slip of land behind Dubrovnik can also tempt visitors with a dramatic hinterland to explore. Three national parks - Paklenica, Plitvice Lakes and Krka - are crammed between the crystal-clear Adriatic sea and the dusky Velebit mountains, offering hiking, rock-climbing and swimming in waterfalls.
7. You can swim at the foot of seven cascades
Krka National Park is just over an hour's drive away. Visitors enter by taking a short cruise up the emerald Krka river, through a pine-cloaked limestone gorge, to Skradinski Buk. A gorgeous swimming area is roped off at a bend in the river below the crescent of waterfalls. Before stripping off, take the shaded one-mile walk past a chain of tumbling pools to spot fish and sapphire dragonflies.
8. Zadar’s fish and seafood is top notch
Crammed inside Zadar’s ancient walls are a bevy of handful of great fish restaurants, with prices comparing favourably with those further down the coast.
Restaurant Groppo (restaurant-groppo.com) is a modern option with a shaded outdoor terrace, just along from St Donatus. It offers John Dory fillet with delicious Zadar truffles and gnocchi, olive oil-drenched seafood bruschetta, and a rustic and moreish pot of baked octopus and potatoes.
Newer is Bistro Gourmet Kalelarga (arthotel-kalelarga.com/en/gourmet), a more creative choice offering dishes such black tagliatelli and spider crab. Pet Bunara (petbunara.com) is another gem, ideally situated on the edge of the square of the same name which features five Venetian wells, and serves an innovative take on traditional Adriatic fare, with almond-flaked sea bass and cuttlefish stew.
9. It has more music festivals than you can shake a glowstick at
Zadar is the entry point for the majority of Croatia’s many dance music festivals. From here you can take a ferry to the island of Pag, best known for its cheese (more on that below) and long, pebbly, Zrce beach, which sees the return of Hideout Festival, along with hip-hop happening Fresh Island Festival, this year.
Tisno, an hour’s bus ride from Zadar, was once a former holiday camp for the Croatian military, but is this summer hosting festivals from Love International, which our reviewer described as psychedelic, Adriatic-infused fun, Beats, Beer and Boogaloo, a new, soul-flavoured event with Craig Charles, dance weekender Soundwave and the second event from Ibiza regulars Defected.
10. And the perfect drinking spot to get you in the mood for them
There are more Ibiza vibes in Zadar’s Old Town, where you can relax on day beds under white drapes at The Garden (watchthegardengrow.eu) lounge bar while gazing at the sea. If Zadar’s festivals have left you craving a health kick, the bar has a forward-thinking restaurant attached which serves delicious plates of raw food - think vegan dishes that have been kept away from a cooker, like crunchy vegetable norimaki and peanut spring rolls.
11. The Old Town is a historical pic ‘n’ mix
Prefer Roman, Byzantine or Venetian architecture? Zadar has prominent examples of each, from the Venetian tower and wells of Trg Pet Bunara (see above), to the columns of the Roman forum, which dates back to 1BC, to the impressive walls and city gates that helped make it once the largest city fortress in the Republic of Venice.
12. And home to one of Croatia’s most recognisable churches
Stones from the Roman Forum were used to build the neighbouring rotunda of the 9th-century, Byzantine-style, Church of St Donat, and are clearly visible. It stands out for its simple, round shape and dominant position. Its great acoustics means it often hosts classical music evenings.
Zadar's 12th-century cathedral is almost as attractive, with three beautiful portals and a bell-tower to climb, affording far-reaching views.
13. You can try all Croatia’s best wine in one place
Wine has been made in Croatia for thousands of years - first under the Illyrians, then the Greeks and Romans. Croatia’s whites are popular, and Zadar sits on the border between the two growing regions of Dalmatia, and Istria and Kvarner.
Vinophiles should head to La Bodega (labodega.hr/zadar/), a tunnel-like wine cellar and bar on main promenade, with huge list of Slovakian, Croatian coastal and Istrian wines and party soundtrack.
14. While not forgetting the city’s older traditions
For a memorable experience, take a short trip with the gnarled boatmen who have been rowing residents across the city’s main harbour to and from the Old Town for more than 800 years.
Alternatively, take a wander to the city market place, one of Dalmatia’s largest and best. The women behind the stalls here look like they have been selling their homemade lace tablecloths and slabs of salty Pag cheese for almost as long.