One of my favorite things about Croatia was how easy it was to get around by bus. And not those hellish 20+ hour buses in South America — although they do make for great stories — but clean and comfortable buses, with a worthwhile destination never more than five hours away.
My trip began in Zagreb, an enchanting city that immersed me in history and beauty. Roaming the many streets and squares in Lower Town, I’d stare up at grand Art Nouveau architecture with some Art Deco and Classicism sprinkled in, yellow paint adding a cheerfulness to the scene. Pristine parks and gardens form Lenuci’s Green Horseshoe enhanced the scene, with public art, museums, cafes and educational institutions littered throughout. Within the winding streets of Upper Town — where the two medieval walls hills, Gradec and Kaptol, Zagreb was built on reside — old churches, original homes, museums and long-standing traditional touches like a canon blown at noon each day from Lotrščak Tower and manually-lit gas street lights abound.
While Zagreb enchanted me with its history and culture, what I was craving was peace in nature. For less than $15, I hopped on a four-hour bus ride to a place I hoped would bring me just that: Zadar. Not just Zadar, but Zadar in the off-season.
Zagreb had taken me into the past, but Zadar blasted me into the future, at least my hostel did. Boutique Hostel Forum, named after adjacent ancient forum, instantly became one of my favorite accommodations of all times. Some highlights including: alien-language room numbers (I was XII), digital keycard doors and lockers (no need to bring a bike lock!), free Wi-Fi, a variety of common spaces including an outdoor terrace and rooftop, communal kitchen, delicious buffet breakfast (fee) and uber modern design. Picture bold lines and patterns in black, blue, orange and white, mirror doors, a functional yet sleek use of space, and bathrooms with mirror walls and ceilings and rain showers — even in the dorms! I also loved the 28-cent coffees crafted robotic-ally by a machine. I’d simply put my 2 Kunas in, press my selection, and suddenly a metal arm would produce a cup, insert a spoon, then pour my coffee, served piping hot. I loved sipping it from my pod bed — every hostel should have these, you can dorm with 100 people and still feel like you’re in a private room — while looking out the window over ancient churches and the Adriatic Sea.
Exploring Zadar’s Rich History
The story of Zadar, a historical city on Croatia’s Dalmatian coast, begins in 4th century BC. During this time it was known as Jader, built up by ancient pre-Indo-Europeans and then the Illyrian tribe of Liburnians — although what we see today is mainly the work of the ancient Romans that inhabited Zadar since the mid 2nd century BC. Today you still see their Forum ruins, Roman architecture, a rectangular street plan with squares, and street indentations from ancient water supply systems.
Before Croatia finally took control it was governed by the Venetians, Austrians, French and Yugoslavia, allowing for a mix of cultures to influence the landscape — as well as create many wars. It’s pretty amazing the structures are so well-preserved considering Zadar was bombed during WWII and endured heavy fighting during the Battle of Zadar, to name just a few violent incidences.
Despite my hostel being reminiscent of The Jetson’s, Zadar’s old town has about seven churches, heritage museums and so many ruins they actually serve as park seating (which, side note, I find a bit weird). Each holy institution has its own unique character, from Zadar’s oldest 9th century St. Donatus done in a circular Byzantine design and built on top of the old Roman Forum, which you can beside on an outdoor terrace and sip coffee and wine, or the next door 12th century Romanesque Saint Anastasia’s Cathedral with its bell tower offering beautiful views. The Church of Saint Simeon, St. Mary’s Church, the Church of Saint Chrysogonus and the Saint Francis Church and Franciscan Monastery are just a few other places of worship worth visiting. As is Zadar’s Archeological Museum, where you can start to wrap your head around the meaning of all you’re taking in.
While my original plan had been to rent a bike and spend the day cycling around Zadar and along the coast to nearby towns, visiting in off-season (outside of April 1-October 31) meant that all the bike shops and tour offices were closed.
I guess I’d be exploring on foot.
And I do.
Aside for cycling, one of my favorite ways to explore a city is without a map, just getting lost in the streets. While Zadar is practically a ghost town in March, I can’t help but enjoy the peace of wandering old town’s pedestrian-only burnished marble streets without a plan, immersing myself in the feel of the weathered pastel buildings in spring colors, each undoubtedly with stories to tell, the towers and church spires, fortress city walls and gates with lion-adorned facades. Oh, and did I mention the endless pizza and gelato shops — both open even in off-season.
I also stumble upon a park that’s located directly across from the Zadar City Gate, which awards aerial views and a greener Zadar experience.
Relaxing On The Adriatic Sea
The other highlight of Zadar is its waterfront, as it sits on the Adriatic Sea, something that can be enjoyed even in the off-season. I’m not sure what it’s like during high season, but in March the seaside is serene, literally no sounds but lapping waves, chatty gulls and kissing couples. Well, unless you go near the Sea Organ. While hard to see, you’ll know you’ve reached it once you hear organ music appearing to be coming straight out of the water. Just look down at the marble steps leading toward the sea and you’ll notice the tubular tunnels helping the waves create this beautiful music.
Nearby, a giant blue disk embedded into the ground is an attraction called the Sun Salutation, featuring 300 multi-layered glass plates that collect energy from the sun during the day, to be able to put on a light show reminiscent of the solar system at night.
I wander east in the direction of the University of Zadar, although with no plan on heading there. I pass colorful docked boats, a statue of Špiro Brusina holding a conch, and, finally, a beautiful pebble beach. While I smile walking along its curves, small rocks crunching underfoot and the sun warming my face, I can’t help but feel a twinge of regret at not coming when I could actually don a bikini instead of a hoodie and wool hat.
It’s only 3:30pm when I’m done walking the coast, so I stop into a waterfront cafe with a lively vibe called Hitch Bar. I’m actually drawn to it because the windows feature the exact design I have tattooed on my back. I guess that’s what you get for picking travel tattoos off of Pinterest. My double espresso comes to 6 Kunas (~83 cents), and I choose the outdoor tables with sea views paired with dance music, over the modern interior with its floor-to-ceiling windows and sleek minimalist space.
The hostel had informed me that if I really wanted to experience Zadar like a local I would need to master the art of doing nothing, sitting at a cafe for hours and just enjoying the atmosphere. I suck at doing nothing, but genuinely delight in it for a good 26 minutes reading Lolita before I decide to head back to seek out something delicious to eat.
During off-season many local restaurants are closed. That being said, I do discover one highly recommended venue that’s open outside the tourist peak: Restaurant 2Ribara. Prices are reasonable — I paid less than $10 for the largest cheeseburger of my life with generous sides of fries and a kind of stewed rice and vegetable. It was so big I brought half home for the next evening (Boutique Hostel Forum has a small kitchen). They had a lot of delicious-looking seafood options, but unfortunately I was on a strict budget.
My favorite place to eat was definitely Slad, a takeaway pizza, sandwich and gelato shop located diagonal from the hostel on the corner of Siroka and Šimuna Kožičića Benje streets. Any local reading this is probably grimacing at this statement, and I’ll admit my stomach was led by my wallet on this trip. Slad had enormous slices of pizza — bigger than in NYC — topped with whole fresh peppers and thick bacon slices for 12 Kunas ($1.65) and delicious gelato in unusual flavors like Hello Kitty and Pokeman, although they also had fruit, chocolate and candy bar flavors, with a small cone being 8 Kunas ($1.10). At night, I’d grab some gelato and walk along the nearby waterfront.
A Zadar Day Trip
My plan for one of my day’s in Zadar had been to wake up early and visit Plitvice Lakes National Park; however, I was sad to learn buses only ran to the park in the late afternoon during off-season, meaning by the time I made it there it would be time to head back. Bummer.
But, hope was not lost. Boutique Hostel Forum recommended Krka National Park, about 60-90 minutes away, as an alternative, stating that while smaller than the lake, it was even more beautiful. Best of all, even off-season there were buses almost every hour heading to the historic town of Šibenik — also worth exploring — from which I picked up a bus to head 20 minutes to Lozovac and enter the park.
This was perfect; however, the issue was that buses to and from Lozovac were limited. In fact, for the return journey my only options were 12:45pm and 5pm. In an effort to be practical, I took a 7am bus from Zadar to Šibenik (about $6.50), to catch the 9am bus from Šibenik to Lozovac (about $2), as the next one wasn’t until 11am. Otherwise I wouldn’t be getting back to Zadar until 7pm the latest. No thanks.
I set my alarm for 5:45am — luckily off-season meant I had the hostel dorm to myself — shoved my leftover cheeseburger and fries down my gullet and ran to catch a bus to a bus to a bus. Fun!
Side note: Buses from old town Zadar to the main bus station run every 15 minutes, and take about 10 minutes to get from old town to the main terminal.
Once at the bus station, a Japanese girl whom I later learned was named Chi asked if was going to Krka National Park and where I was from. Apparently I do not blend in as a Croatian.
We became fast friends and explored the park together after paying our 90 Kunas (~$12) each admission — 70 Kunas (~$9.60) if you have a student ID. Chi had gotten to visit Plitvice Lakes National Park, and agreed with my hostel that Krka is more beautiful, although she mentioned that because it’s winter many of the trails and the lakes themselves were frozen, and that it’s probably gorgeous in summer.
Just a reason to come back, I guess.
Krka National Park has an interesting landscape and history. In 1985, 26,935 acres (109 square kilometers) of the Krka River was granted national park status due to its abundance of fauna and flora (1022 plant species!), heritage sites and seven unusual waterfalls. You see, these aren’t just any waterfalls, they’re travertine waterfalls, created by barriers made from limestone that has settled out of the water and onto organisms like moss and algae, creating amazing geomorphological formations.
In terms of history, humans have inhabited the land since pre-historic times, and there a number of historic remnants found from throughout history: aqueduct pieces from the Roman settlement of Scardona, evidence of a Roman military camp at Burnum and a number of 14th century Croatian fortresses. Remains of Krka Hydropower Plant (in operation until WWI) and numerous 19th century watermills are visible, important artifacts showcasing rural architecture and the past economy. Many of these watermills have been turned into souvenir shops, restaurants and exhibition spaces, and inside one you can see old fashioned demonstrations on how wheat was milled, garments woven and washed, and horseshoes smithed.
It truly is serene, myriad waterfalls visible as you walk a flat network of boardwalks and wooden bridges with numerous viewpoints, sweet scents of pine filling your nostrils.
Just note that later in the day when the hoards of tourist groups come — yes, even in off-season — this serenity can be marred. There’s no physical fitness needed to walk the paths. If you have a car, you’ll be able to drive down and park at the beginning of the trail.
If you don’t, get ready to sweat.
The walk down to the trailhead isn’t bad, a leisurely downhill woodland stroll. By the time you’re done with the waterfall trail you’ve forgotten all about it. Until it’s time to head back to the park entrance to catch the return bus, and you start ascending its uber steep path that seems to never end. It took me about 15-20 minutes and Chi about 20-25 minutes — every second pure agony, especially with my heavy Timberland boots on. They instantly became bricks for this section.
But if you visit during tourist season there is a free park shuttle to help you skip this agony. Oh well. At least I got a chance to work off all the pizza and borek I’d been eating.
To be honest, the three hours I had to explore the park was more than enough. There are a few boat trips you can take that are 2-3.5 hours and visit other waterfalls, islands, fortress ruins and monasteries, so if this is of interest you would of course need more time. I didn’t opt for this. My focus was the hour-long Skradinski Buk Trail, named after the park’s most impressive waterfall. To me the waterfall looked like an enormous glistening bundt cake, with a bulbous and layered texture due to its multiple steps and 17 cascades stretching to 400 meters (1,312 feet) wide, the outcome of the passionate meeting of the Krka and Čikola Rivers.
Zadar Off-Season Pros & Cons: Recap
- Less expensive. For example, my hostel cost $17 vs $28 in peak tourism season from July 5-August 22. Flights are also less expensive.
- Less people. I was able to experience Zadar in a quiet and calm fashion. If you read Krka National Park’s Tripadvisor page about visiting in peak tourist season people warn against not even going it gets that crowded. I didn’t experience this at all. There was only one big group of about 50 that I only saw for about 15 minutes. The rest of the time I was practically alone.
- I had the hostel dorm all to myself.
- It put me in a calm mindset. I didn’t feel like I had to go-go-go! Instead, I just wandered and discovered organically, knowing I had unlimited time and was in no rush to be anywhere.
- I never had to worry about buses filling up or pre-booking transportation.
- I missed out on Plitvice Lakes National Park as a day trip due to issues with bus, although if I wanted to spend the night in or around the national park I could have still gone.
- There were no bike rental shops open.
- I was limited in terms of tours, restaurants and shops.
- Chilly weather means you’re unable to enjoy the beaches and water.
There’s no denying Zadar is beautiful, and simply wandering the narrow cobbled streets and enjoying the historical ambiance is worth the trip; however, I’d recommend visiting during the tourist season — maybe right at the start or right at the end to still avoid the masses — to really get the full experience.
Boutique Hostel Forum: Široka ulica 20; firstname.lastname@example.org; +385 (0)23 250 705. The hostel is in the city center (served by Buses 2 and 4) and sites are very close. Hostel dorms range from 120-203 Kunas ($17 – $28 USD) depending on the season, while mini suites for two including breakfast range from 593-998 Kunas ($82-$138 USD). There are also room classes in between these.
Zadar Tourism Board Info: Ilije Smiljanića 5; +385 (0)23 212 222; email@example.com
Language(s): Croatian, although many locals speak English
Currency: Kuna (As of March 2015, 1 Kuna ~ $0.14 USD)
Tipping: Tipping is not mandatory in Croatia; however, if you thought a performed service was good you might want to round up to the nearest 10th.
National Park Visits: If you’re a savvy backpacker, you can visit Plitvice Lakes National Park on your way from Zagreb to Zadar, and Krka National Park on your way from Zadar to Split. My dilemma with this was I didn’t want to lug around my rolling carry-on; however, if I’d used my backpacking bag instead I would have done this.
Getting Around: Most of Zadar is easily walkable or bikeable. Boutique Hostel Forum has a partnership with ZZUUM Bike Rentals for 10% off (original price is 100 Kunas/$14 per day) with a flyer from reception. A taxi from the bus station to the hostel/city center is 40 Kunas ($5.50).