Unlike some of the more popular cities in Croatia like Split, Dubrovnik, or Zagreb, Zadar is more of a secret destination.
Despite being not as busy or well known, apart from the locals who love it, there are quite a few things to do in Zadar to occupy your time during a visit to this lovely Croatian coastal city.
Interestingly enough, the door is actually one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities across all of Europe, the fifth largest city in Croatia, and the second largest city in the region that it’s located in, Dalmatia.
I think that many people overlook Zadar as a typical tourist destination because many of the other more popular cities definitely offer a better beach or tourism experience, especially if that’s what you’re looking for.
On the other hand, Zadar has a great small town feel to it and even during the summer in peak tourist time, it never seems that busy.
One thing that makes the city so unique, and one of the reasons why I liked it so much,is because the entire Old Town area and all the main Zadar attractions is located on a small peninsula, so no matter where you walk the waterfront is just steps away.
I was also surprised to find quite a few beautiful parks throughout the city centre and it’s hard to beat the waterfront walkway where you can just wander along for kilometres while you listen to the waves and the sounds of the sea.
In this post I want to share with you some of the best things to do in Zadar so that you can maximize your time visiting one of Croatia’s most underrated cities.
Where is Zadar?
The city is located on a small Peninsula that juts out into the Adriatic Sea.
As for its regional position, you can find the city at the northwestern part of the region of Ravni Kotari, part of the greater region of Dalmatia.
Right across from the city are the two islands of Ugljan and Pasman, and the body of water between them is known as the Zadar Strait.
Getting to Zadar
Before I dive into the different tourist attractions and other things to see in Zadar, I just want to help you out with some information on how to reach the city.
Many people are arriving by car and it’s very easy to drive into the city, with plenty of parking lot and other parking opportunities where you can leave your car.
Parking in the centre is quite reasonably priced but the further you park away from the Old Town, the cheaper it’s going to be for the day, so consider that if you’re visiting Zadar on a budget.
Depending on where you’re travelling from one of the cheapest ways to reach the city is by flying, with plenty of low-cost budget airlines flying into Zadar regularly during the summer.
The airport is just 11 kilometres away from the centre of town and it’s really cheap to take a taxi, Uber, and even cheaper if you use public transportation.
As for public transportation, trains and buses service the entire Croatia coastline, and it even possible to arrive by ferry from Italy.
The downtown area is rather small so once you get into the city it’s really straightforward to navigate around and find where you’re staying.
What to Do in Zadar
In my opinion, two or three days is definitely enough to explore all of the best that Zadar has to offer.
The Sea Organ
If you ask anybody about the best Zadar attractions, the definitely going to bring up the magical and completely unique Sea Organ.
In case you’re wondering, yes, this is actually an organ located right on the Adriatic, and when you’re standing near it you can hear all sorts of peaceful melodies coming through the organ pipes.
In Croatian it’s known as the Morske Orgulje, and it was created by a popular Croatian architect, Nikola Basicis.
It doesn’t seem like much when you’re walking up to it, but if you’re lucky and you’re visiting this city on a wavy day then you can truly appreciate the sounds and harmonies that the organ gives off.
This is probably one of the busiest Zadar attractions, and it gets even busier around sunset as local photographers and tourists flock to the waterfront to grab some great photos of the sun setting into the water.
There’s nothing inherently special about the Sea Organ, apart from the fact that it’s a very unique attraction.
The way it actually works is by waves pushing air through the pipes under water and the sound you hear is the vibrations from the air as it makes its way through the pipes.
There isn’t any rhyme or reason to the sounds coming out of the organ, but it does sound pretty neat to hear it for the first time.
During the warmer summer months there are going to be a lot of people jumping off of the organ into the Adriatic and this is pretty fun to do if you want to get some swimming in and cool down a bit before exploring the rest of the city.
There’s also a section of steps and this is the best place to sit to watch the sea and relax for a little while.
The Greeting to the Sun
Another one of the most interesting things to see in Zadar, and it’s actually located right beside the Sea Organ, is the Greeting to the Sun.
You might notice it when you’re at the Organ, so keep your eyes out for a circular shape on the ground that’s covered in these multilayered glass plates.
During the day there isn’t anything exciting going on with this Zadar attraction, but at night these solar powered glass plates explode with colour and give off an amazing show of brightly coloured lights.
All day long the panels are absorbing solar energy, and at night you can catch catch a dazzling light display.
This is a great thing to check out if you’re looking for things to do in Zadar with kids, and even for adults it’s a pretty cool display that also adds another level of uniqueness to what the city has to offer.
The Church of St. Donatus
Apart from the Sea Organ, I think that one of the most recognizable Zadar attractions is the St. Donatus Church.
For those of you that are interested in Croatian architecture, this is something you’re definitely going to want to check out.
St. Donatus Church is recognized as being one of the best preserved examples of Byzantine church architecture and it’s the rounded design that makes it so unique and interesting.
When you’re inside, you’re going to know if these intricate patterns made from the sun falling through the holes in the roof, and this was actually done on purpose to add a more emotional and personal feeling for people coming to pray.
However, it’s the exterior that’s most impressive and the architectural design of it is simply astounding.
The large open space surrounding the church is also a popular place for festivals and concerts, and if you’re lucky enough to be visiting during the summer then it is very likely that you’ll catch some live music performances.
The large, sprawling open space surrounding the Church of St. Donatus is known as the Forum.
This is a relic left behind from the Roman era, and it’s one of the most historical sites in the city.
Believe it or not, this is the largest forum in all of Croatia and since its creation it has been a central area of public life in Zadar.
There isn’t much left over from its past, but you can still see some monumental columns and other pieces left over from when the Forum stood right in this square.
Unfortunately, an earthquake destroyed most of the buildings in this square during the 6th century, although it still retained its importance over the years with the addition of some churches and government structures.
All year round the Forum is a great place to relax in the comfortable heat of the sun and just admire the scenery before heading off to explore the rest of the city.
People’s Square (Narodni Trg)
The People’s Square, known in Croatian as Narodni Trg, is essentially the old town square of the city of Zadar.
During the busy summer months the entire square is lined with outdoor seating and there is a small selection of restaurants and cafes where you can grab a bite to eat or something to drink and just people watch while relaxing.
One of the most prominent attractions here in the square is the City Guard, or Gradska Straza, and this beautiful building was built in 1562.
The structure was actually designed by a famous Venetian architect, Michele Sanmicheli, and architecture lovers will love to know that it takes on a late Renaissance architectural style.
Right next to it is the pre Romanesque church of St. Lawrence, or Sveti Lovre, and this is the oldest preserved building in the city that dates back to the 11th century.
The entire Square is surrounded by well preserved and beautiful historic buildings to take the time to walk around and admire the architecture.
St. Anastasia Cathedral Bell Tower
Right next to the St. Anastasia Cathedral is a small bell tower and if you climb to the top you can enjoy an amazing view over the Old Town of Zadar.
There are a few different towers in the city that you can climb, as well as some other vantage points, but this bell tower I think gives the best view of the old town and it’s rather easy to climb as well.
From the top you can see all of the orange tile roofs of the many historic buildings in the city centre as well as the Adriatic and the different islands off in the distance.
The entrance fee is quite reasonable and only costs a few dollars if you want to head to the top.
Try to get here early in the day because otherwise it can be quite busy depending on what time you visit.
Foša Land Gate
When it comes to the different things to see in Zadar, one of the first attractions you will likely stumble upon without even referencing a guide is the Foša Land Gate.
This was the first thing that I saw after getting dropped off by the Uber, and depending on how you arrive in the city you will probably walk through the gate it as well without even noticing that it’s a tourist site.
This gate was originally built as the main land gate and entryway into the Old Town area all the way back in 1543.
It was actually built by the Venetians and you can even see the symbol of the Venetian Republic, the winged lion, arched into the top of the gate.
It’s interesting to think that a few hundred years ago this would have been the outside of limit of the city and just outside of this gate you would have seen peasants and poor villagers living around.
What a difference it is today.
The Zadar Pijaca is the oldest still running fresh market in the city and it’s a great place to visit if you want to grab some local fruits, vegetables, cheese, meat, and fish.
This market has been in operation since the Middle Ages and it’s a lot bigger than other markets that you would typically find in the Dalmatian region.
This is a great place to check out if you want to grab a quick snack of some delicious fresh and local fruit or if you’re staying in AirBnb you should visit the market to grab some fresh fish that you can cook up at home.
There are also some famous and award winning cheese producers here so wander around and try out some of the different cheeses until you find one that you like.
If you’re visiting Croatia on a budget then you can definitely get some better prices here even compared to what you would pay at the local supermarkets.
The Zadar Sphinx
Just outside of the city centre is the unusual Zadar attraction known as the Sphinx.
Of course it wasn’t built by the Egyptians, and it was actually built in 1918 as a memorial to a local artists wife.
It’s interesting in a few ways, not only because it’s a Sphinx in the heart of Europe, but because it was made from poured concrete and instead of having paws it actually has these weird looking fingers.
If you’re wondering where it is, it’s located at the Villa Attilia, at the garden in this location, and it’s actually in a small town nearby called Brodarica.
There is definitely a long walk involved in getting there so you might be better off taking a taxi or an Uber if you want to save some time.
Free Walking Tour
One of the best ways to explore a new city is to go on a free walking tour to get a better idea of the layout and to learn more about the history of wherever you’re visiting.
There are a few options for free walking tours in Zadar and they typically run a few hours long so make sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring a bottle of water if you’re travelling during the summer.
The different walking tours will bring you to some of the most popular attractions and will also give you more information about everything there is to see and do in the city.
As for which walking tours in Zadar you should go with, I recommend the following:
If it’s raining in Zadar or you just want to know more about local history, feel free to head over to the Archeological Museum.
The museum is located right across the street from the church of St. Donatus, and inside there are a wide range of exhibits where you can learn more about history of Croatia all the way up until the Middle Ages.
Everything is seemingly organized quite well and English speakers will be pleased to find that many of the displays come with accurate English translations.
The museum isn’t very expensive, with entrance costing around 30 Kuna, and make sure to give yourself a few hours to thoroughly check everything out.
Gold and Silver Museum
Another one of the interesting Zadar museums is the Gold and Silver Museum.
Here in this museum are a few exhibits that showcase some of the different historical treasures that have been discovered in Zadar and the surrounding area over the years.
Everything at the museum has been preserved by the Benedictine nuns who operate it and there are a few exhibits that have even been made by previous nuns hundreds of years ago.
This is a really unique museum because it has such a narrow focus on gold and silver, and you can learn more about the historical impact that these precious metals had on the development of the city as well as for Croatia as a whole.