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In June 2019 we travelled from Zagreb through the national parks and along the Dalmatian Coast to Dubrovnik. We wanted to see for ourselves why so many people flock to the city and whether it was as bad in terms of over-tourism as we’d read. While we’ll write about our experience in Dubrovnik and how to best visit the city (in a sustainable way) in a separate post; today’s post is about three beautiful cities along the Dalmatian Coast north of it which we recommend people visit to give Dubrovnik and its people a bit of a breather.
They're all on the coast and have frequent ferry connections to their respective offshore islands, and we’ll check out the other five points for each city individually. We liked them all, so the order is purely geographical one, travelling north from Dubrovnik along the coast.
As a setting for various Game of Thrones scenes (and nowadays with a small Game of Thrones Museum), Split has become increasingly popular with visitors. But thankfully, it’s not quite as busy (yet) as smaller, more famous Dubrovnik, 200-odd kilometres down the coast.
Unlike Dubrovnik, which was founded around 614 CE, Split is over 2,200 years old, established as a Greek colony. Furthermore, about half of its Old Town is made up of Diocletian’s Palace, built as the retirement retreat of the Roman Emperor Diocletian over 1,700 years ago. A UNESCO world heritage site, it’s not just one big building - well it is and it isnt. The rectangular structure is about 215 by 180 meters in size. Yes, you read correctly - the palace stretches over several city blocks in either direction, and these days it’s more like a city within the city, divided into different living and commercial spaces. Nearby, smaller but also impressive palaces created during the rule of the Venetian Republic (1420-1797) line narrow alleyways, while 3,500-year-old black granite sphinxes guard some of the original parts of Diocletian’s Palace. It’s a fascinating mix of architectural styles. Split may not have Dubrovnik’s impressive city walls, but the Old Town is magnificent, and the palace walls are pretty impressive in their own right. So definite ticks for our first and second testing points.
Exploring Split’s Old Town is easily done on foot. If you like listening to the stories and anecdotes of a knowledgeable and enthusiastic local, join history professor Ana and her colleagues for a free walking tour. If you prefer exploring Split at your own pace, you can do that too: the tourism office on Peristyle Square - essentially the courtyard of Diocletian’s Palace - offers maps with a self-guided walking tour. There are also blue information plaques and frames dotted around the Old Town which explain the history of what you see. Another option is this excellent self-guided tour by TB Tours.
When it comes to lunch or dinner time, don’t eat within the walls of Diocletian’s Palace. This is Tourist Central, where restaurants are packed and prices are high. Venture a few side streets west from Narodni Trg Pjaca (People’s Square, below, home to a famous clock tower and old town hall, now an ethnographic museum), where there are hardly any tourists and prices are sensible. For example, sharing a set lunch at Mia Faba (Dobrić 14-16), consisting of a soup, salad and mixed grill main course, cost us EUR10.
Accommodation costs in Split were the highest out of our three alternatives but still 20 percent cheaper than in Dubrovnik for a similar distance from the Old Town. Ticks for testing points four and seven.
Even if you’re just transiting through Split on your way to or from the islands, make sure you stop here for a few hours. It’s worth it.
The luggage storage in the train station costs only 15 kuna (about EUR2) for a medium-size locker fitting two carry-on size suitcases or backpacks. The storage places along Obala Kneza Domagoja (the road between the bus/train station and the ferry terminal) were more expensive, and some of them were open to one side, making it easy for a passerby to just grab a bag and run off.
Great excursions from Split include the towns of Omiš, 25km southeast, a mecca for adrenaline junkies, and Trogir, 25km west, another UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its beautiful Venetian architecture. And of course there are the lovely islands: Brač, Hvar, Vis, Biševo’s Blue Cave, and the Lastovo Archipelago Nature Park.
As for our fifth testing point, Split has its own international airport (SPU), situated 20km west of its Old Town, with regular flights to many European destinations. It's well-connected with the city centre - via frequent shuttle buses - or If you’re not in a rush, the efficient and cheaper integrated public transport service, consisting of bus No. 38 between Split airport and Kaštel Stari train station and the train between Kaštel Stari and Split’s main train station.
We also very much like this underrated city 80 kilometres north of Split and with a population just over 34,000 slightly larger than Dubrovnik - and not only because we had wonderful AirBnB hosts. While it's a popular summer destination - especially for people from the countries of the former Yugoslavia - Šibenik still has a very local feel to it. Or as one of the locals put it, "It’s like a big village." A definite tick for our fourth testing point.
Founded in the 9th century by southern Slavs, Šibenik is about 200 years younger than Dubrovnik, but still very historic - in fact, home to two UNESCO World Heritage Sites, the 15th-century Katedrála Svatého Jakoba (Cathedral of St James) in the centre of the Old Town and the 16th-century Tvrđava Svatého Nikole (St. Nicholas Fortress, above and below), which guards the entrance of the waterway that leads to the city from the sea.
St Nicholas is included in the UNESCO list as part of the Venetian fortification system in the Adriatic. St Nicholas is only one of four impressive fortresses in the city. The other three – St Michael, Barone and St John – loom high above the city, each on their own hill.
While all of us are for preserving historic architecture, Šibenik’s local government went a little overboard in our eyes when it came to restoring St. Michael and Barone. St Michael, the closest fortress to Šibenik’s Old Town, houses a small museum and is mostly used as an event space these days. Barone fortress (about 500 metres to the east as the crow flies) tries to bring history to life with the help of virtual guides and augmented reality.
A similar AR/VR approach is being taken at St. Nicholas, which was opened to the public in June 2019 after years of restoration. It seems though the guardians of the fort have learned from the (over)revitalisation of St. Michael and Barone, as a more empathetic approach was taken in the restoration of St. Nicholas.
Don’t get us wrong: it’s worth hiking up to the forts, even just for their magnificent views over Šibenik and out to the islands of the Adriatic, especially around sunset. If you want to visit both St Michael and Barone, you can save money by buying a combined ticket, which is valid for seven days.
Want to walk the (intact) city walls? You certainly can stroll atop the walls (above) of the fortresses of St Nicholas, St Michael and Barone. Not quite like Dubrovnik’s city walls but pretty close. And with views to match - if not even more stunning.
The fourth of the forts, Tvrđava Svateho Ivana (St. John's Fortress, located about 400 meters north-east of St Michael and 300m northwest of Barone), is currently undergoing renovations and can thus not be accessed. You can however easily walk from Barone up to St John, and watch the sunset from there. It’s the highest one of the three hillside forts.
And even if you don't go to the fort, the channel is worth a visit in and of itself, as it's home to the St Anthony’s Cave, containing the remains of a chapel; "Hitler’s Eyes," old navy tunnels used during World War II to protect German warships from air strikes (above); and old military barracks used during Yugoslav times. You can hire a bike or walk along the promenade that flanks the channel’s left side (as you look out to sea) all the way to the fortress.
Thanks to its fortifications, Šibenik is one of the few cities along the Dalmatian coast that successfully avoided conquest by the Ottoman Turks. Caught in the fight between the Venetian and Ottoman Empires in 1646, the city’s inhabitants were so adamant about protecting their city from the approaching Ottomans that they built St John and Barone fortresses in only 58 days (and with their funds, even though they were under Venetian rule at the time).
But that’s enough about the forts. Let’s talk about Šibenik’s Old Town. There are probably locals who offer walking tours, but it’s super easy to explore the squares, alleyways and cobblestone stairs on your own. You never know where the next turn leads and you’re almost guaranteed to get lost. But that’s part of the fun. Ticks for testing points one and two.
Just outside the Old Town, wedged between Stankovačka and Starčevića Streets, is Šibenik’s produce market. Locals go here early in the morning to stock up on fruit, veggies, meat and seafood.
If you rather have someone else cook for you, head to Šimun on Ulica Fra Jerolima Milete (halfway between the market and the train station). This unassuming little restaurant (open Monday to Saturday) serving traditional Balkan cuisine at very reasonable prices, was recommended to us by our host, and it didn’t disappoint.
Speaking of affordability: Our accommodation in Šibenik, a few blocks away from the Old Town, was 2/3 of what we paid in Lapad, 3km away from Dubrovnik’s Old Town. A definite tick for our seventh testing point.
Primošten, a 40-minute drive south, has an Old Town situated on an island (above), complete with cobblestone streets that just invite you to wander. Plus if it’s a hot day Primošten is known for its gorgeous beaches. So don’t forget your swimsuits!
Šibenik is also the gateway to Krka National Park (below), about 20km north, as well as several kilometres offshore the laid-back, (largely) traffic-free and less touristy islands of Krapanj, Kaprije, Prvić, Žirje and Zlarin,.
As for our fifth testing point: Šibenik conveniently sits between two international airports. Split Airport (IATA code: SPU) is the closest, ~50km to the south-east. Zadar Airport (IATA code: ZAD) is ~80km to the north-west of Šibenik. And don’t worry: you don’t need to hire a car to travel to and from these airports. There are frequent bus connections between Zadar airport and Šibenik. From Split airport, you can take #37 bus to Trogir and another bus from there to Šibenik (and vice versa). In July and August there are also shuttle buses between both Zadar and Split airports and Šibenik.
Our third alternative to Dubrovnik is the ancient city of Zadar, situated 75km north of Šibenik. Similar to Split, Zadar’s Old Town is located on a peninsula. Similar to Dubrovnik, it managed to retain (some of) its city walls. And its about 1,000 oldere than Dubrovnik, dating back to the 4th century BCE.
Similar to Šibenik, Zadar avoided Ottoman rule thanks to significant fortifications, which made it the largest fortified city in Dalmatia in the middle of the 16th century. Together with Šibenik’s St Nicholas Fortress, the fortified city of Kotor and other fortifications on the western side of the Adriatic, Zadar’s defensive system is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Unfortunately, a large part of this magnificent city was destroyed during Allied bombings during WWII. What is left (and has been restored) however, is worth a visit.
Take the ancient Roman Forum for example: Laying partially buried under the Byzantine Church of St Donatus and St Anastasia’s Cathedral (above), you can vividly imagine life here back in Roman times. There are even altars which were used for blood sacrifices back then, as well as a Roman column which was used to publicly humiliate wrong-doers in the Middle Ages.
Zadar’s Old Town is very compact and easily explored on foot. If you’re looking for a self-guided walking tour: fellow Kiwi travel bloggers Travel Kiwis have put together an easy to follow 3.3km loop that covers all the important sites.
Also like Šibenik, Zadar has a small but excellent produce market (below) just inside the city walls; the fish market hall is inside the city walls). If you prefer to dine out, even the restaurants in the Old Town and/or with sunset views won’t burn a hole in your wallet.
Our accommodation in Zadar, a mere 10-minute walk from the Old Town, was 2/3 of what we paid in Lapad, 3km away from Dubrovnik’s Old Town. That’s also a tick for our seventh testing point.
For a different experience, you can jump on a ferry or day tour to the islands of Ugljan, Kornati, and Dugi Otok (which includes Telascica National Park (below).