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Should I go to Split or Zadar? Oh, that is a very common question among first-time visitors to Croatia. And it’s an understandable one, too. The country is jam-packed with superb destinations, from national parks and wine regions to photogenic coastal towns and world-class beaches. It’s not unlikely that you simply don’t have enough time to visit all of them, so you’ll have to choose.
There are plenty of amazing old cities on the Dalmatian Coast alone, from Dubrovnik and Šibenik to Zadar and Split. It’s impossible to say which one of those beautiful places is the best, though, so we won’t even try.
Instead, in this post, we’ll simply make a comparison between Zadar and Split, two of the cities that are most up for debate. This way you can decide yourself whether you should visit Split or Zadar based on your personal interests, preferences, and priorities.
First of all, however, let me say that you really should do yourself a favor and try your hardest to find enough time to visit both cities. Neither is “greater” or “better” than the other. They are two of the largest cities in Dalmatia, both are phenomenal destinations with myriad tourist attractions. They also make for excellent bases for beach and day trips in Croatia.
Comparison Between Zadar And Split: Attractions, Day Trips, And Cons
Split is probably more famous than Zadar—at least among regular travelers—being bigger, having more transportation connections are arguably more attractions. It’s the second-largest city in Croatia after Zagreb and it does belong on your itinerary.
Zadar, on the other hand, also definitely deserves a chunk of your travel time. Although perhaps less well-known, this ancient city is absolutely gorgeous. Chances are pretty solid you fall in love with it if you do visit it. Combining both centuries-old architecture and modern tourist attractions, offering access to great beaches and fun island hopping, Zadar is a top-notch destination by all accounts.
See, we said you should go to both of them! Choosing between Zadar and Split is very, very difficult. Hopefully, this post will help you at least a little bit.
On your way down the Adriatic Coast, will it be Split or Zadar? Let’s take a closer look at each city, its points of interest, day trip options and a few reasons not to visit.
Founded as an Illyrian settlement in the 9th century BC, Zadar is Croatia’s oldest continuously inhabited city. Its Old Town located on a rectangular peninsula, it’s the northernmost coastal city in Dalmatia, situated in the middle of the Croatian coast. In the first century BC, Zadar became a Roman colony and remained under Roman rule until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century AD.
Nowadays, there are still plenty of visible traces of Zadar’s Roman period, most notably the Roman Forum, which is the largest of its kind in the eastern Adriatic. The city also has its fair share of medieval architecture, including a cathedral and various churches. Architecture from the Venetian period abounds as well. A great example of those are the massive city walls, which are part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
In addition to its numerous urban features, Zadar also offers easy access to the gorgeous islands of the Zadar Archipelago. These islands are easily reached via ferry or catamaran, providing visitors with ample opportunities to hike, bike, swim, fish, eat, drink and scuba dive. There are some stunning beaches waiting to be visited as well.
Top Attractions In Zadar
There’s certainly no lack of interesting places to visit in Zadar, whether you’re a history buff, beach bum, foodie or party-goer. Some Zadar attractions you really should visit include, but aren’t limited to, the following:
- The Sea Organ – Musical art installation along the waterfront promenade that plays music as waves push air through dozens of underwater pipes.
- Greeting to the Sun – Located near the Sea Organ and created by the same artist, the Greeting to the Sun is a magical display of brightly colored lights that change patterns and hues after sunset.
- Anastasia’s Cathedral – Arguably the greatest architectural masterpiece in Zadar, this huge cathedral dates from the 12th and 13th centuries and has a bell tower you can climb.
- Donat’s Church – One of the most iconic attractions in Zadar, the St. Donat’s Church is a monumental round building dating from the 9th century.
- Roman Forum – Main Roman site in Zadar, located near the St. Donat’s Church and founded by Roman Emperor Augustus in the 3rd century AD.
- Narodni Trg (People’s Square) – The heart of public life in Zadar, this gorgeous square is a popular meeting point for locals, while tourists enjoy people-watching from its numerous cafés and restaurants.
- Museum of Ancient Glass – Numerous displays of glassworks from Roman times through modern times, as well as glass-blowing and bead-making demonstrations.
- Museum of Illusions – An eclectic museum that pushes your senses to their absolute limits and gives your brain a serious workout.
Day Trips From Zadar
Located in the middle of the Croatian coast, Zadar is an ideal starting point for day trips along the coast, to the inland countryside or to some of the many off-shore islands. These are some of the best day trips from Zadar (you’ll notice how varied they are):
- Paklenica National Park – On the border of Zadar County and Lika-Senj County, just northeast of Zadar, lies Paklenica National Park with its canyons, towering mountain summits, and black pine and beech forests. A fantastic hiking destination!
- Kornati National Park – The Kornati Islands are unquestionably among the best Zadar day trips, an archipelago characterized by crystal-clear water, superb snorkeling and scuba diving, barren hills and rock-strewn coasts.
- Krka National Park – One of the top national parks in Croatia, Krka is just a quick drive from Zadar, famous for its spectacular waterfalls, swimming opportunities and ethnographic villages.
- Telašćica Nature Park – A bay in the southeastern part of Dugi Otok, this glorious nature park consists of rocky shores, sheer coastal cliffs, wooded hills and an inland salt lake.
- Pag Island – Connected to the Croatian mainland by a bridge, Pag Island is super-easy to reach from Zadar. It’s famous for its summer dance festivals and 24-hour parties in Zrce, as well as delicious Pag cheese and wonderful Pag lace.
- Nin – The very first capital of Croatia, tiny Nin is only 15 kilometers from Zadar, a town filled with ruins and ancient bridges, famous for its sea salt and beaches.
- Šibenik – Best combined with a visit to Krka National Park, Šibenik is another centuries-old coastal city in Dalmatia. It’s famous for its stone buildings, stairways, streets and fortresses. Šibenik is also where you’ll find the St. James Cathedral, an impressive stone church that’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Reasons Not To Visit Zadar
Honestly, it’s very hard to come up with reasons not to visit Zadar. This is all I could think of:
- You’re focusing on Game of Thrones locations in Croatia, which are all elsewhere in Dalmatia, including Split
- You’ve run out of time after visiting Dubrovnik and the rest of Dalmatia
- You’re allergic to seafood
- You don’t like sunshine and/or seascapes
How To Get To Zadar
Home to around 200,000 people Split is the largest city in Dalmatia. In Croatia, only Zagreb is larger. The city lies in the middle of the Dalmatian coast, about equidistant from Dubrovnik and Zadar. It’s a major cultural and transportation hub as well as a popular tourist destination in the region.
Although it was the site of a small Greek colony in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, Split’s history truly begins in 305 AD when Roman Emperor Diocletian chose it as his retirement location. Diocletian’s Palace was constructed, a massive building around which the town—and later city—expanded. The medieval Old Town of Split lies adjacent to Diocletian’s Palace, both making up the very heart of the city to this day.
In Split, you can walk among Roman ruins—people actually literally still live in these nearly-2,000-year-old buildings. There’s also a phenomenal waterfront, some excellent museums and a number of fine beaches. Additionally, you have a plethora of day trip destinations to choose from.
Top Attractions In Split
Few Croatian cities have such an abundance of historic sites as Split. It’s a city that’s simply filled with them, built upon and around them. Of all those Split tourist attractions, these are the ones that you definitely mustn’t skip:
- Diocletian’s Palace – The number one tourist attraction in Split, Diocletian’s Palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and contains several individual points of interest, such as its network of cellars, its four massive gates, ruined Roman pillars and ancient churches.
- Medieval Old Town – Next to Diocletian’s Palace, the Old Town is basically an extension of the Roman complex, even though much younger. It features a maze of alleyways, cozy squares, numerous restaurants, bars and shops, and all-round beautiful architecture.
- Game of Thrones filming locations – Dubrovnik might be the most famous Game of Thrones location in Croatia, but Split comes pretty close. Several scenes of the world’s biggest TV show were shot at Diocletian’s Palace. If you’re a GoT fan, you’ll definitely want to join one of the many available tours.
- The Riva – Tall palm trees line Split’s waterfront, known as the Riva, while myriad patios offer evening walkers the chance to enjoy the sunset, get something to eat or grab a drink or two. It’s the prime location for people watching in Split.
- Ivan Mestrovic Gallery – Dedicated to Croatia’s most famous sculptor, the Ivan Mestrovic Gallery houses many of his works, as well as displays about his life. It’s a must-visit attraction for serious art lovers.
- Archaeological Museum of Split – People who like to learn about local history might want to check out Split’s Archaeological Museum. This is the oldest museum in Croatia, filled with archaeological artifacts and objects from Greek, Roman, early-Christian and medieval times.
- Roman Ruins of Solin – Just northeast of Split, you’ll find the Roman ruins of Solin, the birthplace of Diocletian and the first capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. Anyone interested in Roman history should put this site on their itinerary.
Day Trips From Split
Its location in the middle of the Dalmatian coast makes Split a fantastic starting point for various excursions. The following Split day trips include destinations that range from national parks to historic towns:
- Trogir – Located a stone’s throw from Split, Trogir is a super-photogenic coastal town with fortified walls and a fantastic outdoor market. Protected as World Heritage by UNESCO, it’s one of Croatia’s most beautiful towns.
- Plitvice Lakes National Park – Arguably the most famous natural attraction in Croatia, Plitvice Lakes National Park consists of sixteen travertine lakes that flow into one another via countless cascades and waterfalls. If you love waterfalls, this is one of the best places in Europe to visit. Oh, and this is yet another UNESCO World Heritage Site in Croatia, too!
- Krka National Park – Plitvice Lakes’ biggest rival in both popularity and beauty is Krka National Park. This park, too, has several impressive waterfalls—especially Skradinski Buk with its natural swimming pool underneath it. You’ll also find fascinating ethno-villages in this world-class national park.
- Šibenik – Best combined with a visit to Krka National Park, Sibenik is another centuries-old coastal city in Dalmatia. It’s famous for its stone buildings, stairways, streets, and fortresses. Šibenik is also where you’ll find the imposing St. James Cathedral, a UNESCO-protected stone church.
- Dalmatian Islands – Split is one of the main gateways to the world-famous Dalmatian Islands. If you want to visit or island hop around places like Hvar, Brač or Korcula, Split with its large ferry port is the perfect starting point.
- Klis Fortress – The iconic Fortress of Klis sits atop a hill just outside of Split. Established as a small stronghold by the Illyrians, it became a royal castle in the Middle Ages, serving as the setting of many battles over the centuries. It’s without question one of the best day trip destinations around Split. Additionally, Game of Thrones fans might recognize it as Meereen.
- Blue Cave – Another really fun day trip from Split is the Blue Cave, also known as the Blue Grotto, on Bisevo Island. You can read all about Blue Cave tour options here.
Reasons Not To Visit Split
On the Zadar vs Split debate, it’s still not easy to list reasons not to visit Split. This is an amazing city with plenty to offer to tourists. Yet, if you’re really looking for downsides, here are a few I could come up with. (That took me a while, though!)
- You don’t like large cities and crowds and would prefer a smaller coastal town in Dalmatia
- The stone-filled Old Town gets scorching hot in summer
- You are more into a laid back vibe
How To Get To Split
So, after reading all this, will you choose Zadar or Split?