Zadar and Split: A Tale of Two Cities

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Croatia is world-renowned for its gorgeous coastline, islands, and beaches of Upper Dalmatia.  Less famous?  The urban gateways to these islands: the cities of Zadar and Split.

Dave and I decided to visit both cities in one day after driving down from the Plitivice Lakes. In turn, we discovered two mid-sized cities that we liked — a lot!


Every publication I read about Zadar tossed out the same word: “underrated.”  Zadar doesn’t receive nearly the tourist volume of Split, and as a result, it feels more like an Croatian seaside town.

Zadar’s Old Town is compact, pastel-toned, and home to two interesting works of art: the Sea Organ and the Sun Salutation.

The Sea Organ is a massive instrument that creates music based on the speed and velocity of the waves rushing in, a melody alternately mournful and jubilant.  Here’s a video of it in action:

The Sun Salutation is a giant solar-powered panel that blasts out designs that evoke the solar system at night.  Being there during the day, we didn’t get to witness it in action, but here’s a picture:

Image: Mark Heard

We also had one of the more memorable meals of our trip in Zadar at an Italian restaurant called Bruschetta.  The dishes were delicious, moderately priced, and impeccably plated, like squid ink risotto, quite literally with a cherry on top:

After lunch, we walked around to the edge of the Old Town and found more delights: a bell tower to climb, and a park filled with cafes and even one bar blasting hip-hop in the middle of the afternoon!  It was the kind of place you’d expect to see in Vegas.

In short, Zadar was a nice discovery — a lovely little Dalmatian city perfect for a day trip and a stroll.


Why, hello there, holidaymakers!  I figured that most people were only staying in Split for a night or two, before or after cruising the islands, but Split is actually a holiday destination in itself.  The Old City, defined by the harbor and Diocletian’s Palace, is filled with kiosks selling cheap clothing, souvenir shops, money changing agencies, Irish pubs, and stores selling overpriced trinkets.

That’s not to say Split isn’t a nice place to visit — I enjoyed it immensely.  Split is a very chill city for hanging out and relaxing — or partying hard, if that’s your thing.  Most interesting of all was Diocletian’s Palace, an architectural marvel and the heart of the city.

Somehow, in all of my obsessive guidebook and travel guide-reading, I must have skipped over Split.  Had I not, I would have realized that Diocletian’s Palace isn’t a standalone building, but a walled neighborhood that now houses everything from boutique hotels to bookstores.  It’s a fascinating maze and a wonderful place to walk around, especially during the day when the shade protects you from the sun.

Diocletian’s Palace is also home to hostels.  Yes, I got to sleep in a palace!

Where to Stay in Split: Old Town Hostel

When HostelWorld picked this hostel out for us, we were told that Old Town Hostel was one of the highest rated hostels on the site. Despite the lofty expectations, I wasn’t disappointed — this was one of my absolute favorite places where we stayed in the Balkans!

The hostel is actually located inside Diocletian’s Palace, making it in the best possible location in the city.  Everything is at your fingertips, including the harbor, if you’re heading out on a cruise (as so many people in Split are).

No other hostel can compete with the view from our window:

We found a very comfortable and purple-walled common room where several of the hostel guests were watching a Californication marathon, which of course caused me to drag Dave in, saying, “You need to see this!”  (I got him into Breaking Bad; he got me into Game of Thrones; I’ve been lobbying for Californication to be next!)

It was an incredibly welcoming and comfortable stay from start to finish.  It’s a shame we only had one night here.

Old Town Hostel breakdown:

Location: Absolutely perfect!  Right in the heart of Diocletian’s Palace and steps from anything you might need.

Staff: The staff were very kind, welcoming, and friendly.  I asked for a restaurant suggestion and the guy at reception grabbed a map for me and circled all of his favorite places!

Social Atmosphere: There were around half a dozen hostel guests watching the Californication marathon in the common room.  We didn’t spend much time in the hostel, but from what we saw, it looked very social.

Internet: Excellent in-room wifi.

Cost: $39.60 per person for two people in a double room with shared bathroom.

Drawbacks: The walls are very thin.  Pack earplugs if you’re a light sleeper.

Whether you’re single or with a partner, and whether you’re looking to stay in the dorms or in a private room, this is a fantastic hostel to choose in Split.  It’s a bit on the pricey side for the city, but I think the location alone makes it very much worth it.  Everything else is just a bonus!

Planning a Trip to Croatia:

Croatian Islands and the Dalmatian Coast:

Istria and the North:

Many thanks to HostelWorld and Old Town Hostel for the complimentary stay.  All opinions, as always, are my own.

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21 thoughts on “Zadar and Split: A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. This sounds awesome, Kate! I’ve heard of Zadar before, but only due to a blog where the writers were going to cities in the world and checking one off for each letter of the alphabet (Zadar being the Z). Split sounds reallllly relaxing right now, and the view from the hostel is rocking – I know where I’ll be staying when I make it to Croatia 🙂

  2. I love your site, and even though I am in Asia, your recent posts on Croatia make me want to transfer over that way immediately. 🙂 Some old world city charm seems so appealing right now!

  3. I was pleasantly surprised by Zadar – it had a lovely feel about it and the sea organ blew me away!

    For anyone heading to Split, I’d recommend a ferry trip over to Trogir for the afternoon. Great place to kick back with a cold beer, admire amazing private boats and explore the pretty cobbled streets.

  4. Was in Split recently – its actually ok!

    Although i agree there is a lot of tourist tat on offer, which is somewhat expected!

    Also – as a side point, the weather is phenomenal in Croatia !

  5. My boyfriend and I just had an amazing lunch at Bruschetta! He had the black gnocchi with prawns that had the squid ink in it, and I had decadent truffle cream ravioli! For dessert was a nutella tort. So delicious! Great recommendation–we loved the sea organ, too. Tonight we plan to check out the Sun Salutation. 🙂

  6. Thanks for using my pic. We hadn’t planned on visiting Zadar, but it turned out to be one of the most pleasant surprises from our trip. We did a week in Venice, then spent a week and a half travelling down the Croatian coast (with a stop-off in Plitvices National Park which is amazing).

  7. We loved Zadar so much I proposed to my girlfriend there! We found it totally romantic and not like anywhere else we had visited in Europe; it’s totally unique. We used to go for lovely late-night strolls and the mood just overtook me and my then girlfriend is now my wife! Thanks Zadar!

  8. My husband and I will be on a cruise visiting Split for a day and I would like to know if we can do both cities in one day (Zadar and Split)
    Thank you for your info

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