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Croatians hate it when tourists come to Croatia, ignore its history, food, and culture, only to ask “So, uh, where’s all the Game of Thrones stuff?”
So, of course the first question I asked when I got to Zadar was “Where’s all the Game of Thrones stuff?”
My tour guide’s response: “Most of that is in Dubrovnik. Here in Zadar, we’re low key and not full of tourists.”
That turned out to be a blessing. With a population of just 87,000, Zadar felt more intimate and local. But what it lacked in Game of Thrones bragging rights, it made up for in livability, clean beaches, a convenient location, and streets blissfully free of crowds.
Situated along the Dalmatian coast, a convenient 3-hour drive (or 3.5 bus ride) from the capital of Zagreb, Zadar was our perfect home base to explore the country’s most famous national parks: Plitvice, Paklenica, Krka, and Kornati.
And since I’m a total neophiliac and have the attention span of an ADHD goldfish, I was also grateful for Zadar’s proximity to many islands. For only 50 KN each (around $7 USD) round trip to take the Jadrolinija ferry, we could visit a different island every day and not get bored.
Somehow, there were so many things to do in Croatia, we managed to visit only 2 islands during our time in Zadar:
We arrived by ferry at the Preko pier on Ugljan island and headed straight for the Tvrđava Sveti Mihovil, also known as Fort Saint Michael, with incredible views of the ocean and other islands:
Now, the most efficient and convenient way to get there was to drive for 10 mins. But because that was way too easy (plus, there were no rental cars available on the island for the day), we opted to hike there. Good thing we brought lots of water because we desperately needed it.
After the 2 hours round trip hike, the views and the exercise were totally worth it, and I felt a great sense of accomplishment when I got to the top.
Surprisingly, it was less of a fort and more of an abandoned TV station with graffti everywhere:
I even left a little Easter egg for you to find if you ever go there (let me know in the comments if you spot it).
It was also fun to go back to Zadar, look at the how far we climbed, and feel the accomplishment coursing through our veins.
Just make sure if you visit this fort that you be careful where you step, because there are no guard rails. So if you don’t want to plunge off a cliff, watch out! As far as off the beaten places to go, this definitely fits the bill.
There were many little seaside villages and beaches we could’ve visited on Dugi Otok, but ferry staff recommended Božava, because it had enough cafes and hotels where we could chill and do some writing.
Turns out this hike was even more off the beaten path that the fort we visited on Preko, Ugljan, because there wasn’t a single other person on the hike during the 3 hours that we were there:
The views were incredible, and we found this bench to have lunch on, and this church at the top of the hill.
Coming back down, the trail was a bit rocky and steep, but we survived.
We also found this 4-star hotel with infinity pool, which was closed for the season, but had left their pool open for anyone to swim in and their chairs and tables abandoned on the patio, which we used as a little outdoor writing café.
The Sea Organ
One of the most unique things you can visit in Zadar is the sea organ. Designed by architect Nikola Bašić, it’s a series of steps that lead into the ocean, with pipes underneath that makes harmonic whistling noises when the waves push air through the pipes.
This unique wave-generated music combined with a breathtaking sunset is why Alfred Hitchcock declared Zadar as having the world’s best sunset.
Here’s a video we took at dusk. Decide for yourself.
If art married engineering and had a baby, this sea organ would be it. Not only is it beautiful, it’s also functional.
Greeting to the Sun Monument
Another science+art installation also designed by Nikola Bašić, this is a series of giant solar-powered discs that absorb energy during the day and then turns into disco mania at night.
They have one big disc representing the sun, and small discs placed around it representing the planets.
For those who are world schooling their kids, this provides the perfect astronomy lesson.
Old Town and St. Anastasia Cathedral Bell Tower
Quaint and historic old town sits inside the city walls on a peninsula connected to the rest of Zadar. And since it’s surrounded on three-sides by ocean, it’s perfect for chilling out, grabbing a cappuccino, a gelato, or even a tea with a shot of vodka (yup, that’s a thing).
You can go visit the Roman Forum, explore the Archeological Museum, go to the Cathedral of Anastasia, or climb the bell tower (just make sure you have a stomach for heights).
All those things are fun, but by far, our favourite thing to do was getting to the old city via the Barkajol.
Since we were staying in a Home Exchange in the northwest part of Zadar, about a 30 min walk away from downtown, our host told us to take the Barkajol, which would bring down our commute to just 15 mins! (if you’re interested in checking out home exchange, you can use my affiliate link to get up to 1200 guest points for signing up). We were also told to use “Bolt”, the European equivalent of Uber, which helped us avoid getting ripped off by Croatian cabs. YAY! Local tips!
I had no idea what that meant when he said it, but we soon discovered that Barkajol means the “rowing boatmen of Zadar.” From 7 AM to 9 PM, every day, the hardworking boatmen take passengers in a small rowboat from the end of the long pier to the ferry port right outside the old city.
The distance is only 76 metres and takes just 1 minute to cross. The cost is a minuscule 6 KN per person (or $0.84 USD/$1 CAD) each way. If you were to walk all the way around and cross via the pedestrian bridge, it would take you 25 extra minutes. Just make sure you bring cash.
Apparently, this is a 3000-year-old tradition passed down from father to son for generations!
This was the only national park easily accessible via a 45min bus ride from downtown Zadar and it did not disappoint! There was a park entry fee of 40KN ($5.60 USD/ $7 CAD) per person and it was well worth it.
We saw lots of rock climbers while we were there and the view near the top reminded me of parts of Fürenalp mountain in Engelberg Switzerland. You could see snow-capped mountains in the distance and the trail wasn’t too crowded. A perfect place to hike and bask in nature.
Turns out, this was actually one of their “meh attractions,” as I was told that Plitvice was way better, and there were countless other more beautiful places.
In short, Croatia’s natural beauty is breathtaking. So breathtaking in fact, that when I told Croatians how gorgeous their country is, their response was, “we know.”
I just wish all the Game of Thrones fans hadn’t ruined Split and Dubrovnik with crowds and tourist prices (you’ll pay 2X the prices compared to the inland cities like Zagreb).
In additional to all the attractions, Croatia also has a best kept secret that I wouldn’t have known about if it weren’t for my Home Exchange host.
Now, as you all know, as a simple country bumpkin, I’m not big on fancy food. Park me on the side of the road on a plastic stool, feed me a $2 bowl of piping hot Guay Jab and I’m happy as a seal. In fact, I get even more joy from that $2 bowl than a $200 caviar tasting menu.
That said, I do have one weakness.
That shit is so good I would eat it straight out of a sweaty gym sock. But at $2000/lb, it’s not exactly sustainable for a long retirement.
Or so I thought.
As it turns out, there is a magical place in Croatia called Istria, which is its truffle capital. A heart-shaped peninsula located in the northwestern part of the country, Istria’s truffles are so plentiful, you can even join a truffle hunting tour! Even if you don’t go to Istria, truffles can be had all over the country for an exceptional price.
And this is why, in Zadar, we were able to get 2 full meals, with octopus, monkfish, pasta, and big honking slices of black truffle, with 2 large craft beers for the low low price of 320 KN (or $45 USD/$58 CAD) tax and tip included! The restaurant was called “4 Kantuna” and they served, hands down, the best meal we had in Croatia. Mamma Mia restaurant was another favourite, and both were recommended by our host.
If you ordered a truffle dish in North America, it would set you back at least $100 USD if not more, just for one dish! So, with truffle prices like that, clearly, we couldn’t afford NOT to eat truffles in Croatia.
When in Croatia, try the Maraska cherry liqueur, the Fritule (a festive doughnut ball that reminded me of Canadian timbits but lighter and tastier), and the Ćevapi, grilled minced meat sausage.
Something that surprised me about Croatia was the lack of trains (unusual for Europe) and surprisingly expensive public transportation. A round trip from Zadar to Split via bus cost us 418 KN ($58 USD/$75 CAD/€61), which isn’t cheap by European standards, considering how we paid just £4 to get from Amsterdam to Brussels on Megabus.
Also, do not use cabs in Croatia. They will charge you 3-4x the local fare if you’re a tourist. For example, it should only cost you 28 KN ($4 USD/$5 CAD/€4) for a 10 min ride from the bus station, but the taxi driver wanted 120 KN ($17 USD/$21 CAD/€18)! Ridiculous. Avoid taxis in Croatia like the plague and use “Bolt” instead, which is their version of Uber or Uber.
And for some of the most popular attractions, like Plitvice National Park, you can’t even get to it without a car or a tour unless it’s high season (which is worst time to travel to Croatia). You’ll have to drive.
Luckily, driving was easy in Croatia and Wanderer got to use the brand spanking new stick shift skills he learned in Azores. Plus, the manual car was 1/2 the price of automatic (we got the rental car from a rental company called Pop Car located in old town Zadar for 350KN per day ($49 USD/$63 CAD/€51). There were cheaper car rental places at the airport but they had terrible reviews). And despite stalling a few times, the locals were so nice they never honked him once, just patiently waited until we started rolling again. Croatians are super nice.
Fun fact. According to locals, Dalmatian coast Croatians are very different from city folk Croatians. Zadarians consider themselves “easy-going Italians,” while the Zagrebians are “Germans who are too serious and work too hard.”
Ooohh-K. I thought they were all Croatians, but whatevs.
Here’s how much we spent in Zadar:
|Category||Cost in USD/couple per day||Cost in CAD/couple per day||Notes|
|Accommodations||$7.95||$10.25||Since we used Home Exchange, the cost was practically free. We just paid with guest points + the $175 USD/year fee, which worked out to be only $7.95 USD per day for the 19 days we stayed at the host’s vacation property. Any subsequent stays going forward will be completely free and exchanged with guest points.|
|Food||$27.29||$35.20 ($23.82 for eating out, $11.38 for groceries )||Eating out in Croatia can get expensive, especially along the Dalmatian coast, but since we did a lot of hikes where there were no restaurants along the trail, we ended up bringing our own cooked food. The splurges happened at 4 Katuna, Mamma Mia, and another steak restaurant but averaged out over 19 days, the cost ended up being fairly low.|
|Transportation||$15.81||$20.40||Transportation ended up being surprisingly expensive in Croatia. I’m used to taking buses for $5 and subways for $2 in Europe, so it was a bit of a shock that there were no trains and sparse public transportation. Buses were expensive and very crowded. If you didn’t get there 30 minutes before the bus leaves, you mostly likely won’t get a good seat. Even manual cars cost 2X the price of Azores to rent. I think this was the single biggest downside of Croatia. The upside is that the ferries were cheap and reliable.|
|Entertainment||$6.47||$8.34||The island hopping was pretty much free because you only had to pay for the ferry. National parks like Plitvice were shockingly expensive but other attractions like the bell tower and cathedrals in Zadar were cheap. Overall, we were able to find lots of free attractions and hikes that kept us busy. So I would say entertainment isn’t expensive.|
|Other||$0.95||$1.23||Other than a few toiletries, we didn’t have to buy anything else in Zadar. We still had data left over on our SIM card so we didn’t need to recharge it.|
|Total||$58.47||$75.42||Because we were able to basically stay for free with HomeExchange, we ended up spending the same amount daily in Zadar as we did in Chiang Mai, Thailand! You’d probably spend closer to $90-$125 USD/couple/day if you had to pay for an Airbnb instead of home exchange.|
Croatia is too big and intense for one post, so next time I’ll tell you about my love/hate relationship with Split and Plitvice (which was almost too beautiful to be real, and yet still managed to piss me off). And after that, the Croatian Homeland War tour in Zagreb that taught me about their Yugoslavian history, which is eerily similar to what’s happening in Ukraine right now.
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