Zadar is a city of 3,000 years long and turbulent history, marked by frequent devastation after which it was rebuilt again from the ruins. Numerous cultural monuments of exceptional value attest different historical periods and cultures that have left their mark on the urban appearance of the city and the everyday life of its inhabitants. For over 1000 years Zadar was the capital of Dalmatia and played an exceptional historical role in certain periods.
Today, with about 71,000 inhabitants, it is known as one of the oldest cities on the Adriatic with many historical monuments and the most beautiful sunset in the world.
If you are a fan of history and cultural sites then you will enjoy our Zadar cultural route.
Brief history of Zadar:
From 9th century Zadar was already inhabited by the Illyrian tribe called Liburni because of its convenient location in the center of the Croatian coast with a protected harbor, fertile hinterland and favorable climate. In ancient times, this area was the most urbanized on the entire eastern Adriatic coast, and from the 1st century BC Zadar became part of the Roman Empire until its final collapse.
In the 7th century, Zadar became the capital of the Byzantine province of Dalmatia and a strategic point on the waterway from Venice to Constantinople.
The city first came under Venetian rule in the 12th century, with occasional rebellions and liberation, remained part of Venetian Republic until 1797 when Napoleon’s troops abolished the millennial existence of the Venetian Republic.
After that, Zadar was taken over by the Austrians, and in 1806 it was briefly taken over by the French, who left a significant mark on the city’s history.
Subsequently, Zadar again belonged to Austrian rule until 1918 when it was annexed to Italy as an enclave on the eastern Adriatic coast. It remained under Italian government until the end of World War II, during which 80% of the city’s historic core was destroyed during heavy Allied bombing. The city was almost completely destroyed and abandoned, but finally annexed to Croatia within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
It was not until the declaration of independence of the Republic of Croatia from Yugoslavia in 1991 that Zadar became a city in the independent Republic of Croatia.
Check out our recommendation of the cultural route through Zadar:
1. Remains of Roman urbanization
Google maps location: Roman Forum in Zadar
Zadar probably became a Roman colony during the reign of Emperor Augustus 27th year BC. By the founding of the Jader colony (Zadar) acquired the characteristics of an ancient city: an emporium or market place, the thermae, a city basilica for public gatherings, a nymph (fountain), a capitolium temple dedicated to Roman deities, and the largest forum built on the eastern coast of the Adriatic, surrounded on three sides by a porch and numerous stores.
The regular network of the streets on the peninsula has been preserved to this day, while the remains of the Roman Forum are exposed in-situ and you can discover numerous parts of Roman architecture.
Extra tip: opposite the Forum is the Archaeological Museum, the second oldest museum in Croatia, in which are exhibited statues of Roman emperors, numerous items used by the Romans in everyday life (cutlery, sewing, medical instruments, etc.), and you can see how their family houses looked like, find out what the residents of Zadar did at the time, how they dressed and more about their religious rituals.
2. Zadar Episcopal Complex
Google maps location: Cathedral of St. Anastasia
In the 4th century, a new religion – Christianity – developed in the city. It is somewhat strange that it was at an antique, pagan forum that Christians raised their first baptistery, the Episcopal Palace and the Basilica of St. Peter that was later rebuilt into the largest cathedral in Dalmatia, dedicated to St. Anastasia.
Today’s facade was created when the cathedral was extended by 14 m in the 14th century. It is less known that Pope Alexander III prayed at the church during his visit to Zadar in 1177.
Entrance to the cathedral is free unless Mass is being held, so do not miss the opportunity to study the interior of the church and the beautiful choir seats made in floral gothic by the Venetian master Matteo Moronzon, the marble sarcophagus from the 9th century, which has the relics of St. Anastasia and remains of very high quality frescoes from the 13th century.
The church bell tower was built up to the first floor in the 15th century, and from the first floor to the top it was built in Neo-Romanesque style according to the design of the English architect Thomas Graham Jackson, who is known for the construction of the main buildings of the University of Oxford.
Extra tip: climb the church bell tower which is open to the public and enjoy views of the old town, ancient forum, sea and nearby islands.
3. Pre-Romanesque Church of St. Donatus
Google maps location: St. Donatus church
Church of the St. Donatus is the most famous architectural monument and almost a symbol of the recognition of the city of Zadar. According to tradition, it was built by the Bishop of Zadar in the 9th century and was originally dedicated to St. Trinity, and it is only since the 15th century that it is named after Bishop Donatus, who built it. The church is reminiscent of a Byzantine presence, and stands out due to its size, cylindrical shape and its double interior with a gallery on the first floor that can be reached by a staircase.
The church is not being used for sacred function anymore, which means that it has not been holding a mass for many years, and it is interesting that from the end of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century, Zadar’s Archaeological museum exhibited there.
Extra tip: the church of St. Donatus has outstanding acoustic characteristics and during the summer, for over 50 years, it has been hosting the internationally renowned “Musical Evenings in St. Donatus” festival. During your stay in Zadar, make sure to check out the concert schedule and enjoy some of the finest performances by international and local musicians.
4. The gold and the silver of Zadar
Google maps location: Church of St. Mary
The Benedictine convent was founded in 1066 and is of great importance not only to Zadar but also beyond. In the monastery archive are kept documents from the times of the Croatian royal dynasty. The Croat-Hungarian King Koloman during his stay in Zadar in the 12th century raised the bell tower to the church of St. Mary. He puts up a sign with his name and the year 1105 when the bell tower was built, which is still visible today at the first floor level.
Zadar Gold and Silver is the name for the Permanent Exhibition of Church Art, one of the most valuable exhibitions in Croatia, set within the monastery. The exhibition includes a large number of works of art, sacral paintings, statues, embroidery, lace and valuable goldsmiths from the Romanesque and Gothic periods, as well as a small number of works from the late Gothic and Baroque.
The oldest objects in the exhibition are a pectoral cross from the 8th century and two silver relics with the powers of St. Arontius and St. Jacob from 11th century. The most interesting object is the crown of Queen Elizabeth Kotromanić and the polyptych altars of St. Martin by Vittore Carpaccio.
Extra tip: visit the Gold and Silver Zadar exhibition with the guidance of a licensed guide, or buy a collection catalog that has been translated into multiple languages to learn more about the exhibited items.
5. St. Simon’s casket
Google maps location: Church of St. Simeon
Church of St. Simeon was originally built in the 5th century and dedicated to St. Stephen. Centuries later, it was expanded and rebuilt, but the original elements of the earlier church still remain. It was last remodeled in the 17th century when the body and chest of St. Simeon was brought to the church. Silver chest of St. Simeon has dimensions of 197 x 80 x 110 cm and holds the mummified body of St. Simeon. The chest weighs about 350 kg and is made of silver and gilded sheet metal at the request of Queen Elizabeth, wife of Croatian-Hungarian King Louis I.
Extra tip: the chest binds an interesting legend, and the chest itself is covered with many scenes depicting the arrival of King Luis I in Zadar, finding the hidden body of St. Simeon, scenes from the life of St. Simeon and many others, some of which have not yet been fully figured out. Be sure to consult your local guide to find out more.
6. The first university in Croatia
Google maps location: University of Zadar
The Dominicans founded in Zadar in 1396, as part of the monastery of St. Dominic, the first university – Universitas Jadertina with a study of theology and philosophy, which has been open to public. It was the first university in Croatia but also in this part of Europe. The work of the university was interrupted by the Napoleon administration in 1807, and after that the modern development of higher education in Zadar began in 1955. Today, the University of Zadar is the largest fully integrated university in the Republic of Croatia, with 27 university departments for: archeology, economics, geography, germanistics, italian studies, information science, art history of health studies, history, marine department and many others.
Extra tip: Today’s university building is located on the beautiful waterfront in Zadar, but make sure to visit the church of St. Dominic in the old town, the cradle of long tradition of university education in Croatia
7. The first novel in Croatian language
Google maps location: the statue of Petar Zoranić
Petar Zoranic was a nobleman from Zadar and a writer who wrote the first Croatian novel “Mountains” in 1569. The novel describes the seven-day journey of shepherd Zoran through the hinterland of Zadar, Velebit and Dinara mountains, on which he sets out seeking a cure for unrequited love. Along the way, he meets pastors who narrate their homeland and compete in singing different songs, as well as a villa that mourns the neglect of the Croatian language.
The statue of Petar Zoranić was made in 1969 by a local sculptor.
Extra tip: after visiting the square of St. Chrysogonus, where the statue of Petar Zoranić is placed, do not miss the chance to see back of the church of St. Chrysogonus, one of the finest examples of Romanesque architecture in Dalmatia
8. Rector’s Palace and exhibitions of world famous painters
Google maps location: Rector’s palace
The Rector’s Palace was built in the Middle Ages and has been rebuilt several times over the centuries. In the early 19th century it underwent a major transformation in the spirit of classicism and its courtyard with the well crown is the oldest example of classicist architecture in Zadar. During the Homeland War in 1991, the palace was badly damaged and today the whole area of the palace has been transformed into a modern museum center. Through the six exhibition halls of the Rector’s Palace, visitors have the opportunity to learn about Zadar’s history, and the exhibits date from the 12th to the end of the 19th century.
Each year, exhibitions of prominent international painters are organized at the Rector’s Palace. So far, exhibitions of Suad Rama, Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol and others have been held.
Extra tip: check out the exhibit schedule here so you don’t miss out on some interesting exhibitions that take place during your stay in Zadar.
9. Venice Defense System, UNESCO site
Google maps location: The Land Gate
The land gate was once the main entrance to the city. They were built in 1543 at a time of danger from the Ottoman conquest of the city. They were designed by famed Venetian military architect Michele Sanmicheli. Because the city walls were dilapidated to facilitate the city’s defense, the Venetian government was forced to rebuild the city walls and develop a city defense strategy. A defensive canal filled with water was built on the new city walls as well. Ponton (today known as Queen Jelena Park) served as a monumental bastion to defend the city. At that time, Zadar was the strongest Venetian fort in the entire country. The Ottomans tried several times to conquer the city, but each time they were successfully rejected.
Zadar’s defense system was listed on the 2017 UNESCO World Heritage List in 2017.