Croatia is amazing. I went there for my first trip with virtually no expectations (which is always the best way to travel) and was thoroughly amazed. I considered this a “testing the waters” trip, so I was not really sure what to expect from either Croatia or Zadar. Two years later and I was back in Croatia, lounging on the Dalmatian Coast. While prices have gone up over the past two years, Croatia is definitely still worth a visit. Is it still a budget-friendly country? Hmm. I'm not sure it is — but that doesn't mean it's expensive!
For anyone considering a visit to Zadar on a budget, here are some suggestions to get the most from your backpacking adventure.
The Old City is the standard draw for Zadar – it's the “touristy” section of town, however a good share of locals still live there. Prices will be a bit higher here, but it is such a beautiful little area you might not even care. In the summer the narrow streets can be overwhelmed and crowded, but in the low season it's a perfect mix of quiet and lively. While something of a labyrinth, the Old City is easily walkable and quite fun to explore, and there are a few gems hidden amongst the narrow cobblestone streets. There is also free wifi for tourists in the Old City which really makes navigating and planning your trip convenient.
This was easily the coolest, most interesting part of Zadar...and one of the more unique things I've seen while travelling. The sea organ is located at the far tip of the Old City, along the coastal boardwalk. As the wind and waves roll in, a random but harmonic tune is created. It is very serene, mesmerizing even, which explains why so many people just like to sit on the stairs beside the organ and relax. It's the best place to see the sun set in Zadar, so definitely make it a priority! (If you want to hear the organ, I recently posted a short clip on Facebook that you can check out)
Another neat addition to the Zadar coast is the Sun Salutation. Set into the concrete boardwalk beside the sea organ, the sun and surrounding planets merely appear to be solar panels during the day. Nothing exciting. During the night, however, they light up with fantastic colours, working in tandem with the organ to produce a unique visual effect. The giant solar panel sun, which is 22m in diameter, actually powers ALL the lights along the waterfront. Pretty rad.
St. Donats Church
While no longer in use, you can still visit the pre-Romanesque church for €3 (20 kuna). It is rather sparse, but history buffs might enjoy a quick visit. For everyone else, there are plenty of cafes nearby where you can sit and enjoy the view. You can also relax in the nearby ruins of the Roman Forum.
The ruins of the forum are more of a playground these days, as I always saw kids running and climbing on the artefacts. The ruins are located right beside St. Donat's, and are a mere stone throw from the water. They make for a great place to relax in the sun with a good book or a picnic.
Take a leap!
Just outside of the old town is a swimming pool and diving platform. When the suns out, this is a great place to chill, soak up some rays, and take a little dip in the ocean. You can swim in the pool (which is just sea water) or swim out in the sea itself. You'll often see locals doing laps in the pool while teens prod each other into taking a leap off the high dive. If the sun is out, this is defintiely worth a visit!
Plitvice Lake National Park
Google images for Plitvice Lake and you will not be disappointed. It is a gorgeous national park...which is why it costs €20 to get in. assured me that the fee was justified. During the high season there are regular busses from Zadar to Plitvice so you can explore the park on your own time – just keep in mind it will be busy. Since I visited during the low season my only options were to rent a car or take a €30 group trip, as the park is located about 90 minutes from Zadar. I declined spending the €30 (225 kuna, PLUS park admission) with the intention of returning to explore that marvellous park on my own terms (aka on a budget!)
Kornati National Park
For those willing to rent a boat or go on a tour, Kornati is another great outdoor option. There are no ferries to Kornati, so you need your own boat or a tour. Tours cost around €30-40 and include your ride and entrance to the park. In the summer it's a great place to snorkel or swim, and you can even dive in the area. There is also accommodation just outside Kornati for those looking to spend some nights off the mainland.
Krka National Park
Just over an hour from Zadar is another gorgeous national park, and just like Plitvice it has waterfalls. Being an hour away, you will need to rent a car or book a tour if you are there during the low season. There are regular busses available during the main tourist season which will take just over an hour, costing around €11 each way. Admission to the park will be around €15-24, depending on when you go.
It' a beautfiul park, but it's definitely not cheap so be sure to budget accordingly. To keep your costs down, bring your own lunch so you can picnic at the falls and avoid buying the pricey food offered at the park!
Ugljan, Pasman, and Dugi otok
These are the nearby islands to Zadar, and are easily accessible for anyone looking to explore off the beaten path. There are regular ferries, though the adventurous (and less cheap) could always rent/hire their own boat. I spent two days exploring Uglian via bicycle and on foot, and it was two days well spent. Bike rentals aren't cheap in Zadar (€10-15 per day ) but they are a great way to get around the city and explore the islands. Dotted along the coast are plenty of cozy villages where you can grab a snack or have a picnic and relax. While the national parks are surely worth a visit, this is the best option for anyone on a budget who still wants to explore and dive into nature. The ferry is €2 (15 kuna) on foot, and €4 (30 kuna) if you have a bicycle.
Unfortunately I didn't discover this until my plans were made, but YES there is a bungee jump a mere 30km outside of Zadar! A friend I met during my trip actually took the leap the day after I left, and she spoke highly of it. You can find them on Facebook and message them to confirm they are open. During the low season, they only open for reservations. So do it – it's only €60!
For those on a budget, there are some very affordable places in Zadar. Keep in mind, however, that those prices will slowly climb the closer you get to the high season. I was able to snag an Airbnb room for €15/night in the shoulder season, and around €35/night for a full apartment in the high season (but I looked early!). The backpackers I met who chose hostels paid about that much for their dorm bed, so Airbnb is definitely the better choice if you can book early. Tequila Hostel and Bar and The Lazy Monkey were two recommended hostels, as all the backpackers I met were staying at one place or the other. I also Couchsurfed in Zadar, though it was a bit trickier to find a host (and one of my fellow travellers couldn't find one and had to snag a hostel). If you are going to use CS, make sure you find a host in advance.
While the city may be more lively during the high season (summer) it will also be crowded and more expensive. While it may be inconvenient to find busses during the low season due to their infrequency, the slower pace of the city is well worth that inconvenience. Decide on the kind of trip YOU want, and then plan it for the corresponding time of year. I found April to be a nice balance of warm weather and uncrowded streets, though the busses to Plitvice or Krka were not yet in full swing.
Rent a bicycle! This is a cheap-ish, fun way to get around the city. It will also let you explore nearby areas (the islands) and the outskirts of town, too. Every hostel can arrange bike rentals, and the tourist information center in the Old City can help as well. Just be sure to book them in advance, even during the low season as they run out fast!
Boat and car rentals are generally quite cheap (at least in the off season). If you can round up a few people, this is a great way to explore beyond Zadar. A shared car to Krka or Plitvice works out to just a handful of euros each if you can get a group of 4 – much more convenient than waiting for the bus or booking a tour!
There are a few markets around the city where you can buy cheap fruits, vegetables, and bread. I bought a few apples AND bananas for about €1, a far cry from the prices I'm used to here in Sweden! Just make sure you buy some ajvar to go with your bread/veggies – it's a delicious local sauce that goes with anything! There is also a small health/natural food store in the Old City, too!
Alfred Hitchcock said the sunset from Zadar was one of the most beautiful in the world. Hard to argue with that.
So, is Zadar on your bucket list now? Let me know what you think in the comments!