Dalmatia's capital for more than 1,000 years, Zadar is all too often passed over by travelers on their way to Split or Dubrovnik. What they miss out on is a city of more than 73,000 that is remarkably lovely and lively despite—and, in some measure, because of—its tumultuous history. The Old Town, separated from the rest of the city on a peninsula some 4 km (2½ miles) long and just 1,640 feet wide, is bustling and beautiful: the marble pedestrian streets are replete with Roman ruins, medieval churches, palaces, museums, archives, and libraries. Parts of the new town are comparatively dreary, a testament to what a world war followed by decades of communism, not to mention a civil war, can do to the architecture of a city that is 3,000 years old. A settlement had already existed on the site of the present-day city for some 2,000 years when Rome finally conquered Zadar in the 1st century BC; the foundations of the forum can be seen today. Before the Romans came the Liburnians had made it a key center for trade with the Greeks and Romans for 800 years. In the 3rd century BC the Romans began to seriously pester the Liburnians, but required two centuries to bring the area under their control. During the Byzantine era, Zadar became the capital of Dalmatia, and this period saw the construction of its most famous church, the 9th-century St. Donat's Basilica. It remained the region's foremost city through the ensuing centuries. The city then experienced successive onslaughts and occupations—both long and short—by the Osogoths, the Croatian-Hungarian kings, the Venetians, the Turks, the Habsburgs, the French, the Habsburgs again, and finally the Italians before becoming part of Yugoslavia and, in 1991, the independent republic of Croatia. Zadar was for centuries an Italian-speaking city, and Italian is still spoken widely, especially by older people. Indeed, it was ceded to Italy in 1921 under the Treaty of Rapallo (and reverted to its Italian name of Zara). Its occupation by the Germans from 1943 led to intense bombing by the Allies during World War II, which left most of the city in ruins. Zadar became part of Tito's Yugoslavia in 1947, prompting many Italian residents to leave. Zadar's most recent ravages occurred during a three-month siege by Serb forces and months more of bombardment during the Croatian-Serbian war between 1991 and 1995. But you'd be hard-pressed to find outward signs of this today in what is a city to behold. There are helpful interpretive signs in English all around the Old Town, so you certainly won't feel lost when trying to make sense of the wide variety of architectural sites you might otherwise pass by with only a cursory look.
In the 18th-century arsenal, where the Venetians used to repair their galleys, this multipurpose cultural space hosts art exhibitions and concerts, as well as a lounge bar, a restaurant, and a wine shop.
Galerija Morsky sells fine paintings by local artists.
Square of Five Wells
The square is the site of a large cistern built by the Venetians in the 1570s to help Zadar endure sieges by the Turks. The cistern itself has five wells that still look quite serviceable, even though they have long been sealed shut. Much later, in 1829, Baron Franz Ludwig von Welden, a passionate botanist, established a park above an adjacent pentagonal bastion that was also built to keep the Turks at bay.
Crkva sv. Marije
Legend has it that a local noblewoman founded a Benedictine convent on this site in 1066, and the adjoining St. Mary's Church in 1091. Rebuilt in the 16th century, the church was supposed to incorporate a new, Renaissance look into the remnants of its earlier style: its rounded gables remained, continuing to express a certain Dalmatian touch; early Romanesque frescoes are still evident amid the largely baroque interior; and your eyes will discover 18th-century rococo above the original columns without being any worse for the effect. Most noteworthy for modern-day visitors, however, is the adjoining convent complex, two wings of which house one of Zadar's most treasured museums. The Permanent Exhibition of Religious Art, whose highlight is commonly called "The Gold and Silver of Zadar," is a remarkable collection of work from centuries past by local gold- and silversmiths (including Italians and Venetians who lived here), from reliquaries for saints and crucifixes, to vestments interwoven with gold and silver thread.
Founded in 1832, Zadar's archaeological museum is one of the oldest museums in this part of Europe. It occupies a plain but pleasant modern building beside the convent complex of Crkva sv. Marije. It is home to numerous artifacts from Zadar's past, from prehistoric times to the first Croatian settlements. Head upstairs to move back in time. The third floor focuses on ceramics, weaponry, and other items the seafaring Liburnians brought home from Greece and Italy, whereas the second floor covers the classical period, including a model of the Forum square as it would have looked back then; a smaller exhibit addresses the development of Christianity in Northern Dalmatia and contains rare artifacts from the invasion of the Goths. On the first floor you'll find an exhibit from the early Middle Ages, taking you to the 12th century.
Crkva sv. Donata
Zadar's star attraction, this huge, cylindrical structure is the most monumental early Byzantine church in Croatia. Originally called Church of the Holy Trinity, and probably inspired by plans set forth in a book by the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenet, On Ruling the Empire, centuries later it was rededicated to St. Donat, who was bishop here from 801 to 814. Legend has it that Donat, an Irishman, was the one who had it built, using stone from the adjacent Forum. The stark, round interior features a circular center surrounded by an annular passageway; a sanctuary consisting of three apses attached to the lofty mantle of the church walls, set off from the center by two columns; and a gallery reached by a circular stairway. Although the church no longer hosts services, its fine acoustics make it a regular concert venue. During the off-season (November to March), when the church is closed, someone at the Archaeological Museum next door may have a key to let you in.
One of the Old Town's two main public spaces, the ever bustling Narodni trg is home of the Gradska Straža (City Sentinel), which was designed by a Venetian architect in late-Renaissance style with a large, central clock tower. The sentinel's stone barrier and railing, complete with holes for cannons, were added later. This impressive tower once housed the ethnographic section of the National Museum and is today a venue for various regular cultural exhibits.
Katedrala sv. Stošije
Dalmatia's largest basilica was shaped into its magnificent Romanesque form in the 12th and 13th centuries from an earlier church; though it was damaged severely during World War II, it was later reconstructed. The front portal is adorned with striking Gothic reliefs and a dedication to the archbishop Ivan from the year 1324. The interior includes not only a high, spacious nave but also a Gothic, stone ciborium from 1332 covering the 9th-century altar; intricately carved 15th-century choir stalls by the Venetian artist Matej Morozon; and, in the sacristy, an early Christian mosaic. St. Anastasia is buried in the altar's left apse; according to legend, she was the wife of a patrician in Rome but was eventually burned at the stake. Bishop Donat of Zadar obtained the remains in 804 from Byzantine Emperor Niceforos. The late-19th-century belfry, which is separate from the main church building, offers a sweeping view to those who climb to the top for a fee, but even the 20 steps up to the ticket desk rewards you with a decent view of the square below.
Crkva sv. Šimuna
Built in the 5th century as a three-nave basilica, it was later reconstructed in Gothic style, and again in baroque style, though the terra-cotta and white exterior pales in comparison to some of the city's other churches. St. Simeon's Church is best known for housing the gilded silver sarcophagus of Zadar's most popular patron saint. The chest, which depicts intricately detailed scenes from St. Simeon's life and the city's history, was commissioned in 1381 by Elizabeth, wife of Croat-Hungarian King Ludwig I of Anjou, and made by Francesco De Sesto of Milan, one of Zadar's best silversmiths. As for St. Simeon, legend has it that his body wound up here while being transported from the Holy Land to Venice by a merchant who got caught in a storm, took refuge here, fell ill, and died—but not before drawing attention to the saintliness of the body he'd brought with him. Palm trees outside the church lend the site a pleasant, Mediterranean touch.
In 2004 Zadar was provided with a round-the-clock tourist attraction unlike any other in the world (as of this writing). Comprising 35 pipes under the quay stretching along a 230-foot stretch of Zadar's atmospheric Riva promenade, the Sea Organ yields a never-ending (and ever free) concert that delights one and all. Designed by architect Nikola Bašić with the help of other experts, the organ's sound resembles a whale song, but it is in fact the sea itself. It's hard not to be in awe as the sound of the sea undulates in rhythm and volume with the waves.
Franjevački samostan i Crkva sv. Franje Asiškog
Dalmatia's oldest Gothic church, consecrated in 1280, is a stellar example of a so-called Gothic monastic church, characterized by a single nave with a raised shrine. Although the church underwent extensive reconstruction in the 18th century, behind the main altar is a shrine dating to 1672; inside the shrine you can see choir stalls in the floral Gothic style that date to 1394. In 1358 a peace treaty was signed in this very sacristy under which the Venetian Republic ended centuries of attack and handed Zadar over to the protection of the Croat-Hungarian kingdom. You can walk around the atmospheric inner courtyard for free, by the way, but you must pay a fee to enter the church itself. From mid-October through March or April, the church may keep irregular hours.
Established in the 1st century BC by the first emperor Augustus, the Roman Forum is, more than 2,000 years later, pretty much a wide empty space with some scattered ruins. However, since it was rediscovered in the 1930s and restored to its present condition in the 1960s, the Forum has been one of Zadar's most important public spaces. A raised area on the western flank indicates the site of a onetime temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno, and Minerva, and if you look closely you will notice what remains of its altars that served as venues for blood sacrifices. The only surviving column was used in the Middle Ages as a "Pillar of Shame," to which wayward individuals were chained. Fragments of a second column were removed from the Forum in 1729 and put back together again near the Square of Five Wells, where the column still stands today.
A walk around the walls of Zadar's Old Town is a walk around what was, once, the largest city-fortress in the Venetian Republic. One of the finest Venetian-era monuments in Dalmatia, the Land Gate was built in 1543 by the small Foša harbor as the main entrance to the city. It takes the form of a triumphal arch, with a large, central passage for vehicles and two side entrances for pedestrians, and is decorated with reliefs of St. Chrysogonus (Zadar's main patron saint) on his horse, and the shield of St. Mark (the coat of arms of the Venetian Republic).
Museum of Ancient Glass
Occupying the 19th-century Cosmacendi Palace, on the edge of the Old Town, this museum opened in 2011. It displays one of the world's finest collections of Roman glassware outside Italy, with a vast array of ancient pieces unearthed from archaeological sites across Dalmatia. Highlights include the delicate vessels used by Roman ladies to keep their perfumes, skin creams, and essential oils, as well as sacred goblets used to celebrate mass. The museum shop offers a fine choice of replicas of Roman glassware, making fine gifts to bring home.