Zadar is an intriguing city situated on a small peninsula at the center of the Croatian coastline. It is home to a variety of Roman ruins, medieval churches, cosmopolitan cafés and quality museums. What sets it apart from all the other coastal cities are its two unique tourist attractions – the Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation – which need to be seen and heard to be believed.
The first historical record of Zadar can be traced back to the 4th century B.C., when it was a settlement of the Illyrian tribe of Liburnians. In 48 B.C. this settlement became a Roman colony and its first inhabitants were veterans of Rome’s many foreign wars. As a consequence, Zadar is lined with ancient buildings and monuments inherited from the Roman era. Aside from housing a variety of archives, museums and libraries, it is also home to the University of Zadar, the oldest Croatian university (founded in 1396), and is known as the birthplace of Petar Zoranić, the famous Croatian Renaissance writer and poet who is generally considered to have written the first Croatian novel (Planine). It is protected by four patron saints: Simeon, Zoilus, Chrysogonus and Anastasia.
The Sea Organ (Morske orgulje)
This stunning architectural object features a set of large marble steps under which there is a system of polyethylene tubes and a resonating cavity. It is this intricate underground system which allows it to function as an eccentric music instrument. The lower steps allow water and air to flow in. That water and air is then funneled into the resonant chambers under the steps, and pushed out through the channels on the upper stairs. These in turn produce undulating, chime-like notes. Because the sea is always shifting and changing, the Sea Organ never sounds exactly the same twice – each sound you hear is completely unique.
The Sun Salutation (Pozdrav Suncu)
This is another work by the acclaimed Zadar’s architect Nikola Bašić, the same person who designed the Sea Organ. It consists of three hundred multi-layered glass panels that are positioned at the same level as the seafront promenade Riva. The glass panels are installed in a circle which is 22 m in diameter. Throughout the day it collects sunlight, and then when night falls the lighting elements that are inbuilt into the circle produce a spectacular light show.
The Roman Forum
One of the most intriguing things about Zadar is the way Roman ruins seem to sprout randomly from the city’s streets. Nowhere is this more evident than at the site of the ancient Forum, constructed between the 1st century BC and the 3rd century AD. As in Roman times, it’s the centre of civic and religious life, with St. Donatus’ Church dominating one side of it. Among the ruins of temples and colonnades stands one intact Roman column, which in the Middle Ages served as a shame post where wrongdoers were chained and publicly humiliated. Nearby are more Roman remains, including altars with reliefs of the mythical figures Jupiter Ammon and Medusa. On the top you can see the hollows used in blood sacrifices. It is believed that this area was a temple dedicated to Jupiter, Juno and Minerva dating from the 1st century BC.
The Rector’s Palace
This is a building which dates back to the 13th century and has a long-standing history of reconstructions. It has been a home to the city library, music and ballet schools and a concert library for decades, up until the Croatian Independence War, when it was heavily bombarded. Upon its reconstruction in 2017, it became a modern building which houses a museum, gallery, concert hall, video gallery, multimedia hall, and provides spaces for education and creativity.
The Church of St. Donatus
This grand church – named after its founder, Bishop Donatus – is one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture in Dalmatia. It was built in the early 9th century on the paving stones of the former Roman Forum and has a circular ground-plan with three circular apses. It has not been used for religious service since 1797, but because of the good acoustics, concerts are often held here.
People’s Square (Narodni trg)
Traditionally the centre of public life, this pretty little square is lined with many lively cafés. The western side is dominated by the late-Renaissance City Guard and its adjoining 18th-century clock tower. The loggia from the opposite side was once used for the announcement of proclamations and judgements, while it now serves as an art-exhibition space.
Five Wells Square
During the 16th century, the Venetians helped the city withstand Turkish sieges by building a large drinking water cistern with five ornamental wellheads. When the Turkish threat ended, a park was built on top of the nearby bastion, and nowadays the attractive paved space serves as the perfect gathering point for skateboarders.
The Land Gate
The best-known of the gates along the walls that ring Zadar is the Land Gate, once the main entrance to the city. Located by the Foša harbor with views of the water, it was built by the Venetian architect Michele Sanmicheli in 1543 and features a huge triumphal arch and two side arches, all decorated with images of Zadar’s patron saint, Chrysogonus. The winged lion of St. Mark hovering over the central arch is a reminder of Venice’s long rule over Zadar.
Calle Larga – which stands for wide street – is the main and most famous street in the whole city of Zadar. It runs along the south edge of the People’s Square and it follows the trail of the main longitudinal Roman street (decumanus maximus) that linked the defensive city gates on the present-day Petar Zoranić Square with the Roman Forum and Capitol. It predates the existence of the city itself since it is inherited from the period when the territory of present-day Zadar was only occupied by a small Liburnian settlement.