Zadar and the Dalmatian Coast
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
A Zadar and Dalmatian Coast Overview
Zadar, the oldest continuously occupied city in Croatia, sits on the northern portion of the country’s Dalmatian Coast. This stretch of Adriatic coastline - dotted with a seemingly endless array of islands, gravel beaches, and crystal clear waters - is better known (at least among Americans) for the southern city of Dubrovnik (of Game of Thrones and general Instagram fame). Despite this relative anonymity from a US perspective, Zadar more than justified an extended visit.
The historic portion of Zadar occupies a peninsula jutting northwest from the mainland, forming a naturally protected harbor - now home to the yachts of Europe’s big-money families. On the mainland itself, the more modern city sprawls inland, making it the fifth largest city in Croatia.
The peninsula community has its roots in the 9th century BC, when an Illyrian tribe known as the Dalmatae (hence the Dalmatian Coast) established a settlement. For thousands of years after this founding, the city’s strategic location led to its passing hands between dozens of empires - Rome, Byzantium, and Venice, to name a few.
Today, this eclectic history creates a wild juxtaposition of cultures, where Roman columns exist in close proximity to medieval churches and Yugoslavian concrete, with visitors walking along marble slabs worn smooth by centuries of foot traffic. (NOTE: Be careful turning too quickly on this slick marble after a rainstorm!).
Like Dubrovnik, Zadar did not escape the violence that went hand-in-hand with Yugoslavia’s collapse. During the Croatian War of Independence, Serb forces regularly shelled the city. In the old town today, visitors can see the effects of this violence if they look closely - bullet holes and shrapnel still pockmark the walls of some buildings. And, when you enter the peninsula’s ancient walls, a plaque memorializes these attacks - a schematic of the old town with indicators showing each artillery strike.
Staying in Zadar and the Nicest Old Lady in the World
We’re jumping ahead a bit with the above overview. When we first drove into Zadar from the north, we didn’t have any of this background. We just knew A) people recommended visiting, and B) Zadar was close enough to the island of Pag - sheep cheese capital of the world - for a day trip.
For just a one or two night visit, we would’ve splurged for a place within the historic peninsula walls. There for a week and needing to work, we opted for a more practical (read: affordable) AirBnB in the newer portion of the city.
From the waterfront, Zadar climbs steeply up inland. We stayed in a quaint garden apartment a couple miles up the hill from the coast. Pulling down a narrow drive off the main drag, we turned into a beautiful backyard - house to the left, with our little apartment a standalone building in the shade of a cherry tree on the right.
Our host had told us that she wouldn’t be home when we arrived, but her mother would give us the key. Like our Motovun experience, this sweet old lady didn’t speak a lick of English. But, apparently there’s a universal language that all grandmas speak - big smiles and hugs, a welcome bowl of freshly-picked cherries, and an insistence on sticking around until everything is just right!
For our entire time there, we repeated this series of interactions. Jenna, in particular, received copious amounts of grandma-ly affection. Our apartment used the wifi from the main house, so the coverage was spotty. Chipp fell back into his routine and found a coworking spot in Zadar, but Jenna made do. Needing reliable wifi for a work call one day, she asked our host if she could post up on the house’s porch for an hour - “Of course! I’ll let my mom know.”
Her mom’s reaction? Bringing Jenna another bowl of cherries and a bottle of Croatian wine for her call! We’d return to Zadar just to spend some more time with this absolute sweetheart!
Cuttlefish Risotto and More Street Dining
After a day-ish working, we strolled the couple miles downhill to old-town Zadar. Since arriving in Croatia, Chipp had been craving a Dalmatian specialty - cuttlefish risotto.
A cousin to squid, cuttlefish also produce a black ink, and they thrive in the clear Adriatic waters. Along the Dalmatian Coast, chefs have long used this local seafood to make a delicious - and fairly unique - dish. Slow-cooked lumps of cuttlefish are mixed into a savory risotto, blackened and flavored with copious amounts of this ink. While it may leave your teeth temporarily colored, the incredible salty and savory flavors - especially washed down with some malvazija - more than justify the odd aesthetics.
In no real rush, we meandered back-and-forth through Zadar’s narrow alleys, packed with tourists and locals embracing the nightlife. Outdoor bars, cafes, and shops line these ancient streets, and the gridlike pattern makes it easy to cover ground in a fairly deliberate pattern. Checking menus as we went, we found the ideal place - streetside tables, carafes of wine, and cuttlefish risotto on the menu. Done.
Worth the wait - and the teeth!
Working through a carafe of wine, enjoying our incredible seafood dishes, and watching the world go by, we’d be hard-pressed to complain about anything. And, continuing the wonderful Croatian tradition, we ended the meal with another complimentary shot of local brandy!
After dinner, we strolled Zadar’s tree-lined promenade along the peninsula’s western seawall. On the northwestern point, we stumbled upon one of the most haunting - though beautiful - sounds we’d ever heard. Created in the early 2000s as a form of sound art, Zadar’s sea organ harnesses the tides and waves to “play” the instrument. The result is a deeply mournful sound seeming to emanate directly from the water.
In the moonlight with full stomachs and light heads, stumbling upon these sounds was quite the unique and moving experience.
Croatian Basketball and Saturday “Game Night”
Basketball assumes the level of religion in Croatia. It’s absolutely huge (reference our time at the Drazen Petrovic museum in Zagreb). This reality factors into a night out in Zadar.
Wanting to experience the nightlife inside Zadar’s historic walls, Jenna looked up an outdoor bar/cafe on the peninsula. To make sure we had a spot, Chipp called ahead to reserve a table (more like a dinner reservation table - not Vegas-esque “table service”):
Chipp: “Hi my wife and I want to swing by and have some drinks tonight - can we reserve an outdoor table for two at 8pm?”
Bar: “Sure, but just be on time. It’s game night.”
Real dummy, Chipp envisioned some sort of trivia- and board-game-themed event at the bar.
Chipp: “Sounds good - see you at 8pm!”
Fast forward to that evening, we walked into town. On the way down, we passed right by Zadar’s basketball arena, slammed with people in the parking lots and lines waiting to get inside - still didn’t connect the dots.
When we got to our spot, the entire street was covered with tables facing a bunch of big screen TVs. It finally dawned on us: “game night” referred to a basketball game, not a bunch of board games… Turns out, we’d pick the night Zadar was playing Split in the the final game of Croatia’s five-game pro league championship - in Zadar.
After acknowledging that Chipp was an idiot, we realized how incredible a coincidence this was - getting to watch the final game of a championship series, in the city where it was being played. Awesome experience.
In addition to sampling pretty much every local brandy behind the bar, we watched Zadar beat Split, and the city erupted. As soon as the clock hit zero, sparklers and Roman candles lit up at the bar, and the roar of cheers echoed through old town Zadar’s narrow alleys. Even for outsiders with no vested interest in the game, it’s impossible not to get sucked into such contagious excitement.
As we walked home, crossing the bridge from Zadar’s ancient peninsula walls back to the mainland, we got another surprise. Following a group of guys banging drums, a massive crowd - more Roman candles firing - was crossing the bridge the opposite direction. It was the team. After the win, Zadar’s entire team paraded from the arena into town for a night of celebration and revelry - pretty unbelievable connection with the city.
A Zadar Walking Tour
After a night of sports culture, we decided on a day of historical culture, signing up for a walking tour. Zadar Walking Tours - owned and led by a lifetime local named Sime - is a must on a visit to the city. Skimming some online reviews, everyone pointed to Sime’s tours as the best in town.
Yes, strolling around a new city, wandering aimlessly through the streets and stumbling on cool places, offers a great overview - and we certainly enjoyed doing that our first few days in Zadar. But, guided walking tours - especially in cities with as much history as Zadar - just expose you to facets of an area impossible to pick up on your own.
We showed up at the designated meeting point Sunday morning and, coincidentally, met two American girls who’d be joining as well. A few minutes later, Sime showed up, full of energy, smiles, and a readily apparent enthusiasm for his work - showing visitors the beauty of his home town.
For the next couple hours, Sime took us all over Zadar’s historic peninsula, diving into detailed stories, chatting with local friends he bumped into along the way, and exposing us to indicators of the city’s extensive history that we just wouldn’t have seen on our own. Few highlights:
Walking through the arched entryway of one medieval-era chapel - incredibly old, in and of itself - we discovered an inner sanctum from the Roman era. Fascinating seeing these layers of history not only built on but around each other. As we left, Sime pointed out the intricate stone work over the entrance:
Sime: “Notice the detailed, medieval-era St. Michael carving and the sword in his hand.”
One of the American girls: “Who’s the guy above him?”
Sime, pausing slightly: “Um, that’s Jesus…”
American: “Oh. Right.”
In addition to this religious history (and mild Christ-related confusion), we also got a sense of modern life within Zadar’s ancient walls. We paused at a small marina carved into the base of Zadar’s peninsula. Unlike the superyachts moored in the city’s main harbor, these waters held smaller, “everyman” sail- and motorboats. To prevent locals from being priced out by wealthy foreigners, Zadar’s city ordinance states that only residents living within the old town walls are allowed to moor their boats in this little neighborhood marina. Solid way to maintain the city’s character and livability.
We wrapped up our tour back in Sime’s office for a shot of a Zadar specialty - Maraska Maraschino cherry liqueur. Delicious. Neither of us knew this treat was made in Zadar, but it makes sense thinking back to the cherry tree in our little garden apartment.
Chatting in the office, we asked Sime for some of his restaurant recommendations. Like all historic, frequently-traveled spots, Zadar’s ancient peninsula has its share of tourist traps. We wanted to know where the locals ate if they wanted to go out. Quite frankly, Sime explained that most locals make better food at home with the local ingredients - love the pride!
BUT, if he did want to go out to eat, Sime had one place he recommended - Trattoria Mediterraneo. Leaving his office, Sime walked us the couple blocks over to the restaurant, a cozy spot with a few tables inside and the rest outside on the marble alley.
After introducing us to the owner - an old friend - we parted ways with Sime. Couple takeaways. One, paying for a guided walking tour is usually well worth the price of admission. Two, and related, always ask locals about their favorite places to eat - Trattoria’s seafood dishes (and obligatory carafes of Croatian white wine) exceeded all expectations!