Zadar has seen it all: adored by the Ancient Greeks, ruled by the Romans, conquered by the Byzantines, controlled by the Austrians, near-obliterated by the Americans in World War Two and heavily bombed during the Croatian War of Independence. But now this town on the north Dalmatia coast is emerging as Croatia’s new capital of cool. Bordered by the dusky Velebit mountains and steeped in natural beauty, the city is an alluring mix of past and present with a rich architectural legacy, recently furthered earlier this year as its ancient walls were named a UNESCO World Heritage site. Sun-drenched islands punctuate the azure view, with a sunset described as best in the world by Alfred Hitchcock.
The city has a vibrant, youthful note, its culture played out in cosmopolitan cafés, modern art galleries and flourishing nightlife venues. It is small enough to circle in a morning, yet large enough to explore for days. Begin with The Forum, a public square designed in the first century BC, which hosts the tumbledown remains of the Roman forum, including the Pillar of Shame, once used to shackle criminals. Meander further into the labyrinth of marble streets to happen upon subsequent signs of its rich history: Croatia’s largest Byzantine church, Church of St Donatus, the 11th-century St Mary’s Church, the Orthodox church of St Elias built upon a Roman temple and the St Anastasia Cathedral – Dalmatia’s largest – from the 12th century. Then there’s the Archaeological Museum with more than 100,000 exhibits and the Museum of Ancient Glass, housed in the 19th-century Cosmacendi Palace, overflowing with a remarkable collection of Roman and Dalmatian examples.
Don’t be fooled into thinking Zadar is a living museum; the city is buzzing. Take The Garden, for instance, which was founded by two members of the Brit reggae group UB40. Spread before the harbour, atop the city walls, the outdoor space combines cabañas, funky lighting and top-class DJs. Bar Shine is equally hip: well lit, minimal and modish with live music until the early hours. Then there’s Arsenal, a converted 16th-century Venetian military warehouse, and a firm fashion favourite, where restaurants, a café, nightclub and boutiques intersect.
Two extraordinary light and sound structures are the city’s main hangouts: The Sea Organ, a series of marble steps cut into the waterfront promenade, containing pipes that sound musical notes when filled with water; and Monument to the Sun, a large solar-powered disc that dazzles passers-by with psychedelic light patterns as night falls. Places to eat are fun and informal. Locals flock to Kornat for monkfish with truffles and homemade gnocchi. Foša, in the tiny harbour, serves up exquisite meals. Start with octopus salad followed by grilled sea bream and accompanied with Croatian wine. Traditional fare is the order of the day at Stomorica, where fresh fish is cooked simply in olive oil with a squeeze of lemon. Investigate the open-air market on Pod Bedemon Street, where silver-haired farmers sell their produce – snap up the exceptional maraschino cherry liqueur, od maraške.
Days are filled by lolling on the beach. Zadar has its own gondoliers, ‘barkajoli’, who have been rowing passengers across the Zadar Channel for 800 years. Take the boat across the harbour for a peaceful walk along Marina Borik and continue to the family-friendly Borik Beach, before embracing the quiet Diklo Beach further along the coast.
Come in April for the world-renowned Zadar Outdoor Festival, which features a sailing regatta, swimming marathon and kayak race. Zadar is the ideal base for island-hopping, too. There’s the tiny medieval island city, Nin, known for its shoreline of therapeutic mud, the pine forest-lined Pašman and the shimmering sapphire bays of Silba. On the magical island of Pag it is all about the local specialty, paški sir, a salty sheep’s milk cheese. However, the Kornati Islands remain the jewel in the crown, created from God’s “tears, stars and breath”, according to George Bernard Shaw.
Rest your head at Relais & Châteaux’s Hotel Bastion, located on the harbour side of Old Town, overlooking the glistening Adriatic. Built on the ruins of a 13th-century castle, Bastion’s 28 rooms blend a modern and traditional look with large padded headboards, squishy armchairs and a laidback feel. Another failsafe option is the ten-room Scandi-style Art Hotel Kalelarga – book a suite with a jacuzzi. But don’t go to bed just yet. Wander along the waterfront, while away a few more hours and rest a little bit longer in – as the locals say – fjaka, a lazy mood of complete contentment.