One of the oldest continually inhabited cities in Croatia, Zadar is a historic destination with a position on the Adriatic that helped it become the heart of maritime trade. Ancient Romans, who conquered it more than 3,000 years ago, built stone boulevards, chessboard squares and colonnades that are still on show today.
And yet for all Zadar’s ancient marvels, the ultimate trip to the city these days is informed by its unrivalled sea-to-summit setting. Everywhere is primed for adventure, from sliver-thin islands and sea channels perfect for novice paddlers and kayakers, to the rocky heights of Paklenica National Park, where climbers dangle and bikers ride downhill. Here are five memorable, action-packed ways of exploring Zadar.
1. Island-hop by paddleboard or kayak
There are almost always islands to admire along the Croatian coast, but the peaceful ones in Zadar are easier to make memories on simply because of their accessibility. To the north, you could encounter moonlike Pag, with its top-notch sheep’s cheese, or the striking hills of Vir. For the salt-tousled hair of an adventurer, your destination is the Zadar Archipelago. Situated roughly halfway down Croatia's coastline, it's made up of around 300 islands, islets and reefs of striking beauty. Your ticket to exploration is a paddleboard or sea kayak.
Dugi Otok, Croatian for 'Long Island', is home to the wild cliffs of Telašćica Nature Park. Ugljan, situated opposite the city of Zadar and connected to the island of Pašman by a bridge, is surrounded by islands lapped by mirror-still waters teeming with tuna — a Zadar delicacy. Beyond the cross-currents to the south west, a pocket of solitude awaits in Kornati National Park.
2. Scuba dive amid the Adriatic sea forest
The received wisdom is that the Dalmatian coast is for sunbathing on a beautiful beach or on the deck of a yacht anchored off a sheltered cove. For intrepid visitors, however, this approach can be combined with a more adventurous plunge below the surface on a scuba diving or snorkelling experience.
Catering for a spectrum of travellers, from beginners to experienced thrill-seekers, the wall diving sites round these parts are some of the best in Europe. Sestrica Mala, Korontan, Garmenjak Veli and Garmenjak Mali permit seasonal diving from April to November. There are thousands of spectacular subaquatic formations that will, in their own unique way, capture even the most experienced diver's gaze. The water’s satin sheen hides a rainbow’s worth of marine corals, waltzing shoals and cliff ornaments.
3. Raft Croatia’s most beautiful rivers
When it’s summer in Dalmatia, you have two options if you want to get wet: percolate towards Zadar’s beaches and islands, or hit the interior and get kitted out in neoprene, a helmet and life jacket. The Zrmanja River is a gently curving ribbon of white-horse rapids in the region’s remoter hinterland. Known by the ancient Romans as Tedanius, Zrmanja's spring starts in the shadow of Pljesevica mountain and the river winds for 43 miles before it reaches the Adriatic. Neighbouring the giants of the Velebit mountain range, its chalk-filtered waters are a must for thrill-seekers.
River rafting tours leave daily and, depending on your experience, tackle anything between Grade 2 and 4 rapids. Knowledgeable and skilled with your own kit? Tackle the Krupa River as a single passenger in a canoe and you’ll be taken to a place few travellers in Croatia get to see. Despite only being a little over four miles in length, there are 19 waterfalls along the river's descent. The valley it's situated within is famous for its rich biodiversity, meaning wildlife spotters will be in their element.
4. Get to grips with Paklenica National Park
This wild band of limestone rock and rubble only 30 minutes north east of Zadar city limits is fertile ground for climbing and bouldering adventures. The largest mountain chain in Croatia, it's stacked with dramatic gullies and bookshelf summits often veiled in gossamer mists. It’s an area characterised by steep trails descending into canyons and off-road tracks.
For a crash-course in sublime drama, hike the rims of epic grand canyons Velika Paklenica or Mala Paklenica, or shoulder a rope and rucksack of carabiners for big-wall climbs in the shadow of summits topping out around 1,700 metres. There are 590 marked and bolted routes nowadays and, as news of the national park’s towering pulpits spreads, it’s fast becoming the capital of climbing in this part of the world. Peel the layers back further and more adventures lie in wait. Out of sight, away from the sunlight, there are dozens of caverns and chambers brimming with untapped opportunity for underground exploration.
5. Go for a spin on miles of bike trails
There are many reasons to cycle the Croatian coast, but none quite so tempting as the chance to crisscross the lesser-known towns of the Zadar region on lanes that rapidly transplant you from the city to the countryside. The quantity of trails ranges from an easygoing 16-mile tumble through time to the royal city of Nin to a downhill dash high in the cradle of the Velebit Mountains.
With so much to see, it can be hard to know what to circle on the map. Streamline your experience by downloading the Zadar Bike Magic app for route descriptions that, if followed, will see you quickly on the right path.
Flights from the UK to Zadar take around 2.5 to three hours. For more information, please visit zadar.hr