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Beat The Crowds: This Stunning Lesser-Known Croatian City Is Cheaper To Visit Than Dubrovnik

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From an overlooked cultural gem to a world-famous summer destination in only a small number of years, Dubrovnik is the city that best represents Croatia internationally right now:

It's become synonymous with ‘King's Landing' among Game of Thrones fans, and it seems to be on every Europe-bound traveler's bucket list lately… result?

The biggest crowds you've ever seen, hotel rates gone through the roof, and overtourism so severe even wheeled suitcases are banned.

Lucky for the first-time visitor who actually wants to feel welcome and not go broke, there's no shortage of Dubrovnik-like towns in the country's stunning Adriatic Coast, and the lesser-known, equally-gorgeous town is a great (cheaper) alternative:

Aerial View Of Zadar Old Town, Croatia, Southern Europe

The True Pearl Of The Adriatic

Located in Northern Dalmatia, 219 miles from jam-packed Dubrovnik, Zadar is one of Croatia's cultural hotspots and a historic city most Americans are yet to discover.

It is the oldest continuously-inhabited city in Croatia, founded nearly in the 9th century BC, almost 3,000 years ago, and as it straddles the Adriatic Sea, a branch of the wider Mediterranean, its important as a historic port cannot be understated.

St Anastasia Church In Zadar, Croatia, Southern Europe

You see, prior to there being a ‘Croatia', Zadar was in fact part of the once-powerful Roman Empire, and following the dissolvement of that polity, it aligned itself with the also-extinct Republic of Venice, a European country which existed for over a thousand years.

If you're exploring the maze-like Old Town, with narrow pedestrianized lanes flanked by narrow pastel-tone buildings with green shutters, don't be surprised if it gives, you know, Venice without the canals: they were two cities under one flag for much of their recorded History.

Roman Forum In Zadar, Croatia, Southern Europe

Modern-day Zadar is Croatian, yes, but it's remained truthful to its Venetian past, so don't be too shocked if you hear young children being chased after by their ‘nonno', or if there's not an abundance of stuffed peppers, sarma and and ćevapi in local restaurants.

You can expect delicious seafood pasta, generously-stuffed calzoni and Dalmatian-style pizza, though.

What To See In Zadar

Spires Of Zadar Old Town Seen From The City Walls, Croatia, Southern Europe

As you can see from the pictures, Zadar is ancient, and it will take you more than a couple of days to take in all the sights, as well as explore the wider county, with all its quaint coastal towns with origins lost to time and heavenly islands.

The main points of interest are centered in the UNESCO-listed Zadar Old Town, or ‘Stari Grad', including the Church of St. Donatus, a thousand-year-old Romanesque temple distinct for its round shape, the 4th century Cathedral of St. Anastasia, the ruined Roman Forum and the ‘Pet Bunara'.

Busy Street In Zadar Old Town Brimming With Tourists, Croatia, Southern Europe

The latter is a large medieval square located at the edge of the walled city, best known for its perfectly-preserved five wells, which have supplied Zadar natives for centuries on end, a solitary Roman column that's survived intact, and casual cafes and bars.

Zadar's most noteworthy attraction, however, has to be the Sea Organ, an experimental art installation located on the waterfront: beneath the marble steps leading down to the sea, there are organ-like tubes that play ‘music' as the waves crash against it.

Sea Organ In Zadar Bounded By The Adriatic Sea, A Branch Of The Mediterranean, Croatia, Southern Europe

The nature here may be breathtaking, but it's not exactly well-versed on Bach, so don't expect a particularly soothing rendition Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

You can, however, sit on the steps and wait on the most beautiful sunset in the world, as described by former visitor Alfred Hitchcock himself.

Unspoiled Adriatic Beaches

Zadar Old Town Seen At Sunset From The Top Of The Cathedral Tower, Croatia, Mediterranean Europe

Zadar is also highly sought-after for its beaches: the town itself is home to a pristine, pebbly Kolovare Beach, with some of the clearest waters to be found anywhere in the Mediterranean basin, not to mention the recluse Lipauska and Punta Rožica further away from the city.

Our personal favorite, however, is the lagoon-like beach in Nin, set against the rugged mountains of Dalmatia, so shallow and warm it feels like a heated pool; the walled town of Nin itself is incredibly charming, with its cobbled alleys and gelato shops, and it's a half-hour drive from Zadar.

Aerial View Of An Island In The Adriatic, Mediterranean Sea, Croatia, Southern Europe

If you're keen on some island-hopping, the main islands within a short ferry ride of Zadar Port are Dugi Otok, lapped by turquoise waters, Losinj, an inhabited islet boasting a rich Italian Baroque architecture, and Olib, where there's plenty of sandy beaches to appease the pebble-haters.

Zadar Is Cheaper Than Dubrovnik

And the best thing is, Zadar—and the wider Zadar County—remains largely undiscovered by a majority of international tourists: it's still mostly Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, middle to low-income German families and the occasional British tourist who vacation here.

Aerial View Of Zadar, A City On The Dalmatian Coast Of Croatia, Southern Europe

The problem with places like Dubrovnik, and most recently Split, is that the surge in demand has led to both crowding and a jaw-dropping uptick in prices (good luck trying to find a modest hotel in the center of Dubrovnik for less than $198 per night this summer).

In Zadar, there are plenty of listings from as cheap as $103, and if you're booking a one-week stay with a local guesthouse owner, you're likely to be able to negotiate a discounted rate, and food isn't all that expensive, either.

Zadar Harbour Seen From Atop The City Walls, Croatia

According to Budget Your Trip, you should budget $64 per day: a large Margherita pizza in an inexpensive restaurant is $8, a pasta dish is between $12-15, pastries from local bakeries are $1-3, a pint of beer is $2.5-3, and a glass of wine is usually $6.

Croatia has definitely got more expensive since adopting the euro as its currency last year, but Zadar remains very affordable by Mediterranean standards: tourists spend on average $665 per week, accommodation, food, transportation and access to museums and tourist attractions added.

How To Get To Zadar This Summer

young woman stands in airport with her suitcase looking to find her way

If you're visiting from the United States, you should know there are no nonstop flights to Zadar Airport.

Our recommendation is that you fly first into a major hub, such as London, Rome or Frankfurt, and then book an intra-continent flight to Zadar, as they can be as cheap as $19 on European budget carrier Ryanair.

If you're already in Croatia, there are many ways to get to Zadar: you can fly in from Zagreb, the capital city, or take a bus departing from the central station in Zagreb, or any large city along the Adriatic Coast, such as Pula, Split, or Dubrovnik.

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