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Once one of the largest fortress cities in the Republic of Venice, Zadar frequently changed hands over the course of its history and built up a rich architectural and cultural heritage along the way. Set on a small peninsula on the Dalmatian Coast, its car-free streets provide a tranquil place to stroll among a rambling collection of Roman, medieval and modern buildings. Its strong café culture and low-key nature make it a pleasant place to wander, while its waterfront offers contemporary art installations, numerous cafés and good ferry links. There are also its sunsets, which Alfred Hitchcock declared the most beautiful in the world.

People's Square, ZadarYou enter the old town of Zadar though the Land Gate, an ornate 16th-century structure with three arches that sports the city’s coat of arms. Nearby is the 17th-century Church of Saint Simeon, with a relatively simple exterior in provincial Baroque style. Inside, you’ll find Saint Simeon’s Chest, a carved cedar sarcophagus covered in a layer of gold- and silver-plated reliefs. The 14th-century chest is considered a medieval masterpiece, the delicate reliefs showcasing the skill and craftsmanship of metalworkers at the time.

From the church you can stroll onto People’s Square, the hub of the old town for centuries. On the west side of the square, the City Guard building dates from 1562, while opposite it is a loggia used for public proclamations.

As you wander the streets of Zadar’s old town, you’ll notice Roman ruins popping up on street corners and squeezed in between modern developments. The most significant Roman remains are at the ancient Roman Forum where ornate temple stones, partially fluted columns and carved friezes lie arranged on the ground. One column remains intact, and until 1840 local offenders were chained to it in an act of public humiliation.

Church of Saint Donatus, ZadarOn one side of the square is the Church of Saint Donatus, a circular 9th-century Byzantine structure. Its simple interior includes two complete columns from the Roman Forum and some of the original Roman paving slabs. The church has impressive acoustics and is often used for summer classical concerts or exhibitions.

Nearby is Zadar’s cathedral which dates from the 12th and 13th centuries and has an ornate façade. Inside, the triple nave is decorated with frescoes and delicately carved stalls sit in the choir. You can climb the bell towers for views over the city and out to sea.

You’ll also get good views from the nearby Captain’s Tower, a 13th-century defense post, from where you can look down over Five Wells Square, where five 16th-century wells were once the main water source for the city.

Walking along the waterfront it’s impossible to miss the city’s most celebrated attraction, the Sea Organ. Set on the tip of the old town peninsula, it was designed by local architect Nikola Bašić and uses the power of the waves washing over a set of stone steps to push air through hidden pipes to produce random but harmonic musical notes. Even when the sea is calm the effect is eerily impressive, but on stormy days, when the sea is rough, the organ sounds like an avant-garde musical set-piece.

Nearby, you’ll find another of Bašić’s innovative creations, Greeting to the Sun, a companion piece to the Sea Organ. This circular plate of light-sensitive tiles absorbs solar energy by day and lights up in a hypnotic series of illuminations at night. The changing lights resemble a celestial aurora with smaller discs representing the planets. It’s become a popular evening meeting point for Zadar’s residents, with families, couples, the young and the old all gravitating here to enjoy the light show long after dark.

Best time to visit Zadar

Zadar is a good year-round destination and has a wide variety of summer festivals, but July to September is also the busiest time in the city and so overcrowding can spoil the tranquil nature of the town. Come in April or May, or in late-September or October, for pleasant temperatures, lower prices and quieter streets.

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