If you’re anything like me, your daydreams of city excursions will consist of artisan bakeries with delicious coffee, lazy strolls down narrow streets, cocktails and fine-dining. If you’re a lot like me, these dreams will likely have been dashed by the realisation that you have a couple of kids in tow -and even if they could entertain themselves long enough for you to down a Mojito, your experience of it would likely not live up to the hazy, sophisticated picture you’d painted in your head.
When we stayed in Vir, Zadar was our nearest city. It doesn’t get anywhere near the attention of Split or Dubrovnik, but I think it’s one of the most charming and beautiful cities I’ve ever set foot in. Zadar became our go-to option if we wanted an easy day out; history just lying about the place, museums and icecream parlours and show-stopping sunsets. Izzy and Sam loved daytrips to Zadar as much as we did so it has gone down in the books as one of the stand-out locations of our trip so far.
There are obviously far more than this, but here are our top 5 things to do in Zadar with kids…
1. St. Donatus Church and the Roman Forum
I feel like I’m cheating by putting this all in the same place… but it actually is all in the same place. Whether you’re meandering along the sea-front, or exploring Zadar through its maze of narrow lanes, you will eventually see the Church of St Donatus (with the bell tower of St Anastasia Cathedral nearby) and the remains of the Roman Forum spreading out in front of you. The church, which was built straddling the 8th and 9th centuries, is unique because of it’s simple, circular shape (as was very much the style in early medieval Dalmatia). It is striking now because it looks so unlike any of its surrounding structures. The church itself was built using the materials gained from deconstructing the Roman Forum – the remains of which lay across the square, sprawling right down towards the sea.
For the kids, these old stone blocks and walls were the most fun. They were so entertained by running around, jumping and climbing the ruins that we got into the habit of leaving them to it while we slunk off to one of the nearby bars for a drink. In fact, if your kids are as impressed with the forum as ours were, you’ll even get away with having a full grown-up dinner at the tiny little Italian restaurant, Bello, whose terrace tables overlook the square. We did feed them too – I promise – and they were much more impressed by the giant pizza slices from the bakery than they would have been with fine Italian cuisine…
For a few kuna, you can go into the Church and have a good nose around. It’s an incredibly simple structure, but with so much history it’s difficult to wrap your head around. Since it was last used as a church, the building has worn many different hats; a warehouse, an archeological museum, an exhibition centre and music hall. It is preserved beautifully, with only a few sparse information displays within showing photographs and drawings of the building throughout the ages.
2. The Sea Organ and ‘Greeting to the Sun’
I could write poems about the sea at Zadar (don’t worry – I won’t). In fact according to the menu of our favourite sea-view restaurant, Tromonto, Alfred Hitchcock once described this particular stretch of coastline as ‘the most beautiful place in the world.’ Some of my very favourite memories are now wrapped up in either listening to soulful music while the kids joyfully leapt off the sea-wall into the vibrant teal water below, or sitting in a line snarfling pastries as the sun disappeared behind the mountains; water sparkling, soundtrack provided by nearby buskers, joining the crowds of people who flock here to fall silent and watch the day come to an end.
But if even that doesn’t convince you down to the seafront at Zadar, maybe the sea organ will…
The sea-organ is an intricate network of tubes which open onto large marble steps down to the water. It is an architectural sound art installation by Nikola Bašić, who essentially designed a musical instrument the sea could play itself. The waves, as they beat against the steps, push air into the tubes and down into an enormous underground cavern. The result is a haunting and beautiful panpipe like sound to sit and listen to as you watch the sea.
If you’re in this area at night, be sure to also visit Bašić’s ‘Greeting to the Sun’ (Pozdrav Suncu in Croatian) nearby which is a circular structure of three hundred multilayered glass plates built into the pavement. Light elements within the glass store up solar energy during the day, switch on to provide a stunning light-show when the sun sets. If we were ever in Zadar early evening, this was a must – the atmosphere is wonderful as all of the kids take to the solar-panelled ‘dancefloor’ as soon as it lights up.
3. The Illusion Museum
This museum is responsible for our funniest day in Zadar – principally because we couldn’t actually find it and had begun to worry that it was all an elaborate joke played on foreign tourists.
Google maps was absolutely no use, leading us down blind alleyways and into private gardens (Sam speculated that because it was an illusion museum, maybe its entrance was similar to that of Platform 9¾ – though unsurprisingly, no-one volunteered to run headfirst into the wall).
After much exploration (and happily seeing a lot more of the city due to our quest), we did eventually find the museum near the top of the city walls on a hill. I worried, given how small it looked, that we had spent the day trying to find what was geared up to be palpable disappointment, but I needn’t have worried. Full of fun activities, magic-eye puzzles, rooms that make you dizzy (or nauseous, depending on your age), logic games and much much more, we spent a good few hours here and had a wonderful time. Quite a lot of brain power was needed for some of the puzzles, so we even got to count it as an afternoon of home-school – huzzah!
4. Zadar’s Archeological Museum
As home-schooling parents, this place was an absolute gift. In the same square as St Donatus’s Church, this museum spans three floors and human history in its entirety.
Much like Greece and Italy, the climate here (and by that, I mean lack of severe rain and wind) means that the preservation of archeological and architectural relics is much more possible. The artifacts in Zadar’s Archeological Museum are beautifully presented and restored. Often, if only parts of an object have been recovered, the rest of the object has been created around it to give you a proper sense of what it would have looked like completed.
It’s best to work your way through the museum chronologically; starting on the top floor where you’ll find objects pertaining to Zadar’s history from Prehistory through to the first Croatian settlements. The floor below then details and gives examples of the expanse of the Roman empire, as well as smaller exhibitions on the goths, glassware, and the development of Christianity. The ground floor then covers the early middle ages, with impressive exhibitions of Croatian graves and stonework taken from the church while restoration projects were ongoing.
You don’t need a serious love of history to enjoy an afternoon here – it’s well thought out and engaging throughout. The kids really loved it and both picked out an artifact to write a fictional background for when we got home.
5. The Bell Tower of St Anastasia’s Cathedral
The hardest climbs are always rewarded with the very best views. Regardless of which city we’re in, we’ve made a habit of finding a high thing to climb so we can see the area from above. We were not disappointed with the view from the bell tower.
Hundreds of steps winding around the inside of the tower will take you up past the bells suspended inside an old wooden frame, and then eventually onto an outside platform. The view is breath-taking. Tiny red-topped houses, ancient buildings and intricate streets for as far as the eye can see, framed by the dramatic back-drop of the Dinaric Alps.
You can walk right around the top of the tower, providing you with a full 360 degree view of the city, the Adriatic and the islands in the distance. Well worth the cardio! The tower is open until late, so you can even climb the tower and watch the sunset.
So they’re our top five! Do let us know if we’ve missed anything blindingly obvious – we’re always looking for a reason to go back!